Sunday, 26 June 2011

Sampling the spice of Morocco ….. June 2011

11 – 13 June 2011

With Balvenie all closed up we left her happily sitting in the marina in Ceuta, took a short walk up the road and caught the No 7 local bus the short distance to “la fronteria”, the border with Morocco.  The border crossing was relatively straight forward, several men approached us wanting to “help” us, by offers of providing us with entry forms and taking our passports to clear us in.  We declined all their kind offers of assistance, did they think we came down in the last shower or what????  Our passports are given only ever to someone official looking in uniform, who is located next to several others in uniform, who are generally behind glass screens and have stamps lined up on their desks , then, and only then do we hand over our passports and today was certainly no exception!!!  So we survived the border crossing, pushed through the last gate along with several locals laden with plastic bags full of “western goodies”, and arrived in Morocco, I swear the temperature rose 10 degrees at least!

According to our trusty Lonely Planet (which we have been faithful followers of for 20 years now) we simply needed to catch a grand taxi to the main taxi station in Tetouan then change to another grand taxi to our destination for the day of Chefchaouen high in the Rif Mountains, all straightforward – here we go.

P6120060 We found a taxi for Tetouan quite easily, well actually they probably found us, lets face it we don’t really look like locals. The grand taxis are all old Mercedes, somewhat beaten up, but there are hundreds of them, depending on your route they are painted different colours – we needed a white one – then they leave for your destination once full (I will just add here we are talking their definition of full – not ours!!!).  The same systems apply in hundreds of countries but the choice of vehicle is normally a minivan, here we were thinking a Mercedes was such a good option, so much more comfortable, how naive are we???? 
The negotiations commenced with over 5 taxi representatives firing information at us in a mix of Arabic, French, Spanish and English – our brains in total overdrive .  Quite quickly they realised that we actually wanted to go to Chefchaouen so a deal was offered of a taxi all to ourselves, directly there, and the best price offered was 350 dirhams.  (current street rate around 10dirhams/1 euro, so €35), it’s around 130 km’s so yes, this does seem a pretty good deal.  But once a backpacker, always a backpacker – we are not decadent westerners, we will share with the locals.   So we paid the local rate of 20 dirhams each to Tetouan, much to the disgust of our driver.  Quite soon we were ready to depart, but eek, there are 6 of us – plus driver, that equates to 4 in the back and 2 on the front seat (bucket seat NOT bench seat), and we were off, is it too late to be a decadent westerner?

I would like to say that everything went to plan, and we transferred to our next grand taxi without a hitch - butP6110014 we were in Morocco, and we were feeling very much like we were in fact back in Egypt, nothing and no one are quite what they seem!  Eventually in Tetouan our fellow passengers got out and we slowly unravelled our limbs and blood flowed again!  But now we were as the mercy of our driver  who decided to get one back at us and just deposited us on the street, grumbling all the time that we had not taken his excellent offer.  Had we had a crystal ball we would never have left him!! 

So here we were trying to work out on our Lonely Planet map just “where we were” when an English speaking local offered help. 'Ah yes', he said, 'just up those stairs and you will see the taxis' – we thanked him and off he went in the opposite direction and we went up the stairs.  Mmmm, but no taxis, oh there are more stairs, maybe up there – but no, just a busy market place.  Then guess who just popped up out of nowhere to “help” us again.  At this point we should have just asked him to go away, but we are out of practice and followed him through the busy market lanes into a street that was indeed filled with taxis.  More “help” was given and we agreed a price with the driver of 20 dirhams each, on the understanding that we would pick up more people enroute, seemed about right as it was around the same distance that we had already come, so in we got – so did the “helper” who said he was going there too, definitely dodgey but we certainly never felt unsafe – just like we were being taken for a ride. P6120073 

And we were in fact taken for a ride, about 2 km’s to the correct taxi terminal, where our current taxi driver deposited us - very happy with his 40 dirham fare.  We determined the correct fare to Chefchaouen was 30 dirham and found the next taxi leaving, however the driver would not go until we paid 5€ (50 dirham) to our “helper” for getting us there.  Of course it all started getting a little messy then, this was only about 500 metres from where we had originally been dropped off nearly an hour earlier, but the other passengers were waiting, we don’t like making a scene in a foreign country and our “helper” kept shouting that 5€ was nothing to “people like us”, and here we were trying not to be decadent westerners.  So we paid up and squashed ourselves into the one front seat free, knowing that “people like him” give places like this a very bad name.  Sadly we have met many like him over the years, but we know that they are the exception and we tried to remember this as we sat like sardines very hot and bothered on the winding road to Chefchaouen!!!! 
We arrived in one piece, literally stuck together all hot and sweaty.  We had climbed all the way from Tetouan at sea level, high up into the Rif Mountains where we expected it to be cooler but it seemed even hotter.  It was only 2 evenings previously that we had donned sweatshirts at happy hour, now it was over 40c, phew.  We were in desperate need of refuelling so found a little busy place on the main market place square and joined the locals for excellent rotisseried chicken and rice, the staff were very helpful, the locals friendly, things were looking up.  

Feeling somewhat revitalised we headed up the hill into the medina (old town), a wonderful place with a maze of colourful twisting alleyways, so much fun to wander around – but not when you are looking for your accommodation.  We must have taken a right turn somewhere though as we finally stumbled upon it, the cute little Hotel dar Terrae, (380 dirhams per night - double with bathroom, breakfast and wifi). We checked in, had some refreshing local mint tea then pretended we were still in Spain and had a much deserved siesta!!!  P6120025  

Chefchaouen is a delightful little spot, nestled in a spectacular setting under the 1616m peak of Jebel el-Kelaá.  The medina is traffic free (to be honest you couldn’t actually fit cars down most of the lanes) and although there are a few hardy tourists around it is still a very much lived in town and locals certainly outnumbered us tourists.  The main square, lined with shaded cafes, faces the Kasbar used over the centuries to defend the town against the Berbers and Spaniards, its a compact area with lovely gardens inside, many birds singing in the trees, it all seemed so cool, calm and serene but I imagine with an invasion imminent it would have had a completely different feeling to it. 

It was just too hot to think about attempting the one day hike up to the top of Jebel el-Kelaá so we settled on the much shorter walk out of the old town, across the river, and up the valley to a restored mosque, one of many we could see dotted further up the valley.  We had only walked a short distance but had certainly arrived in rural Morocco very quickly.  As I took in the view Mark got chatting to one of the locals, he offered to show us his thriving marijuana farm close by, an interesting experience we are sure but we thought it best to give that side trip a miss!!! 
We had an enjoyable Moroccan minibreak here, our original  intention had been to go onto Fez for a few nights before returning to Balvenie, but the heat and altitude was knocking us about, and my back had taken a double twisting in the grand taxis so I wasn’t feeling too mobile. Maybe we are just getting old and soft but for now at least we didn’t quite feel like tackling more Moroccan public transport.  Skipper in particular is always telling me he has plenty enough adventure in his life on the high seas without doing it too hard on the land travel as well.

So we decided to return to Balvenie  and will try to get into the marina in Rabat, on the Atlantic coast of Morocco when we are heading for the Canary Islands  in September.  From there we can travel by train to the main spots, and hopefully it may be a little cooler at the end of summer.

So we headed on down the hill to the grand taxi station and negotiated a rate of 400 dirhams all the way back to the boarder and had the whole backseat of the Mercedes taxi all to ourselves, pure bliss, so it seems even true blue backpackers can evolve given time and money!!!  Our driver asked if he could drop a friend in Tetouan enroute which of course we didn’t mind – it actually made us feel a little better not being so extravagant as to have the whole car to ourselves.

P6120089We enjoyed the drive back, the road winds down the valley through olive groves and past many vendors selling colourful terracotta goods displayed along the roadside.  After Tetouan we joined a motorway that ran just inland from the sparkling Mediterranean, it was a toll road with only a handful of other traffic on it, we were back to the frontier in no time.  The boarder crossing was straightforward, the buses run continuously to Ceuta then just the short walk to the marina, all in under 2 hours, this is definitely the recommended option.  For a short taste of Morocco one night would do it, with your own taxi each way, accommodation and  meals you could easily do it for under €140


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