Reflections on Chefchaouen – The Blue Jewel in Northern Morocco
She turns her face around abruptly, I see deep lines etched into her skin. I’m surprised by its paleness. A straw hat like a pyramid sits atop her head, grey hair in a braid. She tugs at the mule’s reigns and turns away.
The mule, packed with prickly pears and vegetables from the old woman’s garden in the mountains moves forward with his cargo dutifully. Her skirt of vivid red and white stripes is a strangely hypnotic sight against the sharp edges of the hills as the pair continue their descent into the next town.
I follow the red-and-white with my eyes for a few more minutes, the shape diminishing as I blink, like some desert-induced trick, except we aren’t in the desert. We are at the foot of the Rif mountains.
Our refreshment break is over. I note that Abdou, our driver, is shifting his weigh awkwardly, eager to get a move on. It’s been a pleasant but taxing few hours from Meknes. The tarred roads are evidence of development in Morocco’s infrastructure, but they twist and turn, sometimes jarring the body uncomfortably with sudden bumps. And it is hot. Thirty degrees Celcius.
Abdou keeps the windows open instead of using the air conditioner, I’m not certain this is the best method to remain cool but he’s in charge and I don’t think he’d appreciate instructions from a foreigner.
Later that day, after a late lunch in Chefchaouen, the hilly city where houses are washed in a pale blue paint, I see women in red striped skirts on mules, heading back towards the mountains.
Is she with them, I wonder.
All things fresh and salad-y are currently the darlings in my life.
Pretty robust declaration for the girl whose twitter bio reads ‘life’s too short for lettuce’. But, there’s a time and a place. Post trip exccess (think lamb tagines, rich couscous with at least seven veggies and some sort of meat, sweet almond flour pastries and biscuits, pancakes (beghrir) and stiff semolina cake slices (harcha) for breakfast every single morning and sugar-cube sweet mint tea, the body is demanding otherwise.
Fear not. I am supplementing with the odd cookie (Jelle found a box of speculaas cookie mix in the grocery cupboard when we were doing a clutter- out on Sunday night and made a tray of cookies that reminded him of Holland and his family). Also desserts and chocolate now and then, but the aim is fresh and ‘clean’ most of the time. Thankfully Jelle and my brother add the hungry male contingent ever eager to “test” out my trial recipes so there isn’t a worry about the cheese puffs or beer bread going to waste.
I made this simple salad to celebrate a new season, slightly complex in texture – soft asparagus, browned sweet potato cubes with crispy edges and the silky, cooling velvet of plain yoghurt (I used low fat, use double cream if you wish), speckled with enchanting saffron threads.
I used a copper frying pan and napkin (Berber style stripes) that I bought in Chefchaouen in Northern Morocco to style this shoot. I was there less than a week ago, I can hardly believe it!
Since we spent a lot of time out and about exploring the natural beauty of the Blue City and I shot and ate this dish outside in the garden, I thought it would be a nice tie-in to tell you a little about Chefchaouen too.
But first, the recipe….
2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled, diced into small cubes plus olive oil to coat
8 large asparagus spears
2/3 cup low fat yoghurt
5-6 strands saffron
8 small mint leaves
sea salt, to taste
1. Set oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Grease a baking tray, coat sweet potato cubes in olive oil, season with salt and bake for 12-15 minutes or until cooked through and browned along the edges. Shake tray to turn cubes half way through.
2. Mix saffron into yoghurt, leave in fridge (strands need time to soften and release flavour.)
3. Peel tough stalks of asparagus with a vegetable peeler and steam for 2.5 minutes in microwave or on the stove in boiling water until just soft. Immediately blanch in a bowl of ice-cold water with plenty of ice cubes.
4. Remove yoghurt from fridge, season with salt. Assemble sweet potato hash on serving plates, top with asparagus, saffron yoghurt and sea salt flakes. Scatter mint leaves over and enjoy, preferably outside if you can.
A brief guide to Chefchaouen
Chefchaouen, close to the popular port of Tangier is named as such because a mountain range above the city that looks like two chaouen or goat’s ‘horns’. The city lies between the horns. Chefchaouen was built by Spanish exiles as a fortress against in Portuguese in 1471, who were as you will know still ruthless, powerful kings of the sea at the time.
A ‘typical’ Moroccan city. Really?
Guidebooks mention that Chefchaouen is the ‘typically’ Moroccan that tourists crave. I’m not sure what that means, exactly. On our previous visit to Morocco we sought out the seclusion of the Berber Ourika Valley as well as the hustle of its most famous modern city, Marrakech. I’m not sure what the typical is that tourists would seek in Chefchaouen. Every town and city, while retaining essential similarities such as the structure of life in the medinas, the central position occupied by the mosque in the life of a Muslim, the melodic call of the imam echoing through the streets and valleys five times a day, a general aversion to alcohol and the serving thereof (naturally) and the presence of traders and craftsmen, has a layout and terrain that is different. In fact within 20 kilometers of each area you can go from coast line to lush forests, barren, sandy multi-hued hills, cactus in thick shrouds and so on.
With its pale blue houses and buildings ( painted as such as a result of a pact we were told, between Arab- white and Jew- dark blue, the buildings are painted in this hue twice a year), Andalusian style red terracotta roof tiles and rugged mountainous landscapes Chefchaouen is unique, more than it is typical. Perhaps it’s the Moroccan city as we see depicted in Disney animations and in our dreams. It’s more than pretty. It’s perfect, in fact.
Chefchaouen is an easy city to visit. Relaxed. Some of the young local men wear short pants, the vivid red stripes of the berber cloths worn by the mountain women draw and hold the gaze. The city is hilly and the pace is slow. A thin river snakes through it.
Oh, and it’s a well known fact that visitors come here to smoke a special kind of marijuana and ‘think about life’ in the words of our guide.
A holiday feeling
Because you can see the expanse of the city when you hike up the nearby hills or from various steep-sloped streets, you get the feeling of knowing and understanding the breadth of it, more easily. Opposed to say, Fes or flat as a straight-hair-on-a-limp-day Marrakech where the medina is a labyrinth and you can not see beyond one narrow alley at a time and certainly have no readily available vantage point to scope out the extent of the city.
Sitting by a brook, sipping the ubiquitous Moroccan mint tea, I smiled at Jelle who was dressed in shorts (and not feeling like a pesky tourist, as many locals dressed in the same manner) and I knew what he would say when asked “Is this your favourite?”
The Blue City gives you the calm holiday feeling a visit to Kerala (or Cape Town) would after a visit to Mumbai/New Delhi (or Johannesberg). No roadside vendors lopping the top off fresh coconuts, but you get the idea.
Your wife has a black heart
It’s relaxed, the vendors and traders are less aggressive (and prices more reasonable, in my opinion). Don’t get me wrong, I never felt hassled in Morocco. But, shopping and bargaining can be a draining exercise.
You choose to look, with the option to buy and you can choose to walk away from the emotional manipulation, such as “For a wife this beautiful, I wouldn’t even blink an eye. I would pay whatever I was asked for anything she wanted” to “Your wife has a black heart”. This was said to an elderly British couple who stayed at our riad in Fes. Frequent visitors to Morocco, the wife just wanted to ask questions about the leather and textiles but had no intention to buy.
I’m not a great bargainer. I feel awkward. I feel sympathetic. I never want to be the looks-but-doesn’t-buy wife with the black heart.
Chefchaouen Top Tips – where to stay, eat and shop
- Three days would be nice, longer would be better as you can visit the mountain villages or nearby forests with a guide and sleep out.
- We stayed at Casa Hasan, well at the sister riad a few meters down. It’s quieter but service is not the friendliest we encountered in Morocco. But, sometimes you don’t want to have to go through the motions of long greetings exchanged with staff, especially after a few weeks on the go. So we weren’t too bothered by the silence. It is quite well appointed and if you ask why it isn’t number 1 or 2 on tripadvisor, well…. Chefchaouen is a frequented by a slew backpackers, the cheaper spots will find a higher ranking, naturally.
- The restaurant Tissemlal at the hotel is well acquainted with foreigners and while there are not many locals eating here you will be spoken to in English. I was even asked if I’d like hot sauce. “Indians always want hot sauce”, the waiter said to me, as I tried to figure out how he read my mind. I always want hot sauce, good man! (Good English is not always spoken by all hotel/riad staff across Morocco, menus in Chefchaouen are hardly ever in English, a great thing to an extent).
- Explore the medina and visit the traders. It’s much easier to do than the bigger cities and harder to get lost. If you’re looking for the Berber cloths the women from the mountains wear as skirts, buy these from the Women’s Cooperative store at the market – not expensive (around 50 dirham each) and the quality is good. Or buy from a variety of vendors, your choice. Use as tablecloths, or in my case: food styling props.
- Have tea and a snack or dinner at one of the cafes along the river. A trickle of water, really. (Below the spot where the women wash clothes).
- You will want to climb the hill to the old mosque for views over the city. It’s not far but wear sunscreen and take a cap and water. There is a well along the way and a vendor selling refreshments at the top.
- You may think the La Lampe Magique restaurant is touristy, what with it’s exceptional views over the square. But locals eat here too, it’s inexpensive and there will be relief from the gang of stray cats mewling sadly at your feet. A thing you have to contend with in Morocco. Good food and great views.
- The crumbling Parador Hotel serves alcohol (one of three places that do, I believe). Have a drink on the terrace and take in the vista. Don’t ask for a slice of cake or bowl of olives, they don’t seem to have a snack menu.
- Walk down the road from the Parador (as if exiting town). Soon enough you will come to a restaurant called Chez Aziz (fab reviews on tripadvisor, not that that counts. But still). Yes, they advertise pizza. But, their baked goods and snacks are fantastic; if you’re suffering tagine fatigue this is your mecca. Also cheap as chips. R12 for a wrap or burger, made freshly in front of you. Insider tip: the locals order a thick pistachio-green milkshake called ‘zaazaa’. It contains, I figure avo, kiwi, cream, banana slices, custard (I honestly thought it was flavourless egg white slices), topped with cream. I know it sounds bizarre. It was worth trying, promise. Share one between two if not ravenous post savoury course and skip dessert.
- Having Chefchaouen as your last destination before you exit Morocco is highly recommended. You will have to get to Casablanca to exit via the airport, but you can calculate that into the occasional (read often) inconvenience of travel.
- For all the reports about abundant pot/hashish/Mary-Jane, I have no clue where you can find any. Sorry, friends.