“Ali Baba! Ali Baba! Marijuana? Marijuana?”
Gabriel’s jaw tightened slightly at the offer—a reflex only an expert such as myself could detect under the thickness of his beard. With schooled features that come from being badgered in markets after traveling to 37 countries, he didn’t flinch, bat an eye, or acknowledge the man’s presence as we continued our walk through the medina.
But the young Moroccan was persistent and followed us, repeating the only English word in his vocabulary.
We paused by a small shop selling Berber-inspired home goods. Pretending to browse a colorful table of decorative pillows, I spoke freely to Gabriel in English, knowing our Moroccan shadow couldn’t tell the difference between my native tongue and if I was speaking Chinese.
“I didn’t realize I was married to such a famous folklore character as Ali Baba.”
“Must be the beard.”
“Do you think they actually sell enough marijuana to tourists that they feel comfortable walking up to every toubab and offering such a lame sales pitch?”
“Look at the tourists here—a hippie bunch, the lot of them. He probably makes a killing.”
“Do we look like hippies right now? I certainly smell like one.”
The posed question was sincere. We had decided for our spring holiday to take only a small book bag apiece with us on our journey to Morocco. Naturally, I packed mine to the brim with as many shirts as possible. But after walking through the salty air in Casablanca and rain as we explored Rabat, followed by an interesting night in a dilapidated hotel, then topped off with a day of climbing rocks at the ruins of Chellah, I could only imagine what we appeared to strangers.
We certainly didn’t need any additional substances (natural or not) to trip out in our newest destination: Chefchauoen.
Appropriately named The Blue City, it felt as though we had stepped into another world as we walked along blue-washed streets in the small mountain village, deep in the Rif Mountains of northwest Morocco.
For two days I struggled to find the right words to describe what it felt to live in that sea of blue. We were fully submerged, with no desire to break the surface and breathe anything different.
Nor did we need to—the hostel we reserved, Dar Lbakal, turned out to be a family’s guest house, with unfathomable blue-washed interior walls reflecting those outside.
Set in the heart of Chefchaouen’s medina, the home’s rooftop terrace offered sweeping views of the pastoral valley, with Jbel Tissouka (the closest mountain), anchoring a solid backdrop as it cradled the village and valley. Neighboring homes shared the view, and as women hung laundry on rooftop lines, I wondered if perhaps I would not mind laundry so much, if it came with such a view?
On our first morning, when everything was bathed in fresh light, I found the only thing that could tear my eyes from the scenery was the breakfast spread before us. Prepared in the family’s outdoor kitchen (which was tucked into a corner on the roof), the traditional meal became an instant favorite.
We lounged on cushions as baskets of Berber bread arrived, followed by plates of fresh goat cheese and bowls dripping with floral honey, tart jams and delicate olive oil. A plate of assorted olives—I counted no less than five varieties—featured fruity amfissa, briny manzanilla, aromatic liguria, fleshy kalamata, and buttery cerignola. The fruits’ variation of purples, green and black adorned the table. Just when I was ready to start digging in, omelets arrived, drizzled in olive oil and sprinkled with cumin.
The traditional breakfast might not be everyone’s cup of mint tea (which was also served), but it incorporated several of my favorite foods. Fighting the urge to take a nap after the meal, we opted for a morning hike in the nearby hills.
The path was scattered with large boulders and chunky gravel, but it was an easy enough climb to reach the hillside mosque that sat on top of the opposite side of the valley, gazing back at Chefchaouen.
We passed a few rustic chalets as we climbed, and greeted their tenants. A grandmother sat on a rock, sewing mountain flowers into a necklace. Other women busied themselves with domestic chores as younger men watched over flocks of sheep, creating quite the bucolic view.
At the top, we paused on the front steps of the mosque, our breath caught at the view below. Chefchaouen looked like a field of flowers—daisies, perhaps, with pops of blue forget-me-nots scattered throughout.
We did not move for several minutes, or speak. We simply sat and stared. It was during the silence that the unlikely voice of Karl Pilkington entered my head…
“I’d rather live in a hole with a view of a palace than live in a palace with a view of a hole.”
The English comedian was referencing Petra while filming An Idiot Abroad in Jordan. Here’s his hilarious (but arguably profound) point:
I tore my eyes from the view long enough to look up at the ignored mosque. Others had joined us on the hillside, and like us, had turned their backs to the mosque to focus on the view. It was the “hole” looking out at the “palace.” But in this case, I wasn’t sure I would call it much of a hole. Unspoiled views of Chefchaouen and from Chefchaouen were both idyllic.
The sun was becoming quite warm as we started our descent, and we decided to retreat back into the cool blue walls of the village. By that time, the medina was humming with activity and we window shopped our way across the city.
Known for their leather goods and woven blankets and rugs, Chefchaouen’s artisans decorated the blue-washed walls with their colorful works. During lulls when there were no perusing customers, some worked on new designs—sitting at looms or low stools and carving intricate designs into polished leather.
Weaving through the blue, we suddenly found ourselves in Outa el Hammam, the central square and heartbeat of Chefchaouen, where the 15th-century kasbah towers over cobble-stoned streets. There, more touristy shops sold mass-produced items at inflated, fixed-prices.
Stomaches rumbling, we decided it was time to eat lunch. Randomly selecting an establishment from the square, we climbed to Morisco Restaurant's two-story terrace, where we sat overlooking the kasbah's impenetrable walls.
It was difficult to decide just what to order. But smelling the honeyed notes of succulent meats wafting up from the downstairs kitchen, we knew we couldn’t go wrong.
His: Tahliya, roasted goat with honey, raisins, and almonds
Hers: Tajine Poulet, lemon grass chicken infused with saffron and served with roasted vegetables and couscous.
Yes, the traditional North African tajine pots tasted as delicious as they looked. One of the most memorable meals of the trip, it was topped off with a fresh orange, sprinkled with cinnamon and served with café du lait.
Appreciating the unhurried pace of Morocco, we sat back and people-watched from the terrace, knowing we would not be rushed to leave our table after the meal.
It struck me, as we turned to enter a new section of the medina, that the locals were just as colorful as their blue-washed walls. Without them, the tenacious blue felt heavy. They added a lightness, and as we turned corners where few tourists could be seen, I felt at times intrusive as we stumbled upon women gossiping on front stoops with friends, or children playing games on the cobble-stoned paths.
Yet they were unwaveringly friendly, and we felt welcomed throughout our visit.
Later that evening, as the medina started to close, we ducked into a weaver’s shop. We had paused there earlier in the day to look at some of his blankets, drawn to the vibrant colors stacked upon towering shelves in the small space. I could not get them out of my head, and I knew I would regret it if we left without at least one.
“Sarah, your bag is already stuffed. How are you going to fit it in?”
“I don’t know. I’ll strap it to the outside of my bag. Or wear it as a dress. Or I’ll throw something away. I’ll figure something out.”
His concern was valid, as we were still in the first half of our trip and had more than a week left to traipse as far as public transportation could carry us, before returning to Senegal. But seeing my determination, he conceded and we set to choosing which blanket to purchase. Half an hour later, after haggling with the weaver, we walked out of the store with four.
The following morning, as we reluctantly packed our bags and prepared to depart Chefchaouen, I decided to leave behind a pair of jeans. They were slightly too big, and far too long. I didn’t know if any of the women would wear them, since most wore traditional dress. And I knew it was a risky move—if anything happened to the one pair of jeans that I had left, I was out of pants.
As it were, I could see no other way to bring the newly purchased blankets with us. Waddling like a turtle out the door, we thanked our gracious hosts at Dar Lbakal and made our way to the bus stop.
With only a vague idea of where we were headed and no idea where we would sleep that night, we caught a local bus headed north. We silently prayed for clear direction about where to go and how to get there.
An hour later, as we careened around the corner of a precarious mountain passage, I found myself praying we would just make it to a destination—any destination—alive…