I was delirious.
We had finally disembarked from a 15-hour overnight journey from hell — train, cab, bus. I hadn’t slept, and I felt like I was in a dream, and not in a good way.
And then we stepped into the medina of Chefchaouen (pronounced “shef-sha-wen”), an ancient city founded in 1471 and located in the Rif Mountains of Morocco, famed for its medina awash in varying shades of bright, almost neon blue. And my delirium immediately turned into one fueled by endorphins, excitement, and ecstasy. Ecstasy at having finally made it. Ecstasy at being in the midst of something I had seen only in photos for months now. Ecstasy at the sheer beauty of what my eyes were beholding, above, below, and all around me.
But before the dream came the nightmare. It started with the overnight train from Marrakech. As soon as we landed in Marrakech, we took a petit taxi to the train station and booked the best ticket you can buy for 740 dirham for two (about $37 per person). (You can’t buy tickets online — we tried.) This puts you in a couchette with two bunk beds (four passengers) in an enclosed compartment. The couchette was more comfortable than I expected, especially considering this was a local, not necessarily a tourist, train. There’s a sleeping pad (which the mister found uncomfortably hot, but I was OK), and they provide a pillow and clean sheets. As far as size, the couchette was definitely smaller than the prison cells that I see on TV (see photo below).
After an exhaustingly sweltering day exploring the Ville Nouvelle area of Marrakech (which, we realized, comes alive at night with modern, everyday Marrakshis who actually live and work there, as opposed to the medina, which is more like where your country grandmother still lives and where those catering to tourists work), we boarded the train at 8:45 pm. We made sure to use the bathroom before we boarded, and I made sure not to eat or drink after 7 pm because I had heard about the toilets onboard and was determined not to use the bathroom during the 10 hours that we would be on the train.
(Word on the Web is that the toilets were not only generally disgusting, as most train bathrooms tend to be, especially in less developed countries, but you couldn’t use them unless the train was moving because they didn’t flush and just emptied out onto the tracks. Though I did end up using the bathroom in the wee hours of the morning before we disembarked, I couldn’t tell you whether this was true because it was pretty dark and I was pretty discombobulated from lack of sleep. From what I remember, you could actually flush the toilet, and as far as cleanliness goes, it ranks up there with the filthier airplane bathrooms I’ve seen.)
Unlike my younger self, I have a hard time sleeping anywhere other than in my own bed, and this was true on the train, even with my sleeping aids. I tossed and turned all night, on edge about the strange environment and non-locking door to our couchette. (In fact, the train made several stops throughout the night, at one of which a passenger entered our couchette, assigned to the bunk below me.)
We rose pre-dawn and ended up waiting in the hallway for an hour, paranoid about missing our station. (The mister’s phone, it turns out, was an hour early.) It seems we didn’t have to, though, as everyone seemed to be getting off at the Tangier station, and train staff knocked on each door to awaken the passengers. From there, we rushed to get a cab to take us over to the bus station because we wanted to make sure to get the 8 am bus in order to get into Chefchaouen by noon. We hurriedly negotiated a price of 30 dirham (about $3) for the five-minute cab ride.
After a four-hour, sleepless (and not for lack of trying) bus ride, we finally arrived. And like a veil, the weariness and sheer exhaustion instantly fell away. I was delirious, but this time, with happiness. All around me, below me, above me were magnificent shades of blue. It truly was like a dream. Like being inside a giant ice-blue glacier, but without the chill. It was surreal. It was heaven.
We stayed at Casa Perleta, a high scorer on Tripadvisor. A well-traveled photographer I know also recommended this boutique hotel (if you can call it that — its cozy atmosphere is more akin to a guesthouse). I can’t recommend it enough — the staff speaks excellent English, they’re super helpful, and the rooms are all rustic charm. Plus its location can’t be beat — just around the corner is the famed flowerpot stairway and right next door, a man makes the best sfenj (Moroccan doughnuts) in town. (You know because of the long line of locals buying up the crispy fritters at all hours of the day.)
Chefchaouen has certainly grown in popularity among travelers, but the fact that it’s not easy to get to prevents the overpopulation of tourists. Nonetheless, there’s no shortage of foreigners eager to get their photo on the famed flowerpot-lined stairway (myself included). I saw more than a few tourists doing full-on photo shoots, complete with a change of shoes and clothes. One couple even took their wedding photos there. (I can only assume it was for their wedding since the bride was in a white lace gown and veil.)
While all the tourist traffic probably helps with the local economy (one enterprising woman with a baby had set up the little alcove in front of her house with pretty local crafts and flowerpots, charging 5 dirham, or about 50 cents, for passersby to take a photo within), it’s difficult on the locals when they’re just trying to lug groceries home and everyone’s trying to snap a photo of them. One Berber merchant explained that many professional photographers had come to Chaouen (as it’s often called) to take photos, only to sell them and make money off of the faces of the locals. He mentioned that he used to allow photos of himself until he searched Google and found his face plastered everywhere. (It’s true. I found him on Google images.)
Another time, at the famous flowerpot stairway, we a saw a bunch of local kids, shoved to the side, their faces unhappy at having to wait for a couple mindlessly taking their time posing, shooting, and checking their photos. (The local kids play everywhere in the narrow alleys and stairways.) When they were finally done, the mister, having noticed this, jumped up on the stairway and motioned for the kids to join him. They all ran into the photo, and this is the fun little photo we got on the stairway:
In fact, the people of Chefchaouen, many of whom are of Berber origin, are some of the nicest we have come across in our travels. As more than a few Berbers explained to us, Berbers believe that we’re all brothers and sisters under the sky and in nature. They’re open to everyone and don’t discriminate. It’s truly a beautiful sentiment.
(Incidentally, the locals speak Spanish here, given the 20th century Spanish occupation, unlike the rest of Morocco, where French is preferred. Just when we got used saying “Bonjour” and “Merci” everywhere we went, we had to revert to “Hola” and “Gracias.” Talk about confusing!)
One Berber man, Zakaria, who was born in the Atlas Mountains (he doesn’t know his birth date because his father didn’t record his birth until a year later) and educated in Germany, invited us to a traditional Berber meal at his Berber friend Ali’s home later that evening. We joined him, another American traveler, and two German travelers for an authentic Berber meal. We were even able to score a couple bottles of wine on the black market. (A true feat since Morocco is a dry country, and Moroccans aren’t allowed to buy liquor. When the mister went to buy it, he said he felt like he was doing a drug deal — LOL. Ironic since cannabis is widely and openly used in town.)
What made it all the more special was the fact that it just happened to be my birthday that day, and we hadn’t even given a thought to what we were going to do that night to celebrate, if anything. (When you get to be a certain age, you just want birthdays to pass by quickly and unnoticed, at least for me.) We spent the evening drinking wine, feasting on amazing homemade chicken tagine in the traditional way (communally, on the floor, and with our hands — something the mister likes doing anyway), discussing American politics with the Germans (they simply couldn’t understand what was going on in the election — heck, we barely can), and learning about other cultures. It was truly a birthday I will never forget.
When we first planned out our trip to Spain and Morocco, we thought two nights in Chaouen would be sufficient. After all, it was a small town, and the only real draw is its blue-washed medina. What I didn’t realize is that Chaouen would be so much more than a must-see destination. It was a much-needed break in a go-go-go itinerary. It was a chance to slow down and really take in a part of Moroccan culture you can’t get in the touristy medina of Marrakech. it was a golden opportunity to get to know some of the locals. It was a balm for the soul.