From Mijas in Spain to Chefchaouen in Morocco

Last of Spain

Having finally managed to leave the villa, I was subjected to a side of Spain I hadn’t yet experienced and was glad it only lasted 24 hours. To get to Algeciras, to take the boat to Morocco, I had to cycle along the busy coastal road of the Costa del Sol. Everything that my mind had conjured up about this sun-soaked Mediterranean hot-spot became a reality, as I cycled through one continuous sprawl of hotels and high-rises in varying degrees of development or disrepair, over-populated with sunburned Brits in football shirts.

Algeciras didn’t have much going for it either – but what can you expect from a busy port town. Waiting for the ferry, memories of the crossing from Poole came flooding back. Then, I was filled with anticipation for what lay ahead in Europe. This time, excitement and expectation for finally arriving on the African continent and the road ahead through Morocco.

Riding off the ferry in Ceuta was like stepping back onto Spanish soil – with it’s plaza, churches, euros and Spanish language – and that is indeed what I was doing. On the African continent yes, but still under Spanish legislation, as it has been ever since 1640. The only noticeable difference was that everything was a lot cheaper. 

Into Morocco

It wasn’t until I came to the border post a few kilometres further that it felt like I’d left Europe behind finally. With hundreds of people lining the road and cars jostling for prime position, I weaved and dodged my way to the front. Once I’d had my passport stamped, checked several times and opened my panniers up for inspection (they gave up pretty quickly at the sight and/or smell of my dirty clothes) I was finally allowed to pass through into Morocco. It was all remarkably hassle free; no-one trying to fleece me of my last euros in any form – no selling, bribing, black market money exchanges, plain stealing – just helpful guys making sure I was ok. Well, of course I was – I was headed for Morocco!

On the road - the Rif mountains
On the road - the Rif mountains

The 40km ride to Tetouan flew by. The sights and sounds were a sensory overload compared to the Costa del Sol. With the sea on my left and rolling hills of dry ‘pasture’ on my right. Cattle grazing, egrets standing, the odd camel and even a snake slithered away from my path and back into the darkness of a drain. The palm lined seafront turned into a pretty town of white-washed houses trimmed with sky-blue windows, doors and roofs. Almost every car, truck and bus that passed either beeped it’s horn as it passed, or the driver and passengers gave me a wave, shout, thumbs up or any combination of these things. It certainly was a warm welcome into Morocco.

‘I like you’ in Tetouan

It all went great until I arrived in Tetouan – by this time I was tired and it took me about an hour to find my way to a hotel by the medina, being hopelessly confused about which road to take and every person I asked telling me something different. I found a hotel eventually, but only with the help of two guys on a motorbike. This in itself would have been fine, except in the short five minute ride to the hotel, the one guy was now convinced that he liked me, not just ‘liked’, but ‘really liked’ and did I want to ‘be with him’? My response was a definitive ‘NO’ and I made a hasty retreat to the hotel and wondered whether this was going to be par for the course. Later that evening I went for a wander round the medina and promptly became lost. Not normally a problem as I have all the time in the world. This time however, my bowels were willing me for a sprint finish back to the hotel bathroom. Shit – Better move fast. Fortunately some guy who spoke Spanish said he’d help me. I think actually he didn’t know where the hotel was and just wanted to be my friend because he too ‘liked me’. Fortunately, while we were walking and he was talking, I recognized the square by the hotel. So for the second time that day I made a hasty retreat.

Tetouan was the capital of the Spanish protectorate from 1912 until Moroccan independence in 1956. The winding alleys of the medina, street stalls selling anything from fresh fruit to mobile phones and numerous mosques are all distinctly Moroccan. The locals however, if they speak a second language, speak Spanish in preference to the official French and presumably, now, this is in part due to passing tourists from Spain. I didn’t find Tetouan particularly appealing or welcoming. The help I had received, I felt as though there was an ulterior motive, brought on by the fact I was a girl travelling alone. The mix  of languages was particularly confusing. My ears hadn’t yet adjusted to the sound of Arabic and with a fusion of disjointed Spanish and occasional French words, I had great difficulty understanding anyone and really wasn’t too sure which language to try to speak myself.

I was tired so had an early night and thought perhaps my perspective of the town would improve in the morning. I woke to a grey sky and rainfall. On leaving the hotel, the wet streets were quiet with only a few other people about. All the street stalls from the previous night were gone. I’d arrived in Morocco during Ramadan and daily life during this month is somewhat dysfunctional for the passing traveller. I did find a small shop so brought some biscuits and fruit for breakfast which I ate back in my room out of sight.

Three kinds of company

Chefchaouen - Painted blue
Chefchaouen - Painted blue

I decided to pack my bags and head for Chefchaouen – a friendly, relaxed town, known for it’s pretty medina and one I had particularly wanted to visit. The day’s cycle ride was along a quiet road with the untamed Rif mountains laid out to my left, the clouds rolling over and down the nearside, covering the mountain tops like a smooth, white blanket. The size of the mountains made the incline of the road barely register, except for the added exertion required on my part. The road then followed along the river at the bottom of a wide gorge until I reached the turn-off for Chefchaouen which then wound up the hillside into town.

I wasn’t alone on my cycle ride – first there was the thirty-something guy in a smart black car. He waved as he overtook like all the others, but then stopped a few hundred yards ahead. As I cycled towards him, he asked if I wanted a lift? No. I kept cycling. He overtook me again and stopped another few hundred yards ahead. He asked where I was going? Chefchaouen. I kept cycling. He overtook, stopped and mentioned that the road was long and very steep to Chefchaouen. Yes I know. I kept cycling. Eventually, fortunately, when my patience was very low, the guy in the smart black car gave up and left me to pedal alone the long, steep road to Chefchaouen. Second there was the fifty-something, grey ponytail and moustache guy on a motorbike. He waved as he passed, like all the others, but then made a u-turn and came to ride alongside me. He asked if I was Spanish? No. English? Yes. He asked me something I didn’t understand. What? He asked if I wanted hashish? No. He asked if I wanted kif? No. He asked if I wanted cannibis, dope, weed? No. I don’t want drugs, by any name. Eventually, fortunately, when he’d nearly crashed into me twice, he made another u-turn and left me to pedal on alone to Chefchaouen. Third, there was the thirty-something but looked older, tall, skinny guy on a bike. I flew past him on the roundabout but as I took the steep road to Chefchaouen he caught me up. Did I like the mountains? Yes. Did I want to stay in the mountains nearby? Maybe, depends. Did I want to stay at his house with his family? Could be good, tell me more. Oh. You’re actually single, living alone and it’s 20km from here… I’m not sure which was the deciding factor, but I said thankyou for the invitation and that I wanted to stay in Chefchaouen first.

Inside the Kasbah
Inside the Kasbah

The first hotel I came to, I decided to stay at. Hotel Sahara had a cheap room for me and my bike on the ground floor. Perfect. I fell straight to sleep on the bed. When I woke up it was dark so I went to explore some of the town and soon came to the kasbah and main Plaza, Uta el-Hamman. Lined with restaurants, with identical menus, near-identical prices, and waiters with varying levels of enthusiasm and gift for languages, I stopped at the first one and took a seat to enjoy my first Moroccan soup and hearty tajine of the trip, with the mosque lit up against the dark night sky.

Blue hued Chefchaouen

Blue hues
Blue hues

The following day, I headed out to explore the medina with it’s blue hue, from when it was painted by Jewish refugees, who had fled persecution in Granada in 1494. The medina was just big enough to wander aimlessly through the narrow streets along the hillside without ever feeling lost and still have plenty of time for the distraction of being invited into every other shop to take a look and when it was clear I wasn’t going to buy anything, just to talk. By mid-afternoon I was feeling hungry and tired so retreated to the hotel for a snack and sleep. Late afternoon came and so I headed back out to the medina in search of dinner. I’d barely entered through the west gate, Bab el-Ain, when I got chatting to Youssef, a young guy who, by the time we reached the main square, had invited me to break-fast with him and his family.

That evening I spent with Youssef and his brothers. Breakfasting (for me it was more like dinner) with soup, bread, figs, milk and tea on the floor of his shop. It was a quiet evening with the TV on in the background, switching between a Spanish football match and the reading of the Koran, passing the time rolling joints and drinking tea. Later in the evening when friends arrived, we moved upstairs, between the layers of rugs that didn’t fit into the shop below and enjoyed a flavorsome, slow-cooked chicken dish typical of the Sahara.

Kif in the Rif

All that glitters
All that glitters

It seems the most popular pastime here is smoking kif, as the locals call it. I expect that if it wasn’t for Ramadan, many people would spend the entire day drinking tea and smoking. As it is, they spend all evening doing so. It’s hardly surprising considering the vast quantities of marijuana that are grown in the surrounding region. Indeed, over three-quarters of the cultivable land is used for this purpose. It is actually illegal to consume or sell the drug, but this seems to be irrelevant in this town at least.

The entire Rif region is barely under the control of the government, who tend to turn a blind eye to the area, which is practically ruled by mafia. The defiant Riffian Berbers have throughout history repelled external attempts to take over the region and themselves used Chefchaouen to launch successive attacks on the Portuguese in nearby Ceuta. It is only this current government who has begun to take measures in the area and there were numerous police control points along the road from Ceuta and some trucks at least were being stopped to check for drugs. The government still has a long way to go though…

One day the King, Mohammed VI, went for a visit to the Rif mountains, without his usual entourage. He saw an old man smoking outside his house, with kilo after kilo of marijuana plant piled up alongside. The king got out of his car and marched up to the old man,
‘What is this? Tell me?’, the king demanded pointing at the plants, ‘and give me a smoke.’
The old man explained that he was smoking kif and that no he couldn’t have a smoke.
‘Don’t you know who I am? Now give me a smoke.’ the King demanded. 
‘I don’t care who you are, you can’t have a smoke,’ the old man curtly replied.
‘I am the King. Now give me a smoke,’ the king demanded again.
The old man laughed, ‘You certainly can’t have a smoke. If you believe you are the king now, you will begin to think you are God once you smoke this kif’.