The Rif mountains, Chefchaouen and Fez

When I was a child I had The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho on tape and I used to listen to it on repeat. In its opening chapters it contains a vivid description of how Santiago, the Andalusian shepherd boy sells his entire flock of sheep and uses the money to take the boat from Tarifa to Tangier, the starting point for his journey to the pyramids of Egypt in search of hidden treasure. He finds himself in a strange and foreign port, where he knows no one and cannot speak the language, where “in just a few hours he had seen men walking hand in hand, women with their faces covered, and priests that climbed to the tops of towers and chanted.”  To 10 year old me, who had not travelled much further afield than visiting my grandma in Alicante, Tangier sounded mystical and intriguingly foreign. It is probably because of this that I had always pictured myself dramatically  stepping off the ferry from Spain and being immediately plunged into the chaos and otherworldliness of Africa. However when it came to booking our crossing, the Alcerteras to Tangier Med ferry was half the price of the one from Tarifa to Tangier Port and so instead we found ourselves instead arriving into a small, quiet and distinctly underwhelming town some 50km from Tangier (a bit like flying Ryan Air to Paris). It was a slight anticlimax after all that I had envisaged, but still we had made it to Africa!

We decided not to backtrack and visit Tangier, on our expensive and uninsured motorbike we were mindful of Santiago’s fate when he first arrived in the city and the well known sayings about ports and thieves. Instead we spent the first night camping in Mirtil for no other reason than it was nearby and had a campsite. It was a sleepy and half deserted town, large billboards promised golf courses and luxury beachside resorts, but from the looks of things they were mostly still being built. It was also our first introduction to the world of continental campers, mostly retired French and German couples (and their various household pets), travelling en mass in enormous campervans, towing motorbikes, mobility scooters and even smart cars. In amongst them we spotted a couple of overlanding vehicles; fully kitted out, professionally converted military trucks which looked more like they were on their way to take over Morrocco than to explore it. We were the only people in a tent and I have to admit that as we listened to the distant whirring of our fellow campers adjusting their satellite dishes, whilst we inflated our camping mats, climbed into our sleeping bags and settled in for an early night, I did wonder if we had perhaps made an error in choosing to travel by motorbike.   

After spending a day in Ceuta (see: we headed to Chefchaouen in the Rif mountains.  We stuck to the Mediterranean coast following a steep clifftop road with dramatic views out over the sea. It was just about possible to pick out tiny blue fishing boats, barely visable against the great expanse of blue sea and sky. As we began the first long winding descent through the mountains any thoughts of travelling by campervan were immediately dispelled. Nothing can beat the feeling of the sun on your face, the rush of wind and the mixture of fear and excitement as you sail round hairpin bends. We passed through the small town of Oued Laou where the market was in full swing. It took up most of the road and caused a long traffic jam. Vans were filled up to the roof with oranges and khobz, the flat round loves of bread eaten with every meal, their doors flung open displaying their wares. A man in a striped djellaba wrestled with an unruly goat and the smell and smoke of meat sizzling on charcoal barbecues permeated everything. There were stalls piled high with fresh fruit and vegetables and brightly coloured spices and vast bowls of olives in varying shades of green, brown and black. Finally free from the traffic, we followed a minor road heading inland. The hills were such a lush and vivid green I found myself taking off my sunglasses to check that really was their colour. As we headed into the Rif mountains the road followed a long and spectacular gorge.

In Chefchaouen we camped on a hill overlooking the town. The medina is famous for its painted blue walls. There are numerous theories as to why it is blue, one is that it was Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 who brought with them the tradition of painting buildings blue, another is that it keeps mosquitos away, or that the hue helps to keep homes cool in summer. Whatever the reason it makes the town very picturesque and whilst there were a lot of (other) tourists, it was easy to lose myself in the winding maze of blue alleyways and I spent an enjoyable day doing just that (Leon was scared off at the first sight of a souvenir shop and spent the day driving in the mountains instead). Around lunchtime I managed to find my way to a large square, bordered on one side by the best preserved part of the city’s ancient walls. I was just debating whether I wanted to pay to see the ruins up close when I spotted a crumpled 100 dirham note on the floor. It’s not a small amount of money in Morrocco, being more than enough to buy two people a meal of soup, tagine and mint tea in one of the cheaper restaurants. I looked around but could not see any obvious owner. Given my wealth in comparison to most ordinary Moroccans it somehow didn’t seem fair for me to be the one to benefit from this good fortune. I had just resolved to give the money to the next deserving person I  saw when I was approached by a young guy. He was dressed in jeans and a leather jacket and gave off an air of confidence and charm which I find in Morrocco usually accompanies a  sales pitch. He asked me to give him the money. I was annoyed as I felt sure it was not his and he was taking advantage of the fact that as a tourist, I wouldn’t try and argue with him. He was right and I handed the note over. Immediatly he walked past me, to the entrance on the ruins where an elderly and visibly very poor couple sat on a low stone wall, selling small bags of popcorn. He put the money into the old lady’s hand, briefly holding it in both his own as he did so and smiled at me “Ça va?” I realised then that we had made the same incorrect assumption about one another, that we would selfishly keep the money instead of passing it on to someone more deserving.  I thought about how often this happens in day to day life and how rare it is for either party to realise their mistake, I smiled back, “Qui, Ça va bien.”


From Chefchaouen we headed to Fez, deciding to take the more interesting looking winding roads through the Rif mountains. As the road climbed through olive orchards and past small boys herding goats, we were treated to beautiful views back over Chefchaouen. The Rif mountains are famous for their production of Kief (hashish) I wondered for a while why everyone we passed was making a backwards peace sign at us, before eventually realising it was the signal for smoking. It was quite amazing how we would stop in the most seemingly remote of places to admire the view and from nowhere a guy would pop up to try and sell us hash.

The road east towards Targuist took us over a spectacular mountain pass. The wind was savage, buffeting us from side to side and whatever Leon said, I still couldn’t quite believe we weren’t about to be blown onto the path of an oncoming lorry or swept off the edge of the mountain. I find that whenever I am scared on the motorbike, I sing. The more scared I am, the more ridiculous the song that pops into my head. There is something about singing the same few lines of a truly terrible song over and over again that is a very effective (if not entirely welcome) distraction from my fear of catastrophic injury/ imminent death. On this day I found myself singing the theme tune to Heartbeat, repeatedly, until the road descended into the shelter of thick pine forests. At Targuist we headed South towards Fez, driving through equally as spectacular, though thankfully less windy mountain roads. 

Fez felt like a city which hadn’t really changed in centuries. We were staying in a Riad in Fez el Bali (the old medina). When we realised we couldn’t drive into this part of the city I went ahead on foot, whilst Leon minded the bike and our belongings. Descending the steps into the medina felt like stepping back in time, the dark alleyways were so narrow two people could barely pass by one another and the crumbling 4 story buildings on either side were propped up with planks of wood. The stalls crammed into every bit of available space sold everything from pastries and sticky fried sweets, to snails and camel meat (helpfully indicated by a severed camel’s head hanging from a hook). Stray cats roamed around my feet and I stood, back pressed to the wall as a man herded several donkeys past me. I tried to follow a map on my mobile but it instantly went haywire, unable to cope with mass of intertwining alleys. A young boy approached me and offered to take me to my Riad and by now hopelessly lost I agreed. He took me far enough away that I could not hope to find my own way back, gestured vaguely in the direction of what I would later find was a deadend and demanded I pay him 5 euros (I did not). After another 10 minutes of aimless wandering, refusing all offers of assistance, I finally admitted defeat realising that the only way out of this situation was to pay another guide and hope for a better result. My second guide was in his late teens and at once set off purposefully in the opposite direction to that I had been heading in. After around 10 minutes I began to feel conscious of the fact that I was following a complete stranger down increasingly darker and quieter alleyways. The final alleyway he led me down was so dark I could barely see and my nerves finally got the better of me. Convinced I was seconds away from being mugged I stopped, telling him in my best assertive voice that I didn’t think it could be this way and I was going back. He pointed to a tiny sign next to an arch shaped wooden door, inlaid with brass and informed me we had arrived. Still somewhat sceptical I pushed the door and it opened into a pitch black corridor. My guide gestured enthusiastically for me to continue and so I felt my way along the corridor to a second heavy wooden door which I knocked. For the longest time nothing happened. The uneasy feeling was just starting to return  when the door was opened to reveal a grand interior courtyard, flooded with sunlight. There were 3 stories, each with an ornate balcony and intricately carved wooden doors with brightly coloured stained glass windows leading to bedrooms. The roof was open and it was through this that the sunlight and birdsong flooded. It was a very welcome change from the tent.

Over the next few days I fell completely in love with Fez el Bali, it seemed so improbable that down these dark and grimy alleyways, hidden behind heavy wooden doors could lie buildings so full of light and grandeur. I’ve read that the design of Riads reflect Islamic  ideas of modesty and the hijab and to me the whole Medina felt like that; hiding its interior beauty, showing it only to those invited. I loved the way that within the maze of tiny streets my sense of direction continuously eluded me, I would turn a corner convinced I knew what was around it, only to find I was somewhere completely different. The reward for all this aimless wondering was that each time we would discover new things, a beautiful madrassa with elaborate plasterwork and intricately patterned tiles, a door slightly adjar, revealing a tiny workshop where men sat crafting Fez’s (the felt hats which take their name from the city), tiny metalsmith and carpentry workshops where everything is still made by hand, traditional musicians rehearsing, the sounds of their instruments bouncing off the stone walls. You could climb onto the roof of any of the buildings and have spectacular views of the city, a jumble of sand coloured buildings and minarets, surrounded by ancient walls and arched gates, snow covered mountains just visible in the distance. Occasionally you could detect the acrid smell of ammonia, made from pidgeon poo and used in the leather tanneries Fez is famous for. All in all I felt quite sad when it was time for us to leave Fez, feeling that I could easily while away a few weeks in the city, by which time I may even be even be able to find my way around the Medina.



One thought on “The Rif mountains, Chefchaouen and Fez

  1. Enjoyed this post. Great pictures. Loved the story of the 100 dirham note. Reminds me there are still good people in the world.


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