Getting to Casablanca was a tad more challenging than anticipated. The day prior to my departure I received an incomprehensible email in Portuguese from Air Portugal, which, upon deciphering, revealed that my carefully planned flights, scheduled to arrive mid-afternoon so I could join my group for a welcome meeting and dinner, were cancelled. I’d been rebooked on a direct flight which got in later – and even later after a delay. (NB: avoid Air Portugal if you can! Impossible to reach by any means.) Fortunately I’d booked an airport transfer to the hotel but it was 9:30 before I was ensconced in my lightless room. A note from the tour guide said we were to depart at 8:00am the next day.
It is a lively group on this G Adventures tour: 7 Canadians, 5 Aussies and 2 Americans. All but two are women, vast age range. Our tour guide is a charming young man named Driss, who has conveyed a ton of information about Morocco already…a dictatorship, corrupt, where the king has pretty much absolute power and is very rich as a result. (He mostly lives in France, not Morocco, though he has several palaces here.)
We drove about 5 hours to Tangier, most interesting for its view across the water to Spain and Gibraltar (which are very close!), then did a walking tour though the Kasbah (fort), Medina (old town) with Grand and Petit Soccos (markets). Dreadful lunch at a restaurant where most of the menu was unavailable (because, our guide said, they do not get many customers. He also told us not to eat the salads.) The water here is suspect, so we cart around big bottles of mineral water & avoid uncooked food unless Driss gives us the thumbs up.
As expected Tangier is very colourful, not too clean – but to my disappointment did not smell like cinnamon and hashish, but, like many older European cities, urine and tobacco smoke. While Morocco is largely inhabited by Berbers and is almost entirely Muslim, French is spoken widely (yay!) – and in Tangier especially also Spanish. English has yet to gain the firm foothold it has in so many parts of the world.
After our tour of Tangier we drove another 2 hours to Chefchaouen in the Rif mountains, home of “Moroccan chocolate” (hashish). Gorgeous mountains – and the town of about 45,000 is famed for its blue buildings…apparently they did not all used to be blue but there were a few, and then it became known as the blue town and everyone started painting houses blue. Chefchaouen means “look to the mountain” and they tower all around it.
We checked into our hotel (described as very nice by Driss, I guess standards differ…) and then he took us all out to a fabulous dinner of goat’s cheese olives & fig jam, cooked and raw vegetable salads, 5 different tagines (beef, chicken, vegetable, shrimp, sardine) and a yogurt, almond and date desert. It cost each of us about $15. The only drawback: no alcohol. Muslim country, small town. This was, shall we say, a disappointment to vacationing Canadians, Americans & Australians… we have subsequently figured ways around this … and will likely be over-prepared in the future (better safe than sorry, right?)
Yesterday we had a “free day” in Chefchaouen – with optional activities. Most of us chose to go on a 4 hour hike into the mountains. Our guide, Mustafa (emphasis on middle syllable) has lived in the town his entire life and leads many hikes – often several day journeys with overnight camping. He thought we were a slow group as we huffed out way to 1000 meters, past several mosques, goats, women carrying massive piles of branches on their backs, bent almost double (feed for animals), goats, mules, dozens of cats, chickens, sheep, herd dogs and amused children. We were instructed NOT to photograph people.
We were all eager to see marijuana growing (as it is a major crop in the mountains), but alas, there has been a lot of rain so seed had just been planted – and we could see (and smell) the seed scattered everywhere in small fields, with scarecrows guarding. We also saw but did not interfere with “hashish factories” – which looked like small greenhouses covered in dark plastic…not currently in operation.
The Rif mountains are where most of Morocco’s hash is grown/produced. For over 1000 years the inhabitants have enjoyed smoking it – then in the 1960s suddenly it became a commercial venture and internationally renowned area, a destination for hippies. It is legal to grow marijuana (keif) and to smoke it, but not to buy or sell it. Go figure…
By the time we reached our lunch destination, we were hot, exhausted and sunburnt but quite elated. Stunning views all along the hike, and good company. Last night a few of us passed on another major Moroccan meal (we had one at lunch!) and chose to go to a hotel where we could obtain wine IF we ordered food. We did so, minimally – but did not skimp on the wine.
Today we head towards Fes…