Sunday 10 January 2010

Chefchaouen: The Empire strikes back

Dar Meziana, Chefchaouen, Morocco

Friday night was my first in Chefchaouen. Linds and I opted for the cheaper Hotel Barcelona over the Dar Meziana where Pen and Al were staying. I've never been to Barcelona, but I hear it's lovely. The Catalonian tourist board might want to have a word with the guys behind Hotel Barcelona though, they're not doing them any favours. I plumped for a double en-suite room. Big mistake. The dampness from the bathroom pervades the entire place, and a relentless icy draught torments you as you clutch multiple blankets around your shivering body, praying for morning. Morning, when it finally came, brought with it an obvious decision: pack up all your shit as quickly as you can, check into Dar Meziana and have a shower there without dying of hypothermia before you have a chance to dry. Half an hour later, showered, dry and warm, I reflect upon a decision right up there with the greatest of my life.

Unfortunately it has been raining pretty doggedly for the last couple of days. Chefchaouen is just about warm enough in the daytime but after five or so it becomes bitterly cold, hence the djellabahs. I bought one yesterday. Not for tourist reasons, but out of necessity. I am now traipsing around the streets looking like a shifty jedi who's let himself go a bit. It actually makes you walk differently - slower, more economical and ever so slightly comedic.

I bought the one in the middle for a knock down 220 dirhams

The cold can't hide the beauty of the town though - it is stunning in its intricacy and delicate contrasts. Look up at the mountains from the Plaza Uta El Hammam, the little square in the centre of the medina, and you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Chamonix staring up at Mont Blanc hidden by the clouds. The bright colours against the blue washed houses, narrow lanes and steep staircases. The crisp, cold air of the evening and the huddled djellabah clad locals playing cards and dominoes. There is an eerie, spooky sense about the place, as though you are trespassing on a film set, or have been transported into some mythical land.

Man with mattress navigates the medina

With a room at Dar Meziana comes breakfast and a meal at Casa Hassan. The food is simple and good - traditional fare, starters of salads and soups and mains of tagines, kebabs and pastilla. I had a kebab on the first night, but yesterday lunchtime plumped for the pastilla. For a truly authentic Moroccan pastilla, the filling should be pigeon, but more often than not they make do with chicken. It is a round filo pastry pie stuffed with meat, egg, almonds, onions and spices, including cinnamon, giving it a wonderfully complex sweet and savoury taste.

Dinner at Casa Hassan

We spent the afternoon wandering about the medina, playing backgammon and drinking tea. In the evening Lindsay displayed his arabic haggling skills and bagged us a cab out of town to the Auberge Dardara restaurant, lauded in the Lonely Planet as the best kitchen in the area. I was hoping to tackle the goat with sweet figs mentioned in the guide book, but the owner (who looked more German than Tangerine) reeled off a short list of the dishes available, and it sadly was not among them. Instead I consoled myself with the cheese salad and beef kebab.

He didn't really speak any English, so the menu was deciphered through a combination of Arabic and French. I shouldn't have been too surprised then when my salade de fromage turned out to be heavily laden with octopus. It was
exquisite. The kebab was good, with incredibly fresh and well seasoned vegetables grown on the premises. The guys plumped for rabbit tagine. They must feed them bloody big carrots, these were the fattest lupins I have ever seen. Nothing too fancy about this place, other than excellent ingredients, simply and brilliantly cooked. Up there with the meze at Riad Tajine the other night, but the cheese and octopus salad is top of the ladder for now.

I had a proper night's sleep that felt a little overdue, and woke refreshed and warm this morning. I am slowly recovering from the exertions of Ballymaloe and have started having normal dreams again that don't involve orders of work and choux pastry. The planned power cut was cancelled on account of the incessant rain. A double edged sword: a hot shower but several hours spent by the fire while the beautiful wonderland that is Chefchaouen sits undisturbed beyond the door.

Chefchaouen from the old Mosque

Plenty of time was spent debating our next moves. The original plan was a trip round the imperial cities of the north, ending in Marrakech for me and Casablanca for the others. We were going to take in cooking lessons in Fes, but it turns out that the guy who gives them is in Bondi for the winter! Somewhere along the line a seductive hotelieress brainwashed Al into convincing us that a trek south of the Atlas mountains, skirting along the edge of the Sahara, would be more interesting. Having resolved to spend another day in Chaouen to chill out, we spent most of the afternoon assessing the feasability of this option, before the barometer swung slightly back to the colder north. At least it's not snowing I guess.

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