The first city on our list of “stays” in Morocco just happened to be one of the most magical places on earth- the gorgeous blue city of Chefchaouen. This little village, tucked carefully into the mountains of the North, appears almost entirely blue. It seems that every building, every shutter, and every door dons a beautiful blue hue, giving the city a special atmosphere that seems would appear only in dreams. The local architecture appears somewhat like the building style in “Santorini,” but the all-blue-everything gives off a one-of-a-kind uniqueness that makes for an enchanting scene.
Chefchaouen was the first real stop on our Moroccan adventure aside from lunch at Rick’s cafe in Casablanca (holding its original style and feel as in the famous film “Casablanca,” Rick’s provided a fun place to dine together and get a little piece of the city since we wouldn’t be spending more time there on this adventure.) Chefchaouen is a few hours North, the opposite direction of Marrakech where we would later spend NYE. We drove through miles of highway, farmland, winding roads, fields and mountains from afternoon into the evening, switching off telling stories, playing DJ, and observing the culture through the car windows. Families worked out in the fields, members of all ages- very small children to the elderly. We stopped to stretch, skip, and watch the sun go down over the hill and then press on into dusk, only stopping to pee a couple of times and feeling like total outsiders as we received stares while paying our coins to use the “waterhole” at the petrol stations. I reminded myself I would need to get used to squatting and being open for any version of a bathroom we could find since this was only the beginning of our toilet adventures for the next few months. We finally rolled into Chefchaouen at dark, so we hardly got a glimpse of the stunning blue views we would wake up to the following morning.
That first night, we wandered down the dark passageways, wide-eyed and hungry for dinner. A man in the shadows stopped us and told us we had to try “the best restaurant in Morocco”; it was called Beldi Bab Ssour. We decided to follow his word and ended up truly having one of the best dinners of our entire trip. (Even by the end of our time in Morocco, we were reminiscing the delicious, melt in your mouth couscous, tajin, grilled calamari and sautéed plumbs from that special place.) The restaurant itself was small and cozy with a group-style set-up, so we shared our first meal sitting next to an older Italian couple that went on to tell us of their love for Morocco and their frequent visits. They spoke some broken English and mostly Italian, (which gave me an opportunity to refresh my Italian language skills.) Our crew could all agree that dinner was out of this world and it set our future expectations pretty high.
We slept hard and awoke to an absolutely stunning view with the sun rising over the mountains, casting its rays upon the green hills and every little blue and white structure in sight. We shared breakfast on the terrace overlooking it all, sipping coffee and gearing up for a day of exploring. Drifting through the sea of blue buildings felt as if we were in a scene from a film. We couldn’t help but take an overload of photos, documenting every view and blue passageway as we lost ourselves among the village. The people of the Blue City were kind and very interesting. They were willing to share their history of the Berber people, (the ethnic indigenous people native to North Africa), and wanted us to understand the unique wonders of their beloved home. There were beautifully crafted arts and goods for sale on every corner and the market was alive with commerce and conversation. Most men wore the traditional djellaba and the women wore long robes or gowns.
Each of us were really feeling the blue vibe and without discussing it first, we had woken up that morning and put on our “blue best.” We laughed at our cheesiness when we met in the hotel lobby to venture out. Lara twirled around the city in her blue and white dress, looking perfectly part of the scene. An elder Moroccan man with beautiful tan skin and crystal blue eyes stopped Lara when he saw her dress to ask her if she bought it in Chefchaouen. She answered “no,” but that she had perfectly packed and planned to wear it in the Blue City. The man complimented her beauty and her dress, and went on to tell us how much he loved the color blue, explaining that to him, the color blue stands for peace and prosperity, and that is why Chefchaouen is so special. It was a sweet moment. We continued in our exploration of the city, asking different locals for the reason that Chefchaouen had always been blue, and we received an array of answers. Some said it was for peace (much like the man had told us his reason for loving blue), others said it was for religious and governmental reasons; we even heard from someone that it was to minimize the issue of mosquitos and that somehow everything being blue helped with that? We never really got a sure answer…so we like to think of it for the reason of peace.
We wandered through each tiled passageway, interacting with the locals…and the cats. As Chefchaouen was the first city we really dug our chops into, it was also our first dose of stray kitten overload. We had heard of the presence of rampant stray cats in Morocco but were still surprised at how many we encountered everywhere. They were on every corner, adorably setting the scene. Fortunately, even the obviously homeless cats looked pretty well fed. We came to find that the cats were just as much a part of the culture as the people. One even took it upon itself to dine with us one night. Table for five, please! Though the restaurant owner was not as amused as we were.
We learned quickly about the thrills and trials of bartering for a sale in Morocco. There are some very memorable aspects of making a purchase, and we also came to learn that you can barter for anything. Anything! Not just rugs and jewelry- but the locals will even barter with you over the price of a fresh squeezed morning juice. The markets or “souks” are completely alive-there is so much culture and color. Beautiful Berber carpets, jewelry, lanterns and tea sets span the walkways, all “For sale for good price!” Scents of saffron and spices fill the air along with delicious smells of street food, produce and sweet baked goods. Women sit amongst the fresh produce for sale that is brought in from their family farms and gardens. Many shops line the walkways of each street side and you can’t pass by one of them without a salesman warmly greeting you and trying to physically pull you into his shop. “Good price! Tell me your price? I give you good price!” they call out. It’s hard not to enter into each shop, considering the strong pull of the salesman as well as the gorgeously crafted goods he is selling. You might enter a shop with the intention of purchasing nothing and suddenly be convinced that you NEED a “djellaba” for the desert camel trek or that your home won’t be complete without shipping home a shimmering tea set.
It’s been my dream to set up a Moroccan tea room in our home ever since we’ve fallen in love with sipping tea on poofs surrounded by beautiful tapestries and good company at the transformational festivals we’ve attended. Being in Morocco and falling in love with their infamous “Berber whiskey” (sweet mint tea- as they do not consume alcohol due to religion), made me desire even more to start on the tea room purchases. We were surrounded by the absolute perfect place to purchase the decor, BUT, it was also not our time to be nesting considering our house is rented out for our extended travel, we don’t know quite when we’ll be back, and we’re trying to keep down on costs. It also would not be easy nor functional to be carting Moroccan home goods around Southeast Asia since that remains Part II in the next chapter of our adventure. Fortunately, our awesome travel buddies are at the nesting phase of their lives, and we were able to be a part of the bartering experience for their beautiful Moroccan home purchases. Now, at least, I know where to return and how to barter with the big dogs when our tea room “nesting” days come near! (I made Garrett promise to bring me back to Morocco.)
As for the art of bartering- we got our first healthy taste in Chefchaouen. We learned that everything is for sale, nothing sells without a good haggle and you’re never supposed to pay more than half of the original price of an item, (according to the traveler’s guidebook.) We also quickly learned that for bigger purchases, such as for rugs or home goods, to expect to be swooned with an over-the-top “presentation” of the product that includes some homemade mint tea. We came to find that buying a hand crafted Moroccan rug is much like purchasing a car in the states in that- there’s heavy negotiating, expected BS, the salesman will have to “go talk to the boss,” and at some point, you might even have to “walk away” to make your point. After walking away, it’s either emphatically over, OR, you might’ve just made yourself a happy buyer. The process is frustratingly beautiful and alive!
We ended up sitting through a couple of “presentations” during our time in the Blue City. Our friends were looking for a Moroccan rug for their new home and were hoping to be able to ship it affordably. The first sales pitch we sat through was actually at the suggestion of the same gentleman that sent us to the “best restaurant in Morocco” the night before. After enjoying that amazing meal, we couldn’t not follow him when we passed him on the corner the following day. “Please, come into my shop, at least just for looking.” He pulled us away from the main market, around a few corners and down several walkways, and lead us to his shop to meet an elder man with eyes that spoke both knowledge and kindness. The elder man, donning his traditional djellaba, brought us up the stairs, through several hallways, and deep into a back room where he sat us on rugs in a cozy corner. It felt almost like we had been lead into a cave tucked into the side of the mountain. We were all-up-in-there. The man offered to brew us some Berber tea from his mint garden and called a younger gentleman over to help him start pulling heavy rugs off the shelf. Each and every rug was unique and different in design, carefully crafted by the Berber women. Rugs made of sheep’s wool, camel hair, and cactus…”sheep is cheap!” the man said- because they sheer the sheep annually for their wool; a camel rug is most expensive because it is five years between shaving the camels, and cactus ranges in the middle but holds appeal because of its heavy durability. To demonstrate the strength of the cactus rug, they hold a lighter to it and show that it won’t catch fire. The wise man explained all of this in beautifully clear English, and also went on to tell how it can take from six months to a couple years for the women to complete a rug as it involves dying the wool and carefully weaving the ancient designs into it. Each rug tells a story of the Berber people and expresses emotion and wisdom in its color and design. There was much to take in as we sipped the delicious mint tea and fell further in love with these men’s stories and the beautiful rugs. Let me also comment on how sweet this tea was. The infamous mint tea in Morocco is the basis for every meal, conversation, sale, or just anytime enjoyment, and it usually tastes like it has a half a pound of sugar dumped in. Being the sugar fiend I am- I loved that. Not all of us love it that way though and would’ve probably asked to tone it down a bit.
Anyhoodle- back to the “presentation”… After pulling several rugs down from the shelf and piling them between us on the floor, it was time to start narrowing down which ones we would like to purchase (by “we” I mean our friends.) “Just tell me “aha” (“yes” in Berber) or “ala” (for no) as I pull through each rug…” the wise man said. So we followed suit and gave him thumbs up or down + aha/ala to whittle down the pile, feeling somewhat sorry that one of them would have to put any/all the heavy rugs that we didn’t purchase back on the shelf…but this is all part of the show. As this was the first time we sat through the whole shebang, we wanted to see some other shops and rugs before we locked down a sale. The prices offered that first round came in too high and we hadn’t had a good chance to practice our countering skills yet. We thanked the men for their time and took their business card so we could return after further exploration and lunch. It was kind of funny taking a business card and discussing DHL shipping with a man in such a classic/rustic shop and dressed as if he fell out of a field in the first testament, BUT they apparently were very up to speed on their communication and exporting.
After some wandering, a little henna sesh for us girls, and a lovely rooftop lunch, we found ourselves in a similar situation to the prior in another rug shop; however this salesman was younger, had a lot more jokes and was donning a fedora (rather than a jilaba) to match his sass. We decided to go for round two. We sat down for his presentation. This guy was something- he was very theatrical and quick with his humor and cultural knowledge, as well as his knowledge of “Westerners.” We laughed at his jokes and also laughed nervously as he smiled and then rapidly changed to a very stern face and low voice- “Tell me your price,” he would say sternly- and then switch right back to smiling/laughing again, as he threw rugs from the shelf to the floor. He did this schizo-laugh-to-straight face-bit a few times and it felt like we were in a mafia movie buying jewels off the black market from Robert DeNero. “Hahaha! Seriously. Tell me your price.”– I’d be happy to do this comical impression for anyone I see in person after this. We’ll never forget it.
Things heated up a little more when the numbers came into play. Initial offers were made that were also too high and Justin wisely countered the way he’d prepared for this round. We went back and forth for a while and eventually, the “big boss” had to be called for permission to lower to Justin’s counter offer… then the salesman’s son stopped by for lunch money. Uncanny timing. Eventually, after all the laughter, theatrics, negotiating, and threatening to leave without a purchase, a fair price was reached and our friends were the owners of a beautiful new rug! We were happy and relieved! The salesman could go home that night with a bigger pocket and the big boss-whom we also think was doubling as the man’s adorable son on the phone, could get a good lunch. We were all richer from the experience.
We loved Chefchaouen so much we didn’t really want to leave it, but with New Years plans ahead in Marrakech, the time came near. We had noticed a beautiful monument far up on the hill outside our hotel window and decided it would make for a nice sunrise hike on our final morning in the Blue City. We awoke early on our last morning and made way for the hill. Our obsession with hitting as many epic sunrises and sunsets as possible on our trip began with this special sunrise stroll. The chilly air filled our lungs and the morning dew made for slippery steps up the stone trail. We laughed and skipped and made it to the top, sighing in awe at the beauty across and below. Holding each other close at the top of the world and watching the sun rise over the mountains on our final morning in the “blue-tiful” blue city of Chefchaouen, we felt peaceful and accomplished. We could move on to the big “Red City” of Marrakech to ring in the “new,” holding Chefchaouen in our happy blue hearts.