The Town - Chefhaouen's a stunningly beautiful little place that's got days of great photographic opportunites hidden among it's deep blue alleyways and green, rocky surroundings.
The Animals - Chefchaouen is one of the only places in Morocco where animals are not beaten to within an inch of their lives on a regular basis. You're sure to make animal friends here; we did.
The Spanish Mosque - A white mosque on a hill about thirty minutes walk along an easy to find and follow path from the old centre that offers fine views at any time of the day.
Auberge Dardara Walk - An interesting walk which starts and finishes at the Auberge and takes in a river, hills, forest and local agriculture.
Molin'arte - Homely, well cooked and presented food served in a stunning arty environment by a genuinely decent family.
Assaada - A good value, basic, very local place two minutes walk from Dar Baraka.
Riad Baraka - Located in the midst of the old town this is our favourite Riad in Chefchaouen. It's a clean, homely, honest, good value place with private and shared rooms on offer and a stunning town view from the roof terrace.
Auberge Dadara - A hotel, pool and restaurant about 10km from Chefchaouen serving regional recipes created using their home grown, organic ingredients.
Chefchaouen is our favourite town in Morocco; if you're touring the country and you're into photography, or are sick of the hassle of other tourist towns and want to be treated nicely, then you simply must spend a few days here.
The town has several big draws for photographers.
Firstly, the majority of houses and alleyways in the old centre are painted a luminous blue that gives you the impression of being somewhere other-worldly (one traveller we met likened it to being on an iceberg in the middle of a sea of hot, green waves and yes, he had most likely been smoking a little of the local cash crop). There's nowhere else on earth that looks like this we think, and no way on earth that you aren't going to get interesting photos here.
Secondly, the people are generally very relaxed and leave you alone to do as you please, which is a world away from the hassle-laden encounters you'll encounter in other Moroccan tourist towns such as Marrakech, Fez or Tangier. This doesn't mean that you're guaranteed to get outstanding people shots though as Chefchaouen is still a Muslim town and the people, especially the women, generally won't like it if they see you pointing your camera at them. Unless you talk to them first and figure out it's ok to do so, or unless you're a woman yourself (Lamia got a few nice shots that women feature in, they didn't seem to mind her doing it). If you go to Chefchaouen with no pre-set ideas and just work with the materials and attitudes that you find yourself surrounded with, we think you'll get some great photos. Generally we wouldn't talk so much about honouring local tradition in Morocco as in most touristy areas we visited the everyday people often acted very unworthy of respect but in Chefchaouen we found the local people treated outsiders remarkably well and in return we reckon they deserve their wishes and traditions to be respected.
Thirdly, a very short walk will take you from amazing blue town views to stunning green mountain panoramas.
Lastly, and this will be of interest to all regardless of your creative interest, there are parts of town - along the river between the old centre and the Spanish Mosque - that are fresh and cool even at the height of summer when the rest of Morocco is sweltering. Don't underestimate how wonderful it is to paddle your feet in cold running water after you've spent a while in the deserts, mountains or dusty cities that make up much of the rest of the Moroccan tourist circuit!
If you like to look at as well as make photography, however, then Chefchaouen isn't going to offer you anything at the moment; we didn't find any galleries in the town although in our opinion any creative person would benefit from a visit to Monsieur Laabissi's restaurant, Molin'arte, which is as much an art installation as a place to eat.
Based on our own experiences our advice to you for a rewarding few days in Chefchaouen packed full of photographic opportunities are as follows:
Day 1; Move into the Riad Baraka. It's very central and fairly priced, the wi-fi is brilliant and the owners are full of sound advice. Then take a slow walk around the town. You'll notice that you can travel the same route at different times of the day and get very different images as this isn't just a town of colour but of deep shadows and contrast. Towards evening many towns people congregate by the bathing spot and bridge that lies at the northern edge of town, it's a picturesque scene.
Day 2; Spend the morning walking around the town, then have a late lunch at Molin'arte. Afterwards walk up to the Spanish Mosque to enjoy sunset.
Day 3; Take a shared taxi down to the Auberge Dardara, enjoy a few hours walking in the area (ask the staff for directions, or see our entry below) and finish up with lunch or dinner at the restaurant. Take care to find out when the last shared taxi is going back to town (it may be earlier than you expect) or arrange for a taxi to pick you up as you'll rarely find any passing the Auberge.
Day 4; Take advice from Joe at the Riad Baraka about what to do today, there are several day trips to local natural beauty spots that you can choose from and if there's a couple of other travellers from the Riad also wanting to go you can share the taxi fare and spend the day with new friends.
Day 5; A final walk about town. Don't just stick to earlier morning and late afternoon photography here, the sunlight is often at it's most effective just either side of midday.
Below are some of the digital images we created during our stay.
If you take any advice at all from us regarding a backpacking tour, or even a general tourism tour, of Morocco, please make it this; if at all possible, visit the Riad Baraka in Chefchaouen and speak to the owners, Joe and Trevor, before doing anything else in the country. You can get to the Riad Baraka easily from Spain if you’re travelling overland (ferry to Tangier then shared taxi to Tetouen and on to Chefchaouen) and once there you’ll get sound advice from them that few others in the country seems to be willing or experienced enough to give. On top of that, you’ll be visiting one of the few places in Morocco that you’ll have a chance of coming away from with totally happy memories, and a town that’s every bit as scenic as the photos make it out to be. If you’ve been on the road for a while as we have (in my case, I’ve been on it for the past 27 years) you’ll have a firm idea of what you require from your hotel and for us the Riad Baraka provides it all. Fast wi-fi, excellent views from the roof, plenty of hot water, a central location and safe, good value, comfortable, clean and relaxed surroundings managed by people who are honest, genuine and welcoming.
If you ever hear of the Auberge Dardara on TripAdvisor or the popular guidebooks they always mention the quality of the food and that you should treat yourself to a meal here if you’re ever in Chefchaouen. In the listings, it’s always the number one recommended restaurant in the area. Having stayed at the Dardara for four days, however, we think that information is misleading. The fact is that the the food is simple, makes good use of the local produce and wild herbs and suits the country style of the Auberge perfectly but it’s got to be said that if you’re looking for a really good tagine, b’stilla or a full range of traditional Moroccan starters (or, indeed, friendly service; the waitress acted like she hated our being there every time she served us) then this isn’t the place to find it. However if you’re looking for organically provided food, then alongside Dar Attajalli in Fez this is quite possibly the best place to eat in Morocco. The Auberge is also a very comfortable place to stay. The pool has a wonderful mountain view, the rooms are quiet and spacious, the gardens are lush and you can wander about the farm and pet the animals if you wish. If the staff decide to make an effort to be friendly, this place will be paradise. See our review of the Auberge Dadara here or see their own website here - http://www.dardara.ma
Despite reading on Trip Advisor that Molin’arte is difficult to find, we came across it really easily. Basically, when you’re at the river, you’re near. And if you’re at the lower bathing/clothes washing spot (there are only two and they’re easy to find), standing on the bridge, it’s right in front of you.
The restaurant has a superb setting. The ladies of the town come to do their clothes washing nearby and the kids swim just upstream. As such the soundtrack as you eat is pleasant, with distant shrieks and cries of delight mingling with rushing water.
The restaurant is owned and run by Mr Laabissi, his wife and children. Mr Laabissi is, in our opinion, an extraordinarily prolific and talented self-taught artist. He greeted us at the door and showed us into the dining room where every piece of art – the oil paintings and the sculptures, made using a variety of material and wrought iron – was created by him.
We enjoyed an instantly refreshing, tangy lemon and sweet strawberry drink and then decided that, since it was a warm, sunny afternoon, we’d sit upstairs on the terrace where there are a number of shady pavilions linked by neat winding brick pathways.
The garden was just as impressive an artwork as anything we’d seen inside. There were some sculptures and carvings but also well framed views and roses, fig trees, palms, bamboo and numerous other flowering and leafy plants and vines planted in certain places to make the most of the light and colour. Once again, it had all been created, designed and constructed by Mr Laabissi.
We had the choice of sitting in a large shady area but we chose a smaller pavilion from which we had a view of the city walls, the peaks towering over them and the mountains on the opposite side of the valley beyond the city.
We ordered water and checked the menu out. It was in French and Arabic; our French isn’t great and Mr Laabissi doesn’t really speak English but with a little work could understand what was on offer. For starters we had the cucumber, melon, olive and feta salad. It consisted of balls of sweet melon sprinkled with herbs and topped with goats cheese, spirals of cucumber and black olives. We loved the range of textures and the very subtle flavour; it made for a tasty, light, fresh and cool starter that was quite unlike anything else we’d had in Morocco.
We’d heard that you could have quite a wait for food here so we asked Mr Laabissi what he’d recommend for our main that could arrive reasonably quickly. The result of this was that we ate a local goat gratin. The meat must’ve been cooking for a really long time as it was extremely soft and the prunes melted in the mouth. It was possible to suck the prune flesh from the pit, no knife needed. It was again a satisfying range of textures, from the crispy cheese that topped the gratin to the firm potato slices and then the meat that took no convincing at all to come away from the bone.
The table bread deserves a mention; it was paler in colour, softer and thinner than any other we’d had during the previous month in Morocco. it was well worth trying.
We came away satisfied. The food had been good, and Eva the family dog was lovelybut what really stood out was the friendliness of Mr Laabissi and the great quality of the artwork he’s created. He doesn’t claim to be a garden designer as far as I know but he’d done a better job than many of those who do. The garden is on a par with Monets’ creation and also the rock garden in Chandigarh (which was built over a period of 25 years by a civil servant in his free time with materials he found at a local rubbish dump), in our opinion, and the paintings and sculptures are well executed, entertaining in a Surrealist sort of way and therefore thought provoking.
Vegan Friendly? 0/5
Vegetarian Friendly? 2/5
Our opinion is, if you want to support a local artist in Chefchaouen and also eat very satisfying food in a tranquil, arty location, then definitely pay a visit to Molin’arte.
There are several walks that you can take out of the Auberge Dardara. Many will require a quide, and perhaps a short taxi ride to get to the start point (Jaber from the Auberge can arrange these) but the one we did was an easy three hour round trip from the suspension bridge you'll find at the bottom of the Auberge's farm. Jaber can give you directions, basically you cross the river, follow the firebreak up through clumps of wild oregano to the brow of the hill then take a right along a well made dirt path before turning left back down another firebreak until you hit the river, at which point you make your way back along it to the Auberge. Take care not to stray from the path too much, this is a cannabis growing area and the farmers don't earn much from their crops after they've paid off the local police and government so they don't want you tramping over what little profit they do get (also, they might think you're a Western cop out to burn their fields and then who knows what'll happen to you). Take enough water as there's none on route and perhaps do the walk as early in the day as possible, or late afternoon, to avoid the heat (note, the water in the river is clean, we had several nice swims in it, so take your bathing suit if it's a hot day!).
You'll find many cats, dogs and goats in and around Chefchaouen. We have two short stories to tell about our experiences with dogs. The first row of photos below tell of a puppy we met whilst it was with it's mother. We said hello and then moved on. A day later we saw the pup up at the Spanish Mosque, over two miles from town. It had followed a large group of stoned travellers up there and they'd abandoned it, probably not understanding that the pup was only about six weeks old and not strong enough to complete the walk back on it's own. Seeing that it was tired and hungry we carried it back and re-united it with it's mother. Lucky we'd met her the day before or we wouldn't have known where she lived in the town and there's a good chance the pup would have died. So, that ended well (but be mindful of the story and don't let a friendly pup follow you if you're going far and don't want the responsilbility of carrying it back). The day after this we walked through town and the mum of the puppy recognized us and came to say hello. Then we walked up to the hills again and on the way we saw three very young puppies cowering in a thicket. We thought their mum couldn't be far away as they were probably less than a month old, perhaps even just two weeks. So we left them alone and thought we'd check back the next day. Sadly, when we returned, there were only two puppies left and still no sign of mum. We gave them some biscuits that we had on us and then went back down into town and asked our hotel for an ice cream container. It seems like the puppies mum was gone for good as they were shivering, hungry and whimpering. Perhaps they were dumped there in the thicket by a local who didn't want to care for them, not sure. But we had to leave town in two days so we made a plan to at least give them a fighting chance of survival. We got the water container and a pack of processed meat and took it back to them. You can see the scenes in the second row of photos. They wolfed the meat down so quick, they were starving, and they drank for a whole five minutes. They were so small and fragile, we doubted they would survive. But we planned to return the next day, and the day after, with more food and we hoped that perhaps that would help them gain the strength to live on and also, maybe the sight of the water container by their thicket would encourage locals to give them food and water until they could cope by themselves. But by the third day one of the pups became too attached to us and followed us back into town whilst the other stayed shivering in the thicket. We'd got ourselves in trouble; we'd wanted to help the pups but now we were leaving town and one of them was there, a few weeks old and defenceless, trailing after us in the town. So we did a terrible thing, we picked it up and put it over the fence of a local man's house whom we knew had a well cared for dog of his own. There were no guarantees, perhaps he wouldn't want it, and perhaps his own dog would reject it, but we had to try something. We heard the pup yelp a few times, the larger dog barked, a light went on in the house and then we left. Then there was the matter of the other pup, the one who was too scared to come out of the thicket. We felt that if we left it there, without the support of it's sibling, it would surely die. So we went back, hauled it out and took it to the place where the mum and puppy, the first duo that we'd encountered in our stay, lived. The mum came out when she saw us, and she and her own pup ignored the new pup for five minutes. But then she sniffed it and gave it a lick, and it began to stick to her as it she were it's own mother, and a couple of local lads appeared from a house and smiled at the scene and so we thought, ok, we've done the best we can. Perhaps it would have been better for us not to have become involved, we shan't ever know. Travelling in the developing world can be a heartbreaking thing if you're an animal lover. But, on the other hand, your animal encounters can also make your day brighter and provide excellent photo opportunities, as our final row of photos hopefully illustrate.
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