Of Kasbahs Rocked, Peaks Surmounted, and Jobs Forgotten

Thursday, April 16, 2009 | Chefchaouen, Morocco

A few miles from Chefchaouen, Ryan scopes out the view of the Rif Mountains.
Over a recent long weekend, while Jacqueline was back in the US visiting family, my jet-setting friend Ryan dropped in en route from Dubai to New York.

Busy with jobs and life in distant cities, we haven't seen each other nearly enough since our Georgetown days, so it was a good opportunity to catch up. Since the trip was, for Ryan, also a rare chance to escape his desk in Manhattan, I did my best to haul him as far from civilization as I could in three short days.

Thursday evening, after home-cooked Moroccan couscous with spiced chicken, apricots, and almonds, we cruised the neighborhood bars—always an interesting, if not enriching, cultural experience. Friday morning, we made the obligatory tour of Rabat's few cultural sites, visiting the modest medina and the Kasbah des Oudaias.

After much planning, packing, and re-packing, that afternoon we boarded a bus for our real destination—Chefchaouen—and our jumping-off point for a hike in the Rif Mountains.

We arrived well after dark and, breathing heavily, hoofed our way uphill to the mountainside town's medina. A bit sheepishly, the night staff at Dar Terrae briefly stopped passing their hash pipe to check us into our room. The room turned out to be more of a "nook" but, too hungry to care, we ditched our bags and headed to dinner. La Lampe Magique, a.k.a. Casa Aladin, was still serving, and we grabbed a seat on the rooftop overlooking the town's darkened main square and kasbah. Though I always wince at the restaurant's unfortunate name, its solid tajines and other dishes hit the spot as usual.

* * *

The iridescent violets and blues of Chefchaouen's medina are at their most picturesque in morning and evening, so Ryan and I roused early on Saturday for a stroll. By mid-morning, I was eager to begin our hike, but Ryan had waited decades and traveled across the seas to reach a real-life kasbah, and damned if he wasn’t going to "rock" it... whatever that meant.

During our trip to Chefchaouen back in the fall (see "North to Chefchaouen: Diamond in the Rif"), Jacqueline and I had skipped the fortress, but I was glad that Ryan talked me into a visit that morning. Its orange mud-brick walls and lush gardens, framed by the looming mountains, called Marrakech to mind, and the views over town from the central tower were superb.

* * *

The fun began soon after. At the hotel, we scarfed some breakfast and loaded our bags with provisions bought that morning—bottles of water, warm loaves of bread, fresh goat cheese, some suspicious pork-free hot dogs, chocolate bars, and a bottle of wine I had thought to bring from Rabat. Of the many potential disasters that might mar our hike, starvation was not one.

Late that morning, we cut up the mountain northward from town, passed the campground and trekked into the forest covering the base of Jebel al-Qala'a mountain. I soon began inventing short-cuts to speed our route. Within an hour, my disregard for the road's course had brought us to a trash-strewn barnyard beside a shack that clung precariously to the steep slope. Goats gnawed at weeds, and a young man stopped stacking firewood long enough to stare at us, then grunt and indicate the path. We scrambled on, eventually regaining the road leading upward to the crags above the valley floor.

Jacqueline and I had followed the same road on our hike several months earlier, but turned back after several hours. On this afternoon, Ryan and I pushed hard up the rocky trail, and reached the saddle in the ridge in about five hours. We scoped out some camping sites but decided that there was still enough daylight to tackle the nearest peak, Sfiha Telj. Our bags stashed in some bushes by the road, we scrambled for another hour up the rocks, slick with ice and melting snow, toward the summit.

The view from the top, around 5:00 in the evening, proved an ample reward for the day's efforts. To the west, a reservoir glimmered. Eastward were even higher, snow-dusted peaks. The well grazed northern hills rolled toward the Mediterranean, obscured by the haze. "I am definitely out of Blackberry range," Ryan grinned. Anxious to set up a camp before dusk fell, we descended haphazardly, tumbling and skidding through the snow drifts, and stopped only long enough to quickly film ourselves "foot-skiing."

Further down the ridge, we soon had a campfire going and our tent set up. The wine and sizzling hot dogs kept us warm as the sun gave way to the blustery chill of darkness.

* * *

Sunday morning we woke, sore and slightly bruised. I wished Ryan a happy Easter. "Dude, are you sure it’s Easter?" It turns out I was a week off, but up here, who could tell?

After breaking camp, we started the long downhill trek back to Chefchaouen, which we reached in a possibly record-breaking (and surely back-breaking) two hours. The kif-smoking shepherds we passed along the way seemed unimpressed.

After waking on a mountaintop overlooking the homes of penniless shepherds, we closed the night with dinner and cocktails with friends at a swanky French bistro in Rabat. Ryan couldn't have asked for a much better study of Morocco's peculiar contrasts to end his trip.

Update: Forgot to add that just before Ryan boarded his flight out, I got this message from him: "The police guy who just searched my entire bag proceeded to examine my mini can of shaving cream, decided he needed to test it, and sprayed shaving cream all over me and the passenger next to me. Niiiiiiiice." So Moroccan. I love it.

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