Oh-Ohmicron!

We headed out of Chefchouen on Thursday morning, and despite the light drizzle, decided to walk the mile or so out of the Medina down to the bus station.

CTM buses connect everywhere

It was nice to stretch out the legs before the 4+ hour trip to Fes via the generally pleasant and reliable CTM bus line.

Cheryl in her Cleverhood, perfect for rainy travel and keeping your pack dry too!
Bonus of a long bus journey is the midway food stop: amazing charcoal grilled spiced lamb…oh so good!

We could have also taken a ‘petit taxi’, which are everywhere and serve mostly locals, often in shared rides. They generally don’t use meters, especially for tourists, so always agree a quick price before getting in; not much hassle, but it helps to know the ballpark fare by asking your Riad contact or researching online.

These sidewalks were made for walking

One thing we love about Morocco are the prevalence of good sidewalks on most city streets, even in some rural areas. They are often a non slip surface (sandstone?) and patterned in a brick and tan color; and often accompanied by nice street lights.

Sidewalks even good enough for these cats

Chefchaouen had more tourists than Tanger and Tetouan (almost zero!), so it was interesting to see how a more tourist oriented mountain town was recovering from from pandemic travel impacts.

Heading up into the Rif Mountains

It has a lot going for it besides the picturesque blue and tidy Medina. There is lots of good hiking nearby, even right from town. The Rif Mountains dramatically rise thousands of feet above and were shrouded in a magical autumnal cloud mist.

Some young new friends who probably haven’t seen many tourists in past 20 months…lots of smiles and English practice.

We have learned that hiking and outdoor activity is always a huge boost to our mental state when embarking on more culturally foreign travels. So we were pleased to get in a nice few hours of hiking up beyond the Spanish Mosque.

Waiting for tea at the aptly named Cafe Panorama, which is well disguised as a family homestead.

Admittedly, we headed to Fès with a bit of Medina burnout. But after setting out into the pre Jummah (Friday prayers) frenzy of the markets on a Thursday afternoon, we were soon both jolted back into sensory overload.

The Bronze Market in Fès

The scale; scents, sights, and sounds of the vegetable, meat, spice, and trade markets that spread out along the Medina edge near our Riad and the Place r’cif was surreal and a travel moment we won’t soon forget.

A calm section of the Fès Souk

But we woke up the next day to the news of the new variant, and both realized that the fragile recovery of much of the world may be pushed back again. It makes us immediately sad for those we have met in our travels that really depend on tourism, as well as parks, conservation, and resources.

Live snails by the scoop

All flights are cancelled out of 8 Southern African countries and restrictions popping up elsewhere quickly. But with Omicron cases showing up in other counties, it’s just too soon to make a drastic decision. The safest decision would have probably been to stay in San Francisco…but that ship has long sailed! So where to go and what to do?

Long bean soup in a bubbling clay pot by the Creek – the perfect post hike treat

Options to return to Europe or the US may prove to be less safe or the variant may prove not a game changer in risk with the vaccinated. Or it may be worse? So we’ve decided to press on for now, unless the state department really advises to leave. Morocco still has very low COVID rates and a relatively high vaccination success at ~65%.

Bab BouJeloud (“Blue Gate”) in Fes: the Medina gates used to close at 6pm and you had to get permission to enter into by the gatekeeper!

We also just heard that flights into Morocco have been suspended for two weeks! Everyone here dependent on travelers is visibly depressed. We feel so bad for them and everyone suffering through the past 20 months. And especially as the European holiday season was approaching.

We’re not sure how this might impact our ability to get out of the country, but we’ll be just down the street from the US Embassy in Rabat, so can just go knock on the door, right?! Stay tuned and stay safe!

Why so blue Chefchaouen?

A view of the blue city from a hike out of town.

When you get to Chefchaouen you will hear and read various reasons for the blue walls, blue walkways, and blue fences. The color was brought with the Jewish refugees from Spain, the color keeps the mosquitoes away, it was discovered in the 70s to be a tourist draw – but I know the real reason. It’s a fantastic backdrop for photographing cats.

Grey and white tabby stripes look good against periwinkle blue.
Vibrant blue makes this little black kitten stand out.
White is dramatic.
A calico, a blue door, and colorful hardware.
Cats colonized every comfortable spot.
Blue blue blue – cat!
Who is fascinated with who?
Some are petable.
They sit on boxes.
They sit on trash cans.
They relax and enjoy life.
Happy travelers above the blue city.

We’re currently in Fes, headed to Meknes.

Two fun trips from Tetouan.

Tetouan seems not to be on the main tourist route here in Morocco, which is a shame. We had four great days here, enough time to fully explore the Medina, and the new town, and take two trips out of the city proper.

Our first was an afternoon trip via taxi (16 MAD, about 15 minutes, we tipped by rounding up to 20) across the river and up the hills to be dropped off near Café Ba Imran. There are some roads to walk along both in the pine trees to the left with your back to the view, and along the mountain road to the right. Tetouan has some hiking gold still to embrace. All it would take is some marked trails in the Rif mountains and tourists like us would flock in the cooler months, and summer for the tougher travelers, to hike up and marvel at the views. End with a mint tea at the cafe and then walk back down the way the taxi came up and you will catch another taxi in no time. Especially on a weekend when this is a popular family spot. We took the smaller yellow taxis and found the drivers were friendly and didn’t haggle over the price. We did have a local help us tell the driver where to go on the outbound trip. Holding up the iPhone map might have worked as well, but friendly locals to the rescue again.

The view back to town.
A walk along a road under construction.

Our hill walking trip was fun and uneventful, but our next day trip was super fun and eventful. And beautiful. And eye opening.

Rich and the rental car.

We had read on another blog that renting a car and driving the coast road to El Jebha was a nice day trip out of town. Thank you other blogger whom I cannot find right now. Rich did some research and found a well recommended, responsive, and nearby rental agency, so off we went on Monday morning to drive in Morocco. This might not be a big deal for some travelers who rent cars a lot, but we prefer to travel by bus, train, or under our own power, and I don’t drive much at all so the driving falls to Rich. Thankfully we both know how to drive manual transmissions which is what you tend to get when renting outside the US.

We saw lovely promenades along beautiful but empty beaches. Oued Laou is a summer hot spot we suspect, but quiet on a November Monday.
We had a second breakfast near the beach.
We drove along enjoying the sights and marveling at how quickly the rural areas started.
The road was obviously an important economic link for locals. There were not many cars but many people walking and shared rides/taxis in old Mercedes sedans.
A lunch of grilled fish in El Jebha.
The grilled fish was delicious.
The oceanfront restaurant had us at pink tablecloths and potted plants.

Well, we thought after lunch as we turned around to drive the winding steep road back to Tetouan, this is working out really well. Cue laughter. We stopped to get petrol on the way back and Rich moved the car from the pumps to outside the toilets.

Yup.

When he got back in to start up again, the clutch failed. That car was not going to start or move. The makings of a panicked situation? Disaster? A big mess? No. The owner of the rental agency had a tow truck to us 20 minutes after Rich sent a WhatsApp. We shared our location, sat down for a glass of mint tea ready to wait, and Abdul was there with a tow truck in short order. Thankfully we were at a petrol station when the clutch failed, not on a narrow or steep stretch of road with no cell signal. That might have been a disaster.

Relief, and the realization that we were going to get a ride in the tow truck.

What could have been a pretty awful situation turned into another opportunity to chat with a local in a mix of Spanish and English. Abdul drove with a local radio station playing, we chatted, Rich got to enjoy the view as a passenger, the sunset was beautiful and all was well.

Riding high.
The view through the windshield.

When unexpected things happen we put on our Rick Steves voice and say “Just think of it as another opportunity to connect with locals and have a different experience.”.

The happy travelers enjoying the coast before our tow truck trip.

We’re now in Chefchaouen and then on to Fes. Happy Thanksgiving to our American friends and family.

Morocco, four nights in.

The vista from a Medina rooftop in Tetouan.

Our first stop in Morocco was Tangier for two nights. Our friend Dan (Hi Dan!) provided great advice – don’t book your first night in the Medina – so hard to find and if you arrive from the airport via taxi they can’t drop you at the door of your place. Finding your way to a location in the Medina can be hard/impossible/frustrating/overwhelming.

On the edge of the Medina in Tangier. The 15th century Portuguese fort wall looking nice in the sunset. This was the view the from our guesthouse terrace.

Moroccan people are super friendly and feel a particular bond with Americans, the diplomatic history goes back to the 1786 Moroccan–American Treaty of Friendship.

Tombeaux Phéniciens, Tangier. On a bright, windy Sunday.
One day in and I already felt that I was 10% mint tea. And I was happy about that.
A sweet shop. Where to start?
Upper left corner and work our way along. All delicious.
Oh yes, there are many cats in the Medina.
Lunch time and juice time. Mint citron on the left, orange on the right.

After two nights in Tangier we hopped a bus to Tetouan, about an hour away. We had to take a taxi to the bus station and we were reminded of a valuable travel tip in Muslim countries – Friday is the holy day when the afternoon prayers are a huge draw, emptying the streets of men and therefore taxi drivers. We left a lot of time to get to the bus station via taxi, and with some unsolicited help from a local (small monetary tip, why not, he did help) we got a taxi and made our bus with plenty of time to spare.

Tetouan on a dramatic cloudy day.

Tetouan is not a big tourist town, and the locals, for the most part, seem to take pride in not making a big deal about tourists. You can stroll the ancient Medina with only the occasional accidental tour guide, and get genuinely helpful directions. The best tip we were given was to look for the center stones in the narrow alleys for some guidance: 3 stones is a main street leading to a gate where you can exit the Medina, 2 stones means a lesser street leading to a main street, 1 stone – dead end residential street. I say street, but they are small alleys, no cars here.

Children run free in the Medina streets. Note the 2 stones in the center. Small street which will lead to a main street.

And those accidental tour guides? They sometimes are focused on getting you to a shop, sometimes really just helping. But you do end up seeing some interesting things when you pick up your accidental tour guide. Being firmly polite and friendly works just fine when you’ve had enough and want to leave. It may take a few tries to lose your new friend but they will ultimately say goodbye after you thank them.

Men working a loom. No hard sell from anyone, just a slice of life thanks to our accidental tour guide.
The product for sale.
Guided through the ancient tannery by our ATG.
Tannery cat!
A pharmacy in a lovely old building. Thank you ATG.

Even if you come to Morocco with zero intentions to buy a beautiful Moroccan rug you will end up in a rug shop at some point. We did, thanks to our ATG. Since we have no home right now and all our worldly possessions are in a storage unit we did not succumb to the temptation. But I can understand why people buy rugs here: they are gorgeous. I’m partial to the flat weave rugs, and who knows – a small rug may end up in our luggage.

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Rich and our friendly accidental tour guide. He took us to a great view spot, tried to get us into a closed museum by knocking repeatedly on the door, and we finally said goodbye, happy to have met.

We think we hit a sweet spot here in Morocco when locals are happy to have tourists back, there are not many of us yet, and not yet tired of the problems that tourists can bring. We are happy to be here and the locals seem happy to have us here.

Happy travelers looking forward to more time in Morocco.