Is it possible to cart your wife and kids across the Straits for a long weekend in Morocco? Luke Stewart gave it a go
CHANCES are, like most of the millions of northern Europeans who live in southern Spain, your idea of an adventure is a day trip to El Chorro, or a two hour balloon ride in Ronda. Well, can I make a suggestion?
See that land mass shimmering on the horizon? No, that’s not Gibraltar or the Canary Islands. That is Morocco, a country of rugs, riads and snake charmers. And only a short 35-minute hydrofoil service away.
One part fashion shoot, one part giant bazaar, it has never been easier to spend a couple of days in the magical kingdom where Brad Pitt and Angelina, Will Smith and David Beckham have recently taken holidays.
Go under your own steam, and take the fast ferry from the small port of Tarifa
Sure, you have heard the stories about the rip off merchants, bag snatchers, ropey food and hygiene standards. And yes, you will have to be a little careful with what you eat – not to mention be prepared for something of a culture shock. But that is all part of the fun, and if you take my advice as a frequent visitor, you should avoid some of the obvious pitfalls and fall in love with Morocco’s vibrant colours, smells and breathtaking mountain scenery.
The key is your departure and arrival and where you head once you get there. First and foremost avoid the daytrips organised by every travel agent and hotel along the Costa del Sol. Like a conveyor belt, you will hardly have a chance to take a photo and will be a walking target for every hawker in town. Instead go under your own steam, avoiding the scruffy cesspool of Algeciras, and take the fast ferry from the small port of Tarifa.
Once you have arrived, the rules are simple. Save the frenetic and much improving city of Tangier for your return and head inland for a minimum one-night stay in the charming mountain town of Chefchaouen. This way you will become acclimatised to the country in the gentlest possible way; getting an idea of its customs – and perhaps most importantly – the goods and prices.
While a regular visitor to Morocco for work or buying trips (occasionally with my wife Gabriella before we had children) it was always going to be an adventure in the extreme taking over my young family.
Our first problem came the night before we were due to depart. Unfortunately there would be no cot for our baby in the riad we were staying at in Chefchaoeun. Just opened, the owners hadn’t got around to buying one and no such thing existed in the town. Solution: our travel cot was hurredly added to the already mountainous pile of stuff sitting by the front door.
The next issue came the following morning when, before leaving Spain, we discovered that taxis in Morocco do not have seatbelts and – quite rightly – my wife Gabriella refused point blank to set sail.
It was touch and go. Sitting in Tarifa port not long before departure we had a desperate flurry of phone calls to the riad owners (fortunately an English couple based in Gaucin) to see what they could do to help. An hour later, we were assured, the problem had been solved. We would be met off the boat in Tangier by a man with a car full of seatbelts.
Somehow managing to cart two children – Alfie, 10 months and Maia, 3 – three suitcases, a pram, travel cot and booster seat onto the boat, I thought I could have a little relax.
Like the Andalucia of legend everyone seemed to have a donkey
But, then of course, came the issue of entry stamps (which meant queueing up with passports for half of the journey) and the fact that the ferry flies by in the flash of an eye. There was enough time for Alfie to crawl around over some poor Arab’s prayer mat, while he was in full worship mode, and to buy Maia an ice cream.
Certainly things have improved dramatically with the arrival in Tangier. While this used to be a fraught process as “officials” vied for your custom with tussles, even punch ups between them, nowadays much of the flotsam and jetsam has been thankfully removed from the port.
It still pays to tip everyone – a five-euro note normally does the trick – and, above all, keep your sense of humour. It also helps to have someone waiting for you on the other side.
While in the past I have often used a friend Asis, a jovial six-foot-four tank of a man, who used to guard the King, this time we were met by the taxi driver Mohamed. We soon discovered what they had meant by a “car full of seatbelts”. For Mo was a minibus driver.
Not exactly what we had in mind – in large due to budget (the price at 80 euros was 30 euros more than a taxi) – most importantly he did have plenty of seatbelts and skillfully managed to keep everyone else at bay.
He also handily knew a good place to change money (it is useful, although not essential to change money, as the cashpoints in Chefchaoeun work with your normal bank card), and we were soon driving through rolling mountain scenery of pine, olive and cork woods, remarkably similar to the Alcornocales or Grazalema natural parks.
Heading slowly into the breathtaking Rif Mountains, factories gave way to herds of goats and women in colourful robes and hats, not to mention men wearing dresses, as my daughter kept pointing out. Like the Andalucía of legend, everyone seemed to have a donkey.
For me, the journey held particular interest, the route once being travelled by thousands of expelled Moors and Jews from Ronda (where I live). It was interesting to follow in their steps to Chaouen where they settled and compare the architectural legacy they left behind in Spain with the one they created here.
Arriving in Chaouen, as the locals call it, is always a curious sensation having first turned up on the bus for 20p, two decades ago as a teenager. A much needed escape after a whistle stop tour of the Imperial cities of Fes and Meknes, I will never forget how the excitement turned to irritation and rapidly to panic as a friend and I got attached to a particularly virulent hustler straight off the bus.
We were easy prey, two fresh faced sixth formers on a week’s tour of Morocco and we were soon being led into the medina with the promise of the cheapest rooms available. Naturally, we ended up in a rabbit hutch with our guide Abdul sitting on the end of the bed smoking the strongest marijuana cigarette imaginable.
Abdul was one of the many pushers who once gave the town a disturbing edge. We ended up paying him well over the odds to leave us in peace and woke up to find my personal stereo gone in the process. Thankfully, we did not see him again and went on to enjoy the stunning hill town, which was then mostly visited by a raggle-taggle band of hippy travellers who gave the place a somewhat downbeat and dreary feel.
How it has changed. No longer the scruffy, edgy hideaway it once was, today it is positively booming after a succession of makeovers. Now undoubtedly the gem of northern Morocco, the hustlers have either been bussed out of town or swapped their ounces and kilos for carpet shops. With the help of grants and joint projects with Andalucía – involving the twinning of Chaouen with Ronda – the place manages to be both alive and laid back in the same breath.
Feeling blue? This is the place to pick up your spirits. A tightly wound mountain town skirting a pine forest and soaring mountains (the name Chefchaouen means “to look at the peaks”), thanks to its part Jewish roots many of its houses and narrow streets are painted blue: a bright optimistic blue that lets the spirits soar and creates the ideal spot for a fashion shoot.
Atmospheric even on rainy days, the town was founded in 1471 by Ali Ben Rachid, a celebrated Muslim warrior who had made his name fending off the Christians around Granada. Retreating to Morocco, he sited the town above the strategic trading route from Fes to Tetuan in the north, building the Alcazaba castle to secure its position.
In 1492, when the Kingdom of Granada finally fell to the Catholic monarchs, there was a huge influx of both Arabs and Jews. Then finally in 1609, when Spain expelled anyone with non-Christian roots, the town came into its own.
Little has changed since then and the influence of the Moors in Chaouen is very obvious, from various surviving archways to the style of courtyard houses – which can only be entered by one, often tiny, exterior door.
We stayed in one such home. The recently-converted riad Dar Gabriel is about as typical a Moroccan hostelry as you are going to find. Hidden away up a tiny alley in the heart of the old town, a modest front door (blue of course) opens out into a wonderfully spacious family home, set around a light central courtyard.
And while Ben played Mein Host, his wife Farida cooked up some incredible meals
Renovated by Kit and Penny Hogg, a couple of green-fingered tree surgeons, who have lived and run a yurt hotel in Gaucin for years, it is full of lovely wooden beams and doors and has plenty of magic touches.
Best of all it is run by a lovely Moroccan couple, Ben and Farida, who have three young children, who were often around to play with ours. And while Ben played Mein Host, Farida cooked up some incredible meals, which can be ordered at any time of day, but preferably all the day before.
You are unlikely to eat anywhere better and a fabulous breakfast of pancakes, doughnuts, fresh bread and jam, washed down with strong Arabic tea or coffee, is served up on the roof terrace in bright sunshine.
Take a wander around town starting in the shady, cobbled plaza Uta el-Hammam, in which you will find dozens of restaurants and shops as well as the main castle. Look out, in particular, for the ancient funduq, where weary travellers laid their heads.
Next head off in any direction and get lost in the medina, before taking a stroll into the nearby mountains, where there is one excellent path in particular leading up to a ruined mosque from where you can look down on the town and listen to the muezzins chant every few hours or so.
People are surprisingly friendly and the excellent shops will not put you under any pressure to buy. We bought some beautiful woollen blankets for around 35 euros each, knowing they cost around 100 euros in nearby Grazalema.
Above all, remember to always offer at half or two thirds of the original asking price and do not be scared to sit down and negotiate over a cup of mint tea, a favourite local custom.
Having learnt a little about haggling you will be ready to dip into Tangier on your way back. That is unless – like us – you not only have a gaggle of kids, a charabanc-load of suitcases and other paraphanalia, but also an extra pile of purchases straight from the medina.
I was only too glad that the taxi this time (albeit without seatbelts!) was able to drive us right into the port, where a porter earnt his 20 euro tip by literally running our bags through customs, getting our passports stamped in the poocess and onto the boat in about 25 minutes flat.
Morocco was never this easy. Don’t miss out.
Morocco has never been so easy to reach. Take the fast ferry from Tarifa to Tangier by FRS (see www.frs.es or call 956681830) and you’ll be there in 45 minutes. Once in Tangier get a taxi, or bus, to the Rif mountain town of Chefchaouen, where you will find a great place to stay in Dar Gabriel, owned by an English couple, but run by a charming Moroccan family. Visit www.dargabriel.com or call Penny on 686888409