Somewhere old & somewhere blue
We’re spending tonight in Chefchaouen, one of Northern Morocco’s prettiest mountain towns famous for its blue houses. The town is perched on a steep hillside up in the Rif Mountains (1 of Morocco’s 4 mountain ranges), overlooking a valley of olive groves. It’s a wonderful little town, with a medina (translation = walled old town) that’s easy to explore and small enough that we hardly got lost at all. We spent our afternoon wandering through the lanes and alleys of Chefchaouen’s medina, and we spent our morning exploring Morocco’s best preserved Roman ruins at Volubilis.
Who knew there were Roman ruins in Morocco? We didn’t until today! Volubilis was established as a Roman city around 200BC and rapidly grew due to the wealth garnered from the fertile lands around it. The city’s citizens profited considerably from the export of commodities such as grain, olive oil and wild animals (for gladiatorial spectacles). Walking through the ruins today the city’s wealth was obvious from the size of many of the ruined villas and the incredible mosiacs still visible in some of these.
At the peak of its prosperity Volubilis had around 20,000 inhabitants and covered about 100 acres. It also contained a large central market place, a number of public bath houses, a brothel, a large temple dedicated to the god Jupiter and a basilica. The basilica was used for the administration of justice and the governance of the city. The ruins of all these public buildings are still clearly visible today, though much of the marble and many of the columns were taken by Moulay Ismail during the 18th century to build his palace and monuments in Meknes. What’s left of Volubilis was still pretty impressive though.
As our guide was telling us though, the city’s position was always tenuous. It was located on the South-Western edge of the Roman Empire, facing hostile and increasingly powerful Berber tribes. Rising tensions in the region near the end of the 2nd century AD led the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius to order the construction of a 2.5km circuit of walls around Volubilis. When Roman rule of North Africa collapsed around 280AD, however, the city was quickly taken by local tribesmen. Volubilis was never retaken by Rome because of its remoteness but continued to be inhabited by local Berbers for at least another 700 years.
The ruins remained intact and inhabited until they were devastated by an earthquake in the mid-18th century. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site visited by more than 200,000 people per year. Tourists who, like us, are keen to find out a bit more about Morocco’s multifaceted history. We had a great morning exploring the ruins of Volubilis, and an equally awesome afternoon exploring the living, thriving city of Chefchaouen.
Perched high in the Rif Mountains, Chefchaouen is part of what used to be Spanish Morocco*. Consequently many people here speak Arabic (Morocco’s first language), Berber (the nation’s second language), French (third official language here), and Spanish. The Spanish influence is also apparent in its architecture – the white and blue coloured buildings, with their terracotta tiled roofs, remind us of Mediterranean coastal Spain.
*During the hey-day of European colonisation of the world, Morocco was divided between Spain and France – the Northern and Southern parts of the country was colonised by Spain and France got the thick geographical slab in the middle. When Morocco gained independence in 1956 France and Spain gave up most of their territories, though Spain still claims possession of a small corner of Northern Morocco. Wonder when they’ll give that last tiny slice back?
Chefchaouen was founded in 1471, as a Berber fortress town. It expanded considerably however during the early 16th century as Spanish Muslims, ousted from the Iberian Peninsula, sought refuge in Chefchaouen. These new citizens quickly developed the surrounding countryside and established olive groves that still provide the city with its #2 source of income. “Why only #2?” you ask. Wellllll…. turns out the Chefchaouen region is one of the main producers of cannabis in Morocco. Apparently this is something the Moroccon government is trying to tackle, but they realise that they cannot simply burn the farms and make it illegal as that would leave the already poor farmers even poorer. They are working with the farmers to convert them over to other, equally profitable, cash crops. Seems it’s still a work in progress though – we got offered some very interesting “tobacco” whilst walking around the medina today. We politely declined, despite promises that said substance was “gauranteed to take us to Happy Valley”.
As well as the Happy Valley salesmen, Chefchaouen’s medina also had some great pottery stalls, shoe shops, clothing stores and souvenir shops. We didn’t buy anything but had a great time looking – especially because the store-owners here are friendly, but not too pushy. Unlike Egypt, here they seem to have understood that overtly pushy sales tactics and aggressive touting just scares tourists! We especially loved exploring all the blue bits – with their blue walls, blue stairs, blue doors and blue windows, some of the houses were very very BLUE! Our guide Tariq was telling us that painting their houses blue was a tradition the Chefchaouenes started in the early 1900s as a way of brightening up their houses. They repaint them every spring, which is why the colours are so vibrant.
Our hotel here in Chefchaouen is awesome too – decorated in typical Moroccon style, it’s perched high up on the hill with great views over the main town and the surrounding valley. We’re really loving the guesthouses and converted riads here!
We’re having a great time in Morocco – the scenery is pretty epic, the food is tasty (tagines rock!), the people friendly and welcoming, and the history, culture and sights really interesting. After a couple of days of rainy and overcast weather, we even got some sunshine today! We can only hope the rest of our stay here continues in the same vein….