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Why I did NOT like the Blue Pearl of Morocco, Chefchaouen

Nneya in Chefchaouen by Michele Scaglione

And this is when I was feeling it!

For good and for bad, social media influences how we travel. I aim to inspire you to go to new places, try new foods, interact with new people! I also attempt to show you what it’s like behind the scenes and remain authentic. Sometimes my trips are sponsored by an airline or a tourism board. Sometimes I’m getting access to places that you might not — although more often than not lately, my fellow journalists and I do speak out to our hosts and say, “ok, is this something that the general public can do?” It’s nice when they impress us but many times, for our articles as journalists it’s useless to experience something we can’t write about because it was done especially for us. In the blogging world, we wake up at sunrise for that amazing shot of the Taj Mahal without the crowds. I’ve been on influencer trips with some ridiculously talented photographers that do composite images to get that oh so perfect starry night in the Serengeti. Based on a true story.

Chef Nneya Michele Scaglione

If you only knew the coaxing it took from Michele for me to stand for this photo

Having said all of this, I implore you to listen to the story behind the photos. It’s ok to not like a place that everyone else raves about. Your experiences are uniquely your own! It’s just like reading that hyped Oprah’s book club book and finding it a bit dull. Perhaps it is because of the effort (and costs) that we put into traveling that we feel uncomfortable saying when experiences aren’t all that we hoped for. Given this, I want to share my experience with a city I visited on my boyfriend and my trip to Morocco. I was so excited to visit this place because of the pictures and friends that love it.

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I was excited to visit Chefchaouen in the Rif mountains of Northwest Morocco. I deliberated over blue outfits that would pop for pictures. I read articles, blog posts, got recommendations from friends and insisted to my boyfriend that it was “kind of on our way” and simple to get there; it should definitely be on our itinerary. Why was it blue? Was it mosquitoes? Was it painted blue by the Jews that fled there escaping the Spanish and then Hitler? Was it a Moroccan tradition? I was excited to deep dive and find out.

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Most people said, “you just need to spend a night or two there.” But nonetheless they raved about it. “You will absolutely love Chefchaouen. I needed more of a photographer’s eye to truly capture it – your pics will be insane.” No one recommended more than 2 nights there but it seemed fair given the 4.5 hour bus ride. But again, with my friends Aaron and Naomi — amazing visual content creators — telling me they just spent a night there (and Aaron seeming unimpressed) I felt confident with Michele and I passing one night. Thank you Aaron Purkey for being the only one to say, “yea, you really just need a few hours there at most.” For booking all of our hotels in Morocco, I reached out to the properties to confirm availability. When booking our stay at a hotel in Chefchaouen I did the same. The son of the owner then direct messaged me on Instagram…. He introduced himself and said “he can help [me] if I want something.” Well, I thought I made it pretty clear in the email that I wanted a room and was asking for availability but nonetheless I responded to him. At the same time the hotel email responded to me asking my dates, then the name of my guest and said “there is one room available, would you like to take it?” I said yes and thought we were all booked everything they needed to reserve. Flash forward to a week before our departure as I confirmed with all of the hotels. “I apologize Sir but the date is full.” BTW it was not full via Booking.com. I then DMmed the owner’s son who said, “No you didn’t confirm with me. That’s why the hotel said that that’s there is not room. But if you want to confirm with them you can talk now and they will give you a room.” I sent them the messages on Instagram from the owner’s son and received the reply, “Hello — We contacted the owner’s son and told us that he told you all the hotel information but he did not confirm your reservation because he did not know if there was a room available that day.”

Huh? After confirming professionally on email was I then to double confirm with a kid who liked to pose in front of cars on Instagram? Bookings seemed to be going fast so before I lost my temper, my boyfriend stepped in a booked a hotel from Booking.com. It was fine for the night and the rooftop had a beautiful view of the city and the mountains. But maybe this was a hint of what was to come in Chefchaouen.

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Now let’s talk about getting there. It was not easy. But the journey to Chefchaouen was actually one of my favorite parts of our holiday. While in Fez people told us that we could show up at the bus terminal and get tickets the day of. Michele decided not to get our tickets online from CTM (the European bus company with the nice coaches). Michele was the logistics and transportation manager of our trip. When we told our hosts at Dar 7 Louyat of our trip that day before they said we’ll walk you to the station to get the bus tickets. The ticket office was closed. So it turned into one of them picking up the tickets for us. We were shocked to find out all of the tickets for the next two days were sold out! A driver was suggested and Michele (after our hosts at Dar 7 Louyat seconded the idea) decided that we would rent a car and drive the 4 hours ourselves. Our hosts didn’t hesitate or seem worried when we suggested it and it was pretty much a straight road. So, that next morning, they drove us to the airport and Michele and I rented a car and headed to Chefchaouen. It is an absolutely beautiful drive. There are a lot of speed traps and police hoping to make quick cash from them so beware. Michele got out of one!

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Renting a car gives you a lot of freedom. But you have to know where to park it. In Lisbon, we got a boot on our car about an hour into our trip, so Michele and I were extra cautious. GoogleMaps is fine on the big roads in Morocco, but when you get to the city centers and medinas it can throw you. Naturally we ended up in a back alley with an off looking guy saying for 4 euros he’ll watch our car and will show us the way to our hotel (a less than professional looking porter showing you the way to your hotel in the medina is not uncommon, and actually quite useful in a lot of places). Everyone has a hustle, and I respect that, but sir, do not ask to get into our car. We told him we’d pass and found a big hotel square with a parking lot. Who did we see hustling to our car but him! He must have sprinted. Again, he told us 4 euros. We spoke directly to the parking attendant and were told an actual price of 2 euros. But still, the back alley dude insisted on showing us to our hotel. It’s hard to say no and you know they’re going to ask for money at the end, even if you know the way, so you end up just checking your wallet to make sure you have some change and resign yourself to it.

It was this walk where Michele picked up a gnarled-face drug dealer.

Michele in Alley Chefchaouen

Michele looking like an NCAA player heading to training camp.

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Le Rif – paradis du Kif. I saw that little rhyme on a few sites when researching Chefchaouen. The Rif mountains are a hub of cannabis plantations in Morocco with much of the drugs heading to Spain and then the rest of Europe. It’s been said more than half of the world’s cannabis comes from Morocco. Not only is this blue city an insta-dream but it’s a smoker’s paradise, many coming as a sort of pilgrimage. And tons of stag parties from Spain. Don’t grimace too hard when you see that barefoot blond white boy walking through the alleys chatting with his blonde dreadlocked girlfriend (ech, his feet were so gross).

So yea, on the walk to the hotel, Michele, being half a foot taller than everyone else and wearing a snapback, stands out. A guy comes up to him, talking pleasantries, then offers him drugs, unbeknownst to me. Now here’s the difference in Michele and I when it comes to sales people. The best way to sell me something is to let me browse in peace, I’ll come to you and ask questions. The harder you push, the more frustrated I get and I’ll walk away. Michele respects the hustle a little more and will indulge the hard seller. Instead of saying “no,” he’ll say “later.” My innocent babe didn’t realize a carpet seller should be handled a little differently than a drug dealer. So when the gnarled face drug dealer offered in front of our hotel, Michele said “later.”

We check in and leave our hotel an hour later. Who’s waiting outside but gnarled faced, ready to make a deal! Really, the dude looked like he had been a knife fight, a few times. “No, not now.” Michele sputtered through excuses thinking he didn’t want to anger the guy by saying “no.” In Gnarley’s defense, Michele did say later and he waited for an hour! I’d be pissed as well! This goes on for 10-15 minutes with him following us down alleys and calling his friends, offering Michele a kilo, me saying this is ridiculous and interjecting in Spanish, rolling my eyes and getting very close to getting very Brooklyn in Morocco. Then he gave Michele little plastic packets that looked like hard drugs. After research I realized hashish is often smuggled in packets with resin so I’m going to assume that’s what it was. I flipped and said “No!” This was too much, “Damn you for looking like an American bro and making us the target of drug-dealers,” I told Michele. “You’re too naive! You need to tell those people no from the beginning, he has every right to be mad! He knows where we’re staying.” Eventually, really irate he gave up. But he did not look like a dude you wanted to mess with so naturally I was worried that if we went back to our hotel, he’d be there waiting with his boys. While they were going back and forth, he mentioned he couldn’t sell later because he was heading up to the mountains at 7pm. I prayed that was true. So as I wandered down the blue-tinted alleys, I was also looking over our shoulders. It’s not uncommon to be offered drugs here. Sometimes in the same breath as being offered a rug. It is what it is, but if you don’t want it, just say a simple no.

Watching our back in Chefchaouen

One of the many pictures of me watching our back.

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“Hey Senegal,” “Mama Africa” I had been warned about racism in Morocco. My passport photo guy told me of the divide between North Africa and sub-Sahara on the continent. A friend on a photoshoot warned me of her experiences there and being assumed to be a prostitute. Michele revealed to me after our experience in Chefchaouen that it was something he has been worried about before our trip. I can honestly say I did not feel any discomfort being a black person in Morocco except while in Chefchaouen. The leering really creeped me out (I was in a long dress and had a scarf covering my shoulders save for photos, that being said I saw white and asian women in booty shorts and tank tops — it’s a stoner town after all). The comments were exhausting and often creepy. You might not know what they are saying but I damn sure didn’t like the way they were saying it. As Michele and I tried to rationalize the difference later we thought, maybe it was the mountains? Like the idea of being up in Appalachia? Marrakesh and Fez were cities with tourists, students, religious pilgrims and therefore more used to people of color? But we spent time in the Imlil Valley in the Atlas Mountains and the Berber people there were as warm and welcoming as could be and didn’t stare at me like a gazelle in a hyena den. There is a spidey sense you have as a person of color. You know, something is just not right here. There was a sexualization in the leering by people that looked dead behind the eyes. I didn’t even get a half smile from the woman as I did in other places in Morocco. This isn’t Disney, they don’t have to smile at me, but I’ll pass on the hostility.

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I’m talking bus loads of tourists streaming in. Asian tour groups all volleying for the shot in that one alley, then, after a few hours, they seem to get back on the bus and move along. They had the right idea. Shopping is more expensive here too so save it for Fez or Marrakesh if you can.

But that alley is pretty damn cute.

Michele in Chefchaouen Alley

Michele in the widely photographed tourist alley.

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I chose to wear blue and really do up a color play. Michele suggested I wear an orange that popped. Do note that you’ll probably have to adjust your camera settings to warmer, especially if in the alleys because the blue walls do cast a cool tone on everything, including you. The whites will look blueish and have your eyes looking like Ivar the Boneless in Vikings.

Nneya in Chefchaouen by Michele Scaglione

This was the stairway entrance to the restaurant where we had dinner.

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My friend Jamie of The Wild Grays did say this. The food was fine, but after our delicious meal that we made at Dar 7 Louyat, the food in Chefchaouen felt like over-priced and so so. We avoided the square and found a well-reviewed place on a side alley. It was cute but easily my least memorable meal in Morocco.

Michele at Dinner

Michele at dinner. An Italian with limited dinner options is not a pretty picture.

 

Now I know you might say well there’s a lot of natural beauty in Chefchaouen that we missed. A waterfall, stream etc. Yea, the drug dealer tried to sell us on that. We also heard that the other side of those photos that you don’t see there’s a lot of trash leading up to the streams. We had a really lovely time in the Imlil Valley a few days later with waterfalls and sunsets on the Atlas mountains so we got our mountain experience in Morocco.

Sunset in Chefchaouen

Sunset in the Rif Mountains

Nneya + Michele Night in Chefchaouen

Safe and sound in our hotel looking at the city.

Yes I realize the prices are expensive because it is a tourist town and from what I have researched it is poorer than other Moroccan cities. There’s an unfair transaction to coming to a place simply for the photos and then leaving without giving back (even in the form of financial stimulus). There were some lovely parts. Listening to the call of prayer reverberating in the mountains was almost trance-inducing. I’m happy that I saw it and was able to draw this assessment for myself, but yea, I thought that Chefchaouen was an overpriced tourist trap. And that was my experience. But nevertheless — stay on the lookout for the great visuals we created there for you!

Us in alley in Chefchaouen

At the end of the day, it’s hard not to have a great time with this guy.

PHOTOS BY NNEYA RICHARDS & MICHELE SCAGLIONE

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