Tales of a travel addict

Mountain meanders

 Chefchaouen in Morocco

Chefchaouen in Morocco

Sat, Nov 23, 2013, 01:00

When this column began in 2008 I vowed, semi-seriously, to arrange a group holiday in the Congo for anyone who wanted to join. I haven’t done so yet, but I still might. Since then I’ve managed to find and report on fantastic affordable holidays in Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, Morocco, and there’ll soon be an article on Ghana. (The previous articles can all be found at manchan.com.)

I realise it’s hard to convince Irish people to holiday on a continent which has been branded in our minds as a place of poverty and despair, only worthy of our charity, but Morocco, 45 minutes by boat from Spain should be an easy sell.

I’ve mentioned Sheherazad Ventures before, a travel company specialising in Moroccan culture and music set up by Rachel Blech, who used to present Lyric FM’s Magic Carpet. She works in partnership with Abdellah Hajja, a desert guide from a distinguished Saharoui nomadic clan. Blech and Hajja run the usual 4x4 tours, desert safaris and camel trips, but their most interesting and intimate offerings are the musical and cultural ones, where they arrange unparalleled access to local culture. They are keen to develop links between Irish community/arts groups and Moroccan ones. Mostly they focus on the Sahara region south of Marrakech.

Last Christmas I wanted to explore northern Morocco, and so I settled in the mountain village of Chefchaouen only two hours by bus from the ferry port to Spain, but so far away in terms of culture that there was no sign whatsoever of Christmas. In fact, up until 1920 only three Europeans had ever set foot in Chefchaouen: two missionaries, one of whom was poisoned, and a journalist who was attacked for being a “Christian dog”.

The village itself is beautiful, a complex knot of cobbled lanes and soaring blue and white painted mud homes crammed inside high medina walls. The central Plaza, Uta el-Hammam, is disorientating timeless – women rushing with dough to the community ovens, boys hauling carpets past the red-hued Kasbah walls and mountain farmers dropping their bundles before shuffling into the Grand Mosque.

I found it hard at first to access the surrounding Rif mountains until I came upon Chaouen Rural, a non-profit, community-based tourism initiative which aims to provide extra income streams for rural farmers in return for priceless holiday experiences. There are now a series of routes one can hike between community homestays or basic guesthouses through the Talassemtane Natural Park and and Jbel Bouhachem, an 8,000 hectare mountain reserve with outstanding trails through dense oak forest and Atlas cedar. One can learn about local farming practices if one wants, or else just enjoy the produce: goat cheese, dried fruits, honey, olive oil, etc.

Like most community-tourism ventures, Chaouen Rural is still finding its feet. The website is only in French and Spanish, but they can speak English and with a bit more support from interested tourists they will develop. Gite Talassemtane provide similar eco-tourism experiences in the same region. Their cycle trip across the Rif mountains sounds extraordinary.

See sheherazadventures.com; chaouenrural.org;
gitetalassemtane.com

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