The tourist town with a few surprises

A man walks through the centre of Chefchaouen Image copyright Thinkstock

The 15th Century town of Chefchaouen in north-west Morocco is popular with tourists - but there are a few things visitors need to bear in mind if they don't want to make a hash of their holiday.

I've been coming to Morocco for more than 25 years but even I was surprised by the taxi driver's behaviour.

A friend and I had flown into Fez to sell our house in the mountains. It had all become a bit too much and while we chose a taxi to take us into town there was some dispute between the drivers over who would get our fare.

So far so normal.

We rattled away in one of those classic North African taxis - a heavily engineered, 1980s Mercedes - only for the driver to face a barrage of phone calls from a very angry colleague, the driver who had missed out on the fare.

Several increasingly heated calls followed. Then a young man in a car pulled across in the road, triggering a volley of abuse from our driver.

Now it was the young stranger's turn to take offence.

The other vehicle shot ahead of us for a few metres and then stopped abruptly in the middle of a busy Fez main road, deliberately blocking our way.

Our now furious driver rushed out, opened the other car's door and kicked him in the face. The fight quickly escalated. In a flash, our driver was back to his car, rummaging in the boot.

Out came a baseball bat and off he strode wielding it with a very focused glint in his eye.

Just as the confrontation was starting to get uglier, a plainclothes policeman brandishing handcuffs materialised from nowhere, separated the two men and put an end to it. A few bruises, wounded pride. More than handbags, but no serious damage done.

Welcome to Morocco.

Dextrously fending off guides and touts in this fabulous country can be as much of an art as the carefully honed skills they use to target their quarry.

Years ago, as a hapless 18-year-old I was trying unsuccessfully to lose a particularly adhesive guide as I threaded my way through the labyrinth of the ancient medina - or old city - in Marrakesh.

The showdown only ended when by chance I bumped into one of the king's bodyguards. He saw what was happening, slammed the tout's head into a wall and the matter was over - albeit with minor bloodshed.

Several hours north of Fez, in the Rif mountains of northern Morocco, the pace of life is rather more relaxed in the spectacularly beautiful 15th Century town of Chefchaouen.

This is probably not unconnected with the fact that the local economy in recent years has centred on hashish and backpackers. There is a certain degree of interdependence between the two.

When I first visited Chefchaouen, or Chaouen as it is known, in the late 1980s, I was the only foreigner in the Pension Mauritania - £3 ($4.70) a night, delicious breakfast included - not smuggling drugs.

Some hid them in the back of old cars and chanced their luck north on the ferry to Spain. Some talked showily of night-time missions on fishing boats.

Others used to mould their stash into wax-covered pellets, before swallowing them and flying off to the Canaries. Unsurprisingly, some of them never got further than Tangier.

Image copyright Justin Marozzi

The son of a Spanish politician spent most of his time on the top floor of the pension, drinking opium tea. He didn't get out much.

The touts and guides in Chaouen, unlike their steelier counterparts in Tangier, Fez and Marrakesh, are pretty relaxed.

But they have got a living to make, too, and the days are long gone when the town, once a Muslim redoubt, was forbidden to foreigners.

Chaouenis take pride from the fact they were the last town in Morocco to submit to the Spanish in 1920, and these days visitors are there to be gently fleeced rather than killed.

Walk up and down through the higgledy-piggledy medina, a dazzling blend of whitewashed walls and blue paint unlike any other in Morocco, and within seconds you're brushing past touts advertising their wares sotto voce.

"You want good piece to smoke? Top quality. Not for tourists," says one.

"Nice carpets? Special price. Not for tourists," says another.

It's funny how everything sold to tourists is always described as "not for tourists".

On our last day in Chaouen, we sat in a cafe in Outa al Hammam, this is one of the prettiest town squares in the world with its handsome mosque, a 17th Century kasbah and a solitary pine tree needling towards the heavens.

Over a glass of mint tea we contemplated the sale of our old house with mixed feelings of relief and regret.

A group of young men sidled up to take positions at the table behind us. For a moment, silence.

Then the proposition - the tout's equivalent of the chat-up line: "Today is not the day to smoke a cigarette. It's the day to smoke hashish."

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