In the early 1980s we went on our first family holiday abroad. Did we head for what would have been regarded as a normal holiday destination: France, Spain, Portugal or Greece? No – at the age of 10 my first holiday abroad was to Morocco. I can definitely say that this incredible experience has had a lasting impression on me and probably shaped my desire to travel across the world. While I don’t remember everything about this amazing experience I do remember a lot – the hotel, the beach, walking through Tangier, visits to the mountain towns, seeing a praying mantis for the first time and riding a camel.
I couldn’t help but have a huge grin on my face as the taxi drove along the sea front in Tangier as I started to recognise places I hadn’t seen for over 30 years. That is not to say that Tangier hadn’t changed – it most definitely had and one of the first things I noticed was the large triple carriageway road that ran the whole length of the beach front and the large amount of traffic. Back in the 1980s this was a small road that I remembered crossing over to get to the beach. We also had to cross a railway line and manoeuvre past a line of buildings that lined the beach – all of which were long gone with a large wide promenade constructed in their place.
Towards the end of the beach I caught a glimpse of the Rif Hotel, where we had stayed all that time ago. The 1930s hotel had in its time been very glamorous with numerous famous people staying there including Winston Churchill. Now in 2016 it was looking a little tired from the outside – but it was still there and instantly recognisable. Then I noticed one of the most significant changes – an extremely large marina was under construction that had eaten up a large part of the western end of the beach. It was becoming very obvious that Morocco and Tangier was trying very hard to attract foreign tourists.
As I walked around Tangier it was strange what I remembered and what I didn’t. I couldn’t really remember the Medina and yet that would have been so strikingly different from the UK that I’m surprised I didn’t remember it. However, when we walked out of one of the main Medina arched entrances into Rue de la Kasbah I knew I had definitely walked along that street before. It wasn’t long before this was confirmed as I noticed a building with metal railed balconies that I thought I recognised from one of the photos I had from my original visit. Going back through the photos confirmed my suspicions and it was fun trying to take the same photo again. One thing that struck me as odd was that there were more cars in the photo from the 1980s than there were in the modern-day photo – mainly due to the fact that the street was now lined with market stalls and pedestrianised.
From here we walked back towards the Hotel Rif. At the bottom the road I had another memory as I knew this had been the spot where there had been a large coco-cola sign written in Arabic (the only recognisable Arabic word to a 10 year old). As a child walking along the beach I can remember seeing the sign and knowing this was where we normally turned left. The sign was long gone but somehow I knew it had been just there.
I had several photographs from the Hotel Rif and I had the aim of taking as many similar shots in 2016. My brother was not with me – so thanks to Kevin for stepping in. The staff were all very accommodating and seemed to enjoy seeing the old photos. The inside of the hotel had not changed very much at all – the rooms were still as beautiful as I remembered. Outside the gardens were not quite as lush as they had been when I was a child but they were still there. There may have been one advantage – back in the 1980s the swimming pool hardly got any sunlight due to the surrounding gardens and it was freezing cold! With the sun now able to make an appearance the swimming pool may have been a little warmer.
Again it was odd that I already knew where some of the photos were taken from – particularly the one of us sitting on the steps in the gardens – I just knew that was to the left of the swimming pool and not to the right. It is strange how the memory works.
I had similar feelings when entering Chefchaouen again – it was as if I already knew the place. My first impressions were how large Chef now was – I’m not sure how much was there in the 1980s but it had obviously grown considerably. However, the main Medina had kept its character and the large mountain (Jebel el-Kelaa) behind still gave Chef its unique aspect. Again I didn’t remember the Medina but I did remember the main square adjacent to the Kasbah. I knew that we had eaten in one of the rooftop restaurants across from the Kasbah and also that we had climbed the tower in the Kasbah. I didn’t have many photos of Chef with me but did manage to find the location of the one I had which was from the square adjacent to the Kasbah. The view of Chef was still very similar although the tree in the centre of the square had grown significantly.
This time while in Chef I decided to climb Jebel el-Kelaa. Starting early in the morning gave an hour of climbing before the sun rose from behind the mountains. The route followed a gravel road for the first couple of hours before a path led off to the left and headed around to the peak. Along either side of the gravel road and later along the path were fields of cannabis.
While cannabis is illegal in Morocco the country seems to tolerate it being grown and smoked. However, I couldn’t help think about the scene from ‘The Beach’ where they stumbled over some fields of cannabis and had to make a hasty retreat. Here though the fields were right up against the gravel road and there was no attempt made to hide them. I even met some of the farmers harvesting their crop and they didn’t seem bothered at all that people were walking, on the path, right through the middle of their fields. They were even quite helpful trying to explain where the path would go. I finally reached a saddle and a stunning view emerged of the next valley with clouds rolling in below me. According to the map there was now only a short hike up to the peak but the path quickly deteriorated and it became a general scramble up to the peak. The view from the top was fantastic. For most of the walk Chef was completely hidden and it was only at the very top that you could see part of Chef again, far below.
Sitting on the top of the mountain I couldn’t help but reflect that my 10 year old self could never have imagined that I would one day be sitting on top of that mountain. That I would have the confidence to hike on my own and become so independent. But thinking about it – did all of this start from seeing such amazing places and experiencing different cultures at such an early age? For anyone who worries about taking children abroad I would definitely encourage it – children are adaptable and you never know what inspiration they may get.
That evening we watched the sun go down over Chef. It was a magical way to end our time there watching the changing colours of the Blue City and hearing the distinctive sound of the call to prayer echoing around the valley.