In Morocco, lingering in a small village leaves a big impression
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I had been feeling sick for a couple of days and was happy to be in a guesthouse with almost no guests in a village with only one paragraph in the travel guide. In front of me was a steaming bowl of pumpkin soup, sweet with onion and nutmeg, the perfect thing for a queasy stomach.
I'd had enough of destination travel. For the next couple of days, I thought to myself, I could stay right where I was - the town of Bhalil (population 12 000) in the Middle Atlas region of Morocco.
I had been visiting a friend who had an art residency in the northern city of Tetouan, but he was in a fit of creativity and had no time for sightseeing. I had rented a car, headed south, and visited Meknes, Volubilis and Fez for a week. Now, I was heading back, looking only for a place without much traffic. Lonely Planet called Bhalil a "curious village... worth a visit if you have your own transport."
My 44 hours in Bhalil turned out to be the most memorable time of two weeks in Morocco. It was also a testament to the idea that travel without a plan is sometimes the best plan.
I was in the old part of town, in a stucco guesthouse called Dar Kamal Chaoui Maison d'Hotes. The only other guests were a couple from Germany with two children, who had eaten earlier. Now it was dinner time for the staff - my Moroccan host, Kamal, and his cook, Naima - and me.
As we finished the soup and prepared for the next course - chicken tagine with pears - a knock came on the door. Naima answered it. After a minute she returned and whispered to Kamal, her lavender scarf framing her pale face.
"There are three girls at the door - students - who want to ask me about the history of Bhalil," Kamal said, turning to me. "Do you mind if they come in?"
Of course not. Now I wouldn't have to ask all the questions.
Three girls - 13 and 14 years old - entered the room and sat at the far end of the table. They were a picture of Moroccan demography - one Arab, one African, one European. The girl named Selma had a notebook and pen and sat in the middle.
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Kamal asked about the assignment. "To write and recite, in French, something about Bhalil's history." When was it due? "Tomorrow" (which was Tuesday). When was it assigned? "Friday." Kamal broke into "Monday, Monday" by the Mamas & The Papas, chiding them for procrastination, although I think I was the only one who got the joke.
He tested their French with more questions, and when he judged it inadequate for the urgency of the task, launched into a lecture in Arabic about three things that make Bhalil unusual.
No. 1: Caves formed by the Atlantic Ocean, which the original inhabitants incorporated into their houses.
No. 2: Buttons for djellabas, the traditional caftans worn in the region. A single garment can have more than 100 of the buttons made from knotted thread. Bhalil is where they're made.
No. 3: The conservatism of Bhalil. This required more explanation. Seventy years earlier, the town fathers had refused to allow a highway to be built through Bhalil - a missed opportunity the place still feels. Kamal put it down as "peur des etrangers" - fear of strangers - but he told me it was more than that. "There were worries it would bring prostitution and alcohol, but I didn't get into that," he said, nodding to the girls.
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Bhalil consists of several inhabited hillsides, the guesthouse on one of them. Looking south from Kamal's third-floor deck you can see a ridge with houses partway up, then rocks and cliffs, and at the top a flat band of ocher earth.
If you go
Where to stay:
Dar Kamal Chaoui Maison d'Hotes
60 Kaf Rhouni, Bhalil
011-212-6-78-83-83-10 or 011-212-6-43-03-24-44 (WhatsApp)
The guesthouse is in the old part of Bhalil that still has some dwellings built from caves. The bedrooms, with en suite bathrooms, are decorated with Moroccan textiles, metalwork and wood carvings. There's also a roof deck where guests can drink mint tea and view the town. The guesthouse is heated by wood and open year-round. Breakfast included; dinner costs about $20. Rooms cost about $95 per night; slightly less December through February.
What to do:
Dar Kamal Chaoui Hiking and Excursions
The guesthouse's proprietor, Kamal Chaoui, leads guided walking tours of Bhalil, full- and half-day hikes outside of town, and day trips to: a cedar forest, a Berber village and weekly market, the 2,000-year-old town of Sefrou with its ancient Jewish quarter, and other nearby sites. Fees are about $58 to $92 per person. Kamal also offers cooking classes with the guesthouse's cook, Naima, for $35 per person.