On the Cusp: Northern Morocco - Page 2

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Aerial view of Chefchaouen, Morocco
The picturesque town of Chefchaouen, Morocco  (Ellen Clark)

Going from one UNESCO World Heritage site to another seems only fitting, and Volubilis, Morocco's most important archaeological site, is a mere 42 miles from its most famous medina.

Located in the middle of a large plain in what has been the cradle of Morocco's agricultural area since ancient times, Volubilis is thought to have become a town as early as the third century BC. But it really flourished in the first century AD during Roman occupation. And, while the ruins are impressive, it's the mosaics that are the most evocative. Amazingly well preserved and beautifully executed, they depict everything from the Twelve Labors of Hercules to the Four Seasons. Only a chain separates visitors from the mosaics, which used to be the floors of private houses, and, if you let go of reason and allow imagination to take over, you can almost hear the footsteps of long ago residents.

The nest stop is Chefchaouen, a ridiculously photogenic jewel of a town. Surrounded by the Rif mountains, a cluster of white-washed buildings march up the hillside between two peaks. This is an ideal place to hang out for a couple of days when traveling between Fes and Tangier.

The medina's narrow streets are a vision in various shades of blue, a carryover from when it was a primarily a Jewish quarter. Dried pigments are available in the shops and decorative doors and walls are painted in hues that range from indigo to powder blue and turquoise. Residents are clearly proud of their lovely neighborhood, as it is quite possibly the cleanest medina in Morocco.

Today the medina has a large Berber population, easily identifiable by their unique clothing, the men in woolen earth-tone djellabas and women in colorful straw hats and red and white striped skirts.

Besides its charming medina, Chefchaouen is know for its marijuana, or, as it's locally called, kif production. There are plenty of cannabis fields in the hills just outside of town, and while smoking marijuana is illegal, though widely tolerated, exporting it is perfectly on the up-and-up.

You can walk right from the old town, past the riverbank where residents are doing laundry, into the Rif Mountains. For a pleasant day hike, head up the graded path past cannabis fields, grazing sheep, and panoramic views of Chefchaouen to the tiny village of El Kalaa.

There are still some legendary Barbary apes in the Rif Mountains Talassemtane National Park, but they are few and far between, as these tailless monkeys are now on the endangered species list.

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