From ancient city to magical mystery tour

In Venice and Cordoba, the natives have all but abandoned their main squares and alleyways to vendors of postcards and figurines, pizzas and popsicles. Kitsch is king. The streets empty of locals at night, for few reside there any longer. Charitably, one could say these cities have transformed into monuments. Uncharitably: theme parks with historical flair.

In Chefchouen, the authentic perseveres. Even the young men in this Moroccan mountain town still don the monkish jallaba robe, pointed hood pulled close over their foreheads against the cold winter weather (16 degrees Celsius–balmy to this Canadian traveller). Their elders, ancient-seeming Berber men, sip fresh mint tea in the medina’s main square. The narrow city alleys, colored an electric cobalt blue, teem with as many tinker’s shops and sweeteries as hostels and tourist boutiques. Eleven at night the streets swarm with local life. The tourist is a mere sideshow.

I begin to see something of the St. Marks Square or Al-hambra, however, in the streets of Chefchouen. Patio restaurants offering cointintental breakfasts and spaghetti bolognaise shove up against the traditional teashop and its ancient Berber patrons. That young man passing by in a jellaba–I think he’s Norwegian. My guide tells me that his elder brother has just sold his home for a tiny fortune to a German couple with hotelier ambitions.

Meanwhile, in nearby Fez, property prices have doubled in two years. Scots and Spainiards and Americans snatch up old houses for conversion to hotels and second homes. In response, the medina’s denizens are spreading to the New City and the nascent suburbs, some eagerly and others with chagrin.

Pockets are fuller to be sure. Across the strait in Spain tourism accounts for one in every ten dollars earned. I can only imagine the proportion is greater (or nearly there) here in Morocco. I suppose it depends whether you count the marijuana crop, which I am told occupies three-quarters of arable land outside Chefchouen. I will venture that only the minority is consumed by tourists, however, for those old Berber men are enjoying themselves far too much to be drinking just mint tea. If Chefchouen becomes a theme park, it will be one with more than just historic flair.

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