Volubulis, northern Morocco, faded in my mirrors as I climbed the escarpment, winding through a wonderfully verdant, rolling landscape like something out of the Russian steppes. It was where, a couple of thousand years ago, the Romans used to grow food for the footsoldiers of their vast empire. Volubilis back then was teeming with 20,000 citizens and slaves — a city of wealth, power and influence that provided a steady stream of wheat-laden galleys to the granaries of Rome.
Today Volubilis has a resident population of about 20 storks, nesting raffishly on the tops of crumbling temple columns, a warm wind whistling through its cracked walls, but no resident humans. The site wasn’t desolate, just a bit sad despite the hauntingly beautiful Latin inscriptions on some of the remaining pillars and walls. I took photos while disconsolate, unemployed would-be guides idly scratched their names into centuries-old, UNESCO-listed masonry. Fallen empire ruins: tick. I rode north towards Chefchaouen.
My trip there was eventful. A short distance outside Volubilis I came across a convoy of four very shiny Ferraris stopped at the side of a minor gravel road. One of the low-slung cars had (not surprisingly) got a puncture on the gravel. But apparently surprisingly (to the drivers) there was no handy Ferrari garage nearby to fix the low-profile, race compound tyre and dented rim. Multiple locals had gathered to enjoy the discomfort of the foreign would-be adventurers that had crawled out of their disabled vehicles.
I was of the opinion they deserved the smirking audience. The owners/drivers obviously had more money than brains and (as any idiot would know) should have realised they would only find a spare donkey cart wheel and not a tyre shop or magnesium alloy low-profile racing item in the vicinity, if an incident had occurred (which it obviously did). The rapidly expanding crowd was busy watching and chuckling behind their hands at the mechanical mishap as some young and very active lads added to the drivers’ misery by kicking footballs repeatedly and butt-clenchingly close to the expensive red Italian bodywork. I rode on.
Chefchaouen is known as the blue city because all the house walls are painted a lovely chalky blue; why they are blue is not completely understood. For over 500 years the place has been lived in by Berber tribes who wear blue headscarves, so I reason they most likely had a bit of dye left over and daubed it on the walls. Other, more academic, theories suggest that the blue was put there in the belief it would help keep mosquitos away, or that it is a spiritual thing that reminds inhabitants to look up to the marvels of heaven.
On the day I arrived they certainly would have been looking up and marvelling — by the time I arrived on the outskirts it had been raining unseasonal ice and freezing rain for hours. To add to the joy, I’d been stopped by some cops for ‘speeding’. I wasn’t, and after some increasingly sodden and pathetic pleading, they let me go, no baksheesh required. Nice guys. The road wasn’t so benign.
The rain increased, the clouds came down, visibility decreased, and my anxiety levels went into the red zone. I crawled onwards through an impenetrable whiteout on twisty roads, trucks overtaking towards me on blind bends, bent and crippled Armco reminding me of my mortality on every corner, and slippy gravel spread wide and deep on every bend just to hasten the possibility.
I slithered to a stop outside the first hotel I saw in Chefchaouen. A bow-wave of water burbled round my boots as I did so. It was cold and damp (and blue) inside the hotel. A man with two-day stubble and a fixated mobile phone ignored me for a minute, before giving me a smile of welcome with both teeth. I asked for a room — yes, they had one. Did it have a shower — yes it did. Could I put my bike in the garage — yes I could. Things were looking up.
Shaking with cold, I turned on the shower in my room. A slow trickle of freezing water came out. The room’s ill-fitting windows let in a mist of chilly rain, and the only food Mr Stubble had on offer was cold hardboiled egg and stale pitta. I emptied my boots into the shower, sucked on some coffee lozenges and crawled under the blanket on the bed, still in my wet and sodden riding gear. There was no kettle either. Miserable doesn’t even start to describe my condition, but at least I had some shelter. I fell asleep, teeth chattering.
It was still raining, but much more lightly, as I left Chefchaouen next morning. I didn’t see a soul — none of the cafes was open and it was still cold. I think I now know why the walls are blue. It’s embedded ice.
But the road dried as I wound towards the coast through some gorgeous river valleys. Then the sun came out, I started smiling, and my boots steamed copiously. I stopped to take a photo. A smart new Audi with blacked out windows pulled up. One window slid noiselessly down. “You want to have coffee with me?” asked the driver. “I speak English, German, Spanish, French.”
I winced as another dark-windowed four-wheel drive roared by us at about 140kph. The young driver didn’t flinch or comment. What was it with all these cashed-up gangster-wheels in the middle of nowhere, I wondered? Uncertain, I declined the offer of coffee, and the young driver spurted off in a fusillade of gravel.
I headed deeper into the Rif mountains proper. The scenery was amazing. Incredible views, picture-book hamlets perched on steep crags with tiny white shepherd huts dotting the ridges. Velvety, sinuous yet almost empty, well-surfaced roads curled into the distance, heading for the sparkling, crystal blue Mediterranean. A few chained up, snarling dogs disturbed the beauty and tranquillity of the scene but I was on a wave.
After a while the road wound into a small village — with a café. I stopped, shrugged off my almost dry jacket and ordered a breakfast of bread, egg, cheese and coffee. As I sat waiting, smiling at the now totally-blue sky, another blacked out car stopped across the road and three men stumbled out of it. I noticed that the middle one was handcuffed, but in reverse. So he was forced to walk backwards between the other two. No wonder they were stumbling.
They all disappeared into a nondescript house nearby. Nobody was in uniform, and the car had no police or any other markings. The house, likewise, was just an ordinary place: door, windows, tiled roof.
Not a single person in the café looked up at the brief scenario, nobody commented, nobody stared or took any notice of some guy either being arrested, or maybe just taken somewhere for a long chat by some men who needed to make a point. Then, doh!, I remembered — the Rif is reportedly where some 80% of Europe’s cannabis comes from.
In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t accept Mr Audi’s offer of a coffee.