When planning my trip to Morocco back in October 2016, I definitely did not want it to be just another imperial cities and desert journey like many. Sure, I could not wait to see Fes or Marrakesh, and I was looking forward Chefchaouen’s characteristic blue, not to mention the wonderful experience a friend of mine had in Rabat in her month long stay that made me include Morocco’s capital city in my trip. And who is not excited at the idea of setting foot in the warm red sand of the Sahara desert, especially when you were born and raised in a cold mountain town in northern Italy?
Though, I said to myself, what is really remarkable about all this? Thousands of people everyday travel to Morocco and see and do these exact things I planned. But is this really what Morocco is about, is this all it has to offer?
I’m studying in Venice and if there is one thing I have learnt after almost three years of living here is that Venice is nothing like you see it as a tourist. When taking a trip to see San Marco square or Rialto bridge, you miss the bustling world of the people who live, study and work here. It is only when you get rid of the pressure to post yet another sunset in the Giudecca picture on Instagram and instead immerse yourself in the local culture that you discover a new, unexpected side of Venice that will make you want to come back as soon as possible.
So as I was packing my backpack to go to Morocco, I knew that what I wanted was to discover this country’s exciting secrets, to meet its people and not just its scammers, to experience its culture and not just its folklore, to see its hidden gems and not just its biggest highlights.
This is how I ended up in Bhalil. Bhalil is a small village just outside of Fes, close to the town of Sefrou, perched in the Atlas mountains at 1,000m a.s.l. Best known for its picturesque houses hugging the mountains and painted in bright colors, it is also one of the most typical Moroccan villages you can come across – far away from mass tourism, souvenirs and scam artists. Here, people still live a very traditional life in what looks like a little Eden where life rolls by at a slower pace. People seem to have acquired an inner peace that makes them happy and friendly. Surrounded by the Atlas mountains’ bare slopes, a maze of little streets and alleys all painted in different colors stretches through this bleak land, home to a few hundred people and their animals and delightful stop for a curious traveler. Spend some time wandering around, see how carefully some houses’ facades are composed, matching colors and climbing plants creating a perfect small scene. Follow stray cats to discover the most hidden places and rest your tired legs sitting on a rock and gazing upon Bhalil’s beautiful scenery.
If you observe carefully, you will probably notice knots of women sitting outside their houses, chatting and laughing while working with their hands on what looks like small… buttons, maybe? You’re right! These women are best known for making buttons for the djellabas, northern Morocco’s typical winter coat consisting of a long cloak with a hood. Every button is handmade and the craft provides women with a way to earn some money without being completely dependant on their husbands, and guarantees that djellabas are only produced with high quality, artisanal pieces.
While painted walls, cave dwellings and handmade buttons are definitely remarkable features of Bhalil, what made me love this place even more was a very random and unexpected meeting that became the highlight of my journey. I was happily getting lost in the medina when I stumbled across another group of crafting women, but this time, they addressed me with a sharp “Kamal? Cherchez Kamal?”. I had no idea who this Kamal was and I was standing there trying to understand what was happening when a smiley face appeared from the window on my right, and a kind voice explained me that he was indeed Kamal, owner of the guest house from which he just popped out, and invited me to come inside for a tea and a panoramic view from his terrasse. Soon I was sitting on a bench under a huge ivy roof, the sun warming my skin, a glass of hot delicious mint tea in my hands, hearing Kamal and his guest house’s story.
He was leading a very successful life after having completed his studies abroad and landed a good job, but at one point, he decided that was not the life he wanted to lead. He came from a very small but beautiful village and wanted to put his birthplace on people’s radars – a place where they could experience real Morocco outside of the main cities. So he restored his family home, transforming an old building into a perfect little guest house, with only a few rooms, all carefully decorated in a different style. He spent (and still spends) lots of time and resources to find the best way to furnish this house, in a simple but well-finished style that makes use of local artisan products in an effort to make the economy of his village grow; nothing is done without extraordinary care and great taste, no detail is forgotten, creating a marvellous place that blends tradition with modernity, offering a true Moroccan experience in a comfy environment.
One of the guest house’s most interesting features is its heating system, which is unknown to other villages of Northern Morocco (where people simply wear more clothes when it is cold – even though temperatures here often drop below zero). It consists of pipes that bring hot water all the way through the building and granting a warm and cozy night to his wintertime visitors. The other bonus of this guest house it its amazing terrace, with the best view and lots of flowers, a homemade bench and coffee table creating the perfect corner for reading, drinking tea or having a extremely pleasant and inspirational talk with Kamal. We spoke for a long time, thanks to his perfect English, exchanging thoughts and ideas; I learnt a lot about Morocco, Bhalil and running a guesthouse, about his daily commitment to making Bhalil a better place, encouraging his fellow citizen to take care of their houses, keep streets clean and welcome tourists and foreigners.
My only regret? Having left all my stuff in Fes and thus not being able to stay there for a night! But this definitely will not be my last time in Morocco, and I already know that whenever my next trip might be, Bhalil and Kamal’s guest house will be my very first place to travel to.
This is a guest post by Maria Alice.
Maria Alice is a Italian girl backpacking the world on her own since she was 18 and traveling with her family since she was 7 months old; she has been in Portugal, Turkey, Croatia, Austria, Czech Republic, Malta, UK, France, Slovenia, Hungary, Slovakia, Morocco, Armenia. She is a couchsurfing enthusiast and lives (and travels) by her motto “It is either a good memory or a good story”. Besides traveling, her other passions in life are foreign languages and dogs, which brought her to study for a Bachelor degree in Arabic, Persian and French and share her university life with two crazy mutts that often follow her in her hiking trips to the mountains.