Rooftops are magical places. It’s little wonder that travellers are drawn to countries like Morocco and India, where builders have the good sense to design buildings with flat roofs – ample spaces for relaxing, socialising, hanging wet washing, affixing satellite dishes and accommodating extra guests.
In Chefchaouen I’ve been rediscovering the pleasures of the roof and remembering the many roofs that have given me shelter over the years and provided me with a loftier view of life…
Rooftops have always been important to me. In Australia, where I grew up, the roof of our family home was steeply pitched, clad with corrugated galvanised iron – a vernacular style of architecture known as a ‘Queenslander’. Before each major storm, when the wind blew up and the first droplets of rain flooded the veranda, Dad would duck into the shed to fetch his ladder and we’d be on the roof in no time – brushing leaves from gutters, sending debris overboard… keeping our footing safe by restricting our footfalls to the seams of screws connecting the metal sheeting to the timber beams below.
When the opportunity presented itself for me and my partner to build a living roof in our garden in Norfolk (England), I was thrilled. Within days I was up on the roof in bare feet, treading in turfs we’d cut by hand, thinking of a time when the roof would be in bloom and bees would come to visit our lawn in the sky. One cup of tea was all we managed in the way of rooftop picnics before it was time to come away, to Morocco, the first staging point of our ‘overland to Oz’ adventure.
Which brings me to Chefchaouen, the blue city nestled at the doorway to the Middle Atlas – 3 hours by bus from Tangier and roughly the same distance from Fez.
Like Jodhpur is to India, Chefchaouen is Morocco’s blue city. If you look out from the vantage point of the Spanish Mosque you can see perhaps one thousand blue roofs – each one jutting up like a chimney from the cobbled together hillside – each one home to its own collection of satellite dishes and drying washing. Photovoltaics are yet to catch on here. If they did, Chefchaouen would be a true blue sun trap: supplied with its own power as well as its own clean supply of water from the mountain – a transition town in the making.
In terms of rooftops, Chefchaouen leaves little to be desired. Our rooftop – the rooftop of our pension – is a case in point. It is a generous square, roughly 14 metres by 14 metres. The outer perimeter is shaded by an awning, while the central area is exposed to the sun. The undercover/open-sided design makes it perfect for escaping the heat during the middle of the day, and enjoying the sunshine during the cooler hours. A clothesline is strung diagonally between two far points – ideal for airing foisty sleeping bags. In the centre is a canopy and a grate to prevent pigeons from flying down and befouling the tiles in the central courtyard. It’s a genius way of stacking functions, harnessing the elements and making peoples’ lives more enjoyable. It’s what good design is all about.
Since arriving in Chefchaouen, I have made the roof my second home. The view of the mountains is a real drawcard, but it’s the sense of space and seclusion that draws me back again and again.
In the morning I come to the rooftop to meditate. During the day, if I’m not out walking or taking coffee in the market square, I return to wile away a few hours with a book or pen. Afternoons are for yoga, and in the evening it’s time to take the washing down and set the sleeping bags back on the bed. If I’m lucky, I’m up on the roof in time for the 6pm adhan (call to prayer); a sound that loads my heart with joy.
In the evening there’s only one place it’s better to be than on the roof – in the square: watching children jostle one another for popcorn; swapping banter with waiters whose only desire it is to seat you in their cafe; or watching couples as they cross the square, hands surreptitious brushing.
In a few days we will askew the rooftops of Chefchaouen and make for Fez or Meknes. There will be other rooftops and other cities. Other medinas and other squares. But I do like a good rooftop. Even when there’s no grass, no gutters, and no corrugated iron.
There’s the first phrases of the call to prayer: “Allah is great… hurry to the prayer…” that’s my queue to exit. I have a date in the square. Richie is waiting, and Mohammed is cooking harrira and fried fish!