CHEFCHAOUEN, MOROCCO DISCOVERING THE BLUE CITY
Chefchaouen is one of the must-see cities in Morocco. We decided that the best way to explore Morocco was to start by visiting the “blue pearl” or “blue city”, perched beneath the peaks of the Rif Mountains in the northwest of the country. Chefchaouen is a town rich in history with lots to see and do. It’s also one of the prettiest towns in Morocco, known for the striking blue buildings of its old town, its steep cobbled lanes, its crisp clean mountain air and its friendly people. Exploring the labyrinth of narrow blue lanes lined with leather and weaving workshops with smells of spice, incense, leather, flowers, oranges and freshly baked bread, and getting lost, to boot – are all part of Chefchaouens appeal.
Chaouen, as the locals call it, was founded in 1471 by the Jews and the Moors who fled here to escape the Reconquista of Spain. They constructed a walled Kasbah and fortress defense to protect the city. The Spanish conquered Chaouen in the early 20th century; the strong Spanish infleunce can still be felt in the town.
The old town is chalk-washed in so many different shades of blue – powder blue, azure, periwinkle, royal blue, turquoise, cobalt, indigo and so many more! The tones of the various blues shift and change as the sun moves across them, making this city a photographer’s paradise.
I asked around as to why the city was painted blue and got different responses. One theory is that the Jews painted it blue because it is their religion’s divine color representing the color of the sea and sky. Others say that blue acts as a mosquito repellent!
Compared to the big cities like Marrakech, Chefchaouen is a more manageable way to begin one’s exploration of Morocco. This town is much quieter than any other Moroccan town we visited. It is touristy but the balance with authenticity is just right.
We loved exploring the cobbled streets and winding no-car lanes ─ and finding hidden gems. We found it best to explore on our own rather than use guided tours – it’s small enough.
Like every town there’s the main square, in Chefchaouen, it’s the majestic Place outa el Hammam. Here you will find the rich history of the Kasbah. The fusion of Arab and Spanish influences, can be seen, smelt and tasted. Restaurants serve typical Moroccan dishes of couscous, fish, spices, and vegetables best washed down with a cup of freshly made mint tea. The most popular for me was the Tagine, a dish made with a secret mix of seven spices and served in he tradidtional tagine pot.
This square is the centre of the town’s activity – a great place to relax and people-watch or gaze upon the majestic mountains surrounding the city. The red-walled Kasbah, a 15th-century fortress and dungeon, and the Chefchouen Ethnographic Museum is just off the square. The museum has a great collection of regional artifacts including old photographs, pottery, textiles, instruments, and paintings which tell the story of the Chefchaouen region.
The beautiful Andalusian gardens in the centre provide a tranquil retreat and there is a small art gallery featuring work of local artists. Next to it, near one of the main gates of the town, you will find the great mosque with its octagonal minaret. It dates back to the 15th century and was built by the son of the town’s founder, Ali Ben Rachid. Only Muslims can enter mosques, but we admired it from the outside.
After a day or two, we got used to the town’s leisurely pace. Waking up in the early morning and climbing onto the roof of our riad we enjoyed the beautiful sunrises. Wondering the streets at different times of the day and night we got to understand the small signs of daily life: Shopkeepers opening their stores in the morning and displaying their goods to catch the attention of passersby.
Women doing their washing at the Ras el-Maa waterfalls just beyond the far Northeastern gate. Men piping their water from a mountain stream to their homes.
Women hurrying to the communal bakeries to drop off their homemade bread for baking in the in the afternoon before retiring to the public Hamman (Bath).
To watch the sunset we also ascended to the top of the hill overlooking the town – and where a Spanish Mosque sits at the highest point. It’s a long climb up paved stairs and a tree-lined path – but you are rewarded with a breathtaking view of the town.
We were here during Ramadan so the town’s pace was sluggish by day but crackled into life come sunset, following the call from the Mosque that signaled the end of the day’s fasting. Men and young boys wearing a pale yellow djellaba (a traditional loose-fitting outer robe with a distinctive conical hood) and a red tarboosh (a hat shaped like a truncated cone with a tassel) would hurry toward the mosques to heed the call to prayer.
Shopping in the souk and in the medina is one of its biggest tourist attractions. There are plenty of cafés to pop into and recharge, some of them with upstairs seating. In the crowded lanes you will find many Berber handicrafts such as semi-precious jewelry, carpets, jellabas, lanterns, caftans, wool garments, woven blankets, and kif-smoking pipes. Yes, Chefchaouen is famous amongst backpackers for easy availability of kif (cannabis), and you will get many offers of some weed or even a tour of the many green hash fields surrounding the city.
Because of its location at the foot of the Rif Mountains, Chefchaouen is surrounded by rolling green hills and beautiful forests and rivers. You can also take time to explore the surrounding countryside and reconnect with nature on one of the many trails like the one at the Ras el Maa Waterfall or the Bridge of God.
Because there is no airport, the only way to reach Chefchaouen is by road.
Fes is around 3+ hours away
Tangier is around 2+ hours away
Rabat is around 4 hours away
Use Rome2Rio to explore your transport options