If you wish to elope away to an isolated place, far away from the city hustle bustle, however without having cut off all necessary metropolitan ties, then a small, beautiful rural city at Northwest edge of Morocco awaits your arrival. Shrouded in the midst of the Rif Mountains of the northwest Morocco, lies Chefchaouen, a sleepy and secretive mountain refuge, that seems to whisper its existence to its surroundings only. Even though isolated, its paradoxical location, inland from Tangier and Tetouan, close to major international cities, makes it a very popular tourist destination! However what is more intriguing is behind the walls of this city with concealed megalopolis networks, a relaxed life, painted in the shades of blue preserve its rustic charm and eccentric local looks. Yes, this is the Blue city of Morocco, and is popularly known for its traditional blue-rinsed houses and buildings, owing to the city’s former Jewish population, that are spread all across the city, making it emerge like a blue-pearl of Morocco.
Beneath the towering peaks which is but its namesake, the hidden town ,somewhat aloof from the goings-on in the rest of the country, derives its name from a Berber term for ‘horns’, Ichawen, due to the shape of the mountain tops of the town, which looks like the two horns(chaoua) of a goat.
Set in the dramatic backdrop of the Rif Mountains, under the cloudless skies sprinkled with constellations unobstructed by light pollution, this humble town is a paradigm of every Moroccan cliché with its air filled with serene silence, periodically echoed with the prayers out of several mosques scattered around the town. If tranquillity and a haven to relax with a topping of distinct palette of blue and white buildings inhabiting the surroundings against the striking contrast of the arid setting, is what you’re looking for, then there’s no other place more quaintly unperturbed and friendly than this town.
Now, let’s trace out a bit of history, that has cradled this town to its contemporary standing today. Founded in 1471,as a fortress which still exists, by Moorish exiles from Spain, led by Moulay Ali Ben Moussa Ben Rached El Alami to combat the Portuguese invasions of Northern Morocco, was a base for the Riffian Berber tribes ,from which Portuguese Ceuta were attacked. However, after the fall of Granada in 1492,a wave of Muslim and Jewish refugees overwhelmed into Morocco and brought to the city a prominent Andulasian architectural style encompassing hanging balconies, tiled roofs and courtyards.And, it all nested along the charming line of blue maze-like town paved with cobbled-stoned streets.
However, until the beginning of the Spanish occupation in 1920,the city still remained closed to all foreigners esp. to all Christians. But, now so many years after the Moroccan independence in 1956,Chefchaouen has transformed into a tourist hub and houses almost two hundred hotels ranging from budget packer hotels to luxurious mansions,that cater to the incursion of tourists from all over the world, Europe especially.
Things to do
A quaint place to shop, relax, eat and hike, here’s all that this blue city is famous for:
- Among, many other reasons, for tourists to flock to this town, shopping is the second most important! Here, you can often spot women making handmade Moroccan rugs and carpets using wool, camel hair, cactus fibre and natural dyes from the surrounding hills. It offers many native handicrafts, like traditional wool garments and woven blankets ,leather goods and cedar wood furniture, that are not possibly available elsewhere in the entire Morocco. The goat cheese ,which is native to this area is also a popular buy, for the tourists!
A paradise for all junkies, an addictive emporium consisting of an array of colourful and beautiful products, starting from Morroccan brass and silver teapots and glasses, Moroccan lanterns and plates glint, to Aztec-patterned bags and Moroccan slippers lie heaped in piles.Stop at the sheltered trove along Hassan 1,for silver plates and jewellery, where you could find trinkets balancing in precarious stacks and line the walls. Walk a little further along the cobbled street and you’ll find cardigans, shawls and blankets made from sheep’s wool and camel hair all around the place. For delicate and artsy handmade tagine clay pots ,follow the hillside to the Kasbah area to an organized scattering bazaar there. However, before this stunning indulgence could blind you, remember to barter for you’re wares and bargain it to the exact half of what is asked by the seller!
- Owing to its laid back ambience which might be partly due to the fact that outskirts of Chefchaouen is known to be the centre of the marijuana plantations region in North Morocco, and is also one of the main producers of cannabis in Morocco, it is often very popular among mainstream travellers. Moreover, Hashish is actively sold all over the town, though it’s mostly the domain of native Chaouenis. Drugs are not only widespread in the town but are also widely tolerated making it emerge as a Moroccan version of Amsterdam.
- A visit to the Medina, which is the focal point of interest for most of the travellers, as it is the ancient part of Chefchaouen and seems to be washed in all shades of blue. You’d notice, the streets, the walls and even inside the homes on almost every street and alleyway, all pigmented with different shades of blue. Your arrival here, would enlighten you with the reason behind its much fame title, “The Blue Pearl of Morocco. You can even stop short at the local shops that use bright-coloured pigments to make paints, that cover the entire city in the blue cloud!
- Of course, simply walking around the town sliding through the blue alleyways sounds appealing enough, but there is an array of places you should go on this trip. Checkout the waterfall, Ras el Maa at the east of medina, which is but a meeting point for local residents and you could always expect a friendly welcome along with a bit of chit-chat while relaxing or doing the laundry for the carpets and rugs especially, on Sundays. Also, the Ashour waterfalls which is 30 minutes by car and 2.5 hours by foot, far from the town, is a must visit. Another, nearby attraction is the Ker Toghobeit Cave, which is considered to be one of the deepest caves in Africa.
- Experience Moroccan history come alive at early 18th century building, the Kasbah museum, in Medina. It was built by the legendary ruler Moulay Ismail and is fairly simple without the architectural razzmatazz and is surrounded by gardens both on the interiors and exteriors. Inside the chambers of Kasbah, the ethnographic museum contains antique weapons, musical instruments and photographs of the old town.
- Your visit to the cobbled square of Plaza Uta el- Hammam has to be inevitable, and once there, experience the spiritual escapade into the striking 15th century Grand Mosque and its adjoining buildings that are said to be built by the Jewish refugees who alongside the Muslims escaped the Spanish persecution in Chefchaouen.
- Once you’ve excavated almost the entire town, get ready to get all the more exhausted and gear up for a guided hike, through the picturesque green-hill sides lined up close-by. Whatever the season is, views, here are spectacular all year round.For trekkers, it is recommended to trip here, during the months of April to June as during the winter seasons, Chefchaouen faces dustings of snow, which makes hiking too challenging to accomplish. But, once you are exhausted and spent, a relaxing and luxurious Moroccan spa experience awaits you at Hammam.
- And, as no trip is complete without a bit of gastronomic indulgence, especially in the haven of Moroccan cuisine, a venture into its flavours is necessary. Witness the piquant extravagance of a tajine or tagine, which is a historical Berber slow-cooked stew of meat, fish or chicken with vegetables and fruits flavoured with Moroccan spices. Dare to pair up a lamb tajine with couscous meal ,complimented by an aromatic chalice of red wine, and experience pure bliss. Also, you should try the fresh goat cheese salad there, which is a succulent local Rif speciality. For desserts, dive into the varieties of sweet-desires, get confused, but remember to stop at a place called, Plaza Uta el-Hamman to enjoy the local sweets under the shade of the mulberry trees neatly lined up there.For diner, stop at the elegantly decorated ancient dwelling, Restaurant Tissemlal, which flaunts its impressive French-Moroccan set menu!
And after being done with your Moroccan meal, polish off the toxins with a delicious sip of refreshing mint tea,which is made by boiling green tea leaves with fresh mint and a gorgeous helping of sugar. No Moroccan meal is complete without this tea, its reputably great for health and is also a very important part of Moroccan aloof lifestyle within the higgledy-piggledy blue-alleyways!
So, if you’re the kind of traveller, ready to taste a bit of traditional spicy surprise on you sweet adventure, Moroccan surprise, Chefchaouen awaits your arrival!