Chefchaouen, is one of the most mesmerising cities we’ve ever visited. A quaint and picturesque, ancient city tucked high into the north-eastern Rif mountains, perhaps it’s the relative inaccessibility that has the “Blue City” as one of Morocco’s better-kept secrets. It’s somewhat out of the way (the trip takes about four hours from Fez and six from Casablanca) but Geoff and I have been known to travel significant distances just for a photograph!)
Recently, influencers on Instagram have been enticing tourists with their colourful selfies, wearing stunning dresses against the inspiring blue backdrops and it’s becoming an unmissable stop on a Moroccan holiday itinerary. It’s been a bucket list place for me for many years!
The weather promised some rain and clouds began gathering as we approached. We were enthralled by the scenery as we drove through the hills, climbing steeply along the curves of the mountain. After some distance winding along the contour roads, the town appears like a mirage. The fresh alpine air, the village nestling in the arms of the steep crags and the frequent presence of hikers reminded me a little of Nepal. It was also so refreshing to experience a splash of rain after the heat of Tangier.
We paused to consult our map for directions to our hotel, I hopped out to take some pictures from a spectacular viewpoint back across the city and then we promptly got stopped by the police for not replacing my seatbelt. After a lengthy conversation conducted in halting French, shrugs and pregnant pauses, our officer relented and sent us on our way with an admonishment and most importantly, proper directions to our accommodation.
Chefchaouen means “two horns”—a reference to the twin peaks that dominate this small hillside city. The city was founded in 1471 and was home to a population comprised mainly of Andalusian Moors. The fortress or kasbah was built to fight the Portuguese invasions of northern Morocco.
After finding a safe and close parking garage, we dumped our luggage at our charming BnB. Then we headed out into the winding Medina, right on our doorstep. Every house really is painted a shade of blue. Even the streets and stairs are blue! It might sound kitschy, but the impact is charming and it leaves you feeling peaceful and happy when strolling through the alleys, a calming respite from the overwhelming frenzy of the bigger cities.
The Jewish refugees from Spain who lived there during the 1930s, first painted Chefchaouen blue (some say to symbolise heaven and thereby reflect the divine), and the town has become known as “The Blue Pearl.” The town still keeps the tradition alive: Each year, the terracotta-tiled houses are washed with new coats of paint. For me the shades of indigo, aquamarine, cerulean, cobalt and azure gave me a sense of entering into a cool, peaceful underwater grotto.
Chefchaouen’s relatively small and uncrowded ancient city is an endless surprise of quiet corners and serene alcoves. There is a sense of relaxation, perhaps it’s the dreamy blue colours and the almost alpine feeling overlooking the mountains and valleys. I also had the sense that there were very few tourists and the shop keepers really don’t harass you and welcome you into their shops with not too much pressure to buy things. Because the old city is built on the side of a mountain, the roads are steep and as you follow the alleyways, you end up walking up and down hill any number of times.
Architecturally it’s a charming place, combining the old Arabic influences with the trends brought by the Spanish, established here between 1920 and 1956. Some of the main restaurants are located on the plaza although they struck us a touristy and uninspiring. (Each restaurant sold the same meals). There are also street food and souvenir stalls surrounding the cobbled plaza. The tall fir tree in the central meeting area gave me the feeling of a Christmas market in Europe. All we needed was a dusting of snow and apparently it does snow here in the winter months.
The Chefchaouen Kasbah is small but charming surrounded by a lovely Andalusian-style garden.
We had booked into Dar Elrio which offered fantastic views! From the huge window in our room we could look down on a lovely farm across the river. It was interesting spotting goats, dogs, sheep and donkeys. We loved the fresh breeze flowing through our open window and the countryside sounds of the animals as well as the incessant rushing of the river. There was quite a lot of construction happening in the valley (both new and repair work) and we observed that in a year or two, the entire valley might take on a far more commercial character. On the mountain overlooking our BnB is the Spanish Mosque. It is beautifully lit up at night and positively glows at sunset. We are so glad that we decided to spend two nights here.
The breakfast was excellent with seasonal fruit, yoghurt, and abundant variety of breads. Of course the freshly-squeezed orange juice was naturally sweet and delicious.
Chefchaouen is the ultimate cat city. When I had seen photographs of Chefchaouen before we arrived, there were frequently shots of beautiful cats posing against the blue backgrounds. I hoped that I might be lucky enough to capture one or two shots of these cats. The reality is that it’s almost impossible not to have a cat in your shot!
There are cats in every alleyway, cats recline in the stalls of the souqs and in the markets of the Medina. Cats curl around the ankles of the patrons in restaurants and wait on their terraces for treats. They slumber on the walls of the kasbah. They stretch out on the sidewalks. They wait confidently on the steps of the riads and homes. At dusk and dawn they prowl the streets looking for scraps left by their benefactors. They sleep in boxes or on bits of cardboard put out for them by Good Samaritans. Despite this some of the mangy kittens broke my heart. They are so small and vulnerable. We learnt to save food from our restaurants and shared it with the stray dogs and cats.
Chefchaouen became popular as a tourist destination especially for the Europeans who pop across the Strait of Gibraltar to Tangier and then into the Rif mountains because of its cannabis plantations. “Cannabis tourism” is a thriving business lived by approximately 80,000 families throughout the entire Rif region. Morocco is ranked the world’s largest producer of cannabis resin, according to the 2020 annual report of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Only as recently as May 2021 was it decreed to be legal to grow cannabis in the region of Chefchaouen.
As usual, Geoff had sussed out the best places to eat. As we approached Bedi Bab Ssour restaurant, famous for their tajines, the air was heavy with the scent of spices, a heady blend of cardamom, turmeric, clove, chili, cumin, and more.
I had the lamb tajine with plums and Geoff had a beef tanjia. Delicious but super rich! I love how authentic Moroccan cuisine comes with exciting tasty sides of aubergine, savoury rice, olives, tomato and harissa. When the bill came it suggested that I might have had the goat tajine 😳. Nevermind, it was very tasty!
We spent hours wandering through the streets, continuously finding pretty alcoves and interestingly decorated walls.
The markets sold everything from delicious freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, to arts and crafts and traditional clothing.
Even the gravestones in the cemetery below the old city are painted blue in Chefchaouen, creating the ultimate sense of tranquility. The crowded cemetery is well maintained and the graves face towards Mecca.
I just couldn’t get enough of the quiet grottos, shady courtyards and intriguing alleyways.
Chefchaouen’s main square, Plaza Uta el-Hammam, is the place where everything happens, an excellent location for people-watching. We spotted many beautifully photogenic local people, but had to be so cautious of being seen to take their picture thereby causing offense. (Many Moroccans are superstitious about ‘the evil eye’ and others fear they will be exploited.) Most often, as soon as you take out your camera, people turn away sharply, or hands come up to cover their faces.
From our Riad it was an easy stroll over the bridge to head up to Ras el Ma spring, the town’s primary water source. It’s pretty and peaceful to stroll along the bubbling stream with its quaint riverside cafés, juice stalls, art galleries and souvenir shops. Definitely a touristy part of the town. We caught a glimpse of local women washing their laundry in the River. If we continued to follow the path up the hill we would eventually reach the white Spanish Mosque, that watches over the city.
On our last night we chose restaurant Triana. It seemed fairly new and modern. It was fun to dress up and head out for the evening on foot. It has a beautiful location with lovely views into the valley below. It is elegantly decorated and the staff were extremely welcoming. There were musicians playing and the service and food was absolutely flawless. We’d read reviews complaining about the painstakingly slow service, but we found it to be faultless!
We started off with some tasty virgin cocktails, shared a wonderful fresh salad, and then over-indulged on two enormous pizzas. (We saved some slices to eat on the road the following morning!)
Farewell, pretty Chefchaouen! We loved your fresh and breezy hills and your charming blue alleyways. A unique and special place.