Ever wondered why the captivating city of Chefchaouen perched high in the north-western edge of Morocco’s spectacular Rif Mountains, has earned the Blue City label?
This fantastic destination is a must whilst in Morocco. You would be mad to miss Chefchaouen, not only to learn whether this enigma is in fact correct, but to cast your eyes on this incredibly charming and unusually-hued city.
Come in, enter these dazzling surrounds, and envelop yourself in this unique experience saturated in lapis lazuli and turquoise, which can easily be an unbelievable fictitious set in a movie’s scene…
If travelling to Chefchaouen from Tangier, then it is about a two-hour bus trip through the stunning Rif Mountains.
You can either buy your bus ticket online from CTM the day before, or take a local bus from the Gare Routiere bus station, about five kilometres from the city centre. A private taxi or public Grand Taxi also does the journey.
The public bus is quite rundown and the slightly erratic driver thinks he is driving an Italian sports car, whilst swerving around steep bends. Not always the best situation when travelling along extremely mountainous roads, but we arrive unscathed, albeit with nerves slightly fractured.
After surviving the hairy ride through the mountains with your crazy Moroccan driver, you are dropped of at the outskirts of Chefchaouen to start the walk up the steepish hill.
The ‘Blue’ Theory
Also nicknamed The Blue Pearl, if you are wondering why this is the only city in Morocco, which is painted as such, then there are several theories to contemplate. Some of which include that the blue deters mosquitoes, the colour is soothing, blue reminds people of water’s coolness, or Chefchaouen is painted blue to attract tourists. The reasons are many, but one that may be correct has to do with history.
The city’s inception to blue began centuries ago in 1492 during the Spanish inquisition of which the Sephardi Jews were escaping, and also transferred their tradition of red-roof tiling and white-washing walls. With more Jews escaping Europe during the 1930s, this new influx to Chefchaouen brought the tradition of blue-washed walls and interiors. The transition to blue is reminiscent of the sky and so, their God and for the Jews, a sacred colour.
A millennium later, the tradition continues with the re-painting of buildings yearly by the Muslim Berber residents to retain the mesmerising and hypnotic blue vibrancy.
Although founded in 1471 as a small Kasbah, Chefchaouen has endured many invasions. The city was closed to outsiders until the 1920s, which is when Spain seized Chefchaouen, and was finally returned to Morocco in 1956.
You could be forgiven for landing here with mouth wide open and jaw dropped. Yes, it really is that sublime.
With each bend you turn or arch under which you traverse, a vivid shade of blue unfolds itself amongst Andalusian traditional architecture in a dreamlike canvas.
Light, dark, deep, watery, pale shades of cobalt and sky blues against ochre-coloured roof tiles, proves both calming and soothing to the eyes. Perhaps this is the reason that locals seem so relaxed in Chefchaouen, whilst stopping for their favourite pastime of a steaming sugary black tea, stuffed with clumps of fresh mint.
The sky and time of day also affects Chefchaouen’s blue hues.
With the onset of an evening’s light, colours deepen to accentuate a dramatic and altered indigo spectrum. Sporadic royal blues dance around the worn stone buildings, just like a Marionette puppet forced by its puppeteer’s hand.
The region around Chefchaouen is one of Morocco’s main producers of Kif (cannabis) of which backpackers have known for an age. And tours are available to the growing fields, if you so wish.
Overlooking Chefchaouen from a solitary hill, you can reach this mosque during a pleasant forty-five-minute walk (one-way) from the medina.
Start the walk from the medina’s eastern gate Bab al Ansar, until you reach the Ras el’Ma river. A pretty spot where the chatter of local Riffian women rises up out of the communal stone laundry area, where many clothes are still washed the old-fashioned way, by hand in the river.
Women and children wallow the day away whilst guarding their newly scrubbed laundry on makeshift lines until dried, until ready to venture home once more.
Passing agave cacti, tuffs of scrubby bush and prickly pear, the trail leads to the mosque ruin.
The Spanish built this mosque for the local population although unpopular, the mosque fell into disrepair and is abandoned.
Even the sky here seems as it has been impossibly blue-rinsed to match the city below.
Along this morning trail you bump into elderly locals from the villages higher up the hill.
Tending their herd with a gentle prod from crooked branches or trying to coax a stray goat from a bush high above, this narrow dusty trail witnesses’ numerous occurrence of Riffian daily life – probably unchanged for centuries.
Need a few souvenirs to take home to loved ones or just to spoil yourself?
The Souk is the place to venture to, which sells everything from brightly coloured locally handmade rugs, warm woolly hats, peaked coloured spices, brightly-coloured fragrant oils, and just about anything else Moroccan you desire.
Quieter than the commotion and frantic bartering surrounding souks in Marrakech, Fes, or even Meknès, this smaller and more reserved shopping precinct is a much more enjoyable experience.
Colours at night light up every corner of the city to project ethereal tones that bounce off the evening’s blue-rinsed stone walls – a postcard around every corner.
With a plethora of available accommodation ranging from expensive hotels to inexpensive guest houses offered in Chefchaouen, I prefer the smaller Riads and family-run guest houses. Apart from the excellent service from owners, this type of accommodation is much more personal with a local feel. Stay in a 600-hundred-year-old gorgeous stone room, surrounded by soul, if you so wish.
I could easily spend more time in Chefchaouen as several nights is just not enough.
Such a relaxed atmosphere that this appealing city exudes, but alas, it is time to move on again. This time to the non-typical tourist destination of Ceuta – a Spanish autonomous city.
Have you heard of Ceuta? The city that covers just over eighteen-square-kilometres in northern Africa.