Gently laid down on the slopes of the Rif mountains in northern Morocco, beneath the peaks that gave it its name (derived from the Berber word for “goat’s horns”), Chefchaouen is a delight of narrow paved streets between houses whitewashed and painted in tones of powder blue, intriguing crafts shops, small restaurants, boutique hotels and hostels catering to the backpacking crowd.
Located close to Tangiers and the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, the now largely touristy town attracts crowds of Europeans, especially Spaniards, during the Semana Santa, so much that Spanish has become the foreign language mostly spoken by the locals. Despite the influx of visitors, Chefchaouen has retained much of the charm and magic of a city unlike any other in Morocco.
The origin of the city can be traced back to the year 1471. Founded by by Moulay Ali Ben Moussa Ben Rached El Alami, from its position high above the road from Tetouan to Fez, Chefchaouen controlled the traffic between those two important cities and acted as a fortress, defending the north of Morocco from Spanish, Portuguese, and Berber invaders. After the Moors and Jews were expelled from Spain, many found refuge there. It is said that the blue color of the houses originated in Jewish religious customs. Spain annexed Chefchaouen to Spanish Morocco in 1920, returning it to Morocco after the country regained its independence in 1956.
Today the city is divided between the new town, to the west, which doesn’t have anything of interest for the visitor, and the ancient medina, to the east, whose walls have recently been restored. The best way to visit the medina is to start at any of its entrances and just wander around, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells. The place is not huge, so don’t be afraid to get lost; eventually, you are bound to end up in its main point of attraction, the square Outa el-Hammam, with its many restaurants, the Great Mosque, and the entrance to the kasbah. Just keep in mind that many streets are quite steep, so good walking shoes and not being too out of shape are recommended.
The architecture of most of the buildings is quite dissimilar from that of most Moroccan cities and reveals the Andalusian origin of many of its dwellers: cobbled roofs, ample windows with wrought iron grids, airy patios with trees are rather common.The people here are also definitely more relaxed than is usual around Morocco. You won’t be constantly harassed or begged for money, but know that, as soon as you get off the bus or start asking for directions, somebody will offer their services as a guide or as a porter. You will however appreciate the latter, in case you have booked one of the many hotels in the medina, since cars are not allowed in there.
If you like photography, you will have lots of possibilities here, but also challenges. Try to find the right composition with the intersecting lines of walls and play with the different shades of blue, maybe with a splotch of color given by cloths hanging outside shops or exploit the contrast with the colorful djellaba of a passerby. An overcast day will afford the perfect conditions for bringing out the tones of the walls’ paint, while a sunny day will give you a chance to add one more nuance of blue to your palette.
For those interested in crafts, Chefchaouen offers some of the best chances to bring home some beautiful objects. The main industry is the weaving of textiles, especially woolen ones fashioned after the Berber style. Wrought iron artifacts, like lamps, and leather goods can also be found in the many shops that line the streets of the city. The surrounding countryside specializes in the production of olive oil and goat cheese and samples of those are available from many food shops in town. Another typical local product is kif, or hashish; the Rif region produces almost a third of the world’s crops, so it’s easy to find touts offering it to tourists and this commerce even attracts a specific group of them, but be warned that possession and consumption of marijuana are illegal in Morocco and the penalties can be severe.
Many opportunities are available to hikers who wish to explore the area around Chefchaouen, which offers natural springs, waterfalls, mountain paths, and forests.
Due to its position and elevation (600m), Chefchaouen’s climate is temperate and nights can be cool even in summer. During the winter, it is not unusual for temperature to get below freezing.