Morocco’s blue city of Chefchaouen (call it “Chaouen” for short) is a deliberately blue-washed monochromatic wonderland. Viewing it from the slopes above is like looking at a city under impossibly blue water. Visiting on the ground is full immersion in a transcendent experience with the color blue leaping out at you from every street. Here are 10 things you didn’t know about Morocco’s Blue City, Chefchaouen.
Sources: wikitravel.com, britannica.com, lifebuzz.com, atlasobscura.com, lonelyplanet.com, cannibisni.com, juliehall.net
In the northeastern part of this rich Maghreb nation lies the blue city of Chefchaouen. Nested in the valley of the Rif Mountains and within reasonable access of the Mediterranean, this small city is easiest to reach by flying or sailing into Tangier (roughly 72 miles away), and traversing the connecting roads via Tetouan. It boasts a population of around 40,000, and the citizens are reportedly anything but “blue”– they’re relaxed, courteous, and welcoming.
The name Chefchaouen means “two horns” in Berber tongue, a reference to a mountain sliced into two by the valley where the town rests. In 1471, a small fortress was made by Mulay Ali Ben Rachid (considered a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad) in order to block the Portuguese invasion and enhance mercantilism (a practice common in Europe from the 16th to the 18th centuries that promoted governmental regulation of a nation’s economy). Following the expulsion of Sephardic Jews and Morisco Muslims during the Spanish Inquisition and Reconquista, Chefchaouen became a refuge for thousands of Jews. Until the Spanish occupation in the 1920s, the town was closed to most visitors and religions. Morocco, and Chefchaouen, gained independence in 1956.
In the 1930s, the Sephardic Jewish refugee population took their brushes and went to work on the walls of their houses with a talcum blue motif. The color is meant to be a holy reminder of God’s power. A working hypothesis of the blue washing is the similarity to the holy ancient Israeli city of Safed, where Jewish refugees from the Reconquista did the same to their homes. While the Jewish population in Chefchaouen has been slowly supplanted by a Muslim one, their influence in design and history seems, thus far, to prevail.
Not as mobbed as Marrakesh or Casablanca by tourists seeking an exotic sojourn, Chefchaouen experiences waves of mostly European visitors, especially in the summer months. The town’s 200-plus pensions attest to this, as do the ubiquitous marketplaces where local artisans make handcrafted souvenirs to generate income.
Leather is the main draw, and there are many privately owned leather-making shops in Chefchaouen. The products — wallets, purses, satchels, shoes and more — are often found for sale in larger Moroccan cities. Many of the country’s leather artisans went through their apprenticeships in Chefchaouen. Other products made in this city include goat cheese, wools, garments, cloth, spices and oils.
Baissara is a traditional split pea soup that is particularly popular in Chefchaouen. Of course, a typical Moroccan meal can be enjoyed in Chefchaouen. You can get tagine, made with fish or meat, vegetables and couscous infused with spices; grilled meats and mint tea — which is drunk all day long, casually or ceremonially.
Myriad mosques ring out five times a day, and from the hills above, it’s a cacophony of beautiful, reverent sounds. Some notable mosques include the Place Uta Hammam, arguably the city’s center of Islam. Jemaa Bouzafar is a small mosque outside the city allegedly damaged during Spanish occupation. Its twisty decaying stairs are still climbable for a spectacular view. The kasbah in the old city has a lush green garden and is the site of an old prison. Walking the serpentine streets is the thing to do.
The local cooling-off place is Ras el Maa, not far from the medina. Villagers and tourists alike are often there on hot days, swimming and washing their clothes. Past a cemetery and up a hill on the southern outskirts of the town is the Hotel Atlas, and the view from there is similar to the view above. Don’t forget your camera.
Most tourist websites and books hold either cautionary or covertly encouraging tips on a certain green product that covers the hills outside Chefchaouen. Over there, it’s called kif. Whether you know it as gonga, dope, Buddha or pot…it’s marijuana. This is known for being the area’s largest exporter of cannabis. Armed men guard the slopes, and vendors can get pushy to the point of dangerous towards tourists in this, “Amsterdam of Morocco.” While smoking hashish and marijuana can be common in this town, it’s illegal in Morocco.
We hope so! Home and business owners in the medina upkeep the blue-washing of the lower halves of their buildings regularly. Whether it’s for tourism’s sake, or to maintain a testament to a holy past, every spring, white and blue are swirled together, large rollers are utilized (mostly by women), and the living dreamscape is continued.