Every day we spent in Chefchaouen, Morocco felt like living in one of Monet's paintings. All around us were buildings painted in white and various hues of blue. They ranged from pastels to vivid indigoes. We will always remember the evening of our first day there. We walked up a hill, through a maze of streets, to the Spanish Mosque overlooking the quaint little city. There, we saw the wondrous view of oranges, purples, and blues blending together. The sun, through the partly cloudy skies, shone its setting rays against the mountains.
Origins of the Blue Obsession
On that first day, one question occupied our thoughts: Why was this city painted blue? This tradition in Chefchaouen, Morocco is rarely questioned by others. Before being blue, Chefchaouen functioned as a base to repel Portuguese invasions. It first founded by a descendant of Muhammad, Mulay Ali Ben Rachid, in 1471. So, how and why did this fortress town become blue?
It started during the Spanish Reconquista in 1492, with the Jewish ban from Spain. Many of these refugees settled in Chefchaouen, Morocco. The established their own vibrant communities like the now popular Andaluz district. The new immigrants were Sephardi Jews that always painted their buildings blue. This, they did because they associated the color with the sky. They wanted to always use it as a memory of their god. Some have speculated that it was also done for pragmatic reasons. The color repels mosquitoes and flies. This particular Sephardi tradition is also found in other places in the world. One example is the city of Safed, Israel.
Preserving an Iconic Tradition
In recent times, the city's blue traditions are more for tours and other visitors. Descendants of the original Jewish settlers maintained the painting of everything blue. These inhabitants maintained their traditions in isolation from the rest of the world.
Until the Spanish occupied the town in 1920, no foreigners could enter the town. They faced imprisonment if they did so. The Jewish population of Chefchaouen, Morocco had remained closed-off from the outside world. Visitors in the 1920s found that they still spoke 15th-century Spanish. With most of the Jewish population gone, the city's Berbers keep the blues tradition alive. The local government gives them specialized brushes to do so.
The Blue Medina, Chefchaouen Souk, and Dining Experiences
On our second day, we walked down the hill to a little Moroccan restaurant and had breakfast. They served us four beldi, a traditional dish made with eggs, goat's cheese and olive oil, with mint tea. It was a light, but filling dish that fueled our morning activities. Afterward, Laurel and I wandered through the city's blue medina. A section of town with high walls and narrow, maze-like streets. This area, with its tight, uphill passageways, reminded us of other Berber-influenced places. Some in Italy, like Amalfi, Capri or Tivoli.
Along the way, we noticed the many ornate doors on the buildings. We discovered that Chefchaouen, Morocco is a top destination for door lovers. There's even a hashtag devoted to it: #ihavethisthingwithdoors. We meandered our way to a traditional marketplace, or “souk.” We immediately experienced a literal cornucopia of everything you can imagine.
There were areas where they sold clothing, one for gold and jewelry, and others for fresh foods. The vendors remained quiet and waited for us to start bargaining for items. Unlike in Marrakesh, Fez or other parts of Morocco where you get bombarded by the sellers. Here they don't approach you to make a sale or haggle much over prices. They usually give you the lowest price without haggling and don't pressure you to buy other items.
Food We Love
Following our morning excursion, the two of us headed to a cafe to have a light lunch. We lounged in the cafe, shaded by the surrounding buildings and cooled by a soft breeze. We enjoyed harira and spinach and cheese briouats. Our harira, or tomato and lentil soup gave us enough to be full. Along with the spinach were cheese-filled dough pockets. We completed our meal with two smooth almond milkshakes. Tired from our morning activities, we returned to our room at the guesthouse.
Riad Assilah Chaouen proved to be a very pleasant place to rest and begin and end our daily wanderings. It was located in an ideal location, ten minutes from the blue medina and beside the main plaza restaurants, and sellers. This had a beautiful terrace, a 24-hour front desk, and an on-site restaurant. The hosts were fluent in English, exceptionally pleasant and knowledgeable about all the local offerings. Due to our experiences at Riad Assilah Chaouen, we would both recommend staying in guesthouses, or riads, over common bland, impersonal hotels. Moreover, while they aren't five-star resorts, the riads of Chefchaouen, Morocco are tourist attractions in their own right. They are often over a millennium old and bursting with ancient charm.
Although our lodgings were right outside the blue medina, there are also many accommodations within it. However, there are some difficulties you may have to endure if you choose to stay within the medina. A major one is that you'll likely have to lug your luggage up some stairs, without any assistance. In Chefchaouen, Morocco, unlike in big cities like Marrakesh, there aren't any porters around to carry your bags for a few dirhams. As far as intra-town logistics go, the town is small, everything is close by and it doesn't matter where you stay. With all that said, though, I'd still encourage you to stay inside the medina because the rooftop terraces offer stunning views in the evenings.
Visiting the Kasbah Museum
and Grand Mosque
After resting a bit we walked up the hill to the Kasbah Museum, also known as the Ethnographic Museum. It is inside the ancient kasbah, or fortress, that was the origin of the town.
This cultural museum contained popular art from Chefchaouen and Northern Morocco. There were musical instruments, embroidery work, paintings, pottery, and wooden caskets.
Upon exiting the kasbah, we spotted the minaret of the Grand Mosque. The mosque was constructed by the town's founder in the 15th century. We stood and admired the Mosque's intriguing exterior. Unfortunately, as non-Muslims, we could not enter. We returned to the Riad and enjoyed dinner at its restaurant. That's how the two of us ended our second day in Chefchaoen, Morocco.
Cascades d'Akchour and the Hash Fields
We awoke on the third morning of our trip to the chirps of Barbary partridges. The seemed to have taken up living near our room. On that day, the partridges acted as our Chefchaouen alarm clock. This was an early day for us. We planned to visit the Cascades d'Akchour waterfall and the hash fields outside town.
My wife and I had arranged a private tour to both these sites after arriving in town. We first visited the waterfall, which was approximately thirty miles outside Chefchaouen. We swam in the clean, cool, crisp waters at the base of the falls. It was a beautiful, quiet morning and we were the only ones there at that time.
Walking through the area, after our swim, we spotted the Bridge of God rock arch. It's an amazing rock formation, that looks like a bridge crossing the river, caused by erosion. It's similar to the Natural Bridge in western Virginia of the United States.
After walking back down the long trail to the tour van, we proceeded to the hash fields near town. All the lush, green herbs growing all around us were mesmerizing. Traipsing around the fields brought to mind the phrase: high on life.
We then went to the Alladin Restaurant and enjoyed a delicious meal with Moroccan mint tea. Watching the sunset for the last time behind the shadowy lavender mountains was a perfect end to our trip.
Tips for Traveling to the Blue Town of Chefchaouen, Morocco
Since Chefchaouen, Morocco doesn't have a nearby airport, there are no quick ways to come to town. There are two primary methods of getting to the Blue Town.
1. You can take an overnight train from Marrakesh to Tangier and then use a bus or taxi to get to Chefchaouen.
2 You can take a flight into either Tangier or Fez Airport. Then take ground transportation to Chefchaouen.
If you choose to come by the first option, you can find train timetables and prices on the ONCF website. You can book the tickets at the train station.
Unless you're traveling on a major holiday, there's no need to reserve your tickets in advance. There are many comfortable seating options on the train. They include space in a four-bed couchette, a double compartment, or a single compartment. The train ride takes about ten hours and is quite safe for solo travelers. Many women traveling alone or with children ride the train, so don't worry about being on your own.
Once in Tangier, you can either take the bus or a taxi to Chefchaouen. The bus is cheaper but has a limited schedule. A taxi is quicker but more expensive. It might be worth the higher price if you're limited on time.
If you come to Blue Town by the second option through Fez, you should either take the bus or rent a car. The option of taking a taxi is too expensive. We've used both the bus and rental cars while traveling through Morocco in the past. Both options are far less troublesome than one might think.
Final Thoughts on Our Vacation
The two of us had the time of our lives in Chefchaouen, Morocco and wouldn't change a thing about the experience. Everything went fine and we didn't encounter many difficulties during this trip. We would like to offer a couple of suggestions and tips for closing.
First, when you visit Blue Town, remember that people actually live there. Be respectful of their living spaces, especially on the most narrow streets. When you see kids playing or residents coming and going give them space to maneuver. A final tip we'd like to offer you is to remember to bring plenty of cash. This is because we didn't find any ATM machines in town. Almost all the shops and restaurants accept cash only. With all that said, we both wish you happy travels and encourage everyone to visit the bluest town. You will visit one of the friendliest places in the world, Chefchaouen, Morocco.
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