Travel Journal: Chefchaouen
Chefchaouen's reputation precedes it: It is "Morocco's Blue City." The small town, set in the Rif Mountains of Northern Morocco and centered on a medina painted in more shades of blue than seems believable, is chronically picturesque. In today's terms, it's Instagram catnip of the highest order and if comments on that app are to be believed, visiting it is on hundreds of thousands of bucket lists.
Still, Chefchaouen ("shef-SHA-wen") somehow maintains a reputation as a laid-back place—somewhere to escape the indomitable salesmen and heat of Morocco's large cities such as Marrakech and Fez. (It probably bears noting here that kif that grows like, erm, weeds, in the countryside surrounding Chefchaouen). So, is it possible to visit and strike a balance between kicking back in atmospheric beauty and dodging daytrippers, the odd burnout and social media fashion victims on selfie benders?
In short: Yes. And it might just be the best place in Morocco to do it.
Into The Blue
Chefchaouen, and particularly its medina, has an explicit economic reliance on tourism. The infrastructure is all here, despite it being a small place: Menus are always available in a babel of languages, transportation is a snap, guesthouses are plentiful and souvenir shops are well-stocked and manned by folks who hold doctoral degrees in persuasion (in three, five or more languages). But that is by no means a damnation of the place. It is simply too pretty to be damned—and almost to pretty to be believed.
Adoration of the color blue is on a whole other level here—call it cyanophilia. Your eyes feel like they're experiencing previously unimagined corners of the spectrum, and the mind grasps for every familiar term associated with blue: cornflower, cobalt, turquoise, royal, sky, sapphire, lapis, ink, ice, cerulean and on and on. The hues all shift and change, deepening in rain and shadow, desaturating in hard sun and the passage of time between repainting.
Walking around and getting lost—a pleasurable (and inevitable) activity in so many places in Morocco—takes top billing on the list of things to do in Chefchaouen. The medina is very compact, so it's hard to ever really feel lost. If you do, just walk (or slide at alarming speed, if it's rainy) downhill until you reach the Plaza Uta el-Hammam, where the imposing brick kasbah and the Grande Mosquée (Great Mosque) stand in imposing dominance across the square from a line of tourist restaurants.
Walking Through History
Founded as Chauen in the 15th century, the town's name references the craggy peaks that cradle it—"ichaouen" in Tamazight Tarifit, the Berber dialect of the Rif region, means "horns." "Chef" was added in 1975, creating a longer, more directive moniker that translates to "look at the horns." Nevertheless, in cities like Tangier or Tetouan, grand taxi drivers proffering rides to Chefchaouen call out "Chaouen chaouen chaouen chaouen!" to attract fares. You'll also see it written as "Xaouen," a holdover from Spanish occupation.
The town's setting was chosen strategically, and the Berber tribes indigenous to the area originally used it as a base from which they could both launch attacks on and retreat from the threats of the Spanish and Portuguese who held nearby cities.
Medieval Spanish antics helped shape the town further when Jews and Muslims escaping the Reconquista took refuge here in numbers that forced the expansion of the medina's footprint. Chaouen's architecture has a distinctly Andalusian character, with red-tiled roofs and little balconies. You'll still see some houses that are, in part or in whole, whitewashed. The tradition of painting homes blue has relatively recent origins (the 1930s or so) and there's no agreed-up answer to why it was first done. One theory is that blue is the color of divinity in Judaism, another is that the color keeps away flies (some say mosquitoes).
Understandably, Chefchaouen's refugees weren't eager to have a lot of contact with the folks who were systematically, and with exquisite cruelty, persecuting them for their religions. The town was effectively sealed off behind its defensive walls and Christians were not allowed to enter, on pain of death. The self-imposed isolation lasted for hundreds of years. When the town was taken over by colonizers in the 1920s, they found residents still speaking an Medieval version of Spanish that had evolved out of use in Spain.
Craft and Carpets in Chefchaouen
During its period of self-imposed isolation, Chaouen's residents developed some of the most complex, intricate and beautiful textile techniques ever seen in Morocco. They embroidered panels, cushions, curtains and covers for chests and boxes with pattered cartouches, executed in silk floss and an array of challenging stitches. The oldest extant examples date from the 18th century, but tradition is gone now, probably having died off before the mid-20th century.
Chefchaouen still has a reputation as a small center of craftsmanship—though that reputation could be imperiled if the evidently rising tide of lurid rayon weavings and kitschy tourist knick-knacks drowns out the more complex and time-consuming (and therefore more costly) crafts like carpet weaving. You'll find some skillfully executed modern pieces, woven in the area, in carpet shops, along with enough vintage pieces to make your head spin.
Chefchaouen's size and location on the tourist trail of Morocco seem to put its carpet vendors at something of a competitive disadvantage against bigger cities. Prices were higher and bargaining moved the needle less than in other places. Still, when you're on the hunt for certain pieces, it never hurts to look into every nook and cranny and we did see some lovely carpets across a range of ages. Dar Chefchaouen had the standouts for modern carpets—well-made flatweaves dense with geometric patterns that echo and riff on traditional Berber symbology.
Slices of Life
Despite there being no illusions that Chefchaouen is a tourist magnet, some traditional Moroccan ways of life carry on. Parts of the medina feel distinctly residential; people you meet during your meandering are engaged in the ho-hum things that are part of an average day, like picking up a canister of propane or chatting with the shopkeeper.
Communal activities, born of necessity and the vernacular architecture of the medina, string a line between the past and present. At the time most of the buildings in the medina were constructed, individual bathrooms and kitchens were highly uncommon home amenities, and bathing, baking and fetching water were all done in commune with neighbors. The bathroom situation has changed for a lot of people, but hammams, public bath houses, are still in vigorous use.
Communal ovens are also still a booming medina business, and it's a common sight to see kids running fresh dough to their neighborhood oven to be baked. Bread is served every day, at every meal, so this is a touch of traditional life that just about every visitor will taste at the table and smell on a walk through town. Baking is often a familial occupation, and the knowledge between customers and bakers can run deep, developing over generations—the baker will know whose bread or cookies are whose just by sight.
Clean mountain water still flows from the taps of communal fountains, and you'll see people carrying jugs to fill up. It came as a surprise to learn that in quite a few places in Morocco—especially in the mountains—it's relatively safe to use water straight out of the tap.
The Flavors of Chefchaouen
Eating in Chefchaouen is as good as its bright and bustling vegetable markets promise it will be. Produce is lush and vibrant and the meals—most often tajines—we ate at places like Restaurant Tissemlal at Casa Hassan (insistently recommended to us by Abdelmajid Rais El-Fenni in Tangier) and Bab Ssour were dense with defined flavors.
At Bab Ssour, we ordered a vegetable with savory, earthy and mineral flavors identified only by its Latin name, scolymus hispanicus (Google later told us that it's known in English as Spanish salsify, golden thistle or Spanish oyster plant) and, as we were leaving, we spotted heaving baskets of mushrooms, including chanterelles. The owner told us he'd just foraged them in the surrounding hills, slingshotting the memory of Jeff Koehler's wonderful, mushroom-centric piece about Chefchaouen in AFAR back into my brain. If we'd not been leaving the next morning, we would have gone back for breakfast, lunch and dinner and cleared every last one of them out.
Restaurants in Chefchaouen start serving dinner surprisingly late for those of us who live in a more Scandinavian-influenced culture. As we walked around one night, killing time before a restaurant would allow us in, we came across a street vendor manning a cart with a couple of stock pots and a whole lot of snails. We ordered up a small plate and tasted the cephalopods we'd chase for the remainder of our time in Morocco: savory and earthy as mushrooms and perfumed with an herb-laced broth that I'm convinced could be the universal cure for sorrow.
And all that is to say nothing of the oranges. Yes, they are that good. No, your tastebuds will never recover. Be prepared to scorn supermarket orange juice for the rest of your life.
Pick of the Pensions
An oasis of calm isn't a necessity in Chefchaouen the way it is in more hectic places, but Casa Perleta fits the description anyway. Cobalt on the outside, crisply white inside and decorated by owners who have both sharp eyes for quality textiles and a sense of aesthetic discipline, it surrounds you with unpretentious loveliness.
Grab a seat in the jasmine-perfumed interior courtyard and if you're lucky, you might be greeted by a geriatric West Highland White Terrier in a sweater.
There's also a sitting room with a fireplace that's perfect for brisk mornings and chilly nights—it gets cold enough to snow here.
From the terrace, which is furnished with comfy banquets, you get sweeping views of the town and, in the far distance, the whitewashed Spanish Mosque. Though it was never actually used for worship, it's a common end point of a hike through the hills (during times when the paths aren't turned to dangerously slippery sludge by deluges of rain).
Chefchaouen disproves the theory that tourism-dominated towns must be filled with hassle and devoid of soul. It retains traditions and is relaxed in a way that feels inherent and therefore unshakeable. Those who come seeking the blue beauty will find it and discover much more than an Instagram post can convey.