This is a guest post by Jack Allison. Originally from England, Jack has been living abroad for the last five years, dividing his time between Spain and Morocco. Here he writes about a gorgeous Moroccan town that I only had time to visit for an afternoon. Follow his advice to see more of it!
A blue city against a blue sky
Arriving in Chefchaouen, I was happy to see that my day in this quaint little city would be blessed with clear skies and sunlight. Nestled away in the Rif Mountains in the northwest region of Morocco, Chefchaouen is a popular tourist destination for domestic and international travellers alike—all of whom flock here to see the distinctive blue colour that all of its buildings, from homes to mosques to small shops, are covered in. This was my first sight of this lovely destination: pale blue buildings melting seamlessly into a backdrop of deep blue sky.
The blue colour can be attributed to Jewish refugees who came to the town in the 1930s, fleeing from Hitler’s growing power in Europe. Chefchaouen was actually founded by a Jewish and Moorish community in the 13th century – again as refugees from Europe, this time fleeing the Reconquista of Spain.
Blue, which symbolizes the power of God, holds a religious significance not only in Morocco but in Islam. However, it also serves a more practical purpose, as these cool tones are a natural mosquito repellant. Others say that the blue colour helps to keep the temperatures in the town at a bearable level.
One of the more interesting sites in this already fascinating city are the large bags of coloured powder you can see on the side of some roads; the powder is used to recolour the walls, a job that needs to be done at least every two years.
I had come in a private taxi from Tangier (TangierTaxi, http://www.tangiertaxi.com), which involved about 2.5 hours of winding, mountainous roads. Thanks to its location, Chefchaouen is particularly popular with adventure travellers who use it as a starting point to hike along the trails, streams, and scenery of the picturesque Rif Mountains. This was my plan as well, and I would be joining a small group the next day for a four-day trek into the wilderness. But first, I would get to spend a day relaxing and exploring this beautiful town.
After dropping my backpack off at my guesthouse, I headed out to find some food; my stomach was starting to growl since I had skipped breakfast that morning to get to Chefchaouen bright and early. It didn’t take me long to find some khobz on a street corner. Morocco has no shortage of breads, and khobz, a round flatbread made of wheat and white flour, is perhaps the most popular of them all. The loaf was still warm, and there are few things in the world more delicious than fresh-baked bread. Even better, it was incredibly cheap!
Hunger sated, I decided to explore some more. Many older cities in northern Africa like Chefchaouen have a medina, or a walled quarter, near the town centre. Medinas are great for pedestrian explorers, as their streets are so narrow that cars can rarely fit through them.
Of course, these narrow, winding streets also make it incredibly easy for unsuspecting tourists to get lost. Already cursed with a horrible sense of direction, I found myself wandering in aimless circles in the maze of the medina; in my defence, the fact that almost every single building was blue made it particularly difficult to keep track of landmarks (then again, the two giant mountain peaks rising over the walls of the city probably should’ve been perfectly good landmarks, but I was preoccupied with the sights around me).
Getting lost and people-watching are probably the best ways to discover a new city. And because there were a good number of people out on the streets with me, including a couple of other obvious travellers, I wasn’t too worried. The popularity of Chefchaouen does mean that there’s a couple of touristy shops selling the usual gimmicky items, but I also saw many displays of beautiful jewelry and hand-woven blankets. Just a side note: I would be careful of overly friendly locals offering to take you to their friend’s shop as you will be given a hard sell and may be put into an uncomfortable situation.
I didn’t want to add any non-essential baggage because of my upcoming trek, so the only item I purchased was a bit of goat cheese, possibly Chefchaouen’s second most sought-after commodity (right after marijuana, which grows just outside the city in vast fields). I paid for my purchase and said good-bye…and then promptly saw the exact same shop probably six more times. Finally, I caved and approached the bemused owner again to ask for directions out of the maze, which were given in a healthy mix of English and enthusiastic gestures.
Before I left the medina, however, I had a quick lunch consisting of a pastilla and a cup of mint tea. Pastilla is a classic savoury pie is made of browned meat wrapped in crispy layers of dough, and mint tea is extremely popular among the locals for both the taste and the health benefits! I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting the sugar and cinnamon that were sprinkled on top of the pastilla, but it was delicious nonetheless.
Following the friendly instructions from the cheese seller, I walked from the eastern city gate to the “Spanish mosque“. The trek took about 40 minutes through the shrubbery, and I passed by the occasional farmer with his mule on my way. The mosque, though in ruins, sits on a hilltop and offers spectacular views of the entire city. I spent the better part of an hour just sitting there, joined only by a couple of goats who were content to ignore me and graze away.
By now, it was already late in the afternoon, and I knew that I would be hungry after walking back. So I made my way back to the medina to find dinner. This time, I was determined to sit down and enjoy a proper meal, and eventually found my way back to the guesthouse. To start off, I ordered a small plate of olives and a zaalouk salad (a cold dish made of raw tomatoes and cooked eggplants). Produce in Chefchaouen is exceptional, and both of these simple dishes were great ways to showcase the delicious freshness of the ingredients.
For the main course, I went with a Moroccan classic: tagine. Tagine is perhaps the most famous dish from the region, and no trip to Morocco is complete without trying it at least once (although the dish is so prevalent that you will almost certainly end up eating it for multiple meals!). For those who are unfamiliar with this preparation, tagine is a stew-like dish where meat, spices, and often dried fruit are cooked together in a small cone-shaped pot. Tagine is either simmered on a stove or baked in a communal oven, and then served with a portion of couscous. Per the server’s recommendation, I ordered a lamb and almond tagine and asked for a couple of prunes to be added to my dish.
It was amazing. Moroccan cuisine is a veritable treasure trove of spices, and this tagine, with its explosion of flavour, was a great example of that.
The name of my hotel/restaurant was Casa Hassan (http://www.casahassan.com/en/), which is well located, although it is on the expensive side for Morocco and next time I’ll probably sleep elsewhere, although I’ll definitely be back there for the food.
After dinner, I decided to call it a day and turn in early. I had a long trip ahead of me, and I wanted to be well-rested for my trek. Although I only spent one day in Chefchaouen, I bid the city farewell with more than a little sadness.
Chefchaouen is a beautiful city for the casual explorer to meander through, whether they plan to stay for a day, a week, or even a month.
Looking for more on Morocco? Check out the Morocco destination page, including a story for Paste magazine about Morocco’s communal ovens.