In the blue medina of Chefchaouen

Magnificently located at the foot of the rugged Rif peaks, Chefchaouen, Morocco’s blue city, is one of the country’s prettiest resorts: a mountain village with blue houses and an artistic atmosphere, where you feel as if you are in a world of your own. By now, tourism has definitely taken hold here too, but the town has managed to strike the right balance between modern conveniences and the authenticity of the place.

A delightful result of Moroccan and Andalusian influences, the old medina is an expanse of red roofs, blue-blue buildings and narrow alleyways that converge in the busy Plaza Uta el-Hammam and its restored kasbah, the reason why it is known as the Blue City. Long known to backpackers for the easy availability of kif (cannabis), Chefchaouen has undergone extensive and rapid renovation and improvement and offers a wide choice of quality accommodation, good restaurants, a variety of activities and no hassle, making it a viable alternative to a hectic tour of several cities. It is an ideal place to relax, explore the sights and take day trips to the verdant, cool hills in the surrounding area.

A bit of history
Originally the name of Chefchaouen was Chaouen, meaning ‘peaks’, whose spelling at the time of the Spanish occupation was changed to Xaouen, and in 1975 the city was renamed Chefchaouen (Look at the Peaks); names that are still used today.

Moulay Ali ben Rachid founded Chaouen in 1471 as a base from which the Berber tribes of the Rif could attack the Portuguese stationed in Ceuta. The town expanded with the arrival of the Muslim and Jewish refugees who left Granada in 1494 and to them we owe the whitewashed houses that, with their tiny balconies, tiled roofs and patios (often with a citrus tree in the middle), give it its characteristic Spanish character. The current prevailing pale blue colour was introduced in the 1930s, whereas previously windows and doors were painted green, a colour associated with the Muslim tradition.

The city remained isolated and closed to foreigners (Christians were forbidden to enter on pain of death) until 1920, when it was occupied by Spanish troops. Upon their arrival, the Spaniards were astonished to find that the city’s Jews still spoke a variant of medieval Castilian. During the Rif War in the 1920s, the Spaniards were driven out of Chefchaouen by Abd al-Krim, but soon returned and remained there until the proclamation of Moroccan independence in 1956.

What to see
Chefchaouen is divided into an eastern half (the medina) and a western half (the ciudad nueva, or new town). The heart of the medina is Plaza Uta el-Hammam, with its unmistakable kasbah. The walls of the medina have recently been restored with Spanish funding. The main artery of the new city is Ave Hassan II, which runs from Plaza Mohammed V, a green square designed by the artist Joan Miró, past the western gate, Bab el-Ain, along the southern wall of the medina and then into the medina itself, where it ends at Place el-Majzen.

The Kasbah
This walled fortress, which has undergone extensive restoration, now houses a lovely garden, a small ethnographic museum and an even smaller art gallery. The ethnographic museum offers some fascinating views of old Chefchaouen, including the square and the kasbah; while the art gallery promotes the works of local artists. The view from the kasbah tower above the medina is magnificent.

Plaza Uta el-Hammam
The heart of the medina is the shady, cobblestone Plaza Uta el-Hammam, overlooked by cafés and restaurants, all offering rather similar menus. It is a quiet place, ideal for a relaxing break observing the bustle of people, especially after a long day of sightseeing and excursions.

Grand Mosque
Noteworthy for its unusual octagonal tower, the Grande Mosquée was built in the 15th century at the behest of the son of the city’s founder, Ali ben Rachid, and is only accessible to Muslims.

Market delights
The market near Ave Hassan II is an excellent place to buy fresh groceries such as fish, meat, fruit and vegetables, and is especially busy on Mondays and Thursdays, when numerous vendors from outside Chefchaouen arrive to sell fresh produce.

Among the many local specialities worth sampling, we recommend the fragrant mountain honey and creamy sheep’s milk cheese, both served for breakfast. Add freshly baked dial makla (a type of bread) and you have all the ingredients for a delicious picnic.

Strolling along the river
Just beyond the north-eastern gate of the Chefchaouen medina, the Ras el-Maa gushes out of the mountainside forming several waterfalls, where local women come to do their laundry. Between the roar of the water and the green hills right next to the medina walls, this is a city corner where you surprisingly find yourself in close contact with nature.

Once over the bridge, turn right and follow the path that runs along the eastern bank of the Oued Ras-el Maa. This path has been designed with great attention to the landscape and runs along the bank. There are spectacular views of the medina and the route is overall a pleasant downhill walk of about 30 minutes. The path then crosses Ave Allal ben Abdallah, where you can hail a taxi and be driven back to the medina.

The Talassemtane National Park starts just outside Chefchaouen and is an excellent area for trekking. If your trekking involves an overnight stay, it is essential that you register at the park’s entrance, at the eco-museum, which is also a rich source of information.

The Bouhachem Regional Nature Reserve stretches between Tetouan, Chefchaouen and Larache, and includes numerous trekking routes of varying lengths that allow you to visit local villages and explore mountains, forests and waterfalls; as well as numerous gîtes (hostels for hikers) where you can stay overnight within the reserve’s boundaries. The park is extraordinarily beautiful and covers a vast area of 80,000 square kilometres. Declared a Site of Biological and Ecological Interest, together with the neighbouring Talassemtane National Park, it is one of the most important areas of the Intercontinental Biosphere Reserve of the Mediterranean, shared by Andalusia and Morocco. The forest consists of various species of oaks, maritime pines and cedars. The park is populated by a remarkable number of animals, including avifauna (99 species), mammals (32 species, including lizards) and reptiles (17 species).

The ascent of Jebel el-Kelaâ
At first glance, the ascent of Jebel el-Kelaâ, the peak that looms over Chefchaouen at 1616 metres, might appear to be a very arduous undertaking, but, starting early in the morning, it can easily be done in a day, provided you are in good physical shape.

The hike starts behind Camping Azilane and follows the off-road track leading to the small village of Aïn Tissimlane; the path is marked by a yellow and white stripe painted on the rocks. During the first hour, you ascend along a relatively steep track that takes you above the tree line to the first viewpoint over Chefchaouen, and then continue halfway up the sloping track. You should reach Aïn Tissimlane in a couple of hours; from here, the trail climbs steeply and windingly between large boulders for almost an hour until you reach a pass, after which it turns west along the track to the saddle of the mountain, where the final stretch to the summit begins. The path is rather rough and in some places it is necessary to climb over rocks. The summit is reached fairly quickly, and your efforts will be rewarded by one of the most extraordinary views of this region of the Rif.

The descent along the same route is quick and presents no difficulties. Alternatively, from the saddle you can head north following a path that leads to a group of villages on the opposite side of the mountain. El-Kelaâ, one of these small villages, has some grain deposits dating back to the 16th century and a mosque with a leaning minaret. From this village, several very easy paths will take you back to Chefchaouen within a couple of hours.