Sunday, 12 April 2015

Chefchaouen - dreaming in blue

There is a place in the foothills of the Rif mountains of northern Morocco that has enchanted independent travellers for decades. It is Chefchaouen, locally called simply Chaouen, a small town with houses painted blue and the verdant hills all around it.

I arrived in Chefchaouen on a Tuesday afternoon after a four-and-a-half bus journey from Fez (it costs 75 dirhams, which is around 7€): it was the end of March, and the weather was miserable. With three nights booked at Riad Baraka, I hoped that it would get better, so that I could enjoy my stay properly, and perhaps do a little hiking in the mountains as well. Since it was raining hard, I spent the first night in the hostel, warming up against the electric stove and chatting with the other guests, as if we were on a ski holiday. It was a nice evening: we were all travelling alone in Morocco, we came from many different countries and had previous experiences of independent travel.

A cat in the streets of Chefchaouen

It was during that first evening of rain that I learned about the history of the town. Chefchaouen was founded by Berbers of the Ghomara tribe, and it was later resettled by the Moriscos and Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. The entrance to the city was forbidden to all foreigners, and especially to Christians, until 1920. The few travellers who managed to enter back then found Jews still speaking 15th-century Andalucian Spanish. The houses were painted blue in the 1930s by the Jewish inhabitants of the town, who have since left for Israel or other parts of the world.

A street in the medina

In Chefchaouen the men all wear the djellaba with the hood on, as if they were Moroccan wizards, and some of the women wear a traditional costume that includes a straw hat.

A man with a djellaba


A wall in the medina of Chefchaouen
Luckily, the following morning the rain had stopped, even though it was still chilly and cloudy. In spite of relying mostly on tourism, I found Chefchaouen to be authentic and charming. The choice of food to try seemed to be more varied here than in other parts of Morocco, including Fez and Marrakesh. I tried anchovy tagine, home-made yogurt, squid, sardines, and of course the harira soup that you're offered at the beginning of most Moroccan meals. A dinner at Bab Ssour - a very friendly, cheap and traditional restaurant we found hidden in a corner of the medina - only cost me 65 dirhams (6€).

Selling fruit in the medina of Marrakesh

In the main square of the town, Place Uta el-Hammam, there is a Kasbah that you can visit for a few dirhams, with great views of the hills from the top of the tower and a good exhibition on history, traditions and customs in the area. I also hiked to the Spanish Mosque, which is worth not so much for the building itself, but for the views.

View of Chefchaouen while hiking to the Spanish mosque

On the way to the mosque you pass by Ras-el Maa, a small waterfall where women do the laundry and locals come to take a walk. The hills, when they are surrounded by clouds, give a rather mysterious aura to the place. At times, I thought I was in a Central American small town.

A view of Chefchaoen and its hills

Once we arrived to the top of the hill,  where the Spanish mosque stands, we found a relaxed atmosphere, and sat there for a while, observing the women who were looking after sheep and goats.

Grazing sheep in Chefchaouen
People come to Chefchaouen to relax, to learn about Moroccan culture, or to hike. Most likely, you will not find annoying tourists who shout or behave in inappropriate ways. Even though Chefchaouen is in the middle of an area which is famous for the production of kief and for the easy access to marijuana, I found that the kind of people that make their way to Chafchaouen do not care too much about it. I didn't meet anybody who wanted to get stoned all the time, or that was really interested in touring the illegal plantations.  
The rooftop of Riad Baraka
The medina of Chefchaouen is small, clean and not at all smelly. What a change from the aggressiveness of the medina in Fez with its smells and its touts! Nobody will bother you here, except the occasional man who unconvincingly tries to sell you hashish or lead you to your riad. It is a relaxing experience if compared to a walk in the medina in Fez or Marrakesh. A few days in this town will introduce you to the culture of northern Morocco, with its mish-mash of Andalusian and Berber influences.

A door in the medina
A corner of the medina
Selling dry fruits in the medina

When strolling around town, among blue doors and colourful pots with plants of all kinds, prepare for an array of pleasant surprises. During my wandering through the narrow streets I found  a local art gallery, a hole in the wall selling samosa-like pastries for 5 dirhams (0,40 €) and an improvised market stall (in the picture below).

An improvised market stall in Chefchaouen
An art gallery in the medina of Chefchaouen

I did take a hike on Thursday. Together with other 5 guests from the riad, we made our way to Parc National de Talassemtane, about half an hour away with a grand taxi. The return trip cost us 400€ (€37,50), the six of us squeezed in an old Mercedes. There are several possibilities here: either you make your way to God's Bridge, or to Oued El Kelaa waterfall. We chose the latter, two hours and a half away. The hike was overall I bit more difficult than we expected: it had rained a lot, and because you have to cross the river several times by jumping on some rocks, it was impossible not to get wet.

The canyon in Parc National de Talassemtane

The landscape, with canyons, clear bodies of water, and wooden huts with refreshments, reminded me of my hike in the Samaria Gorge in Crete. On the way to the waterfall we encountered very few people, most of them Moroccans. At the end of the hike, we finally found the waterfall. It is a beautiful sight, in peaceful surroundings, and we were the only one exploring the area.

Oued El Kelaa waterfall
We were told that there was going to be food, but probably because it was not high season, we found the bar unprepared. We managed to order a few fried eggs, served without cutlery, a pot of tea and some biscuits.

We quickly made our way back to the entrance of the park and we found a local restaurant, where we ate a delicious kefta tagine and a plate full of grilled sardines. This was one of the best meals I had in Morocco, and not only because I was hungry.

My three days in Chefchaouen ended with warmer weather and finally some real sun.

View from the Kasbah


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