Chasing the Blues – Chefchaouen, Morocco

There are two objectives with which people go to Chefchaoeun.It’s an easy day trip from Tangiers in Northwest Morocco.

For me, visiting from Fes, 3 hours away, however, it took a more determined effort to get there.

Chefchaouen, or ‘Chaouen for short, derives its name from the Berber “Ichaouen” meaning “horns”, a reference to the shape of the Rif mountaintops over the town that look like a pair of goat horns or “chaoua”. It was first founded by Moulay Ali Ben Moussa Ben Rached El Alami (whew!), as a fortress and garrison town in 1471, to repel Portuguese incursions into Northern Morocco. Spain seized control of the town in the 1920’s, relinquishing it at the time of Morocco’s independence in 1956.

So, the two objectives. I was there for objective number 1. I like to call it “chasing the Blues”.

Because if there is ever a word that defines this town, it’s “blue”.

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Hordes of travellers throng to Chefchaouen, to enjoy firsthand the myriad shades of blue that grace the town walls and facades. The photo ops amidst the blue hued alleys of this “Blue Pearl”, makes walking around this little town an absolute delight.

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Sun drenched little streets wind their way up from the main square, the Place Outa el-Hammam, to the Al-Kasaba, and you can climb the tower for great views. Labyrinthine alleyways of indigo in the medina are lined with tiny little shops with spice mounds in vivid oranges and browns. The colourful local textiles offset their cerulean backdrops, and fat tabbies, in their grey and rouge coats languidly stalk around.

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The wear and tear of the facades, the rusty metal doors, the worn out cobblestones on the streets, all add to the the overall sense of an abstract painting come to life. Young men sing, play drums, and add to the festive atmosphere. End your exploration back in the main square at one of the cafes, with fresh orange juice or mint tea to keep you company as you take in the scene. And marvel anew at your surroundings.

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The tradition of painting the facades blue was started by Jewish immigrants, who migrated into the area after the Spanish Inquisition.

In the Bible, Jews are commanded by God to dye one of the threads in their prayer shawls, called “tallit”, the color blue, so that, when one looks at the tallit, one is reminded of the blue sky, and hence of heaven and God. This was achieved by using a natural dye that was extracted from shellfish called “tekkelel”. Over a period of time, a dwindling supply of shellfish meant that the art of tekkelel was lost, but the tradition of dyeing the tallit remained. Over time, this tradition morphed into its current form, of whitewashing the houses, coupled with the distinctive blue accent.

So that’s what I was there for – languorous walks amidst the cerise laden streets, clicking away to my heart’s content. The medina is a very manageable size and hence easy to explore. If you get to the Ras El Maa waterfall, outside the medina, before sunset, you can get some amazing photos of the town. The ruins of the old mosque, Jemaa Bouzafar, add to the composition. You can also go for longer hikes in the region, but maps are hard to come by, so its best to do this in a more planned way.

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And objective number 2?

Throughout the summer, platoons of backpackers descend into Chefchaouen, with the express objective of sampling its local wares. And I don’t mean the fantastic goat cheese, or beautiful handicrafts in textiles and leather.

The Chaouen region is well known for its production of “kif”,the local term for cannabis. So as you might guess, this becomes quite the attraction for some visiting folk. You will be inundated with offers as you walk around the town. It’s harder, and more expensive, to find alcohol.

A bit redundant if you ask me. You don’t really need to partake of the product to achieve the objective.

Because chasing the Blues seemed to me a perfectly good way of chasing the blues away.

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Practical Information

What   : Often called the most beautiful town in Morocco, famed for its blue facades.

Where : In the Rif mountains, Northwest region of Morocco. Local buses ply from Fez, or you can arrange for a private day trip from Fez.

When   : Spring and summer are popular times to visit. The streets can get quite slippery when it rains. Expect to spend minimum half a day, and ideally overnight.

Why      : Its a photographer’s dream come true. You can’t take a bad picture anywhere. As always in Morocco, be mindful of the fact that people don’t like to be photographed.

Do         : Try and dress in bright clothes so that your photos against the blue backdrops will be more stunning. Climb the tower of the kasbah for great views over the city (there is a small admission fee).
And be prepared for attention from touts peddling accommodation, food, as well as dope.

Don’t    : If you are taking the local bus fromFez, don’t get off in Chefchaouen itself as the town is a long walk uphill from the bus station. Instead get off at Derdara, from where you can take a short taxi ride that drops you off in the main square. Don’t expect flat terrain, it’s a town on a hillside with slopes and steps to navigate.

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