The slightly dishevelled figure lurched at us out of the darkness, his unkempt hair flying out at all angles and his clothes smelling sweetly suspicious. Tucked losely under one arm was a woven jacket, once an array of incongruous colours but now caked in years of dirt and affection. We jumped aside, pressing ourselves up against the still warm blue wall, hoping to blend in with the shadows. We weren’t looking for a late night confrontation in this unknown Moroccan alleyway. Not tonight anyway.
“How are you? It’s a glorious night isn’t it my friends!”
It wasn’t quite what we’d been expecting. A knife between the ribs perhaps, or at least a politely veiled enquiry into our current financial situation, but not this.
“Erm, hello sir, we’re good thanks, and it is indeed a lovely evening.”
How very English.
Slapping us good naturedly on the shoulders, and grinning a little un-naturally from ear to ear, he flew off down the street, arms outstretched to the side playing at aeroplanes, with accompanying noises not inconsistent with a 747. As an afterthought, he looked back over his shoulder and performed a pirouette, finishing with a slightly unstable flourish.
“Welcome to Chefchaoeun, people!”
Hubbie looked at me with raised brows, and we whispered the word at the same time. Kif! My beloved then did an alarmingly passable impression of Captain Jack Sparrow, whilst I executed a Rasta pose that I felt was right on the money. Hubbie later reminds me there was in fact a reason why I always got to play the dead guy in school drama lessons.
We had known that the striking blue-washed walls weren’t the only attraction in Chefchaouen, but hadn’t expected to be releasing the inner hippy quite so soon. This pretty mountain town nestled in the Moroccan Rif Mountains is also the kif capital of North Africa. That’s Cannabis to you and me.
People have been enjoying kif in the Rif for centuries.
Chefchaouen visitors are often assumed to be interested in buying drugs, and there are plenty of young men wandering the streets who can offer very good prices, yes sir. Much of their kif will be of dubious quality, if, indeed, they have any in the first place and aren’t instead police informers. Whilst a huge percentage of males in Morocco do smoke kif, it is still against the law. If it is your thing, and you can’t get your highs from the surrounding mountains or copious amounts of Berber ‘whiskey’ (mint tea) on offer, then it’s much safer to try to smoke with some local males, as then at least the quality of the stuff will be decent. Failing that, it is such an intrinsic part of Chaouen life that it is sold innocently at markets, right alongside the herbs and spices.
The region to the east of the town is given over to growing vast swathes of the stuff, which although technically illegal, has been overlooked by the government since it is in fact the ‘unofficial’ biggest foreign currency earner. As a result, for decades the pretty little town has been a haven for stoned backpackers as well as bohemian artist types. Falling into neither category, we decided to visit nonetheless.
What to do
We spent three nights here, and felt that was plenty. Any longer and we’d have been tempted to investigate more closely the main reason for it’s fame. I had promised hubbie that on this trip we wouldn’t rush around like lunatics, filling every minute of every day with ‘seeing and doing stuff’. Yet after a few days relaxing, it turns out I’ve been right all these years, and sitting around for too long, no matter how glorious the view, just isn’t for us. Looks like next trip we will be reverting to type!
So, just what does one do in the Blue City?
Chefchaouen has one of the most accessible and easy to navigate medinas in all of Morocco. If you get lost, all you have to do is work out whether you are above or below the Plaza Uta el-Hamman (main square), and then walk either up or down hill to reach it, where you can ‘reset’ and start again. Most alleys seem to lead there anywhere, whether or not you’re actually trying to reach it!
The first thing any visitor will want to do is of course wander the blue streets, a very pleasant way to spend a few hours, stopping on the way to take numerous photos and admire the little shops that burst colour into the streets. The local tourist map of the town has some handy coloured routes which take you along the most photogenic blue streets. Although locals are used to tourists snapping away at their walls, the children are still refreshingly shy, and often will run away if they spy you with a camera, not wanting their images to be taken.
The way of life here hasn’t changed much over the centuries, and rather than outsiders being able to purchase property to turn into riads, the population is very much families who have passed down their houses through countless generations.
Locals are fairly relaxed (who wouldn’t be in such a beautiful place) and friendly, with far less hassle that you’d expect in places like Marrakech or even Fes. Shop keepers will attempt a half hearted sell, but are equally likely to want to chat to you about their neighbours goats, or the latest football scores.
Chefchaoeun is Andalucian in style, founded in 1471 by Moorish and Jewish refugees from Spain escaping persecution during the Catholic regime of Ferdinand and Isabela. Buildings were all white-washed, with the labyrinthine cobbled streets winding around the pedestrian medina, hiding secrets at every corner. Little has changed over the ensuing years, and you get the sense the exact same scenes were playing out several hundred years ago, with the very ancestors of the people before us today.
The blue of Chefchaouen is in fact a Jewish colour. When the last Jewish refugees arrived here in the 1930′s fleeing the growing anti-semitic feeling in Europe, they painted their homes in the colour of the sky, representing heaven, and much sought after peace. They certainly found it here, as have many visitors after them, and although much of the Jewish population has since moved on, their colour and legacy remain.
Interestingly, green is the colour of Islam, and in many other towns and cities across Morocco, you’ll find green roof tiles in abundance. Yet here, blue rules. You’ll see locals lovingly touching up their walls with azure paint, with both a sense of local pride and the recognition that it brings in the tourists. We did come across a solitary green door standing defiant amidst a sea of blue, but it was the only one.
Plaza Uta el-Hammam
The main square of the medina is a great spot to get your bearings, as well as people watch. Pick one of the colourful cafes lining the square (any will do, they all serve the same food and drink at the same prices) and watch the world go by. If you time it so you’re there during one of the calls to prayer, you’ll see the locals trooping up to the Grand Mosque with it’s unique octagonal minaret. Of course non-muslims are not allowed to enter. The square is also where locals gather to catch up with friends, and perhaps also to watch the tourists go by.
Next to the mosque, and also on the Plaza Uta el-Hammam, the heavily restored Kasbah is well worth a visit. Built by the legendary Sultan Moulay Ismail in the 18th Century, it boasts great panoramic views from the tower, a lovely interior garden with fruit trees, an ethnographic musuem, old prison and even a tiny art gallery.
Give yourself an hour or two to explore, but just remember it closes over lunchtime. Entrance only costs DH10 per person, and includes all of the above. There isn’t much visitor information inside, and nothing in English, but if nothing else, just go to soak up the ambience and take in the vistas, you won’t be disappointed. There are toilets as well, always a bonus.
Once you’ve had your fill of blue streets, get out of the town and head into the hills. After all the town takes it’s name from the surrounding Rif Mountains – ‘chaouen’ meaning peaks, and ‘chef – chaouen’ literally translating as ‘look at the peaks’. So we did.
A pleasant morning walk begins at Bab al Ansar, the city gate to the east of the medina. After crossing the Ras el Ma river, where local women go to do their washing, the dusty trail winds up past lines of prickly pear and agave cacti to an abandoned mosque overlooking the town.You’ll be sharing the path with locals going to and from their villages, as well as donkeys, sheep and even goats. If you fancy a longer hike you can continue past the mosque further into the Rif mountains, eventually circling back down into the town, if you can distinguish your goat trails from your footpaths. Just don’t forget to take lots of water, there isn’t much shade.
The Spanish-built mosque is a fabulous viewpoint for looking down on Chefchaoeun. It was abandoned in the 1920s during the Rif War, and today is a popular spot with local picnicing families and lads smoking kif in the Rif, as well as tourists.
I’m a little ashamed to relate this next part, but it’s all part of the parable, so onwards we go. During the walk hubbie and I stopped to take a photo and a local chap passing by asked if we’d like one taking of the two of us. I eagerly agreed whilst hubbie (who hates having his picture taken) stiffened slightly, no doubt worried we were about to play out the Mr Bean sketch where the chap runs off with the camera.
As the bloke began to back further and further away ‘for a better view’ I started to panic that hubbie was right to feel uneasy, and started scouting around for rocks to use as missiles should the aforementioned come to pass. Hubbie later reminds me I throw like a girl so that would have been a bit pointless anyway.
In the event, he took the photo, handed back the camera, and with a few cheery words went on his way. I immediately felt contrite that my first reaction was one of suspicion, and subsequently gave an extra big smile to all the locals we passed after that. They no doubt thought I’d been sampling the kif.
Still, he did manage to chop our feet off (why ,why, why do people do that?) and clearly hasn’t learnt the rule of thirds when framing a shot, so perhaps I can give myself a bit of slack after all!
Where to stay
Chosing accommodation for our three night stay in the ‘Blue city’ had been one of the hardest decisions of the whole trip. Whether to stay within the old medina walls (like we normally do in Moroccan cities) or further out on the hillside and be rewarded with fabulous views. Despite some very attractive options of Casa Perleta, Casa Hassan, and Dar Terrae, we decided in the end to opt for elevation and a different experience.
Dar Echchaoeun up on the hillside was a risky choice since I knew it catered for tour groups, but having read lots of good reviews and liking the idea of a pool, we plunged straight in. Their website was miles ahead of the others, which was also a deciding factor (I’m a sucker for good websites). Perhaps it should have been a warning.
I’m still not quite sure what to make of the experience. On the one hand, the views were as stunning as promised, the pool a great way to spend a hot afternoon after sweating in the streets of the medina, and our suite (no. seven) was fabulous. We had booked a room but I reckon a tour group must have wanted all the standard rooms, and since we’d booked early we’d been moved out into a suite instead, at no extra cost! This happens to us a lot, booking early definitely has it’s rewards!
On the other hand however, the service was average at best (tour groups definitely got preferential treatment), the food was some of the worst we’ve ever tasted, and the dogs and cockerels made so much noise we hardly slept. Hubbie decided to help the situation by encouraging the chickens through feeding them our emergency supply of pringles.
The suite of course had to be the furthest one away from the main building, but with that came more privacy than the other rooms, and some fabulous views from the little balcony just off the salon. Great for watching the sunset over the town and surrounding peaks.
A full review of Dar Echchaoeun can be found on my Conversant Traveller Trip Advisor page. I think the hotel is ranked higher than it should be, purely because a lot of reviewers will have travelled there in a tour group, and for them, it’s perfect.
It was definitely cooler up on the hillside than down in the medina, and I can imagine some of the properties down there will be quite stuffy at night without the airflow. Having said that, if we ever visit again, the medina it is!
Where to eat
Now I’ve always relished our visits to Morocco, one of the reasons being the most excellent cuisine on offer. The food has always been of the highest standard, and it’s something we’ve come to expect as the norm. Chefchaoeun seems to be the exception. After our dreadful meal at Dar Echchaouen on the first night (think wallpaper paste for soup and you’re getting there), we opted to eat in the medina for the next two nights, thinking surely we were in for a treat.
The first evening we patronised the gloriously over-decorated La Lampe Magique restaurant, after scouting it out earlier in the day for an impromtu drink and nibbles. It has the best situation overlooking the Plaza Uta el-Hammam and it’s mulberry trees, as well as the kasbah.
There are several levels with different seating areas, including a couple of roof terraces which are great for the 360 degree panoramic views. The inside restaurant comprises little alcoves, 1001 nights style interiors, with lots of cushions, candles and suitable chillout music. Perfect for a little romance.
Read my Conversant Traveller Trip Advisor review for more.
The standard 3 course tourist menu here was DH85, a bit more expensive than a lot of other places, which seemed to average at DH60. You don’t of course have to go the whole hog, but as hubbie never passes up an opportunity for food, we got stuck in. The food was decent, flavoursome, if a little dull considering the surroundings. The tagine was tiny compared to pretty much everywhere we’d been, and hubbie’s was only luke warm, but it ‘did the job’, to coin a favourite phrase of my father. Chocolate pancakes for dessert were a welcome change from the usual cinnamon dusted oranges and creme caramel.
Worth a visit if only for the stunning view of the medina, all for the price of a coke.
We also tried Al Kasbah restaurant, on an alley right next to the square. Another enticing space with little private booths, Moroccan tent style drapes and an endearing yet motley assortment of wrought iron furntiure. After fending off unrequited offers of watching football in the main restaurant (honestly, why does everyone assume all British tourists love the game?), we managed to get an outside booth all to ourselves. Great for privacy, not so great for service. Still, the food was palatable, if nothing special, and the pastilla was surprisingly tasty and not dry like many we’ve come across. So they get a thumbs up for that, at least. The 3 course menu here was DH60, and better value than La Lampe Magique, though without the views. Read my full review on my Conversant Traveller Trip Advisor page.
It was really frustrating knowing which language to use here. Spanish is spoken more widely than French, so I was relishing being able to hold proper conversations with the locals, and indeed in some restaurants this was the case, to my delight and possibly theirs. However the rest of the time I’d launch into Spanish, and they would reply in French, English or sometimes Arabic, leaving me wondering just what are the rules?
By the end of the three days I was constructing sentences using all four languages, and no-one seemed to blink an eye, it was the normal way to communicate and I began to quite like it. When it doubt, insert vocab from another language and away you go. Brilliant!
As we made our way back to the guest house through the darkened alleyway one last time, the sound of rather ecstatic singing caught our ears. As it came closer we grinned to each other and launched into over the top greetings and exaggerated pleasantries as the aspirant chanteur appeared around the corner. Perhaps the Chefchaouen euphoria was catching after all. This time he seemed to have lost his lovely jacket, and dreadlocks now had his hair looking much tider, but his sentiment remained the same.
“Helloooooooooooo people, how are you doing, welcome to Chefchaouen, land of the….”
We never found out what land it was, but it didn’t take much to make a guess.