Often regarded as one of the prettiest towns in Morocco, the blue city of Chefchaouen (sometimes shortened to “Chaouen” or “Xaouen”) doesn’t disappoint. The narrow blue passages give way to wide squares where the historic Andalusian influence on the town is easily notable in ornate archways, doorways (the most famous of which is a ruin at the entrance of town), and windows and the sprawl of red-tiled rooftops. Firmly entrenched on the backpacker circuit, presumably for the easily obtainable (and very illegal) kif and hash, Chefchaouen has long been hosting visitors. Though there are still hostels and pensiones, the recent spike in tourism has led to an increase in boutique hotels, riads, and dars.
For nature lovers, there are several day hikes and overnight hikes through the Rif Mountains and into nearby Talassemtane National Park that are easily accessible, making this a good home base for hikers, campers and backpackers. People here are usually very friendly, though conservative.
Even if it is a bit more touristed than in years past, with its pleasant medina and stunning hikes at its back door, Chefchaouen has retained its charms and continues to be a highlight for seasoned travelers and first-timers alike.
Sights in Chefchaouen
The ancient medina is nestled in a sharp valley between mountain peaks and is one of the more pleasurable medinas to visit in all of Morocco. It’s often painted by the locals in shades of blue that have been combined to make the stunning “Chefchaouen blue.”
It’s one of the cleanest medinas in the country, with comparatively little trash lying openly on the footpaths like in many other medinas. Plaques in Arabic, Spanish, and English explain the historical importance of some of the medina buildings. However, as is often the case, some things are lost in translation. For instance, at the Casa Banraisun near the kasbah, the trilingual plaque notes that the prince Moulay Ali Ben Rashid built Casa Banraisun for Al-Faqih Ali Ben Maimin, a writer under the prince’s patronage. In Arabic, it explains clearly that the prince had a secret passage built between the house and the kasbah. Mysteriously, this explanation does not exist in either the Spanish or English text that accompanies this plaque. What else has been lost in translation?
The oldest buildings in the Jewish mellah date from the 16th century, though most of the Jewish population didn’t move into the medina until the sultan’s command in the 18th century. Despite its advanced age, it is still known as Mellah el-Jedid (New Mellah), because the old mellah was outside of the medina walls and even older still, though nobody knows exactly how old. Today, there is just the one mellah in Chefchaouen.
The medina is more hassle-free than most others in Morocco. There are still a few touts and nagging store owners, but a firm “no, thank you” is generally sufficient to deter them. No doubt you will be asked many, many times to buy kif, a local specialty, often by young men passing by. Be wary. Kif is a derivative of the marijuana plant and is still very illegal in Morocco, though in Chefchaouen you will likely see people openly smoking in cafés, hostels, storefronts, and even in the streets.
The main square, the cobblestoned Place Uta el-Hammam, is the public plaza in the middle of the medina. The plaza and the kasbah that towers over it date from the 15th century, when Moulay Rachid first constructed the kasbah as part of his war against the Portuguese.
The red-walled kasbah (Pl. Uta el-Hammam, Wed.-Mon. 9am-1pm and 3pm-6:30pm, Fri. 9am-12pm, closed Tues., 10Dh), built in 1471, has been renovated and houses a small Ethnography Museum. Moulay Ali Ben Rachid continued his cousin’s declared war against the Portuguese, who had seized control of Tangier, Asilah, and other port towns. Moulay Rachid was concerned with the defensive nature of his war, which was the chief reason he built his fort in Chefchaouen. The graffiti-strewn walls of the small prison still have the chains that once held the inmates. Most information is in Arabic, French, and Spanish.
Just next to the looming kasbah, the delicate Grand Mosque (Jamaa Kbeer) (Pl. Uta el-Hammam) rises, calling the faithful to prayer five times a day. Though non-Muslims are not permitted entrance, its architectural uniqueness can be observed from the outside. The mosque was built by Moulay Mohamed, the son of Moulay Rachid, in 1560, but its minaret, inspired by the Torre de Oro in Sevilla, was built much later, in the 18th century. The octagonal minaret features three tiers of blind arches that wrap around the tower, with each tier of arches being distinctive.
At one time, there were four or five major fonduqs—open courtyards surrounded by stables and shops—that served as hubs for traders, artisans, and shopkeepers in the medina. Today, the only one remaining is Fonduq Chfichu (Zanka Targhi, 20ft from the main square). This 16th-century fonduq just off Place Uta el-Hammam is a reminder of this era of Andalusian-influenced architecture. Currently, wood and iron workers are making use of the fonduq, and usually a distinct odor of kif will accompany your visit.
Ras El-Ma Waterfalls
The Ras el-Ma waterfalls are just beyond Place Sebanin through Bab Ras el-Ma. There are usually ladies who will dress you like a local (jeblia for girls, jebli for boys) for 5Dh. This is a fantastic photo op and should be taken advantage of. This area makes for a nice morning or afternoon stroll with plenty to see and do. The municipality has built wood shacks where the local women often take their laundry to scrub, and just a short hike along the hillside will bring you to the recently renovated, though unused, Spanish Mosque overlooking the city.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Morocco.