Chefchaouen: Escape into the Blue

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Travel is my favourite thing to write about, so when I was asked to write for travel website Informed Explorer recently I was thrilled. Sometimes you visit places and the memories lodge in those dream places in your mind and take on a different life.  Chefchaouen was that for me.  It’s an out of the way destination in Northern Morocco that you need to make the effort to get to but it’s well worth it and is one of the rare places I have sworn I will go back to.

Travelling through Morocco is a wondrous experience – no doubt about it.  But if you are a woman travelling alone, there is a large proportion of your trip that will be spent saying no to people trying to sell you things and no, but thank you, to people wanting to marry you.  This of course is not really a hardship, however it does get tiresome, despite the fact that Moroccans are some of the warmest and friendliest people on earth.

So for some much needed respite, my hottest tip for Morocco is to run for the hills!  The Rif Mountains to be specific.  Here you will find the magical blue hued village of Chefchaouen – a place of great history, unanswered questions and traditions kept alive around many a corner.

Located in Northern Morocco, just a couple of hours south of Tangier’s port, Chefchaouen was founded in the 1400’s as a fortress to protect the North against invasion from the Portuguese. It was settled by local Berber tribes, and Moroccan and Andalusian influences still dominate the culture of the town.

However it is the Jewish inhabitants who left the greatest mark on Chefchaouen. Alleyways, houses, floors and walls are all painted in various shades of blue – a legacy of their faith and a practice that is still in place today.  The tradition was started in the early 1900’s in spiritual recognition of the sacred colour of the sea and sky – blue. Judaism recognises blue as symbolic of God and heaven so the houses were painted as a reminder of this. The effect is mesmerizing to say the least. Old Chefchaouen is yet to succumb to commercialism and strolling through its streets is like a walk through an enormous ancient oil painting.

Aside from the tranquil blue surroundings, Chefchaouen also provides relief from the rest of Morocco’s tourist crowds.  There are of course sections of the medina, mainly around the Uta el-Hammam square that have the inevitable tourist offerings – pottery, cloth and spices, and ‘authentic tagine dishes’ served with fries and a coke. However there is still a lot of the old town that adheres to the simpler ways of life.  Men carrying carts of provisions through narrow alleyways, women washing clothes by hand in the stream, and best of all, fresh bread being baked in wood fired ovens all over the medina.

Most locals still dress traditionally, and Berber women with tribal facial tattoos can be seen going about their day with their children. The call to prayer echoes over the rooftops and mixed conversations in Spanish and Arabic are common. Food is simple and humble – fresh locally made goats cheese, olives, flat bread and lamb. With no cars to pollute the surroundings, the inside of the medina is melodic and fragrant. Distant conversations, birds, the sounds of daily life are all accompanied by the smells of food cooking, and of course, the signature smell of Chefchaouen – cannabis. The greater region of Chefchaouen is one of the main producers of cannabis in Morocco, so many travellers are there to pass their time smoking in cafes and people watching.

I spent Christmas in Chefchaouen that year, and enjoyed the simplest of pleasures from one day to the next. Tables laden with delicious hand made food. Settling into big comfy armchairs with a book by an open fire. Strolling around the medina, stopping for mint tea. Spending an hour in the hammam each day, getting rubbed and scrubbed from head to toe, then emerging squeaky and beaming. Not the Morocco you might expect, but certainly a place to add to your wishlist.

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