The Charm of Chefchaouen, Morocco
By Colin Hayward
An accident of geography means that Chefchaouen is not overwhelmed with travellers. Tucked into the Rif Mountain of North Morocco, and lacking an airport, this remarkable blue city is far from other major centres. As a result, most travellers come here from Tangier or Rabat and spend only a few hours.
But blue cities don’t exactly dot the planet, so my wife, Linda, and I decided to spend a few days in the town at the Riad Hicham.
After a night in Rabat, our driver, Hamid, picks us up for the 250-kilometre drive over the Rif Mountains. The roads are well maintained but they twist and turn and the inevitable transport trucks are difficult to pass. The truck drivers, who can see much farther ahead, flash their lights to tell the following vehicle when the road is clear.
We park outside the city as no vehicles can navigate the narrow lanes of the Medina. From there, we walk up steps and through winding lanes to reach our Riad. Located on the second floor, our room looks out on the main square. Below us, a man with several parrots makes his living taking pictures of travellers posing with his colourful birds.
When we venture out to explore, Linda and I find streets, houses, gates and laneways in every shade of blue. Wandering the city, we meet waiters, traders, orange sellers and bakers and each seems to have a different explanation for the sea of blue: blue keeps away mosquitoes; Jewish refugees fleeing the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 brought their tradition of blue to Chefchaouen; Jews fleeing Russia settled here and brought the blue after their expulsion from the USSR; blue is a cool colour that keeps the house interiors more pleasant. Perhaps all are true.
After exploring the labyrinth of streets and steps, we find a café in the main square where we sip glasses of mint tea in an outdoor cafe, and watch the Berbers, in their blue djellabas bringing in their wares on donkeys.
Over time, we learn that the town is made up of tightly-knit neighbourhoods. Each has four essentials: a fountain, a mosque, a bakery, and a Hamman or bath-house. And cats are everywhere.
Twilight usually finds us at the Hotel Parador, sitting beside the pool, drinking cokes or, in my case a local Casablanca beer, while watching the sun set over the Rif Mountain and the old mosque.
A few days later, we head for Erg Chebbi, a 10-hour drive southwest from the Blue City. There too, we run into blue. Here the Taureg camel drivers who take travellers out into the Sahara, wear djellabas and matching tegelmust headware of rich indigo.
We have to cut our camel rides short as clouds are gathering over the Atlas Mountains. An hour later, the skies fill with dark blue thunderheads. The gust front hits our four-by-four, and blowing sand, obscures the track. As lightning forks the clouds, the rain comes. Our local guide is laughing as he urges us to hold on. All night rain beats down on the Sahara, one of the world’s driest places.
The next day, pools of water lay everywhere. We leave early for Marrakesh but Hamid has to improvise because locals warned him that one of the bridges ahead has been washed out. Like kids everywhere, the Moroccan children are delighted at the unexpect downpour and splash in the puddles.
A week later, we reach Essouara, a fishing village on the Atlantic coast, about as far from Chefchaouan as you can go in Morroco. And what do we find? The entire fleet of small dories that the fisherman use is painted blue.
Not until we are flying out of Casablanca a few days later did it occur to me that we had not seen a single mosquito on the entire trip. Maybe the Maroccans are on to something.
Colin Hayward is a retired Cambrian College professor.