the story behind chefchaouen, the blue pearl of the rif mountains

Me to Google in Marrakech: “How to get from Marrakech to Chefchaouen.”

Google’s response: “3-hour train journey to Casablanca and then a 6-and-a-half-hour bus ride to Chefchaouen.” No airport. No train. Just one daily CTM bus. I knew Chefchaouen was kind of remote. But this sounded over the top. If I missed the bus, shucks, I also missed a travel day.

But being in Morocco and not exploring Chefchaouen would be blasphemy. Originally called Chaouen meaning “peaks,” the town was renamed Chefchaouen in 1975 which means “look at the peaks.” And well, I wanted to look at the peaks.

If neither of the names strike a bell, do have a look at the post’s title picture. In all likelihood you would have come across this scene at least once online. It is the most Instagrammed backstreet in Chefchaouen. Along with it, pictures of igloo-blue homes and lanes would also have sprung out to you from travellers’ social media accounts.

Seems unreal to you? In fact, the real thing is bluer, prettier, and even more magical!

With humble Berber beginnings, Chefchaouen was founded by Moulay Ali Ben Rachid in 1471 as a base for military campaigns against the Portuguese who occupied Ceuta, 100 kilometres to its north. But bigger things were destined for the little walled town perched high up in the Rif Mountains.

The year was 1494. In Granada, Spain, the rise of Christianity following the Crusades was forcing hordes of Jews and Muslims to escape in search of a safe refuge. And a safe refuge some of them did find in Chefchaouen across the Mediterranean Sea.

These refugees brought with them their penchant for white-washed houses, tiled roofs, miniscule balconies, bright potted plants, and citrus trees blooming in the middle of patios—transforming Chefchaouen forever. Chefchaouen was now imbued with a vibrant Andalusian flavour. A flavour that only got further intensified with its occupation by the Spanish from 1920 to 1956 and the decision to paint their town blue in the 1930s.

Chefchaouen, yes, today seems isolated, both geographically and culturally. But it is negligible compared to the period from 1494 [when the Muslims and Jews arrived on its doorstep] to 1920 [when Chefchaouen became a Spanish territory].

Completely cut off for 426 years, the town spoke a 15th Century Spanish dialect and was Xenophobic with a capital X right up till 1920. Christians were prohibited from entering its city walls and killed should they stray in; a four-century-long spin-off from its residents having borne the brunt of the Christianization of Europe.

The blue pearl in the Rif Mountains does not demand you race through its lanes in a bid to cover its “attractions.” They are, after all, but a handful: A pretty main square edged by a crumbling fortress and an octagonal mosque, serene sunset views from the Spanish Mosque on the nearby hill, and a waterfall which serves as the local launderette and source of spring water to refill your water bottles with.

Its charms, in contrast, are myriad. Sun-dappled squares, populated with colourful tiled fountains and sun-bathing cats, which take you by surprise. The smell of freshly baked croissants from 500-year-old bakeries which still go about their tasks using medieval tools and methods. A bipolar mix of wide-eyed tourists on one hand and locals on the other who go about their lives oblivious to the outsiders. And, of course, the omnipresent blue walls and streets, under a heady blue sky.

Happy New Year everyone. May your travels in 2019 be filled with places out of the ordinary. Something like Chefchaouen. ❤

[Note: Click on any of the below images to navigate through the set and read the captions.]

Travel tips:

  • Getting to Chefchaouen from Casablanca and back: Daily CTM Bus; Leaves Casablanca at 1:30 pm; Leaves Chefchaouen at 7:00 am; Travel time 6-and-a-half hours one way.
  • Staying there: I stayed at Usha Guest House through Booking.com. It was super cute with a room on each floor [they have 4 rooms in total], a lovely terrace, and delicious wholesome meals.
  • Getting around: Walking.
  • How many days: I stayed for 1 day and 2 nights.
  • Note: Chefchaouen is surrounded by marijuana fields, both cultivated and growing wild. Don’t be surprised if you get offered some in the town. You can say “no” or “yes.” Both answers are okay with the peddlers.They really don’t care. 🙂

– – –

[Note: This blog post is part of a series from my travels to Morocco for 3 weeks in November-December, 2018. To read more posts in my Morocco series, click here.]

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