Until 1920 Chefchaouen was closed to Europeans. Now that it’s opened its gates, the outside world has influenced the town. Fortunately it has retained much of it’s low key charm and is one of the most friendly towns.
The taxi ride from Tangier to Chefchaouen was accomplished in two stages, as the first driver didn’t have the police permit to allow him to drive all the way. So we went halfway to a smaller town and transferred to another taxi for the rest of the journey.
Luckily, no police stopped us and we made good time.
Quiet and unique morning walk in Chefchaouen
The medina (old town) of Chefchaouen has a very relaxed atmosphere. The brilliant blue hues that cover the walls, streets make it quite unique.
Most of the streets and many walls in the medina of Chefchaouen (where you should be spending most of your time) are painted blue. It’s a lovely sight, especially in contrast with the peaks of the Rif Mountains. It was the Jewish population that started the blue trend and transformed the look of the town in the 1930’s.
To this day it is not uncommon to see ladies with big brushes freshening up the blue paint outside their homes. The narrow streets of the medina are filled with cozy restaurants and shops where locals mix with tourists in an easy manner. You can’t get lost since the town is really not very big and most of the larger alleys will lead to the main square.
We reached Chefchaouen around 3 in the afternoon, and checked into the Hotel Asmaa. The hotel is perched high above the town on a hill, with a panoramic view of the valley and village below. At about 5,000 feet above sea level, the figure-eight shaped town is surrounded by ancient walls, and has at least seven minarets for the faithful. We got a good earful of the calling to prayers over the next week as the wailing (or Lafki) carried right up the hill into our room five times per day. High above the town are the twin peaks of Chaouen – the goat horns – Chefchaouen means “look to the horns” – which has been a landmark for the Berbers for thousands of years. So naturally, a Kasbah and town grew there as an important trading and government center for the Rif Mountains.
The walls and gates of Chaouen are splendid, and the large Ras Alma Spring gushes out of the mountain inside the stone walls of the town. Not only is the town’s spring water pure and delicious right from the tap, the mountain air is so clean and crystalline that you can see forever, it seems, from up on the hill overlooking town.
Entrance to the Medina
Having researched the town in a guide book and studied a map, we felt ready to go and explore. The desk clerk advised us to walk down thru the cemetery below the hotel and thru a gate in the wall, into the town’s medina directly. Otherwise, you have to take a taxi by road (about two kilometers) or walk down the road.
We set out for the shortcut, and a guide immediately glued himself to us as we left the hotel lobby. We were now stuck with Said for the afternoon. At least we had someone to explain the more interesting and obscure points of the town’s history to us. We were also shown some interesting places like the water-driven flourmill, the town’s spring, and the medina. After this mini-tour Said showed us to a restaurant for a fairly decent, but expensive Moroccan meal. We sent him on an errand while we ate – to get us some hashish. Happily, he returned with the stuff and it was great!
Walking through the ancient city of Chefchaouen was like stepping back in time a few hundred years… there was still a profusion of jellabah and burnoose wearing Berber men, and women in their traditional and very colorful costumes. The women’s hats are straw and decorated with brightly colored yarn balls like mini-pompoms, their dresses are striped and equally brilliant. Times are changing right in front of your eyes, however… most (if not ALL) of the younger generation are now dressed in western clothes, T-shirts, jeans and fancy running shoes.
Chefchaouen is a relatively prosperous town, and the people love to show off their Western stuff. It seems every house in Chaouen has a satellite dish!
The next morning we awoke, with the windows wide open and fresh air gushing through the room. Feeling refreshed by our deep sleep, we wandered downstairs for breakfast. Breakfast at the hotel that first morning was memorable, and the view from the verandah spectacular. It seems we were the hotel’s only guests, as it was still off-season.
How lucky can you get? We decided to enjoy a day at the hotel, smoking on the verandah and writing in the diary. We had snacks; nuts and dates, bread and juice, and proceeded to get “tranquilo”.
Powder blue houses add color to the Chaouen medina
Around 2:30 in the afternoon we decided to go out and explore the town. As soon as we popped out the front door, Said, our guide from the day before was all over us. There was a waiting cab, and he got right in with us and immediately started harassing us for more money for the previous day’s efforts. A typically Moroccan scene, with everything subject to much arguing and changing of minds, even after the bargaining process has long since ended! After about 45 minutes of yelling at him, we finally got rid of the guy and set out on our own.
We really started to enjoy ourselves after getting Said the Guide to go away. Ambling unhurriedly through the medina, we strolled past the many colorful shops. When we arrived at the square by the Kasbah, we found ourselves in the middle of a huge event. It seems the entire town was there in the plaza to celebrate King Hassan’s birthday. Huge tents were setup to shade the dignitaries and a special feast was laid out in one. Banners and flags with the Moroccan five pointed star on a field of red were flapping in the morning breeze. Large pictures of the King and his family were hung in the plaza. A band played live music and was followed by speeches. Everyone was dressed up for this occasion, and very cheerful.
Plan on spending at least three days here to explore the town and absorb the laid back ambiance.
Things to Do: The Chefchaouen medina is small and attractive. You won’t get lost, and you will be pleasantly surprised by the blue Andalusian architecture including arches, small squares and fountains. The Berber people who make up the majority of people in the Rif region are very friendly. Make some new friends! If it’s your scene, the Hotel Asmaa is the place for drinks, music and women.
Sights: The Kasbah contains the small Musee de Chefchaouen. The gardens and walls are worth a visit. The surrounding mountains are good to explore for the views are spectacular. You can arrange a guide to show you around the countryside. However a guide is not necessary for the town itself. The medina is small enough to navigate on your own.
Shopping: There are some bargains to be had in Chefchaouen especially the local Rifi blankets. They also make pottery, leather goods, metal items and woodwork in town. There is less pressure here than in the large cities, although the town’s few guides will make sure you pay too much! Avoid them! Hashish abounds and the quality is usually excellent.
Food: Chaouen is no culinary mecca. You’ll be lucky to find anything besides the standard Moroccan fare. The only good thing is that when you leave you’ll have something better to look forward to. The Ras Alma is clean and has very good salads.
Accommodation: Hotel Asmaa on the hill is nice with great views, but a bit out of town. For budget travelers we recommend the Pension Ahrazem. It’s an old villa with a beautiful central courtyard, recently remodeled. Travelers hang out here and mingle with the locals. The owners are very friendly and very cool.
Getting Around: The town is small enough to travel on foot. But taxis are reasonable.