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Chefchaouen is quirky tradition & is an otherworldly escape nestled inMorocco’s Rif Mountains. As well as its distinctive palette of blue and white buildings, a striking contrast with the arid setting, this popular tourist town has plenty to offer. Embark on strenuous hillside hikes or idle strolls; bathe in mountain streams; or embrace the culinary scene and excellent shopping. Here’s how to tailor a trip to Chefchaouen to four different travel styles.
Founded in 1471 by Moulay Ali Ben Moussa Ben Rached El Alami, Chefchaouen served as a Moorish fortress for exiles from Spain. Over the centuries, the city grew and welcomed Jews and Christian converts alike.
Chefchaouen’s powder-blue buildings mirror the cloudless Moroccan sky – but religious rather than stylistic reasons are behind the design choice. Jewish teachings suggest that by dyeing thread with tekhelel (an ancient natural dye) and weaving it into prayer shawls, people would be reminded of God’s power. The memory of this tradition lives on in the regularly repainted blue buildings.
Traditional blue-painted doors and walls in Chefchaouen’s old town. Image by David Sutherland / Photographer’s Choice / Getty Images.
Nowadays Chefchaouen is a rich cultural tapestry of Berber tribespeople, Muslims and Jews, along with descendants of the Moorish exiles from Spain who lived there in the 1400s. Berber tribespeople can be seen wearing distinctive cotton clothing paired with woven hats that are decorated with brightly coloured threads.
Tucked away in Africa’s northernmost mountain range, the Rif Mountains, Chefchaouen has plenty to offer fitness fanatics and those looking for adventure. Valleys, gorges and picturesque peaks are in abundance where arid landscapes meet trickling mountain streams. Both multi-day treks and day trips are available, all of which start in Chefchaouen. Some routes pass the nearby village of Jevel el Kelaa, a little north of the city, through Afeska, passing through lush green forests and offering with views of the Mediterranean Sea.
A two-day trek with Journey Beyond Travel (journeybeyondtravel.com) starts in Chefchaouen, passing a natural spring on the way to a small village in the Talasemtane National Park. A night spent in a small mountain lodge is followed by a visit to the Farda River and God’s Bridge before a picnic lunch, a stop off at Akchour and a transfer back to the blue city. With Tours By Locals (toursbylocals.com), visitors can explore on mule-back.
Whatever the season, visitors are guaranteed incredible views. April to June is a popular time of year for trekkers. Chefchaouen is prone to dustings of snow in winter and may be more challenging for hikers (experience recommended).
The mountains towering over Chefchaouen resemble a pair of goat’s horns, and, perhaps not coincidentally, the creamy native goat cheese is one of the most popular regional treats.
‘Seksu’ or couscous is a fine wheat pasta traditionally rolled by hand. It is steamed over a stew of meat and vegetables. To serve, the meat is covered by a pyramid of couscous, the vegetables are pressed into the sides and the sauce served separately. It is often garnished with a sweet raisin preserve, or in the Berber tradition, with a bowl of buttermilk.
This very special pie represents the pinnacle of exquisite Fassi (from Fez) cuisine. Layers of a paper-thin pastry coddle a blend of pigeon meat, almonds and eggs spiced with saffron, cinnamon and fresh coriander, the whole dusted with icing sugar and cinnamon.
During the holy month of Ramadan, the fast is broken at sunset each day with a steaming bowl of harira soup. Rich with tomatoes, lentils, chickpeas and lamb, it is finished off with a squeeze of lemon juice and some chopped coriander, and served with a sticky sweet pretzel called chebakkiya.
The shopping in this beautiful blue town is one of its biggest tourist attractions. It might not be as varied or grand as in the larger cities of Fes, Marrakech and Casablanca, but Chefchaouen boasts a mesmorising traditional souk. After you have explored the blue, maze like streets, think about buying some traditional souvenirs. Tourists will love the relaxed ambiance which is hard to find in the bigger cities, as it means they can stroll at leisure and appreciate the local leather products for which Chefchaouen is best known.
For an even greater appreciate of nature, and even the town itself, hike in the Rif mountains and admire the town from above with unbeatable panoramic views. Less known than the Atlas mountains, but just as beautiful, these peaks rise to 6500 feet above the Mediterranean and boast some of the best hiking routes in Africa. There are so many options when hiking in the Rif; try the popular two day trek to the Talasemtane National Park, which is a spectacular site in itself. Don’t just admire the mountains from the town streets, make sure you head up there yourself.
Often the point of focus for the sightseeing tours, unsurprisingly so given the importance of mosques in Moroccan culture, the Grand Mosque of Chefchaouen is popular with tourists, perhaps thanks to its unique octagonal minaret. The beautiful echoes of the call to prayer which sound five times a day create a great atmosphere, and the stunning architecture which dates back to the 15th century is gorgeous. The mosque is one of the most important buildings in the town, and a definite must-see, although bear in mind only Muslims can enter.