The Magical Blue City of Chefchaouen
The obvious question when you first get to Chefchaouen is: “Why is it blue?” Many reasons are offered and most are myths, among them being, that the blue color is used as a mosquito repellent, or that it reminded the original (non-existent) ex-sailor residents of their sea-fairing past. The real reason, however, is that the Jews who came to Chefchaouen after being expelled from Spain at the end of the 15th century, painted the Mellah (the Jewish quarter) in light blue. 'Tekhelet', an ancient blue dye used for weaved prayer shawls symbolized the presence of God. Over centuries the blue decor spread, transforming the medina from its original white walls and red tiles roofs.
Chefchaouen (often abbreviated as “Chaouen”) is one of the most chill, laid back towns in all of Morocco. Long famous on the backpacker trek, this small mountain town is now really blossoming into its own as a travel destination. Chaouen is far enough off the beaten track to dissuade most tourists, which makes it quiet enough for those visitors brave enough to venture to the edge of the Rif Mountains.
Chefchaouen and Cannabis
An interesting fact about the blue city that most foreigners aren't aware of is that Chefchaouen is Morocco’s leading producer of cannabis. Much of the farmable soil won’t grow much else, but cannabis grows in abundance and has made itself such an intrinsic part of the city’s life that no one gives it much of a second glance. You might very well see cannabis being sold in an open stand right in between the vegetables and the herbs.
While cannabis is a part of every day city life here, that is not an accurate description of what this beautiful city is about. Chaouen is a respite of quiet compared to the busy medinas of Fez and Marrakech. The narrow, Chaouen-blue pedestrian streets give ways to wide squares and breathtaking views over the lush valley below. It has enough of what is quintessentially Moroccan to be of interest to those looking for something a bit more authentic, nature lovers will enjoy the easily accessible hikes into the mountains, and shoppers will enjoy the charming boutiques offering anything from hand-spun pottery to artisanal soaps made right in the city.
Notes from the History of Chefchaouen
Chefchaouen is placed between two tall mountains peaks. This is where Chefchaouen takes the root of its name. “Chef”, a derivation of the Arabic word “to look” and “Chaouen,” meaning “antlers” or “horns.” Between the two protective horns of the looming Rif Mountains, Chefchaouen has long been a strategic mountain town. It has a storied history that began shortly after the Portuguese conquest of Morocco in 1471 AD. A local tribal leader, known as Abu Youma, needed a protected, secret location from where he could launch attacks against the Portuguese. Abu Youma died in one of the battles and his cousin, Ali Ben Rachid, took over custodianship of the nascent city.
Right at the end of the 15th century, Ali Ben Rachid began moving his family and friends from Granada (in modern day Spain) into Chaouen. By the middle of the 16th century, an established route was established for those seeking refuge from the Spanish Inquisition. This new immigration greatly increased the size of the city. The refugees brought with them their knowledge of art and architecture, as they did in larger cities such as Fez and Marrakech. All of this had an influence on the look of the city. However, it wasn’t until the Sultan commanded the creation of the mellah in 1760 AD that the special light blue, now associated with the old city of Chefchaouen, came to be used.
Shopping for Crafts in Chefchaouen
One of our favorite places to shop is the Hat Man. This funky shop is located toward the top of the medina on the main thoroughfare, Rue Targui on your way uphill from the main square. Hand knitted hats are available in many shapes, sizes and various levels of ridiculousness. There is a sign that reads “Hat Man.” You can’t miss it.
For some incredible spices and artisanal soaps, stop by El Jabon Arte Con La Abuela (Soap Art with Grandma) on Zanka Targhi, just a few steps up from the central Place Uta el-Hammam. Soaps in delicious combinations — such as chocolate, thyme and lemon — are on offer here as well as fresh cumin, fragrant saffron, and other spices from Morocco.
Dar Salam on Rue Taylia has a wide variety of hand-carved Moroccan furniture and a wide selection of handspan and woven wool carpets from different regions of the country. Hassan, the owner, will be happy to tell you a bit about the chunky Berber jewelry, the different tribes who still weave carpets and other pieces of Moroccan history and culture. There are no hard-sells here. Just a tea if you want it and some friendly chit-chat.
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