Approaching Chefchaouen from a distance, I could feel my muscles relax and my lungs breathe deep. There it stood, a blue-and-white blob slumped lazily on the slopes of a steep, sparse mountain. The hamlet was surrounded by the dusty, scrubby Rif mountains, yet inside its depths lay a hidden oasis.
As with all Moroccan towns, Chefchaouen – Chaouen to the locals – holds a medina, a complex maze of passageways housed inside ancient walls. But unlike in Fez’s chaotic jumble of laneways and dead ends, here your body submits to the experience – to a peace and calm that emanates from the very walls and cobblestones. It is impossible to feel harassed here, even when the local boys approach to “chat” and offer you hash.
Such is the effect a colour can have on you.
Chaouen: The Blue City
You see, everything in Chefchaouen is awash in blue hues. There are periwinkle blue walls, cerulean archways, powder blue water fountains, teal paths, and baby blue doors – even the lighting can’t escape a sapphire tinge.
As with Fez’s medina, Chefchaouen’s streets lead you on a pointless ramble through a labyrinthine streetscape. But it’s the most delightful maze you’ll ever navigate. This medina is also noticeably smaller and far more walkable.
Amid the blue, any other colour can’t help but stand out, from the earthy red terracotta tiles above the doorways and the organic woven rugs pinned to walls to the colourful pot plants locals use to decorate their streets.
Early morning is the perfect time to stroll here. Shops are boarded shut. The streets are ruled by a wealth of cats, basking in the sun and enjoying having their dominion to themselves. Just a few locals meander the streets, hands clasped behind their backs, taking all the time in the world.
Before about 11am, Chefchaouen hasn’t yet woken up, the hustle and bustle of a popular tourist town hasn’t yet kicked into gear for another day. Without leather bags and tourist knick knacks dominating the walls, you can notice the intricate tile work around doorways, the black lanterns hanging above windows and on street corners, and the blue stairways leading to nowhere.
More importantly you can take a photograph confident you won’t be offending one of the many camera-shy local women who flood the streets later in the day.
But the town is also unmissable at its peak, when it hums with locals and tourists. In the touristy end, colourful shops display leather goods, intricately woven Berber carpets, bags of herbs and soaps, and hessian sacks full of colourful powders. The tea shops around the charming main square are chockas with rugged men sipping sweet mint teas, all the chairs facing out into the general hubbab to make it all the more easy to people watch.
In the backstreets, children play soccer with vibrant enthusiasm, aiming the ball at doorway goals and generally sending it flying through the air to ricochet off the narrow passageways. They giggle with mirth and scream “Hola!!” as you pass. Women emerge from doorways to pour soapy water down the drains.
Chefchaouen easily covers my criteria for the ideal travel destination and it’s one of those places you can all too easily get lost in – literally and metaphorically. When you’re travelling there’s nothing you can do but go with it. But when you’re in Chaouen, there’s nothing more you want to do than go with it.