Seeing Blue – Chefchaouen

ChefchaouenA mere two-hour drive from Tangier, Morocco, visiting the small city of Chefchaouen in the Rif Mountains is like stepping into another world.  Surrounded by dry, arid land where orange dust blows in the wind and skinny, bare bushes rattle, Chefchaouen’s blue and white concrete jungle is a startling juxtaposition.

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The Spanish influenced the blue shaded buildings after their invasion and occupancy between 1920 and 1956.  Nowadays it is a popular tourist spot and has around 200 hotels to satisfy the summer months’ influx of visitors.

Partly because of the Berber population, shopping in Chefchaouen is a popular excursion.  Brimming with brightly coloured carpets, woven bags and glittering crockery, you can find anything from a genuine silver teapot to a babygrow made of camel hair.  (The city is also renowned as a distributor of hashish – though not my cup of tea, it is apparently a fun weekend away for stag parties and the like.)

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When we visited the city, it was for a brief day trip with a local guide, Mostafa, who also has a house there.  Entering at the old side of the city, we meandered our way through the higgledy-piggledy cobbled streets.  Looming overhead I couldn’t get over the vibrant buildings.  A splash of azure blue framing a crisp white doorway next to a pale blue staircase and sky blue flowerpot.  Some painted only to eye level, the towering structures continued in a terracotta colour, clashing against the bright sky.

We found ourselves in a public area, where a gentle stream trickled down the mountainside. Tracing its path back up the hill, we emerged into a valley-like opening.  On one side a man cooled his feet in the shallow pool of water, while on the other children splashed and played next to women washing her clothes in the deeper parts of the river.

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Heading under a stone archway and a stack of petrol canisters, their smell ebbing out dangerously in the midday sun, we headed for the city’s main shopping areas.  Visiting one of Mostafa’s friends (of course), we ducked into a dark cave-like room that glistened with glassy, silvery wares.  Too perfect to resist, I weakened and bartered my way to a new silver teapot and accompanying glass.

Dining in Chefchaouen can only be done in one place, advised Mostafa.  Casa Hassan is first and foremost a hotel, but their on-site restaurant really is a gem.  We ate  Moroccan salad, a lamb and vegetable tagine stuffed with potato, lamb, beans and the delicious Ras-el-hanout spices, a chicken tagine of butter sauce, lemon, sultanas and chick peas, accompanied by a generous helping of cous cous.  I can safely say that the lamb tagine we ate as Casa Hassan was by far the best tagine I’d ever tasted. I could not get enough.

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Fit to bursting and after a tour of the accommodation on offer, we hit the streets once more.  Passing hanging carpets, bags of multi-hued spices and turtles scrambling over themselves in a cardboard box, we ended our day at the main square.  Resting once more for another helping of sweet Moroccan mint tea (my favourite kind!), we watched the world go by from the edge of the mighty Kasbah.  With wild cats slinking about our feet, the sun smiling down on us, I couldn’t help but think: this is the life.

Our trip to Chefchaouen was part of a tour of Morocco organised by Blands Travel.  Alternatively you can organise a day trip from Tangier itself, or hire a car and drive to the city yourself.  To make the most of your time there, I’d recommend staying overnight, when the city is ablaze with candles and mysterious dark corners.

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