“Where have you come from?”
The tall thin man peers at us over his spectacles, his wiry beard encircling a curious smile. “We’re from Australia” we tell him. “Why do you ask?” I add. “Because we’re always curious to know why people come to visit our city” he says.
We’re in Chefchaouen, a city in northwest Morocco that has become famous for the blue-washed buildings of the old town. Tucked away in the Rif Mountains, why the city is painted blue remains a mystery. One popular theory is that the blue acts as a mosquito repellent. Others say that the tradition stems from the Jewish community who fled here from Europe in the 15th century. The colour symbolises the sky and the heaven.
Its popularity has exploded due to Instagram and Pinterest with floods of tourists taking over the mountain village, particularly during summer. A photographer’s paradise, it’s hard to take a bad photo between the cerulean walkways. Book in a couple of nights like we did and lose yourself in the spellbinding medina.
Travel to Chefchaouen. The biggest cities nearby are Tangier (2 hours drive) and Fes (4 hours drive). Many tours include a couple of days in Chefchaouen so if you choose this option, you will arrive via coach.
If you choose to make your own way to the Blue Pearl, you have the following options:
- Catch the bus
CTM operates the route between Tangier and Chefchaouen via Tetouan. The services are few and we heard from fellow travelers that you could end up sitting on the floor of the bus or missing out altogether.
- Hire a private taxi
You can hire a private driver in a grand taxi. We considered this option when planning our trip. Costs start at roughly 700 DH (one-way) and you may also need to consider a tip too.
- Hire a rental car
As our time was limited, combined with the fact that we wanted to be cost-efficient, this was the option we chose after extensive (read: hours scrolling through the internet) research. We travelled from Marrakech to Tangier on the overnight train. After catching a taxi to Tangier Airport (150 DH), we collected a rental car from Europcar before making the 2 hour journey to the Rif Mountains. It’s a relatively direct route and despite the curvy one-way highways, the roads are in much better condition than we imagined.
If you’re concerned about hiring a car in Morocco, we would recommend reading this blog post by Along Dusty Roads. It provides very helpful information about what to consider if you choose to rent a car and we relied on this a lot!
Check in to your hotel. We stayed at Casa Sabila in the beautiful Bab el-Ansar district and a short walk from Ras el-Maa. The Arab-Andalusian guest house features five rooms and a roof terrace. It is also located close to the Great Mosque. To book your accommodation in Chefchaouen, we recommend using booking.com.
Head to Bab Ssour for lunch. Unfortunately, Google Maps was not our friend when we tried to locate this restaurant ourselves. We walked around the Bab El Sor square and a couple of the blocks more than once, trying to shake off many men who wanted to act as tour guide or offer us drugs (see What To Know below). Eventually we asked a young woman who happily guided us up an alleyway and then walked off promptly.
Bab Ssour is a renowned family run restaurant where locals and tourists sit side by side. Inside, cushioned bench seats sit under blue walls hanging artists’ interpretations of everyday Moroccan life. You’ll hear the noise of boisterous women in the kitchen amongst clanging pots. The ladies shout and wave their hands at the male wait staff who shuffle hurriedly back and forth between kitchen and customers.
Many of the soups and appetisers are only available at dinner. We were fortunate to nab the last lamb couscous of the day and a serve of spicy meatballs (kefta) with bread. Always bread.
STILL HUNGRY? READ BEYOND THE TAGINE: WHAT TO EAT IN MOROCCO
It’s time to wander the steep cobbled lanes. Every corner begs to be photographed. When the sun shines, it’s almost as if the light plays tricks with your eyes. The shades of blue transform from cobalt blue to ocean blue before transitioning to sky blue and then fading to a baby blue.
One Moroccan woman has cleverly tapped into her entrepreneurial side and set up her courtyard as a “traditional” Moroccan home life setting. For 5 DH per person, she allows visitors to take photos inside her courtyard featuring a Moroccan tea set, several pot plants, decorative weapons and ceramics. From memory, the house is along Avenue Hassan 1 and the rough GPS coordinates are 35°10’12.3″N 5°15’37.5″W. A sign hangs next to the doorway so it shouldn’t be difficult to miss.
Once you’ve heard the last call to prayer from the mosque for the day, head to dinner at Cafe Restaurant Sofia. It may not look like much from the outside but its reputation must precede itself as it was full house on the night we visited. We enjoyed a chicken tagine with lemon and green olives as well as chicken and vegetables spring rolls. The banana milkshake was also a special treat!
If you have more time in Chefchaouen, Restaurant Sofia offers cooking classes with Chef Nuura for €30 per person for the day. The course includes a visit to the local market to buy fresh ingredients and then returning to the kitchen to prepare 2 dishes from the restaurant’s menu.
Take breakfast at your hotel. You will likely be treated to homemade yoghurt, orange juice and msemen (a square shaped thick crepe made from wheat flour cooked in a pan with little oil) which you can eat with honey or jam.
Put your bartering skills to the test. The streets of Chefchaouen are lined with colourful woven blankets, leather bags, paintings, straw hats with pom poms and brass teapots. The uniqueness of the blue city continues to attract hordes of visitors off large coaches, particularly from China. Many shopkeepers would shout out “Ni hao!” to passing Asian visitors in a bid to attract their custom.
Meander down towards Avenue Hassan II and you’ll reach the shady main square of Place Outa el Hammam. Here, you’ll find bustling restaurants, souvenir stalls and the entrance gate of the Kasbah. The restored walled fortress contains a garden, a small ethnographic museum, an art gallery (captions are in Arabic and French) and the kasbah tower, which affords wonderful views of the city. Entrance is 10 DH.
Listen to your rumbling tummy and nab a seat at Restaurant Mounir Food. Perch in a booth seat which will afford you the perfect people-watching view of Plaza Uta el-Hammam. Order an omelette or a grilled sandwich with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice.
It’s time to go and nab that Instagram photo. Head up towards Avenue Hassan 1, the long pedestrian path at the top of the city. The famous steps with colourful potted plants is at Derb El Assri. We visited this spot twice. The first time was early in the morning and the light wasn’t quite right. But after 10 minutes, we were swamped with a group of tourists who unfortunately rudely pushed ahead of us without waiting.
If visiting in the afternoon expect to find the line 10+ deep. If this is the photo you want, generally other travellers will take photos for one another but just be prepared to queue. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t take a photo at this spot. There are plenty of narrow lanes and corners for you to go snap happy which you won’t have to queue for.
Walk towards Ras El Ma where you will pass locals selling their wares on the walls. Cross the bridge over the Ras El Ma river where you may spot women doing their daily laundry chores. Follow the dirt path lined with prickly pears up towards the Spanish Mosque. The abandoned building sits in disrepair on the hill, one of the last visible remnants of the Spanish occupation. The hilltop view is what people come to see. Sit and watch the sunset over the limestone peaks of the Rif mountains and the satellites that dot the blue roofs below. The walk up will take approximately 30 minutes.
After sunset, make your way down the path to Restaurant Populaire Lala Mesouda. We believe that this establishment may have the same owners of Bab Ssour as the laminated menu looked quite similar but not to worry. There are plenty of options available to try something new. Here, we ate a chicken pastilla, harira soup and lentils.
Rise soon after the first call to prayer. Bring your camera and travel partner with you and hit the streets to take some last minute photos of the Blue Pearl. The steep cobbled lanes are quiet and empty but for a few stray cats. The light is different in the morning and you’ll be surprised at how many different hues of blue will appear in your photos during your stay.
WHAT TO KNOW
Limited parking is available up at Ras El Ma. If you manage to nab a spot here, it will cost 50 DH for 2 nights which you will pay in cash to the attendant. Hopefully your parallel parking skills are up to scratch! You won’t receive any receipt or ticket to put into your dashboard – it is purely a trust system.
The region is one of the main producers of cannabis in Morocco. Our hotel did warn us upon our arrival so don’t be surprised if you’re approached more than once to buy drugs.
Other activities in the surrounding area include a day trip to Cascades d’Akchour for a full day of hiking. The waterfalls are a 45 minutes drive away and require a solid level of fitness so make sure to have decent hiking shoes!
Have you visited Chefchaouen? Tell us about your experience!