There is a magical place located in the Rif Mountains of northwest Morocco. A place like no other elsewhere. It is a remarkable town all painted in countless shades of blue and called my many, the Blue Perl on the outskirts of and incredible National Park: Chefchaouen or Chaouen.
There are several theories about why the city was painted in blue. One of them, says that blue keeps mosquitoes away, another says Jews introduced blue when they took refuge from Hitler in the 1930s. For them, the blue colour symbolises the sky and serves as a reminder to lead a spiritual life.
Chefchaouen is a charming small town of around 40,000 inhabitants which is located about 100km from Ceuta on the slopes of the Tisouka Mountains (2050m) and Megou (1616m) of the Rif Cordillera, which rises above the city like two horns, giving its name to the city (Chefchaouen in Berber means "look at the horns").
About 660m above sea level and with very little car traffic, you can breathe clean and fresh air that invites you to spend a few days there to discover the beauty of this place and its environment.
A bit of history
The city was founded in 1471 as a fortress by Mulay Ali Ben Rachid. Located in a difficult place of access, it dominated the commercial route between Tetouan and Fez and served as a base to brake the entrance of the Portuguese from Ceuta. From the 15th to the 17th century, the city prospered and grew in a cosy way with the arrival of the Moors and Sephardi Jews expelled from Spain. Even today, the Andalusian quarter is one of the most populated in the medina.
The Kasbah was built to defend the city first from the Portuguese, then from the Berber rebel tribes then, finally from the Spaniards who took the city in the 1920s. Before that, like most of the cities in the region, Chefchaouen was closed to all foreigners and mostly to Catholics. However, in the early 19th century, some explorers used all their ingenuity to discover the city. The French explorer Charles Foucauld, for example, managed to reach Chefchaouen disguised as a rabbi and Walter Harris, a British journalist disguised himself as a resident of the Rif. An American missionary, however, was discovered and died poisoned.
Between 1924 and 1926, during the Rif War, Abd-el Krim succeeded in briefly expelling the Spaniards, but they soon occupied Chaouen again in September 1926, this time to remain there until Moroccan independence in 1956.
Among the places to visit in Chefchouen, it is impossible not to mention the town’s Medina. Although being fairly small and quiet, when entering through one of its five doors you’ll be carried away by your senses, finding yourself inundated by many new sensations such as the smell of bread freshly removed from the wood oven or tajine ready to be eaten. The great variety of colours of the different products in the shops and bazaars contrast with the dazzling bluish white of the houses. The mixture of unknown voices and sounds will guide you along the alleys that inevitably meander to one of the main landmarks of the town: the Uta el-Hammam square.
Under the shade of the mulberry trees, the Uta El Hammam Square gives access to the Great Mosque and the entrance to the Kasbah and its gardens.
Not far from there you can find the Place Makhzen. The most photographed place in the city! And from there, you can easily reach Bab El Ansar and the water source of Ras El Maa, a place of great beauty from which you can admire water mills, children bathing in the river or women washing their laundry in public wash-houses.
While going down along the stream rocked by the pleasant sound of water, you will reach the ancient hydraulic mills (still working today). This lovely walk leads to Rif Sebbanin, the laundry area, with the Place Sebbanin and its 15th-century Mosque.
From there you can continue your walk to the centre of the Medina, head towards the modern city in the lower part of the hill, or why not, chose to go towards the countryside. Whatever you chose, you will surely make great discoveries...
The Rif, for nature lovers:
The province is mostly mountainous as it is located in the Rif Cordillera in the northern part of the Kingdom of Morocco with the highest point being the Jbel Lakraa peak with 2159 m. In order to preserve the region, the Talassemtane National Park was created in 2004 and is now part of the World Heritage sites. Definitely a “must-do” destination for hiking lovers.
The interior of the province offers impressive natural landscapes with countless choices for walkers and nature lovers, even if so far it hasn’t received the attention it deserves.
Here are some of the excursions that can be done in one day trip:
Akchour and the God’s Bridge
The God’s Bridge is a breathtaking natural rock arch standing 25m above the Wadi Farda river. For centuries, this river eroded the rock until it formed the natural work of art we see today. It serves as a bridge between the two sides of the canyon for residents and excursionists. The other famous site is the Ackhour waterfall on the opposite side of the canyon. The waterfall offers a gorgeous natural swimming pool you should try as swimming in its turquoise blue water is simply a magical moment.
From Chefchaouen, you can get there in about half an hour by car. From the small dam just at the entrance to the canyon, one can then choose between two paths: either by the Wadi Farda river, with the possibility to get wet a little bit by jumping from rock to rock, or by taking the mountain path on the right of the river. Both options are gorgeous and make you want to remain there forever due to the beauty of the landscape and the surrounding nature.
Oued Laou and the beach of Targhaune:
A pleasant excursion leads us to Oued Laou famous for its famous Saturday market and its beaches on the Mediterranean.
During summer days, you can spend a wonderful and relaxing day at the beach, eating fresh fish and enjoying the magnificent view.
The village of Oued Laou offers a quiet break to allow you to resource before some further adventures.
A little bit further east on the coast, you will reach the village of Targha and its large beach dominated by a very original fort built on a rocky peak back in the 15th century.
A visit to the Talassemtane National Park on foot
From Ras-el-Maa, you can take either a small pathway taking you up to the mosque or you can go through the road behind the campsite on the opposite side of Chefchaouen. After a few minutes walking, we’ll find ourselves in the middle of nature surrounded by the local trees such as the beautiful Spanish fir, already in the National Park.
However, something really amazing and that we strongly recommend, is to spend at least one night in the wilderness and have a several days excursion in the mountains to experience nature in a truly meaningful way while sleeping under the exceptional starry sky. That way you will be able to really have the time to explore the incredible Talassemtane National Park and all it has so much to offer.
From its oaks, pines and olive trees and a wide variety of aromatic and medicinal plants to the rare birds that can be seen there such as the Golden Eagle, the White Elk or the Buzzard (surely bird enthusiasts will be delighted). And if you are a true explorer and decide to go deeper into the National Park you could see, in some areas, the Rif monkey (Macaca Sylvanus), known locally as the “Mgou".
Although the blue city of Chefchaouen is an incredible and popular place to visit, the region offers so much more for nature lovers and is yet to be discovered. Undoubtedly worth to spend some days to explore.