Tucked away in Africa’s northernmost tip in the Rif Mountains, this sleepy, pale-blue town has all the allure of a Moroccan city, but without the madness of Marrakech. Chefchaouen is a magical little village that is known for its striking buildings, attractive alleyways and a colour palette of blue and white. You won’t meet a shade of blue here that you don’t like – all the buildings, steps and walls have been coated in rich hues to mimic the cloudless sky of this African country.
Even though this quaint town is filled with hipster cafés, farmers’ markets and freshwater pools to cool down in (you’ll need a dip or two from May to September), Chefchaouen was introduced to the world map in 1471. When Moulay Ali Ben Moussa Ben Rached El Alami found this village, it served as a spot for Spanish exiles back in the day. But its 550-year-old architecture still stands proud, and is regularly painted in an ancient natural dye called tekhelel to maintain its authenticity and distinctive style. The city is home to people from the Berber tribe, as well as descendants of Moorish exiles from Spain, who have been here since the 1400s.
The old city and medina
While Chefchaouen is set within a valley and its crowded houses are all surrounded by picturesque peaks and mountains, when you step inside the old city it feels just like any other medina in Morocco. The Plaza Uta el-Hammam is the main landmark in the medina and the Spanish and Andalusian architectural influences are a treat for the eyes. If you want to work your quads and get some fitness in, head out of Chefchaouen for a hike to Afeska, starting from the village of Jebel el Kelaa.
Head to any Moroccan city and you’ll find your senses overwhelmed with aromatic spices and herbs. Similarly, in Chefchaouen, tagine and grilled meats are a staple part of the local diet. Try one of the signature tagines – whether meat, fish or vegetarian, all are made with a blend of more than 30 fresh spices including turmeric, cardamom, chilli, cumin, paprika and ginger. As Chefchaouen is closer to the coast, the seafood here is fresh and exceptionally flavoursome. If your palate is tired of tagines and local bread, head to Moulay Ali Ben Rachid Restaurant (+212 629 830 955) for either lunch or dinner and try its fresh seafood at very reasonable prices. The calamari and fried squid are the most popular dishes, and Moroccan rice and French fries come free to the table. This eatery is hidden in the riad, but it’s popular among locals, so ask around if you get lost.
The cerulean and indigo streets of this town are accented with colourful, handwoven textiles, silver jewellery and brass utensils. Turn down any street and you’ll find yourself rummaging through little trinkets or wrapping yourself in blankets made from sheep’s wool or camel hair. Bargaining is key (and expected) here, so don’t shy away and settle for the first price given. Don’t leave Morocco without buying a colourful clay tagine pot to impress your family and friends back home with when you show off your Moroccan kitchen endeavors and cook up a storm.
The medina is best explored on foot, as no cars or two-wheeled vehicles can get through the hidden alleyways. And there are many, many steps, so wearing comfortable shoes is a must. If you’re staying outside of the medina, there are two stops; one near the medina and one at the bus station, but a taxi journey should cost no more than Dhs3 to take you into the main square near the Hotel Parador. You can also hire motorbikes and cars to travel outside of Chefchaouen. There are local taxis, too.
With direct flights going from Dubai to Casablanca – the nearest airport to Chefchaouen – six times a week, this part of the journey is simple. But when trying to get from Casablanca to Chefchaouen, things can get a little more complicated. The journey takes more than six hours by bus, so we recommend taking the train from Casablanca to Fes and staying there overnight, before taking a morning bus to Chefchaouen. You have to buy the bus tickets in advance from a certified CTM bus office (www.ctm.ma), as these seats fill out very quickly. You can also hire a private taxi, but expect to pay upwards of Dhs800 for one way for this transport, as taxis are still very much considered a luxury in most Moroccan cities.
From Dhs2,050 (one way). www.emirates.com.