Chefchaouen: Morocco’s blue pearl
CHEFCHAOUEN - Looking for magic? Then browse hundreds of thousands of pictures of the little northern Moroccan town of Chefchaouen, which has stolen many tourists’ hearts.
Known as the “blue pearl” for its blue-painted old town that differentiates it from other old towns, Chefchaouen is one of the cheapest tourist destinations in Morocco, especially in the summer compared to M’diq, Martil and Tangier, where accommodation prices skyrocket in August.
There are several theories behind the talc- or chalk-based blue paint. Some say it keeps away mosquitoes and facilitates a cool temperature inside the houses while others say that Jewish refugees who fled Nazi persecution in Europe in the 1930s were behind the choice to remind them of the sky and paradise.
Nestled in the Rif Mountains, the town of 42,000 has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2010.
Entering the old town from Bab Al-Ain, the colourful hand-made slippers and souvenirs hung neatly on the wall draw attention. Further left hangs a sign for a Chinese restaurant, proof that the city is popular among the growing number of Chinese tourists.
Wandering through the narrow streets and steep alleyways of Chefchaouen requires a little bit of stamina and low heels, especially in the summer under the scorching sun.
Chefchaouen was founded in 1471 by Moulay Ali Ben Moussa Ben Rached El Alami, who used it as fortress to guard against Portuguese invaders.
The 15th-century Kasbah in Place Outa El Hammam is well-preserved and can be accessed for $1.10. The tower of the ochre-hued fortress offers spectacular views over all sides of Chefchaouen. Its garden with luscious trees is a perfect spot for taking refuge from the heat.
The Kasbah has a small but interesting Ethnographic Museum that showcases Moroccan handicraft with wood, plaster and tiles.
Leaving the Kasbah, Place Outa El Hammam buzzes with locals and foreign tourists buying souvenirs, taking photos of each other wearing traditional Chefchaoueni hats and dresses, having their hands decorated with henna or filling the terraces of cafes and restaurants.
I had to take a break from the long walk in the old town and quench my thirst with freshly squeezed orange juice in a cafe in the square near the busy Morisco restaurant that offers a variety of Moroccan dishes at moderate prices.
What captivated my mind was the laid-back atmosphere in the little square, which is a far cry from the bustling Jemaa el Fna in Marrakech where tourists are approached by often aggressive snake charmers, fortune tellers and henna ladies.
The Grand Mosque, painted white, brown and beige, embellishes the square with its stone octagonal minaret. An old Moroccan lady sitting on a bench by the mosque’s stairs listens to a guitar played by foreign tourists, giving a perfect picture of tolerance and co-existence in the town.
In Mellah — the old Jewish quarter — there is a small store selling handmade lamps, one of the few surviving shops to have withstood “made-in-China” merchandise imports.
“The lamp-making craft is originally Jewish. It was my grandfather who started this business and it has been passed from father to son,” said Imam El Atoui, his hands busy turning metal and glass into beautiful lanterns, wall-hanging and ceiling lamps.
On the way out of the old town, I stopped by a shop to indulge in the brown olives and mouth-watering local goat cheese at El Kharrazi quarter near Abi Khansa Mosque.
“Have a portion of cheese before you buy it,” said shop owner Mohamed El Qammah, showing me the kind hospitality that locals are known for.
Chefchaouen is famous for its hand-woven blankets and shawls and wool garments besides the popular reed hats adorned with colourful woven woollen tassels that are a traditional feature in the northern region.
There are plenty of riads and guesthouses to choose from in Chefchaouen. The newly refurbished Dar Swiar, in the quiet Souika neighbourhood, offers apartments with fine architectural designs and furnished with local crafts from $47 a night. The view from the rooftop terrace over the Rif Mountains is mesmerising.