IF YOU HAVE EVER seen photos of Chefchaouen, the little blue town high up in the Moroccan mountains, I would expect that you told yourself that it couldn’t actually look that way. It does. In fact, it might be the most beautiful town in the world.
Now I concede that’s quite a statement to make, and all likelihood there are dozens of other places that could lay claim to that title, but I promise the thought will occur to you more than once if you happen to visit, and there are very few places that I can recommend more highly.
The journey to Chefchaouen from Marrakech can be painful, but whichever way you choose to do it, rest assured it is worth it. You can take a single coach all the way, which takes around ten hours, or you can take a train first to Tangier, a coastal city at the western entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar, and from there take a bus the remaining 115km or so to Chefchaouen.
We chose the latter method and booked a sleeper compartment on the overnight train so we wouldn’t waste a day travelling. It costs about £50 per person, and you have to buy a ticket from the Gare Routière in Marrakech’s new town, Gueliz.
We had read a number of horror stories about the condition of the train and so on but none of them were true. Each compartment has four bunk beds with covers, and both ways we got in our beds and went to sleep for the duration of the journey. The inspector takes your tickets when you board the train and knocks on the compartment door when you near your stop. I have read that travelling in the seated carriages really is a nightmare so it’s a good idea to get tickets for one of the sleeping compartments at the first opportunity.
From the train station in Tangiers we walked for about fifteen minutes to the central bus station near the Place d’Espagne. There, we waded through a throng of touters purporting to sell tickets to Chefchaouen, and bought a pair for the more reputable CTM coach, which goes directly to the town. It costs about four quid, so don’t be cheap. Tangier isn’t really worth a long stay, though we did see a screaming topless man try and wrestle a gun off another man in the street, which made things more interesting.
The bus trundles up through the hills that look like patchwork quilts and reaches Chefchaouen in three hours or so. If you head north-east from the bus station for about twenty minutes you’ll get to the town proper, which is ringed by a stone wall and comprises mainly small houses, restaurants and shops connected by narrow meandering pathways, almost all of which are painted blue.
There are a number of theories about why Chefchaouen is painted blue, and no one seems to be able to agree which one is true. The first is that Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s growing influence in Germany in the 1930s painted it blue as a reminder to live a life of spiritual awareness. Jewish and Moorish refugees fleeing the Reconquista of Spain in 1471 had, the story goes, also painted the buildings in nearby villages in the region blue. The second theory, which is far less glamorous, is that the colour keeps away mosquitoes.
Most of Chefchaouen’s Jewish community left the town for Israel in 1948, but their legacy, if the first theory is the case, remains. Each spring, the villagers apply a new coat of paint, and the local government supplies the paintbrushes.
The other instantly noticeable feature of Chefchaouen is the cats. The cats love it there. On our first afternoon in the town we saw at least forty, and if you quite like cats you’ll be pleased to hear that they all seem to be in pretty good shape. (We named one little kitten we found in a restaurant Baba Ganoush. He may or may not have had some of my lunch.)
Morocco relies heavily on tourism and Chefchaouen is no different, but the people are friendlier and more relaxed than they are in the big cities. This extends to the traders and shop-owners, who don’t have the same aggressive quality of their counterparts in Marrakech and Tangier. They won’t hassle you to buy their goods or come into their shops, and if they do speak to you they’re far more light-hearted about it. One asked me to come in and see his products and when I refused he replied, “See you later, alligator.”
The atmosphere is so much more relaxed. Everything moves more slowly. Transactions are made with a smile. The locals are fast and eager to be helpful. Maybe it’s the calming effect of the blue. Maybe it’s the surrounding natural beauty. Or maybe it’s the vast quantities of weed growing in the Rif mountains nearby.
You’ll find no shortage of places to stay in the town, but I couldn’t speak more highly of La Casa Perleta in the north. The staff are helpful, the rooms are clean and the breakfast of mint tea, eggs, bread, olive oil and orange jam, served every morning on the terrace overlooking the town, is excellent.
On the subject of food, there are a number of very good restaurants serving traditional Moroccan dishes all around the town. It is a crime to have a burger and chips or some other greasy disaster offered to you in the town’s central square when instead you could head to Sophia’s or Bab Ssour for the best kefta and couscous you’ve ever eaten instead. It is worth mentioning too that if you want to drink, there’s a hotel in the square that serves alcohol.
I suggest you don’t go to the town with an itinerary, and in any case the appeal of Chefchaouen isn’t so much about what you do there as how it feels to be there. Simply get out and explore. It is absolutely worth a visit to the Spanish mosque, which is a fifteen-minute walk out of the city walls and up the hillside, and offers the best view of the city.