Why is Chefchaouen, Morocco's “blue city”, so, well, blue?

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

The Pink City of Marrakech has always been the beating heart of Moroccan tourism, but in recent years the charms of another colourful town have rightfully become a lot better known. Chefchaouen, with its compact medina washed in blue and topped with red tiled roofs, is quite simply one of the loveliest towns in the country.

Chefchaouen — often shorted simply to “Chaouen” — means “the horns,” and when you first come across the town tucked into the folds of the Rif Mountains and overlooked by the spire of Jebel el-Kalaa, it’s easy to understand why.

Less easy to grasp perhaps is the reason why the inhabitants first chose to paint their streets and houses in such a delicate cornflower blue. Did they somehow anticipate the perfectly Instagrammable results of their decision years in advance?

The tradition began some time in the 1930s. Chefchaouen was a largely closed and insular town then. Its roots lie in the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Spain in the late 15th century — when Spanish soldiers arrived to conquer the Rif a century ago were amazed to find a remnant Jewish population speaking an Spanish dialect 400 years out of time. The town’s red tiles are thought to be a similar throwback to old Andalucian times.

Chefchaouen’s Jews — who long since relocated to Casablanca or Israel — are thought to have been the originators of the blue tradition, using it replace the green of Islam. Others will tell you that the colour is good for warding off mosquitoes, or is particularly cooling in high Rif mountain sun. Some even whisper conspiratorially that it was nothing more than the townsfolk thinking it would make their houses look pretty.

Whatever explanation you go prefer, there is more to Chefchaouen than just blue houses. The town is famous for its thick woollen blankets and chunky hand-knitted socks, both of which make great souvenirs. Food lovers will love the soft creamy pats of goat’s cheese that are sold in the markets on the edges of the medina, and feature on the breakfast tables of any self-respecting guesthouse.

At the heart of the medina is the ancient Kasbah, with its grand tower and mosque with – unusually for Morocco – an octagonal minaret. It’s from here the Abdel el-Krim, the great Rif Berber leader, ruled for five years after leading a hard-fought rebellion to kick out the Spanish. Chefchaouen itself only became part of Morocco in 1956, though Spain’s influence can still be seen in many street names.

For the best and bluest of views of Chefchaouen, hike out from the medina past the Ras el-Maa stream at the top of the medina to the deconsecrated Spanish mosque that looks down on the medina. If you carry on going for a couple of kilometres you’ll reach the waterfall that feeds the stream and provides the town with fresh water.

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