It is like the fable of an ancient exotic Arabian land. A hidden desert town where the homes and buildings of the robed inhabitants are painted vivid shades of blue. But this is no legend, this is real. Morocco on its own already evokes a sense of the exotic, but this location with its array of blue painted structures is the real showstopper. To the North West of Morocco, in the middle of the Rif mountains lies Chefchaoun, the blue city.
Ringed by the rugged mountainous terrain (Photo courtesy of Ellie Hu)
Chefchaoun's beginnings are traced back to 1471 when this Kasbah or fortress was established. There are a few different reasons given for the vibrant blue hues painted onto the town buildings. Our Moroccan guide said it is used to prevent mosquitoes from breeding. Other versions say this tradition was brought by Jews who settled in Chefchaoun, after fleeing persecution in Spain during the Middle Ages. Yet another explanation is that the blue represents the colour of heaven. The intense, and in turns, calming shades of blue provide a beautiful contrast against other blindingly whitewashed walls, in addition to beautiful motif tiled structures.
Powdered paint for sale. Blue dominates of course (Photo courtesy of Ellie Hu)
Walking about the town, you can't miss the mountains framed in the background circling this city. Sometimes you can make out goatherds in the distance, with their sure-footed charges going up and down the mountain. Homes and a place of worship are dotted in the distance, and in the twilight and beyond, lights up there begin to wink and twinkle.
Vision of blue (Photo courtesy of Ellie Hu)
Here, time honoured traditions endure. The use of communal ovens for baking the local flatbread, the wearing of traditional Berber clothing, the rearing and use of goats and pack animals, and locals socialising over endless cups of hot, sweet mint tea.
Local traders with their wares stop for a chat (Photo courtesy of Ellie Hu)
Freshly baked flat bread on makeshift tables (Photo courtesy of Ellie Hu)
Medina is the local name given to the old part of the town. Chefchaoun's medina has meandering, narrow paved and cobblestone streets, some no more than little paths. The old walls rise generally about two stories high. If not for the television aerials and electricity lines jutting out over the cityscape, one may be forgiven for thinking they stepped back a few hundred years in time. Getting lost in the medina looks to be a favourite pastime for overseas visitors, which is small enough for even the most direction challenged individual, (me) to navigate.
The most photographed steps in Chefchaoun
Contrast of the blue and white in the old town
My visit to Morocco fell in sultry September. Just like in other Moroccan cities, many of the medina's merchants begin to trade later in the day, and into the cool of the evening. That is also when markedly larger numbers of local residents emerge to mingle, enjoy meals with family and delight in the cooler weather.
Narrow winding paths of the medina
Tourists come for the sights and stay for the food. An extensive list of tagines, couscous, fish, goat's cheese and other fresh local produce, will surely satisfy even the most exacting of standards.
All over Morocco, you'll come across the prickly pear growing in the wild which looks a rather hostile fruit, encased as it is in little thorns. But never fear, there are fruit vendors aplenty, equipped with gloves and knives, who nimbly handle the spiny fruits and proffer you the sweet succulent flesh inside. If you have the opportunity, please do try it, it just may change your life! Each costs about 5 cents, and you won't be able to stop at just one.
Interestingly, this plant was introduced into parts of Australia in the 19th Century, where it exploded into such prolific growth, it was labelled an invasive weed. The powers that be then spent considerable time, money and effort to get rid of this seemingly indestructible plant.
Prickly pear- pleasing produce or noxious weed? (Photo courtesy of Ellie Hu)
An interesting quirk in Morocco is a type of communal taxi system where just because you flagged down a cab, doesn't mean you'll be the only passenger riding in it. While using a few taxis in different cities, I noted each time without fail, other passengers are picked up anywhere along the way, heading in the same general direction. And sometimes not.
Staying in a little hotel up in the hills of Chefchaoun, just outside the town, we'd hop into a taxi, wait a few minutes for the empty seats to fill up before being driven to individual drop off points. Alternatively, taxis regularly screech to a halt for a possible additional fare, if someone along the way raises their hand. And yes, sometimes they are just reaching up to scratch their nose.
Yes, the town is popular with tourists. However, it is easy enough to immerse yourself in the medina, wander around and take a myriad of pictures without seeing, or fighting off hordes of other visitors from abroad.
Local watering hole (Photo courtesy of Ellie Hu)
Get your feet wet at a local cafe located in some running water
In the medina, doors are located quite close to each other. Behind some of these doors are riads. Riad is the name given to a home or hotel with a courtyard. From the outside, the riads look deceptively small and simple, however often have upwards of 8 or more rooms, some with very plush surroundings.
One such riad, Lina Ryad and Spa, caught my eye and drew me in as it is a hotel with a hammam. Stepping in through the doors leads to a spacious, opulent reception area with curved doorways, and rich, soft furnishings. The hotel and spa prices are in euros, not the local dirham. Having said that, the prices are significantly cheaper than any spa I've been to in Australia. I opted for a hammam (steam bath) for the price of 30 euro, (approximately $45), and can say it was truly one of the highlights of my visit to Chefchaoun.
A word to the wise, hammams aren't for the bashful, it is a bath after all. The other thing with hammams is you don't bathe yourself, you are bathed by someone of the same gender.
Now, I'm all for local experiences when travelling as much as possible, and that goes for eating, shopping, etc. However, in this one thing, having heard several stories of hammams in Morocco, and their reputation for inflicting pain in the pursuit of beautifully soft skin, I flaked, and opted for the tourist version. I've also already experienced a local hammam years ago in Istanbul, and the memory haunts me still.
For the record, the service in this hammam is excellent. They use the famous local natural black Moroccan soap that has a gel-like consistency with the Moroccan exfoliating mitt, minus the pain. This individual was unharmed during the ritual bathing experience.
There's so much to see and experience in Chefchaoun. A place that definitely deserves a spot on the bucket list.