It’s 1am and I’m standing in a dark alley in Morocco with a key that doesn’t fit and a phone number that doesn’t work. A small crowd is gathering. There’s an elderly drunk diligently throwing small stones at the deserted hotel’s windows, a younger drunk who’s decided it’s the ideal moment to give me an impromptu Arabic lesson and a third, sober man who’s speaking in very slow, clear Spanish, as if just the right enunciation might help me to access some suppressed yet innate understanding of the language.
As a woman travelling alone, there are some things you try to avoid at all costs: getting locked out of your hotel in the middle of the night; following strangers down dark backstreets; and getting into the back of unmarked white vans. In the 12 hours I’ve been in Chefchaouen, I’ve managed to do all three.
It’s not that I have a death wish. Rather, Chefchaouen (pronounced shef-sha-wen), a small city in the remote Rif Mountains in Morocco’s north, has yet to develop the tourist infrastructure to match its sudden fame. Over the past few years, the blue-washed lanes of its old town have become a social media phenomenon and visitors have flocked to see this famous “blue pearl” – but little else has changed. The laid-back authenticity is part of its charm but it’s also why I find myself following strangers down unlit passageways (Google Maps is no match for Chefchaouen’s labyrinth) and getting into the back of a windowless van with a man purporting to be a taxi driver. (Thankfully, his only homicidal tendency turned out to be a penchant for taking blind bends at high speed.)
Still, it’s this idiosyncratic, slightly chaotic small-town atmosphere that saves me from a night on the cobblestones when a teenager, who speaks some English, joins our band of misfits. He knows a guy who knows a guy who works in the hotel and he offers to run to get the key.
“This area has been popular with visitors for a long time but tourism has exploded in the past five years,” says Zouhair, a guide with custom-travel operator Heritage Tours. What’s driving this new-found popularity? “Barakah, blessings from God,” he says. That and Pinterest.
Of course, the tradition of painting Chefchaouen’s arched doorways, winding alleys and footpaths with blue pigment long predates the age of #wanderlust but the explanations for its origins are as diverse as the shades themselves, which run from the faintest pastel to rich lapis lazuli and indigo. Some say the colour keeps the mosquitoes away but Zouhair says the practice began in the 1930s, when Jewish communities moved to the remote region to escape persecution in Europe and painted their houses in Judaism’s colour of divinity. These days, it’s simply part of the town’s identity. “Not many people ask why it’s blue,” says Zouhair. “When you look at a beautiful artwork, do you question why it’s beautiful?”
As with Chefchaouen’s Moorish façades adorned with traditionally Catholic, shell-shaped niches and the bilingual population that can slip easily between Arabic and Spanish, no-one seems to be especially concerned with divisions. After all, this is a culturally Arabic city with indigenous Amazigh heritage, located in far northern Africa. Geographically, Chefchaouen is closer to Málaga than Marrakech.
Any hopes of sleeping in after my late night evaporate at 4.30am. My hotel’s vantage point inside Bab Souk, the medina’s northern gate, provides a spectacular view of the town’s warren of houses, terracotta roofs and scattering of gold minarets. It also puts me in prime position to hear the call to prayer – from all four mosques at once. Standing on the rooftop terrace, listening to the voices echo across the valley, it’s hard to feel anything but enchanted.
I start the day in the town’s leafy square, Place Outa el Hammam, with a breakfast of eggs, olives, goat’s cheese and five kinds of bread. (The gluten-free revolution is yet to reach Morocco. In fact, bread is considered so valuable that you’ll often see half a roll of round, flat khobz tucked into a wall crevice, abandoned by an owner reluctant to throw it away.) Before tourism, Chefchaouen’s twin industries were goat’s cheese and kif (marijuana). While I can’t speak to the quality of the latter, fresh jben is an essential part of every meal.
The square, with its red-walled fortress, is the heart of the city but, even here, it’s relatively relaxed. In Marrakech, you can’t visualise a sandwich without being escorted aggressively into an overpriced restaurant. But that’s not the case in Chefchaouen. “Everyone likes it here the best,” a rug salesman, Hussein, tells me outside his shop, where one of the town’s stray cats naps on a pile of his stock. “Life is calm. Clean air, beautiful mountains, beautiful water. The cities have too many people.” We chat for 20 minutes about Melbourne (he has friends there; they love the coffee) before he half-heartedly asks – more out of obligation than any kind of business acumen – if I’m interested in a rug.
From the communal bakeries – caverns more than 400 years old where locals bring their own dough to be baked – to the small leathercraft and woodworking shops barely bigger than a phone booth, Chefchaouen’s winding streets still feel remarkably geared towards the people who live in them. Children turn the narrow alleys into makeshift soccer fields, women gather in the morning to wash their clothes in the spring outside the old town’s walls and, on Mondays, the streets surrounding Avenida Mulay Ali Ibn Rached become a market, where women in traditional Amazigh red striped fouta towels and wide-brimmed straw hats sell fresh herbs, fruit and vegetables. A woman wearing a “Kiss my ass” T-shirt leads around a donkey – the preferred mode of transport – without a hint of irony. Along the river, as Zouhair and I stop to buy kalinti, a chickpea flour and egg tart cooked at mobile carts and served straight from the pan, a man walks past with his ostrich. Maybe it’s the wide availability of kif but no-one even blinks.
On the weekend, I make like a local and head to Talassemtane National Park in the Rif Mountains, roughly a 90-minute drive through hills dotted with poppies. The hike to Akchour Cascades, one of Morocco’s most picturesque waterfalls, is so packed with people that there’s a wait to get onto the logs forming an improvised bridge across the river. The visitors are mainly Moroccan families and teenagers, many singing and beating drums as they walk the path, convoy-style. What’s the occasion? “Just Saturday,” replies Zouhair.
Boys leap off the rocks and into the icy river, while enterprising cooks and business owners have turned the rocky natural terrace beside the falls into outdoor café seating. Here, you can sip a glass of sweet mint tea and watch the endless parade of selfie sticks below. On my final morning in town, I stop to say farewell to Hussein. “You’ll have to visit Australia now you have so many friends there,” I tell him. He shakes his head. “Why would I ever leave?” he asks, sweeping his hand up the crooked street towards the mountains. I see his point.
Chefchaouen is almost three hours from Tangier and four hours from Fez by bus. The CTM bus network is reliable and comfortable but bespoke travel companies such as Heritage Tours provide private transportation for clients if you prefer to ride in style. The mountain roads are not for the faint-hearted so avoid hiring a car if possible.
Make the most of the city’s charm by booking into a riad (traditional house) inside the old town’s walls. Lina Ryad & Spa is an upmarket option with its own hammam.
Most riads offer a basic breakfast. Otherwise, the best by far is the ftour Chaoueni – fried eggs with local olives, olive oil, two kinds of cheese, cucumber salad and a basket of bread – at Restaurant Morisco (Place Outa el Hammam; +212 5398 82323). Restaurante Tissemlal at Hotel Casa Hassan has a fireplace for winter evenings, while Pizzeria Mandala does good pizza when you need a break from the tagines. Alcohol is frowned upon by Islam so drinking in Chefchaouen, is usually done in private. However, you can get a beer at the bar in the Hotel Parador. The ambience is underwhelming but the terrace has great views of the mountains.
The steep 20-minute walk up the hillside to the Spanish Mosque is worth it to watch the sun set from the best possible vantage point, while the small gardens inside the town’s historic fortress are a pleasant place to escape the heat.