An isolated refuge for over 400 years before absorption in the 1920s into the Spanish Protectorate, CHEFCHAOUEN (pronounced “shef-sha-wen”, sometimes abbreviated to Chaouen) remains today somewhat aloof from the goings-on in the rest of the country. Visiting Chefchaouen requires venturing into the rugged Rif mountains and it almost feels by chance that one comes upon the town, still hidden beneath the towering peaks from which it takes its name. The setting, like much of the Rif, is largely rural and the bright lights and bustling noise of cities less than half a day’s drive away are soon forgotten. That’s not to say that Chefchaouen is completely isolated, for the town has long been a stop on the intrepid backpacker circuit – thanks in part to the easy availability of the Rif’s kif – and has also gradually become popular with mainstream tourists, who are arriving in increasing numbers to wander the town’s blue-washed Medina, surely the prettiest in the country.
While the increase in visitors has inevitably led to a slight rise in hassle, local attitudes are still very relaxed, and the Medina pensions are among the friendliest and cheapest around.
Chefchaouen translates to “two horns” in Arabic, in reference to the mountain that is split in two by the slope on which the town lies. The region hereabouts has forever been sacred to Muslims due to the presence of the tomb of Moulay Abdessalam Ben Mchich – patron saint of the Jebali Riffian tribesmen and one of the “four poles of Islam” – and over the centuries has acquired a considerable reputation for pilgrimage and marabouts – “saints”, believed to hold supernatural powers. An isolated location, it was the perfect base in 1471 for one of Moulay Abdessalam’s shereefian (descendant of the Prophet) followers, Hassan Ben Mohamed el Alami, known as Abu Youma, to launch secret attacks on the Portuguese in their coastal enclaves of Asilah, Tangier, Ceuta and Ksar es Seghir. Abu Youma perished in one of these raids and his cousin, Ali Ben Rachid moved the settlement to its current site on the other side of the river.
In the ensuing decades, as the population was boosted by Muslim and Jewish refugees from Spain, Chefchaouen grew increasingly anti-Christian and autonomous. For a time, it was the centre of a semi-independent emirate, exerting control over much of the northwest, in alliance with the Wattasid sultans of Fez. Later, however, it became an almost completely isolated backwater. When the Spanish arrived in 1920, they were astonished to find the Jews here speaking medieval Castilian, a language that hadn’t been heard on the Iberian peninsula for 400 years. In 1924 the Spanish were repelled back to the coast by the Riffian rebel leader Abd el Krim el Khattabi, but two years later they retook Chefchaouen and held it until the end of the Protectorate in 1956.