Morocco’s tourist track isn’t well-beaten, it’s been thumped flat. Ask anyone who has been and the chances are they’ll have visited some combination of Marrakesh, the Sahara Desert, the Atlas Mountains and Essaouira – and they’ll probably have a small stuffed camel and a leather purse to prove it.
These are all worthwhile destinations in their own right, but there’s a whole host of better-kept secrets to be discovered in Morocco, and Chefchaouen (often shortened to Chaouen) remains one of the most alluring of the lot.
Hidden in the Rif Mountains, half a day’s drive away from the nearest cities of Fez or Tangier, Chefchaouen is as impossible to pronounce (“shef-sha-wen”) as it is to get your head around.
Everything about it is a bit off-beat: the locals here speak Spanish, not the French or Arabic that the guidebooks prepare you for; the town has a long history of hippie-culture and hashish that is still present today; and, perhaps most extraordinary of all, the entire medina is washed in a thousand magnificent shades of blue.
In The Rough Guide to Morocco we describe Chaouen’s medina as “surely the prettiest in the country”, and it’s hard to imagine anyone making a compelling argument against this.
Getting lost in the old town’s narrow and uncrowded streets is a photographer’s dream, with stray cats posing in front of ornate indigo doorways – many still wet from the morning’s lick of paint – and impossibly old men shuffling up and down blue staircases in conical hooded cloaks.
There are aspects of the old town that make you feel like you could have travelled back in time: the furn, or communal bakery, still delivers warm circular loaves of bread to locals every morning, while on market day hunched-over women descend from the mountain farms to sell vats of milk. It is only when you peek into a dark room full of kids gathered around a games console, or pass a carpet store blasting out Bruno Mars, that you will be politely reminded of the century you’re in.
Chefchaouen is notable for the absence of serious hasslers and hustlers, but anyone wearing a backpack will still probably be asked “do you smoke hashish?” a few times a day. The Rif Mountains that surround Chaouen form the epicentre of Morocco’s kif-growing industry, creating a unique atmosphere in the medina where formal Islam and bohemian stoner cultures seem to coexist in harmony.
Chefchaouen attracted pilgrims in search of its legendary marijuana long before tour operators started to include the town in their itineraries, and even today you’re likely to see the occasional dreadlocked backpacker, joint hanging from mouth, who could well have walked all the way from Tarifa.
Truth be told, you’ll be lucky to find anything that isn’t tajine or brochette (grilled meat on a stick) when it comes to hot food in the medina, washed down by the obligatory “Moroccan Whiskey” (mint tea; to be ordered without sugar if you want to travel home with all of your teeth). But there are a few spots that do stand out from the crowd.
Just off the main Plaza Outa el Hammam, La Lampe Magique Casa Aladdin offers some of the best views in town from its rooftop terrace, while Tissemlal serves traditional Moroccan dishes far superior to the other restaurants in the medina – with an open fire ablaze on cold evenings.
If you crack and can’t wait a second longer for western comforts, just outside the city walls at Plaza El Makhzen there is a cosy place to eat pizza to the sound of jazz radio (Mandala Pizzeria), with a ropey hotel a couple of doors along that serves overpriced beers to desperate Europeans.
Wherever you are in Chefchaouen you’ll be able to turn a corner and see the bright white Spanish Mosque, perched high on a hill just east of town. Spanish colonialists started work on the mosque when they arrived in Chefchaouen in the 1920s, but it wasn’t until 2010 that they finally restored and opened the building to the public for the first time.
If your legs aren’t already broken from walking about the steep medina alleyways, it’s well worth making the 15-minute trek up to the mosque to catch the sunset. A wall just in front of the mosque acts as a perfect perching spot to watch the sun burn red over the distant mountains, often cloaked in low-lying clouds.
Once the show is over, resist the temptation to walk straight back to town and wait a few minutes for the call to prayer to erupt over the navy medina below, now lit only by the moon and a smattering of golden minarets.