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.
Chefchaouen’s Medina is small when compared to others in Morocco, and it is undoubtedly a place to enjoy exploring at random. The architecture has a strong Andalusian character, reflecting the city’s history: Sultan Mohammed Ben Abdallah (Mohammed III) ordered the Jewish families to move into the Medina around 1760, their Mellah taking in the area that today encompasses the southern quarter between the kasbah and Bab el Aïn. Here they built their whitewashed ochre houses with small balconies, tiled roofs and Andalusian-style courtyards. It’s from this time that Chefchaouen’s famous shades of blue arose, the Jews adding indigo into the whitewash to contrast the Mellah against the traditional green of Islam.
The main gateway to the Medina is Bab el Aïn, a tiny arched entrance at the junction of Avenue Hassan II with Rue Moulay Ali Ben Rachid. Through the gate a clearly dominant lane winds up through the Medina to the main square, Plaza Outa el Hammam and beyond to a second, smaller square, Plaza el Makhzen.
Until the arrival of Spanish troops in 1920, Chefchaouen had been visited by just three Westerners. Two were missionary explorers: Charles de Foucauld, a Frenchman who spent just an hour in the town in 1883, disguised as a Jewish rabbi, and William Summers, an American who was poisoned by the townsfolk here in 1892. The third, in 1889, was the British journalist Walter Harris, whose main impulse, as described in his book, Land of an African Sultan, was “the very fact that there existed within thirty hours’ ride of Tangier a city in which it was considered an utter impossibility for a Christian to enter”. Thankfully, Chefchaouen today is more welcoming towards outsiders, and a number of the Medina’s newer guesthouses now include owners hailing from Britain, Italy and the former Christian enemy, Spain.
If you have your own transport and wish to head towards the west coast from Chefchaouen, the R410 to Ksar el Kebir is a highly recommended scenic route and shortcut. The road is signed off the N13 to Ouezzane on your right coming from Chefchaouen. The route wends its way through wooded high country following the Oued Loukos to the Barrage Oued el Makhazine, where there are magnificent vistas, and on to Ksar el Kebir.