High up in the Rif mountains of Morocco, past a succession of hairpin bends and steep cliffs dropping down to nothingness, is a town that’s entirely blue.
The reasons that led the community of Chefchaouen to paint every one of their buildings in the same colour aren’t entirely known for sure: some say it’s to hold back invading mosquitos, while others claim it’s to reflect the sky.
Regardless of their origin, wandering through the blues of Chefchaouen is a surreal experience that’s entirely unlike the rest of the country – and the Moroccans who live here know it.
“People say that we Moroccans are crazy…”
Ahmed lit a fire in the kitchen of our guesthouse and tore up a handful of mint leaves, stuffing them into three small glasses. We’d just returned from a second day of wandering through the leather souks of Fez, awestruck and bombarded with every sensory detail imaginable. My mind was racing. Above all, I had that pulsing adrenaline rush of feeling a constant need to move. “Don’t let any of them know you’re not on top of this situation,” my brain had told me all day, on repeat.
Usually, the old walled medinas of Moroccan cities are chaotic and close knit: in the souks, the smell of camel blood and sawdust mixes with piles of brightly coloured spices and heady incense; the hawkers shout and whistle constantly, vying for the attention of prospective customers in amongst the throngs that pass by.
There are stares, whistles and general attention from all sides – particularly for foreigners.
The souk in Fez is that same hub of energy – it’s fascinating and amazing but can also sap your energy – and as we sipped on fresh mint tea, we talked about how experiencing Morocco can differ for single travellers versus friends.
My flatmate Emi and I had already got ourselves lost on multiple occasions over our weekend in Fez – wrong turnings, forgotten directions, inadvertently following someone’s advice and trying in vain to lose the over-eager guidance of someone else – but because we were in Morocco together as a pair, every instance had been more hilarious than exhausting.
We were happy to lose ourselves occasionally in exchange for experiencing more than we otherwise would.
An initial refusal to calm down
That sense of obligatory movement was still present when we arrived in Chefchaouen the next morning, fresh off a four hour bus journey through illicit marijuana fields and with the sounds of screaming, vomiting babies still ringing in our ears.
My mind was still active. We had less than twenty four hours in the blue city stretching out in front of us – and although I wanted to embrace the calm and quiet I knew Chefchaouen was famed for, I couldn’t quite stop myself speeding along the street and ducking inside the first blue archway we came to.
Except within minutes I’d been halted, mid-step, by the blue front door of my dreams.
And then another.
And then three of them, all at once, in a perfect colour gradient.
Soon, I’d realised just how tightly this city held me within its grasp. There’s no escaping the temptation of crumbling staircases, flaking paint, whitewashed walls dappled with sunshine, or the promise of just one more perfect photo opportunity.
Exploring Chefchaouen through its people
The next morning, at the suggestion of our guesthouse owner, we took a taxi up to Ras Al Ma where a freshwater spring gushes down the mountain just outside the walls of the medina. It’s a popular place for local women to wash clothes, blankets and carpets inside the purpose built stone washrooms on either bank of the river.
It also seemed to be something of a social gathering space.
Apart from the washerwomen talking and laughing loudly, there were groups of teenagers hanging out in the shade of an orange tree; women offering traditional Moroccan outfits to tourists for photo opportunities; a collection of musicians playing tambourines and flutes; a young girl keeping a watchful eye on a pair of wandering peacocks and a stall selling freshly squeezed orange juice.
If the day before had been about doors and steps and blue paint, our next morning in Chefchaouen was all about the people and seeing how life is lived in this stunning city.
We crossed a bridge in brilliant sunshine behind a group of excited Moroccans and walked into the medina through an archway – and there was that fantastical blue, all over again.
Inside the blues of Chefchaouen
That morning, Chefchaouen truly felt like a different world.
In the bright sunlight that streamed across the walls, all the details made themselves known: blue flecks from an overenthusiastic paintbrush user; tide marks of different blue shades from painting sessions past; a conspicuous effort to paint every single door bolt, metal grate, gas meter and section of electrical wire looping down from a light fitting.
It almost felt like the entire city was doing it on purpose, just to make the scenes more enticing for their blue-obsessed visitors. We even found that Emi had inadvertently chosen an outfit perfect for the occasion…
Now and then my photo-snapping fingers started to tire – it felt indulgent to keep taking more – and I tried to let the colour wash over me in a blue-tinged haze. Except then we’d turn a corner to be confronted by another stunning scene, and suddenly out came the camera once again.
A heads up: tourism in Chefchaouen is wonderfully casual
Morocco is known for its shopping opportunities and Chefchaouen has its fair share of magnets, keyrings, ornate mirrors and colourful scarves for sale. But in direct opposition to every Moroccan souk I’ve been into, Chefchaouen simply presents its goods and then steps quietly away.
It leaves any prospective tourists free to spend a good five minutes deciding if they really need that canvas painting of a curved blue archway, or that temptingly orange rag rug.
(Spoiler alert: you most definitely do need that rug. Always, always buy the rug.)
At some point, while wandering amongst the souvenirs that were conspicuously missing their sellers, I realised that it must be somewhat annoying to live in an environment that’s so beautiful, so small and so popular with photo-happy tourists.
Surely they’re a bit sick of the constant flurry of visitors?
“Welcome to Chaouen!”
We’d already walked past a pair of tiny blue wooden shutters when I heard the thin reedy voice. It took me a moment to find the source – and the little old man who sat balanced on a plastic stool just inside the shutters. He was grinning happily behind his rack of cigarette packets, phone cards and chewing gum.
“You are tired? You are going to a party?”
I told him we were just walking – and how beautiful his town was. He nodded agreeably and, when we both realised our language skills were spent, gave me a packet of gum and waved goodbye.
Not long afterwards, standing beside a row of canvas sacks filled with coloured dyes (which may have been the most photogenic scene I think I’ve ever seen), I popped my head into the attached shop to ask what the dye was used for and discovered to my utter joy that the Moroccan men inside understood me speaking Spanish.
They briefly explained that the dye is mixed with powder to make paint, but were clearly more intrigued about the fact that we could actually communicate. We ended up engaged in a conversation about the myriad of different languages you can find people speaking in Morocco – and I left feeling a strange pride in how easily you can strike up communication, no matter where in the world you are.
Happy and relaxed in the Chefchaouen blues
Of course, when I thought about it properly, it was clear that Chefchaouen is just like any other place. People live normally here: they hang their washing out to dry, leave their pets sleeping in the sun, bake their own bread and buy supplies from the shop around the corner.
It’s just that people in Chefchaouen get to do these things in an absolutely jaw dropping environment.
Maybe it’s because Chefchaouen is so relaxed and laid back – or maybe it’s purely because blue itself is such a calming colour – but less than twenty four hours in the city left me strolling slowly, smiling and happy. Absorbing, taking everything in, stopping to look from time to time. No rushing.
For once, I even relaxed my travel-appropriate ‘I totally know what I’m doing’ face and wandered around grinning with my mouth hanging open. It was too beautiful not to.
While places like Marrakesh and Fez are clearly the most popular destinations in Morocco, the tourists who flock to Chefchaouen are romantic, photo-hungry and above all, looking for some calm amongst the Moroccan intensities.
And unless they have a serious problem with the colour blue, they’ll find it.
Either that, or an allergy to paint.