The blue-and whitewashed town of Chefchaouen, sometimes called Chaouen, and even spelt Xaouen (the Spanish version), is an exceptionally photogenic Andalucían town in the Rif, 60 km south of Tetouan, set above the Oued Laou valley and just below the twin peaks of the Jbel ech Chefchaouen, the 'Horned Mountain'. The town itself could be explored in a day, but with a room in the right hotel, you might want to stay to relax in one of its many cafés or explore the surrounding countryside. At 600 m up in the hills, it makes a good centre for walking and many who come for a quick visit end up staying much longer. The town also has many sanctuaries for pilgrims and each year thousands of visitors are attracted to pay homage to the memory of Sidi Ben Alil, Sidi Abdallah Habti and Sidi el Hadj Cherif.
Set in the Djeballa region, Chefchaouen was founded in 1471 by Cherif Moulay Ali Ben Rachid, a follower of Moulay Abd es Salam Ben Mchich, the patron saint of the area, in order to halt the southwards expansion of the Spanish and Portuguese. The city's population was later supplemented by Muslims and Jews expelled from Spain, particularly from Granada, and for a time the rulers of Chefchaouen controlled much of northern Morocco. The town also grew in importance as a pilgrimage centre.
From 1576 Chefchaouen was in conflict with, and isolated from, the surrounding area, the gates being locked each night. Prior to 1920 only three Christians had braved its forbidding walls: the Vicomte de Foucauld disguised as a rabbi in 1883; Walter Harris,
correspondent and author of
Morocco That Was
, in 1889; and the American William Summers, poisoned in Chefchaouen in 1892. They found Jews still speaking 15th-century Andalucían Spanish. In 1920 the town was taken over by the Spanish as part of their protectorate. They were thrown out from 1924 to 1926, by Abd el Karim's Rif resistance movement but returned to stay until Independence in 1956.
Modern Chefchaouen has extended across the hillsides, and the old town is now ringed by a suburb of the usual three-storey family apartment buildings. Though it is now well established on tourist itineraries, both mainstream and backpacker, Chefchaouen manages to retain a village feel. Here you may have your first sighting of the distinctive garments of the women of the Rif, the red and white striped
or overskirt and the large conical straw hat with woollen bobbles.
There are few major sites. The centre is Place Mohammed V, with its small Andalucían garden. Avenue Hassan II leads to Bab el Aïn and the médina. The market is down some steps from Avenue Hassan II, on Avenue Al Khattabi. Normally a food market, there is a local souk on Monday and Thursday.Médina
The médina of Chefchaouen is an exceptionally photogenic place and rewarding to explore. Sufficiently small not to get lost, it has intricate Andalucían architecture, arches, arcades and porches, white- or blue-washed houses with ochre-tiled roofs and clean, quiet cobbled streets. In the maze of these narrow streets you run into water points, small open squares with shops and the solid ramparts of the kasbah. Approaching the médina on foot, enter by Bab el Aïn. From Bab el Aïn a small road leads through to Place Outa el Hammam. This is the main square, lively at night, and surrounded by a number of stalls and café-restaurants, popular with kif smokers.
The square is dominated by the terracotta coloured 15th-century kasbah, now the
Musée de Chefchaouen
As a prison it housed the Rifi leader Abd al Karim from 1926 and you can visit the suitably dark and forbidding dungeon. The museum itself is not that special - it has an exhibition of local costumes, some with very delicate embroidery, tools, musical instruments, pottery, weapons and a collection of decorated wooden caskets. More interesting is the building itself, and you can climb to the top of the tower for a good view of the town from the roof. There is also a peaceful Andalucían style courtyard garden, filled with flowers and birds.
, with its octagonal minaret, beside the kasbah, dates from the 15th century, but was restored in the 17th and 18th. Next door is a 16th-century medersa, unfortunately closed. Opposite the Restaurant Kasbah, at No 34, is an old caravanserai. Further on,
Place el Makhzen
, the second square, has stalls along the top side, the Ensemble Artisanal at the end.
Chefchaouen has some good hillwalking, with spectacular scenery and plentiful animal and birdlife. Don't be too surprised, however, if you experience suspicious questioning from the military involved in cracking down on kif cultivation, and be prepared for a long and strenuous day. Taking a guide (could set you back around 100dh) is worth considering. Look out for the natural spring
Ras el Maa
3 km out of town in the direction of Jbel Tisouka (2122 m). You are within striking distance of the
Parc Naturel de Talassemtane
, still basically undiscovered by tourists.