Stained in wonderful shades of blue and tucked high into Morocco’s earthy brown and green Rif Mountains, sits the once secret town of Chefchaouen — or ‘Chaouen’ to its friends. At its heart, a 500-year-old fortress bears testament to the town’s founding as a site of protection, initially from the Portuguese, then as a shelter for Muslim and Jewish refugees escaping persecution during the Spanish Inquisition.
The town, found after a snaking four-hour bus journey from the nearest major hub at Fez (or six from Casablanca), remained so insulated over the following centuries that when missionaries and journalists arrived in the late 1800s they discovered Jewish citizens speaking a 400-year-old version of Spanish. Only a handful of visitors made it past Chaouen’s walls — most foreigners were forbidden from entry, some were threatened or even killed on arrival — until it fell to the Spanish in the early 20th century and then opened up for the rest of the world. Even today, it’s still said that this once almost forgotten town still appears like a mirage at the end of those winding mountain routes.
Following the arrival of backpackers in the 1960s, word soon spread through travelling circles of this iridescent hillside gem at the northern tip of the African nation. Still a relatively unexplored city by today’s standards, it has become a mecca for those looking for a destination with a difference — its vibrant blue buildings an Instagrammer’s dream. Come nightfall, the skies above the city offer an equally shimmering, star-filled display (there is little pollution above this photogenic mountain town). Six years ago, it was the setting for a Giorgio Armani TV commercial.
Chaouen’s swathes of blue walls, doorways and rooftops originate from Jewish settlers, painted to mirror the heavens as a permanent reminder of God — some say it also helps keeps flies and mosquitos at bay. After the majority of Jews left, the bright, beautiful tradition remained (there is still a small Jewish population, who live alongside Muslims, Berber tribespeople, and some descendants of Moorish exiles from Spain — the towns first inhabitants).
Sprawling marijuana plantations carpet the mountainous surrounds of Chaouen (it rests between two peaks, and Chefchaouen translates as ‘watch the horns’), and it’s estimated that up to half of the word’s hashish is grown in Morocco, employing nearly a million of its citizens. The drug is illegal in the country, but as James Tennent writes for Vice: “If you smoke weed and you can’t score in Chefchaouen, then you’re probably smoking far too much weed.”
The steep, meandering streets of the old town are car-free and smattered with local artisans and craftspeople flogging colourful creations such as rugs, pottery, gems, silverware and brass goods (Moroccans are notorious for their pushiness with tourists, but they are far more laid back here). Sometimes while browsing, you will be offered sweet mint tea, and always after food. The town’s signature dish, tajine, comprises spiced fish and vegetables plated on a bed of couscous.
While outside the sacred city walls more secrets await — a trekker’s paradise, with spectacular mountain and Mediterranean views.