The allure of Morocco usually brings travelers to cities like Fes, Casablanca, Tangier and Marrakesh. However, on a recent trip to this beguiling country I discovered a little town everyone should add to their bucket list: Chefchaouen.
This mountain town is absurdly stunning. Every inch is painted in varying shades of blue. Chefchaouen is only a few hours away from Tangier and Fes, making it a perfect weekend trip. You could spend days climbing the winding tunnels and staircases, discovering shops and interesting spots. Handmade leather goods, dyes and soaps make charming souvenirs. Sites like the Casbah, the mosques and the beautiful Rif Mountains can't be missed. Hippies and musicians have flocked here for decades in pursuit of hashish and mint tea. There’s something for everyone in this town.
The main square in the center of Chefchaouen—Uta el Hammam—houses the Casbah. The dusty, burgundy walls stand in stark contrast to the blue surroundings. For a small fee you can wander inside the 15th century fortress. The dungeons are chilling, but they do provide a fantastic photo-op for those with a sense of humor. The lush, green gardens are filled with a wide array of desert plants you won’t find elsewhere. There’s a ton of information and exhibits throughout the Casbah, which makes this visit essential for understanding the town’s fascinating history.
Mosques And Call To prayer
The Grand Mosquee is a beautiful 15th century building with an elegant octagonal minaret. Only Muslims can enter so you may have to observe from the outside. Five times a day the call to prayer—the adhan—sounds out. The words and chants echo throughout the town, stopping everyone in their tracks.
On the east side of town, hike to the hilltop Spanish mosque to watch the sunset. The trail starts when you pass the Ras el’Ma river. Many locals cool off in the waterfalls here. Women will be selling handmade hats to protect you from the blistering sun; I was very glad I bought one! Stands selling fresh local orange juice are swarmed by bees. If you can get over your fear of being stung you’ll be in for a treat.
During the 45-minute hike to the top of the hill you won’t be able to stop looking back. As you climb higher the blue houses of Chefchaouen look like they belong in a storybook. After passing prickly pears and loose chickens the trail finally leads to a plateau where the ruins of an old mosque lie. Take a seat on the steps and look out over town. The sun will disappear behind the mountains and moments later the call to prayer will begin ringing out across the town.
When I told a Moroccan I was traveling to Chefchaouen his response was: “Do you smoke a lot of hashish?” Although illegal in some parts of the country, the crops of the Rif Mountains supply kif to almost the entire country. Apart from tourism, the marijuana industry is what fuels the region.
Of course tourism is often linked to this plant. Throughout town local businessmen constantly hassle you, asking if you want to buy hashish or visit the fields where it grows. It’s perfectly safe to do so, but if you go don’t be surprised by the number of young men with guns who are there to protect their assets.
The hashish and laid-back culture of the mountain people has drawn bohemians from around the globe for years. Hippies make pilgrimages to the town, walking all the way from Tangier or hitchhiking with locals. Once there they indulge in smoking hashish, sipping mint tea and taking in the blue surroundings.
But there is plenty to do besides smoking. The Rif Mountains are an attraction to hikers of all levels. Local guides can be found easily. They will lead you barefoot, while you scurry behind taking in the views and the unique aspect of the land. Many of the guides live deep in the mountains, away from the crowds, where they tend to the goats that produce the local cheese.
Inside the town itself you can spend your time shopping and wandering. Shops are carved out of the mountain, so you need to bend at the waist to dip into many of them. They sell all the souvenirs you can imagine: local garbs such as caftans, scarfs and fez hats will be a fun reminder of your trip. Intoxicating essential oils made from local plants are sold alone or in soaps, lotions and creams. Handmade leather goods are displayed on woven rugs, ready to be selected by the eager tourist. Shop owners are all too happy to haggle and suggest other items they think you may have “missed.”
Eat & Drink
Chefchaouen is a dry town. Take a few days to enjoy the detox and try the local “Moroccan Whiskey.” This is essentially tea made with fresh mint leaves and plenty of sugar. When ordering, make sure you specify with or without sugar. To avoid a cloyingly sweet experience I would recommend ordering sans sucre.
At the souks (markets) make sure you buy some of the fresh local goat cheese, Jben. This product has been linked to the region for decades and has helped many families escape poverty. The goats feed on native aromatic and medicinal plants high up in the mountains. The creamy, tangy cheese is perfect for breakfast or a mid-afternoon snack. Traditionally, it’s served with figs, olive oil and msemen(pancakes).
Check out the heaped piles of spices at the market. Everything from saffron, green fennel, peppers and salts can be found. Sprinkle these over local vegetables and couscous in a tagine. The best meal in Chefchaouen is the tagine you cook yourself.
Some restaurants are decent but you’re best to rent an Airbnb or riad with a kitchen. Picking up essentials to cook with is easier than finding a restaurant that isn’t too touristy. However, if you’re looking for a good view, try La Lampe Magique Casa Aladdin. Restaurant Tissemlal also serves decent Moroccan fare and can be very cozy when the fireplace is blazing.
If you’re dying for a beer, don’t fret: Hotel Parador has a full bar. It’s a haven for European tourists who sit poolside, taking swigs of their pale Casablanca lager.
The best place to stay in Chefchaouen is a rented apartment. Shop at the markets, cook for the group and discover the magic simplicity of tagines. If you’re looking for a more immersive experience there are many riads available.
For some pampering head to the Lina Ryad & Spa, which offers traditional Moroccan hammams. Spa treatments are also available to those not staying at the riad itself. After a long day of hiking or smoking the warm baths and heated pool provide a comforting recovery.
Do try not to spend too much time inside. Wander (just like the many stray kittens) around a town which really is like no other place in the world.
Victoria James is the Wine Director at Michelin-starred restaurant Piora, in the West Village of NYC. She also writes on travel, wine and food. She has been named "Best New Sommelier of 2016" by Wine & Spirits Magazine, a "Top 40 under 40 tastemaker" by Wine Enthusiast Magazine, a "30 under 30" influencer by Zagatand "New York's Youngest Sommelier" by BackLabel magazine.
Cover Photo: Singa Hitam
Photos: Victoria James