Wednesday 12 December 2018

Into the Blue: Why is this Moroccan town so beautifully blue?

Chefchaouen is Morocco's Blue Pearl, writes Pól Ó Conghaile. But how did it get that way?

Steps leading to a laneway in Chefchaouen, Morocco. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
Steps leading to a laneway in Chefchaouen, Morocco. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
A local wearing a djellaba in Chefchaouen, Morocco. Photo Pól Ó Conghaile
Chefchaouen, Morocco
Chefchaouen, Morocco
Bab Ssour, Chefchaouen, Morocco
Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

As a child, I remember reading The Great Blueness, Arnold Lobel's book that sees a wizard bring colour to a grey world.

Before achieving the right mix, he makes some brilliant mistakes. One of them is to colour everything blue.

Walking the labyrinthine lanes of Chefchaouen in northern Morocco, I wonder: did Lobel pay a visit?

Radiating from the kasbah, the town's streets are marvellously, trippily, beautifully blue. Cascading down its mountain perch, the rinse washes over mosques, cafés, houses and shops like an Instagram filter.

There's is a key difference from the book, though. Lobel's blue made everyone sad, prompting the wizard to try again. Chefchaouen does the opposite.

Bolt from the blue

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A local wearing a djellaba in Chefchaouen, Morocco. Photo Pól Ó Conghaile

Why is Chefchaouen so blue? That's the question.

One theory says the lime wash evokes fresh water, helping keep mosquitoes away. Another suggests it originates with Jewish residents who arrived during the 1930s (the blue is said to reflect the sky and encourage thoughts of a spiritual life).

Whatever the history, it's a unique place to wander - like the pueblos blancos of southern Spain or the sparkling blues and whites of Santorini.

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Chefchaouen, Morocco

Ponder the origin stories over lunch or dinner in Bab Ssour (5 Rue Elkharrazin), a family restaurant accessed through a grocery shop in the lower medina.

Here, you can sit elbow to elbow with locals mopping up tender, homemade goat tagine with ridiculously fresh bread. Yum.

Cheap kick

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Bab Ssour, Chefchaouen, Morocco

Just walk! Watch men drifting by in their djellabas, like Jedi Knights. Spot studded doors, leading to hidden houses. Wonder at the colourful flower pots, the creeping cats and vibrant vines. Get up early, to the morning drone of prayer from minarets. Eat local goat's cheese (above), honey and olives, or sip a mint tea (Moroccans love it loaded with sugar) on the square.

I stayed at Dar Echchaouen (darechchaouen.com; doubles from c. €64), a hillside hotel just a short walk from the town. One night is plenty.

Top tip

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Chefchaouen, Morocco

'Chaouen' takes its name from the Berber word for 'horns', sitting as it does between two spiky mountain tops. Legend says just three Westerners visited before 1920, but the secret is out now - so make sure you visit in spring or autumn, avoiding the crowds and finding a gentler light and less irritable locals.

Get me there

Chefchaouen is a 2.5 hour drive from Tangiers, itself accessible via a short ferry crossing from Spain (conceivably, you could visit from the Costa del Sol).

Pól travelled as a guest of Intrepid Travel (intrepidtravel.com), which has a nine-day North Morocco tour including Fes, Chefchaouen and Tangier from €625pp, excluding flights. See also muchmorocco.com.

Read more:

Marrakesh: How to make like an A-lister in Morocco 

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