Olivia Gunning Bennani explores Morocco's 'blue city', a centuries-old medina awash in colour and laid-back charm
Snuggling sweetly between two peaks, Chefchaouen winks its sky blue and white walls as you approach across the Rif mountains. The town is a live show of Moroccan temperament at its best - locals' tender, convivial hospitality, exquisite crafts and some simple yet indisputably flavoursome regional fare, and stress levels drop below zero. The town showcases a fully-functioning medina - the absence of cars being a blessing. Goats and donkeys sashay through the passages; small children carry even smaller children and play hide-and-seek; old ladies snore and old men stare; artisans bare their wares prettily inside diminutive arched doors, centuries old.
While Chefchaouen is the epitome of affability, it was once vehemently hostile. Only three Christians penetrated the white walls of this originally Muslim and Jewish settlement before Spain invaded in 1920. Charles Foucauld swindled entry disguised as a rabbi and the London journalist Walter Harris spent a whole hour within the city limits. Poor William Summers, an American missionary, also got in - but not out. He was poisoned.
Today, happily, enmity is at an all-time low and Chefchaouen is one of the few Moroccan towns where laid-back is de rigeur. Climbing the medina's steep slopes is the only great demand - good for incidental exercise. Locals are loquacious in this linguistic rainy season. The national Moroccan Arabic is infused with the regional dialect and Berber. Years of Andalusian presence led to absorption of Spanish. French, since Morocco is a former protectorate of France, is widely spoken.
Chefchaouen's inhabitants are connoisseurs of cleanliness, the whiteness of the city being testament. Walls are regularly repainted using the traditional method; lumps of limestone are added to buckets of water and left to dissolve. The resulting paint, white as milk, is washed over the town. Lime is widely available in the medina and just as widely available is pigment, which sits in the form of pretty powder in plastic bags lined up outside shops. The ubiquitous blue climbs only halfway up the walls. Local legend says that this is because traditionally women applied it - but only as high as they could reach. Doors, window frames, metalwork and trellising are picked out in shades of blue from sapphire to cobalt, cornflower to turquoise.
The original life source of the town, the source - Rass el Maa - sits before one of the seven medina doors (babs). The Rif mountain water assembles locals and visitors alike. While men laze on broad rocks, listening to the gushing gallons of water, and tourists peer curiously, hordes of women see to the laundry. Dirty washing is done in public here, and with gusto. Two washing units - complete with scrubbing blocks - supply a congregation area for the scouring of carpets, animal skins, and entire families' attire. The strong physique characterising Chefchaouen's ladies is perhaps tribute to this tradition.
The guest house Dar Rass El Maa is superbly placed if you wish to enjoy the water source without the arm cramp. This captivating building is perched above the source, allowing a priceless gaze over the waterfall, the town's winking night-time lights and daytime comings and goings. Rooms are furnished with traditional wrought iron fittings, hand-painted wooden tables and locally-made thick cotton curtains drape down to the floor. Ceilings are adorned with stained-glass lanterns, floors are paved with zellige (mosaic) tiles and bathroom walls are coated with tadelakt (lime plaster). The large reception room affords a magnificent glimpse over the town to yonder mountains. A series of unsmiling sultans peer out of black-and-white photographs along the wall of the riad area of the house.
The exceptionally accommodating Nabil Ouariach, the guest-house manager, has a gem of a photograph album, exhibiting another, erstwhile Chefchaouen, when times were tougher but spirits just as cheerful. Sitting in the garden is a treat, lemon boughs bending and almond blooms nodding like dancing girls. On the bank, fat turkeys gulp and bop noisily while women chatter, treading sturdily beneath bales of washing.
Women throughout Northern Morocco tie a stretch of red and white striped fabric about the waist - the position of the knot indicating marital status. Chefchaouen's fabric weaving is a well-established, nationally-respected institution. Traditional manual looms, still used to this day, are operated mostly by men - in public in any case. Chez Azarou, slotted in next to the Bab Souk medina door, is both shop and workshop. Several looms are pushed into the space and three men weave incessantly while another spins course yarn from fat bobbins to produce a fine, glinting thread. Weavers use treadles and a mesh of stretched threads, winding the finished cloth out as they go. Stripes dominate, as per the local sartorial emblem.
"We're using a mix of silk and velvet here," says Azarou. "You have to be careful about which colours to mix. Blue goes with black, indigo and mauve. Orange will go with browns, yellows and greens." Shelves bulge with reams of folded striped cloth. Like many of the weaving outfits in the area, cloth is woven for cushion covers, curtains, wall hangings and bed covers. In addition, it may be cut into clothes, bags and caps. They don't make carpets, though.
"Carpets? See my mother, Fatima," says Azarou. "She makes carpets from local wool. You'll find her near the oldest olive tree in the medina - everyone knows it." In pursuit of the ancient olive tree, we pass a nameless, windowless outlet. The door is open, revealing bobbins of silk, stacked floor to ceiling, shining like throngs of multi-coloured glow worms. Can't walk on by. The shop is empty, but the bobbins are enough to greet any caller. Every hue is represented on this twinkling palette. Najat Mohamed sits in an almost-hidden room. Her workshop is bare - chair, table, manual sewing machine. While Najat herself wears a rather drab djellaba, she is a dressmaker of astounding skill.
"I make kaftans, djellaba and tukchetas," she smiles shyly. "It takes a week or two to make them by hand because they are complex and must be done perfectly." "Women come and order them for weddings and such events," she explains. "Everyone wants pistachio green at the moment. And pale pink, of course." The medina passages wind on. Jasmine, geraniums, ivy, but no olive tree. Yassin beckons us from his shoe shop. "Want any slippers or sandals?" he asks. "Best prices here." We walk in and are immediately overwhelmed by the arresting odours of leather, glue and dye. "These are all hand-stitched," says Yassin, whose family has worked with leather for countless generations. "The women do the sewing and the men do the rest." The upper floor is a gamut of colour and shapes for feet. Traditional babouche slippers linger alongside Gisele Bundchen-style sandals.
Without warning, we hear a "pssshhh" and spin around. Crouched in an annex is a wiry man with a pipe, not smoking, but blowing. A traditional technique, still employed in Chefchaouen, dye is inserted into the small tubular device and then blown evenly over the flat leather strips, cut and ready for stitching. A chattering cluster of cafe-restaurants line the cobbled, central Uta el-Hammam esplanade, proffering views of the Grand Mosque with its unique octagonal minaret. It was one of the first buildings constructed when the great Idrissid Moulay Ali Ben Rachid founded Chefchaouen in 1471. Wash it down with a glass of mint tea and bowl of bissara - Northern Morocco's speciality garlicky pureed broad bean soup. A tour of the 15th-century kasbah next to the Grand Mosque will show off the dungeons, gardens and battlements, as well as the site of a suspected secret passage running to the medina's edge.
If you prefer to tuck yourself into the medina, there are other options. Casa Aladin supplies a rare rooftop view of the medina. The restaurant serves nourishing local food - Spanish influence is counted as local here - from tagine to tortilla. The charming Oussama runs his ship with discreet rigour and there are very pleasant hotel rooms available, too. High places always attract crowds. The Bouzafar Mosque overlooking Chefchaouen is under reconstruction but the minaret creaks nonetheless under the weight of visitors - locals and a scattering of tourists. Ladies giggling beneath hijabs, pony-tailed girls, strutting guys and wobbling grannies all scramble up the darkened stairway, a metre wide. There isn't much room at the top, but it's worth the squash.
You don't have to stop here; plenty of hikes can be started here, with or without a guide. But watch at least one sunset; the blueness of the town deepens in intensity as night-time raises her head. The medina is as animated after sunset as before, so you don't need to rush to get your shopping done during daylight hours. Hunt down local palm-wrapped goat cheese, famous regional honey and olive oil. Jewellery shops entice, as does the rack of lovely clothes at Australian quadrilingual Melinda's place, Connexion Mandingue, which she runs with her Moroccan husband.
After a pleasing dinner at the renowned Casa Hassan, it's hometime. Cats fleet, cloaked figures hobble and shadows skip through passageways - somehow the nocturnal medina should be spooky, but it's not. "Chefchaouen has very low crime rates," explains Nabil. "You can't do anything here without someone seeing. It's the tightest security system." We were thankful to have bumped into Nabil in the medina, as he showed us the best way back to the guest house. After trudging up and down various steps and twisting around numerous rights and lefts, we hear the rush of Rass El Maa.
"Look at that olive tree," Nabil pointed to the left. "The oldest in the medina. Four hundred it's been living here."
The flight Return flights on Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) from Abu Dhabi to Casablanca cost from US$940 (Dh3,455) including taxes. Chefchaouen is about five to six hours by road from Casablanca.
The hotel Double rooms at Dar Rass El Maa (www.chefchaouen.ch; 00 212 539 9880 80) cost from $63 (Dh230) including taxes and daily breakfast. An advance payment of $110 (Dh400) is required. Credit cards are not accepted.