I’ve been wanting to visit Chefchaouen for many years. We’ve driven past it on a few occasions, but just never had the time to go and visit it properly. Our time in Morocco was different on this visit because with my wife’s parents going to Mecca just after we arrived we’ve had some time to ourselves to go off and visit without having to get back to be fed! My wife wasn’t convinced it would be safe to go to Chefchaouen, but after some pestering I persuaded her to go and we set off early morning for the 3 1/2 hour drive through the mountains of central Morocco to get there, travelling between the Moyen Atlas near Meknes to the Rif mountains in the north. The drive alone is stunning and the scenery on a huge scale, with everything from wide-open fertile undulating farmlands to rocky outcrops with winding mountain roads. This is where the 14mm Fuji lens would have been useful if it were available! We arrived at Chefchaouen around lunchtime and as we approached I immediately recognised it nestling on the side of the mountain from the photos I’d already seen.
Chefchaouen is well known for the blue streets and buildings, not to mention people wanting to get erm…. ‘happy’ shall we say! As a consequence you’ll be asked more than once if you’re after some “hash”, but if you politely refuse they don’t bother you further and after the same person has asked you a couple of times they seem to give up! I felt a lot safer here than in Fes and didn’t hesitate to go out alone in the late afternoon whilst my wife was resting, even down into the real back-streets away from the tourists to where people actually lived. I was never bothered and felt completely safe. The town seems quite daunting at first, but once you get used to it all the little streets lead back on themselves and as long as you’ve got a reasonable sense of direction you can’t really get lost, especially as they mostly lead either up and down, or simply connect the main streets going up and down, unlike many of the other medinas which can just be winding mazes!
I’m not sure anything can prepare you for the streets of Chefchaouen. I often find that photos you see of places don’t really reflect what it actually looks like when you get there and end up being disappointed. Well, Chefchaouen is exactly as it looks in the photos! Varying shades of blue everywhere, floors, walls, doors, ceilings…everywhere! Being everywhere it is a weird sensation on the eyes, it seems oddly familiar, but it took me until the second day to really be able to explain what it looks like. It’s very much like an ice cave in blue, wavy curves of colour seemingly carved out of the rock. The layers of paint give it all a smooth soft look.
What makes it more odd is the fact that the blue paint doesn’t stop at the main streets, it runs into the smaller alleyways and if you happen to glance into an open door, it runs through into their houses too, you just can’t escape it! It’s not just there for the tourists, which is what I had thought it might be before I visited.
The Fuji X-Pro1 and X100 were born to photograph scenes like this! I normally shoot in Astia, but I couldn’t resist switching to Velvia to bring out the bright vivid colours that hit you everywhere you look. None of the images have been fiddled with, and they are a pretty accurate representation of how things really look there.
We turned up expecting to just walk into a hotel as we went out of season, well that went out of the window straight away! They were either all full, or student-type hostels, which amongst other reasons, with all my photo gear I wasn’t keen on staying at. After two hours of trailing around thinking we’d just have to go home, we eventually found a hotel with a clean-enough room available. The triple room at Hotel Marrakech was only 300Dh (about £23) for the night and just 5 mins walk to the main square in the old medina where all the main restaurants and the mosque was. The taxi driver who took us to various hotels told us not to even bother turning up between May and August as people often end up sleeping in the street having not found anywhere to stay! I’d certainly recommend making a reservation in advance. If you want a modern “western style” hotel there are only two in the entire town, Hotel Parador and Hotel Atlas. I’d recommend Hotel Parador as it’s just at the top of the hill next to the medina and main square, whereas Atlas is a good 10 min taxi drive up to the hotel in the mountain above the town (and you may have a long wait at the hotel to come back). Hotel Atlas appears to be frequented mostly by large groups of couch-tourists who must all come down together on the coach when they want to visit the medina. There are a quite a few small ryiad hotels in the medina and a lot of hostels, which are fine if you’re travelling alone backpacking and don’t want to pay much, but you don’t really know who you’ll be staying with. Food is as cheap as it is anywhere in Morocco and any of the main restaurants in the main square are good, many with terraces so you can look over the town from above. Wander through the backstreets and you can find some nice quiet places to eat too, often with roof terraces as well.
The people are quite friendly and don’t push you around to buy things, even if they get you into their shop they don’t turn nasty if you decide not to buy. The main languages are Spanish and Arabic, but most of the people speak at least some French and English, certainly within the tourist areas. The town obviously thrives on tourism and a lot of the streets are full of tourists shops, unlike Meknes and Fes where much of the medina is for locals to buy food, clothes and day-to-day things. Get out of these streets to find the bakeries and local shops. Most of the shops in the old medina sell souvenirs, rugs, clothes, hats, paintings. There are a few artists studios and we bought a painting very cheaply from one of the studio workshops where they had some american students in who had come to learn.
The other thing we bought were some hats as presents from “Hat Man”… though they have been infused with a certain smell and I’m wondering if I dare put them in our luggage to get them back to the UK! They are currently hanging outside in the hope that they will air a little!
Behind the medina is the mountain top that dominates the skyline and is impressive enough on it’s own. You can walk past the cascade (waterfall) where the old ladies do their washing, by going up and to the right of the medina, though it is largely a modern redeveloped tourist attraction now and was a bit of a disappointment really. If you follow this trail you can get part way up the mountain to the white mosque and look back down on the town and the surrounding valley. It’s a nice recently re-done pathway so an easy walk, albeit all up-hill! It was very hot and we were both tired so decided not to bother – something to save until next time!
There are a lot of wild cats roaming the streets, they are all friendly little things and don’t bother you - you can’t go there without taking at least one photo of a cat as they dominate the streets as much as the tourists do!
This is probably the hardest set of images I’ve had to edit. I started with over 800, which is a lot for me for just two days as I don’t tend to spray-and-pray, I think I had less than 50 images from Fes, but there was just so much to photograph in Chefchaouen! I slowly managed to get it down to around 50, which is normally far more than I’d usually like to show as I tend to think it’s better to edit them and show only your very best images rather than just put up everything hoping someone will like one or two, but it’s just such a fascinating place I’ve decided to show the entire final 50-ish I got down to! The streets may look quiet, but they weren’t, and I’m very grateful to Yassmine for standing around behind me, probably getting bored, whilst I waited for nobody, or the right person to come into shot! Below is a Flickr gallery to my images, please do click on the Flickr link to view them in their larger sizes as it makes them look so much better! I’ve started with the day time images and run through to the night. I’m working on a slow 3G connection, so they aren’t very high-res images I’m afraid – I’ll update them when I get home.