Chefchaouen: Fifty Shades of Blue

14 km. Not a long distance when considering traveling around the world. Yet the differences between life in Tarifa, Spain and Tangier, Morocco (which are 14km apart) is astounding. From the coastline of Tangier the continent of Europe stands prominently across the Strait of Gibraltar, and many people can speak Spanish as well. Make no mistake though, you’re no longer in Europe, you’re in Arabic Africa.
Walking around the bustling streets many differences are immediately apparent: the differences between bikinis and burkas, tapas and tagines, beer and Berber whiskey. (Berber whiskey is actually mint tea with a lot of sugar, alcohol isn’t prevalent in predominantly Muslim countries. Just like there are wine and beer fiends across the Mediterranean there are sugar fiends here as every tiny cup of tea arrives with three large sugar cubes.)

After a night in Tangier I made my way south to the truly colorful city of Chefchaouen. Chefchaouen is a very unique Moroccan town in many regards. Inside the medina nearly everything (walls, steps, street stalls) is painted in varying shades of blue, earning it the nickname the Blue City.

The town pervades a laid back vibe, contrasting the ‘get tourists’ money at all costs’ vibe secreted by the pushers and touts in typical Moroccan hotspots (ahem, Fez and Marrakesh). Maybe this could be attributed to the vast amount of marijuana fields growing in the surrounding mountainside, or maybe it’s just the peaceful atmosphere of being tucked away in the Rif Mountains. Probably a combination of the two.

A large mountain named Jebel al-Kalaa looms above Chefchaoeun, promising spectacular views to those with the constitution to ascend its steep sides. My mate Tim, an eccentric Englishman, and I decided those views would indeed be worth the effort to reach them and made our own trail up the mountain face. Eventually our route intersected with a path that wound up the mountain, past many of the aforementioned marijuana fields with farmers who gave us some almonds to snack on.

Once we neared the summit we were rewarded with a sight that neither of us expected. Trapped in a ring of smaller mountains floated a family of fluffy clouds, molding around the odd mountain peaks. With this heavenly sight, it was a near spiritual experience when we reached the summit and soaked in all the vibrant colors of nature’s palette.

Each day a chorus of “Allahu Akbar” resounds from the minarets of the mosques scattered throughout the city. The muezzins climb the minarets five times each day to sound the call to prayer. My favorite time is the fourth call of the day, just after sunset. Sitting alone on a hill across from the city is a Spanish Mosque where people gather to watch the sun descend behind the mountains. As hues of pink and fushia colored the clouds the call began to reverberate into the countryside. A solitary plane arched high overhead, seemingly on a trajectory to the heavens, driven on by the passionate soundtrack below. Scanning the vast mountains I got goosebumps, feeling for the first time that I was actually in Africa!

I spent 6 days in Chefchaoeun hiking to the Akchour waterfalls nearby and exploring the city, relaxing after 3 months of bouncing around Europe.  My first week in Morocco came to an end with lots of mint tea, natural beauty, and at least fifty different shades of blue.