Chauen, contemplation blue in north Morocco
In the foothills of the Rif mountains, northern Morocco, this tiny blue town delights travellers with its fabrics, hills and perpetual feeling of peace.
Encounters, crushing crowds, story incubator, musicians, bazaarists, photographers, atypical foreigners.” Concepts that Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo used to describe neighbouring Morocco. The African country has firmly established itself as a leading destination for romantic travellers, who go there in search of the stories of Paul Bowles. Tangier is known for its cultural legacy, Tétouan for its authentic medinas, and Marrakesh for the concentration of aromas, tourists and merchants in its main square, Jemaa El-Fna. But, in contrast to the hustle and bustle of the big cities, the desert evokes a feeling of calm, comparable only to what you will find in Chauen.
It looks like a fishing village on a Greek island, but it is enclaved in the Rif mountains, an-hour-and-a-half from Tétouan. Chauen is contrast manifested in two colours: white and blue. And it is these ever-present cobalt skies and bright blues that have made it one of the most photographed destinations in North Africa. Legend says the Moroccans began using this colour because it repelled the flies, though it is also said that the Jews chose it to replace the green of Islam during the 1930s.
Inside the medina, with its five entrance gates, visitors will notice that, compared to the chaos of other Moroccan towns, Chauen evokes calm. Blue is associated with serenity, but the organised positioning of stalls and ceramics on the steps of its steep passageways contributes to creating this feeling of harmony.
Chauen is a town where you can stop and think. On every corner, a small artisan workshop spins brightly coloured blankets, weaving reds, yellows and oranges, to create quilts you want to buy, even though you have no idea where you will put them when you get home. The bright colours of these fabrics compete with the blue façades against which they are hung. Another star product is dye: powdered pigments for staining lime and painting rooms in bright colours – perhaps it is somewhat surprising that they use such an extensive range of colours to dye their artisan products in a place considered one of the most beautiful for being monochromatic.
The beating heart of Chauen is Uta el-Hammam square, where all the cafés offer traditional mint tea. About ten minutes from here, at Aladdin restaurant, you can sample traditional Moroccan food, including date and orange salad, chicken tajine, and lamb with plums or couscous. For dessert, try kaab al-ghazal (gazelle horns), an almond pastry aromatized with orange blossom water. From the terrace, there are views of the Great Mosque and the walls of the Alcazaba. Built in 1471 by the city’s founder, Moulay Ali ibn Rachid, this fortress has a garden planted with palm trees, which affords access to the towers. From their four stories, you can enjoy views of the town, photogenic and serene.
After lunch, travel out of the centre, away from the crowds and from the kasbah, with its red walls. Leaving behind this architectural and cultural melting pot, a blend of Arabic, Hispanic and Jewish tradition, you can climb the mountain for a different perspective. Chauen isn’t just blue, it is also pure air and cloud-capped hills. From the top, there are views of Ras el-Maa spring, where children play and swim away from their mothers, who keep an eye on them as they wash their clothes.
In the words of Goytisolo, Morocco is a country to be discovered from a bird’s eye view, with its subtleties and contrasts. The author includes an old Berber story, the legend that storks (highly venerated in Morocco) are human beings who, when they want to travel, transform themselves into migratory birds. Once they arrive at their destination, they return to land. That is how an attentive traveller should explore the blue village – like a wandering stork.