Suitcase and World: Chefchaouen. شفشاون

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Chefchaouen. شفشاون

Chefchaouen ("chef-show-un") is situated in the heart of Morocco's Rif Mountains.

The name Chefchaouen comes from “chauen”, which is Spanish for horns, and refers to the shape of the twin peaks overlooking the settlement.

Chefchaouen or Chaouen as it's commonly called, was founded in 1471 by Moorish exiles from Spain as a small fortress to fend off the attacks of invading Portuguese forces in northern Morocco. After the Spanish Reconquista, the town became one of the largest Moriscos and Jewish refuge sites.

In 1920, the Spaniards seized Chefchaouen to form part of Spanish Morocco and returned the city after Morocco declared its independence in 1956.

Today, Chaouen has a reputation for being a "quiet town" and is famous for its blue painted houses, a tradition that was inherited from the Jewish inhabitants. 

In the Bible, Israelites are commanded to dye one of the threads in their tallit (prayer shawl) blue. When they look at the dye, they will think of the blue sky, and the God above them in Heaven. It is in honor of this sacred commandment, that they painted the streets and houses of Chaouen blue and it is all things blue that makes Chaouen so special today.

Every travel source I've read so far about Morocco lists Chefchaouen as a place that should not be missed.  For travelers coming from Tangier, it's an easy town to get to.  We'll be coming from Fes which is at least a 3-4 hour drive (by grand taxi) or bus ride away.

"Uta el-Hammam "
The heart of Chaouen is the medina which is the Arab quarter.  The main square, the shady, cobbled Plaza Uta el-Hammam is lined with cafés and restaurants - perfect spot  to take a break, drink some mint tea and watch the world go by.   Of course, this only after we check out the kasbah and the striking Grande Mosquée.

 "Kasbah "
 Dominating one end of the Plaza Uta el-Hamman is the town's kasbah which was built by Moulay Ismail in the 18th century.  Today, all that stands of the once magnificent castle are ruins flanked by shady gardens and a museum showcasing local crafts and old photographs of the town. Doesn't sound like much but still worth at least a quick visit.

Photo by El bandolero/Pasos Largos

"Grand Mosquée "
Located near the kasbah is the town's main mosque.  It's closed to non-Muslims so all we can do is admire it from the outside and take photos.

By all accounts, Chaouen's medina is small and very walkable which is perfect for us because we won't have much time to spend in the town.  Everyone says just to wander around - you can't get lost.  Supposedly, the Jewish quarter is located somewhere behind the jewellery souq and that it's worth a visit just to feel the difference between it and the main Arabic feel of the town.  Interesting how this town has had Jews and Muslims living side by side for centuries whereas the two cultures are still battling out in the Middle East.
If we do have time, it may be worth taking a short 5 km taxi ride to Ras al Ma gorge which apparently is a popular picnic spot for locals. 

And one last tidbit of info about Chaouen.....something I would not have expected.  Turns out that the region around the town is Morocco’s leading producer of cannabis.  Who would have thought that alcohol is banned in this Muslim country but hash is tolerated? Could explain why Chaouen has a reputation for being such a laid back town.  :-)

Apparently, much of the arable land won’t grow much else other than cannabis (yeah,sure).  Hash has made itself such an intrinsic part of the town’s life that no one gives it much of a second glance; it's openly sold in the souq and that hash dealers will come up to you to sell directly!  I'm not into the stuff, they will walk away empty handed.

I think a visit to Chefchaouen is a "must do" and would be interesting for oh so many different reasons :-)