Chefchaouen, the hippie backpackers city of northern Morocco, is flanked by two mountains known in Arabic as "chef" and "chaouen". "Chef" is a derivation of the Arabic verb, "to look". Along with "chaouen", which means "antlers or horns". Being situated between the two mountains, it has long been a strategic spot for military powers. After the Portuguese took control of Morocco in 1471, a local leader, Abu Youma, set up a military base in Chefchaouen where he could launch counterinsurgency fights against the Portuguese. When Youma died in battle, his cousin took over the development of the city.
The cousin of Youma, Ali Ben Rachid, started bringing his family and friends to the town from Spain (Chefchaouen is not far from the coast of Spain!). This led to others following and by the middle of the 16th century, when the Spanish Inquisition began, there was a well-established immigration route already in place. Many religious refugees moved down into Chefchaouen, bringing art and architecture along with them. In 1760, the Sultan declared the creation of the mellah (Jewish neighborhood), which led to the famous light blue that is seen throughout the city.
Light blue is representative of the sky, which brings one closer to God. This color can be found in many Jewish neighborhoods around the world, especially in refugee areas, but it especially took off in Chefchaouen. The city repaints the walls every year -- although I'm not sure if the government pays for it or everyone just has an agreement to paint their house during a certain week? I tried asking, but never got a direct response that seemed confident enough to pass along.
By now you're wondering, okay, cool, but what is there to do there?
Chefchaouen is more of a relaxing city where you go to take some pretty pictures, stroll around, practice your new bargaining techniques, and take a break between the busyness of the likes of Fez and Marrakesh. If you're in the area for more than a day and are itching to go somewhere, head to the mountains for a day of hiking or to the waterfalls of Akchour.
How to get there
There are no direct trains to Chefchaouen, so if you're heading in from a bigger city, you will have to take the train, then the bus. I did not do this, so can't give you too much detail! If you have more than 4 people and coming from not too far out, it's probably most efficient to pay for a grand taxi to get there. (From Rabat, we paid 1000 dirham for 6 of us).