If you like colors, Chefchaouen wouldn't disappoint you.
If you like the color blue, you'll be mystified.
Yes, Chefchaouen is blue, so blue that it’s magical! It’s also one of the most picturesque places I've ever been to, and that really says a lot about the town. It’s sad, however, that many tourists, even family vacationers with time in their hand, take it off of their travel itineraries altogether during their visit to this African country; but take it from me, if you decide to take this off of your Morocco travel plans, know that you're doing so at your own peril.
Like a Dream
The Blue Pearl, as the city is known, is high up in the mountain, and is a photographer’s dream come true. Well, in a way. If you’re actually lugging your camera gear while walking around the medina in Chefchaouen to get a gauge of your surroundings, the first thing you’ll realize would be how small the city is, especially if you’ve already been to Marrakech or Fes. Most of the areas that you roam around are residential as well, so it’s quite important for you to respect local culture and custom; this might mean many things to many people, but in Morocco, it would have to be obligatory to include the banner “Don’t even think of taking pictures of people,” as I had later learned the hard way. But to do that, it took me multiple tries.
Between the Horns
The name Chefchaouen is derived from two parts, “Chef,” which in Arabic means “to look,” and “Chaouen,” meaning “horns” – the idea is to represent the strategic positioning of this mountain town, in place between two emerging protective ‘horns’ of Rif Mountains. In other words, Chefchaouen would have you believe that it’s in a strategic corner of the country. Which in fact, is basically true. And being in such a strategic if remote location makes it unique in several ways.
First, the color. It’s a mystery why the city has been continuously painted blue for at least five hundred years. When the city was founded around the 14th century, only parts of it were painted, and one theory goes that the wave of Jewish migrants that arrived in the 1930s only reinforced this tradition. There’s some factual evidence of this, though, for blue represents the sky in the Jewish tradition, which this in turn equates to heaven and God, so the sizeable Jewish communities of Chefchaouen used blue dye to paint many things blue.
But there are competing theories that attribute the reason to a nearby waterfall, the color of water, to keep the city cool during the summertime, and even to ward off – if you can believe it – mosquitoes. Whatever the ancient reasoning, right now probably the only reason to keep painting Chefchaouen blue is to make it attractive, especially to tourists crossing between Marrakech and Fes, and that’s as clear as the blue sky it mirrors.
Like every single city you’ll ever visit in Morocco, this one, too, would like it’s been invaded by an army of cats. There are cats in all the odd places, there are cats that photobomb you continuously, and there are cats even when you think that you’re alone in the middle of nowhere. But those cats take a wholly new perspective in a city that looks like you’re viewing it submerged in a giant pool. I stalked in the city for much of the day, catching a glimpse of interesting events to shoot, knowing that the only things that were out of bounds for me were another adult human being. So, I had to concentrate on kids and cats.
The image of this cat, for one, was extremely satisfying to me, and had brought much praise from many loyal clients. However, the secret of getting a picture-perfect shot in Morocco lies not with the photographer, but rather the location, since the country seems to have a thing for colors.
Ask anyone who’s visited Morocco, and one thing they’ll all agree on is how very electrifying the country is. In most places, a walk is not just a walk, it’s also one that continuously floods all your senses. The feeling that you’ve suddenly stepped out of a time machine to visit a town in the Medieval Period is a thought I’ve seriously considered during my daily strolls.
In contrast, however, Chefchaouen's infrequent bazaars have a relaxed and laid-back atmosphere quite unlike the high-octane marketplaces you’d find in Marrakesh. Here, the street circus, the haggling, even the donkeys seem to be few and far between. If you’re traveling with your family, it is perhaps the ideal place in Morocco to find some order and serenity to what could be considered hectic in the rest of the country. So, chill out, walk around, or simply unwind among the blues that mesmerize you. Chefchaouen will also test your endurance with its steep cobbled roads, although there are certainly conveniences you can use and that your hotel will readily provide to make those walks bearable. Which is where I happened upon a long-forgotten remarkable game.
The game was on by the time I walked in, and naturally, none of the competitors wanted to be interrupted, for sure. They were serious-looking die-hard contestants who were determined, above all, to win at any cost. There was frequent yelling, and just in a little while, the mood turned somber as one of the contenders seemed to complain how the game was rigged against him. I took a seat in one corner of the insanely blue surroundings and silently got to work. But when the players noticed me, the dynamics of the game changed quite abruptly.
One of the contestants threw his hands up in the air and declined to play any further. Another one, as apparent through his hand gestures, was evidently having none of my intrusion, and promptly retired to a corner of the square, not far from where I was seated, uncomfortably watching the drama unfold.
The boys were shy, gentle, and courteous, and if I were to hazard a guess, no older than ten or eleven. The game itself was one with which I was intimately familiar with, a game I’ve seen played by street kids all over the world, including those in Kolkata where I was born and grew up. It was a high-stakes game of marbles.
But by this time, the game as I knew it, was over. The boys smiled and joked around, and everything was cordial and friendly. It just seemed that one of them was so camera-shy that he couldn’t provide his friends a moral justification why he should play in the presence of a stranger, no less someone wielding a camera and waiting to get their pictures.
I was undaunted, as I often am, and the other kids didn’t mind either, perhaps because the game was too important for them to abandon. Or perhaps I was being too pushy.
I guess I'll never know.