Nestled high in the Rif Mountains, Chefchaouen, known as the "Blue City," is built on a hillside, and is a world apart from its larger, Spanish-style neighbors. The pace of life here seems somehow in tune with the abundant natural springs, wildflowers, and low-lying clouds hovering above the surrounding mountains. From Rifi Berbers dressed in earth-tone wool djellabas (long, hooded robes) and sweaters (ideal for cold, wet Rif winters) to the signature blue-washed houses lining its narrow streets, Chefchaouen has maintained its unique identity throughout the years.
Founded in 1471 by Moulay Ali ben Rachid as a mountain base camp for launching attacks against the Portuguese at Ceuta, Chefchaouen was historically off-limits to Christians until recently, and had been visited by only three Europeans when Spanish troops arrived in 1920. Vicomte Charles de Foucauld—French military officer, explorer, and missionary—managed to make it inside the walls disguised as a rabbi in 1883. In 1889 British journalist Walter Harris, intrigued by the thought of a city closed to Westerners a mere 97 km (60 miles) from Tangier, used a similar strategy to gain access to Chefchaouen while researching his book Land of an African Sultan. The third visitor, American William Summers, was less lucky and was caught and poisoned in 1892.
Chefchaouen's isolationism had increased with the arrival of Muslims expelled from Spain at the end of the 15th century and again at the start of the 17th. Jews expelled from Spain with the Muslims chose various shades of blue for the facades of their houses, while the Muslim houses remained green or mauve. When the Spanish arrived in 1920 they were stunned to find Chefchaouen's Sephardic Jews speaking and writing a medieval Spanish dialect that had been extinct in Spain for four centuries. The medina has been walled since its earliest days, and is still off-limits to cars.
Somehow, even the burgeoning souvenir shops don't make much of a dent in the town's mystique. Chaouen, as it's sometimes called, is an ideal place to wander through a tiny medina, walk up into the looming mountains above the valley, and sip mint tea in an open square. No other place in Morocco has Chefchaouen's otherworldly, bohemian appeal—a place that ranks as a consistent favorite among travelers to the region.