CHEFCHAOUEN – THE BLUE PEARL OF MOROCCO
By Laurie Cohen
Located close to Tangier, perched beneath the raw peaks of the Rif Mountains lies one of Morocco’s most distinctive and unique towns. Known locally as Chaouen, or simply the Blue City, Chefchaouen is renowned for its buildings and streets painted in striking tones of blue. This artsy, mountainous town still has an authenticity of the past, with its charming mix of colour and decay.
Chefchaouen is one of our favourite destinations to explore with our cameras, and is included in the itinerary of our Morocco workshop.
Background and History
Like other towns dotted around the country, Chefchaouen has had its share of a tumultuous history. Founded in 1471 as a small Kasbah [fortress] by Moulay Ali ibn Rashid al-Alami, the city was created to fight the Portuguese invasions of Northern Morocco. In 1920 the Spanish seized Chefchaouen to form part of Spanish Morocco and was held by the Spanish until the Independence of Morocco in 1956.
Today, the city holds around 40,000 inhabitants and is a popular shopping destination, though tourism has not affected its charm. Unique to this town and surrounding areas are specific handicrafts, wool garments, goat cheese and the production of about half the world’s cannabis!
A Popular Subject of Interest
Many locals may have you believe the idea of painting the entire town blue is to keep away the mosquitoes. That is one theory. A more reliable source told me that it is in fact the Jewish refugees that took refuge here in the 15th century after fleeing the Spanish Reconquista, and again from Hitler in the 1930’s that were the cause. In Jewish mysticism, the colour blue represents the sky and heaven, and serve as a reminder to lead a spiritual life.
It is no coincidence that the mountainous town of Safed in northern Israel has such a resemblance to Chefchaouen. Since the founding of the state of Israel, almost all the Jews in Morocco left, however the blue paint remains, with proud home-owners adding new layers each year.
What to Shoot and What Equipment to Shoot With
Apart from the obvious subjects to capture with your camera, namely the beautiful blue-washed architecture, lovers of street photography will feel right at home here. Kids running through the streets, elders negotiating the stairways and of course the cats – the town is loaded with them!
In particular, I found Chefchaouen to be a great location to photograph the Berber people. This fascinating people have remained unperturbed and unconquered for over 4000 years, have preserved their own language and culture, and are usually found in the rural and mountainous regions of Morocco.
Regarding equipment to shoot with, we recommend a selection of lenses that cover wide-angle to medium telephoto range. A polarizing filter can be useful to emphasize the different shades of blue. We spend time in Chefchaouen during the middle of the day, so a tripod is usually not necessary unless using ultra-high resolution camera sensors or medium format cameras. This is one of those towns that causes you to slow down to perfect your composition and metering. Shooting in manual mode works well here, as does manually setting the ISO and even focussing.
We run photo adventures to Morocco twice a year, with our next adventure on March 30 – April 7, 2019. Also offered as an optional extra is our popular extension to the Sahara desert. Be sure to have a look at our upcoming blog post on this location. Likewise, please feel free to contact us with any queries you may have on our Morocco adventure.