Picture Morocco and the snapshots that spring to mind will most likely be of dusty, sun-baked streets, donkey-drawn carts, labyrinthine souks and elegant riads housed within ochre-coloured sandstone walls. Sidestepping the likes of Fez, Casablanca and Marrakech, though, we'd like to introduce you to the colourful and calming city of Chefchaouen - an all-blue oasis also known as "the Blue Pearl of Morocco". Slotted high in the country's Rif Mountains, the city proves a soothing counterpoint to its terracotta-tiled neighbours. Each year the town's buildings are freshened up with a new coat of blue paint, in a custom that dates back to the 15th century. The reason? Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition settled in large numbers here, bringing with them their tradition of painting things blue to mirror the sky and remind them of God.
Today, the cobalt-hued streets remain refreshingly free of the tourist crowds found in other Moroccan cities. Stroll from the main square of Plaza Uta el Hammam to the medina, where narrow passageways are peppered with local artisans selling handmade crafts. From henna dyes to spices, brassware, ceramics and intricately embroidered garments, a slice of culture is evident in every brimming basket. Also carve out some time to visit the Kasbah Museum. The former fort-turned-ethnographic museum and art gallery showcases ancient artefacts and traditional decorations, and has several pristine gardens in which to bask the afternoon away.
A grand door, left, and one of the city's narrow passageways. | Photo credit: Dimitrie Stanescu & Tienko Dima / unsplash.com
Nature lovers should visit the Ras el Maa waterfall, situated just outside the medina and surrounded by sprawling woodland. Once a spot where local women would come to wash their clothes, it is today more popular for a cooling dip. Hankering for a hike? The nearby Jebel el Kalaa mountain offers spectacular views, which make the six-to-seven-hour stomp to the summit well worth the sweat.
Where to stay?
Truth be told, the city isn't exactly flooded with design-driven boltholes, but that's all part of its charm. For an authentic taste of Moroccan living, book into the 18th-century guesthouse Riad La Santa. Flaunting seven bedrooms, eight bathrooms and sweeping skyline views, the 800sq m property will delight interior lovers - think stained-glass windows, colourful tiles and handcrafted furnishings. If you're looking for a purse-friendly option, La Petite Chefchaouen is a great alternative.
Where to go for breakfast?
If we could start every morning with a freshly pressed orange juice in Triana's courtyard, we absolutely would. Kick-start your day with a bowl of healthy grains, or opt for a full English fry-up - with a side of flaky pastries, obvs. This is also a hotspot for long, lazy lunches. Return mid-afternoon for seafood salads, enormous paella bowls and five-cheese pizzas.
Colourful spices and dyes lining the streets, left, and persian rugs. | Photo credit: Ekaterina Pokrovsky & Photoestetica / shutterstock.com
And for dinner…
We've said it before and we'll say it again: the best way to discover a country's heritage is through its cuisine. And what better way to appreciate the many flavours of Chefchaouen than to cook them yourself? At Café Clock, visitors are invited to join the chef in the kitchen for a four-hour cooking class - there's also a three-hour patisserie class for those with more of a sweet tooth. If you'd prefer not to get your hands dirty, head straight up to the rooftop to snag a table. The vibrant menu includes falafel bowls, crispy cauliflower platters and gazpacho - all served up alongside bird's-eye views.
Who to take with you?
That friend who's a Parkrun regular. They'll appreciate Chefchaouen's challenging climbs and bountiful green spaces.
Essentials to pack
Shorts that we can wear both through passport control and on our hike? We'll take three pairs, please. Pack these Lululemon Fast and Free 8" shorts for the ultimate stretch and comfort. Designed to absorb moisture and dry quickly, they have two handy slip pockets in which to stash your essentials when out exploring.
How to get there
There are no direct flights from the UK to Chefchaouen. We suggest flying from London Gatwick to Tangier Ibn Battouta Airport, from where the city's blue-painted streets are a two-hour drive away.