113km (70 miles) SE of Tangier; 192km (119 miles) N of Fes

Secluded beneath the twin Rif peaks of Jebel ech Chaouen (the Horned Mountain), the Andalusian village of Chefchaouen (Shef-sha-wen) is one of Morocco's prettiest. Its little medina is fascinating to explore -- and photograph -- with an uphill maze of quiet, cobbled alleys that twist through rows of blue-washed houses and a large open square where you sit down for breakfast and end up staying for lunch.

Chefchaouen today is a welcoming place, but it hasn't always been this way. Chaouen (as it's often called) was founded in 1471 by Moulay Ali Ben Rachid, follower of a nearby saint (one of many whose tombs were scattered in the mountains). Moulay Rachid used the village as a base for guerilla attacks on the Portuguese, who were expanding southward from their coastal garrison at Ceuta. This anti-European sentiment increased over subsequent decades with the arrival of Jewish and Muslim refugees fleeing the Christian reconquest of Spain. For centuries onward, Chefchaouen increasingly turned inward, welcoming only Muslim and Jewish pilgrims who had journeyed to pay homage to the surrounding saints and locking the gates of its protective walls each night.

By the time the Spanish made their way here in 1920, only three Westerners had braved entering Chefchaouen: Frenchman Charles de Foucauld spent an hour in the village -- disguised as a rabbi -- in 1883; Walter Harris was a Morocco correspondent for the London Times in 1889; and American missionary William Summers was poisoned here in 1892. The Spanish were amazed to find the village Jews still speaking a language that hadn't been heard in Spain for 400 years.


Now well and truly discovered, Chefchaouen still retains its village atmosphere and strong Riffian culture. Here you will see the distinctive dress of the women of the Rif: a red-and-white-striped fouta, or overskirt, and large conical straw hat with wool bobbles. Combined with a lingering Spanish influence, Chefchaouen is like no other place in Morocco and is worth visiting for a day or two.