For the Instagram-set, Chefchaouen may seem like a recent phenomenon, but the city's history dates back over 500 years. It was founded in 1471 by Moulay Ali Ben Moussa Ben Rached El Alami.
The city was originally known as Chaouen, a Berber word meaning "horns" or "peaks," referring to the Rif Mountains that overlook the town. In 1975, the name was changed to Chefchaouen, meaning "view of the peaks."
The town's most famous building isn't blue. The kasbah, a fortress built by Moulay Ali Ben Moussa Ben Rached El Alami to protect against the invading Portuguese, was the first structure in the settlement.
The mountainous geography around the city is stunning. In the early mornings, cold brisk air blows in from the Rif and locals clad in woolen djellaba cloaks sip mint tea at cafes in the main square.
The city's iconic look — whitewashed houses and tiled roofs — began when Muslim and Jewish refugees fled to the city from Spain in 1494.
While there is no consensus on when or why the city turned blue, a common theory is that Jews arriving in the 15th century painted the Mellah, or Jewish Quarter, blue in honor of God. Others have said it was Jewish refugees in the 1930s who painted the city blue. Prior, much of the city was painted a traditional Muslim green.
Chefchaouen's medina, or old city, is built into the side of a mountain, so that you are often walking up and down steep staircases that trace the topography.
One of the city's greatest charms is its mix of Moroccan and Andalusian architecture, including red-tiled roofs, intricate wood carvings, and beautiful tile work.
I booked an apartment with Yousseff Khan, who runs a small bed and breakfast with his family. During my stay, Khan was in the middle of exams for a graduate degree in human rights law at nearby Université Abdelmalek Essaadi.
Growing up in Chefchaouen, Khan has watched as the city has transformed. When he was young, he said, Europeans visited on summer holidays. Over the last decade, the crowd has changed to American, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean tourists who come all year long.
Though 40,000 people live in the city, only about 2,000 live in the blue-painted medina. Khan knows everyone. As we walk, he stops to shake hands and say "Salaam" with each person along the way.
Most tourists come for a day trip from Fez or Tangier, taking a few photos, browsing the souvenir shops, and then heading back. The city doesn't have many attractions aside from the blue walls and the medina can be explored fully in a few hours. But, stay a few days, and you'll get to know the people, Khan said, who are what make the medina special.
Unlike bustling cities like Marrakesh or Tangier, Chefchaouen maintains a small town vibe, regardless of the tourists. It gives a tourist a window into a Moroccan life that has existed for centuries.
Towards the bottom of the medina, Khan introduced me to Abdussalam Faran. Faran and his family have run the town oven for generations.
Chefchaouen is full of "famous" townspeople like Faran. As we walked, Khan stopped outside the door of an elderly painter interviewed many times for his knowledge of the city. In Morocco, it is customary to give an interview subject a tip, Khan explained. When I asked how much, he shrugged."It might be very expensive. He's very famous," he said. The painter never answered the door.
Instead, we met with Abdelkhalak Ben Maymoun, an unofficial town historian who operates a library in the medina. Before I asked a question, Ben Maymoun was tracing his lineage back 500 years. He is a descendant of writer Al-Faqih Ali Ben Maimun, whose patron was the city's founder, Moulay Ali Ben Rached. A plaque a few blocks away commemorates the history.
Ben Maymoun has been interviewed many times by journalists seeking to know about the town. He pulls out weathered magazines and printed web articles to show me. Then, he pulls out a textbook-thick binder of printed papers. It is his history of Chefchaouen, which he has been working on for 25 years.
When I asked Ben Maymoun if I could photograph him, he happily obliged. He quickly arranged his library for the photograph, propping a printed copy of an article about himself that an Arab-British reporter wrote several years ago on one side and his town history on the other. He then hammed it up for the camera.
Chefchaouen has seen many tourist waves, Ben Maymoun explained. The first began when Spanish troops occupied the city in 1920, administering it until independence in 1956. Prior, no Christians could enter.
From Spanish refugees in the 15th century to occupation 100 years ago, the city has a long history with Spain. Spanish tourists were the first to visit and, even today, the city is packed during major Catholic holidays like Semana Santa and Christmas. Most Chefchaouen locals, Ben Maymoun said, speak some combination of Spanish, Arabic, Berber, and English.
When tourists first started visiting, the medina was a place where, if a tourist showed up, a local would put them up in their house and give them dinner for free. "Moroccan hospitality," Ben Maymoun said.
In a curving alleyway off the main square, I met Hamid, a carpet seller who moved from Fez in the 1970s. When Hamid arrived in the 1970s, hippies had descended thanks to the abundant cannabis fields nearby. Even today, tourists can't avoid the constant offer of (illegal) hashish.
Today's Insta-tourists are simply the latest wave, Khan said, though now they come in greater number and, he hopes, stay for longer. As I walked the town, even on a quiet day, there were plenty blocking out alleyways for photos.
What differentiates this tourist wave from the past, Soquaina, the French teacher, said, is that now Moroccans are visiting. Twenty years ago, few Moroccans knew about the town.
That began to change when King Mohammed VI visited after the death of his father Hassan II in 1999. But the real change happened when the hit Moroccan TV show Bnat Lalla Mennana, about a conservative family living in the medina, aired in 2012. "When Moroccans saw it, we were like, 'Wait, that's in Morocco?'" she said.
The city grew in popularity first, thanks to word-of-mouth, said Ben Maymoun. Back in the 1960s, tourists would talk about how they "discovered" some gorgeous mountain town and show their friends color photographs.
But knowledge of the city was still limited because, in the past, any photographer, reporter, or filmmaker needed a government permit to document the city. Smartphones made that impossible to implement. "The smartphone and social media made it so much easier for people to see how beautiful it is," Ben Maymoun said.
Today, the blue medina is used frequently for TV shows, commercials, and movies in Morocco and outside. Moroccan-American rapper French Montana shot the music video for his 2018 hit "Famous" in Chefchaouen.
Traditionally, Khan said, Chefchaouen residents made their living making handicrafts sold in the city and elsewhere. The handmade leather bags, ornate copper lamps, and woolen shawls and cloaks found in souks all over Morocco often come from Chefchaouen.
With so many tourists visiting to take photos for the day, locals have gotten creative. Three years ago, Ahmed Saadoune, a former taxi driver, turned his family home into a "museum" open to tourists for 5 MAD ($0.50). It was the influx of social media tourists, he said, that convinced him the idea could work.
His home, which he said has been left mostly untouched, is a classic example of the town's Andalusian, Morisco, and Arabic influences. His only additions are cultural items like an olive press, amphorae, a loom, and a bread basket. While he said he is happy to explain the building's history or the items' function, tourists are more interested in taking photos.
"All these people come and put photos of my house on Instagram and YouTube and Facebook. It's famous now," Saddoune said, beaming. "I have been able to fix my house and to have a business because of it."
He now makes two or three times what he made as a taxi driver and his house has been visited by popular Middle Eastern actors and fashion models, as well as visiting international politicians and dignitaries. He ushers me behind a white curtain to show me photos of him with each on his computer.
Saadoune said he is the only person with a "photo-museum," but I saw a few similar signs scattered in the medina. By the mountainside, Moroccans, dressed in traditional Berber clothing or with an ostrich or a peacock, tried to coax tourists into taking a photo for a few dirhams.
As locals have long learned English or French to better serve visiting tourists, so too are some picking up Chinese. As my partner and I walked through the medina, a teenager named Mohammed called out "nĭ hăo" and carried on a conversation in perfect Mandarin with her. He said he's learned entirely by practicing with Chinese tourists. As we walked away, a Chinese man handed him a notebook full of new Chinese characters to learn.
Despite the influx of tourists, life continues for many residents untouched. Next to the weekday vegetable market is the shopfront of a baker named Otman. Like his family has for generations, he fries sfenj, a traditional doughnut, in the mornings for busy students and workers. At night, he fries churros. Few tourists buy from him, but he believes that as more tourists come, eventually they will. "Inshallah," he said, meaning "god-willing."
For some, like Mohammed Saddoune, the tourist boom has helped him indirectly. "Years ago, the only job in the city was fixing things," said Saddoune, who used to work as a carpenter with his father. In decades past, he said, many locals left to seek work elsewhere.
With tourism thriving, there's more jobs in the city for residents, allowing them to stay close to home. Two years ago, Saddoune opened a a convenience store and bakery to serve them.
Khan pointed out a seemingly endless stream of houses being converted into bed-and-breakfasts and existing inns doing renovations to spruce up before summertime. "People have money to fix things now and to make it more beautiful. It is still traditional, but it is new, how the tourists like it," Khan said.
At the edge of the medina, Khan took me to a traditional house being renovated. After the family patriarch passed away, he said, the man's sons could not decide how to divide the house. So, rather than sell it, they are converting it into a bed-and-breakfast.
In the house, Khan introduced me to Ahmed El Kabari, a craftsman who works on many of the hotels and guesthouses in the city. El Kabari is highly regarded among locals for his knowledge of traditional Arabic, Berber, and Morisco design motifs. These days, El Kabari said, he's very busy. There's always a new hotel or guesthouse that wants his services.
Ben Maymoun summed up the attitude of the city best. "Thanks be to God, the people of Chefchaouen are welcoming, friendly, and accepting of all different types of people," he said. "My wish is that, by 2020, it is the most visited place in the world."