The Exotic Blue City of Africa

The cemetery in the Blue City

Imagine an entire city with most of the walls, stairways, doors, houses — and gravestones, too — painted blue. Welcome to Chefchaouen, Morocco. It may be the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen.

Theories differ as to what prompted this local custom. Some say Jewish people painted things blue when they moved here in the 1930s to get away from Hitler. Others say the color discourages mosquitoes. Blue has historically been a spiritual color and some believe the extensive use of it becomes a constant reminder to live a spiritual life. It’s strange that the origin of all this blue remains a mystery.

The city name is pronounced “shef CHOW win” though Moroccans refer to it as ‘chaouen.

Another view of the cemetery
A stairway leading to someone’s home, decorated with brightly colored flower pots
Another entrance with smaller pots arranged on the walls. The stairs lead downward to an opened doorway.
A panoramic view of one part of the city. I took this photo from the fortress, a thick-walled building where the townspeople gathered during invasions hundreds of years ago. The city dates to 1471.
This view of the city includes a blue-tiled fountain no longer in use.
Public water is available at places like this in every neighborhood in Moroccan cities. I’ve seen them in Tangier, Tetouan, and here — though none have been as elaborated tiled or as vividly colored as this one. People without indoor water use these every morning to bring water into their homes. You can also wash your hands. And that blue cup? Everyone uses it for a drink of water. Think community.  🙂
A man wearing a blue shirt with splatters of blue paint on his pants pushing a wheelbarrow filled with blue containers… in the Blue City. Can you stand it?
A woman entering her home on one of the blue alleys
This is a walkway that leads to the main square. I’m not sure what Sababa means. Maybe a children’s school?
This is the paint store. You choose the color and they mix it for you. The powder is very fine, like flour.
Elaborate and plain clothing for sale along a narrow blue pathway
From left: Rachel Pearsey (Tetouan, Morocco — Green Olive Arts co-Director and artist) Hannah Greening (Bath, UK; intern at Green Olive) Gretchen McCullough (Cairo, Egypt; fellow resident writer) Annie Raab (Kansas City, MO and fellow resident writer)

Gretchen grew up in Harlingen, Texas, which is in the southern tip of the state. She has lived in Syria, Cairo or Turkey for much of her adult life.

I love the city’s haphazard use of blue; they paint as high as they can reach. The lack of uniformity is part of the beauty.
A young woman cuts bread and puts the slices into baskets for the guests of the restaurant where we had lunch.
The multiple blue hues of the buildings and the city spread out on the hills beyond. Dark clouds threatened for several hours but it didn’t rain.
Another view of the Blue City
Women come to pay their respects in the cemetery. The building is a mausoleum.
The brilliant colors of the cafe square
Look what the woman in the purple hijab carries through the square…
This is the inner courtyard of the fortress. The trees are loaded with oranges too bitter to eat. The Rif Mountains are in the distance.
This old man was sound asleep on his bench. His brown cloak — the djellabah —  is commonly worn in Morocco and has no religious significance.
Unusual wall drawings just outside the gates of the city
Blue has always been my favorite color.

6 thoughts on “The Exotic Blue City of Africa

  1. I finally realized I could share your blog with my Facebook friends, and can’t thank you enough for how your intimate observations and astute writing it has enriched my existence! I’m curious to know what camera you are using to take the excellent photos. I don’t think it’s an iPhone…xo


    1. Hi Jennie,

      Thank you for sharing the blog with others. At the beginning I recognized the email addresses of everyone reading it, but now there are more and more people following along I don’t know.

      The photos are taken with my iPhone. I took nearly 500 photos on the Chefchaouen trip, then chose the ones I thought captured the experience the best.

      And I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog.



  2. Hi Bart,
    I am getting such an education through your posts. When I think of Morocco I imagine Arabian tents and belly dancers. How is their food? I ate at an “authentic” Moroccan restaurant once (I don’t get out much), it was delicious.
    Happy trails,


    1. Hi Karen,
      The Muslim influence means there are few belly dancers…

      As to the food, it’s quite good but limited. Tagines are stewed meats with vegetables. My favorite is chicken tagine with lemon and olives. Couscous refers to a meal rather than a grain like in the U.S. It’s steamed vegetables and meat served on top of couscous, on huge platters, and everyone gets a spoon and eats from the bowl. No one has their own plate. We had a couscous here at the residency with Tetouan artists. You choose a section of it that becomes “yours”… but still. It’s interesting to eat communally with five people (there was a second large bowl being shared by another six people.)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s