This morning after breakfast, we bid goodbye to Peter, our host at Maison Arabesque, and set out, first on the substantial uphill hike (from the medina towards the Kasbah) where our car has been parked, and then to drive the coastal route east from Tangier.
We wanted to get to Tetouan by the most scenic route possible, so we avoided the expressway and stuck with the national roads, which, as we saw during our China travels, are sometimes neglected by the State after an expressway nearby has been completed. This was unfortunately the case today with the national road north and east through Cap Malabata, then curving south to Tetouan.
There were quite a few stretches of road which were richly adorned with potholes big enough to swallow the tiny tires of our Suzuki rental car, so we had to go extra slowly, and remain very alert to the torn up sections of the road.
This northern coastal route, where Morocco’s coastline turns from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, is incredibly windy, so much so that I was just amazed there were no wind turbines in view. Our poor little car, when not bouncing over potholes, was kept busy just fighting the wind to stay on the road!
The foothills of the Rif Mountains started to make an appearance during the drive today, making for a dramatic, windswept landscape of rocky hills alternating with the occasional stand of palm trees, and with fertile fields growing figs, corn, grapes, tangerines, cactus pears, pomegranates, and many vegetables.
We passed through quite a few small towns, with just the basics on view, almost always including a truck tire repair shop, a cafe or restaurant with small circular or square tables, and lines of chairs all facing the same way…if inside, they all faced the television, broadcasting either the news or football games…and if outside they all faced the street. Almost always, it was only men who sat at these chairs in these cafes, men who had time to kill, in the late morning of a work day…
I remember what Caroline, our host in Asilah told us, that the concepts of a work week and a weekend are new to most of Morocco, and are still most prevalent in the European-facing cities of Casablanca, Rabat, and Tangier. Elsewhere, people who have jobs work seven days a week, with just a few extra hours off on Fridays, to allow for time to have a family dinner often featuring couscous, which takes quite a while to prepare. So fresh couscous is most often available in local restaurants only on Fridays, because that is the day in Morocco when people have the time to prepare it!
We arrived in Tetouan in the mid-afternoon, and drove close to one of the entrances to the medina, where we met Fatima, who works at Riad Dalia, our home for the next two nights. She led us first to a parking lot for our car, and then past the impressive Presidential Palace, to the medina, where we followed a circuitous path to the Riad.
Riad Dalia is a traditional Arabic hotel with 7 rooms, that has been restored, rather than rebuilt, so there is still a feeling of staying in a somewhat faded, but still beautiful royal residence. The restoration has preserved all of the House’s original spaces and details, most dating from the nineteenth century. Decor includes some superb artifacts, particularly from Tetuan, and it is fascinating to see how the hammered brass plates mix with the mosaics and bright tile floors – such contrasting colors and shapes and textures, but all goes together into a somehow-harmonious whole. As is typical in Riads of this age, all the rooms look towards the interior courtyard, with a rooftop patio exposed to the elements.
There have been settlements on the site of Tetouan since at least the third century B.C., one of which was sacked by the Romans in 42 AD. The present city of Tetouan, whose medina is a UNESCO World Heritage site, was founded by both Muslim and Jewish refugees fleeing the Christian reconquest of Andalusia in Southern Spain, at the end of the 15th century.
People say they built the walls of the city first, before the city itself, because they were so traumatized by their escape from the forces of the Inquisition in the Iberian peninsula! Whether or not this story is true, what is still visible today are the many huge cannons mounted at the top of the medina walls, to fend off Spanish invaders, as Tetouan has been occupied twice by the Spanish since its founding. Even today, there is a very Spanish feel to Tetouan, with Spanish being spoken, Spanish design and architecture, and Spanish food being eaten, more often than French, as elsewhere in Morocco.
Many of the refugees were highly skilled craftsmen and builders. These refugees and the local Amazigh (the indigenous inhabitants of region) built a city that has three distinct styles that reflect the three cultures– though these styles also reveal the similarities they shared. There are still today artisans working in traditional craft styles in the souks, including copper and brass workers, babouche (leather slipper) makers, carpenters specializing in elaborately carved and painted wood, and weavers making foutahs, the very brightly striped lengths of rug-like cotton, worn by the Djebali and Riffian women as both cloaks and skirts. There are even traditional perfume makers here, who mix scents and essential oils on the spot to your liking!
We spent a very enjoyable few hours wandering around the medina, getting lost as usual, before returning to our riad for dinner and a rest in our palace of a room.