“Hello my princess, I’m glad we meet again!”
I turn around and stare right into the eyes of the man I have been trying to avoid all day… I met Abderrahmid the day before and as helpful and friendly as he may be, there was something too eager and slightly disturbing about him. My polite refusal for dinner was met with the prophetic words “I hope your government won’t be punished for that” and before I could even react, he put on his biggest smile and offered me a bar of chocolate, leaving me behind puzzled and utterly confused…
Not all my encounters in Tetouan have been that mystifying though. In fact, most people didn’t even notice me! You see, Tetouan is not on the main tourist trail; most people prefer visiting the more famous cities like Fez or Marrakech. If you prefer your Moroccan cities a bit quieter and more hassle-free, then it looks like Tetouan is the right place for you! The city is said to have one of the most untouched medina’s of Morocco and is THE centre for artisan crafts!
The best things to do in Tetouan
The Ensemble Artisanal
Early morning I start my journey in the “Ensemble Artisanal”. At first sight it is just a shop selling local crafts, but the main interest is to be found on the first floor where carpet weavers, leather artisans and woodworkers create a hive of activity. I walk around, feeling a bit out of place, until a nice gentleman invites me over to sit down and watch. He speaks perfect French and explains me how he creates the beautifully crafted leather boxes from scratch. It looks like very precise work and it’s great to hear him talk so passionately about it! The Ensemble Artisanal is also THE place to walk around without feeling pressured to buy anything. Check the prices and quality so you know what to bargain for in the souks.
2. Craft Souks
The “Ensemble Artisanal” is not the only place to see local crafts in Tetouan. The medina is home to various workshops and craft souks. Most of them lie beyond Place de l’Oussa. As usual I end up getting totally lost, but finally stumble upon a little square surrounded by local artisans. Once again I am called over to watch, this time by a tailor sewing djellaba’s.
3. The tanneries
Walking around the craft souks, a pungent smell attracts my attention. Following the nauseating whiff I find myself in the middle of the city’s tanneries. They are my first glimpse of Moroccan tanneries and might be less impressive than the massive tanneries you see in Fez, but the advantage here is that nobody tries to direct me to them in exchange for money! Only a handful of people are working at the moment. They seem surprised to see me there, but as often in Morocco, I am greeted with a welcoming smile!
4. The Medina
Tetouan’s medina dates back to the 15th century, after the Spanish inquisition, when persecuted Muslims and Jews left the Iberian peninsula and migrated to Morocco. With them came the sophisticated Andalusian influences, which are reflected in the architecture of the medina. If you’ve visited the white villages of Andalucia, you will definitely recognize the style. Medinas are the beating heart of any Moroccan city. They are usually car-free and have narrow maze-like streets that contain palaces, mosques and souks, like the medina of Marrakech.
Although one of the smallest in Morocco, Tetouan’s medina is unquestionably the most complete and has been largely untouched by outside influences, which granted it a place on the Unesco heritage list. It is also one of the more hassle-free medinas to visit as a tourist.
The main gateway into the medina is from Bab er Rouah, to the right of the Royal Palace. It’ll bring you straight into Rue Tarrafin, famous for its numerous jewellery shops. South of it is the area known as the “mellah” or the former Jewish district of Tetouan. After the Spanish inquisition of 1478, a lot of Jews left the southern Spain and migrated to Morocco. They lived together in close quarters, called “mellahs”. Since 1948 almost all Moroccan Jews have emigrated to Israel and nowadays mellahs are only inhabited by Muslims.
As in most medinas, sightseeing here is more about simply soaking up the atmosphere rather than visiting particular attractions. I take a seat on a ramshackle little chair and enjoy an avocado juice and watch the hustle and bustle of the street vendors, selling a range of nuts, dates and juices. I stumble upon the local baker using a century-old oven, have a quick peek into the open doors of the numerous mosques and gawk at the numerous jewellery shops.
5. Place Hassan II
This big square joins the medina with the El Ensanche district. It used to be a market square and Tetouan’s old meeting place. You’re likely to pass it a few times during your explorations. It’s home to the Royal Palace, which is usually cordoned off.
6. El Ensanche District
Wide avenues, modern looking cafés, roundabouts with churches instead of mosques and an overall Spanish feel: the Ensanche district is only a mile away from the old town, but it feels like a world apart! Just like the Ville Nouvelle in Marrakech, this is the modern part of the city and in great contrast with the medina. El Ensanche is centered along Avenue Mohammed V, which begins at the wide plaza of Place Hassan II. All along the road are cafés where locals come to meet up with friends in the evenings. Do as they do and pull up a seat, grab a coffee or mint tea, and people watch for a while. Walk from the plaza, up Avenue Mohamed V, to the lovely old Spanish cathedral of Iglesia de Bacturia, which is still fully functioning.
I truly don’t understand why the city is bypassed by the majority of tourists. There are plenty of things to do in Tetouan and I found it to be one of the most pure and interesting places I visited in northern Morocco! If only I could get rid of Abderrahmid now…
Have you been to Tetouan? Or some other place in Morocco? As always, looking forward to reading it in the comments!