The result of 800 years of migrations from north Africa and the Iberian Peninsula, Tétouan in northern Morocco was Leroy’s pick for today’s virtual trip. Off the main tourist route, the distinctive whitewashed buildings spill down the foothills of the Rif Mountains towards the Mediterranean, not quite reaching the sea. Cypresses and cork trees, along with tea plantations and orchards of almond, orange, olive and pomegranate trees skirt the city, diminishing as the terrain becomes rougher. Arriving on the rooftop of our hotel on this slightly overcast spring day, I was convinced we could smell the citrus blossom from afar, but it may have been a figment of my imagination. And yes, there are figs here too.
So, why Tétouan? On the rooftop over mint tea and and a delicious early breakfast of harira (a tomato, lentil and chickpea soup) and krachel (sweet rolls flavoured with anise, sesame seeds and orange flower water), Leroy gave me a potted history of the city. Although he’d never been before, he had made a Moroccan friend during his time living in New Orleans, and had been intrigued by what he’d heard about the region. We’re actually hoping to catch up with Hassan and his young family later today.
The general area, he told me, was inhabited in the 9th century by the Idrīsid dynasty, an Arab Muslim dynasty that ruled in Morocco for around 130 years, but it wasn’t until the 14th century that a fortified city was built around the existing settlement. The Marīnids were a Berber tribe that had been in Morocco for over 100 years before they seized power in 1248 by capturing Fès and later Marrakesh. Not only were they responsible for fortifying Tétouan (originally named Titawin), they also declared a holy war on Spain — a war which lasted almost 100 years and resulted in the destruction of the fortress. During the Reconquista, centuries of wars between the Christians and Moors in Spain, Muslim and Jewish refugees fled from Andalusia to Morocco and began rebuilding the city.
As a result of this, Tétouan is a fascinating blend of Moorish and Spanish cultures. Spanish is still spoken in parts of the city, despite Arabic and French being the primary languages. The medina, or city square, has been in existence since the earliest days. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, it represents six centuries of history and thousands of stories of merchants, pirates, slaves and royalty. We’re planning to wander and soak up the atmosphere of the whitewashed alleys and the markets, as well as pay a visit to the Tétouan Museum of Modern Art, located in a castillo-like building that was once a railway station. We’re also hoping to squeeze in a visit to the Artisanal School, a teaching school where apprentices learn the traditional arts like leather-work, ornamental woodwork, silk costumes, embroidery, carpet weaving, plaster carving, mosaics and ceramics.
I’m fairly certain we’ll need to stop at some point for strong Moroccan coffee and a selection of the nutty, citrusy and fragrant sweets on offer.