Tetouan: a City Lost in Time

Tetouan, located in northern Morocco, is a historic city known for its Andalusian-influenced architecture, narrow streets, and vibrant medina. With its rich cultural heritage and proximity to the Mediterranean Sea, Tetouan offers visitors a captivating blend of history, art, and culinary delights. In this blog, Hossame Boudaghia explores the historical, culinary and cultural scene of his hometown.

            I thought writing about my city was going to be easy until I started doing it. I have a million things to say. Where do I start? Tetouan is an old city. It’s ancient. The Roman ruins oof the city that can still be visited date back to the third century B.C, and even that wasn’t the beginning. Tetouan was first established by northern Amazighs, the indigenous people of North Africa, and it means eyes in their local dialect. The first time I was in the Roman ruins, my classmates from college and I were told to take a British biographer over there. I stood there with him as he looked at all the remains of tools, walls, and baths. I, on the other hand, was fixed at the view of the city which obviously didn’t look the same more than 2000 years ago. I asked myself: what made them choose this as a place for their settlement? Was it the river running all the way to the mediterranean, the mountains witch offered fertile soil and great visibility, or the perfectly stable weather? I guess I’ll never know.

            Romans arrived a little bit too early to witness the miracles of the city. They also arrived for the wrong reasons so they took so much more than what they gave. The Andalusians, on the other hand, around the 14th century, started arriving in waves to the White Dove after their expulsion and persecution in Spain looking for a home under its wings. A warm welcome from the locals led them to rebuilt the entire city into what it is today. Built in the 15th century, the architectural wonders these refugees created still stand as some of the most wonderful designs in the entire country. The aesthetics of the Riads and the water systems they created for the locals were revolutionary. Andalusians changed the city forever.

            Unfortunately, the story of Andalusians and the local Amazighs wasn’t free from conflict. Just like any encounters between two different societies, they had their moments of disagreement. The Andalusians found the locals extremely hospitable but they didn’t find them to be as driven as they wanted them to be. The locals were also rebellious, and even though they lacked the resources to rebuilt their city after it was burnt during a war, they refused to ask the Sultan in the south for help. Andalusians made sure to write a letter to the Sultan who gave them full protection and ownership of Tetuan which they rebuilt and made sure all its future governors had Andalusian blood. Locals felt betrayed. This angered them and spurred some tensions between the two ethnic groups that can still be felt even today.

            The contributions of Andalusians can all be visited on a tour in the old Medina which is surrounded by nine distinct doors. Each of them has a different story. The tour usually starts from Bab Al Okla. At the entrance, one is faced by a wall with a fountain beautified by the original Andalusian tiles. From there, the tour takes the visitors to all the great Riads, ancient Hammams and Farrans, public ovens, and if they’re lucky, the underground prisons in Mtamar. In 1997, Tetouan was recognized as an exceptionally well kept historical city displaying the high Andalusian culture by the UNESCO. If you like history, architecture, or any sophisticated details from the past, this will be just the place for you.

            One of the best places to stay in the old Medina is Riad Blanco. It’s one of the most beautiful renovated Riads in the city. It’s located right inside the old Medina in a small alley right across from the royal palace. The visitors are supposed to use the metal handle to knock on the old wooden door. In less than a minute, one of the servers at the Riad’s restaurant will open the door and welcome them. The first thing the visitor’s eye might notice is the beautiful fountain right in the middle. There’s also a gift shop on the left. The calm atmosphere in the restaurant across from the gift shop can be enjoyed inside or outside at their well decorated terrace. The dim lights, the design, and the smell of Oud transport the visitors into the old times when Andalusians created these Riads from their memories of their homes in Cordoba, Sevilla, and Malaga. Upstairs, the visitors are introduced to their rooms which overlook the fountain and the restaurant. The rooftop of Blanco is a great place to witness the harmony of the white houses in Tetouan. From up there, one can understand what the white dove really means. The city is literally spread on top of the mountains. Its uninterrupted whiteness does spark deep resemblance to that of the feathers of a dove.

            The restaurant at Blanco offers traditional meals, mediterranean cuisine, in addition to a variety of drinks, but a few steps ahead, there’s also Riad Reducto, another great riad. The menus in both restaurants are similar. They only differ in the ambience. Reducto is a different environment in which youngsters from the city gather to drink alcohol and have tapas as they enjoy the beautiful sunset from the terrace overlooking the city mountains. A few steps outside the medina on the right stands one of its most important museums which exhibits historical remains from the Roman era. A short ten minutes walk leads to the Green Olive arts workshops, a special organization that invites artists from all over the world, introduces them to the local artistic heritage, and inspires them to create art for tourists and locals to enjoy. Their exhibitions are the best in the city. Deep inside the Medina, visitors can spend the evening in Riad Bab El Fann. In this place, all the local musicians gather to create a fascinating atmosphere. Bab El Fann also hosts artistic events such as music competitions, art exhibitions, and open mic nights. In addition to these places, the narrow alleys of the city have traditional northern cafés where you can taste the classic northern green mint tea.  Tetouan is a city of art, history, and life, one only has to know where to go, and that’s exactly why we are here for you.