Travel Journal: Tetouan

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I have a proposition for you, reader: Let's keep this one quiet. I write this post, you read it and scroll through the pictures, and it becomes a silent nod and handshake between us. The implied agreement: We'll keep Tetouan to ourselves. 

Honestly, there's plenty to keep visitors to northern Morocco busy. Tangier, of course. Chefchaouen. And that's to say nothing of the lovely beach towns strewn along the coast, where people flock for sea, sand and radiant sunshine that washes away the gloomy residue of winter. 

Tetouan is draped over rolling hills at the feet of the Rif mountains, far enough inland that the sea is a blue splinter on the horizon. Like any city, it's not just one thing: it's a university town, it's a transit hub, it's a workaday place, it's mentioned in Arabic chronicles dating back to the 9th century, it's inscribed in UNESCO's world heritage list. The inspiration for the city's nickname, "La Paloma Blanca"—the White Dove—is visually obvious from a distance of some miles. The use of Spanish to nickname a Moroccan city, however, adds a bit more to the story.

The city has had centuries of interactions with Spain, from the 15th century (pirate-thwarting Castillian attacks and Andalucian refugee influxes spurred by the Reconquista) right through to the 20th (Tetouan was the capital of the Spanish protectorate of Morocco from 1912 to 1956). The effects of that long relationship are written in the city's architecture. The 14th-century medina has a distinct Hispano-Moresque flavor, and you could be forgiven for believing that the Ensanche district of the "new" city was removed from some corner of Madrid and meticulously rebuilt here, brick by brick. Placards around the city note Spain's contributions to restoration efforts in the medina.

So what's with the impulse to keep this fascinating, lovely place on the down-low? It's not as though travelers don't come through. After all, there are hotels and restaurants to accommodate them, and there are tourist goods in the souks. 

But coming to a place like this and finding it devoid of other travelers is an experience that's hard to find, especially in Morocco. We strolled around, watched life buzz on around us and got lost in the warren of lanes and tiny passages. 

The souks were a delightful parade of goods, from the heavy woolen djellabas woven in the area to secondhand tools and appliances to hand-carved spoons. Sales pitches ranged from low-key to non-existent.

It was, however, our first taste of market browsing on a Friday in Morocco. The fact that most places were closed up in observance of the holy day added to the tranquility. 

We did find some folks at work when we stumbled upon the city's tannery. No one led us to it, no one offered to guide us through for a handful of dirhams. We came up to it, read a sign telling us what it was and proceeded to walk around without so much as a cat paying attention to us. 

Climbing up to the old ramparts provides a view not only of the tannery but the medina buildings that rise up the hill behind it. 

In virtually any blog post or travel article about Morocco, you end up reading about how tanneries function. In truth, I find a lot of them sensationalistic. Yes, cow urine and pigeon droppings are used to in a solution that softens the hides and makes them easier to scrape. Unsurprisingly, that solution has a distinctive smell, but I promise, you can power through it—without the sprig of mint—and you'll live. And if you're going to get squeamish about those things, do you really want to own leather anyway?

I find it fascinating that tanneries like this one are in the neighborhood of 500 years old, and despite all the technology and chemicals that have come and gone, this is still considered the best way to not only get the job done, but to make a product for which the whole country is renowned. That line between the past and the present, and the heritage of craftsmanship that it upholds, seems like reason enough to observe this hardcore profession without pinching your nose. 

This gentleman was the one person at the tannery who took interest in us, and he invited us into his workshop to demonstrate scraping down some skins. He used a huge tool with a blade on one end and a padded yoke—which you can just see under his arm—on the other. Draping the hide over a board, he held it in place with his knees and one hand while pushing the blade down with the whole weight of his upper body. This is truly a job of incredible physical demands. 

Seeing all the leather goods available in Morocco beggars belief that they could all be made in this taxing, highly analog way. But in the workshops and warehouses around the tannery, it's clear just how much still gets done by hand in Tetouan.

Toward late afternoon, a buzz started to hum through the medina. As we walked through the souks, we followed the flow of humanity that was building up and it led us to the food market that runs along and then spills outside the medina walls.  

Vendors meticulously stacked their fruits and vegetables, butchers hung out fresh cuts, olive vendors coaxed messy piles into tidy pyramids, and shoppers filled their bags.

We were leaving town just as seemingly everyone was going home to make dinner and spend time with their families. The scene was hectic, but also sweet in its familiarity. My hope that Tetouan stays as it is is less about hoarding an inside traveler's secret than it is a hope that the blessed normalness of life—shopping for groceries, family time on a day of rest—can continue undisturbed even in a place that is, to an outsider, so extraordinary. 

 
 
Gina Czupka