Tetouan… The name may not be familiar if you are planning a trip to Morocco, but I’ve had it at the back of my mind for a long time. I remember it from an epic road trip with my father in the early 1980s. We drove from Portugal to Morocco in an old-style red Toyota and went through Tangier and the Rif Mountains. I don’t remember much from Tetouan, only that I had been there. And since, the name intrigued me and I had to go back. I only took an overnight stop in Tetouan on my road trip from Tangier to Chefchaouen but that was enough to charm me. Tetouan has been described as a “jewel of a town at the foot of the Rif Mountains” and I couldn’t put it better myself… Now, Tetouan is where you can create the most interesting street photography in Morocco.
First, A Little History
The North of Morocco still has the remnants of Spanish influence, which came as somewhat of a surprise to me. In Tangier and Chefchaouen, both the architecture and the language are strong testimonies of the past Spanish domination. True enough, my connection to Morocco is more around Casablanca and Marrakech and the North was more a childhood memory.
Tetouan is only 40 km from Ceuta, one of Spanish Enclaves and the controversial Spanish Islands are visible from the Mediterranean Coast. In the 8th Century, Tetouan became the main point of contact between Andalucia and Morocco. Then, in the 14th Century, the Merenids established a base in the town in order to control the rebelling tribes from the Rif Mountains. The town was destroyed by Henry III of Castille in 1399 and at the completion of the Reconquista in 1492, Jewish and Muslim refugees settled in Tetouan. From that point on, the town was rebuilt and prospered.
In the early 20th Century, Spain expanded its occupation of the North of Morocco and Tetouan became the capital of the Spanish Protectorate in 1913. It was so until 1956, at the independence of Morocco.
In the 1990s and 2000s, after years of neglect, Tetouan was pretty run down and had lost its tourist appeal.
Why Visit Tetouan?
Today, Tetouan is enjoying a sort of rebirth, with some large renovation projects funded by the Province of Andalucia. The Ancient Medina is on the UNESCO World Heritage List and makes for a really interesting day of discovery. I didn’t find many major historical points of interest in Tetouan and for a little while, I wondered what was the attraction… For me, it was a convenient stop between Tangier and Chefchaouen, and after a long day’s drive, I needed a good meal and a bed…
Tetouan revealed itself quietly, street corner after medina alleyway, in friendly conversation with locals. I entered the medina from the north, through Bab-Al-Okla, and progressed through the narrow lanes towards the Royal Palace.
There are several “souks” in the Tetouan Medina, but the shopping is certainly not as spectacular as it is in Marrakech. If you do shop, you still have to haggle, of course. But shopping is not the main purpose if you are a tourist. In the medina, and on Place Hassan II, where the Royal Palace stands, the wares for sale are mostly home stuff, and of no particular interest to visitors.
The laneways of the medina are full of food and carts carrying piles of greenery and other foodstuffs. Watching cats watching the fish or the chickens is worth a few minutes of your time!
The ancient medina is supposedly small, but I think you can still spend a fair few hours wandering around. However, the good thing about it is that it feels very authentic and intact. And that’s the secret of enjoying Tetouan: it offers some great opportunities for genuine street photography.
The Ancient Medina
The medina has white walls and narrow laneways. Some of the laneways have a roof, as you find in Marrakech and Taroudant. Also, a local artist has adorned the walls with paintings, which was actually a handy help in finding my way around.
The streets are quite clean and very peaceful in the morning. The commercial activity doesn’t start until later in the morning and it’s a great way to start the day.
Most of the stalls and shops near Bab-Al-Okla sell food. As you progress uphill past the jewellery souk and the tanneries, you get a few more places selling souvenirs and tourist wares, but also a lot more of the day to day items. I love to photograph shops just for themselves but Tetouan offers more to the lens in terms of people going about their day.
View from the Casbah
Tetouan’s casbah is an impressive building overlooking the city and facing the Rif Mountains. It looks quite rundown and I don’t know that you can visit it at the moment. But it’s definitely worth climbing the hill to enjoy the view. From there, you can take some detailed photos of the infinity of white houses and roof terraces. The authenticity and character of Tetouan comes alive… you could almost be somewhere in Spain or Greece. The multitude of white houses and its life within is what the UNESCO values…
Tetouan and its charm came to me at that point… The crammed houses, the lively laneways almost devoid of tourists, and the majestic Rif Mountains as a backdrop made a perfect ensemble.
Further on from the Casbah lies the cemetery and its access is open to the public. Whilst I’m not a fan of cemeteries, it’s often a good insight into the local culture. This one has some good views over the city and plenty of cats…
The Spanish Town
When I asked for directions in the street, I occasionally had to make my best effort to understand Spanish… The language of Cervantes is still very much in use in Tetouan and the modern city, known as the Ensanche, has some strong Spanish influences as well. Coming down from the Casbah through Lovers Park, I recommend you have a stroll along the wide avenues and admire some of the Spanish architecture. This part of town is in stark contrast with the ancient medina but this dichotomy exists in most Moroccan cities. Indeed, people sitting in cafes also make an interesting photography subject.
The Doors and Archways
Moroccan doors are a street photography subject on their own. They hold so much history and character… Whilst not as plentiful as they are in Essaouira, the doors in Tetouan combine well with the archways.
I could spend hours snapping cats in Morocco, a little obsession of mine. Tetouan seems to have a relatively large population of those guards and observers. Because the laneways are relatively quiet in the morning, they have plenty of room to wander around and own the place. And they make a great street photography topic!
I know, Arabian Nights are set in the Ottoman Empire… but the night I arrived in Tetouan, that was the evening sky… This is why I travel to Morocco… The magic of the night falling peacefully on the mountain and the colours gradually dimming away was a fabulous instant. I didn’t stay in too many riads on my last trip to Morocco but this was by far my favourite part, watching the golden hour… And never mind the TV aerials!
Don’t Leave Tetouan out of your Itinerary
Whether you are driving or part of a tour, Tetouan is worth 24 hours at least and you can combine with a day or two in Chefchaouen or Fès. It may not be the main reason to visit Morocco but if it’s on your way, give it some time and imagine what it was like 500 years ago… maybe not that different! Considering that the vast majority of Moroccan towns have a medina, don’t worry about being bored with this one. If you treat it as the most interesting street photography in Morocco, it will stand out in your memory…
What’s your favourite street photography subject? Tell me in the comments below!