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Vagobonds on the Mediterranean


I suppose this was a kind of honeymoon. May 1st is the national labor holiday in Morocco and as a result, Hanane and I found ourselves with a three day weekend. I suggested we take a trip to the beach and Hanane agreed. Since her sister was going to Tetuan to see her friend Hicham, we decided to all go together.

Tetuan is a city near the beach in the former Spanish territories. As such the town has a very Spanish flavor and all the Moroccan touts say Hola Amigo rather than Bonjour Monsieur as they do in Fez. Here is a little blurb on Tetuan from wikipedia:

Tétouan (from the Berber language “Tarifit” meaning springs / Arabic: ????? / Spanish: Tetuán), also spelled Tetuan, sometimes Tettawen or Tettawin, is a city in northern Morocco. It is the only open port of Morocco on the Mediterranean Sea, a few miles south of the Strait of Gibraltar, and about 40 mi (60 km) E.S.E. of Tangier. In 2004 the city had 320,539 inhabitants (census figure).

he city is situated about 60 km east of the city of Tangier and 40 km south of the Spanish exclave of Ceuta (Sebta) and the Strait of Gibraltar. It is in the far north of the Rif Mountains. To the south and west of the city there are mountains. Tetuan is situated in the middle of a belt of orchards that contain orange, almond, pomegranate and cypress trees. The Rif Mountains are nearby, as the city is located in the Martil Valley. It is picturesquely situated on the northern slope of a fertile valley down which flows the Martil river, with the harbour of Tetouan, Martil, at its mouth. Behind rise rugged masses of rock, the southern wall of the Anjera country, once practically closed to Europeans, and across the valley are the hills which form the northern limit of the still more impenetrable Rif.

The streets are fairly wide and straight, and many of the houses belonging to aristocratic families, descendants of those expelled from Al-Andalus by the Spanish “Reconquista”, possess marble fountains and have groves planted with orange trees. Within the houses the ceilings are often exquisitely carved and painted in hispano-moresque designs, such as are found in the Alhambra of Granada, and the tile-work for which Tetuan is known may be seen on floors, pillars and dados. The traditional industries are tilework, inlaying with silver wire, and the manufacture of thick-soled yellow slippers, much-esteemed flintlocks, and artistic towels used as cape and skirt by Arabic girls in rural areas. The Jews lived in a mellah, separated from the rest of the town by gates which were closed at night. The harbour of Tetuan was obstructed by a bar, over which only small vessels can pass, and the roadstead, sheltered to the North, N.W. and South, is exposed to the East, and is at times unsafe in consequence of the strong Levanter.

The city was founded in the 3rd century BC. Artifacts from both the Roman and the Phoenician era have been found in the site of Tamuda.

Around 1305 a city was built here by the Marinid king Abu Thabit. It served as a base for attacks on Ceuta. Around 1400 it was destroyed by the Castilians, because pirates used it for their attacks. By the end of the 15th century it was rebuilt by refugees from the Reconquista (reconquest of Spain, completed by the fall of Granada in 1492), when the Andalusian Moors first reared the walls and then filled the enclosure with houses. It had a reputation for piracy at various times in its history. It was taken on 4 February 1860 by the Spaniards under Leopoldo O’Donnell, (a descendant of an old Irish royal family, O’Donnell of Tyrconnell, who was made hereditary Duke of Tetuan, and later Prime Minister of Spain; the Dukedom is currently held by his descendant S.E. Don Hugo O’Donnell, Duke of Tetuan, Grandee of Spain and Count of Lucena) and almost transformed by them into a European city before its evacuation on 2 May 1862, but so hateful were the changes to the Moors that they completely destroyed all vestiges of alteration and reduced the city to its former state.

The city is situated in the area of Morocco which was formerly ruled by Spain. In 1913 it became the capital of the part of Morocco under Spanish protectorate which was governed by the Jalifa (Moroccan prince, serving as Viceroy for the Sultan, and the Spanish “Alto Comisario” accredited to him). When Si Ahmed Belbachir Haskouri appeared in the political scene, as the Chief of the Khalifien cabinet, he enforced the delegated powers of the caliph and, at the same time, caused the power of the Spanish Commissioner to be diminished by political manouvers. Teuan remained the capital of Spanish Morocco until 1956. Many people in the city still speak Spanish. On road signs often names are written both in Spanish and in Arabic, though many signs are in Arabic and French, the second language of modern Morocco. Tétouan became part of the independent state of Morocco when it was founded out of French Morocco and most of Spanish Morocco in 1956.

Tétouan has also been home to an important Sephardi Jewish community, which immigrated from Spain after the Reconquista and the Spanish Inquisition. This Jewish Sephardi community spoke a form of Judaeo-Spanish known as Haketia. Some of them emigrated later to Oran (in Algeria), to South America and much later to Israel, France and Canada. There are very few Jews left in Tétouan nowadays.


All of that aside, it turns out we didn’t see a whole lot of Tetuan. Our bus left Fes at 9 am, it was 90 dirhams each by CTM to Tetuan. For those who haven’t traveled by bus in Morocco, CTM is slightly more expensive than the other lines, but infinitely more enjoyable. CTM makes only scheduled stops and doesn’t allow touts and vendors onboard at those stops. Riding the other buses, is like taking an extended city bus trip with stops every few miles, constantly changing passengers, and beggars and vendors pushing themselves on you while you try to take a nap. As it was, the trip was about 7 hours to Tetuan. Along the way we made one small stop where we bought kifta sandwiches (essentially lamb-burgers). You buy the meat from the butcher at the bus stop, then you take it to the guys at the big outdoor grill to cook it and put it in bread for you.

Arriving in Tetuan, Hicham met us with a big water bottle filled with fresh peach nectar. Mmmmm! He and Zahira took us to their favorite chicken and fries restaurant just up the hill from the CTM station and then we piled into a grand taxi to go to the hotel Hicham had arranged. It was outside of Tetuan, isolated between the cities of M’Diq, Martil, and Tetuan.

Hanane and I had a top floor suite with a small salon done all in pink and a big balcony looking out over the surrounding cities, the Rif mountains, and the Mediterranean in the distance. A beautiful room for 250 dirhams a night (about $35 per night). Hanane and I immediately went to the pool and I remembered as we got there that she didn’t know how to swim. There was a regualr pool and a kiddie pool and since both were pretty cold, we were the only ones using them. With a little coaxing, I got her into the kiddie pool and we started her swimming lessons.

I never imagined that someday I would teach my wife how to swim, but I have to admit, it is a beautiful thing. She was a little scared at first but gradually, her fearlessness came out and after about 20 minutes of learning how to kick (a little), how to doggie paddle (a little), and how to do a basic breast stroke (a little), she suddenly said, “Okay, now let’s go jump in the deep pool and see how I do!”

I was more terrified than her! I calmed her down a bit and we moved to the deeper water where we continued to work on the basics. Before too long, she was swimming 20 or 30 feet to me and only once did I have to make it to her quickly when she began to sink. I can’t express how great it was to see the big smil on her face as she would reach my waiting hands each time.

After this, she was exhausted and took a nap while I read on the balcony. I was a little bothered by coming all the way to the coast just to take a nap, since I’m a let’s go do this, let’s go do that, let’s see this, let’s see that kind of traveler, but I’d decided to just go with what happened Moroccan style on this trip…but it wasn’t easy for me, I wanted to just leave and get a taxi and go to the beach or to see the city, but figured that would make things worse than me being a little bit bored.

Finally, her sister called and said to get up and get ready, we were going to go to M’Diq and wander around in the streets, get food, and walk along the shore. It was evening by this time. 7 dirhams each got us there in a passing grand taxi.

In M’Diq (called Rincon in Spanish) we wandered through the Medina. It’s an amazingly clean place especially when one has gotten used to seeing garbage on the streets as we have in Fez and Sefrou. We had snails from a street vendor for 5 dirhams each, some very spicy chick peas, and then we headed over to the port where we ate fresh sardines, shrimp, and a wax bean soup. Delicious and cheap. 15 dirhams for a plate of grilled sardines, 50 dirhams for a plate of shrimp (okay, that’s pretty expensive for the shrimp but they were delicious) .

After this we strolled along the clean and well lit boardwalk for a while before catching a taxi back to the hotel.

The next day Zahira and Hicham wanted to go to a nearby mountain to enjoy the views but I insisted that since it was really our only day at the coast that Hanane and I go to the beach. Lucky for me, Hanane agreed with me, she wanted to try swimming in the ocean now!

We had a light breakfast in M’Diq then went to the lonely beach at Cabo Negro located between Martil and M’Diq. It was a beautiful beach. No waves and shallow, but wonderful sand and perfect for continuing our swimming lessons. We set up a makeshift shelter with my sarong and enjoyed the sun, water,and the big group of Moroccan kids that had come to play soccer in the sand. The swim lessons went well and Hanane then had me bury her in the sand.

Back to the port for more sardines and shrimp and then we went back to the hotel for a little siesta. In the evening we thought to go to Tetuan but since every taxi in that direction was full, we went to M’Diq again. Hanane looked like a pop star and everyone stared at her, she liked it and hated it at the same time. We had a big ice cream sundae for dinner at a beach side restaurant, strolled along the boardwalk and then called it an evening.

In the morning, we all piled in a passing bus and went back to the CTM station. We repeated the 7 hour trip through the Rif Mountains. Chefchauen was a brief stop but reminded me how much I enjoyed that place on my last visit. Hanane and I will definitely take a trip back there again. Another stop for kifta and then back to Fes where we came back to our lovely new apartment and Zahira headed on back to Sefrou. I can’t tell you how nice it is to not have to make the extra trip back to Sefrou.

This morning I woke and gave myself a terrible haircut which Hanane will no doubt kill me for when she wakes…but I feel relaxed and good and ready to go back to work this afternoon. It was a very nice trip. Total cost, about 1500 dirhams with transport, food, fun, a beautiful room, and lots of fun.

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Vago Damitio

Mr. Damitio  (@vagodamitio) is the Editor-in-Chief for Vagobond. Life is good. You can also find him on Google+ and at Facebook

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