A brief bus journey to the frontera for 80 cents was the start to our adventures into Morocco.
We arrived at the frontier and duly filled out the required paperwork, and joined a short but slow moving queue.
The border guard inspected my passport thoroughly. Flicking through every page, rubbing each one between discerning fingers and thumb, checking labouriously the embossed design on the front and the photo page within. All the while, delicately adding little doodle additions to the letters on my form. A balloon flying out from the ‘L’s, a circle atop all the ‘i’s, a tick confirming details of name and occupation, a dot embellishing my reason for travel.
After a few important questions; What was my name? Where did I live? Where was I staying? How long was I staying in Morocco?
Then, Chock! Chock!
I had two new ink stamps in my passport. The last two pages were the favoured spots so that the border guards at the other end of the no-man’s land line would know where to look, to double check!
We were spat out from a caged corridor enclosure surrounded by razor wire, on to a roundabout that doubles as the terminus for a rather splendid dual carriageway all the way to Tetouan. We quickly negotiated a fare with a taxi and jumped in to head the 32 km into the former Spanish enclave of Tetouan. At €5 each, it seems reasonable.
Driving along the coast we can see green fields and flocks of sheep being tended by cloaked shepherds, a scene befitting the bible. In the near distance the impressive Rif Mountains loom protectively.
Here are palm trees planted in regimented rows along the front and huge, twiggy storks nests sit perched precariously atop pylons, chimneys and even the turrets of a mosque.
Left and right our heads dart in turn. Signs are in Arabic and French.
As we approach the city, a bespectacled, helmeted man, clad in black, sped along beside us, stared into the taxi, and gave us a grin. He manoeuvred to the taxi driver’s side and salaamed him. He talked at the taxi driver, who shrugged, as if to say, “Whatever!”
“Lovely-Jubbly,” the motorbike man shouted at us.
“I studied English in Piccadilly.” He offered as his opening gambit and his credentials.
We smiled and nodded. He then drove right in front of the taxi, waved and gesticulated and guided us along to a suitable drop off point. The taxi driver made a crazy man motion with his hand against his temple. We all laughed at the shared joke.
When we alighted from the cab, Lovely-Jubbly was there to greet us. He introduced himself as Khalid and was extremely disarming. We soon found ourselves with a guide to take us into the maze of the Medina, and, more importantly, out again!
We stopped in the grand square had a coffee. Delicious Moroccan coffee. Served with a glass of water on the side. From there it was a short walk to reach the streets of the Medina.
It certainly helps to have had twenty-four hours to absorb and process all the sights we saw in the Medina. I am eager to give a description that does it justice and adequately expresses just how amazing and different a place it is to see. I have visited all sorts of markets in my time, in many diverse countries, but I have truly never seen anything quite like the Medina in Tetouan.
The nearest I have come to seeing something like this was when I watched Raiders of the Lost Arc, the James Bond film set in Egypt (can’t remember the name, answers on a postcard please) or Harry Potter. The atmosphere, the smells, the hustle and bustle, the people and the stalls, all conspired to contribute to the impression that this was an incredibly elaborate film set prepared entirely for our benefit.
I felt that if I had turned round quickly enough, or darted round a corner, I might have caught some scene-shifter unawares: That I would find myself gazing at the backlot of some enormous Pinewood-ian film studio.
For a start, the extras were so realistic.
The teenage boy, running along bearing tiny little pastries on huge rectangular wooden trays. He rushed round a corner and nearly collided with Keira in his haste to get to the ovens.
The wizen, shuffling, hunch-backed old dear, wrapped in layers and completely covered in a pointy hooded djellaba.
The toothless herbalist trying to sell us Argan oil and Ras el Hanout.
The baker, slaving away at a huge wood-fired, pizza style oven; sliding flat loaves as big as dustbin lids in and out of its gaping, insatiable mouth.
The kid, aged about 6, who came tearing into the dark confines of the bakery, shouting, ‘Give me a loaf, but if it’s not hot, I don’t want it!
The merchants constantly rearranged the displays of their produce to best effect.
The constant stream of people pushing trolleys past your legs. Trolleys wobbling with the weight of cow’s heads, stomachs and intestines, bouncing millimetres from being joggled on to my exposed, bare, flip-flopped feet. A trolley load of cow’s shins and hooves, off to the glue factory, presumably.
For extras, they were extraordinarily believable actors!
As if this wasn’t enough, the scene makers had gone to enormous lengths to make the place look authentically medieval. The noises, the narrow alleyways, the maze of streets, the dark doorways that looked as if they led nowhere, the beautiful mosaics, the white, green, lilac and blue painted walls, the covered-over alleyways, the arches, the huge, old, wooden, studded doors, the twenty-four different mosques, the synagogue, the street signs.
Clearly, the property department was not to be outdone. The stalls were stunning. Piles of tomatoes, floes of enormous strawberries, mounds of plump oranges, stacks of every kind of fruit and vegetable you can name, plus some unusual ones, like bracken.
Meat stalls, where butchers carefully carved up chunks of meat and blood oozed; dripping down in dots to the paving stones below.
Stalls were packed in tightly here. Fish, fruit, vegetables and herbs, neatly arranged, spilled out across the already narrow space. Tiny cubby-hole kiosk stalls utilised the tiniest left-over spaces and hooded men perched inside, within an arm’s reach of any of the products.
Lentils, chickpeas, pasta, rice, corn and spices overflow from sacks carefully rolled down to precise and equal heights.
Pots, pans and kitchen utensils gleamed in the beams of light produced by the lighting department. The sun light filtered in through the narrow space high above our heads. They had achieved, to a tee, the sharp contrast between sun and shade, together with the glimpse of blue sky, cut up in slices between roof lines.
The offal stall, the tripe stall, the baskets and wooden implements.
The white wash in big stoney chunks, the powdered tinctures of green, lilac, blue and saffron in huge bags for people to dip into and mix into their paint.
The prolific number of barber shops was also noticeable. On a Sunday they all had customers, sporting fairly severe and sharp cuts. Some were having a wet shave, too.
In what seemed like the very epicentre of the Medina, we came across a deserted restaurant, buried so deep in the maze that we were the only customers. Probably because no one else could find it. Its only light came from a huge, orangery type roof three floors above as it was surrounded by other buildings on all four sides. It had an enormous, dusty, crystal chandelier, that helped us to see clearly the curved filigree of the inner arches, the tiles, mosaics and the glittering, plush, tasseled cushions on the sofa benches around the room.
Here, however, the props department only managed to deliver a fairly bland, over-cooked meal, with a mere nod to Moroccan traditional cuisine. I think I could easily have made it myself. A style of Minestrone soup, tiny cubes of beef on a sheikh kebab, a cone of couscous with bendy carrots, stewed cabbage and grey chicken legs finished off with a peanut cookie. Not quite the exotic, spiced, tasty Moroccan dishes we had hoped for and as a government establishment, sadly lacking in imagination and flavour.
The sound department, however, reproduced with great accuracy, the Arabic stream of words, the occasional French or Spanish being shouted by merchants and their customers. They called out their wares in a stream of words, over and over again, even whilst bagging up a sale. It was as if they so were impatient to sell all their produce that they didn’t appreciate the interruption of a sale in their pursuit of announcing and marketing what they still had to sell.
Live chickens squawked from back room cages, unwittingly waiting to be selected, slaughtered and plucked for the next purchaser.
The costume department had shown a keen eye for replicating the kinds of clothes and colours worn in the Medina. Rustic fabrics, full length djellabas on men and women with pointed wizard-like hoods, shawls, straw hats with decorative woollen pom-poms dangling from each side, like a kind of ethnic compass. Children dressed in a mish-mash of clothes, leggings over a skirt, with a jumper and then a coat. Women in tightly bound head scarves. Young men in skinny jeans and denim jackets.
At every turn of the head there was another incredible sight to see.
By making this analogy to a film set, I don’t want to detract from the wonder. I was so completely in awe of what I saw. I loved it! It was an experience in every sense. We had NO hassle, no stares, no harassment. Everyone we met was delightful. Khalid, our guide was knowledgeable, patient and knew everyone in the Medina.
Suddenly, we were jerked back into the 21st Century and factual life, by loud cheers from cafes, bars and shop booths, that added to the spice of life in Tetouan. A ‘derby’ football match against Casablanca that very afternoon. Both teams on 24 points in the national football league; a crunch game? As the 1530 kick off approached, stalls were abandoned and every one was either glued to a small TV with coat hanger aerial and grainy picture or to a radio that screamed out the commentary. By half time the home team was 2-0 down.
“There’s still plenty of time,” was the hopeful common line.
2-1, 3-1, 3-2 …. Final whistle.
The local team went down 4-2. Our talkative taxi driver listening to the crackling in car radio whilst driving us back to the border in his stunning 1970’s Mercedes Benz, became a little quieter.
We passed miles of spruced up promenade. Ritz-Carlton and Sofitel Hotel complexes being built by the generosity of a Saudi Prince, in an attempt to reap the rewards of a downturn in tourism fortunes for Egypt after their recent problems. The Moroccan King himself is so keen for this to become the Moroccan equivalent of the Costa del Sol, that he has invested millions of his own hard-earned cash to build the dual carriageway road from his seaside palace to his Tetouan one, and back again.
All in all, we thoroughly enjoyed our brief encounter with Morocco. Khalid had definitely made our day. We have made a note to come back and see more of this beautiful, varied and amazing country. We are glad we came in early April, on a cool day when there were no other tourists around.
It was an unforgettable day.