If you manage to get yourself on top of a balcony within the walls of Fes el Bali by the Saffarin Madrasa, you can take a trip back in time and watch men from afar begin the process of tanning. This process has stayed relatively the same since the 11th century. Men stand in waist deep vessels filled with different mixtures ready to soften and dye different kinds of animal hide. Again, if you manage to find a balcony to watch from, you are in for a treat. Now let me share my experience with you.For our last full day together in Fez, my ladies and I decided that we would wake up early and visit the biggest tannery in Fez, Chouara Tannery. We kicked off our morning with a great breakfast at our hostel. Every morning it came complete with Moroccan tea and bread, boiled eggs, fresh yogurt, honey, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, spices, and dates. After breakfast around 8:30 a.m, we gathered our belongings and were given a dull map complimentary of the hostel, that would supposedly guide us to the tannery. Deep within the Medina, the city still quiet with no sun in sight, we were doing pretty good for about 15 minutes but then got lost. Along the way, a few men stopped us and told us that we were going the wrong way, without them actually knowing where we were headed. We had learned from previous experience that this was just another scare tactic that they used on tourist. It was both scary and thrilling walking through the tall quarters of the Medina because no one was in sight, men would just turn the corner and appear out of nowhere. Many dead ends and wrong turns later we felt that we were closer as we began to smell a strong stench coming from the bank. Although we couldn’t visibly see any tanneries, we knew we were near.
About 25 minutes later, we started to see hide hung on the side of some buildings and saw more activity on the other side of the water. So we followed a long empty path and started making our way upwards. Still not sure of where to go we came upon a hotel, not obvious at all, there just happened to be a small gold plaque with the word hotel written on it, so we knocked and were let in by the doorman. I asked the receptionist if he could guide us toward the tannery and he told us we were just a few minutes away.The strong smell of dye, cow urine, salt, and other chemicals, was getting stronger and stronger.. We decided to walk in some buildings unannounced and could see men moving above the stairs, to scared to fully walk in, we rushed out and there watching us, was a man who started waving us down. We walked over and he pointed to the Chouara sign. We smiled at one another but didn’t make any moves. We knew that nothing here was free and we were trying to get some information about the entrance fee from him. He swore that it was free and that he would kindly show us around. As we learned our lesson in Marrakesh, we knew something was up but didn’t want to pass up this opportunity. So up we went, high onto the balcony and watched as men worked away, softening the animal hide and hanging it up.It was like a scene from a movie, so raw and real. There was definitely a stench, but I though it was manageable. If anything, tourist should feel bad for the men having to breathe these mixtures in day in and day out, especially in the hot blazing sun. We were only there observing for about 5 minutes. The stone vessels were like human sized crayola paint sets, filled with beautiful colors. I thought to myself, who invented this? Who would have thought to soak hide in these smelly mixtures? These people were true scientist and I was witnessing the original way of producing leather. How cool!After about five minutes of watching, taking photos, and walking around the terrace, I started to get a weird vibe from the man that lead us up. I knew he was going to be asking us for money, and sure enough he did. He would go up to us individually and say “you pay me now”, soon my friend voiced that it was time to leave but before we reached the door he blocked our path and told us to pay up. We knew it wasn’t fair to say “but you said it was free” because this was quite a scene so purposely we didn’t wear any jewelry or bring too much money just in case this situation were to occur.
I gave him all the dirham I had, which probably added up to 3 dollars. He wouldn’t move because he wasn’t happy with the change we gave him but we sort of pushed our way through and walked really fast down the path. A different man started following us so we rushed to the hotel we had stopped at earlier to make it seem like we were going in. The man walked by us and we waited some minutes before we walked back to the hostel. Surprisingly we remembered every turn we took and were able to guide ourselves back. What an experience huh?
Despite the ending of our experience, I highly recommend visiting a tannery in Fez, it’s medieval magic relived, but before going, I do have some tips: have a good map handy that will easily guide you to a tannery, know how much you are supposed to pay so that you don’t get bamboozled, don’t carry anything expensive on you, and lastly, know how to get out of the Medina maze. Some things you can’t prevent but being prepared for anything will put you at ease. I must say in the moment feeling scared doesn’t feel good but understanding the culture and aggressive attitude that some shopkeepers may have, can prepare you for your experience. So, there you have it, with a good map, a camera, and some change, you can witness some medieval magic. Enjoy!