A photo-essay on the tanneries of Fez, including information on how to visit the tanneries and how much it cost (without getting scammed).
It’s a drizzling day. I’m walking with Niko and his friend Simon through the narrow streets in Fez. We’re in search of the Chouara Tannery, one of the three leather tanneries in Fez, but the old medina is such a maze that it’s hard not to get lost. Even the GPS of my phone’s app maps.me is getting confused.
Many “helpful” locals want to show us the way but we know we got to watch out for this scam in Fez. Luckily Simon has been to the tanneries before and knows more or less in which direction we have to walk.
Soon we know we’re going the right way as the pungent smell of decaying flesh is entering our nostrils. The next challenge now is to find the entrance to the tanneries. The narrow street is lined up with shops selling leather items and signs that read “Free viewing terrace”.
The Chouara Tannery is surrounded by many leather shops that have terraces from which you can look down onto the pits. Any shopkeeper will tell you that the view from his terrace is the best. Although it’s officially free to see the tanneries from the terraces, to get there you have to walk into a shop and many shopkeepers will try to sell you something or – sometimes aggressively – demand a tip from you.
While the shopkeepers are fighting for our attention, some more obtrusive than others, Niko’s friend Simon leads us to a small alley. During his previous visit to the tanneries, Simon met a guy who guides travelers around the pits in exchange for 10 MAD per person.
I really don’t mind paying to see the numerous vessels and the whole tanning process from up close! The tanneries are the only reason why I wanted to visit Fez in the first place. I had seen many images of the ancient leather tanneries and I felt so excited to finally see it in real life!
The Chouara Tannery is the largest of the three tanneries in Fez and is reputed to be the oldest one in the world. For almost 1000 years, the structures of the tannery and the leather tanning techniques have barely changed.
The sight of the tanners standing waist deep in stone vessels filled with dyes is exactly how I imagined it to be. My heart really goes out to them because the tanning is still done manually here and it looks like a very tough job! And I’m not even mentioning the pungent smell of wet animal skins and ammonia that they have to deal with on a daily basis!
It’s fascinating to witness the whole tanning process. First, the skins are put for a couple of days in vats that contain a mixture of water, salt, limestone and pigeon poop. The poop contains ammonia which softens the skins whilst the salt and limestone remove the fat, flesh and hair on the hides. Workers usually enhance this process by going in the vats and knead the skins with their feet for a few hours.
After a few days, the hides are taken out from these vats. They first get washed and scraped so the skins are spotless before they are transferred into the dyeing vessels.
All the vessels contain natural plant dyes. The color depends on the type of plant that is used: orange from henna, red from poppy flowers, yellow from saffron, green from mint, brown from cedar wood and blue from indigo. Sometimes pomegranate powder is used to turn the hides into yellow as saffron is very expensive.
The tanners dye the hides by hand or they go in the vessels and jump up and down a pile of skins. Once the dyeing is finished, they are taken out and hung up to dry in the sun.
The hides are then sold to craftsmen who’ll turn them into leather wallets, bags, jackets, belts and other accessories.
As soon as we finish our little private tour around the tanneries, it starts raining. I don’t mind the drizzle as I’m glowing with happiness. Despite the smell – which is honestly really not as bad as I anticipated – I genuinely enjoyed my visit to the tanneries. I’m not even that pissed off when our guide suddenly asks for another 10 MAD per person before letting us leave the site.
While we’re walking back to our hostel, we make a few stops in some leather shops. I now have so much more appreciation for the leather items, knowing what a long and tough process it takes to create one single blue leather wallet!
How to visit the leather tanneries of Fez – tips and costs
Unfortunately, there are many horror stories on the internet about tourists getting scammed while visiting the tanneries of Fez. It’s a common fact that some men will present themselves as tour guides and will charge a lot of money to take you near the leather tanneries. Some shopkeepers will also try to charge you money to see the tanneries from their terraces, while this is officially free.
Here are some tips to visit the leather tanneries of Fez in an enjoyable way:
1) Viewing the tanneries from one of the surrounding terraces
Many shopkeepers will tell you that you can view the tanneries from their terraces. They will even promise you that their terrace has the best view. From my experience, all the terraces give a beautiful panoramic view of the tanneries.
Before you follow one of the shopkeepers into his shop, press the question: “How much to go to the terrace?”. Very likely he’ll tell you it’s free (which it should be). Also, tell him that you’re just here to look and that you don’t want to buy anything. It’s important to be very clear from the start so you don’t end up having unpleasant surprises.
Of course, you could always give the shopkeeper a tip if you’re happy with your visit. 5 or 10 MAD would be appropriate (around 50 cents to 1 USD).
It could happen that, when you’re about to leave the terrace, the shopkeeper suddenly comes back on what he said and insists that you buy something or pay him money for your visit. If this would happen, stand your ground and don’t give in. Just walk away. Know that viewing the tanneries from the terraces is officially free and that they’re not allowed to ask money.
Some shopkeepers will also offer you sprigs of fresh mint to help you overcome the odor. Know that when you accept, you’ll have to pay for it. And honestly, the smell is really not that bad!
I’m not saying that every shopkeeper will try to con you. When we went on one of the terraces, the shopkeeper was very friendly and not pushy at all. We had a look around in his shop, had a little chat with him and left the shop without paying or buying anything. It was a very pleasant experience.
2) Visiting the tanneries with a guide
When you go to the entrance of the tanneries, you’ll see some men with an official-looking pass around their neck. It’s hard to tell whether or not they are officially working as a tour guide. The man that showed us around didn’t have a pass.
We paid 10 MAD (around 1 USD) each before entering the tanneries and at the end of the private tour, he asked for another 10 MAD per person (which we didn’t agree upon). 20 MAD – or 2 USD – is really not much for what you get to see so I didn’t mind paying it (although I was a bit unsettled that he asked for more money at the end). Be aware that this can happen and don’t pay more than 20 MAD per person!
It’s hard to tell the difference between a scammer and an honest guide. Even when someone is wearing a pass, it can still be a fake one. I honestly think it was worth giving it a shot as it was fantastic to walk between the workers and vessels and see the whole tanning process at such a close range. We even had the opportunity to go into small side rooms, which you can’t see from the terraces.
If you really want to see the leather tanneries but you don’t feel comfortable going there by yourself, ask in your hostel or hotel if there are any local and trustworthy tour guides that can take you there.
You can also book a guided day-tour around Fez on Get Your Guide in which a visit to the tanneries is included.
Where to stay in Fez
If you’re a budget traveler, then we highly recommend you stay at the Funky Fes. This hostel is exactly like its name says – funky! It has a great atmosphere, you’ll meet many fellow backpackers, the beds are comfortable, breakfast is included in the price and you have an awesome rooftop terrace on which you can chill and relax.
If you like to stay in a private room in a Riad but you still want to watch your budget, I’d highly recommend Riad Dar Adam. This beautiful riad is located right in the city center, the hotel is decorated in the most beautiful mosaic tiles and you’ll feel like a king/queen in this place. Best thing of all, you get all this luxury for a very decent price (starting from €30 for a room per night).
If you like to make the best out of your city trip to Fez and you’ve got some money to spend, you’ll love staying at Dar Essoaoude. This boutique style hotel has a garden, every room comes with a balcony and a view over the mountains and city. The hotel also offers a free and healthy breakfast, included in the price!
The pictures in this photo-essay were taken with the Panasonic Lumix GX9. This compact mirrorless camera captures the best high-quality images and the body is so small that you don’t interfere in the daily activities of the people. It’s the perfect camera for street and documentary photography!
I also recommend you take a good zoom lens with you if you want to take great portraits of the workers at the tanneries. I used the compact and versatile Leica DG Vario-Elamrit 14-140mm zoom lens. This lens has a wide range, yet it’s compact and light to carry with you (unlike some of those huge zoom lenses you see people carrying around).
This lens in combination with the Lumix GX9 is perfect to take pictures discretely while visiting the tanneries.
I hope you enjoyed this photo-essay of the leather tanneries in Fez! If you have any questions about visiting the tanneries or if you like to share the story of your visit, I’ll be happy to read it in the comments below!
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