The Fez Tanneries, where leather is produced, are some of the biggest in North Africa. Visiting the tanneries was one of the most memorable experiences we had in Fez. On the train ride from Tangier to Fez, we were befriended by a Moroccan man who told us he worked at the Tanneries. At first it seemed he was just being friendly, but as the story unfolded, it became clear that he was an illegal guide and may or may not have been riding the train looking for unsuspecting tourists like us. He offered to pick us up at our riad the next day and take us to work with him. Despite our misgivings, we agreed to this plan.
Illegal guides are rampant in Fez. You can pick them out because they don’t have the correct identification and when they guide you through the medina, they walk several steps in front of you so that legitimate guides and the tourist police do not know that they are connected to you. This was definitely the case with Abdel.
Despite this, it was nice to have Abdel guide us to the tanneries, as they are located deep in the medina. You can definitely smell the tanneries before you see them. When you enter, you are given a handful of mint to mask the smell.
The tanneries consist if large vats that the skins get soaked in. First, they spend several days in pigeon poo. You heard me right, the workers use pigeon excrement to soften the skin! Apparently Fridays are pigeon poo days where they buy poo at 20 euros per kg from locals. Next, the skins are soaked in vats of dye for up to 20 days. In the past, the dyes were vegetable-based and made from things like saffron and indigo. Although our tour guide wouldn’t admit it, my understanding is that these vegetable-based dyes have now been replaced with chemicals. This is unfortunate for the tannery workers, who spend their days wading in these cancerous substances. Apparently jobs at the tannery are passed down over generations from father to son.
At the end of the tannery tour was a high-pressure sales pitch. We knew it was coming, and although annoying I understand that it’s part of the system. First was the push for Pat to buy a leather jacket. When we made it clear that we weren’t interested, the conversation switched to the traditional Moroccan slippers. Also a no-go.
When the conversation switched to purses, my ears perked up. Unbeknownst to our guide, I had had my eye on the bags you see below since I first spotted them in Chefchaouen. I feigned indifference though and bargained hard. In the end, I ended up with a bag for about 30% of the initial price. The first job I had in mind for the bag was to cart our precious Fez pottery home, which I’ll write about in a future post.
I read that prices at the tanneries are higher than shopping in the medina, but I didn’t price check once the money was spent. My theory on bargaining is that once the money is spent, it’s better to not ask the questions you don’t want the answers to. I’m satisfied with the purchase and the deal is done.
We finished up our time with our illegal tour guide and bid him goodbye. I’m certain he received a nice commission from my purchase so everyone had a good day.
Other stories from our Moroccan adventure:
You can also see what we’re up to, while we’re up to it on Instagram!