Did you know Morocco is known for their leather exports?
When in a medieval city like Old Fez, a popular tourist attraction is often to take tannery tours .
Taking tannery tours in Fes
What are tanneries? Tanneries are a traditional seventh century way of making leather products from belts to bags, cushions, etc…through the skinning, shearing, drying and dyeing of animal skins with the help of laborious manpower and big vats of all-natural dyes.
Guide books will warn you of a tannery’s smell to the point, it might draw notions of the deathly odor as being from rotting carcasses. I admit, I was a bit reluctant to visit a tannery. Nevertheless, my curiosity is stronger than fear or stench, and pinching my nostrils and breathing through the side of my mouth were imagined options to make my visit possible and breathable.
The smell was nowhere near the scariness I had imagined.
The unheavenly scent of a tannery tours in Fes
Our guide led us to the tannery’s rooftop so we could view the sprawling action below. Some workers carry loads of dried skins across multi-colored vats of dye, while others are in the dye vats working to get the color into the skins.
The first thing that hits you before you even step foot in the area of the tanneries is the whoof of smell… It’s not rotting meat. What produces the funky smell is the ammonia produced from whalloping vats of pigeon excrement. Yes, bird shit. The excrement helps with creating the colored dye.
Fowl poo is harvested and churned out in exponential amounts, it creates an unpleasant stench. Often, you’ll be given sprigs of mint leaves to put to our noses when you enter. It makes viewing tolerable and tourist-able.
Underage workers at tanneries in Fes
Perhaps what is a bit disheartening to see aside from the animal skins is the fact the tanneries employ young boys as part of their work labor (watch my video). Some of them look as young as high school, maybe younger. Given the state of opportunities some of these youngsters choose in order to make money for their family- risking criminal punishment for being caught as an illegal guide or laboring under the hot desert sun and bird-toxic fumes, it’s hard to tell which is the greater evil.
Shopping for leather in Fes
All tannery tours in Fes run by the same format. Most tanneries are surrounded by leather shops, which will offer you a view from their rooftop. After witnessing the tannery, you will be led down to the leather goods shop to buy anything from leather shoes, belts, purses and bags. You might feel pressured to buy something and you will need to haggle with the salesperson to get your desired price.
Note that haggling is expected. Never pay the price that’s first quoted. Usually there’s been a markup, it’s your job to be a saavy bidder. This is how Moroccans do business.
I bought a leather purse, while other travelers on my tour bought things such as a briefcase, belt and bags.
Beware of Possible Scams at Tanneries
As guides can get commissions from tannery shops, beware of illegal or scam guides. I once had a man dressed as policeman lead me around because I was lost. He ended up taking me to a small and seemingly fake tannery in order to get me to buy something from a commission shop. He was quite aggressive and this was the grand tip-off to me that he wasn’t an actual policeman.
The tanneries in Fes are still interesting and worth a visit as a way to understand how leather products are made.
I wouldn’t let the pigeons scare you away.