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The sight and smell of the tanneries is one of the strongest memories for any visitor to Fes. The city’s most iconic and famous leather workshop is the Chaouwara tannery. Getting a view of the leather work action can be frustrating, even more so at Chouwara tannery, the largest and most famous of three in Fes. Crowds of tourists, largely in big groups flock daily to watch the century old craft (except Friday when the tanneries are closed for Friday Prayers). They gather on the balconies surrounding the tannery, but the view can only be accessed by entering one of the leather shops.
Getting Up Close
I had wanted to avoid a visit to Chaouwara Tannery, as I was looking for a more authentic experience, thankfully, we had explored the smaller Ain Azliten tannery on our first day in Fes. There we had been able to get a close look at the tanning procedure and even been able to walk right up close to the basins, filled with colourful dye and to meet the friendly workers, without being hassled into purchasing leather goods, which was my biggest fear of a visit to Chaouwara.
Passing Through the Lively Souks
However, the thought of leaving Fes without having witnessed the grand spectacle at Chaouwara tannery and to compare it to the two tanneries, I urged the boys to accompany me for a visit. Reluctantly they joined me and we wandered through the narrow lanes of the medina. After passing though the lively souks, trying to net get distracted by the sight and sounds of the variety of stalls and wares, faint wafts of the pungent stink from the tanning process announced our proximity to the tannery district.
Finding the Best Shop for a View
We mostly ignored the pouncing touts that linger in the streets like hungry dogs, all of them wanting to entice you into their shops or those that pay them a commission. Online there seemed to be a mix of recommendations regarding which leather shop to enter for the best views and least pressure sales. However, even “no. 10”, which had been mentioned as one of the best shops to enter hassle free, was bothering us upon our approach. In the end we chose an empty shop door a few houses further along, and took the narrow stairs to the top floor. Half way up we were met by the owner, who led us to his roof terrace for the view of the tannery, announcing that we were “completely” free to enter.
We immediately realised why we had not been pestered to enter, the basins below were partly obstructed by other buildings and terraces and we were only able to see parts of the vast tannery below from a distance. Luckily the owner was not too pushy and gave us some moments to take in the vista before launching into his sales pitch. Wanting to get a better vantage point over the tannery I announced to the boys that we should try to get access to the northern part of the enclosure. Upon leaving the shop, the owner obviously continued to try his excellent selling skills but to no avail, nevertheless, we gave him a small donation of 10 MAD, thanked him and left.
The Perfect Spot!
Walking north, just after a pharmacy, we turned into another side alley. At the end we found several open doors, leading to another cluster of leather shops offering a panorama of Chaouwara. Again we could not escape the efforts of the shopkeepers and one man followed us along on our visit like a creeping shadow. This time the spot was perfect, the colourful basins were right underneath and we were able to watch the mesmerising activities of the tanners at work.
Despite the recent renovations of the site, the tannery had not lost any of its impressive atmosphere. Even today, the tanners use the centuries old tradition of dyeing the animal skins to produce the worldwide renown leathers. The prominent stench that the ancient method creates in the tanning process, was again surprisingly bearable and the offered mint leaves were not so necessary. We watched the workers below, carrying mounds of skins between the basins, while others were waist deep immersed in the colourful liquids. The already dyed skins were laid out to dry in the sun on the nearby rooftops, like pieces of an unfinished jigsaw.
Which One Should You Visit?
I took my time to observe and savour the tanners at work although after a while I could feel the boys getting restless and wanting to leave, as we had seen the same much closer in the smaller tannery days before. Personally, I was glad to have been able to discover two of Fes’ ancient tanneries but if I had to choose I would definitely return to Ain Azliten rather than Chouwara. The intimate experience at the smaller leather tannery was definitely a more memorable experience, especially getting a close up of the workers and the basins.
Exploring the Souks
Leaving the tannery behind with another small donation to the shopkeeper for the use of his terrace we returned into the souk. With just the rest of the afternoon in Fes we too took the chance to explore some parts of the souk that we had not seen on previous days, pausing at some of the shops that stood out from the others with different things for sale, but we resisted some temptations to buy. Jerome was keen for an early Tajine supper at “Made in M” where we again enjoyed great food absorbing the local vibe, before an early night in advance of our final return to Marrakesh.
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