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Fes’s Legendary Tanneries: Not for the Faint of Heart!

Tannery in Fes, MoroccoFes’s sprawling Medina is one of the world’s largest car-free city centers.  In addition to being home to the world’s oldest continuously-functioning university, the Medina boasts some of Morocco’s finest craftsmen who still employ centuries-old techniques to produce their traditional wares in workshops which have stood on the Medina since the time of the medieval guilds.  Arguably the most renowned of these are the three famous Fes leather tanneries, which produced tooled leather products so prized in Europe that the description “Morocco” from medieval times was virtually a synonym for fine-quality leather.

Fes’s tanneries are easy to find — just ask a friendly leather salesman to point the way to the terraces above the oldest of the three: the Chouara.  After that, just follow your nose, even if that seems a bit counter-intuitive.  Once you arrive, what looks like a sprawling field of wading pools — actually stone vats — stretches out before you, some filled with a bilge grey substance, while others shimmer with the rich deep colors of indigo, crimson, emerald green and bright orange vegetable dyes.  Between the vats, barefoot tanners navigate their rims adroitly, hopping from one to another seemingly indifferent to the pervading stench from the vats. 

The acrid ammonia smell comes from the tannery’s potent blend of cow urine, pigeon dung, and lyme.  Poured into vast stone vats, which have been a Fes fixture for more than a thousand years, the mixture is used to soften and hone skins from goats, sheep, cows, and camels.  The softening process is helped by the tannery workers, up to their knees in the vats, kneading the skins with their bare feet to achieve the desired softness.  Next, the skins are plunged into vibrant vats of natural vegetable dye to achieve Fes’s signature deep colors.  The skins are dyed twice, then hung to dry, polished, and fashioned into Morocco’s ubiquitous leather products: beautifully tooled leather book bindings, soft leather slippers, colorful bags in almost any shape you can imagine, and elegant jackets and coats.  

Clear your nose with a deep sniff of a sprig of mint, or enjoy a refreshing cup of mint tea before you continue your exploration of Fes’s wonders!

Ask one of Alexander+Roberts’ knowledgeable reservation agents to help you plan your trip to Fes such as our Magic of Morocco.

Posted: 8/3/2015 5:37:55 PM by Alexander + Roberts