Marrakesh has a reputation among travelers for being something of a den of thieves. Fez and smaller jewels like Chefchaouen, they counsel, are much more laid back, with harassment from eager-to-make-a-sale vendors at a minimum. That may have been true at one time, but travelers looking for that chill vibe have come, and in turn the salespeople have learned that the right combination of enough (insert your preferred language here) and pestering persistence will win them a sale from time to time.
I don’t have much to compare it to, as it doesn’t look like we’ll make it to Marrakesh on this trip. While annoying, the pestering was manageable and worth the hassle to get lost in the streets of both Chefchaouen and Fez. We picked a hotel right outside the medina at a gate called Bab Boujloud. Though our first day in Fez had the hairdryer-hot wind and withering sun that reminded us of Niger, our second day was cool as clouds blocked the sun for much of the day.
We took the opportunity to check out one of Fez’s unique attractions far on the other side of the medina. The leather tannery has become a justly popular tourist draw, and as such, a host of ‘guides’ greeted us in several languages, English, Spanish, and French, and offered to show us the way. We ignored them, and instead asked a passerby who hadn’t approached us. He pointed us in the right direction, and in a few turns, we found a leather shop offering to let us view the tannery from their rooftop (for a few dirhams, of course).
On the way up, an old man handed us a few sprigs of mint, warning us that the smell might be a little overwhelming. Up the narrow staircase we climbed, coming to a room full of finished leather goods with a railing on one side, from which we could look out onto dozens of pools for curing and dying leather. A steady stream of donkeys brought in stacks of hide to be treated. Once they were unburdened, they were loaded with treated skins to be ferried off to craftsmen.
Everywhere among the pools, men were scraping the hair or trimming the last bits of fat from the hides, soaking the skins in ammonia from a mixture of water and “pigeon shit” as the leather shop’s obligatory guide told us, and staining the hides with indigo and saffron. It was fascinating to see, though it’s not a profession I envy. Even with the mild temperatures, we still got the occasional waft of abattoir stink.
According to the guide, there are a group of families that have been working this tannery for generations, and each man (no women work there) sticks to his specific role, be that carting of hides or standing thigh deep in the milk-white pools of ammonia. I haven’t done any research, but it’s hard to believe health problems aren’t an issue, even if the vendors claim that the dyes are all natural.
In the afternoon, we took to the streets of the new part of the city. Though thronged with Moroccans, we were almost entirely left alone, which was a welcome feeling. We bought a few glasses of orange juice and tried the melon-like fruit of a local cactus we’d see a lot of in the days to come.
Our goal was to find the beautiful bronze gate to the royal palace. We were on the right track, when a helpful looking guy offered to show us the way. Unfortunately, he took us on a detour and tried to take us past his shop, then wanted money when we happened on the door. That aside, the door, like so much of Islamic art and architecture was something to behold. I wonder if the Islamic prohibition of using images led to the creativity of Muslim craftsmen manifesting itself in the painstaking repetitive patterns that must take so much concentration and skill to accomplish.
In all, Fez was a great stop. The following day, we took an early train to Rabat – not a place we’d planned on stopping, but the only place we could get a visa for Mauritania. A host of surprises were in store, some good, some bad.