You do your best to navigate the labyrinth of alleyways that form the walking streets of Fes to find the ancient Chouwara Tannery, the biggest of those operating in the medina but it is highly likely you will get lost on the way – welcome to Fes! I ended up following a Japanese tour group as I gathered they were heading that way! You will probably smell the tannery well before you see it, especially on a hot day!
You will also soon have plenty of touts offering to show you the way or indicating they have the best view from their balcony for a small fee, which is naturally only accessible through their leather goods store! Despite what the tout may say (surprise, surprise), not all are actually in a prime spot but you probably wont know until you get up to the viewing area (you cannot see anything from the Medina streets). Note: if you buy something, they will still expect to be paid for showing you their view from the balcony!
Once you get there though you will soon be exposed to a wonderful and colourful sight of all the tannery workers moving about the honeycomb like earthen pits below, manually dying and drying various cow, sheep and goat skins just like they have always done since the 13th century (sections of the pits have been refurbished in recent years). They still use traditional methods to cure and bleach the skins which can include pigeon droppings and donkey or cow urine!
All those rich colours are a pretty sight but the smell can be a bit overwhelming. If you have a bit of a weak stomach, don’t breathe in too deep on a warm day!
Apparently its a bit too expensive to use vegetable dyes such as poppy (red), turmeric (yellow), indigo (blue) etc. to colour the skins these days though and artificial colouring via chemicals is generally the path they follow today. The process is all still very manual though as it has always been.
So that’s the Chouwara Tannery of Fes. It’s a pungent but rather fascinating sight down below and if you can handle the smell you wont be disappointed!