The ancient city of Fez has been attracting merchants, traders, and tourists for hundreds of years. Most of the old quarters date back nearly 1500 years with their roots in the very early days of Islam in northern Africa. Palaces, fortress, mosques, universities, and of course traders’ stalls are all smashed together in a tightly packed cauldron of history. Fez is said to have one of the most incredible medina’s in all of Morocco where anything your heart desires can be found, especially if your heart desires leather goods! Some of the tanneries of Fez have been in operation in the same locations for over a thousand years with very little changed in the leather tanning process.
There are no motor vehicles in the Medina so pedestrians must share the road with beasts of burden and stevedores all madly rushing along, up and down, the slippery, narrow cobbled alleys. They are on a mission to get their wares in or out and woe be to the tourist that should get between them and their destination.
The entrances to the Medina are usually open squares like this with snack carts offering prickly pear cactus fruit, boiled snails, or some other delicacy. You can usually find a seat at an outdoor cafe along the edges of the square and take a break from the pressing confines of the medina while enjoying a refreshing mint tea.
You don’t really need to plan on buying anything in the medina; you can walk around, take photographs, ask about the curious items you see and just be amazed at all of the fascinating events taking place around you. Be careful though, if you ask how much something costs you have just placed a target on your back that is hard to shake. That little bit of interest is going to cost you time or money. By inquiring about a price you are telling the seller that you want that item and he will stop at nothing to sell it to you. More than one unwary traveler has purchased an item in the souk merely to escape the haggling session. Ultimately, you can just walk away with an apologetic “merci,” a shake of the head, and a smile. But keep walking and don’t look back unless you really do want that ashtray!
Getting lost is the best part about wandering through the Medina
Into the Tanneries of Fez
Depending on which way the wind is blowing, you will smell the tanneries before you see them. But don’t let that put you off, the tanneries really are worth the suffering you’re going to put yourself through. This is such a photogenic place, it’s hard to point your camera somewhere that doesn’t have a story to tell. Fez has been producing leather and leather goods for generations upon generations. The stench created by the tanning process (which includes feces and urine from several types of birds and animals) is incredible. I’d like to say you get used to it, and maybe you do if your work in and around the ancient stone vats every day of your life in the tanneries of Fez, but I never did.
You can buy purses, wallets, bags, backpacks, pants, vests, dresses, you name it. Or you could buy a tanned hide and create your own artisanal piece. Another word of warning about the tanneries, however, this is a hard sell area. You are free to walk into the tanneries and look around but you will pick up a guide and they will take you through their leather shop at the end. You don’t technically have to pay for the tour or even buy anything from the shop, but these are some of the most hard pressing salesmen we’ve come across. We left with a small tip to the guide and some small change purses for gifts.
If you are planning a visit to Morocco, you really should include Fez in your plans. The UNESCO World Heritage List is always a good indication of sites that must be visited and it didn’t let us down here. The Medina is an incredibly intricate look into the myriad of sights, sounds and mysteries to be found in Morocco. So find the Medina gate, clutch your purse tightly, and dive on in.
Have you experienced the sights, sounds, and smells of Fez?
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