Before I went I read 'Although the tanneries in Marrakech are not as well known as those in Fez, you'll still find enough to keep your attention for hours.' This was sadly not to be my experience and I am sure the majority of independent travellers have similar experiences to mine!
This tip is not going to tell you about how the same methods, techniques and equipment have been used for as long as anybody can remember, neither is it to tell you that the stench of the tanneries is that of leather soaking in pigeon guano to soften and colour it. This tip is to try to get you to understand what you should expect!
When you approach the area of the tanneries you WILL manage to pick up a new friend who will want to guide you, for free, surely! around the tanneries. If,, like me, you manage to go to extraordinary lengths, to get rid of your friend, you can be certain to gain another and another and another... if you arrive at a tannery without a 'guide' then you are doing well!
At the entrance to the tannery there will be a man claiming to be a manager. He probably is not but that is what he will claim and he will greet you and want to show you around. Even if you ignore him he will persist in following you and spouting info... and even if you continue to ignore him he will perceive it that he has done you a great service for which he should be handsomely rewarded! NB These guides, whether they do or don't get commission from the leather shops, will adamantly claim that they do not and that you therefore must give them cash. Leather shops will back them up on this claim. You will probably be asked for a ludicrous sum of money and, at this point, some of the workers will probably tally on over to intimidate you.
It was good to see the tanneries but I did not really enjoy the experience because I was not left alone and I felt intimidated into parting with some cash - it was a small fraction of what was asked originally and I was vexed by the whole situation. They were not happy with my pitiful financial gestures and I felt the urgent need to remove myself very promptly from the immediate area.
We just returned from a phenomenal trip of Marrakesh. Al Moussika was our base to explore the medina and for trips to the coast and to the Atlas mountains. The riyad is a carefully and tastefully restored historical building which offers a quiet retreat after a busy day in the pulsating city. There are only six bedrooms and many additional sitting rooms including a well stocked library and a room with a grand piano. Breakfast is of very good quality and the lunches were among the best meals we had in Marrakech. The personnel is competent and very helpful and offers a friendly, personalized service. Restaurants and transportation are suggested on request and promptly organized.
With our Marrakesh self-guided map given by our riad ,we entered into the medina, the walled city section of Morocco’s capital, Marrakech, is nothing like I’ve ever experienced before. The souk contains booth after booth of wares, including local clothes, furniture, rugs, lamp fixtures, spices and exotic foods. Of all the adjectives that could be used to describe the souk, I think eclectic is the most fitting.
After adventuring around for a while in this, one of Africa’s most exciting destinations, (and exclaiming, “Wow! Come look at this!” around every corner), Medina is big, YES, you will get lost eventually, it’s normal. Many people don’t profit from Marrakech’s labyrinth streets, inside the markets (souks) and from many interesting places, because they will get lost. And no one likes to be lost specially in such a chaotic and different environment such as Marrakesh! Because of this,we hired services of a travel company advertising in the same map, named : Les secrets de Marrakesh, for the following day to take us through the lesser-known areas of the souk. Our Moroccan escort took us through the Old Medina with a focus on how people live and work and into the back, where the trades are made as Marrakech wholesalers negotiate with local venders and we got to see raw materials such as leather to make shoes, wool that would soon become a rug, dyes used for clothing, and animals that would soon be for sale. It was the staging area for the souk. we had a wonderful time with an enthusiastic , knowledgeable local expert.
we went exploring a little more and in every direction we turned, there seemed to be a helpful Moroccan that would make sure that we knew where the centre of the souk was. This was where all the action was happening. When I approached the focal point, I saw there was a cock fight in one circle, a dancing monkey in another, a local playing a flute to a dancing cobra…It was nothing like I’d ever witnessed, either in Morocco, Africa or elsewhere!
After leaving this centre square, we asked a local about visiting a hamam-a local Turkish bath house. They pointed us in the right direction and made sure that we were clear on the door we should use so that we would go in the women’s bath, not the men’s. After we entered, we realized why: everyone in the hamam was naked. With a bit of a language barrier, we managed to communicate that we’d like a massage. We undressed and a local woman proceeded to lather us up with a gel-like soap and scrub us down. I was so relaxed after this experience I could barely walk. In fact, I walked right into a Berber gentleman crossing the street right in front of me. It was as though I were walking on a cloud and we opted to sit at a café for a drink before continuing on our journey.
Before leaving the souks of Marrakech, we opted to take one more look at the central square. It had completely transformed. The live dancing animals were no longer there; they had been replaced by a food fare, with some animal heads to be eaten (presumably from the animals that we had seen being traded earlier), some food that looked like worms, some that I recognized to be vegetables, and some that you would expect at a food stand in Marrakech, like your tagines, couscous and soups.
We left the medina with a whole bunch of souvenirs; some for us, some for friends and family back home. We also indulged in some of the more familiar food, some fresh vegetables, olives, cheese, a bottle of local wine and, of course, some fresh mint for after dinner tea, and had a wonderful picnic at our apartment hotel just outside the medina where it was little quieter.
All in all, our Marrakesh adventure proved to be a most wonderful experience.
From articles I'd read and TV programmes that I'd seen about the tanneries I was well prepared for a nasal assault!
I'd hired a guide for the morning and had asked to go to the tanneries, as it was a place I'd seen on TV, and had read about, and thought it looked quite interesting.
Luckily it wasn't such a hot day, so the smell wasn't too bad.
Surrounding the tanneries ( A walled expanse of a rectangular yard) are small , dark ramshackle sheds, where young boys spend their day endlessly shearing at the skins with a blade to get a smooth finish, they're working by the light that enters through the crack in the door, sitting on the dirty floor.
In the centre of the tanneries are Concrete tubs, which are filled with water and a mixture of natural ingredients (animal urine, pigeon droppings etc!) to soften the skins, and to remove the fur from the pelts.
Scattered about are off-cast limbs of goats!
Elsewhere, men were wading thigh deep into the tubs, to press the skins. Some tubs contained dyes, so the workers legs appeared to be permanently dyed too- although some wore thigh length boots, they didn't appear to offer much protection.
To be honest, I found it to be quite a depressing and humbling place, I didn't dare ask how much the tanners were paid or what hours they worked.- I guess it was a minimal amount for maximum hours, and there were some very young looking boys working there.
Although I was the only tourist there at the time, this is a place that is often visited by tourists wanting to see a bit of Moroccan culture. I myself had mixed feelings after visiting.
I'll never buy any leather goods again, without remembering this experience!
Apparently the tanneries at Fez are larger, and feature on most of the postcards on sale around Morocco.
A visit to the tanners district is quite an experience....though not really a pleasant one. The tanneries are located in a poorer part of town - I guess this is the last part of town you would want to live in as the whole area smells really bad, and also feels a little unsafe.
Getting to the tanneries was an adventure in itself. We decided to walk there, navigate our way from the Musee de Marrakech - about 15 minutes walk. Along the way we were bombarded with men and boys asking if we were going to the tanneries, as they wanted to guide as there. We didn't acknowledge them, though we were pleased that they kept pointing out the direction so we knew we were headed the right way.
As we got closer, we started to feel a bit wary as the area didn't feel safe, but we kept going as we really wanted to have a look. One of the men that wanted to show us the way continued to walk in front of us, even though we told him we didn't want a guide.
We arrived in the tanners district and a man, standing at the entrance to one of the tanneries, beckoned us over to have a look. We hesitated as the smell (probably from rotten animal flesh) was revolting and we both immediately felt nauseous. He ran across the road and came back with two big handfuls of mint which if held up to your nose helped a little to block out the stench.
So, we had a look in the tannery for just a couple of minutes. There are dozens of large pits dug into the ground. Some pits are filled like baths, with lime and pigeon dung (bizarre, I know!), others are used to trample on the animal skins. The workers remove the hair, then oil and treat the hides and leave them in the sun to dry.
After a quick look the tannery man wanted us to follow him to see some of the finished product (no doubt his friends shop!). We gave him some dirham and scurried off, much to his disgust - not sure if he was unhappy with the amount of money or the fact that we didn't want to go to the shop with him, probably both. Anyway, we didn't stick around to find out.
Oh dear. This place nearly made me faint. I could NOT BELIEVE the stench! I could not believe what I was witnessing! As we approached the plethora of cement vats containing GOD KNOWS WHAT we were handed a sprig of mint "GAS MASK!" said the man and gestured for us to hold it to our noses. However, MY sprig had bits of animal fur stuck to it and that was that. I got dizzy, weak in the knees and Tim led me the hell out of there. The man we were talking to led us away from the tanneries and up some obscure stairs, then onto a terrace with the coolest old tile floor to look at the leather workers in action from above. He explained the process of softening the leather and whatnot and I decided I'd not be buying a single leather piece while there. This is most definitely interesting, but it wasn't for me.