Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Kicking up a stink in Fez

You smell one of Fez's top sites before you actually see it.

Heading into the Fez medina
It smells like I'm trapped in a giant urinal... and there's not an accompanying giant pink urinal cake trying valiantly to mask the stench.

I'm at the Chaouwara Tanneries, in the heart of Fez's medina, where a network of open vats containing concoctions of pigeon poo, acids and cow urine are treating countless leather hides.

The tannery
It's here that cow hides are stripped of their hair, cured and converted into quality leather cherished the world over.

Even from the "safety" of a vantage point overlooking the tannery, I can taste the smell emanating from the vats far below.

This vantage point happens to be part of a store selling the tannery's products - everything from leather bags and purses through to leather jackets and shoes.  The store's staff, knowing they've only got you for a limited time while you can stand the smell, try hard to get you to part with some Moroccan dirham.

Upon arrival, one of the store's staff thrust a clump of mint leaves into my hand.   By holding them under my nose this is meant to make the stench bearable.  It reminds me of those smelly little cardboard trees taxi drivers hang from their rear view mirror.  The "trees" don't work in taxis, and these mint leaves aren't working now.

When my eyes aren't watering, I note that there is a strange beauty to the tannery.   The honeycomb network of vats contain a range of different colours and look almost like a painter's palette.  

Remarkably, while I'm recoiling from afar and trying to breathe only through my mouth, the tannery's workers are jumping into vats to pull hides in and out.  They're soaked.  I only hope they lost their sense of smell some time ago.  The workers are in shorts and I can see their bare legs are hairless (presumably from the vat's liquids) and coloured by whatever was in the last vat they jumped in.

It's a strange, smelly and fascinating sight.

While there is a constant danger of becoming permanently lost in the maze that is the Fez medina, I sense you could almost navigate your way according to how close or far away the smell is.

Donkey awaits its load

Away from the tannery, the rest of medina is a hive of industry and craftsmanship.   There's brass being beaten and carpets being woven.  It's like one huge department store where pretty much everything from camel testicles to electronics can be bought.

Beating brass

Great minds are also produced here, with the media housing several theological colleges and universities (including one that is believed to be the world's oldest).

Inside one of the universities
It takes the rest of the day before the smell of the tannery starts to fade.   It's as though the smell has been burnt into my nostrils and no amount of sniffing mint leaves, herbs or spices can shift it.

Photos do a great job of keeping my travel memories alive once I'm home, but the unique smells of Fez means I'll remember it every time I walk past a urinal.

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