The Tanneries of Fes
The commotion that was last night’s sea of pedestrians soon petered out; the alleyways, only a little wider than those of Chefchaouen, quickly became a more manageable affair once we had moved further from Bab el-Mahrouk, one of the main arteries into and out of Fes el-Bali. The downturn in traffic proved quite fortunate, as today would be a big walking day and would see us doing all the touristy things that fervent, committed tourists like ourselves do. It was distinctly plausible that should the streets have been as packed today as they were for a few hours last night (but for the full day, and in about 100 degrees of baking sunshine) then Lauren may have ended up watching a grown man throw a hissy fit and, in a show of unsurpassed frustration and the final throws of wild delirium, toss his hastily melting ice cream to the ground. And no-one needs to see that. Really.
Turning right out of our guesthouse led us deeper into the Medina, and a little closer to completing our main objective of the day – a visit to the Tanneries of Fes. Our map made this, the shortest of journeys, appear simple. It led us to believe there was a single, main route to and from the site with a couple of glaringly obvious left and right turns on the way. Any fool could get there. But what the map didn’t show were the 3 or 4 million smaller offshoots from the main drag, offshoots that were remarkably similar to the ones we needed to take to get there.
We continued wandering in the vague direction of the tanneries, all the time looking for signs that we were getting warmer. We looked for directions posted on the walls, other tourists, and even greater concentrations of ‘helpful’ touts and guides – all sure fire indications that we were on the right track. But, much to our surprise, the first assurance we had as to our successful arrival was something completely different.
On occasion, people had commented on the aroma surrounding the tanneries, and each time I had brushed it off as an aside. Now I understand exactly where they were coming from. Even before we had rounded the corner into the final alleyway you knew you were almost there. The initial, pungent nose full would put you firmly on your back foot and evoke the most instinctive of reactions, the one that, upon copping a whiff of something pretty offensive, makes you immediately turn to your mate and give them that look, the one of outward disgust and condemnation – all the while with an underlying (yet most distinctive) air of accusation about it.
As we neared the tanneries, Lauren beat me to it; she gave me the “was that you?” look before I had a chance to do the same. As she’d got there first I had no choice but to adopt the leant back, palms outward facing, eyebrows fully raised “wasn’t me” defensive posture. As it panned out, on this occasion it wasn’t either of us. But what really did appeal to me was that right now, and for the rest of the day, I had the perfect alibi.
The only way to check out the tanneries was from one of the numerous galleries that lined its courtyard. Inevitably, and the only way to get to any of these free galleries was via its associated leather shop. And so began the battle of the bag sellers, but not until after we had checked out the tanners at work. I can’t describe the buzz I felt as I clapped eyes on the courtyard and saw it for the first time in all its gruesome glory. I had been captivated by previous pictures and more so by Micheal Palin’s visit to the site on TV some years back, so to actually see it, to smell it, and to almost taste It – and all from within a spittable distance – well, it seemed utterly surreal.
Just recently I learnt the reason why the tanneries harbour such a funky aroma. Apparently, in addition to the whiff exuding from the animal skins, the further contribution of pigeon droppings, cow urine, fish oils, animal fats and brains, chromium salts and sulphuric acids – all used in the various processing stages – all work well in giving the air that inimitable, zesty tang.
And it looked as bad as it smelt. There were guys, none of whom were visibly enchained, actually jumping into huge, fetid bowls full of this stuff – and without so much as a cattle prod in sight. It was sick. It was sicker than you’re average Japanese game show. For a moment, I began to reflect on a (possibly drunken) conversation I once had with a certain big, fat, bald Geordie.
“…So, gah on then, top three worrst jobs…Evah…”
“OK. So am I allowed anything, or do they have to be real jobs that people pay you for?”
“Any, any! C’mon! Worrst ones evah. Top three. Dae it, man!”
Well, I can’t remember what the three were at the time (maybe for the above reason), but if I did have to give three nominations for the most hellacious jobs in the world – the nastiest, most outrageously undesirable occupations of all time – they would be as follows:-
1. Victoria Beckham’s coffee partner
2. Peep show cubicle cleaner
3. George Foreman’s Punchbag
But, after today’s visit, I have a new number three. So it’s out with George’s bag and in with the Tanners of Fes el-Bali. And don’t worry, Posh, you’re top spot is assured for a long time to come.