Image by Christine Wehrmeier Getty Images
The Chaouwara tanneries are one of the city’s most iconic sights (and smells), offering a unique window into the pungent, natural process of producing world-class leather using methods that have changed little since medieval times. In 2015–16 they underwent a year-long restoration to spruce up the crumbling environs surrounding the pits, including the viewing terraces, but fear not – the tanneries' atmosphere remains intact. Try to get here in the morning when the pits are awash with coloured dye.
Causing much frustration for visitors, the only way to see the tanneries in action is to dive into the lair of one of the many leather shops built into the walls surrounding the site. Displaying typical Fassi ingenuity, each shop has a terrace out back offering a different vantage point of the action – door No. 10 on Derb Chaouwara (keep an eye out for the number above the doorway) has one of the best views.
Salesmen will happily give an explanation of the processes involved and will expect a small tip in return or, even better, a sale. While this might feel a little commercialised, you probably won’t find a better selection of leather in Morocco, and prices are as good as you’ll get. The leather shops form a cooperative with the tannery workers and many of the salesmen are relatives of those doing the hard graft below.
Heading east or northeast from Place As Seffarine, you’ll soon pick up the unmistakable waft of skin and dye that will guide you into the heart of the leather district. Beware the persistent touts, who will pounce on you as soon as you get within sniffing distance of the streets surrounding the tanneries: it is completely unnecessary to hire one, and if you let a tout lead you into a shop, you'll pay more for anything you happen to buy there, to pay for his commission.