The hustler on the motorbike was getting impatient. He had seen us circling around in our car, and offered to lead us to a parking spot for free, claiming that we were going in the wrong direction. He claimed to be a licensed tourist guide, and I made the mistake of believing him. But he was leading us further and further away from where we wanted to go, and we were getting a distinctly dodgy feeling about the whole thing. So I followed my friend Ding’s advice to stop following him. But he wasn’t one to give up easily, and followed us for more than a kilometre.

So we finally stopped to politely tell him we weren’t interested. “I am not a hustler. My tour only costs 70 dirhams (S$10) each,” he kept protesting. Of course he wasn’t, what were we thinking? After a few minutes of arguing, I said “Thank you, goodbye” firmly, as I wound up my window. He glared at me for a moment before kicking the door, then riding away in anger. We eventually made our way to the medina (basically the city centre), but not before  beingapproached by two more motorcyclists offering to lead us for free.

Fez, Morocco

The medina of Fez.

That was our introduction to the imperial city of Fez back in April. Founded in 789 AD, it’s  the second largest city in Morocco. And Fez is famed for its mazy, winding streets, motorbike-bound hustlers who stalk the outskirts of the city, and of course, its centuries-old tanneries and their high quality leather products. It feels like a city trapped in time, and if not for the modern clothing of its inhabitants and the satellite dishes dotting the rooftops, you might almost think you had gone back to the past.

Fez, Morocco

A rooftop view of the tanneries

Walking through the streets of Fez on a cool, sunny day – the temperature was around 21 degrees Celsius – was slightly akin to a treasure hunt: you never know what you will stumble upon next. The medina, where no cars can be found, has a distinctly medieval feeling, with men transporting goods on donkeys and horses, or herding sheep and goats.

Fez, Morocco

A rooftop view of Fez

Fez, Morocco

Fez, Morocco

Pounding the streets of Fez

Fez, Morocco

A man and his goat.

Ding and I slowly made our way to the tanneries, while dodging offers from numerous merchants to come into their shops and peruse their goods. After that experience with the hustler, we were wary of even making eye contact with the locals. But we were about to walk away from yet another shopkeeper, when we realised what he had asked: “You want to see tannery?”

We stopped in our tracks. It turned out that he worked for one of the 360 families which owned the tanneries, and which had banded together in a collective to sell the products that were made from the cured leather. For 10 dirhams (S$1.50), we would be allowed to go up to the roof of his shop and get a view of the tanneries. He seemed pretty legit, but when we took up his offer, we got another taste of that hustler spirit, in all likelihood fueled by a macho Arab culture and lack of proficiency in English: “Okay. Pay now!”

But when we climbed to the rooftop, the view more than made up for it, despite the pungent smell. This odour comes from the key ingredients used in curing the leather – in the words of one of the shopkeeper’s staff, “pigeon droppings and cow urine”. Very eco-friendly perhaps, but not terribly appealing.

Fez, Morocco, tanneries

The workers of the tannery collective hard at work.

Fez, Morocco

Fez, Morocco, tanneries

Fez, Morocco

Cured leather drying in the sun

The magnificent sight was made all the better by the sight of the tourist group in the building across from us, who in all likelihood had paid a lot more to access the rooftop – for a view of the tanneries that was significantly less awesome than ours, as it was hindered by several buildings, and we were much closer to the tanneries. I know it all sounds terribly petty and churlish, but hey, we had to find SOMETHING to make up for that experience with the hustler.

Fez, Morocco

The tourists with the poor view. Nyah nyah nyah.

And here’s some of the finished leather products, made from the skin of various animals such as camels, sheep and goats. The cost – from about 350 dirhams (S$50) onwards. I’m no leather aficionado, but I’ve heard that that’s a lot cheaper than your standard genuine leather product would cost.

Fez, Morocco, tanneries

The finished leather products.

I bought one for the girlfriend too – a little backpack made from goat skin that cost 350 dirhams. She was very happy with it, and carries it to work every day. It was my most expensive souvenir from Morocco, but probably the most worthwhile.

Fez, Morocco

Fez, Morocco

Have you ever been to Fez? How did you find the tanneries?