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Sahara

Day 6: Fez

Fez, Morocco 
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Panorama of Fez, with a stretch of thirteenth-century ramparts in the foreground. Until 1912 it was a closed city. Outsiders who overstayed their welcome often ended up with their heads on stakes at the gates. The French occupied Morocco in 1911, but never touched the old town, building their own Ville Nouvelle nearby.
Michael Palin - SaharaFettah says he has something special to show me. It doesn't look promising. We squeeze up narrow stairs covered in threadbare red carpet into a shop packed tight with leather goods of all kinds. We pass through ever smaller and more claustrophobic rooms, until, without warning, we're at the back of the building and light is spilling onto a wide terrace.

With a dramatic flourish, this tight, concealed old city, is thrown wide open. Below us, like a giant paintbox, is a honeycomb of fifty or sixty stone vats, each one around 4 feet across, filled with pools of richly coloured liquid ranging from snow white through grey, milky brown and pale pink to garnet red, metallic blue and saffron yellow. It is a complete and immaculately preserved mediaeval tannery.

Water, heaved up out of the Fès river by a massive wheel, is distributed amongst the vats, in which the tanners mix the heavy combination of water, hides and dye using only prehensile feet and the pressure of the muscles in their legs. This is a young man's game. The tanners have no protection from the sun, and temperatures can rise above 50°C/122°F in high summer. For a day's work in these conditions Fettah reckons they take home 100 deram. Around £6.

And it's not only the heat they have to endure. A sharp acidic stench rises from the kaleidoscope of colours below, a combination of the sheep's urine and pigeon shit used in the dyeing process. The tanners have had to get used to it. A tour group watching them from an adjacent balcony are offered sprigs of mint as nosegays.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 6
  • Country/sea: Morocco
  • Place: Fez
  • Book page no: 34

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