A guide to the Marrakech Souks and Tanneries

On the first full day in Marrakech, we woke up to painted blue skies and clouds brushed across them. Bright eyed and bushy tailed, we decided that this was the day we were to brave the Souks and see Jemaa el-Fnaa in daylight.

We had a long wander through the Souks, before reaching the square. Everyone went about their daily business; opening up their shop fronts and chopping up vegetables at the back of the shops to place in the Tagines.

The Gentleman had decided that he wanted to buy a nice leather weekend bag, so we set about choosing which shop we’d like to give our business to.

Interestingly, the average wage in Marrakech is 120 dirhams a day which equates to just £8.70 – it can be really easy for tourists to give in to the first price they are given in the markets, because everything is so cheap and great value. 

However, the truth is that you have to be really careful when bartering. On one hand, you do not want to offend these people and the items they are selling (quite a lot of the time they hand make them themselves) but, on the other hand you also want to get a good deal!

When the shop owner told The Gentleman that the bag he liked cost 800 dirhams (£58), Ben knew there was room for movement – after all, that’s nearly six times the average daily wage! Eventually, he got the price down to 500 dirhams (£36) which was what he thought the bag was worth. And a lot cheaper than any good leather bag would cost in London!

The shop owners invited us back for lunch (this is quite common!) but we politely declined as we had so much to see and do that day. A lot of the shop owners/stall holders will make their Tagine in the morning, then take it to the Hammam’s. Where it will be left in the embers of the fire until lunch when they collect their hot, slow cooked, and delicious meal!

Another fun fact: Palm Trees in Marrakech are quite sacred, so wherever they are, the city has been built around them!

We stopped in the square for some freshly squeezed orange juice – blood oranges are used, which gives a gorgeous rich red colour and incredibly sweet flavour. 

Although, be careful. When you get your Dirhams from the airport (you can only take 1000 dirhams in or out of the country) they only give you notes, so this is what you have to give to the vendors. 

A lot of the time, they will say they don’t have the change, or only give you back half of what you’re owed. I have to admit, we didn’t let them get away with it (your expenses can rack up extremely quickly!)

We decided to take a ringside seat up high in one of the restaurants above the square. Throughout our stay, we referred to our handy travel guide book that Ben had bought from the airport and it was invaluable!

We settled at Restaurant Chez Chegrouni which promised very cheap, but good food and portion sizes. Hiking up the stairs to the very top of the restaurant, we had arrived before everyone else had the same idea so were lucky to get a table overlooking the bustling square.

The waiter handed us a piece of paper and pen and instructed us to write down our choices.

Lemon chicken Tagine for The Gentleman – Amazingly juicy and succulent chicken, but a little too citrusy and he’s totally against olives (I know, it’s hard) so not his favourite.

Beef and vegetable Tagine for me – Super soft potatoes encasing a gorgeous (but quite small) portion of beef.

After lunch (which cost about £7 for both of us!) we decided that we’d really like to see the Tanneries. Visiting the Tanneries is something that I’ve always wanted to do. Even though we were warned it was a very smelly and dirty place to visit, I was still adamant that we would visit. I’m one of those really spoilt people that don’t like being told I won’t like something/can’t do something – so will always try and prove them wrong…

We stopped at the Koutoubia Mosque for a few snaps of The Gentleman and his new bag (!) and my completely windswept hair, before negotiating a price with a horse and carriage to take us to the tanneries. 

When we’d picked our stead, we were off! It cost us about 100 dirhams to the tannery, but usually you’d pay 150 dirhams for an hours trip around the old part of town. Please always ensure that you see the horses before you pay your driver and only get on a carriage where the horses look healthy and well fed!

I kid you not, I saw a donkey that was completely overworked. It was pulling a trailer (with it’s drunk owner perched on top) and the harness had rubbed a seriously deep wound into it’s belly. It was bleeding, puss was seeping out and the harness only got deeper every time the poor donkey pulled. I wish I could have bought it and saved it from the inevitable – it made me so sad!

When we arrived at the street where the Tanneries were, locals fought between themselves for our attention to try and guide us. It can get very exhausting when they’re constantly by your side. We were really struggling until a little boy, stopped his football game and said ‘It’s ok, I’m not a guide. The Tanneries are this way!’ (We honestly wouldn’t have been able to find them on our own!)

We reluctantly started to follow him; ‘That’s a tannery, but you’re not allowed in there. Tourists aren’t allowed, only workers.’ We nodded in silence and continued on until we entered a large square through an archway.

The little boy pointed ‘ Oh look, that’s the big boss man! He’s the Manager!’ 

The ‘Manager’ approached us with handfuls of mint and kindly asked ‘would you like a tour of my tannery?’ We gratefully accepted and he handed us the mint. ‘It’s a Berber gas mask’ he said ‘For the smell!’

What followed, was a fascinating tour of the tannery and the different stages that the leather goes through. 

First, the skins are thrown into great vats of pigeon poo (hence the smell!) so that they ferment (pigeons are kept in all the surrounding houses so there is never a shortage of waste) This is known as Iferd. The hides stay in this for three days if it’s hot, and twice the time if it’s cooler. After this, they are squeezed out and left to dry on the roofs. 

Next, the skins are scraped, to remove all the hair before they are once again submerged in lime and argan-kernel ash. They are left to rest here for 15-30 days, depending on the season. This removes the remaining flesh and skin to prepare the hides to be dyed. 

After the lime and Argan-kernel, the skins are submerged in a pigeon poo mixture once again to thin and stretch it. This is called Qasriya.

 The tanning process then commences. In these tanneries, only natural substances are used for the dye and they’re always plant based. Unfortunately, while we were there it was brown and black day, so we didn’t get to see all the fabulous coloured vats! After this process, the skins are dried in the sun yet again. 

Finally, the skins are repeatedly stretched between two ropes to make them more flexible and softer.

Throughout the tour, the ‘Manager’ pointed out places for me to stand so that I could get the best pictures, which I thought was really nice! When we’d finished in the tannery (it was a bit of a whiz around and quite quick) we were led to the next door shop, where they showed us the products that they make from the leather. 

Ben had already bought his bag, so luckily we weren’t pushed into buying anything. Although the shop owner did state that Ben’s bag was machine stitched and theirs were all hand stitched – they all looked exactly the same to me!

We left and wandered off towards the gates where we were sure we could find a taxi to take us back to our Riad and I explained to The Gentleman that it was a shame we couldn’t give the ‘Manager’ a tip for giving us a tour as it really was quite informative. 

I barely spoke and he appeared around the corner ‘Can I find you a taxi or help you find your next place? We said no, thank you and I ushered Ben to give him a tip for his trouble. He drew out 25 dirhams (£1.80) and we both said thank you very much to him. 

Immediately the atmosphere shifted. The ‘Manager’ threw his arms in the air and turned his back shaking his head. This was obviously the cue for the little boy to come running up and explain the situation. 

‘You offended the big boss man. Manager angry now. 25 Dirham nothing. That’s for poor kids on the street, not big boss man. He deserve 200 dirham’

Ben looked at me and then turned to the ‘Manager’ who was watching proceedings with his arms folded and a large disinterest. We were down a narrow, dark alley and I knew that Ben only had 100 dirham notes in his wallet which he wasn’t about to open. 

We insisted that this was all we had, but the ‘Manager’ was adamant that he deserved more money and the discussion escalated really quickly. I tried to calm the situation and explained that the 25 dirham was all we had, if he wanted it, he could take it otherwise we were leaving. 

Both boy and Man started really shouting at us, so I grabbed Ben’s hand and we turned to walk away but the ‘Manager’ stormed up between us (breaking our hand holding sequence) stood in front of Ben and snatched the money from him then ran off. 

We walked in silence. We were now outside the city walls and had to walk all the way around until we came across one of the few gates into the city. 

Eventually we stumbled into our Riad, which took a good hour and a half. We were dirty, exhausted and still a little bit shaken by the whole experience. We made the decision to have a quiet night and there was only one option for the evening. Takeaway Tagine.

Movies were watched in our giant dressing gowns in the calm and peace that was our Riad and it was the relaxation we needed after quite a stressed day!

Have you guys ever experienced a completely different cultural experience that really shocked you? I’m normally pretty streetwise and clued up, but the situation at the time really got out of hand and we both felt quite vulnerable!