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Published: October 6th 2019
For he who builds his kasbah out of halva; beware the nibblers ~ Moroccan Proverb
Today we were travelling southeast from the High Atlas to Ait Benhaddou
We trekked out of Aroumd (a remote hilltop village in the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains) earlier in the day, jumped into a minibus in the bustling village of Imlil and started a slow winding descent out of the mountains. We spent some time in the lively market village of Asni along the way, and we also relaxed on the sunny terrace of a roadside servo with a cafe nous nous
(a local cafe latte). We were travelling southeast to Ait Benhaddou on the edge of the Sahara – a six hour journey by road – and it was midday already!
We sped through lowlands on the northern side of the mountain range (not far from Marrakesh), and the landscape had changed significantly from the rocky mountain paths we’d been walking on earlier in the day. Flat agricultural plains now stretched to the spectacular mountainous horizon, and we had to cross this pervasive mountain range (via Morocco’s highest pass) to get to our destination on the southern side.
We began our winding journey through the heart of the High Atlas, and
this trip had it all – steep ascents up mountain sides followed by steep descents into valleys. The sealed road soon narrowed with significant drops to one side – luckily not the side I was sitting on! This was a scary road! There was a lot of traffic and a lot of road works along the way, and slow moving trucks made the journey even more nail-biting, with impatient drivers attempting some hair-raising overtaking manoeuvres.
After a great photo stop with a panoramic vista, we continued winding downhill towards our lunch destination – Cafe El Glaoui, a tiny roadside restaurant in one of the characteristic valleys of the High Atlas. We opted for the restaurant’s set menu, which comprised a Moroccan salad, Berber omelette
(omelette cooked in a tagine) and fresh fruit (oranges and bananas). As always, the meal was accompanied with baskets of khobz
(traditional round bread) and plates of olives. And as always, it was incredible. The omelette was fantastic, and the oranges were so amazingly fresh, having only just been picked from the surrounding trees. We settled at a table on the restaurant’s sunny rooftop terrace and enjoyed the meal while traffic sped by below us.
We left Cafe El Glaoui in the mid-afternoon and started winding our way up to Tizi n’Tichka, the highest point of this spectacular mountain pass. We jumped out of the minibus and admired the view from the side of the road, and it was well worth the stop. We were 2260m above sea level, and the view of the surrounding mountains and valleys was stunning. A couple of enterprising locals had set up shop with an odd collection of Moroccan trinkets at this isolated roadside lookout, and they’d commandeered every level surface they could find to display their goods. This was a tough business location, and I couldn’t help but wonder how many marble camels and ceramic tagines they managed to sell each day.
We jumped back into the minibus and continued our southward journey to Ait Benhaddou. We drove through busy villages with tiny food stalls on either side of the road, and these tended to slow the flow of traffic considerably. There was very little vegetation on the mountain slopes, and the arid landscape was reminiscent (in a way) of the hills surrounding Queenstown – an old mining town on Tasmania’s West Coast. Hairpin bends with
steep drops to one side made for an interesting journey. The guard rails (where they existed) were small and had little chance of preventing a minibus from tumbling into the valley below, but their presence made a difference to my peace of mind. The road in this section was also new and wide, so traffic could pass without incident.
Having passed the highest point of our journey through the High Atlas, we began our descent into the Sahara on the southern side of the mountain range. We were now entering the sandy, ochre-coloured terrain I‘d envisaged in the months leading up to our Moroccan travels. Stone and concrete structures dotted the sparse arid landscape, with the occasional clump of trees providing a welcome splash of greenery. We drove alongside shallow river beds that were dry, and it was such a contrast to the northern side of the mountains, where rivers flowed and the hills were green.
We turned left off the highway just before Tazentout and drove the final 10km of our journey to Ait Benhaddou, and I couldn’t help but notice the strange landscape that surrounded us. I was staring at the very backdrop of so many
movies I’ve watched over the years, including Jesus of Nazareth
, The Last Temptation of Christ
, The Sheltering Sky
, the last of which I’m particularly fond of. I love the film because it shares so many plot similarities with Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Consumed by unbridled ambition, Commodus murders Marcus Aurelius (his own father) to become Emperor of Rome, while Macbeth murders Duncan to become King of Scotland. However, Maximus saves the day by killing Commodus in a very public sword fight, while Macduff saves the day by killing Macbeth in a very public sword fight.
Anyway, I’m way off topic. We had to check-in. After six long hours on the road, we arrived in Ait Benhaddou in the late afternoon. This small, isolated and dusty village had a laid-back ambiance that we immediately warmed to. We were on the outskirts of the Sahara, and we were excited! The village of Ait Benhaddou sits either side of a through road (the P1506), and there was virtually no traffic passing through. I was surprised how quiet the place was.
We dropped our packs at the large and comfortable Hotel La Rose du Sable, drove a short distance to a gap
between two buildings, walked down a narrow path and found ourselves standing on a parched riverbed and staring at the breathtaking ksar that features in all the films I’ve mentioned above. A makeshift bridge of wood and sand bags was the most popular way to cross the trickling stream in the middle of the riverbed, but a few hardy travellers removed their shoes and waded through the shallow water. We opted for the dodgy bridge.
We were standing in a small oasis on the edge of an immense sprawling desert, and it’s the first time I’ve experienced such an environment. As a result, I’m not entirely sure I can find the right adjectives to describe it. I loved the juxtaposition of the tawny sand and ochre walls against the green palms. It was very unfamiliar, and it was breathtaking. We barely moved from the riverbed once we’d crossed the dodgy bridge. We just stood in awe of the vista in front of us, and for a moment time stood still. Well, it felt that way. We snapped out of our trance-like state and quickly made our way towards the ksar. We had to explore this mesmerising place before the
evening closed in and the sun slipped below the horizon.
I was a bit underwhelmed when I walked past the location where Russell Crowe (Maximus) was sold into slavery and attended gladiatorial training school in the movie Gladiator
. It was just a dusty area of sand outside the main entrance of the ksar. I don’t really know what I was expecting, but it did make me wonder about the impact (environmental and social) of film crews and sets on fragile UNESCO world heritage sites such as this. I have to admit, as a consumer of movies from a variety of countries around the world, I was disappointed that I hadn’t questioned this before.
Anyway, I’m off topic again. The earthen walls of this astonishing fortified village towered above us, and our task was to make our way up the winding lanes and narrow steps to the ruins of a centuries-old communal granary. The view from the top of the ksar was simply extraordinary, and one I’ve never before experienced. Apart from the village of Ait Benhaddou and a few palm groves below us, stony desert plains stretched to every horizon. Every horizon! We were completely surrounded. In all
of our travels to-date, I don’t think I’ve ever been so mesmerised by a landscape. I could have stayed until the final rays of sunlight surrendered to dusk, but we had a cooking demonstration at the hotel (scheduled before dinner), and it had already slipped past 7pm. We reluctantly made our way down the winding lanes and narrow steps of the ksar, crossed the riverbed via a concrete bridge and headed back to Hotel La Rose du Sable.
After freshening up in our room, we gathered downstairs for what I can only describe as a lacklustre cooking demonstration. We were shown how to prepare two of Morocco’s iconic dishes (tagines and couscous), and while I love eating food, I’m not overly interested in watching its preparation. I don’t mind being part of the cooking process, but I struggle as a passive observer. And unfortunately, I was condemned to passive observation during this demo. To be fair, the local Moroccan woman showing us how to prepare the tagines and couscous was very affable, and I did learn a few things (which I can’t quite remember now). However, my mind was drifting back to the top of the ksar, and to
the sun setting over the desert plains.
By the end of the cooking demonstration I was hungry. After all, it had been seven hours since lunch and fourteen hours since breakfast. We settled at a table in the hotel’s large dining area and grazed on complimentary khobz
(chilli and garlic paste) and olives while waiting for our meals. I ordered a harira
(Moroccan tomato soup), and we both shared a Berber omelette
. We were also very thirsty, so we rehydrated with mint tea, freshly squeezed orange juice and coke.
Exhausted from a long day of travel, we retired to our room around 10pm. We’d started the day with a one hour trek out of the remote hilltop village of Aroumd, travelled six hours by minibus to Ait Benhaddou and then explored the ksar for two hours in the late afternoon/early evening. The bed was comfortable, the temperature was warm and we had our own toilet and shower –luxury! This had been a truly remarkable travel day – an absolute standout. Ait Benhaddou’s earthen buildings, palm groves and desert plains will stay with me for a long time.
We woke a little late after an interrupted night’s
sleep – an unfortunate consequence of my coughing. I just couldn’t seem to shake a cold I’d picked up in Chefchaouen a week earlier. We headed down to breakfast in the hotel’s large dining area and grazed on yoghurt, Berber omelettes
(flaky Moroccan flatbread), apricot jam and honey, while hydrating with freshly squeezed orange juice and mint tea.
Feeling refreshed, we organised our packs, loaded them into the minibus and walked to a nearby women’s carpet cooperative. The view of the ksar from the cooperative’s open deck was amazing, and I would happily have stayed and soaked in the view (and the morning sun), but we were visiting for a reason – a demonstration of weaving and looming techniques. Kill me now! I shouldn’t jest, because the rugs and carpets being made by the women were intricate, and some had interesting patterns. However, it was slightly annoying that we had to endure a man describing the weaving and looming techniques, who then recited a well-rehearsed sales pitch as endless rugs and carpets were paraded in front of us by silent women. This was a woman’s cooperative, so it would have been preferable to hear their voice and
I’m being too harsh. I was a visitor in a village that is solely dependent on tourism for its subsistence, so it was hardly surprising to find myself on the receiving end of a targeted sales pitch. We didn’t buy anything from the cooperative, despite one of the rugs grabbing our attention. We initially thought it would be ideal for our bedroom, but the colours would have clashed. A silver ring also grabbed Ren’s attention, but it didn’t fit very well, so we decided against it.
We were served mint tea by one of the weavers during the rug and carpet procession, and it was so refreshing. I could easily have settled on the cooperative’s open deck and admired the ochre hues of the ksar across the Ounila River, but it was time to leave Ait Benhaddou. We were heading to Zagora, a desert outpost on the Sahara fringe. SHE SAID...
Today we were travelling from Aroumd to Ait Benhaddou
, by minibus.
As we drove away from the High Atlas Mountains, I tried to soak in the immensity of the jagged mountains for the last time. We were descending along the southern
slopes of the Atlas range and heading towards the Sahara. Our destination for that night was Ait Benhaddou, a beautiful mudbrick ksar fortress that has become one of Morocco’s most iconic sites.
Ever since we’d arrived in southern Morocco, I had been mesmerised by the fact that the stark terrain could appear brown, red, pink or orange depending on the direction and quality of light. I was thoroughly enjoying the scenery on our road trips.
We drove through cuttings in the mountains, slightly perturbed by the fresh rock falls and the very windy road. It didn’t help that there were many roadworks going on, and we had to pass construction trucks on the narrowest of spaces. We stopped for a quick photo at a roadside lookout over a picturesque gorge, but with trucks thundering past us, it was a bit difficult to appreciate the striking landscape.
Given my huge breakfast, I was surprised that by the time we stopped for lunch, I was ravenous again. We had pre-ordered our meals to save time, and while the roadside Café El Glaoui didn’t look like much, it was the perfect pit stop. We sat under umbrellas on the lovely
rooftop terrace and didn’t have to wait long at all for the food. We started with the ubiquitous Moroccan salad of tomatoes, cucumber and herbs, and then had Berber omelettes
(omelettes cooked in a tagine) with khobz
(traditional round leavened bread). The omelette was tasty, but after our delicious Berber omelette
at the gite
in Aroumd, these paled slightly in comparison… However, it’s very unfair to compare home cooking to a roadside cafe in the middle of nowhere. We finished our quick meal with an orange and banana each for dessert.
It was at this point that the first member of the group succumbed to a tummy bug. Generally, these things are highly contagious and can fly through a group once it starts. So we crossed our fingers, decided not to partake in any more shared food, and started using our hand sanitiser even more religiously than we had before!
After lunch we drove along more reckless looking mountain roads, and the road ramped up its incline and drop offs as we approached the Tizi n’Tichka pass (2260m). It’s the highest pass through the Atlas Mountains, and we stopped at a lookout to grasp exactly how steep and
winding the road we were about to drive downhill on was. It was equal parts stunning and scary!
Thankfully, the visual of the hairpin bend road was much worse than the reality of driving down it, and despite a few white faces, no one got car sick. We'd caught public transport for the majority of the northern Morocco trip, but this second trip was going to be mostly in this minibus. While we much prefer public transport, the parts of Morocco we were travelling to in the south were far more remote, and public transport was a rarity or non-existent. Despite being packed to capacity, the minibus was comfortable enough and we had a lovely driver Lahssan. He had been quiet on the trip to Aroumd, so I didn’t start noticing his very caring and helpful nature until now.
The stark brown mountain views stretched as far as the eye could see, and the soil erosion on the mountain sides was very obvious. Parts of the slopes had been reforested with pine tree plantations, but it looked like just a drop in the ocean. So much more needs to be done to halt and reverse the environmental damage
to these mountains.
When we finally seemed to have reached level ground again, we were in the Ounila Valley. We started passing clusters of little dry brown mudbrick villages. The farms were initially full of sugarcane and the ubiquitous olive trees again, but the further we travelled, the horizon began filling with views of palm trees. We were now in sunbaked ksar and kasbah country.
I’ve tried hard to get my head around the architectural differences between a ksar and a kasbah, which is easier said than done because there are many contradictory definitions (not to mention that a southern kasbah is different to a northern fortified kasbah in a medina). As I understand it (and as also described by Khalid, our group leader), a kasbah is a fortified traditional mudbrick house (usually with four towers), while a ksar is a fortified village that could contain multiple kasbahs within it. So even though Ait Benhaddou is commonly referred to as a kasbah, it’s in fact a ksar. The Clash’s ‘Rock the kasbah’ certainly hasn’t helped matters…it’s popularised and romanticised the term ‘kasbah’ with tourists, and propelled its use over the proper term ‘ksar’. 😊
We finally arrived
at our picturesque hotel – La Rose du Sable. It sat on the small main road that held a handful of other hotels. I had no expectations of what the town associated with Ait Benhaddou would look like, but I’d certainly not expected it to be this small and sleepy. The low key tourist scene indicated to me that most people visit Ait Benhaddou as a day trip. I was so very very glad that we weren’t just passing through.
Ait Benhaddou sits high on a hill, and we had an incredible view of the turreted mud fortress from our hotel room window. But we didn’t have long to admire it, as we had to get ourselves sorted for our late afternoon visit to the site. Our minibus drove us to a sort of ‘entrance’ to the site and we walked to the river that separated the new town from the fortress. I say river, but the water levels were extremely low – low enough that we could easily walk across the sandbag ‘bridge’ that had been laid down. I was surprised that there wasn’t a more secure crossing, especially as I’m sure the water levels would be much
higher in the rainy season. Standing on the vast gravelly river bank, the ksar rose up ahead of us, and it was quite imposing to say the least. It was a sculpture of brown on brown as far as the eye could see… the colour was a spray of deep green from the beautiful palmerie and olive grove at the base of the ksar.
Ait Benhaddou hails from the 11th century, when it was an important caravanserai (stop for caravans) on the old trade route linking ancient Sudan to Marrakesh. Apparently the caravans carried salt across the Sahara – and returned with gold, silver and slaves. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage site with a long line of film and TV credits to its name… from Lawrence of Arabia, Babel, Gladiator to Game of Thrones (GoT), and many others I’ve never seen.
While we stood admiring the ksar, Khalid casually mentioned that the grand entrance we were looking at was actually a fake entrance that had been built for GoT! Needless to say this tainted the high levels of awe I’d just been feeling. Even though from a distance the fake entrance towers looked amazingly real and blended
in with the fortress perfectly, I just don’t understand why such fakery hasn’t been pulled down or at least moved away from the site. It cheapened the natural grandeur of the fortress.
We walked past the fake entrance and entered the fortress from a rear entrance. The complex was nothing short of spectacular. It’s a striking example of the traditional architecture of pre-Saharan southern Morocco, where mudbrick houses are crowded together within defensive walls that are reinforced by corner towers, and entered via an impenetrable gate. The buildings were extraordinarily well preserved for an ancient village built of mud.
The late afternoon light was bright and clear, making the red mud architecture stand in strong contrast to the blue skies. The narrow alleys twisted through the village, taking us along open steps, short covered walkways and under low archways. Some of the houses were plain and simple, whereas others had a sense of opulence with carved wooden windows and decorative motifs in the adobe mortar. The village also had a mosque and small public squares. I was unable to get a definitive answer if any of the original families still lived in the kasbahs, or if they’d all
moved to the modern houses in the new town across the river where we were staying. Apart from a couple of cafes and the shops selling touristy souvenirs, I couldn’t really see any real signs of living.
We climbed up past a few of the six kasbahs and kept climbing to where the fortified old granary once sat perched at the very top of the hill. Just one building of it now remains. That magic golden hour of light was approaching and it made the adobe buildings and the surrounding rock formations glow with a gorgeous liveliness. The location of this fortified village had been strategically chosen for its high vantage points, and we could see in all directions for kilometres.
After absorbing the beautiful views (and exhausting my camera battery), we walked back down to the river and crossed it via a new bridge that took us back to our hotel within minutes. We needed to spend a bit of time reorganising our packs (after the mountain gite
stay the night before), but I kept being drawn back to our window with a view of the fortress… it was simply beautiful.
As disappointed as I was
with the fake towered entrance that had been built for GoT getting pride of place at the entrance… we are big GoT fans. I had been looking forward to seeing how much Ait Benhaddou had been CGI’ed to represent the Slaver’s Bay City of Yunkai. I think we need to watch those episodes again when we get home, but really, Ait Benhaddou easily looked like it belonged in the age of dragons and sword wielding armies.
That evening we decided to take part in a cooking demonstration at our hotel. I had been swayed by the fact that it was a demonstration of Morocco’s two most famous dishes – couscous
and chicken tagine
. As nice as Saida (the demonstrator) was, the demonstration was pretty ordinary and I was quite disappointed. The only part I enjoyed was watching the process of rolling semolina with oil and water into the little balls of couscous
. It’s one of those skills that looks deceptively easy until you attempt it! Unfortunately, the rest of the demonstration was a bit of a farce. I have never before paid for a cooking demonstration where there was no cooking involved! The whole process was basically mimed and
the uncooked dish was ‘pretend’ plated up as the cooked dish, raw chicken and all. 😲
We had a late dinner at our hotel restaurant, which was quiet but the food was good. I had a Berber omelette
(I’m seriously loving being in Berber omelette
country!) and Andrew had a harira soup
(a minestrone-like hearty soup of tomatoes, lentils, chickpeas and noodles). It had been a long day of travel and explorations, and I was absolutely shattered by the time we got to bed at 11pm.
On waking up, I was again drawn to our window with a view. Ait Benhaddou was beautifully silhouetted against the soft morning light. I briefly wished we had woken up earlier so we could have walked over and photographed it again in this light, but I was more than happy with the golden light photos from the day before.
Our breakfast consisted of another Berber omelette
(flaky Moroccan flatbread), cheese, butter, honey, apricot jam, mint tea, coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice. It was fabulous! But of course when the food is that good, it makes me eat way too much… especially for a person who isn’t a natural
born breakfaster! As is becoming very obvious, my two favourite items of Moroccan food are Berber omelettes
with honey. I’ve been told the Berber omelettes
will disappear off the menus when we leave the Berber lands, so I’m enjoying them while I can! 😊
After breakfast, Andrew and I walked around town to get a better sense of the new town area. Despite it being slightly bigger than we first thought it was, the town still felt very quiet and sleepy. The architecture and culture of the area probably contributed to this atmosphere. Life is lived within the high mudbrick walls of the compounds, and street life is virtually non-existent. It didn’t really allow for much sticky-beaking! 😊
Before we left town, we visited the small Akhnif Glaoui carpet weaving cooperative that sold carpets made by women from the Berber villages in the local area. The front room held a few weaving looms, and I was fascinated by the rugs the women were working on. However, we weren’t allowed to linger and were shepherded into the main display room. We were served mint tea while a man well versed in a slick sales pitch showed us
a wide selection of carpets. He explained the use of particular colours and interpreted the Berber symbols. I appreciated the information, but I took an instant dislike to the slightly arrogant man, so couldn’t really warm to the process.
We weren’t in the market for a carpet, but we decided that if we saw any we really really loved, we’d get one for our bedroom… one kind of caught our attention, but not nearly enough to warrant a purchase. After the initial carpet presentation, most of the other group members started rummaging through the high stacks of carpets, and negotiations began in earnest.
Andrew and Mike snuck outside and sat in the sun talking music (most likely their shared love of progressive rock), while I spent some time in a nearby silver jewellery shop. I’ve been looking for a piece of locally designed jewellery since we’d arrived in Morocco, but so far nothing had caught my eye. However, now that I understand the Berber symbols a bit better, I’m better informed about what I want.
Next we travel southeast to Zagora, in Morocco’s Draa Valley of the southern oases.
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