Travel & Life Digest

Beyond Marrakech - High Atlas, Berbers, Nomads and Gladiators

Ait Ben Haddou: A medieval fort on the edge of the Sahara desert: a movie set, a tourist destination or ...sandcastles in Babylon?

We arrived in Marrakech late in the evening, so we couldn't really see much; we could feel the warm breeze though and sat at our balcony under the clear sky full of stars eager to explore this exciting place!
The next morning I run outside to our balcony and whoa...glorious sunshine, palm trees and roses, the hotel pool hiding amongst the palm trees and beyond this colourful summery-looking landscape, the High Atlas - covered in snow, glistening blueish-white in the sunshine. What a contrast! I immediately decided that we must visit the Atlas Mountains!
If you decide to take this day-trip from Marrakech to Ouarzazate, be warned that you'll spend most of your time in the car. It costs around £45 each and includes lunch and entry with a guide at the Ouarzazate Kasbah. It takes four hours to go and four to come back, but it's worth it! Let me tell you why.
Berber Villages

One of the first Berber villages we encountered during our drive onto the Atlas Mountains

Twenty minutes or so after leaving Marrakech, we already reached the first Berber villages. 
The road is uphill, but Marrakech is already at almost 500m altitude above sea level, so the slope isn't that steep initially. The Berbers are the original inhabitants of this area and their language is completely different to Arabic. It's closer to ancient Egyptian and I even recognised some Greek letters in there, too. Hmmm, now I'm intrigued!
The view from our first stop at 1800m on the Atlas Mountains

First stop to stretch our legs was at 1,800m altitude for a mint tea, at a road-side café.
The air up there was so clean and a little bit chilly, but the sunshine cheered everybody up. We had a lovely view of the reddish valley and the villages we had just driven through.
Berber villages are a bit hard to spot as they consist of cubic houses made of local reddish mud, blending perfectly into the sides of the Atlas. All houses are built very close together, so that a traveller's eye will initially think it's one big house (Kasbah). They rarely have a second floor and the only building pointing to the sky is the white-painted mosque minaret.
Tichka Pass

As the climb continues, the road runs alongside Oued Tichka (River Tichka), a river that carries water from the snowed sides of the Atlas all the way to Marrakech. This time of the year, you'd expect it to be full, as the snow starts to melt, but at times it turned to a stream, leaving the riverbed dry and rough-looking. 
Villages were dotted along the side of the river all the way up to Tichka Pass, only, they were on the opposite side of the road, making me think that they still remain untouched by tourism and outside influences.

Tichka Pass is the highest pass on the Atlas Mountains, at 2,200m altitude.

The road becomes windier closer to the top, but it's wide and safe, so nothing to worry about.
The landscape is barren and lonely up there. We stopped right on top of this endless curly road, just on the side, to take in the view. WOW!
It takes a minute for your eyes and brain to co-ordinate and accept that you are now at 2,000 altitude. It looks like one of those Lego structures, perfectly constructed road dotted with white lines, in this harsh and almost other-planet-looking landscape.
After the Pass, the road becomes even more windy, although the villages are now small towns and being Saturday we were caught up in a few market-traffic situations. It was lovely to see life unfolding, you could buy anything in these markets from hens and sheep for keeping, to fruit and veg. We stopped at a local co-operative to taste Argan Oil, it's a local produce mixed in almost everything. I got some almond butter with argan oil, try it on multi-seed toast with honey - delicious! Then, there are also quite a few highway patrols and stop-and-search situations. Don't worry, all tourist vehicles have special permission and you'll get through quickly.
Ait Ben Haddou Ksar 

This is where Gladiator meets Saharan nomads and mud Kasbahs transport you to a biblical-like setting. Ait Ben Haddou is a Unesco heritage site. The Ksar, a fortified city, is built entirely out of mud and natural material like hay and horse hair. It is often used for  shooting Hollywood movies too, the latest being Game of Thrones and a few oldies such as Indiana Jones, Gladiator, the Jewel of the Nile; but forget all that, touch the walls, peek inside the houses and stand on top of the Ksar to look around the Valley, this is what you are here for.
Looking at Ait Ben Haddou from a distance

As we arrived at Ait Ben Haddou, we were told that we'd meet some nomads and have the chance to talk to them. Perfect.
What that really meant was talking to this Touareg merchant, who started off with offering us mint tea and narrating some amazingly interesting stories about life in the Sahara; then we had to spend most of the hour trying to politely explain that we didn't drive for 4 hours to come buy jewellery or a rug for 450 euros! As a result we had 20 minutes left for lunch and another 20 to visit Ait Ben Haddou Ksar. Tourist pitfalls - frustrating to say the least!
His stories however, assuming they were true, were fascinating. He spoke of Touareg people, or the blue people of the Sahara, because of their usual blue head attire, still living in oasis in the Sahara. They are renowned for their hospitality and travel in caravans for most of the year to exchange goods with other nomads, then once a year they come to Ouarzazate to sell their goods. He even mentioned that Michael Palin spend three weeks with his family touring the Sahara a few years ago!

A word of advise: no matter how determined you are to avoid the tourist traps, unfortunately the driver will stop at various spots where you'll be politely "enticed" to buy something. When we have our own car, we make it clear to the driver at the beginning that there's a nice tip for him at the end if he doesn't stop at all those nic-nac places. It's a bit harder when you are in a group though. Thankfully, all 5 of us, who were in the tour together, agreed to take our time in the Ksar beyond the allocated 20 minutes and that signalled to our driver that he cannot take the mickey with these pointless "random" stops any more.

Left: the windy streets in the Ksar. Right: our colourful lunch
Behind me: the top of the Ksar and on the right: Berber Omelette with saffron cooked in a tagine!

Finally, some lunch. We were shown to the beautiful terrace of L'Oasis D'Or, overlooking the Ksar. We were offered a colourful mixed platter of freshly chopped vegetables, that included beetroot salad and potato salad, followed by a Berber Omelette with saffron cooked in a tagine and finally chicken brochettes. What a lovely spot of lunch!
But I just couldn't wait to have a peek inside the Ksar, so off we went!
Crossing over the river that separates the new settlements from the Ksar feels like a passage to a different era, like in Ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia.
It's very muddy with bright green palm trees popping up everywhere. The Ksar is a sleepy town, with narrow streets and tall houses, remember to look up, some corner houses feature tall towers for protection. Birds nest in their little crevices. The paths spiral up, past shops and houses and there are even two or three hotels in the Ksar, where you can actually stay at.
Half-way up we found the ruins to an old Synagogue! Wait what? Well, it turns out that Jewish people arrived in Morocco centuries ago as merchants and have worked side-by-side with Berbers in this area, so it's only normal that you find Synagogues all across Morocco, if you look a bit closer!

At the top of the Ksar you have to stop and take it all in.

I mean, here we are: standing in a medieval Ksar in Morroco, looking down at the Ounila Valley, over these real-life sandcastles, on the doorstep of the Sahara.
Feeling excited and thankful and all loved up, grateful having my husband here with me to share this moment ... and absolutely convinced that travelling is one of the best ways to give meaning to life, as long as you keep your eyes, mind and heart open!

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