My night in the kasbah at Skoura was all too short. In hindsight, if I had actually planned out this trip with my usual amount of time and effort (remember that Morocco was a rebound country after my carefully planned trip to Lebanon was canceled only two weeks before I was to depart) I would have spent more time in the area of Skoura and skipped the trip to Erfoud, although the trip to Rissani the next day was actually very good).
Anyway, we left the kasbah and drove a very short half hour through the desert to Ouarzazate (pronounced Was a zet), a Saharan town that feels a little too cosmopolitan for this region. The town also happens to be the film capital of Morocco. Yep you read that right. Apparently Morocco has a burgeoning film industry and has built a handful of studios in Ouarzazate to accommodate the many Hollywood producers who film in the area. In fact films such as Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Lawrence of Arabia, The Last Temptation of Christ, Kingdom of Heaven and even the third season of Game of Thrones have all been filmed in the area. Huh! Who knew.
The original studio in the area was Atlas Corporation Studios established in 1983 for the filming of the Jewel of the Nile. The studio was open for tours of its sets and so Karem suggested it might be an interesting little visit. Always game for something new, I quickly agreed. And I was immediately glad I did. The studios were rather quirky, but it was pretty cool to be able to wander around sets that had been used in Gladiator and other films. I went from standing in a Temple used in Kundun to walking through Roman streets used in Gladiator.
The guide was also very informative and enthusiastic telling us about how the movies and shows are filmed and how sets are constructed (mostly plywood, plaster and styrofoam). But what makes the sets look so real is the paint textures and the techniques used to give the buildings and structures the right shading. In fact, we walked through one set of arches and I was suddenly back in Abu Simbel, Egypt staring at Ramses II and the Temple at Luxor, while in the distance I could see the city of Jerusalem which was used in season 3 of the Game of Thrones. The sets did indeed look real. It was a short little visit, but one that I really enjoyed.
I climbed back in the car and we began a series of visits to the various kasbahs that dot the area. First up was Kasbah Taourirt built in the 19th century by the Glaoui family,who controlled much of the caravan routes in the south. It was an enormous complex that was crumbling in parts. However, the attractiveness of the building was overshadowed by the hordes of tourists. Good God! You would have thought this was the only kasbah in town.
Anyway, we quickly left the first kasbah and headed to Tefel Tout Kasbah. This kasbah was large as well, but a hotel had been added to the far right side of the building (or left depending on which side of the building you were on). And while there was an effort to blend the hotel into the original structure, I thought it really destroyed what would have been a lovely looking ksabah.
So far, the tour of kasbahs were unimpressive. Perhaps these kasbahs were anti-climatic because I had been able to walk through an ancient ksar the day before and had been able to stay in a very quiet 17th century kasbah the prior night.
The last kasbah we visited was Ait Benhaddou, a short thirty minute drive northwest of Ouarzazate. This kasbah had been used in many films, including Lawrence of Arabia and it really was a spectacular site built high into the Atlas Mountains. Unfortunately, the place was overrun with tourist shops and the accompanying hordes of tourists. Nevertheless, Karem and I made our way across the dry riverbed and through the sand that surrounded the kasbah and began the fifteen minute hike up to the top in the desert heat. The hike actually consisted of climbing a very steep set of stairs, walking along a rampway and then climbing a another set of stairs facing the direction you had just walked from. This was followed by another rampway and then a series of stair reversing direction. The stairs/switchback continued all the way up to the top of the kasbah.
When we finally reached the top where the bank for the kasbah was located, we had a magnificent views around the valley to the newly built village and the dry riverbed below. It really was pretty. And the kasbah was actually quite spectacular with high pinky-red walls, elaborate doorways and decorative markings. OK that hike was worth it.
We climbed back down (much easier) and stopped for a quick lunch in the village (chicken tangine) and began the four hour drive through the High Atlas Mountains to Marrakesh.
Now while the drive was long, it was absolutely fascinating as we passed through more Berber villages than I could count. Berber are one of the original tribes in Morocco and their farming villages are usually built into the side of the mountains. You often see Berber women dressed in colourful clothing walking along the roadsides and working in the farming fields. I’m still not sure what the heck the men were doing because every time I looked I only saw women, young and old, hiking up and down hillsides struggling under the weight of tree limbs and branches strapped to their back, which they gathered every day for cooking and heating their homes. Also, as luck would have it, Tuesday is laundry day in the villages and everywhere we went colourful clothing was hung on walls or flapping from lines in the breeze.
Of equal interest to me was the spectacular scenery. We were traveling on the Tizi n’Tichka (N9) through the High Atlas Mountains and the very narrow road was a series of switchbacks that afforded better and better views the higher we climbed. The valleys were beautiful, filled with trees, farmland and Berber villages everywhere. And we passed through so many tiny villages I lost count with each one modeled on the same style and having the same pattern of daily life. There were small stands selling produce and shops with housware and pottery for sale. (Clay pots are a primary cooking tool in Morocco.) I saw the requisite donkeys pulling carts filled with people and produce and women hauling a multitude of raw materials on their backs. And of course there were the men … sitting around cafes drinking coffee and chatting or as Karem put it “playing ping pong with their eyes” …. LMAO. Men are the same everywhere!
Anyway, as we approached the Tizi n’Tichka summit (2260 m), we passed through the Ounila Valley and more spectacular villages built into the hillside. However, the real fun began once we reached the summit and commenced the trek out of the mountains. We hit the high farmland plains on the plateau and then immediately entered a series of extremely perilous hairpin turns (YIKES) on the drive down. Normally this would scare the bejesus out of me, but I was surprisingly calm about the whole adventure.
We ended up stopping one last time in the High Atlas Mountains – a women’s cooperative where they produce world famous Argan oil. Argan oil is made from the center nut of the fruit found on Argan trees. Argan trees only grow in one place in the world: the Souss region of Southern Morocco. I was about a half hour away from the area, but would not actually be visiting the region, which was actually unfortunate because the fruit is harvested in a rather unique way. Goats climb into the small, rather knotty looking Argan trees and eat the fruit leaving the nuts behind. The outer shell of the nut is removed and used for fuel, while the inner nut is crushed and used for cosmetics or for use in food products such as honey, nut butter and cooking. (The use is dependent upon whether the nut is a dark nut or a light nut.)
Anyway, it would have been fun to see, but not this time. Nevertheless, the women’s cooperative was a perfect chance to learn how Argan oil is made, what it is used for and to buy some Argan oil to take home with me. I ended up buying a host of Argan oil products, said goodbye to the lovely ladies and were once again back on the road.
We eventually left behind the High Atlas Mountains and all the beautiful forested scenery for the lowlands and the monotony of the endless fields of wheat and straw. Unfortunately, there were no Berber villages to keep me entertained so the last hour and a half to Marrakesh was pretty boring.
Once inside the Marrakesh city limits, we made great time driving to the Medina where I would be staying at the La Maison Arabe. The hotel was actually not my original choice of places to stay in Marrakesh. Somewhere along the way there was a communication breakdown between the folks in Seattle booking my trip and the folks in Casablanca who were supposed to make sure all my reservations were made. The day I was to leave I received a telephone call advising me that there was a screwup and I was being booked into other hotels in Rabat, Fez, Marrakesh and Casablanca. I was not very happy to say the least.
I ended doing some checking and found out that the hotels I had originally selected in Fez and Cassablanca were actually available, while the hotels in Rabat and Marrakesh were indeed full. I also learned that I had been booked into single rooms (the equivalent of a closet with a bed) instead of the larger rooms that I usually book. I called back and said the changes were unacceptable, explained that I had paid for better rooms in Lebanon and that should transfer to Morocco since the trip was actually cheaper. I said there were better rooms available for two of the hotels in Fez and Casablanca I had selected and I would like to be booked into those. I also let them know that the change in riads in Rabat was fine as it was a highly regarded riad into which they had booked me. However, the change in riads in Marrakesh was unacceptable. I selected a new riad with very little research and hoped for the best. The long and short was that the company in Morocco corrected the mixup and had me upgraded to suites for entire trip.
Which brings me to La Maison Arabe. I picked it because a quick search on TripAdvisor indicated it had good reviews. I usually do more research than one website, but with 3 hours until I was to depart I was left with very little choice. However, when I arrived, I quickly learned that the choice was superb. La Maison Arabe was a gorgeous three story 19th century mansion with multiple courtyards, a hamman and spa, a pool with outdoor restaurant and only a handful of rooms. It was sumptuous to say the least with amazing antiques everywhere. And it got even better. I was given a suite complete with living room, two bedrooms, a patio and a bathroom that could have housed a small family. But what really made the hotel spectacular was the service. From the moment I walked in I felt like a rockstar. It was 6 star service throughout the mansion.
Anyway, once I was settled in, I watched the first television in six days and quickly learned that the American government had been shut down. Now I won’t use this blog for a political commentary (those of you who know me well enough can probably guess my reaction), but REALLY AMERICA???? …. All I can say is … the rest of the world is laughing.
And with that, I opened a bottle of wine the front desk had sent up, put my feet up and toasted the fact that I was not home.