Our time in Morocco was short, so we wanted to make the most of it and do a day trip.
The main issue was whether we headed to Essaouira and the coast or did an excursion to Ait Ben Haddou and the mountains? At first we were tempted by Essaouira thanks to On the Luce’s gushing review of the city, but in the end the promise of warmer weather and some sun lured us in the other direction.
Did I mention it was bloody freezing in Marrakech?
As our hostel didn’t offer the excursion, we headed off on a trip organised by Excursion Everyday to Ouarzazat, via Ait Ben Haddou and the Atlas Mountains.
We set off from Marrakech early (though we did wait for an hour while our minibus filled up) and were soon on our way. The journey from Marrakech to Ouarzazat is around four hours each way by bus, but we managed to get in plenty of toilet breaks, which allowed us to take in a bit of the scenery, get refreshments and – bizarrely –buy geodes and crystals for sale on the roadside.
The Atlas Mountains
The first leg of our journey took us right into the mountains. I really didn’t know much about the Atlas Mountains and I’m not always one for winding roads, but I must say I was impressed – the contrast in landscapes was stark to say the least. As we drove, the surrounding landscape got greener and greener, while still maintaining a rich red soil.
Due to clouds, the weather wasn’t at its peak (mind the pun…) but the views were incredible nonetheless.
Now, as the weather in Marrakech was unseasonably cold, what we were looking forward to most was some sun and a bit of heat. So imagine our surprise when – just two hours’ drive from Marrakech – we saw snow.
That’s right – snow. Not something I expected to see in Morocco in late March. Still, it was pretty impressive.
It wasn’t long then until we reached the peak of the mountains and things started to get much, much warmer. Thank God.
Ait Ben Haddou
The undeniable highlight of the tour was, of course, Ait Ben Haddou.
Arriving in the sleepy town, we were met by our Berber guide wearing traditional dress and taken on a two-hour tour. Our first stop was to view the fortified city from across the river.
The fortress, or ksar, dates from the days of the salt trade and was a common stop along trading routes from Marrakech to the Sahara. The UNESCO-listed ksar is made up of different clay buildings and kasbahs, surrounded by high walls. Nowadays, only a few families live within the fortifications, which are without water or electricity. Instead, most villagers live in newer homes built across the river.
Getting to the ksar, we took the traditional route – hopping along stepping stones in the river. A massive stone bridge was built a few years to prevent the families in the fortress being cut off during floods, but this way was much more fun.
We then skirted around the front of the fortress, taking in the fake archway which was constructed for Lawrence of Arabia, as well as the former site of the coliseum in Gladiator.
Today, the area has a well-established film industry and has been featured in endless productions, including The Mummy, Babel, Prince of Persia and Game of Thrones – though Lawrence of Arabia probably remains the most famous. Many of those who live in Ait Ben-Haddou work as extras when a new film comes to town, with farmers and workers from neighbouring villages flocking to the town for work.
Our guide had been in several episode of Game of Thrones, apparently.
When we finally entered the fortress, out time was disappointingly short. We were led through a few narrow alleyways without stopping much to explore (though this was possibly to protect the privacy of the families still living on the site), and then encouraged to head up to the top of the peak for incredible views over the town.
We did, however, meet an artist who demonstrated a traditional local form of painting, only found in Ait Ben Haddou. Using just the basic ingredients of saffron, tea, indigo and water, he creates incredible watercolours. To add depth, he then places the picture over a gas flame, caramelising the tea.
I thought the little paintings were beautiful so snapped one up for just €4.
Tea & carpet
After leaving the Kasbah, we headed towards our more unusual destination: a carpet shop, where we were sold tea and given a lengthy, semi-interesting and wholly-salesy talk about carpets. These were the best in Morocco, we were assured.
I can see how this section could grate on some travellers but I didn’t mind too much – the village seems to thrive on tourism from the fortress so it seems only fair everyone gets a punt at making a few dirham.
We then ate, which was probably our worst meal in Morocco.
It’s worth mentioning here that we were forced to fork up 20 DH for the tour, which wasn’t mentioned when booking – but this equates to around €2. I really do think it was worth it too, not only to get the insight of someone who had grown up in the town, but also to be able to contribute to the town’s economy in some way (without buying a carpet).
Our guide also gave us an insight into Berber culture and language, telling us about the new-born Berber alphabet which was created just four years ago.
Ouarzazate looked amazing. The city is known as the gateway to the desert and is known as a but hub for film production, with huge studios located on the outskirts of the city.
Now, our time in Ouarzazate was limited to say the least. You could even argue it was a bit pointless us even attempting to visit: we were given thirty minutes to visit either the city Kasbah or an old film museum. But not both.
We picked the Kasbah, but declined the offer of a guide, instead walking from empty room to empty room, which had all been whitewashed clean. Still, the views were OK.
One thing I can report from the city is that it looks like a lot of money is being invested. The drive up to the city is a seemingly endless road with decorative lampposts and well cared-for pavements. The city certainly has enough draws to become a tourist town: in addition to the film studios, the Kasbah and Ait Ben Haddou, the Sahara is practically on the doorstep. Throw in some Ryanair flights to the local airport and you might just have the next big thing in Morocco.
In conclusion, our trip was amazing, sunny, long, tiring and unforgettable all at the same time. I think the price we paid was a bit of a bargain, considering the ground we covered and I can’t imagne getting to Ait Ben Haddou solo from Marrakech is easy.
Overall: would recommend. (If just for the tan.)