We didn’t have much time to rest after our ascent to Jbel Toubkal at 4167m. Next stop on our journey was Aït Ben Haddou. This lovely ksar, meaning castle in North African Maghrebi Arabic, was built along the former caravan route between the Western Sahara and Marrakech. Inside the defensive walls, which are reinforced by angle towers, houses crowd together – some modest, others, called kasbahs in Arabic, resemble small urban castles with their high angle towers and upper sections decorated with motifs in clay brick.
The large houses in the lower part of the village, with well conserved clay ornaments, are regularly maintained. The construction materials used still remain earth and wood, which makes Aït Ben Haddou one of the best preserved ksars that kept its architectural authenticity. Particular attention is paid to doors and windows, ensuring that the wood is not replaced by metal. No wonder why this traditional earthen settlement of unknown age has served as a filming location for many Hollywood blockbusters, such as Gladiator, The Mummy, Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus of Nazareth, and many more, often as a replacement for Jerusalem. It made its first silver screen appearance in Lawrence of Arabia in 1962.
After 250 km ride from Imlil that took us over the highest mountain pass in North Africa at 2260m, Col du Tichka, we took a dusty road that brought us to a hill at the outskirts of Aït Ben Haddou. Arriving to such a spectacular sunset was one of those moments to remember. The glistening golden sunlight poured into every niche of the clay ornaments, almost coquetting with the shadows it created. When the shadows prevailed, we rushed to the village to find a place to stay. For some dirhams, we found a perfect little hotel at the riverbend overlooking the old part of Aït Ben Haddou.
Wanderlusty goes to Hollywood
Like my favourite guy, Frankie, I got my fair share of Hollywood, far less glamorous though, if I may say. Located just 5 km west of the city of Ouarzazate, the world’s largest film studios measured by acreage lie at the door of Sahara. Reliable climate and weather conditions, area that can mimic the natural environments of many countries and cheap and knowledgeable workforce were reasons enough to put Ouarzazate on the map of famous filming locations for many Hollywood blockbusters.
As Morocco was paving its way as a movie making destination, many studios and hotels decorated with old movie posters and requisites sprouted around Ouarzazate. We have decided to visit CLA Studios, which is the younger sibling of Atlas Studios that was founded in 1983. Entering the gates of the studio opened a wonderland of egyptian mummies, roman soldiers, full size birlinns and long rows of mythic-looking creatures poised silently in long stone rows.
We went from one movie dedicated room to another, where requisites with chipped edges stood on top of one another, looking more sad than glamourous. We saw the slave boat from Ben Hur, with its ropes, wooden benches, and a latticed wooden ceiling, the wooden cage from the Gladiator, and many more.
Most of the sets are open-air and in various states of disrepair. Just one kilometer away from the studios is a full size fortress made out of fiberglass, that realistically resembles any ksar from the surrounding. We were amazed by the authenticity of the movie set as we wandered through a stone market place and a faux Medina and entered an old world synagogue.
Nothing but blue skies
As we continued our journey to Dadès Gorge and Todgha Gorge, we got to know the real Morocco, away from the camera flashes and famous tourist sights. There was nothing but blue skies, the dusty road ahead of us and the most amazing landscape surrounding us. We were passing through some tiny villages, where uncovered girl on a motorcycle almost seemed surreal. For us, it felt like entering a time machine.
The strongest impression that stuck with me to this day is that all people we saw seemed genuinely happy. Even though they were living in crumbling houses, wearing clothes that hasn’t changed much for centuries and haven’t seen many of the modern gadgets we take for granted, they were just radiating joy. Dusty kids playing football in the streets were greeting us as we were passing by and started chasing us when we took off. Some older people were trying to grab our attention and sell us stuff, while others were minding their own business and weren’t really bothered by the big and loud motorcycle passing through their dormant village.
We stumbled across a busy market in one of the villages one day. After finished their grocery shopping, a crowd of roughly fifteen people was waiting for a taxi. When the car came, all of them started putting their load on the roof of the car, and entered the car one by one. Some sitting in each other’s laps, some sharing the front seat, they were packed inside what is meant to be a car for maximum five people. Well, you’ve got to give it to them for being pros in the real-life tetris game! 🙂
The princess of Sahara
We continued our journey to Merzouga, a city that lies in the Sahara desert and about 50 km from Algerian border. This village is famous for its proximity to Erg Chebbi, one of Morocco’s two Saharan ergs – large seas of dunes formed by wind-blown sand. The other is Erg Chigaga near M’hamid. These dunes can reach a height up to 150m and can span an area of 50 km.
Moroccan legend says that the Erg Chebbi sand dunes were sent by God as a punishment for turning away a tired traveler from Morocco’s Sahara desert. Moroccans believe that the dunes piled up outside Merzouga to teach them a lesson so that they would never refuse to help tired travelers ever again. Getting around the dunes was pretty difficult back in the days, when the travellers and traders were following the Saharan Caravan Route to carry salts, gold, slaves, and spices to Timbuktu. They had to pass through some of the flattest and barest areas imaginable.
As I couldn’t sleep due to the terrible cough, that was worsening by hour after the ascent to Jbel Toubkal, I went out to the dunes to soak in the absolute, ear-ringing silence and the dreamlike moment of the early morning rays dazzling over the dunes. I was surrounded by nothingness of the endless sand. All that was left was otherworldly beauty. Magnificent Sahara captivated me.
Later that day, my cough has gotten so bad, that I have decided to take a bus to Fez and meet my friend there. I had enough time to take a camel ride to the nearby oasis. My guide Mohammed started singing Berber songs to shorten the four hour ride to the oasis and back. I was asking for the translation, just to have found out that, in a nutshell, all songs were about the desert and a girl who waits for her beloved one. People sing about what they know best, which made me think about the many Serbian songs that are about rakija and kafana and of course a girl who awaits for her beloved one 🙂
When I went back to the village, I started looking for a barber shop where I could wash my hair. Many of the hotels that we had stayed in didn’t have heating and hot water, so I couldn’t wash my hair for almost a week. I finally found the only barber shop in the village and tried to explain what I wanted. The barber couldn’t understand a thing, but one of the customers spoke little english and explained the barber why I was there. Or so I thought.
The barber started combing my hair very thoroughly… like for half an hour! The word has gotten out, and the audience started to crowd outside the parlour. Little did I know that a sight of an uncovered girl that let her hair being publicly brushed was almost erotic. I lost my patience halfway through, and started yelling: “Shampoo! Shampoo!”, gesticulating what I wanted, but the barber was deaf to my request and continued combing my hair. I then stood up, and bent over the dirty sink to wash my hair. The barber finally gave me the shampoo and I washed my hair in relief.
The royal city
My bus arrived in the middle of the night in Fez. I was dead tired from the seven-hour bus ride and was desperate for sleep. The exhaustion from this adventure started to kick in. I was ready to go back home.
Since I was previously visiting Fez in 2010, I didn’t want to spend too much time sightseeing. We went to the Tanneries, where the leather is dyed using the same methods as centuries ago. Terraces from the nearby shops that sell leather goods provide a wonderful view on the tanneries where cow and goat hides are dyed in earthen pools. The main ingredients used are pigeon poo, sulphuric acid and cow’s urine. Yes, it smells terrible, and even the mint leaves that were stuck into my hands on the way up to the terrace didn’t camouflage the excruciating stench that was almost burning my nostrils. I could just imagine how it was for those men working down there, up to their thighs in the ice-cold water, where the scents of all the above mix with the smell of the raw skins.
On the way down from the terrace overlooking the pits, we went through a labyrinth of colorful leather babouches, bags, belts, purses, jackets and many more. We also saw a small workshop where all those products were being made.
Fez was founded on a bank of the Jawhar river by Idris I in 789, founder of the Zaydi Shi’i Idrisid dynasty. His son, Idris II, built a settlement on the opposing river bank. These settlements would soon develop into two walled and largely autonomous sites, often in conflict with one another: Madinat Fas and Al-‘Aliya. The two cities were united in 1070 under the Almoravid dynasty, when the city’s trade flourished and great renovations took place.
During 13th century, Fez reached its golden age under reign of the Marinid dynasty, when it received reputation as an important intellectual centre. They established the first madrasa (Islamic religious school) in the city and country. During 16th century the city was a vassal of the Ottoman Empire, until Ahmad al-Mansur reclaimed the control in the early 17th century. Until the 19th century Fez was the only source of fezzes. Originally, the dye for the hats came from a berry that was grown outside the city.
Fez was a capital of Morocco until 1925, when Rabat took charge. Today, its 1.1 million citizens live in the historic part of the city as well as in the Ville Nouvelle or “New City”, its bustling commercial center. The popularity of the city has increased since the King of Morocco took a computer engineer from Fez, Salma Bennani, as his wife.
There’s no place like home (-ish)
My friend and I were both exhausted from the trip. More than 10 days of non stop adventure, driving, hiking and not sleeping enough was taking its toll on us. We wanted to go back as soon as possible.
We still had to drive six hours to get to Tangier, where we had a ferry back to Europe. The temperature was around five degrees Celsius, which made our bike trip even harder. We found a nice hotel on the road, to spend the night and have a quiet New Year’s dinner. When we finally warmed ourselves near the fireplace, we ordered a nice Moroccan dinner, no alcohol on the menu, of course. Next to us was a table of approximately ten Moroccan men and women with their children. What really caught my eye is that there were only men dancing. The arabic culture doesn’t allow women to publically dance or sing. They were just sitting and clapping to the sounds of the traditional Moroccan music, taking photos with their cell phones, or taking care of the kids.
On the way back to Granada, we had a short stop in Gibraltar. This British Overseas Territory of only 6.7 km2 was formed around the giant rock that overlooks the strategic entrance of the Mediterranean sea. Its sovereignty is a major point of contention in Anglo-Spanish relations, as Spain asserts a claim to the territory. They even have an airport, with flights to the UK twice a day. We were lucky enough to show up at the exact time when the plane was taking off. Since the only place big enough to build a runway is intersecting the main road that connects Spain and Gibraltar, they have built a ramp that closes during takeoff. They have a very limited time to thoroughly clean up the runway, as any small piece of plastic or metal could be fatal for the plane.
When we finally reached Granada and our hotel, we couldn’t wait to have a proper hot shower. It’s funny how most basic things like hot running water, heated hotel rooms, nice asfalt on the roads, etc. that we take for granted are not a standard in other countries.
That’s the thing about travels, it makes you appreciate what you have and enriches your life in the most unexpected ways. It teaches you to appreciate a foreign culture and have a better understanding of your own. It’s a reminder that happiness is a matter of mindset, not the thickness of your wallet, or the square meters you own. For this reason, I know I will always choose experiences over things. Will you?