Morocco to Madrid 5: Marrakesh to Ouarzazate with Ait Ben Haddou


So long-time readers may have noticed that, when we’re moving from one place to another, I usually dub it a “TRANSIT DAY”, because we’re often taking a bus or train or cab or something that doesn’t allow for too much sightseeing along the way.

Well, for Morocco, we changed gears.

Like, literally.

Like, the car we rented is a standard, so you have to shift gears to make it work.

Since our last stay, Riad Naya – amazing little place, by the way, with a couple rough edges but a lovely host named “Bou” – was right in the Marrakesh medina, you couldn’t drive to it.  So, our rental car company fetched us, took us just outside the gates, and handled all of the paperwork there.  There was a little bit of craziness when we had to hit a cash machine for the rental – Morocco, like most places in the world, actually prefers not to use credit when possible – and I had to do back-to-back withdrawals, which I was sure was going to flag me with the bank back home.  Still, soon enough, we were on the road with our own little Hyundai i10.

It’s only day one, and I’m saying this from the passenger side, and not “foreign rent-a-car” ready, but Morocco isn’t the worst place we’ve seen from driving.  Sure, some people try to overtake on blind corners, but not everybody does, so that makes it mildly less nerve-wracking.  There were a couple moments that were iffy, but Daina is a champ driver and we’re feeling pretty good about being on the road for ten days over here.

The road we took goes through the Atlas Mountains, which led to quite a few twists and turns, some spectacular views, and some less-than-spectacular road construction.  There was a teenager walking on the outside of a top level of a cattle truck (like, cows stacked two floors high) to secure… something, a few of the aforementioned blind-turn-on-a-hill guys, and some tailgaters, a stop at a service station that didn’t seem to be providing any service other than selling wafers and fake Oreos, and lots of guys selling geodes that we probably fake, because I don’t think amethyst is coloured the same as Kool-Aid, nor does it always come in a perfectly openable little ball.  Made for an interesting ride.

We did have one stop we planned to make today, the Berber village of Ait Ben Haddou.  If you’ve never heard of it, you’ve likely seen it, as it’s been featured in The Living Daylights, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven and Game of Thrones.  Built in the 17th century, the fortified village, replete with kasbah and small “palaces”, made it to UNESCO’s heritage list in 1987.  It cuts one heck of a figure right about a dry riverbed which, in February, has enough water to provide a reflection, though, apparently the water isn’t that clean.

We discovered this through our de facto “guide” who led us through Ait Ben Haddou.  You do have to pay 10 dirham to get in, which is fine, and you might have some trouble finding your way out of the starting gates to the higher area without a little help, so we appreciated that.  We made the mistake, however, of not shaking the guy, and he led us into an interesting musical/artistic demonstration, a rug demonstration (with tea) and, truthfully, to the important views.  That being said, our dirham were slowly draining as we went, first from buying a piece of art from the artist, then through some tea, and finally, for the guide – and shame on us, we never decided a price ahead of time, so it was a bit more than we thought, but lesson learned.  We’re now figuring out a code word for when something feels sketchy on a trip, as I kind of felt the fleecing coming, but Daina was having a great time, so I didn’t say anything. Lesson learned.

That said, not enough to detract from the place.  We hopped back into our car towards Ouarzazate and another riad.  With my iPhone 4’s GPS and Moroccan 3G, we found where we were staying…

…although the “roads” that were leading there weren’t quite able to fit a car.  So, there was some walking, some asking, some kids who started calling me “Superman” (they saw the tattoo on my calf) and a ring of the doorbell of the riad owner’s place of residence, which featured a very loud dog.  Finally, we found our way to the riad for tea and cookies.  Then, it was back to get our bags at the car, which was parked near the Superman kids, which then needed to be parked by an old gas station overnight after we had returned our bags.

Alright then.

Dinner needed to be had, so we got a recommendation from the riad owner and promptly got lost using Google maps before using things like the plaza names and nearby businesses to find our actual destination, which was a great little restaurant called La Halte.  This led us on an impromptu walking tour of Ouarzazate, which is an interesting city – it’s know in Morocco as “Ouallywood” because of all the film production that comes through here, and buildings on its main strip all look like redone kasbahs, but not authentically so.  The main square was filled with shopping, kids riding power wheels, the smell of a popcorn stand, a mini-boating pool.  It was an odd mish-mash of a lot of different squares I had seen before, an interesting vibe that I’m still not quite sure what to make of.

Tomorrow, we keep on driving into the Atlas towards the desert.  Couple more kasbahs, more natural beauty as well!

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