Saturday, February 25, 2017

Off to the Desert: Imlil to Oaurzazette

Tizi n'Tichka is one of the highest paved passes in the High Atlas. The road leading to the pass was winding and narrow in places, but well maintained, and our driver was cautious and attentive.

    The lure of the Sahara was too great to pass up and we knew we had to make an excursion across the Atlas in order to experience a bit of the famous desert of Africa. Many tour operators offer guided trips to the desert, and we spent a bit of time in Imlil looking at different options. In the end, we took a recommendation from someone in our family travel group and booked a four day private tour through Desert Majesty. We've never done anything like this before, usually being content to piece together our own adventures using public transportation and sometimes renting our own vehicle. We were very happy with our experience and felt it was worth every penny to have our own personal guide and driver for the excursion. We definitely saw and experienced things we wouldn't have on our own. 

    After a hearty (carb-filled) breakfast at the Riad Atlas Prestige, we loaded our bags onto a trusty mule and made our way one last time down the steep, rocky path into the village. There we met Said, who was to be our driver and guide for the next four days. Young and friendly, Said is from a Bedouin family and grew up as a nomad in the desert. At some point his family moved into town so his siblings could attend school; a few days into our excursion he took us to his family home where his lovely mother served us a delicious meal. But I'm getting ahead of things; first we have to get there.

     Our first day's journey took us down the valley from Imlil and back toward Marrakech. From there we headed up into the High Atlas and over the Tizi n'Tichka pass. We stopped for lunch at a funny place, clearly set up for tourists, the sort of place we would never eat on our own. The kids were thrilled to have french fries and omelettes, and Erik and I ordered tagines. We joked with Said how we didn't usually eat at places like this, and the next day he took us to the local place instead. Erik and I thought the food was much better, and the kids, well, the kids ate bread for lunch. Goat tagine just didn't appeal to them!

The ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou.

     We continued on our way and in the late afternoon took a little detour to stop and walk around the ksar (fortified village) of Ait-Ben-Haddou. It is situated on the southern slopes of the High Atlas along the ancient caravan route that passed through the Sahara to modern day Marrakech. Built of earthen clay, it has been beautifully restored and maintained using traditional materials, primarily earth and wood. There are still a few families that live inside the ksar, but it is mostly empty now. It is preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and dates back at least to the 17th century.

I am always struck by how people who had to work so hard just to survive put in the effort to beautify their surroundings. It inspires me to continue to create beauty in my home, even when it seems that no one appreciates it. I do believe it makes a difference! I love the decorative motifs on the walls. 

The surrounding hillsides reminded me of the American Southwest with its deserts and painted hills.
   Up, up, up we walked, on ancient stone paths worn smooth by centuries of feet. At the very top there was an additional fortification and a large building that we were told served as a storage facility for food. Each family would contribute to the store, and it was kept for times of drought or siege. Looking out at the surrounding hillsides, I was amazed that people could bring life out of what appeared to be so barren. 

My familia! 

Across the river is the "new" town. You can see that Ait-Ben-Haddou is built above an oasis. Morocco is a beautiful country of contrasts, with snow capped mountains rising from the desert!
     It's quite likely that you've seen Ait-Ben-Haddou, as it's been the setting of quite a few movies. Morocco has a thriving movie industry, and the next day we visited one of the big movie studios in nearby Oaurzazette. This ksar, being so well preserved and complete, looks like something straight out of the Bible, and has been used as a film set in such movies as The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, The Jewel of the Nile, Gladiator, and more recently, some episodes of Game of Thrones. It's easy to see why this is a favorite location for such movies!

This must be the "yard" of one of few inhabited homes remaining in Ait-Ben-Haddou. Many Berber families still live in close proximity with their animals. 

Erik could walk around all day photographing the beautiful doors of Morocco. 

One final glimpse of Ait-Ben-Haddou as we crossed back over the bridge to the new village to continue on our journey. I'm so grateful to have seen this place. Many Moroccan villages still blend into their surroundings like this, with walls that match the reddish earth.

As we walked back to our car I was struck by the light on the blossoming trees, their delicate fragrance filling the late afternoon air.
The center of our riad in Oaurzazette.   The picture doesn't do justice to the grand scale of the archway.
Five course meal? Yes, this is the way we travel when Desert Majesty books our accommodations! 

    Upon our arrival in Oaurzazette, we stopped in at the Desert Majesty office to pay for our excursion and get a briefing on what to expect. We were met with a warm welcome, mint tea, and cookies. The office was right on the city square, and as it was Friday, the Muslim holiday, many families were out enjoying  the evening. The smell of popcorn hung in the air, and children raced around the square on little battery operated cars and trucks. The city seemed clean and modern and friendly.

The view from our riad in Oaurzazette, looking out over the date palm oasis to the snowy Atlas beyond. Have I mentioned that Morocco is beautiful? 

    From the Desert Majesty office we drove just a little further through Oaurzazette to the riad where we would stay that night. Our package included accommodation and meals, and we really didn't know what to expect. We pulled into a little courtyard and Said began unloading our luggage. Ripe oranges hung heavy on the limbs of a nearby tree. We walked into a beautiful hotel built in riad style, around an open courtyard. We were given two rooms, so Erik and I each took two kids for the night. We'd left Imlil with slightly damp laundry, so before long my room had clothing hanging and laying out to dry on every available surface! We made our way to the dining room and were surprised to be served a five course meal on white linens. This is definitely not our normal choice of accommodation, but we enjoyed it. The goats bleating outside the window through the night, accompanied by the occasional dog and rooster, reminded us that we were indeed still in Morocco.

    To be continued...


  1. Has everything been rather inexpensive? I recall my trip to Russia and being amazed at our much I could get for $1.

    1. Morocco is pretty reasonable! We've been in Spain and Portugal the last month and definitely more there.


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