From the Desert to the Mountains--Road Trip Through Morocco, January 2018.
اسبوعنا على الطريق في المملكة المغربية
Art Naji Ceramics factory, Fes, Morocco.
For some, Morocco might conjure up an image of an exotic and faraway desert oasis. It might, therefore, be crazy to think that you can fly to Casablanca from New York City in a mere six hours. Yet this is indeed the case, and in fact Morocco is so much more diverse than just a desert (although the dunes, or ergs, of the Sahara Desert are beyond stunning).
Morocco is Constitutional Monarchy whose history and culture spans Arab, indigenous Berber, and European influences. Those Moroccans who deal with tourists on a regular basis are skilled in various languages, and often switch swiftly from one language to another with great ease. Our guide through the Amridil Kashbah in Skoura, for instance, would switch between English and Italian, while also speaking to the other locals in his own native language. My own Arabic is pretty good, but I found myself a little out of my element when it came to the Moroccan dialect, which is more influenced by Berber and French. Whenever I did speak Arabic to the locals, however, it was always met with some degree of pleasant surprise, and some kind souls even made the effort to speak to me in Standard Arabic. I also made significant use out of my Spanish skills, which would especially come in handy when my husband needed a rabies shot in Chefchaouen (Intrigued? Hold tight, I'll go more into detail about this a little further down).
My husband, sister, sister-in-law and I did a 7 day excursion through Morocco with Enchanted Morocco Tours (who I highly recommend). Our knowledgeable and pretty hip driver, Mus (a Moroccan native of Berber descent), took us through mountains, deserts, valleys, Berber villages and cities in what was a pretty rigorous itinerary. Our tough SUV safely guided us through the twists, turns and occasional طريق منحرف (unpaved road) of the Atlas Mountains, as well as off-roading in the undulating dunes of Erg Chebbi in the Sahara Desert. All the while, "DJ" Mus kept the excitement up with an awesome road trip playlist that included everything from traditional Berber and Arabic music, to ultimate dance mixes, to Luis Fonsi's Despacito.
Our first stop was Marrakech, to which we drove immediately upon arriving at Mohammed V Airport in Casablanca. In Marrakech, we got our first taste of a riad--a traditional Moroccan structure with an interior courtyard--when we checked into Riad Maialou. Nestled in a quiet corner of a meandering narrow alley, Riad Maialou makes it easy to forget that you are in the heart of the medina (old town) of Morocco's fourth largest city. We did not have much day left to fully explore Morocco's "Red City," but we had just enough energy to brave the labyrinthine streets and dodge the unceasing scooters speeding through the alleys to get some dinner.
Narrow alley in the medina
One of the many elaborate doors that can be found throughout the country.
A welcoming of authentic mint tea upon our arrival in Riad Maialou.
Details in our room in Riad Maialou.
Dinner at Le Bougainvillier Cafe Restaurant.
Walking through the souks (markets).
Through the Atlas Mountains towards Ouarzazate and Dades Valley
Less than 24 hours after arriving in Marrakesh, we were on our way through the Middle and High Atlas Mountains towards Ouarzazate and the Ait Ben Haddou UNESCO World Heritage Site. Over the course of a few hours, the landscape changes so dramatically, from palm tree-laden flatlands to snow-capped mountains to vast rocky precipices scattered with earthen clay dwellings such as those at Ait Ben Haddou. A major tourist attraction, Ait Ben Haddou has acted as the backdrop for many films and TV shows, including Ridley Scott's epic movie Gladiator, and in HBO's hit TV series Game of Thrones. And if you're a GoT fan like I am, you get a little fangirl-y when you find yourself standing in front of Yunkai.
As a matter of fact, Ouarzazate is a major cinematic hub in Morocco, and it has attracted filmmakers in search of exotic backdrops for decades. Sites such as kasbahs will include lists of all the movies that were filmed at that location, and the tour guides certainly milk it up for those of us taking in these sites. For a list of movies filmed at Ait Ben Haddou, check out its Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aït_Benhaddou
We did not do a walk-through tour of Ait Ben Haddou, as Mus suggested we tour a more authentic (and less-touristy) kasbah in nearby Skoura. This is how we found ourselves walking through Kasbah Amridil (a centuries-old defensive fortress) with an enthusiastic English and Italian speaking Moroccan tour guide who was endowed with a solid repertoire of jokes and an infectious laugh.
High Atlas Mountains
My husband, Curtis, with the Atlas Mountains in the distance.
From left to right: Rebecca (sister-in-law), Mus, Danielle (sister) and I with the High Atlas mountains in the background.
Outside of Ait Ben Haddou; juxtaposition of transportation, ancient and modern.
Ait Ben Haddou UNESCO World Heritage Site