travel

The Grand Sud Road Trip: The Moroccan Sahara, a Cultural Dip and Game of Thrones

Roads of rare beauty cross the mountains of the High Atlas, offering a contrast of landscapes and experiences unparalleled in the heart of southern Morocco, inviting for a road trip! In a few days, we crossed the mountainous routes of the kingdom, through its most fertile palm groves, douars, ksars, and kasbahs frozen in time, in our way to the mythical dunes of the Sahara! We visited Essaouira and saw the places where some  Game of Thrones scenes were shot! We visited Ouarzazate and its majestic ksar, Aït-Ben-Haddou, and much more!

Crossing the High-Atlas

Morocco is a perfect country for road trip lovers!  It’s epic, it’s entrancing, it’s a glimpse of the mythical North-African kingdoms of the past! Wrap yourself in a keffiyeh while you listen to ancient Arabian music, and seize the feeling! From now on, you belong to the desert!

The roads themselves are as beautiful as the destinations,  neverending terracotta emptiness, punctuated by occasional villages and towns. Terracotta is the color of Morocco. With few exceptions, like the blue Chefchaouen and the white Essaouira, it looks like the whole country had sprouted from the ground!

The Jemaa el-Fnaa Square. This lively square is the heart of Marrakech and here you’ll find snake charmers, orange juice stalls, colorful souks…it’s also a stone-throw from the most important building and monuments in the city.

 

Maghrebi mint tea with khobz, the typical Moroccan bread. This bread is very versatile as it can be made with corn, barley, or wheat flour. We found mostly the corn khobz variety, and it was a staple at our breakfast. Mint tea in Morocco is everywhere: every visitor is bound to get an offer of tea, whether from a rug dealer or in a local’s home, and it would be rude to refuse. All business transactions, receptions, ceremonies and celebrations involve tea in Morocco; it’s the sign of hospitality as much as it is the open door to negotiating a deal.  In Turkey, I discovered the same significance for the tea. And yes, everything was always served on these beautiful silver trays! The Moroccan has an incredible aesthetic sense, and they’re therefore very strict about the presentation of dishes and merchandises
Would you like a pet chameleon? You can buy them at the souk next to the Jemaa el-Fnaa Square! (I don’t know if the chameleons were being sold legally, though)
Need freshly squeezed Vitamin C? You’ll find these orange juice vendors scattered everywhere by the Jemaa el-Fnaa. The juice is absolutely delicious! So sweet and refreshing! You can also catch some oranges (for free) at the peaceful Koutoubia Gardens not far from the buzzing square!
The colorful babouches you can buy at the souk! Babouche is the French word for the Persian “papoosh”, which means “foot covering”. They’re pointed slippers with a thin sole, very comfy. You can find them with or without ornaments, the latter for special occasions.

We’ve spent two days in Marrakech, it’s enough to see the beauties of its medina and discover its many gardens. Don’t miss the Koutoubia Mosque, the Saadian Tombs, the Ben Youssef Madrassa and the Majorelle Garden. 

Unfortunately, I have to advise you to avoid the tanneries, this is not a safe place to be.

The gorgeous Palais Menara, in Marrakech
The smell of spices and dried flowers add a perfumed and magical touch to the souk!
The colorful glazed tableware! The tajine (bottom, on the right) means the dish and also the this beautiful recipient shaped like a funnel.

And now our road trip begins!

Starting from Marrakech, we crossed the mountain range of the High Atlas, which is home to the highest peaks in North Africa. The Toubkal, the highest point in the Maghreb, is 4,167 meters high and is snow-covered for most of the year.

The road climbs the steep reliefs of the High Atlas. On the slope of the mountains, small Berber villages made of cubic houses rise among terraced crops.  Shepherds leading their flocks of goats and sheep sometimes cross our path. So, so beautiful!

We stopped for a moment at the highest mountain pass in North Africa, the Tizi n Tichka pass at 2260m altitude, where the air is cooler and the view is just amazing!

Tizi n Tichka Pass
Tizi n Tichka Pass

From there, it is a zigzagging road through contrasting landscapes of Kasbahs, green plateaus lined with cliffs, and gorges with crystal clear waters. Your eyes can reach far in the distance, the feeling of awe is almost unbearable!

We then crossed the Ounila valley, a lush, narrow-sided river valley which runs between Aït-Ben-Haddou (I’ll talk about this ksar below) and  Telouet, just south-west of the High Atlas mountains.

The course of the Ounila Valley was a part of the main caravan route to Marrakech, from sub-Saharan Africa. It’s unsurprising that a melting pot of civilizations – Berber, Haratin, Jewish, co-existed centuries past in this pivotal place.

Ouarzazate: The Berber Hollywood

From there we followed to Ouarzazate, a town at the confluence of the Draa and Dades valleys. The region around Ouarzazate offers incredible desert scenery, and the Berber city has become an open-air movie set, attracting great producers and filmmakers from around the world.

Three major Kanzaman movie studios, Atlas Studios, the largest in the world, and CLA Studios, have settled here and are open to the public. Apart from visiting the studios and a stroll in the charming Kasbah of the city center, the city is not of great interest.

The most iconic structure of Ouarzazate is the Kzar Aït-Ben-Haddou, a set of earthen buildings surrounded by walls, classified as a world heritage of humanity by UNESCO. Ksar is a type of traditional pre-Saharan habitat. The houses are grouped within its defensive walls reinforced by corner towers. Aït-Ben-Haddou, located in the province of Ouarzazate, is a striking example of southern Moroccan architecture:

Kzar Ait ben Haddou

If the panorama sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because the site has been the location of several movies including American blockbusters Gladiator, Laurence of Arabia, Prince of Persia and even Game of Thrones.

Mental post-it: Essaouira, the citadel of the Atlantic, with its legendary ramparts, and Ait-Ben-Haddou, the most beautiful fortified village of the Moroccan desert: the filming locations of Game of Thrones in Morocco are among the most beautiful sites in the country. Ride your dragon, grab your sword of Valyrian steel, and follow the trail of Daenerys!

Me at the Ksar Aït-Ben-Haddou, feeling the power of the Dragons!
Me and hubby at the Aït-Ben-Haddou.
The Aït-Ben-Haddou and its palm groves
The region around Ouarzazate. In the photo, you can see Berber women washing clothes.

Palm Grove and Kasbah of Skoura 

We continue our road trip taking the path known as the “road of 1000 Kasbahs”, dotted with traditional villages, old douars, and of course ancient Kasbahs. So many opportunities to explore this fascinating world!

The next stop is the small village of Skoura in a vast palm grove with cultivated crops, an oasis in the middle of the desert! We can easily get lost in its 50km ² of labyrinths of palms, olive trees, and almond trees maintained by the population: mixed Berber, Jews, and Arabs!

At the turn of the roads, we discover Kasbahs and restored mansions, some dating back to the seventeenth century! The place is enchanting.

Valley of the Almond Trees and Valley of Roses

The road along the banks of the river M’Goun passes through small palm groves and gardens, that goes up to the Valley of Almond Trees and the Valley of Roses.

The latter takes its name from the Damask roses, which flourish in the region only twice a year, from late April to June.

Vallee-des-roses
The stunning Valley of Roses
roses
Damask Roses

A little stop is needed to stock up on local produce sold at the roadside: The natural rose water is now part of my traveling kit. It’s great to moisturize the skin, especially during long flights!

moussem roses
A Moussem (or Mussem, which means “Festival”) of roses is organized every year in mid-May celebrating the flowering with traditional dances and songs, accompanied by a procession of flower floats that run through the town of Kelaat M’Gouna!

Valley of the Gorges of Dades 

After this charming stop, we go straight to the Valley of the Dades Gorge. The road ripples again through the flanks of the Atlas where douars and small villages are hung with adobe houses that merge into the scenery.

We follow the Oued Dades, who has laboriously dug his bed in the hollow of vertiginous cliffs of sandstone and limestone rocks.

The inhospitable mountainous landscapes are punctuated by a succession of palm groves with mosques, Ksours (plural for Ksar) and Kasbahs, so typical of the region. The panorama is spectacular!

The millennial geological formations and the fertile palm groves make this valley one of the most beautiful in Morocco! A visit to Dades is the perfect opportunity for hikers who plan treks through the valley or in the High Atlas to meet the different nomadic and pastoral Berber tribes of the region!

dades gorge
Valley of the Gorges of Dades

Palm Groves of Tinghir and Gorges of Todra

We stop at the village of Tinghir for a tajine break. We ate the most delicious tajine with citron confit, vegetables, and olives!

After we visited the huge Tinghir palm grove, famous for its elaborate irrigation system and for its mellah, a former Jewish quarter with adobe houses where you can buy all kinds of handicrafts. We admire the panorama from the top of the ruins of the Kasbah Glaoui before starting a walk along a picturesque path that runs through the bed of the river and sinks into the Gorges of Todra.

Tinghir Palm Grove

The Imilchil Wedding Festival

Two girls attending the Imilchil Wedding Festival, dressed in typical clothes

If you make this trip in mid-October, take the time to continue the road to the village of Imilchil to attend the mass marriage festival, infused with the legend of the Moroccan Romeo and Juliet: According to legend, a young man and a young women belonging to two rival tribes had fallen in love with each other, but their families forbade them to marry. The tears of the lovers formed the separate lakes of Tislit and Isli (it’s indeed a really salty lake).

The elders decided that once a year, young people from different tribes could meet to find their half. The festival is an opportunity for visitors to attend a flamboyant market, to appreciate traditional clothes and adornments, and to observe millenary rituals!

The Khettaras Well in Erfoud 

From there, we took a straight road towards the village of Erfoud. The barren desert landscapes seem interminable. On the edge of the road, we saw strange mounds of earth, often surmounted by a wooden pulley. They are called khettaras. These are underground irrigation systems dating from the seventh century still work, allowing the farmers to irrigate their land!

Arrival in Merzouga, at the Doors of the Sahara Desert 

More than a few kilometers before arriving at the village of Merzouga, at the foot of the Erg Chebbi dunes just twenty kilometers from the Algerian border. The sight of the monumental sand dunes that almost overflow the village is surreal! We are really in the Sahara! I had goosebumps!

On the back of camels, we headed to the Sahara, arriving just on time to see the sunset, that in the desert lasted long enough to allow us to see the soft, fine sand gradually change colors: it went from beige-gray to a rich gold-orange, as the sun was going down!

Me at Merzouga
I accept a ride!
Me and hubby on a dune! As you can see the sand had changed colors!
This sand is just delicious!!
Kiss in the desert, me and my sweetheart
My paw
At the Berber camp, this was our tent, we nearly froze! Desert life can be pretty harsh!
We left the camp early in the morning…

I’ve never seen sands in such intense, rich color! And its texture so light,  it was just irresistible, I had to sink my hands and feet, it felt like icing sugar!

I would keep a pinch of those sands for months, inside my sneakers. I never really wanted to clean them thoroughly. That tiny amount of sand was my favorite souvenir from the trip.

We had the most interesting dinner, under a communal tent. There was a huge bonfire outside, which created a yellow-orange glow inside, elongating our flickering shadows to the infinite.

The bonfire in the Berber camp.

We ate with our bare hands, with the Berbers, from a giant plate full of couscous, served with the round Berber bread and sweet mint tea.

In the beginning, I was disgusted, but I soon let go of my cultural shock. I remembered the lesson I’ve learned from the unforgettable Anthony Bourdain:

“When somebody’s offering you food, they’re telling you a story. They’re telling you what they like, who they are. Presumably, it’s a proud reflection of their culture, their history, often a very tough history. You turn your nose up at that important moment, the whole relationship changes, and it will never be the same.”

After the dinner, we climbed a dune and laid on the cold sand, looking at the sky dotted with millions of stars, and started our plans for 2016. It was the first of January and the year was, indeed, a great one! I think we were blessed by the Universe when we said that unintentional prayer.

We spent the night in a bivouac in the middle of the Sahara. I must say that there was one of the worst nights of our lives because we nearly froze! Our hosts prepared our sleeping mat with a thick camel skin that was absolutely useless against the cold!

We then left the bivouac to walk around the camp to heat ourselves. We were surprised to see the Berbers asleep around the bonfire, with no covers!

 ESSAOUIRA

The next day we were back to Marrakech and from there we left to Essaouira, a charming town on the coast of Morocco, replicating the white and blue colors of the Atlantic sea.

On the road again. A few valleys with red stones, then fields of Argan trees, the fruit that is harvested to extract a rich, amber-colored multipurpose oil used for cooking and for beauty rituals. We stopped by a cooperative, where women sat side by side crushing the kernels of the argan to extract the thick creamy substance that would be later refined.

A very sympathetic woman sold us some flasks. Pour la gazelle, she says, referring to me. Gazelle is how the Moroccan refer to beautiful women. I was flattered.

women argan
Women extracting argan oil in the traditional way

We resumed our drive to Essaouira. Then I saw an unusual argan tree:  there were goats on it! In my ignorance, I asked my husband if the men around these trees were selling those stuffed goats.

“No, they’re alive!” He answered me, laughing. “But they are not moving and they’re on the trees! Goats cannot climb trees!” “Of course they can climb trees!”

I checked Dr. Google and there was the answer, the goats actually climb the trees to eat argan, then they excrete the kernels.

goats tree
The ‘stuffed’ goats, on an argan tree

When we arrive in Essaouira we are greeted by the ocean breeze, the atmosphere is so relaxing! People on terraces drink their coffees without haste. Every day is Sunday in Essaouira!

Essaouira

Then our discovery of the medina begins. Smaller than Marrakech and quieter, despite the numerous visitors occupying the narrow streets of cobblestones. There are cats everywhere, for my complete joy! I love cats (I have a gorgeous fluffy huge cat called Gregorio)!

I took my camera and started to take pictures of them; those elegant animals add a touch of timeless class to the rustic centenary wooden doors where they lay by.

As I mentioned above, the ksar Aït-Ben-Haddou and Essaouira were the Moroccan scenarios for chapters of Game of Thrones:

The tower you can see in the GoT scene above ;D

I was also attracted by the colors of the medina. In Marrakech, everything is sandy. In Essaouira, there are white, blue, green…

The seagulls on the shores of Essaouira.
The fishing boats matching the color of the sky. The medina in the background. This gorgeous fisher village is totally scenic!
The seagulls in Essaouira seem to love posing! This one allowed me to approach as much as I wanted, she was there, still, just waiting to be immortalized!
A caramel cat matching the decor!
The merchant alleys of Essaouira
Another cat
One more!

For the lunch break, we chose a terrace on the second floor, with a view of the sea. For the first time in the whole trip, I wasn’t in a haste to go, I just wanted to stay there, looking at the sea, trying to make that moment last…like a cat from Essaouira.

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