The visit to Ksar Ait Ben Haddou, and then on to Marrakech

The morning was a bit cloudy as we prepared to depart our hotel and visit the fortified village of the clan Ben Haddou.

It was almost too chilly for us to partake of breakfast outside the hotel’s restaurant, next to the pool, before we departed, but we did just that!

The household animals in the rooftop enclosure just below the terrace opposite our hotel room were all awake and about as we left our rooms.

Youssef patiently waited for us as we all boarded the bus to head out to the ksar. Since we were checking out of the hotel, he had to make sure that all of our belongings had been loaded on to the bus before departure.

We heard a little bit about the history of the town on our way to the ksar. Its importance in times past came from its location along the Trans-Saharan trade route to Marrakech. This particular route followed the Ounila river valley.

We were dropped off in a part of the town not too far from the ksar.

We made our way on foot from the main road where the bus was parked to the bridge across the dry Ounila river.We could see one of the ksar’s kasbahs across the river.

A walkway marked with white stones lay not to far away from the bridge on the dry riverbed. One could cross over from the main road and the newer sections of the town to the ksar itself on the river on foot, and seemingly even on horseback.

Once we crossed the river over the bridge,we began our climb to the agadir, or granary, at the top of the ksar.Some of the stores for the tourists were beginning to open as we made our way up the hill.

The general theme of Hollywood movie making in Morocco (continuing from the experience of our drive through Ouarzazate the previous day) continued in the ksar. Many movies have been filmed in this area. The climb to the top of the hill was actually relatively short. We got some good views of the river and the rest of the town of Ait Ben Haddou across from the river as we climbed.
The climb was a little bit challenging in a couple of stretches, but these stretches were short. Finally, our destination!

We got some magnificent views from the top of the hill.

We did not linger too long on the hill. We were on a schedule! We started making our way back to the bus.We did some shopping on the way down.

The brown color in the artwork produced by the artist in the picture below comes from mint tea being applied to the paper, and then the paper being heated up over a burner.

After descending the hill, we crossed the river to get back to the bus and were soon on our way to Marrakech.

We got our last pictures of Ksar Ait Ben Haddou from the main road on our way out of town.

We were going to cross the Tizin’ Tishka pass on our way to Marrakesh that day. The highway across the High Atlas mountains was built by the French. The intent was to make it easier to exploit the country for its natural resources – including its minerals and precious metals. Moroccans generally have a negative reaction when talking about the impacts of french colonization.

There was significant road construction on the N9 highway to Marrakech. We were warned about the possibility of this slowing slowing us down.

This is a picture taken during the initial part of the drive.

Soon we were driving through the valley of the Imini river. The Imini is a tributary of the Tidili. The Tidili feeds into the Draa, the longest river in Morocco. We could have actually taken the road beside the Ounila river and the old Trans-Saharan trading route to the Tizi n’Tichka pass, and seen more of the artifacts of the old Moroccan towns along the old trade route if we had done that, but that would have taken too much time.

We got some good views of the valley during this initial part of the drive.

Soon after we left the river valley we reached our lunch stop.

You could get a good view of the mountains we were going to be crossing from the restaurant.

Youssef spoke to us about the tourism industry in Morocco. He noted that Morocco used to be a hot destination for tourism, especially for musicians and other entertainers. The pandemic was a difficult time for them because tourism drives a lot of other related work in the country, and all of this dried up. The king introduced universal health care and social security for everybody because of the situation. All Moroccans can register.

I had time to make some notes on a few other random elements of the visit to Morocco during this section of the drive. This is what I wrote:
The drive on many of the days of this trip has so far been over reasonable distances – distances that are too long. We have always had time to make stops along the way – for bathroom breaks and some local tourism, and for learning new things. It is always something different that we are exposed to. There is a lot of information to absorb about the country. And at the end of the day we are comfortably tired, and may even have some spare time on our hands.

Youssef has been really good about pacing things out, and keeping his sense of humor while taking care of people and managing the big group.

And then it was back to watching the scenery!

It was a cloudy day for the drive across the High Atlas mountains. Soon we were approaching the mountains.We were about to drive up the road you can see half way up the mountainside in the picture above. The road beyond that point, as yet unseen, would also take us past the mountain seen in the background in the picture.

As we had been warned about, there was a lot of road construction and widening of these roads going on in the mountains. Green valleys lay below us and towering peaks above us as we wound our way up and down the mountain sides. From the distance, we could see the fields in the valley, and the little villages with houses made of adobe.  We had just driven through this valley to get to where we were currently.

One of the pictures above actually also shows the alternate route from Ait Ben Haddou to Tizin’ Tishka through the Ounila Valley – the historical route of the caravans.

The views as we got closer to Tizin’ Tishka were spectacular. There were towering peaks around us. The narrow winding road snaked its way up to the pass.

It was foggy on the other side of the pass. The vegetation was supposed to be different on both sides of the pass, but I could not see anything just yet!

And then we descended below the clouds into a sequence of zigzags and hairpin bends that took us straight down the mountainside, dropping us hundreds of feet to a valley with a flowing stream – with signs of regular life, including green fields, homes and commercial establishments.

Newly paved roadway cut through the black rock in the higher sections of the road. Black rock changed to brown as we descended further into the valley.

The roads were wet as Youssef, our driver, got us safely down to the lower elevations.

And then we were climbing once again, into a fog that was as thick as pea soup. We made slow and steady progress. It was also raining. It was wet, wet, wet – nothing could be seen outside the windows of the bus in certain sections! Finally, we were able to pull up to a rest area. We made our way towards a barely visible building with its restaurant and rest rooms,while Youssef waited beside the bus.

The fog cleared up after rest stop. We got to Marrakesh shortly after that.

Some of the women on the bus indicated that they wanted to experience a Moroccan Hammam, which is a bath in a traditional bathhouse, in Marrakech. Youssef suggested doing it in Essaouira. I learned more about hammams. It is generally a place that women in a community can go to with their friends as a social activity. This is where information (and gossip) about the community is shared. Family alliances may also be discussed! From a practical perspective, women can help each other in the bathing activity – by rubbing soap on the backsides of friends, or even other people they have made arrangements with, people who have their confidence!

Once we got to Marrakech, we were first driven to the famous Jemaa el-Fnaa Square in order to help us get our overall bearings. The Koutoubia Mosque is also located near the square. (Youssef mentioned that nobody in Marrakesh is allowed to construct a building higher than the minaret of the mosque.) We were given instructions for managing on our own in town.  Youssef noted that Marrakech was a somewhat crazy place. We were warned about the dangerous elements of the place, and about having to be cautious. We were given instructions about getting around town, including the cost of taxis and other forms of transportation for exploration. Landmarks were pointed out to us as the bus was driven to our hotel, the Movenpick. Youssef also got us maps from the hotel. We could actually explore on foot.

I noticed that all the houses in Marrakesh were painted pink. It turns out that cities in Morocco have color codes for their houses. Each city has a different color code. It is against the regulations to paint the homes in a different color, and one can be fined for doing something like this. It is also interesting that a similar kind of color code holds true for the taxis that ply in the cities. Each city has taxis in a particular color unique to the city.

We checked into our hotel soon after. We happened to be in a very modern part of town, with the broad expanse of the Boulevard Mohammed VI located close to the hotel. We were able to walk to the Menara Mall close by to find a restaurant where we could get dinner. It was a rainy evening.

We were scheduled to spend three nights in Marrakech, our longest stay in any one place during this trip.

You can read the next blog in this sequence here.

To Ait Ben Haddou

I took a picture of the sink in our hotel room in Erfoud before we set out on the road to Ait Ben Haddou (also called Ait Benhaddou). As one can see, there are a few fossils embedded in the granite. Considering that all of the rooms in the hotel had sinks, and a few other items of decoration, of the same nature, it is an indication of the prevalence of fossils in products from this part of the world. I would never have guessed!

We started our journey for the day early, as usual. We turned west as we left the hotel premises and headed back towards the middle sections of the country, away from the desert.

The adobe structures along the roadside were familiar by now.

So were the fields of alfalfa and the date trees.

We drove past a system of water wells called Ketthara (use Google Translate to read the English translation of the link!) just outside of Erfoud. Even though we were close to the edge of the desert, there used to be a system for underground water distribution in this area. A series of underground connections is used to carry the water to these wells. The ketthara is not in use today.

I got a fleeting glimpse of the flag of the Amazighs as we were driving past it, but I could not get a good picture of it. This is what it looks like in its fullness. You can read about the symbolism in this flag here. The flag is relatively new, first having been proposed in the 1970s, and then becoming official in 1997. If you also consider the fact that the language of the Amazighs was made an official language of the country of Morocco only very recently, one gets the impression that the recognition of these native peoples of North Africa is on the upswing in recent years.

We passed wild Barbary Sheep. They are reddish, the color of the rocks. Fortunately, these animals have not gone the way of the Barbary Lions. I could not get a picture of these animals.

We drove through a number of towns like the one in the pictures below.This particular town had a few colorful compounds.

We saw many school kids that day. It appears that they have classes on Saturday!

We saw this writing in many places on the mountainsides in the countryside. It reads “God, country and king”.

In yet another town, I took this picture of a sign at a gas station. The price of gas (petrol) indicated here translates to roughly 6 dollars a gallon. The current prime minister of Morocco, who also happens to own one of the companies importing oil and gas into the country, apparently has a role in setting these prices. There is unhappiness in the general population over the steep increase in the cost of gas recently. Tthe prime minister has been accused of corruption in this regard.

After reaching the town of Tinghir (on the highway N10), we turned right off the highway to continue our drive through the town – to head into the Todra valley close by.

This is a picture taken as we were heading out of town. You can see the traditional clothing of the women of this particular town. The nature of the clothing worn by the the locals can actually change from town to town.

The picture below shows a valley we had to cross on our way to Todra gorge. The green of the valley from the fields of date trees and alfalfa is striking. We had to drive over a dry stream bed at the bottom of the valley to get to the other side. We eventually ascended up the other side of this valley. You can see the road that we took in the picture.

Todra (also called Todgha) gorge was stunning. I took a walk on the other side of the waters of the Todra river, inadvertently getting one of my sandals wet in the river on my way across. It dried up nicely as I made my way further upstream.

Black long haired goats with pointy horns, and donkeys, hung out closer to the building seen in the above picture.
It was a busy place. It was a place for locals to visit during the weekend. The weather was also nice.

There were vendors selling their goods,and families picnicking on the other side of the river. There also were panhandlers.

I got closer to the building that I had taken a picture of earlier. This used to be a hotel. It was destroyed in a flooding incident a few years ago and never reopened.

We retraced our path back to Tinghir for lunch. Tinghir turned out to be a big city. We had a nice lunch at the restaurant whose entrance is pictured below.

Moroccan dishes included tajine couscous and vermicelli. Almost all lunches and dinners that we were served in Morocco during the trip included fruit for dessert. Sliced melons and grapes were the most common fruits.  We were also offered many local specialties.

The next landmark that we reached was the Dades Valley (also called the Valley of the Roses). We drove on a section of a road called The Road Of A Thousand Kasbahs. I struggled to identify specific Kasbahs. This is one that I managed to take a picture of as we approached Ouarzazate.

Roses were introduced in Morocco by the French. They have a rose Festival in this part of the world that lasts a week. We were told that the Jewish people initially populated this area of Morocco.

This is a picture of one of the towns we drove through in the Dades valley. You can see the bus station for the town in the picture below. It is on the same side of valley as we were.

Views like the one captured below opened up to us as we got closer to Quarzazate.

Ouarzazate used to be a movie studio town. It is now a tourist destination. The castle for Game of Thrones was set up here. Some well known movies were made in these parts over the years. The two studios associated with the town are The Atlas Corporation Studios, and CLA Studios.

The picture below shows a set that has been constructed in the desert for filming purposes only. It is not a regularly occupied structure.

Our drive took us not too far from the Quarzazate solar power station. It is the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant. It is mostly a thermal solar power plant, with a small section generating power from photovoltaic cells. From the distance you can only see the tower in which the molten salt is formed from the focused radiated energy of the field of solar reflectors.

We were staying in the Riad Ksar Ighnda Kasbah in Ait Ben Haddou that night. A few miles after we left Ouarzazate, we took a turn off highway N9 onto one of the local roads, and we continued our drive west beside the Ounila river for the last few miles to reach our destination. We were told that that the Ounila was a salty river because of the minerals in the mountains. The road to Ait Ben Haddou that we were taking used to be the route of the caravans traveling along the Ounila Valley to Marakkesh in times past.

Our hotel turned out to be a unique and impressive establishment. Our room, in a building separated from the main Kasbah, was at the highest level of the building and adjacent to a terrace. It might have been one of the better rooms in the hotel. We could get a good view of our surroundings from the terrace, including a distant view of the Ksar Ait Ben Haddou itself.The picture below offers a zoomed in view of the hill at Ksar Ait Ben Haddou – with its agadir, or granary, on top. It appears as a dot in the picture above!

We stayed in at the hotel for dinner, and for breakfast the next day. The meals were all very sumptuous – as usual. Of note was the small fried fish (which I suspect were sardines) that tasted remarkably like the fried fish we used to eat as children growing up in India. Enjoyed it all!

This is a picture of our hotel taken from our hotel room later in the night.
This was a view from our room early the next morning.

We stayed only one night at Ait Ben Haddou. We would be climbing up the hill at Ksar Ait Ben Haddou after checking out of the hotel the next morning. We would then depart for Marrakech.

You can read the next blog in this sequence here.

Still Dreaming Of Morocco

We are back home from our trip to Morocco, but I am not fully here yet mentally. I dreamed of Morocco last night. But I also know that the feelings and memories will fade away quickly. I need to make my statement promptly before that happens. There are things worth remembering. We have experienced so much, and learnt so much about this amazing country and its people. I should be thankful, and grateful, and should also be spreading the word and the feeling – if possible!

I can still hear the voices of my fellow-travelers – 41 of us in all. I can still hear Youssef, our tour manager, as he tries to get our attention – to get us organized for the next move or for the next day, or as he tries to explain something to us, or as he gives us more background information about his country. Daily early morning breakfasts, many before sunrise – fresh omelettes, fruits, pastries, and juices – the chocolate croissants to die for, the orange juice with pulp in it – as we greet our fellow travelers as they sleepily join us in the dining area. We make sure to put our bags outside our room if we are moving to a new town that day. And then we are on the road once again, all counted and accounted for by our always smiling and efficient helper, Rashid – to see new places, to learn new things, to meet new people – the wonderful people of Morocco. Rashid gives each of us a bottle of water as we get going. Our driver, the other Youssef, gets us from point A to point B, with intermediate stops along the way, quietly and safely every day. He negotiates the tough spots smoothly. He does not do anything rash. He is patient. The big motor coach cannot be easy to manage.

We covered the entire nation of Morocco during our 15 days of wandering, starting off in the capital city of Rabat. We then visited the northern city of Tangier, the gateway to Africa from Europe. After that we headed into the Rif mountains, heading southeast to Chefchouen, the Blue City. Two nights were spent in the old religious center of Fes. We then crossed the Middle Atlas Mountains and the High Atlas Mountains – through mountain passes and over the high plains – to the get to Erfoud and the Sahara desert. Then it was onward and westward to the UNESCO Heritage site of Ait Benhaddou; then over the High Atlas mountains to the madhouse that is Marrakech. Finally, we crossed over the High Atlas mountains once again, to head to the beach and resort towns of Agadir and Essaouira, before completing the trip in Casablanca. The above list does not even begin to touch upon the various other places that we passed through and even visited along the way. We were rocking the casbahs and the medinas of the towns we visited!

I am not sure yet how to tell the entire story. Perhaps it will emerge in non-linear fashion. And I did take notes this time, perhaps for the first time on a trip like this.

But I do also feel that I need to try to provide a highlight reel of pictures before I start to tell the story, even though it is bound to be incomplete. The most complete set of pictures will be posted in a Pbase album, and some of these pictures will be used in further blogs that I will create to break down the trip and provide more information.

The pictures will be further identified in their contexts in future blogs.

You can read the first blog in the complete Morocco sequence here.