Day 9: Ait Benhaddou, Morocco

by - September 16, 2012

Route through the Atlas
Marrakech, apart from being perhaps the biggest tourist destination in Morocco, is also a fantastic base point for adventures in the nearby Atlas Mountain range. On a clear day it is possible to see the outlines of the mountains on the horizon and we had seen them very clearly from the hot air balloon. Today I had planned to get up into them and to do this I had arranged for a driver and a tour guide to escort us to the kasbahs of Telouet and Ait Benhaddou, which are located on the opposite side of the range to Marrakech. We would therefore have to drive all the way through the mountains, using the Tizi n’ Tichet pass which in times gone by would have been the main caravan route from Timbuktu to Marrakech. We were picked up from our riad at 8am and by 9 were up in the mountains. Our driver was happy for us to stop whenever we saw a beautiful viewpoint (and there were plenty) which meant that it wasn’t until about midday that we made it to our first sight, the village of Telouet.

Window in Telouet Kasbah
Telouet was, until the French were kicked out, home of the Glaoui clan who made their fortune in salt and by commanding the various kasbahs (fortified houses) along the trade route from Marrakech through the mountains. For the most part the road was good, but at times we had to pass along very uncomfortable (but fairly exhilarating) dirt tracks. All the way along our journey we had seen crumbling kasbahs belonging to the Glaouis, but Telouet is where the main one can be found. The Glaouis are seen by most Moroccans as traitors for their close relationship with the French (they were also some of Winston Churchill’s closest friends) and as a result the opulent kasbah has fallen into ruin, with the local villagers doing their best to keep it restored along with the entrance fee from travellers who pass through. The kasbah’s decay is almost epic and makes it seem spooky in the isolated mountains. Only three of the rooms inside remain in their former glory, but these are enough to reveal what an incredible place it must have been. The view through one of the windows over the mountains has been reproduced on countless Moroccan guide books - making it strange that the government is unwilling to save the rest of the site.

Telouet Kasbah
Ait Benhaddou
From here it was another hour along the mountain road that took us through a fertile river valley towards the desert. While we wouldn’t get as far as the Sahara today, the scenery got more barren as we made our way south. An array of tour buses marked the entrance to the town of Ait Benhaddou and we stopped at one of the touristy restaurants for a bit of reasonably cheap and filling lunch. The walled town is actually a series of kasbahs belonging to one family which are built into a hill with a military outpost on top. While most people won’t have heard of it, almost everybody will have seen it at one stage in their lives as it is an extremely popular set for movies. Pretty much every western movie with an ‘Arabian’ twist has been shot there - Lawrence of Arabia, Jewel of the Nile, Kingdom of Heaven and Prince of Persia to name a few from a very long list. The movies never quite take in the whole town however and the numerous photos in guidebooks don’t quite prepare you for what looks like the world’s grandest sandcastle. It isn’t actually made of sand - it is made partially from local stone but mainly from clay and mud, which make the town look like it has been chiselled out of the hillside rather than built. We walked up through the small kasbahs to the military outpost at the top for a stunning view south towards the Sahara and north towards the Atlas Mountains. The long mountain drive had been very worth it - Ait Benhaddou is one of the most unique places I have ever been.

More mountain passes
It was now getting into the late afternoon and we had a long journey back. We went by a slightly different route which had no dirt tracks, making for a fair bit more comfort and a whole new range of panoramas which we happily snapped up. We had been told that we would get back to Marrakech at 6pm, but we had obviously dawdled and ended up getting back at 8pm. We thanked our driver and tour guide who had been brilliant and decided to eat at the riad to save ourselves a walk into town. It had been a long day, but had been really worth it - an excellent day excursion from Marrakech.

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