My original travel journals were split across August Phoenix Hats and a few other websites. February 2021 marked the 12th anniversary of the beginning of my travels. To keep myself sane during the pandemic lockdown, I started reissuing my journals as Director’s Cuts, with the complete text and additional photos.
My travels have taken me through Italy, Turkey and Spain. In 2017 I hit the top of my bucket list with a belated birthday gift to myself – a guided trip to Morocco.
I wake up to catch the sunrise from my window at the Ait Ben Moro Kasbah, the golden sky reflecting in the skim of ice on the swimming pool. I’d give anything for a pair of wool socks. Today we leave for Ouarzazate to see the Kasbah Taourirt and the Atlas Film Studio where Kingdom of Heaven was filmed. We’ll log 200 miles today.
The roads leading in to Ouarzazate are lined with red flags. It turns out that we have arrived for the end of the Marathon des Sables, a seven-day footrace through the desert that starts here, and ends here with a festival. We step out of our car just in time to see the last runner cross the finish line, a smiling, white bearded gentlemen preceded by a police escort and followed by an aid car, and met with applause from the jubilant crowd.
Across the street is the Kasbah Taourirt, originally a cross-point for African trade caravans enroute to North Africa and Europe. It is said to be the most beautiful kasbah in the country, although it’s exterior doesn’t hold a candle to Kasbah Amridil in Skoura. Just outside the door sits a German Krupp cannon which belonged to the Pasha of Turkey during the French Occupation.
We enter to find interiors that are well restored and in some cases stunning. We are led through several of the 300 rooms, including the harem, kitchen, a reception room with French tile, and the royal apartments with their elaborately worked cedar ceilings and carved and painted plasterwork. Yet another room with bright red ceiling beams, which our guide told us had been painted that color for one of the many movies that had been filmed here. “Every film ever made in Morocco was filmed at this kasbah” our guide told us. He then rattled off an extensive list of films, and told us which ones he had been an extra in, which seemed to be nearly every movie on the list…
Among the interesting details was the room that had 3 holes in front of the window for ventilation. In the winter, warm air comes up from the kitchen. In the summer, cool air comes up. It’s pretty ingenious. Another room had a staircase with steep, irregular stairs – a defense against invaders who would lose speed trying to run up the uneven steps.
There’s a gallery of local artists on one of the floors, where our tour stops for quite some time, to encourage us to buy the the paint and multi-media works that are for sale.
While Mark and Catherine select pieces to add to their collection, I step outside into the courtyard to take shots of the patterned glass that is behind the grillwork on the outer doors. The guide catches up with me and explains that the window grills, now metal, were originally made from wood. The ornately carved and painted doors are Moorish, not Berber. He also said that many of the modern buildings in Morocco are built in the traditional style, or at least have some of the traditional elements like the little three or five brick pyramids at the corners of the roofs, because people prefer to keep the old styles.
After a tour and lunch at the Atlas Film Studio where I had a chance to ham to ham it up on one of the sets, we headed out to another UNESCO World Heritage site – the Ksar of Ait Ben Haddou. This 17th century fortification is accessible via a wooden foot bridge which stretches over the Mellah River, surrounding a fortress built into the side of a mountain. This site is also famous for movies that were filmed here, including Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, and The Sheltering Sky.
It’s narrow walkways and staircases can lead you into a number of places, including both shops and personal homes. It is very easy to walk into someone’s personal space by mistake (which I did), but I was very kindly corrected and pointed back towards the direction of the market areas.
I try to climb to the top of the hill at the center of this ksar – the highest vantage point – but only make it about 3/4 of the way. Even still, the view of the Ksar and the surrounding oasis are worth even the partial climb.
Back on the road, I notice small square buildings every few miles, which Doug tells me are prayer rooms, and he points out other on the tops of gas stations. The switchbacks here are remarkable and some of the hairpin curves are so tight I’m surprised we can’t see our own back license plate .
At the end of our 200 mile trek, we arrive in Taroudant, at a medina and a riad that would become a story of their very own …