Morocco, Part 2 – The Prize on the Other Side of the Atlas Mountains Pass

At a towering 13,671 feet at its highest point, with hundreds of smaller peaks scattered over a 1600-mile terrain, the Atlas Mountains are a breathtaking landscape covering three North African countries: Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.  The rolling hills are varying shades of brown and gold and are inhabited by many unique and endangered species of vegetation. And during the winter months, snow-capped peaks line the horizon for miles.

In 1936, the French constructed a mountainside road, now known as National Route 9, through the Atlas Mountain in Morocco. Today, the road is narrow, windy, and terrifying.  With little to no guard rails safeguarding the vehicles from the thousand-foot drops, drivers must cautiously navigate around semi trucks, other vans and cars, and cattle.

One of the most expansive mountain passes is in Morocco, called Tizi n’Tichka.  It is the passage between Marrakesh and Ouarzazate, also known as “the door to the desert.” During my Morocco getaway with my mom, our travel agent arranged for us to take a day tour to Ouarzazate from Marrakesh.  Known for its UNESCO World Heritage Site, popularity in the film industry, and handicrafts, my mom and I were looking forward to this day.

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A local village off the side of Route 9.

Mohammed arrived to the Marrakesh hotel promptly at 8:30 a.m. and informed us that the trek to Ouarzazate was going to take 4 hours each way, with very limited opportunities for bathroom breaks.  Drinking many beverages wasn’t recommended, but taking Dramamine was.  It was going to be a long, criss-crossy drive, he explained to us, but the destination would be well-worth the journey.

It was obvious he knew the roads.  He smoothly took the sharp turns, and swiftly navigated around potholes before they were even visible. Many parts of the road were one-way, with huge trucks and tour buses trying to pass each other, only inches away from the ledge.  About halfway through the ride to Ouarzazate, dust, traffic guards, and bulldozers appeared.  A tremendous road expansion project was underway to better accommodate the traffic moving from the Sahara to the big city.

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Although exciting to see an expansion was underway, it was terrifying.  Traffic was backed up as guards halted the movement of vehicles in each direction to let the construction trucks through.  Backhoes were propped up on the rocky hills just feet away from the cars right below them.  Dust was surrounding the vehicles, minimizing the visibility from the windows.  For a few (long) miles, we slowly crept up the uneven, wobbly dirt hill trail with a tour bus only a few inches in front of us, a semi truck riding our tail, and a steep mountain edge just inches to our left.  My mom was tightly grasping the handle bar praying we made it out alive, and I took the opportunity to pass out from the Dramamine.

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Before long, I was being gently shaken awake.  We were at the viewpoint overlooking Ksar Ait-Ben-Haddou, the breathtaking UNESCO world heritage site.   “Located in the foothills on the southern slopes of the High Atlas in the Province of Ouarzazate, the site of Ait-Ben-Haddou is the most famous ksar in the Ounila Valley. The Ksar of Aït-Ben-Haddou is a striking example of southern Moroccan architecture from the 17th century.” While it encompasses many of the traditional ksar features including modest, compact dwellings, a mosque, and public community areas, it “is a perfect synthesis of earthen architecture of the pre-Saharan regions of Morocco.”  With assistance from UNESCO, the town has been well-preserved and a popular place to visit with rich, historical roots.  In addition to tourism, this region has been sought-after in the film industry because of the unique, unspoiled scenery.

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So off we went to the Atlas Film Studio, one of the largest (22 hectares/~55 acres) permanent production studios, opened in 1983.  With the expansive desert surrounding this town, the topography was ideal for many movies that featured a desert scene.  A handful of widely-known movies were shot at the Atlas Film Studio over the years.  Some that you have probably seen, or at least heard of, include The Mummy, Alexander the Great, and Gladiator.  Parts of the popular TV series, Game of Thrones, have also been shot at Atlas.  Visitors today are able to walk through the sets of these films and hold authentic, featured props from the various movies.

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Although I’m not much of a movie buff, it was exhilarating to walk through these old-time scenes.  We were surrounded by faux gold and overwhelmingly large, 12-foot-tall pharaoh faces that gleamed down on us.  My mom and I took turns sitting in the King’s chair and picking up “boulders.”  Boulders…meaning huge, painted styrofoam spheres that looked nearly identical to the surrounding rock wall scenery.  We marveled about how real many of the props looked while trying to piece together what movie they were featured in.

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The growth of the town of Ouarzazate was mostly due to the success of the film industry.  Although it has been quiet since one of the last filmings in 2009, Ouarzazate still remains home to over 71,000 people.

Mohammed brought us to a local restaurant for lunch to ensure we had the chance to experience an authentic, local meal.  Our afternoon delight consisted of four courses: salad, lamb tagine, additional meat, and dessert, plus the most delicious mint green tea.  If you haven’t heard of “tagine” before, it is an incredible stew-like meal.  It is named after the shallow, circular ceramic dish with a coned top that it is cooked in.  This unique vessel creates an environment perfect for slow-cooking a meal and keeping it warm afterwards.

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Photo credit to New York Times.  After going through my photos, it appears I didn’t capture any of the food.

Traditionally, the stew consists of a meat – lamb or chicken – root vegetables, dried fruits, and is seasoned with a distinctive, delicious blend of saffron, cardamom, coriander, cinnamon, turmeric, and ginger powder.  It is finished with lemons and olives and accompanied by a side of grain, with couscous being the most common option.

We left feeling full, happy, and a bit sleepy.  Mohammed encouraged us to walk it off and further explore the local town.  As we explored the medina, Mohammed asked us to stop for a moment to carefully look at the houses and compare them to the newly constructed buildings. Besides noticing the obvious – the physical construction, the bright blue colored doors, and the earthy-toned walls – it took me a few moments to capture the “What’s Different.”

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There were hardly any windows.

Mohammed explained that, historically, there were hefty window taxes throughout the region. To cut back on taxes, people constructed their homes with little to no windows.  If we saw a house that had many windows, it typically meant the owners were wealthy.

We headed towards the Kasbah of Tifoultoute, the 19th century fortress belonging to Thami El Glaoui, Pasha of Marrakech.  Very visibly on this building were many windows, further proving Mohammed’s earlier point about the tax.

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We continued through the town, stopping in a jewelry and rug shop.  Obviously geared towards tourists (the tour buses parked outside were a giveaway!), we quickly maneuvered through the shop, looking for unique items.

There were a few pieces of silver that intrigued us, and after looking at the price tag and putting the items back down, a Consumer Resource Guidesales representative approached us.  He asked what interested us about those specific products and why we put them back.  Further explaining that we weren’t willing to pay the price, he put the items on a silver plate and said, “In our culture we negotiate, let’s talk.”  This is a new concept for most Americans, as we are used to going to a store, picking up an item, taking it to the cash register, and paying what is rung up on the screen.  I grew up going to Chinatown in Manhattan, and no matter what we picked up from the stall, negotiating was expected, so I was ready to go!  But my mom? Not so much.  Mohammed could sense that she didn’t want to participate, so he offered to take us to a local spot in the city the following day.  And he mentioned that he’d assist with the transaction.  Plus, it was getting late and we still had a 4-hour journey ahead of us… and doing it in the dark was not preferable.  So, we headed to the van to begin the trek back to Marrakesh.

The ride back to Marrakesh seemed quicker than on the way there… and maybe that was because the motion sickness meds kicked in shortly after leaving Ouarzazate.  The following day we scheduled to go to Casablanca, and a solid nap was in good order.