THE ROAD BEST TRAVELLED Part 3: Ouarzazate – Gateway to the Desert

This is deceptively fertile ground for an imagination that wants to go wild. Ouarzazate is another red city bleached to terracotta peach and pink by the relentless sun. It lies at the crossroads of age-old trade routes linking North and West African regions, and eventually, the European ports along Morocco’s Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts.

I close my eyes… the rolling gait of our camels has propelled us onward, each of the 52 days since we left Tombouctou. Our camel caravan is laden with trade goods, and we are anxious to unburden ourselves. Our hypnotic trance is broken by the first glimpse of the towering walls of Ksar Ait Ben Haddou, still far in the distance. The fortified city is at first indistinguishable from the tumble of rocky outcrops strewn across the scrubby plains, and then the tell-tale regularity of the manmade walls betrays the camouflage. The camels sense it also: we all feel a renewed sense of energy to cover the last remaining distance where we know we will find rest, refreshment, and possibly reward…

Today, the approach to Ouarzazate is very different. It is so characteristic of Morocco’s simultaneously subtle and brutal hopefulness: while we are still perhaps five or so kilometres away from the city, while the pink-red plains still camouflage the city, the rural highway suddenly widens, and we roll onto pristine asphalt, sharply black from having been recently paved. It is flanked on both sides by broad, even sidewalks, and at regular intervals, ornate and absolutely new light posts and equally new and ornate park benches – despite the complete absence of any sign of habitation that would predictably produce people who might sit or walk there.

As we approach Ouarzazate, this highway-cum-boulevard is punctuated by a series of roundabouts well-appointed with sculptures, lush plantings of roses or decorative rock, seemingly braced in anticipation of large volumes of chaotic traffic. The roads leading off to each side of the roundabouts have not been fully paved, but vast fields on either side of the road have been leveled, streets have been roughed in, and utilities have been trenched for residential development. All of this is completely out of proportion to the size of present-day Ouarzazate itself, but as you travel through Morocco, it is common to see these same ‘grand’ entrances to Morocco’s mid-sized cities where the scale of the infrastructure seems…

Hopeful. Optimistic. Visionary.

Ouarzazate itself is a modern city, situated at the crossroads of several important routes: the Erg Chebbi desert towns are to the northeast. The beautiful oases of the Draa Valley and Zagora lie to the southeast, and then further on to M’Hamid, the dusty little jumping-off point for the other major desert area in Morocco, Erg Chigaga. If you turn southwest, you follow the route through saffron country around Taliouine, then on to Taroudannt and argan country in the Souss-Massa region, and to Agadir on the Atlantic coast.

Today, we’re taking a welcome break from the road to enjoy Ouarzazate’s special treasures.

The Kasbah Taourirt is a jewel. It is a particularly well-preserved example of the old traditional kasbahs that once dotted the major trade routes. In fact, when we head out of Ouarzazate in the direction of the Erg Chebbi desert, we will pass along the “Route des Kasbahs” that runs from Skoura and on up to Boumalne de Dades – it’s littered with the ruins of old kasbahs.

A ksar and a kasbah are somewhat similar in that a ksar is a fortified village, often originally developed around a trading centre, while a kasbah is more like a fortified palace, home of the ruling family. A visit to the Kasbah Taourirt, then, is like a trip into the distant past, not unlike a visit to a European castle, where you can imagine a life and lifestyle that is at once ‘primitive’ and also exceptionally advanced. Despite what we would think of as technological limitations, either in materials or tools, there is still evidence of a pursuit of, and appreciation for beauty, ease, grace, and civility. The Kasbah Taourirt supplies the guide, and they are always absolute fonts of knowledge about the buildings, the construction, decoration, and the life and lifestyles of the former inhabitants. Every time I do this tour, I come away with deeper respect for this culture and the world it represents.

And then, with a jolt that feels like whiplash, we next visit the Atlas Studios, the world’s largest film studio, and the location of many productions such as Lawrence of Arabia, Patton, Jewel of the Nile, Gladiator, and Game of Thrones. We heft boulders made of styrofoam, stroll ancient streets of false-fronted shops and stencilled columns. After the Kasbah Taourirt, my reaction to this faux version of the ancient world is visceral. But it’s still entertaining to see how little it takes to create an alternative reality that is, for some people, how this part of the world first becomes accessible: the screen version captures their imagination in such a way that they begin to see Morocco as a travel destination.

We take the dusty road out to Ksar Ait Ben Haddou, some 20 kilometres from Ouarzazate, and park in the central square, ringed by cafes, hotels, and the ubiquitous souvenir shops. This ‘new’ town has sprung up across the river from the old fortifications, but it is truly a world away. Although all of the cafes and accommodations are perfectly fine, the architecture, if that’s what you would call it, is a parody of the genius and the level of accomplishment that is represented by the ksar.

This vast, imposing complex must have been a breathtaking sight for travellers arriving from Tombouctou. It’s still breathtaking. It has certainly earned its UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. The architectural style is totally unique to this region east of the Atlas Mountains. Built of red clay and straw pisé, the walls near the bottom are nearly one metre thick, and taper toward the top. The thick walls keep the interiors cool during summer and warm in winter. They are beautifully and uniquely decorated, with the geometric designs incised into the clay.

It survives as a “living museum”: here and there, women and children peer out from doorways, and some call out invitations to tea. Where once there were thousands living here, these few remaining residents still maintain the traditional ways of life, many serving as docents to interpret the site to visitors. No running water. No electricity. No plumbing. Dirt floors.

Just the way it used to be, the way it always was.

Private Morocco tours  ·  Morocco travel · Authentic travel Morocco · Ouarzazate

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