Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Road to the Kasbahs

Last time we came to came Marrakech we were disappointed that we’d been unable to fit in a trip the High Atlas Mountains so this time we pre-booked. I read the blurb that Thomson gave online and whilst there were two trips that sounded remarkably similar, we opted for the one called ‘High Atlas 4×4 – Road to the Kasbah’s.’  

Having had two very lazy days by the pool getting mindful we were now ready for our adventure so on Tuesday off we went. The day started with us waking up as usual to the sound of the 5am call to pŵrayer from the nearby Koutoubia Mosque. We popped into the hotel restaurant to see 6 other adventurers having a rushed early breakfast too. Then we met up with our tour organiser in reception and got assigned to our 4×4 vehicles and Ahmed, our driver for the day. We shared our vehicle with a nice Dutch couple, Peter and his wife, who’s name I never caught but who had a terrible hacking cough.
We drove along to the hotel we stayed at last year and met up with the other 5 vehicles in our 4×4 caravan and met our guide Rashid.
Then we got on the road proper exiting Marrakech to the South East and heading to the mountains. The weather was pretty dull as we set off and as we started to gain a bit of height it got rather worse and soon we were driving in fog which got thicker and thicker. Hm..this looked like we hadn’t chosen such a great day to do this sight seeing trip..but never mind.
The guide wasn’t in our vehicle so we just had Ahmed telling us bits and pieces along the way….all of it in French which only the Dutch lady really unstood.
We climbed through a small town called Ait Ourir which had a market going on. This mostly involves lots of men with donkeys and carts having a gathering in the dusty, scruffy looking place. We carried on into more rural areas with olive groves and green grass before it started to get too foggy really to see much at all, including the car in front.
After about an hour we reached our first stopping point, a cafe with a viewing terrace and we couldn’t believe our luck when, just as we reached here the fog cleared and we emerged into the sunshine. The views were beautiful with lots of green hills around us but by the time we’d had a comfort break the fog had come back again and these views disappeared once more.
On we went climbing higher and higher up towards the pass at Tizi-n-Tichka. The fog cleared once more and the scenery started to change to forest areas with lovely pine trees including an area reserved for the Royal Family of Morocco to go hunting. We passed through the town of Taddert where there is a barrier that is put down in Winter when snow closes the pass.
We’d been able to see that we were heading up towards the snow and now it started to come into full view although nowhere near the road ..thank goodness.
I must admit parts of this road have become a bit of a blur after this. Suffice to say that we kept on climbing and the scenery kept changing. At times we were driving alongside beautiful fast, flowing rivers surrounded by prune and almond blossom trees, next we were driving through areas of arid red rock with boulders as big as houses and precipitous drops to the side of the road. The road is so winding  that it’s impossible to count just how many hairpin bends it has. I am sure the Thomson blurb didn’t tell us all this! I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the number of points along the road where there was either a serious rockslide that had been cleared to one side or the safety barrier to stop you going over, had actually gone over itself!
So,yes it is not for the faint hearted this trip and I was so glad that Ahmed seemed to be a very good and patient driver.
After another stop at a particularly precipitous point to take some photos, we reached the high point of the pass itself which is at a height of 2260 metres (7415 ft). At one point up here they were repairing the road. They closed the hairpin bends down to just one lane with one cone !
Soon after the pass we took a turn off the main road (‘main’ road LOL) and followed the sign to Telouet. This road was even more winding and now the Tarmac had obviously run out. Now we really did need the 4×4 and I realised that I have just not been putting my Rav 4 through its paces back home! Ahmed clearly enjoyed driving on this stretch and seemed to speed up. Oh goody…
We now started to travel along a remote valley which became more and more scenic as we continued. We passed through some amazing mud villages. The first main stop was at the village of Telouet itself which has a largely abandoned old Kasbah. We learned from Rashid about the meaning of the word Kasbah. Basically it seems to be a sort of fortress, generally with 4 tall four-sided towers and made of earth obviously. This particular Kasbah was very important apparently back in the day but perhaps not as far back as we might have thought. It was in fact the stronghold of the Glaoui tribe in the early 20th century whereas the scenes that were before us today were positively biblical. The place is still occupied by descendants of this moorish tribe who have much darker skin than the Berber race around here. The main fortress, however, is in such a state of disrepair that we weren’t able to visit- only taking pictures from afar.
After this stop we carried on along the valley following the route of the Wadi Ounila where the scenery continued to be absolutely stunning with different kasbahs and villages along the way. It’s very fertile up here and we passed plantations of palms, olive and fig trees. In some parts though it was just rock the colours of which were continually changing. In places red, yellow, more white and even purple. One particular stretch of the road was just gravel and we even forded a river at one point and balanced along a makeshift bridge at another.
Our next stop was to admire another village which I think was called Anemiter. It’s red mud buildings seemed very well preserved as they hung over the River Ounila.
Finally, we reached our main destination which is the UNESCO World heritage site of Ait Benhaddou. It’s famous for being one of the best preserved kasbahs in the whole region. But it’s claim to fame goes way beyond that as it has been used in lots of movies such as Lawrence of Arabia, The Mummy, Gladiator and much to Jane’s joy more recently in the TV series Game of Thrones. For those fellow GoT fans it represents the fictional city of Yunkai where the Khaleesi went on her travels in search of an army and those ever elusive ships in series 3. Jane was very excited about this and strode about in her ‘I am not a princess, I am a Khaleesi’ t-shirt just like her heroine Daenerys Targaryen (minus her dragons).
The site stands on a small hill on the far side of a river and to get across to it we had to negotiate some stepping stones. The river was not deep but quite fast flowing and some nice local lads were there to hold our hands for a small price of course. Jane and I decided we would manage without and made it. However, we saw two chaps slip and fall in, one of whom did it in spectacular style as he tried to save his camera bag. Oops.
After this we had a little climb up around the Kasbah which really hasn’t had much done to preserve it which is why all the film producers love it. It was also quite hazardous walking around as a result of this and another poor chap took a tumble. Health and Safety is really not an issue over here.
It is quite stunning and we could clearly see how it had been made from just mud, timber and bamboo.
On our return to the village we went back a more sedate way across a proper bridge! This took us close to our restaurant for lunch where we had some nice Salad, bread, omlette and chicken skewers. We felt we deserved a beer but much to the disappointment of Jane and the Belgian lads we’d sat down with, this was a dry town!!
After lunch Rashid told us that we would then take a drive to the town of Ouarzazate which is pronounced ‘war-zazat’. This was a turn in completely the wrong direction from Marrakech but it seem that there are plenty of reasons to visit. Here are just a few:-
1) it is known as the Gateway to the Sahara (which we did not visit)
2) it has a big film studios here (which we did not visit)
3) Rashid’s friend has a carpet shop here (which unfortunately we did visit)
However, the main reason that Jane and I were pleased to have had this little detour was so that we can say that we have been to a place with a name pronounced ‘War-zazat’.
We had driven 220km to get to this point and by now it was about 4pm and Rashid told us that it would now take 200km drive of four hours to get home. Oh my goodness ….and what a drive. To start with we went along a new bit of road until we met back up with route N9 where earlier on in the day we had turned off to Telouet. This bit wasn’t too bad but then we had to retrace our steps all along this winding, precipitous road back upto TnT pass. Of course it began to get dark and Ahmed, who had by now been driving for about ten hours, was rather impatient to get home. We kept getting stuck behind slow trucks or vans and he couldn’t wait to get past them. It was quite honestly pretty terrifying and Jane was sitting in the front. Poor thing. I, meanwhile, was cramped up in the very back of the van trying my best to test the brakes. As we got lower down not only was it dark but it began to rain. Oh great ..slippy roads as well now.
It did finally take us the predicted four hours to get back into Marrakech but instead of taking us back to our hotel Ahmed decided it would be nice to take us to see the Palace. He drove along very slowly blabbing on in French ‘Regarde a la droit….Regarde a gauche….’ We have no idea what we were supposed to be regarding but frankly we weren’t interested. We wanted a well deserved beer in the bar!
Finally, he gave up and took us back to the hotel. We gave him a great big tip as even though on the way back he got a bit impatient, he really was a very, very good driver.
So there we have it a 420km round trip and this must have been one of the most scenic drives in the world. In the bar later I equated it to having a day trip upto the Lakes back home, having a bit of a drive up Wrynose Pass, and then coming home again same day. Is that what tourists do? Crazy.


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Ooh Marrakech

I don’t normally choose to write blog posts about our shorter breaks but something happened yesterday that compelled me to capture a few thoughts about our trip to Marrakech. We came here last year too and had a lovely time so much so that when we were trying to decide where to go for some Winter sun this year..we came back. We are staying in a different hotel this year, The Medina Gardens. It’s still with Thomsons and we chose it because it is closer to the souks and because it has a heated pool. Last years hotel, the Riu Tikada Palmerie, had the most amazing huge pool but it was like taking an ice plunge and in fact I was one of only about a handful of people who ever went in. So this place seemed a better option. It is also a ‘Couples’ hotel. Now this is an interesting concept when you’re a gay couple. I had been slightly nervous that we might be arrested and thrown into a Morrocan Jail (now that would make for an interesting blog post..) but that hasn’t happened yet. However, I must say, I feel rather out of place. There’s something slightly odd about being with a group of people who choose to segregate themselves from others. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with it but it does make the place seem quite calm which is good.

Anyway it was our first day yesterday and we decided we needed to visit the spa. The nice lady had all sorts of packages on offer and I think we were a little mesmorized or jet lag perhaps? I doubt it seeing as it only takes 3 hours to get here!! We chose the Bledi package for a 3:30pm visit. After a nice lazy day by the quiet pool (which isn’t heated) it was time for us to go in. This was going to be a Hammam experience, apparently, although we didn’t know what to expect. So let me tell you…

First of all you are asked to strip down to your bikini or pants in our case as no one had mentioned bikini. Then you are taken into a rather hot, steamy room and the nice lady throws lots of buckets of warm water over you. Interesting..

Then you are invited to lie on you back on a slab of concrete covered with a big, kitchen sponge pad. Then we were washed down with some black soap. Funny thing was it wasn’t actually black but it did smell of Eucalyptus. Then we were left for about 20 minutes just staring up at the ceiling. I’m sure normally this would enable one to examine the beautiful patterned tiling of the Hammam but in our hotel it meant staring at a mouldy white ceiling waiting to feel the cold drips land on your body. It was around about now that I got a fit of the giggles and decided not to take the whole thing too seriously.

Next up the nice lady came back and gave us eye pads which smelled rather floral but were quite stingy. This now meant that we had even less idea what was going on. I could hear that something was happening to Jane and so asked her what was going on. She said that she was being rubbed down with a brush which didn’t sound too good especially as I could hear that it sounded quite vigorous. However, when it came to my turn it was really rather nice and in fact it was a rough flannel rather than a brush. I felt well and truely exfoliated.

Next we were covered in mud and sand or rather ‘clay’ as they like to call it. By now we could see what a state each other looked like and we laughed to see each other covered from head to toe in dirt . It was quite oily and felt as if it must be doing us some good as we were left for another 15 mins. Now I began to realise that lying on a concrete slab wasn’t very comfortable.

The lady came back in and made Jane sit in a white plastic chair whilst she threw more buckets of water at her to get the mud off. Then it was my turn and after this we got sent out of the steamy area to sit in a dry area in our robes.

To finish off we then had one of the best massages I have ever had with lovely fragrant oils and just the right amount of pressure and pokiness. 50 mins of total bliss. Lovely. And I have to say that by the end of it I had never felt so clean!


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B I R T H W O R K + D E A T H W O R K

One Woman | One Backpack | 10,000 miles

One Brit, one backpack, and a whole lot of world to explore