Features in Many Famous Hollywood Movies
The ancient mud brick fortress and trading post at Ait Benhaddou is a striking example of Moroccan Earthen clay architecture and has gained massively in popularity over the last few years. Not only has the ighrem (fortified village) become an UNESCO World Heritage site, it has also featured in many famous Hollywood films, including Gladiator, Game of Thrones and Lawrence of Arabia to just name a few. Ait Benhaddou had always been a destination, among many others in Morocco that I wanted to explore. With its location at the end of the Ounilla Valley it gave us the perfect stop off point after a scenic drive heading for Ouarzazate from near Telouet.
Parking Our Car
Jerome was also looking forward to visiting the ancient fortified town at Ait Benhaddou, happy to leave the car after an hour or two of sitting in the car and peering out of the window. Thankfully we easily found a car parking space on the roadside, away from pestering parking guides. After having spent two nights in a small Berber village with barely any foreigners around we needed to readjust to the crowds in Ait Benhaddou.
On Every Tour Itinerary
With its reputation it is now on every tour itinerary to the region and attracts independent travellers and tour groups alike. Straight upon leaving the car and making our way towards the lanes that would lead us through the new village to the old ksar we were approached by locals that wanted to guide us around the monument. We successfully ignored all advances of that kind and soon found our way past restaurants, souvenir shops and residential houses to the dry riverbed, the majestic fortress right in front of us.
The Entrance to Ait Benhaddou
The main entrance to Ait Benhaddou can be reached across a bridge, however we were happy walk across some stepping stones, past a lone snake charmer and some local kids, to a back entrance of the ksar. The ancient fortess is surrounded by defensive walls reinforced with towers, and creeps up a steep hillside. We paid a small entrance fee and followed a route, signposted with arrows deeper into the old mud town houses. Once a busy trading point for caravans on their way from the desert to Marrakesh, the buzz nowadays derives from locals trying to sell handicrafts to the masses of tourists and the chatter of visitors exploring from all over the globe – perhaps not so different in a way from the original buzz of a market.
Inside the Fortress
Inside the walls of the ksar used to be a mosque, a public square and even an Arabic and Jewish cemetery. Nowadays there are only a few families that actually call the fortress home, most having moved to the new village cross the river. The majority of houses are empty shells, although constant efforts are in progress to keep the structure of the fort sound and protect it from crumbling like many other kasbahs in Morocco.
Choosing a Route Through the Ksar
Charred walls showed a sign of a recent fire on a cluster of houses inside the walls of the ksar. Jerome enjoyed choosing our random route through the maze of the dark, narrow alleyways and stairs and we barely met anyone else until we were much deeper inside the fortress town. Then, suddenly the tour groups and other visitors appeared from all sides, all climbing up the limited way towards the top of Ait Benhaddou, past souvenir shops and cafes. Jerome was surprised to find a paddock of sheep and donkeys among the houses higher up and he seemed quite taken by one of the painters showing his artwork in one of the shops.
The Architecture of the Mud Houses
The oldest structure of Ait Benhaddou sits on top of the small mountain, around which the ksar is arranged. The climb was short but strenuous and young children might get tired quickly, although there is a lot to see and experience along the way. Climbing up the steep stairs we got to witness the architecture of the mud houses, some of them quite plain, others resembled small castles with beautiful and intricate designs, some of them dating back to before the 17th century.
Panoramic Views From the Summit
Once we had reached the summit, we stood in front of the oldest building of the fortress at the peak, taking in the wide panorama. Looking out over the new village, we could see hills and the vastness of the stone desert leading south, looking back up river, were the towering Atlas Mountains in the distance.
Strolling back down the lanes we found ourselves by chance at the same gate where we had entered the walls of the fortress earlier on. We left the striking ksar behind, searching for a restaurant where we could enjoy a quick and easy lunch. Unfortunately we found most of them to be either too fancy or ones that did seem inviting we actually ended up in the restaurant, opposite of our car on the main road through town. Too be honest it was probably much like the others, spacious and geared mostly towards larger tour groups but we could not be bothered to look for other options as our hunger had already taken over our mood. The food was neither delicious nor bad, just a standard boring meal of local tajines and bread. At least it was not too expensive and the staff were friendly.
On our return to our car we spotted that someone had stood there to “guard” it and expected a few dirham for his service, this is typical when you park in towns across the country so always have a few coins to hand as a tip even if it is a fairly worthless service. Leaving the ancient mud brick fortress of Ait Benhaddou behind, we drove the last few kilometres towards our hotel.
Hotel Cote Sud
I had chosen Cote Sud, located in a village on the outskirts of Ouarzazate. The hotel was an oasis of peace and calm. It was arranged over four modern well designed buildings set around courtyards and pools, which was a stark contrast to our basic dwelling in the mountains. Happy to find that our family room had decent hot water for a shower and proper heating, both luxuries that we had missed during our first nights in Morocco.
New Years Eve
We spend the remains of the afternoon sipping hot mint tea warmed by the winter sun on the terrace by the pool watching the birds flit between the buildings. The evening was New Years Eve and we spent celebrating into the New Year with a group of Spanish expats in the Cote Sud’s restaurant, devouring a long and delicious menu of Spanish and Moroccan dishes. According to Spanish traditions we ate twelve grapes at midnight to bring good luck for the New Year. Our start to the first day of the New Year was exploring a secret abandoned film set in Ouarzazate…curious? Find out more in our following post…
Follow us on Social Media