Thursday, December 29, 2011

The one and only Aït Benhaddou.


Without a shadow of a doubt, the highlight of today was our visit to Aït Benhaddou ("eight-ben-ha-do"), a fortified village. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site; inscribed in 1987.

Flash back to the morning. I woke up bright and early and headed down for breakfast. It was brisk, cold morning in the Todra Gorge; the sun was shining brightly. The dining room was crowded with the tour group from the day before.  They must have been a hungry lot because there was barely any food left Soon and I found a table and  waited a few minutes for the waiter to replenish the buffet plates. We then got our food. There was not a whole lot to choose from but as always, we each managed to cobble a plate of food together.



"On the road again " At one point, Mildred and Aaron popped in to look at the food offerings but turned around.  Salah showed up shortly after that.  He had had a rough couple of days dealing with some difficult customers but this morning, he looked more relaxed.  One thing about him though, he's never in a rush to leave so he told us to take our time.  Not much need to linger over breakfast so when we were done, we went and brought down our luggage to the lobby.   Aaron and Mildred were already to rock and roll.

By now, our morning departure had become routine; we had the process down pat and the seating arrangement in the car had not changed in days.

On the road we went.  Had no idea where we were going except that somewhere along the way, we would stop at Ouarzazate ("wear-zuh-zat"), Aït Benhaddou and eventually end up in Marrakesh. It was our last day of our desert tour.  I was excited to get started on the day but at the same time, sad that our time in this part of Morocco would soon come to an end :-(

By now, the stark landscape of the Atlas Mountains, that once captivated my attention had now become the same old, same old.  The kind of same old, same old that you find your self day dreaming to.

"Wear-zuh where? " Around mid-morning, we arrived into the outskirts of Ouarzazate.
For a long time, Ouarzazate was a small crossing point for African traders on their way to northern Morocco and Europe. During the French period, Ouarzazate expanded considerably as a garrison town, administrative centre and customs post.  Today, the town is known for three things - the Kasbah Taourirt, movie studios and Aït Benhaddou.

We only got to see the Kasbah Taourirt from the roadside as there just was not enough time for us to tour it.


The Kasbah Taourirt was built by the Glaoui family, who had risen to power of Morocco south of the High Atlas in the late 1800s, and who worked with the French in the early 1900s.

Salah pulled our car over into parking located opposite the street from the Kasbah.  Standing across the street, we could take in the full view of this massive structure which was constructed from straw and mud.  Amazing.  Even from a distance, I could see the decorative detail of the outer walls.








As we stood facing the Kasbah, behind us stood the entrance to the town's movie museum.  In fact, we were parked in the museum parking lot.






On our way out of town, we drove by a movie studio.  It was a bit wierd to see replicas of ancient Egyptians adoring columns.  Aren't we in Morocco?  In any event,  the town's movie industry apparently took off after the movie, Lawrence of Arabia, was filmed here in 1962.  Since then, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Kundun (1997), Legionnaire (1998), The Mummy (1999), Gladiator (2000), and Kingdom of Heaven (2005) have all been shot here.  Not bad for a small town located somewhere in the Atlas Mountains.



"There's a ksar in our future " We continued our journey towards Aït Benhaddou.  Winding mountain roads and more views of mud brick villages, valleys and stunning snow capped mountains.  These are views that I cannot get tired of seeing.



"THE Aït Benhaddou " As with so many places in developing countries, there are no entry gates or signs announcing a famous landmark.  In this case, not even souvenir vendors rimming the parking lot.  

As Salah pulled into a parking space, I could see buildings of Aït Benhaddou, in the distance, in front of us.  In planning for this trip, I had seen so many images of it, that even with the color of the village's mud brick structures blending perfectly into the background, I could recognize this famous heritage landmark.

The parking lot overlooked a small valley.  Perched on a hill, in the valley, was Aït Benhaddou; probably the most famous ksar (a fortified village) in the world and I don't think I'm exaggerating.

Aaron, Soon, and I scattered in to all different directions, each of us trying to find a good angle from which to take a few (okay, more than a few) photos.   Soon even shot a panoramic video.  You can really a good feel for the expansive landscape that Aït Benhaddou sits in.


Aït Benhaddou was built in the 11th century and sits on what was the caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakesh.  It was  major stop for camel caravans carrying salt and other commodities across the Sahara. It is a ksar which is a fortified village and is considered to be the best preserved and most beautiful of Moroccan villages.

I snipped the following description of Aït Benhaddou off the Journey Beyond Travel website:

"Ait Benhaddou has some of the earliest examples of geometric arrangements of bricks in a zig-zag pattern positioned at oblique angles used in building the walls. Fortified towers of mud bricks placed in the corners reinforced the walls even more. Guards would keep watch against invaders by peering through small windows placed near the top of their watchtowers. With interior buildings placed around a mosque at the center, it brimmed with family homes, small palaces and communal areas. Winding mazes of connecting streets and alleys mirrored other early Moroccan towns in its construction. Once a busy teeming city, it now stands as a ghost town. Earlier in its history, thousands of people made Ait Benhaddou home. Approximately 700 residents still live in the area. "
 
Although this is the land of the Berber, the village was actually named after Amghar Benhaddou who was of Arabic descent.  Salah broke down the name for us - Aït means "family place" and Ben means
 "son of" so Aït Benhaddou means the family place of Amghar, the son of Haddou.

Through my camera lens, I could make out a structure at the very top of the hill.  There were people milling around outside it so I knew we had to make our way there.

From where were standing, there was no way to get to Aït Benhaddou.  We got back in the car and Salah drove us into the heart of the small town that popped up nearby Aït Benhaddou and is inhabited by the Berbers who feel the need for two of the basic comforts of modern living - running water and electricity.

Salah parked the car in front of a small hotel with facilities for those who needed to relieve themselves before heading off.  I chose to stand outside, soak in the beautiful mountain air and watch the world go by.  We were definitely in a tourist hot spot and car after car carrying tourists came and left.  Even so, this is low season so there wasn't really much of a crowd.




With Salah leading the way, we made our way through the village, heading towards Aït Benhaddou.  Though we were just stone's throw away from a very popular tourist attraction, there were barely any souvenir shops in sight.  Not that I'm complaining but it was unusual.







Through on building, I caught glimpse of the fame fortified village, framed by a pair of patio doors.  I could see the decorative carvings, on the mud brick walls, that make this place such an admired one.....at least for anyone with a smidgen of an artistic eye.






Down alleyways and past buildings we went.  It was a short walk before we emerged into the valley to stand in front of a bridge that would take us, across the river, over to Aït Benhaddou.  There was barely any water in the river.  I presume that in early summer, it runs full from the snow melt from the surrounding mountains. I had read somewhere that you can ride a donkey but I didn't see any around.  Too bad cause that would have been fun.


Mildred was still nursing a very sore ankle and so we had to leave her behind because the narrow streets of Aït Benhaddou wind up hill and it would be too difficult for her to manage walking comfortably.

I followed the three guys across the bridge, stopping along the way to take photos.  We followed the main path which you can't miss because it's lined with souvenir shops.  Makes sense to have them and not in the new town.  Of course, with the shops come pesky salesmen :-(

Using my zoom lens, I was able to capture the architectural details of the buildings.  The towers were particularly charming, in their crudeness.


Up, up, up we went.  Turn to the left, to the right.....but always heading up and fending off souvenir salesmen. 













A few stops along the way to take pictures of the streets and buildings of the village and the new town which was now on the other side of the river.










Here's another one of Soon's wide angle pictures, a sequence  photos that he took and that I stitched together.  I've stitched a lot of photos for him to post up, he should pay me :-)


It was a pretty amazing view of the village buildings from the various vantage points that we had as we made our way to the top of the hill.








Across the river stood the mud bricks of the new town.  I could see the bridge we crossed and in the far distance, the hotel that we had parked in front of.  It's not a big town.















I was able to capture an even more close up view of the detail of the towers.  It's amazing this is all made from mud and straw.....not exactly material that makes it easy to carve intricate details.   At times, I felt like I was looking at the turrets of a sand castle.
















Eventually, we did make it to the top.   A great view of the village below, the river and the new town on the other side.






Soon shot a video and in it, you can see the wall that surrounds part of the upper part of the village.


There was only one structure at the top.  Not exactly sure what it is.  One place I read, it said was a storage structure for the village's treasured items.  Another article said it was the last bastion for the village residents to flee to if they were invaded.  Whatever it's purpose, the structure was pretty big and looked solidly built.   Though there was door, it was not open and we couldn't go inside.   Wonder what's behind the closed door?






 
Walking around the hilltop, I caught different vistas of the surrounding area.  There were snow capped mountains, in the far, far distance, beyond the new town.











In the opposite direction was an equally dramatic landscape but it's amazing how different it looked.  Salah was right; the scenery changes every few kilometers you go.  We caught Aaron standing alongside one of the village's walls.






Soon shot another video with even better views of the walls.








We a close up view of the walls as Soon and I walked back down the hill towards the village.  They didn't seem that imposing.....hard to imagine that mud walls would provide any real degree of protection but I guess they have for several centuries.






On the way down, I insisted that the guys pose for a photo which they reluctantly did.  They didn't attempt to strike a pose which I think made for a nicer photo - the guys look relaxed.  I like it.


We continued down hill.  At one point, Soon stopped to look at some magnets. The design was nothing we had seen so far but the guy was asking way, way too much and Soon was not so eager to have one that he was willing to negotiate.  So off we went.


We crossed the bridge and half way over the river, I stood and took one good, last look at the village of Aït Benhaddou while I had the chance.






We met back up with Mildred and walked back towards the hotel.  A quick potty break and a look at the map on the wall to see where we had been and where we were going.












"Tizi n' Tichka" Back in the car and on the road.  More mountain plateau scenery and my stomach was starting to growl.  No, those two things are not related.  Just that it was well past our lunch hour and my tummy knew it.





It wasn't long before we left plateau behind and headed into the mountains, real mountains.  The road started to get windy and it wound up hill.


We kept winding our way up the mountainside and with every switchback, the view got more and more spectacular.  At one point, we were driving on the top of a very mountain ridge as we could see the sides of the mountain drop to both the left and right of us.  It was quite something.  Up and up we went and one point, we could look down the mountainside and see where we had just come from; the road that snaked its way along the ridge.


Salah told was we were driving through the Tizi n'Tichka which is a mountain pass in Morocco that links Marrakesh to Ouarzazate.  Turn after turn, we had breathtaking vistas.  It's been four days of driving through the Atlas Mountains and never a boring view!

"Our last mountain barbecue"We drove into a small town, tucked into the mountainside.  There, Salah pulled over to a row of shops. Lo and behold, he had parked in front of butcher.  I think he knows where they are in all the towns we stop in :-)


We followed Salah up the few steps to the restaurant.  Of course, he stopped to check out the meat.  I swear that if he had his choice, he would have taken the whole leg of lamb.....not that Soon and I would have complained.   Aaron and Mildred are more conscientious about eating too much meat as I normally am but I am on vacation in "Meat Lovers Land" so I will indulge while I can.

Salah got us a table, outside the front of the restaurant.  It was a covered area which was nice so we weren't sitting in the glare of the late afternoon sun.  Next door was a small convenience store and Soon and I decided to check it out as we waited for our food to arrive.  Nuts, anyone?

It was an odd store - sold everything from hair dyes for women to munchies and drinks.  Lunch was on the way and we would find better snacks and drinks in Marrakesh so I passed on the shop.   It was more interesting to watch the two guys cooking up our lunch.  It was fitting that our final meal was almost the same as our first meal - ground meat and lamb chops.  It better be as good as our first meal....!


Lunch did not disappoint.  Before we sat down to eat, we headed inside the restaurant to use their sink to wash our hands.  Eating meat here is definitely a primal act - you grab your fingers and just gnaw it off the bones.  The Moroccans generally eat with the fingers on their right hand.

The meat was as flavorful as the one we had a few days ago but it was not quite as tender.  Seasoning was not as nice, I thought.  Salah sprinkled powdered cumin on top of the meat.  Here, they use cumin as we use pepper. 

Salah had also ordered another tajine for us.  According to Salah, there are regional differences but it all tasted pretty much the same to me.  Looks the same to me as well.

We also had tea to wash our meal down with.  When Salah was pouring out the tea, he told us this one was not flavored with mint but with absinthe.  I've heard of absinthe but I've never had it before so I had no idea what flavor to expect.  Salah said that it has a bit of an anise flavor to it and indeed there was a hint of that in the tea.  It was nice to change to the same old, same old mint tea.


By the time we finished, it was mid afternoon and we still had at least an hour's drive before arriving into Marrakesh.  According to our tour itinerary, we would be there in the *afternoon* so I knew we had to quickly get back on the road and hustle along.

We were still high up in the Atlas Mountains.  Village homes were tucked into the nooks and crannies of the mountains.



I know I have said how beautiful, scenic, spectacular, yada, yada, yada, the Atlas Mountain landscape is but nothing beat what we saw on our last hour.  It truly was spectacular!!

Salah drove like a bat out of hell as we wound through the most amazing part of the Atlas Mountains and I was banging into both Soon and Aaron as I tried to take pictures.  Why did I not ask him to stop??

I must have been in a food coma because it was obvious I wasn't thinking straight.

I didn't know whether to smack him or hug him when Salah finally confessed that he was deliberately whizzing along to make it difficult for us to take photos.  Sure, he was laughing.....sheesh.  Any way, he did redeem himself when he pulled over and let us to take it in the sights.  WOW!!  That's all I have to say.  Just, WOW!!

This, is the Tizi n'Tichka at its most magnificent.  The afternoon sun cast a warm light and there was haze in the air.  The result that was capture on my camera looked more like an Impressionist painting than a photograph.  Below is a series of photos that Soon took and that I stitched together to create the panoramic view.


Once we made it to the *other* side of the mountains, the landscape changed back to arid desert. It was a signal that we would soon be in Marrakech.  While I was looking forward to the next leg of our trip through Morocco, I have to say that I did enjoy our brief trip through the mountains.  It was a nice respite from the hustle and bustle of the cities we had been through and I will always have fond memories of my time here.....that and I have a really cool piece of desert rose to call all my own!

Good bye Atlas Mountains!