This week Carter’s Moroccan adventures take him through the beauty of the Atlas Mountains and in the city of Aït Benhaddou. Follow along as he explores the road less traveled and bound along with him over hills and pathways on a quad-bike excursion.
By Carter Hammett
Leaving the palmeries behind and crossing the Atlas Mountains, it’s inspiring to see the complex puzzle of red pisé buildings rising from the hills that is the ksar of Aït Benhaddou. Located in Ouarzazate province, the site’s importance stems from its position along a major trade route between Marrakech and the Sahara. The route disappeared and with it most of Aït Benhaddou’s population after the Tizi n’Tichka road replaced it. Currently reduced to roughly a half-dozen families, the village nonetheless found a second act as a movie set where films and TV shows, like The Mummy, Gladiator, Game of Thrones and Lawrence of Arabia, were filmed.
We ascend the narrow network of paths up to a fortified granary, which once served as the collective safe house for family valuables, and which offers stunning views of the surrounding area. At one point, we’re met by an artist offering deceptively simple drawings of local architecture on paper before realizing that we’re not looking at paint. Instead, the picture materials are made from tea, sugar and saffron. Smiling wordlessly, the artist holds the paper over a flame until the sugar crystallizes, turning the light-hued shadows into a ruddy brown. People begin to compete with each other for one of the artist’s products and depart, leaving him behind with a rather satisfied grin on his face.
The guides tell us the architecture dates back to the eleventh century while UNESCO gave its stamp of approval in 1987. It has since contributed much to the village’s restoration. Stand back and take it all in: the beautifully decorated and extremely well-preserved, castle-like structures, complete with towers and turrets, date back to the 17th century. It’s all pretty sobering stuff.
To change the pacing a little bit, most of us opt for a quad biking adventure that takes us on a madcap tour of the area. After the requisite orientation, we’re off on a fast-paced (but respectable) jaunt that takes us (literally) over hills and pathways, both natural and man-made. There’s dust everywhere—we’ve been told to wear clothing we don’t mind getting dirty—and yet, it’s a tightly-controlled event offered by skilled guides. Hand signals communicate a lot and we’re all on high alert for sudden turns, twists and speed increases. The overall effect is exhilarating!
One thing’s for sure: riding a quad bike’s a helluva lot more comfortable than riding a camel.
Check back next week for the final installment in Carter’s Moroccan adventures.