Morocco’s bewitching place of burnished sand and scorching desert
By Melody Moser
The wind rustled through the palm fronds as my camel’s soft, splayed feet pressed upon the honey-colored sand, his rhythmic gait lulling me into a peaceful reverie. The shady palms of the Amezrou Palmeraie towered above, dangling bushels of golden dates over our heads, plump berries so sweet that when the guide offered me one, I ate it so quickly that it dissolved before I had a chance to savor it.
Our camel caravan was in the middle of a two-hour trek through the oasis near Zagora in Morocco’s Drâa River Valley, a bewitching place of burnished sand and scorching desert, surrounded by a sea of green palms on both banks of the river.
I had come to Morocco to escape the frenzied activity of my life: to try to slow down and truly appreciate things, something I never did at home. In the Drâa, I found a place where time stands still. Here, where distant kasbahs look like palaces out of the Arabian Nights, where boys ride by on donkeys, and women wash clothes in water channels as their children play nearby, I had the opportunity to learn a new–older–rhythm of life. Until a century ago, the Drâa River Valley was part of the lucrative trans-Saharan trade route.
Thousands of camels made the hazardous two-month journey across the Sahara to the great market towns of the Niger River–Timbuktu and Gao–carrying salt, dates, barley and goatskins. On return, they brought the gold dust, slaves, ivory and ostrich feathers that made North Africa wealthy.
Overland Route in Decline
With the arrival of coastal shipping in the late 19th century, this overland route went into decline. So did the Drâa Valley until recently, when it was moderately revived by the new trade in tourism. Beginning in the modern regional administrative center of Ouarzazate, the paved road snakes 193 kilometers through the valley along the Drâa River, which, in April, was moderately full.
After Zagora, the last real city before the Sahara, the road continues another 95 kilometers through a desolate, dramatic landscape to M’Hamid, where it ends, literally disappearing into the sands of the Sahara. Strategically located at the junction of three rivers, Ouarzazate was once the base of power over the south’s vital trade routes. With many modern hotels, restaurants and the 100-year-old lavishly decorated Kasbah Taourirt, the town makes good overnight stop and base for exploration.
The stunning surrounding areas have also become choice locations for Hollywood filmmaking. The most well-known location is Aït Benhaddou. Thirty-two kilometers northwest of Ouarzazate, this UNESCO-listed world heritage kasbah is so spellbinding that over 20 films have been filmed here, including “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Jesus of Nazareth,” “Jewel of the Nile” and the recent blockbuster, “The Gladiator.”
After crossing the shallow, reed-strewn river on stepping stones, we entered the ancient village through orchards of almond trees. Though the crenellated, red-ochre walls of the ancient buildings are the stuff of fantasies, many have been renovated for the movies, and it is hard to tell which are original and which are not.
But somehow, it didn’t matter. Aït Benhaddou is both old and new, as we could tell from the mud walls of a local home where photos of the late Moroccan king hung beside a poster of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet from the movie “Titanic.” In Agdz, an hour from Ouarzazate, the lush, green trees of the oasis suddenly appeared. Standing out against a backdrop of stark, the cultivated oasis is speckled with pisÈ kasbahs and ksour rising like huge sandcastles from the desert.
After visiting the ancient rock carvings of Timiderte and learning about the prehistoric reptiles that once roamed the valley, we arrived in Zagora. Modern, dusty and disappointing at first glance, Zagora is the last town of any substantial size before the Sahara. But as we explored the area, we discovered it made an excellent base for camel treks or trips to the different villages in the Drâa.
The Old Jewish Kasbah
The nearby village of Amezrou is home to the old Jewish Kasbah, once the center of life for a community of talented jewelers. Though most of the Jewish population left for Israel in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, Berber craftsmen have taken over the tradition and their workshops are open to the public.
At the potters’ cooperative in the holy village of Tamegroute, beautiful pieces of pottery are created much as they were throughout history. Tamegroute also houses a theological college dating from the 11th century and a distinguished library that once held 40,000 volumes. The library contains a collection of illuminated Korans, the oldest of which are written on gazelle skins. At the far end of Zagora’s main street stands a much-photographed, half-serious French sign:Ý “52 Days to Timbuktu.” By camel, that is. A reminder of the old trade routes and caravans that made this region rich.
Though we couldn’t cross the Sahara by camel this time, we rose early one morning and drove 25 kilometers to the Tinfou Dunes. Here, I finally had the chance to stop and watch in awe as the bright orange orb of the sun rose over the dusky dunes, their colors slowly changing from gray to reddish-brown, and finally to tawny gold. Nearby, an inn run by a family of artists sports another version of the famous Timbuktu sign, this one claiming “51 Days to Timbuktu.” We were getting closer and so was I.
Back in the date groves of the Amezrou Palmeraie, an intoxicating wind blew by, bringing with it the scents of oleander, mint and orange, and I saw from the back of my camel that our trek, and my time in the Drâa, was coming to an end. I reached up and pulled another date from a tree. This time, I had learned from the desert, and I ate it slowly, savoring every bite of sweetness and sunshine. Life should be enjoyed, I thought; savored like a succulent Moroccan date. For if you don’t take it slowly, it can slip away in the blink of a camel’s eye.
LODGINGS AND EATS
Riad Salam Hotel
Ave. Mohammed V, Ouarzazate
Tel. (212 4) 88-33-35
Fax (212 4)88-27-66
A peaceful hideaway popular with celebrities. Has a pool, restaurant, tennis courts, horseback riding and excursions. Doubles $38 to $76.
Quartier Mansour Eddhabi, Ouarzazate
Tel. (212 4) 88-30-77
Gardens surround rooms in villas, with restaurant, bar, pool, and tennis courts. Doubles $86 to $143. For something different, the restaurant Le Ouarzazate is associated with the Ksar El Farrah (aka Fantasia) in the Sidi Daoud district and specializes in fantasias (horse-riding displays) while serving lunch in shady tents. Although geared for tourists, a fantasia is an exciting show. Check with your hotel for times and prices. Aït Ben Haddou
Hôtel La Kasbah,
Complexe Touristique, Aït Ben Haddou, Ouarzazate.
Tel. (212 4) 89-03-02
Fax (212 4) 88-37-87
Beside the river in Aït Ben Haddou. Has a terrific restaurant, bar and pool. Doubles $18, including breakfast. For a quieter place, you can stay at the French-run
Auberge El Ouidane, on the right before the Restaurant La Kasbah. Zagora
La Fibule du Drâa
B.P. 11, 45900 Zagora.
Tel. (212 4) 84-73-18
Fax (212 4) 84-72-71
Located among the palm gardens, it has a restaurant and pool, 30 rooms, and organizes camel rides and excursions, including overnights in M’hamid. Doubles $30 to $60. The same owners run the slightly faded, but peaceful
just off the Boulevard Mohammed V.
Tel. (212 4) 84-72-52
Fax (212 4) 84-70-42
A restaurant, a bar and pleasant rooms overlooking palm filled gardens and a refreshing pool. Doubles $60. Tamegroute
Jnane Dar, Chez Abdessadek Naciri, is a charming cafÈ-restaurant in a walled garden. Tinfou
Auberge-RÈpos Sable Tinfou
Chez el Farou, BP 6, Tamegroute, Zagora
Tel. (212 4) 84-85-66
An endearing and slightly unusual auberge, run by two of Morocco’s leading artists. They organize camel trips to the nearby dunes. Doubles $10.
Several major tour companies offer tours of various lengths to Morocco, many of which will include a foray into the Drâa Valley. Check GoNOMAD.com’s Tours Channel for listings. Even if you are going into the Sahara for only one day, a guide is strongly recommended. For safe, customized treks at about $40 a day, and camel expeditions for about $67, try Ali Daimin’s licensed Caravane Erg Tel. (212 4) 84-75-76, Fax (212 4) 84-62-06 in Zagora. To reserve in person go across the street from the HÙtel Tinsouline to the Bazar Tombouktou and ask the proprietor, Youssef Barane. Camel excursions and expeditions are also offered by La Fibule du Drâa, above.
morocco.com Moroccan National Tourist Office in New York
The tourist office on Ave. Mohammed V in Ouarzazate is opposite the CTM bus terminal, open 9:00 AM to 12:00 noon and 2:30 PM to 6:30 PM Monday to Friday.
(212 4) 88-24-85
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