By Inka Piegsa-Quischotte
Following a man I didn’t know on foot at 3 o’clock in the morning deeper and deeper into dark, winding alleys in the medina of Marrakesh seemed like a fitting start to my recent Morocco adventure.
The man in question was the taxi driver who had picked me up at the airport to take me to my hotel.
The Riad Altair had been booked by my travel companion, so I had only a vague idea where it was and what to expect but from what little I knew is seemed like a brilliant choice.
The taxi ground to a halt a few moments ago and the driver had cheerfully declared: “Madame, we have to walk the rest of the way, it’s too narrow for the car.”
Out came the bag, out climbed I, and off we went. A few groups of people were standing around giving us curious glances and twice my taxi friend stopped, obviously asking directions in rapid Arabic.
I could only hope he got the correct answer and mentally began to rehearse my kick-boxing motions just in case anyone got any funny ideas.
One more turn and he announced: “Here we are.”
Really? I could see nothing but a huge rose-colored wall with a thick wooden door in it and a brass knocker. No neon signs, no windows, no name plate, nothing to indicate that this was indeed a hotel.
He knocked, making quite a racket, the door opened and I stepped into a scene right out of 1001 nights.
Roses in huge silver vases, palm trees, a fountain murmuring in the center of a tiled, cool courtyard, a chandelier slightly swaying in the breeze, niches along the walls with cushion covered divans and two galleries with wooden, carved doors soaring above, oh yes, this was definitely my idea of a romantic, small Moroccan hotel.
Yassim, the manager, night man, maitre d’, waiter and generally helpful soul all rolled in one, greeted me warmly and had no problem bringing me a freshly squeezed orange juice and much needed coffee despite the late hour.
My friend, who had arrived many hours before from a different part of the world, had already gotten into the spirit of things, lounging like Suleika on one of the divans and explaining next day’s travel plans and arrangements.
A good night’s sleep in one of the most comfortable beds I have ever slept in, a shower in an ample bathroom with lotions and potions in silver bottles, a hammered, silver sink, towels in abundance and again, fresh roses everywhere, followed by a breakfast on the roof terrace with a view over the Medina and we were ready for our trip to Ouarzazate.
Winter woolies and bikini on the way to Ouarzazate
You can fly from Marrakesh to Ouarzazate, the desert town located approx 200 km to the east, but that’s no fun.
The true adventure lies in taking to the road and following one of the most winding and harrowing mountain roads in all of Morocco high up into and over the Atlas mountains and down again to the desert along the Valley of Draa.
Ouarzazate is famous for its massive red kasbah and as a center for the movie industry where such classics as Lawrence of Arabia or Gladiator have been — in part — shot.
Moviemaking is still going strong and we wanted to visit the cinematography museum as well as the Berbere Palace Hotel where many original props are displayed and of course the kasbah.
The bikini was for a swim in the pool of the Berbere Palace to relax after the nail-biting mountain drive and to fortify ourselves for the return journey which would be partly at night. The winter woolies came in handy at the height of Tichka Pass.
As luck would have it, our driver was a Berber from one of the mountain villages we would be passing through and he insisted on taking us there.
Valley of Draa and Tichka Pass
The road starts harmlessly enough through the suburbs of Marrakesh, but as soon as the foothills of the Atlas mountains appear on the horizon, you’d better tighten your seatbelt.
Along the valley of the river Draa, which is no more than a trickle with riverbanks covered in thousands of oleander trees in full bloom, you soon get a taste of what this river was capable of over millions of years.
A deep canyon rises steeply to mind boggling heights and the road follows along, climbing and climbing with hairpin turns and ascents which make you wonder how the local buses which also run this route ever manage to make the trip, especially considering the load a passengers, luggage and the occasional sheep they carry.
I looked out the window and up and saw tiny cars silhouetted against the blue sky moving along a crest which seemed suspended in the air.
“We are not going up there, are we?” my more timid travel companion asked?
“Sure,” our driver grinned, who, for a brief moment, put both hands on the steering wheel as he had to avoid an oncoming bus. The movement directed my view to the right and down a sheer drop which ended out of sight.
“If we go over here,” I thought, “nobody is ever going to find us, but there was no chance of survival anyway, so, who cared?
Halfway up and just below the snow line, Ali stopped. Red walls glued to the mountain side announced the fortified village he hailed from.
We had a coffee in a tiny café where he was greeted warmly, then strolled along the local bazaar and admired the colorful garments of the proud Berber women who never veil their faces.
Huge chunks of minerals found in the mountains are sold all along the road as well as the occasional sand rose.
It was noticeably cooler and we were glad to have brought a sweater as we sat outside the café. But the more we approached the peak, Tichka Pass, the colder it got.
We were by now well above the snow limit and as in July all the snow has melted, a few months earlier and later you step into snow whilst you look down into the vast expanse of the desert sizzling in the heat.
Morocco was truly running hot and cold in the span of a few miles and hours.
Movie heaven: Ouarzazate
Naturally, the descent after Tichka Pass is a bit faster, but even so the trip from Marrakesh to Ouarzazate takes about four hours depending on the driving skills and audacity of your driver!
It’s quite a big town with straight avenues and many new buildings housing offices and apartments springing up everywhere. All thanks to the movie industry which has long since discovered the fantastic landscape surrounding the place as a suitable backdrop to reflect any country with a desert.
You pass along studios which can be visited but it was shortly after noon and very, very hot. So we headed for the Berbere Palace Hotel to put those bikinis to good use in the pool and to look at such original props like the cage from the ‘Planet of the Apes,’ Caesar and Cleopatra’s thrones from ‘Cleopatra’ and many, many more.
The Berbere Palace offers visitors a day pass which costs about $25 and gives them the right to use the pool, gardens and other facilities and even includes a surprisingly good and ample lunch of either pasta or pizza and a soft drink.
The hotel and grounds are vast with a beautifully kept garden full of palm trees, oleander and roses, a delight for the eye. After our swim, lunch and a thorough reminiscing about the movie past, we headed for the kasbah.
It’s one of the oldest, most impressive and most photographed kasbahs of Morocco. You can spend hours walking along the alleys.
In fact, if you have the time, it’s a good idea to reserve an entire day for Ouarzazate and go on a desert trip to Zagora and beyond where it gets even wilder.
We stopped briefly at the nearby cinematography museum and then started on the drive back. The main purpose of this day trip had been the drive over the Atlas mountains and we sure got our money’s worth.
The day trip with a private (fully air-conditoned and very comfortable car) and driver costs approximately $120 and has the advantage that you can stop wherever you please.
To continue with the ‘hot and cold’ theme which we meant literally as well as figuratively, we decided to hire the same driver and go in the opposite direction to Essaouira on the Atlantic coast the next day.
If you prefer to fly to Ouarzazate, consult with Morocco’s national carrier, Royal Air Moroc (RAM)
For more details about prices etc of the Berbere Palace Hotel, go to their website Tour Hassan Palace Hotel.
Details including prices for Riad Altair in Marrakesh are to be found on their website: riadaltair.com.
Love California? Get our California Plane Reader w ith dozens of stories for your Kindle, iPad or Nook.
Inka Piegsa-Quischotte is a former attorney turned travel writer, photographer and novelist based in Miami and Istanbul who writes with verve and flair about destinations where it’s warm, particularly the Mediterranean World. Her work has appeared in The Expeditioner, Literary Traveler, Travel Thru History, Popular Hispanics, Traveln-on, Smithsonian magazine, Europe Up Close and Turkish Airlines’ inflight magazine, SkyLife.