Over The Hills and Far Away

An Early Start

We’re on bus on our way back to Marrakech and it’s been a really long day. Yesterday’s rain has gone but there is evidence of the downpours all over the Atlas Mountains as we toured today. We were collected from near our hotel at 7.15am. Sadly we weren’t first on the bus today and the seats were all taken when we got on. Gerry had to sit in one place and me in another. We were a tad miffed as there were two seats together, but a solo traveller had his bag on the spare seat and he was clearly not interested in helping us out. The guide said nothing so we squeezed into our little solo side seats.

No Breakfast at the Breakfast Stop

I was already feeling a bit sad at the idea of a thirteen hour tour, with seven hours on a bus and no Ger; and these seats were made for midgets and my knees banged against the seat in front. We made one more stop to pick up a young couple. As they started to board, to add insult to injured knees the guide gave up his two front seats for the pretty young things and then made Gerry move to the back of the bus and he took Gerry’s front solo seat; And because there really is no room, he also took our bags and put them elsewhere so there would be no water or sunglasses for us either. It’s fair to say that by 8.00am I was really beginning to regret this trip.

We drove on for an hour and our tour guide had yet to speak to anyone. We stopped 30 minutes later and he told us that we had 20 minutes for breakfast, but there was no breakfast and we paid twice the usual price for the smallest of coffees. And it was 30 minutes before we set off again.

Onwards and an hour or so later, after still no guiding, we stopped at an argan oil shop. We were ferried in, given a 2 minute talk, possibly less, and handed a basket to go shop. We decided to go and look at the view. I think in the centre everyone went to look at the view and again we had to wait to board the bus.

Tizi n’Tichka and the High Atlas Mountains

Onwards we drove up through the the Tizi n’Tichka pass, this road reminded me of the road into Italy after driving through Mont Blanc. At over 2100m it is one of the few routes through the High Atlas Mountains. The views were pretty impressive and we stopped for a photo break. They’re unlike any mountains we’ve seen so far, very baron and fragile looking stone.

Onwards we went. The guide asked us about our favourite songs but still no guiding, nothing about the amazing landscape nor the rich history. Instead he played Croatian Rock music and Rap and dozed in his seat.

Atlas Film Studio

By 12.30 we reached one of our destinations but instead of having lunch we had an hour’s tour of the Atlas Film Studios. The tour was part of our trip but not included in the price, and as well as the entrance fee, we had to have a guide, but not our guide, another one. Our guide simply followed the group. Our group joined three other coach loads and we were guided around in one large group. I guess you can tell that I’m not loving today but to be fair, the new guide, Abdul, a university student, really knew his movies and his tour ended up being funny and interesting.

There was a moment of major disappointment for me here. When I’d booked this trip, the photo used to advertise Benhaddou was actually a photo from one of the film-sets at Atlas. I’d been hoping to see some richly decorated ancient building which was actually a painted plaster replica film set; not at all what I’d hoped to see!

The Atlas Film Studio is one of the world’s largest studios and was founded in 1983. It continues to be popular thanks to reliable climate and weather conditions, and because the area can mimic the environments of many countries, and because the Moroccan government offer favourable tax incentives to encourage and support this industry. Abdul told us of the 100s of films had been shot here and the companies who regularly filmed here includ Netflix, Channel4 and the BBC other films include:

  • The Jewel of the Nile
  • The Living Daylights
  • Aladdin
  • The Mummy
  • Gladiator
  • Kingdom of Heaven
  • Asterix & Obelix: Mission Cleopatra
  • Babel
  • Game of Thrones
  • Atlantis
  • Vikings
  • Prison Break
  • The old guard

They Even filmed an episode of Top Gear here once.

Onwards to the Main Event

After our tour it was back into our holes (seats) for our next stop. Finally lunch at gone 2.00pm. Again it wasn’t included and cost more than twice what we’ve been paying in the medina in Marrakesh. The restaurant was heaving with bus loads of other tourists, although they were all leaving. To be fair, the meal was nice, it was standard tourist fayre and over priced but it was hot and good.

Finally after lunch we met another new guide, Mohamad, who was also not included in the trip, but equally a mandatory part of the day. He was a great guide though so we were happy, and we’d travelled this far just to see this village.

Aït Benhaddou

Aït Benhaddou is an historic ksar or fortified village, strategically located on the former caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakesh, known as the Salt route. The village is a great example of Moroccan earthen clay architecture and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987. Fortified since the 11th century, the current buildings are not thought to be as old and maybe built sometime before the 17th century, but they were, and continue, to be built using the same methods as they ancestors have for centuries. Located in the Ounila Valley along one of the main trans-Saharan trade routes, the village was a staging post before the Tizi n’Tichka pass, one of the few routes across the Atlas Mountains.

We crossed a bridge with a red river running under it, Mohamad explained that yesterday was the first rain for over a year and of course the river is red because of the colour of the soil. He led up onwards inside the walls and through the tiny narrow streets of the ancient town. It was historically an important staging post on the Salt route and has a rich and checkered history and it was for this reason that it was made a Unesco world heritage site in 1987.

The small town has also seen its fair share of movies and looking out at these ancient Adobe buildings it’s easy to see why this location is chosen, there is definitely an other worldly feel to it and it feels like time stood still here. We wondered how long Movie money would come into places like this as more and more movies use CGI. The movie set town is dependent on the film business and this town receives important income from the same movies. We wondered how much impact modern technology would have on these isolated communities.

More Movies

Some of the more famous movies include :

  • Sodom and Gomorrah
  • Oedipus Rex
  • The Man Who Would Be King
  • Jesus of Nazareth
  • Marco Polo
  • The Jewel of the Nile
  • The Living Daylights
  • The Last Temptation of Christ
  • The Mummy
  • Gladiator
  • Alexander
  • Kingdom of Heaven
  • Prince of Persia
  • Queen of the Desert
  • A Life On Our Planet

Aït Benhaddou was also used as the slave village for Game of Thrones.

Berber Life

Mohamad continued to lead us up through the town, showing us a photo of him as an extra in some of the movies. We kept walking up and up to what is thought to be a 9th century lookout or watchtower, high on the hill with views that stretch to the Atlas Mountains in one direction and unknown horizons and the Sahara in the other. Over the years the buildings use has changed and it became a grain store but now it is protected by UNESCO, although the guide told us that this title doesn’t come with any money, but the buildings must still be restored, repaired and maintained. He also pointed out features of the village, including his grandmother’s house and explained about the life of the Berber and how their society works. He was really knowledgeable and spoke impeccable English, as well as Berber, Arabic, Moroccan, French and Spanish, all from a man that continued to live a simple life as a Berber, giving tours because he feels that, as one of the remaining families in the town, its important to pass on the history.

We were sad when the tour ended. This was the best part of the day. To be honest we would have paid the same and skipped all the other fru fru. Unless you really want to see the film set, maybe try and find a tour which only visits Ait Ben Haddou, because it was worth visiting this ancient place.

Long Road Home

Back on the bus and Gerry and I returned to our separate tiny children seats and buckled in for the long ride back to Marrakech. I can’t say I’ve enjoyed the trip. We are 2 hours late returning home and my knees are bruised from this ridiculous seat and its a shame that we were separated but, regardless of my moaning, it was worth it to see Benhaddou. I’m very aware that we’re travelling in different lands and not everyday is going to be full of sparkles and perfection but if we hadn’t gone today then we would have missed this little slice of Moroccan magic and not have crossed the High Atlas Mountains. But, oh boy, I’m looking forward to my bed and no alarm tomorrow morning!

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