From certain points in Marrakech, it is possible to see what lies on the horizon. Even on days when the city bakes in the heat, it is possible to see snow on top of the Atlas mountains. Taking the Tichki Pass from Marrakech to Ouarzazate brings you into a world of snow-capped mountains and cinematic desert.
Morocco’s High Atlas mountains
The Atlas range provides Morocco‘s spine. The peaks are amongst the highest in Africa, and there’s even a ski resort tucked away amongst them. The mountains also separate the relatively fertile coastal half Morocco from the Sahara desert. And crossing the Atlas is a journey from olive groves and orange trees to outback.
The distance from Marrakech to Ouarzazate is only 200km (125 miles), but the drive between the two cities takes at least four hours. The road, it is fair to say, isn’t as direct as it could be.
The ascent into the High Atlas is a gradual one from Marrakech. The initial approach goes past plush resorts, golf courses and extensive gardens, but before long the scenery has changed to a stark mountainside scrub. And this is where the hairpins also come in. The road lurches back and forth across the hillsides, providing a test of nerve for the driver.
Conquering the Tichka Pass
For the passengers, however, it’s a treat for the eyes. With almost every turn, the road – which culminates in the high altitude Tichka Pass – provides amazing views.
It’s often the man-made additions that stun as much as nature’s handiwork. Periodically, the road passes small Berber villages, where the houses are made out of earth and seem like natural extensions of the mountainside. It’s the sort of blending that modern architects would do well to learn from.
At the top of the Tichka Pass, there is often snow – particularly in the winter months – but on the other side, it’s a different look altogether. The landscape is a largely barren, sandy yellow. This is the edge of the mighty Sahara desert, and rocky mesas line the horizon. Looking back at them, with the snow-capped mountains in the background, provides a confusing contrast – the two shouldn’t fit, should they?
A turn-off from the main Marrakech to Ouarzazate road takes you to a side road over looking Ait Benhaddou. This remarkable construction takes what the Berber villages do to a whole new level. It is essentially a fortified city built into the mountainside, and is widely recognised as the most impressive Kasbah in Morocco.
It is possible to visit and be shown round houses and ancient granaries by the locals. Now under UNESCO World Heritage protection, Ait Benhaddou is a hugely popular site. That said, most visitors aren’t coming for its historic significance – they’re here because they’ve seen it in the movies. Ait Benhaddou has a remarkable cinematic history. It has appeared in big name flicks such as Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia and The Mummy.
Ouarzazate – Morocco’s movie capital
Ouarzazate is Morocco’s Hollywood. When film crews from over the world want a desert setting, they tend to come here. This has long been the case – golden oldies such as The Man Who Would Be King and Jesus Of Nazareth were shot here. Indeed, Ait Benhaddou is one of the area’s filming-location trump cards. Others include the spectacular desert scenery within easy reach of Ouarzazate and a natural light that lends itself to moviemaking.
In more recent years, James Bond has paid a visit, with the desert doubling for Afghanistan in The Living Daylights. Ridley Scott and Martin Scorcese are repeat visitors, too. As well as Gladiator, Scott filmed parts of Kingdom of Heaven and Body of Lies here, while Scorcese used the area for Kundun and The Last Temptation of Christ.
Ironically for a Muslim country, Ouarzazate seems to specialise in churning out Biblical epics…
It is possible to go and have a look round the largest studio – Atlas Studios is just on the edge of town. It really does lie on the edge of the desert, sitting on a barren plain just past a row of houses.
Ouarzazate itself is a rather photogenic city. The buildings are almost universally painted in the salmon pink more readily associated with Marrakech, and the minarets of mosques jut up above the houses. The best views come from on top of the hilltops or from inside the upper levels of tall buildings. The clean, warm-looking town seems like it has been dropped in from nowhere – yet another bizarre addition to the desert and mountain mix.
Kasbah de Taourirt
The main sight in Ouarzazate itself is the Kasbah de Taourirt. Parts of it are now ruins, but the main palace has been nicely preserved. The Kasbah was a major stop off on caravan routes from the south of Morocco to Marrakech and was built by the el Glaoui clan, who effectively ruled over the local area in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They were essentially the puppets of the colonial French and were given certain privileges and autonomy in return for keeping the region trouble-free.
Inside the Kasbah, there’s a mishmash of architecture. Some rooms are rather bare, while others have intricate Andalucian-style trimmings, elaborately painted cedar roofs and verses from the Koran painted on the walls. The latter were the rooms designed for showing off to guests, but beyond where the prying eyes were allowed to venture, a more simple Berber style takes over. The walls become plain and the roofs are made of woven oleander reeds.
Getting around in the Palace – which the last of the El Glaouis left in 1958 – must have been an utter nuisance, mind. Some of the arched doorways and ceilings are incredibly low.
Back to Marrakech
From Ouarzazate, it’s a long drive back to Marrakech, but there’s little danger of nodding off. The Tichki Pass and mountain views keep an iron grip on your attention. The Marrakech to Ouarzazate route is undoubtedly one of the world’s greatest drives. The transition from gardens to mountains to desert and back again is utterly compelling – and the movie magic is just the icing on the cake.