A week ago Tuesday we completed the transit of the Road of a Thousand Kasbahs by traveling the 170 kilometers from Tinghir to Ouarzazate. Ouarzazate is only 120 miles south of Marrakech, so many of the tourists who make it to Marrakech decide to get a taste of the High Atlas mountains by extending their journey southward by a day or two.
Ouarzazate has become a sort of celebrity city in Morocco due to the fact that a number of film producers and directors select it as the site for their production. Since the filming of Lawrence of Arabia there in 1962, about 25 other movies have been made. I was surprised to hear one of our Moroccan friends refer to it as the Hollywood of Morocco. She also knew that Gladiator had been filmed in Ouarzazate. Evidently, the location is attractive enough that a studio from the U.S. and one from Italy have constructed permanent movie sets there. Obviously, it has been a boon to the local economy and we were surprised at all the changes and improvements we could see since our last visit in 1987.
Since we were still recovering from fatigue and a trace of illness due to our desert experience, we did little in the way of sight-seeing, using the day to rest and prepare for the long drive that awaited us on Wednesday as we traveled to Marrakech and on to Casablanca. We did feel much better the next morning and anxiously anticipated the first part of the drive from Ouarzazate to Marrakech.
The distance to Marrakech is only 120 miles, but traversing the path over the High Atlas mountains through the Tizi-n-Tichka Pass is a demanding drive. At the pass, the altitude is about 7500 feet, the highest road in all of Morocco. Climbing to the summit, one encounters some of the most spectacular scenery in the entire country. Occasional glimpses of snow covered peaks appeared, rising above the stark gray, sand and clay colored hills and mountains. In the valley below, the palm trees and the varied vegetation of the oasis confirmed the presence of at least some water in this arid and severe landscape.
We paused, along with several tour buses, when we reached the summit for the obligatory pictures, and began the descent with similar nerve-tingling curves, overlooks, and switch-backs to the ones we experienced earlier in the climb to the top. We felt lucky that we were able to cover the distance in about four hours as we approached the entrance to Marrakech.
We decided earlier in the week that we would not stay overnight in Marrakech, limiting our time there to a couple of hours in the Jemaa El Fna Square. Adjacent to the grand plaza is the famous Koutoubia Mosque. The square itself draws hundreds, if not thousands, of tourists (and lots of locals) every day to see a mixture of snake-charmers, acrobats, jugglers, folk dancers, magicians, fortune-tellers, tons of food vendors and other assorted attractions. Having had my photograph taken many years ago in this very place with a snake wrapped around my neck, I passed this year. But Denise, Kathy and Vann did manage to get a few photographs without having to give up all their money, the seemingly ultimate objective of the active patrons we found there early in the afternoon.
On one corner of the square is located the Argana Cafe, a popular tourist attraction where a terrorist bomb had killed 18 people the week before we arrived in Morocco. Needless to say, it was still cordoned off and in the local news, much attention had been given a couple of weeks ago to the fact that three people had been arrested in the case.
We effected our exit from Marrakech soon thereafter and traveled the 250 kilometers to Casablanca on the autoroute, a much different road from the one we had traveled that morning. Between the two cities, the fertile agricultural plan begins that extends northward and along the Atlantic Coast for some 200 miles. The land is flat and lacking in the exquisite beauty we had seen the previous six days, but it is an important and functional part of the local geography. To be honest, by that time we were ready for a little less intense tourist activity, and along the way, we planned a couple of days that ensured our expectations were reasonable.