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Morocco's South & Ait Benhaddou

Morocco's southern region is one of diverse landscapes that spread from Algeria all the way to the Atlantic coastline. Coming down from the High Atlas Mountains, nothing can prepare you for the semi-arid mountains and wonderful scenery that surround every vista. If you have ample time to explore Morocco's south during the springtime, then you will be enthralled by the absolute majesty of the surrounding snow-topped mountains and serrated cliffs.

Driving from Marrakesh to Ouarzazete can take seven or more hours if you take a bus. A grand taxi might be quicker, but it will still take time and the driver will probably stop three or four time along the way to fill up the old Mercedes and to fill up for the drive ahead! Plenty of roadside stands offer lunchtime specialties of mint tea and kefta sandwiches, which is Moroccan meat cooked over charcoal. If you; however, have private or rented transport, you can make the drive in about five hours. But, take your time and be careful; you will reach heights of well over 7,000 feet (2,200 meters) as you climb over the Tizi N'Tichka pass. In the wintertime, passes over the mountains will be closed.

A must-see on your way through the south, just before Ouarzazete if you are coming from Marrakech, is the small, tranquil town of Ait Benhaddou (Aït Benhaddou). If you are coming by car or private transport, then you can easily make it on the small, marked road. If you hare coming by 4x4, then you might try coming through Telouet, which makes a stirring four-wheel drive outing.

Ait Benhaddou is a small town with one of the best-preserved and most sought-after Kasbah's to visit in all of Morocco. In the spring, you can walk along the village fortress that has recently been made into a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Festooned with toppled, block-style towers above the residences, one can stand atop the rocky plateau and look out over the partially flowing river of Oued Ounila. In the spring, the surrounding palms only enhance its beauty. It's no surprise that Orson Welles chose to film parts of Lawrence of Arabia here. Recent films, such as Gladiator, have used footage of the surrounding stony desert and oases to provide inspiring scenery brought about through the region's grandeur.

Instead of staying a night in Ouarzazete, try staying in one of the many establishments situated just in front of the Ait Benhaddou Kasbah. The hard-working people of this region are as laid-back as can be and would delight in preparing a tagine as you watch the sunset over the fortified remains. Shops align the small medina and artists display their wares around their workstations.

The price to get in the Kasbah has recently gone up from five to ten dirhams per person. Moroccan's do not have to pay to enter. You'll be offered a tour by one of the local guides upon entering. This isn't a bad way to see the sights and to learn about the Kasbah's history. The guides speak a number of languages. Work out an agreed price and time before you begin the guided tour. You may even be invited into one of the many residents' houses to sip a steaming glass of tea as they delight in revealing one of the many tales from the area, or how they helped in one of the twenty movies that were filmed around or in the Kasbah.

Entering through the gates of southern Morocco should be top on your list of things to do and see in this exceptional country. And, the Kasbah of Ait Benhaddou is another jewel to be enjoyed as it sparkles amongst the south's arid, yet inspiring panorama.



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