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Back Over the High Atlas Mountains

December 16, 2021

We’re on our way back to Marrakech to wind up this grand tour of Morocco, but first we take a little detour to the ancient village of Ait Ben Haddou. Established by a Jewish Berber named Haddou in the 11th century, the nearly abandoned village (just seven families now live there) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a ksar, or walled town. There is no running water or electricity in the village, but there is a small hotel where people who like brushing their teeth by candlelight can spend a night. A small river separates the old town from the modern city of Ait Ben Haddou, with all modern conveniences.

We approached the old town by hopping rocks across the shallow river, then beginning a steady climb past shops closed due to Covid and the consequent dearth of tourists. It’s very sad to see the padlocked shops, knowing these folks depend on tourism for their livelihoods. Turns out the village has a place in Hollywood history too.

Many many steps lead to the tower at the top of the town, where watchmen could observe approaching vandals or caravans. If the latter, they would be admitted through the gate for commerce. From the top of the town you can see the tree-lined trail along the river marking the caravans’ route between the Sahara and Marrakech. 

There is now a modern bridge dating from the early 2000s connecting the old town to the new and ending the risk that the flooding river would strand people on one side or the other. Although this site is not in my Lonely Planet Guide, Abdou says that tourists flock to the place, so seeing it empty is very unusual.

Back on the main highway, we tackled the High Atlas Mountains, where snow lightly covered the peaks and frequent switchbacks and construction slowed our progress. At lunchtime we stopped at this charming eatery on the roadside. I told the boys they were going to have to stop taking me to such fancy places, as I’m just a simple girl. But the tajine was excellent. Soon after we reached the highest point in this road through the High Atlas, about 7500 feet.

A bit further along we saw this Berber village perched on the mountainside, its sheep or goat folds clinging to the steep rocky area above the houses. According to Abdou, the menfolk generally work elsewhere, many being truck drivers, while their wives and children stay in the village and tend the sheep and goats.

It was kind of a culture shock to return to the modernity of Marrakech and its heavy traffic, after ten days practically off the grid. I’m in another pretty small hotel called Riad Baya. Abdou and I had to walk through the winding streets of the medina to get to it, and I have no idea how to get out! But I’ll worry about that tomorrow; for now I’m enjoying a beautiful room with both heat and hot water!

Once we got in WIFI range this afternoon, I learned that my flight has been cancelled for tomorrow. As I write this I don’t know how much longer I’ll have to stay here. Officially, flights are suspended till 12/31, but the government has made agreements with three airlines to run repatriation flights for people who need to get home. This was not a total surprise to me, as I’d been telling my ticket guy that Turkish Airways was not one of the three authorized.

After some scrambling ticket guy Marc was pleased to let me know I was booked for tomorrow on Air France through Paris. He sent me the confirmation and I paid another $1500.

Fatna, the genius chef here at the riad, prepared a beautiful salad that reminded me of Salad Niçoise: green beans, beets, carrots, tomatoes, olives and potatoes surrounded a mound of rice mixed with peas, and a delicate vinaigrette to top it off. The main course was lamb kefte and Berber bastilla, with dessert a refreshing salad of mixed fruits. I persuaded Khalid, the charming young host, to go buy me some wine, since I haven’t had any since Tangier!

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