Away from the expat hubbub of Marrakech, and the campervans and cities of the Moroccan coast, is perhaps the Morocco of the greatest romance, a land of high mountains, deep canyons, sandy dunes and innumerable kasbahs and ksars, the fortified homes and villages lining strategic approaches from the African interior to the Arab coast. An itinerary exploring some of these places, what one might term “inner” Morocco, could be called the Route of the Kasbahs. Our trail took us from the inland hub of Ouarzazate, a city most famous for its role in the Moroccan film industry, down through the Draa Valley to Zagora, and then out to the Dades Valley and Todra Gorge, passing through on our way back to Ouarzazate the memorable oasis of Skoura.
Near Ouarzazate, the ksar (or fortified city) of Ait Benhaddou, which guarded the way to Marrakech
Driving down into the Draa Valley, preferably in a rental car, a few things become apparent. One is the wildness of the terrain. With the relative developedness of Morocco, and its terrific infrastructure, it’s easy to forget that it is a country that was not under full central control until the 19th or 20th centuries, a place where local chieftains were able to defend themselves in small enclaves thanks to topography. This is not the Morocco of the great walled cities, such as Marrakech and Fes and Meknes, but the countryside of trade routes and fortifications, where houses and even entire villages had their own walls for protection.
That the Draa Valley is the route into Africa’s interior makes itself apparent in one dramatic but perhaps unexpected way–the presence of black Africans. It’s not clear how long they have been here, but in this land of Arabs and Berbers the darker residents of Morocco stand out. Whether their ancestors were black traders involved in commerce or the objects of trade themselves–slaves–I do not know, but the residents of the Draa are largely sub-Saharan black African Moroccans, whose ancestors at some point made the trek up from cities such as Timbuktu on the other side of the great desert. Even coming from America, where race is still closely tied with economic class, we were still interested to note that the residents of the Draa seemed relatively impoverished compared to even those in other parts of rural Morocco–men flagged our car down to expend great effort to sell us dates, for less than a dollar and not much more for a handmade woven basket in which to carry them.
Some local residents
Window style – Draa Valley, Morocco
Window style – Timbuktu, Mali
Another noteworthy point, at a social/cultural level: the women in the Draa Valley were some of the most covered in Morocco. Clearly, there has been some unusually conservative cultural influence here, although we don’t know what or why.
Wandering around the many ruined ksars and kasbahs can be great adventure. With the gradual depopulation of these mud-brick ksars and kasbahs, many will crumble in a matter of years, while those that are reinforced and fixed up will probably be done largely for tourism. Visit soon! (In the photograph, note the similarity between the minaret at the end of the street and that of Chinguetti–post of 08.12.25.)
To the east of the Draa Valley and Ouarzazate lie two of the most popular natural destinations of Morocco, the Dades Valley and the Todra Gorge. The latter is perhaps more remarkable for its natural drama–at one point a deep cleft in cliffs not dissimilar from spots such as Utah’s Zion Canyon–but the former is in many ways the more rewarding, with dramatic kasbahs lining the valley all the way up in to the mountains. The drive east to the Dades and the Todra is big sky country, like Central Asia in its openness and barren scenery, with snowy peaks in view.
The Todra Gorge
But perhaps the most memorable destination on this itinerary, and our vote for best place to relax in Morocco, is the Skoura oasis. Set in the middle of the Dades plain, the Skoura is a dense and broad oasis of palms in which is set quite an excellent assortment of lodging–some of the best in Morocco–ranging from budget rooms in a romantic and rustic kasbah to orientalist fantasies operated by French expats. We enjoyed staying at the Amridil, which is the kasbah featured on the fifty dirham bill. (It’s also the kasbah we nearly burned down, stupidly plugging their high voltage heater into our cheap Chinese extension cord.) We would also recommend in particular Les Jardins de Skoura, which can be reached by following the orange arrows deep deep into the palmery–from its rooftop terraces, looking out over the sea of palms and small local shrines, both the cities of home and even the cities of Morocco seem effortlessly far away.
The Skoura oasis