Three Kings Day with Rosca de Reyes in Marrakech

This was the day of the trip where we had more expectations and fortunately did not let us down. We get up early. From the terrace of the hotel there was a beautiful view of the sunrise over Boumalne and the full moon beginning to wane. After breakfast, we took the bags and at 9 and a half we went back to the road towards the Todra Gorges.

As today was the day of the desert our guide wear a Bedouin scarf. He explained that he was a Berber born and raised in the desert and that is what he had always carried. Today we were going to cover another 300 kilometers. Our first destination was the Todra Gorges which are a little north of Tinerhir, a village 60 kilometers from the hotel. On the way we passed in front of more kasbahs.

Once in Tinerhir we stop to admire from a viewpoint a beautiful view of the village of adobe surrounded by palm groves on the banks of the Todra River with several Ksar (stately homes) and a famous Jewish neighborhood that we could not visit. At the viewpoint there was a boy dressed as a Berber who tried to sell us some souvenir.

We returned to the van and after a while we stopped at another viewpoint to enjoy another panoramic view of the palm grove and the hamlet of Tinerhir. Here were some kids who offered us some crafts made with palm leaves. On the way to the gorges we pass in front of other kashbahs. A few kilometers further north we stop at the entrance to a spectacular gorge that is the most impressive part of the Todra Gorges.

In this area the Todra River has carved over the centuries spectacular gorges that in some areas are only 30 or 40 meters wide between rock walls over 100 meters high. Today the temperature was much lower than the previous day and in the shadow of the cliffs a tremendous wind blew so we put on all the warm clothes we had and we prepared to take a walk of a kilometer through the river gorges. The route runs along the road that crosses them and there is no specific pedestrian path. Fortunately there was not much traffic.

On the way there were dozens of vendors and half-throat even a small hotel on the other side of the river. We also met other groups of tourists in a surrealistic best-dressed Bedouin guide contest. A little old man approached us and it did not take him five seconds to get his hand and ask us for a tip.

Despite the cold, the ride was spectacular. At the end of it the gorges opened to a wide mountainous valley that invited us to continue the walk. We got on the bus and returned to Tinenhir. On the way to our next destination, the city of Erfoud, we made a stop at a petrol station and from the van I was able to capture some scenes of Moroccan daily life.

The road from the gorges to Erfoud was very monotonous with a very repetitive desert rocky landscape. To combat boredom we stop at a Berber clothing store. In the shop some smart girls immediately dressed us with clothes of impossible colors and in a palm grove in front of the store we took some memorable photos.

Of course some djellaba also fell, and several memories at prices probably swollen by the commission of the guide. A few kilometers later we made the stop to eat at another tourist restaurant where we ate on a nice terrace with salad and tahine or brochettes.

Fortunately, they did have beer here, a Moroccan brand called Stork. The food was nice at the usual tourist price. In the aftermath we took the opportunity to climb a rocky hill next to the restaurant but then we had to return to the bus.

We crossed Erfoud in one breath with a single stop. Erfoud receives the nickname of the city of fossils and in the surrounding area there are numerous deposits of minerals and fossils. In the city there are also numerous workshops that work the huge stone blocks with fossils to make tables, washbasins, sculptures and everything that you can think of. We stop at one of these fossil-shops located a few kilometers south of Erfoud.

There one of the employees explained to us the process of extraction, cutting and polishing of the pieces. Most of the fossils in the area are ammonites, trilobites, some vegetables called grinoides and some primitive squid called belemnites. The truth is that for a geology buff like me there were really spectacular pieces both in its original version and furniture. However the prices seemed very high.

The long journey by bus was coming to an end although today it had seemed more pleasant because we liked the Todra gorges a lot and the two commercial stops had broken the monotony of the day. That night we were going to spend the night in a camp in the dunes of Erg Chebbi. Even though we had been traveling through the desert, it was a rocky desert, not the sandy desert we all associate in our minds. That desert is next to the town of Merzouga and next to the border with Algeria. The dunes reach 150 meters high.

Before arriving we made a quick stop in a small hill from where the whole dune area of ​​Erg Chebbi was distinguished. Then we left the road and took a dirt track that brought us to the edge of the dunes in the town of Merzouga. Along the way we could see small hotels and herds of dromedaries.

Finally we reached the point where our dromedaries were waiting for us. The herd was grazed by two Berbers with tanned skin and turbans. There was also the Moroccan owner of the agency that we had hired and also owner of the camp where we were going to sleep. He gave us a warm welcome and explained the plan. The suitcases would go in a 4x4 and we on a dromedary.

Around us gathered a large group of urchins who were looking for the usual tip. One by one we climbed the dromedaries in the middle of shouting and laughing in one of the most surreal and fun moments of the whole trip.

The dromedaries were tied in a row in groups. Once the groups were loaded we started the path through the dunes each guided by one of the Bedouins. For 20 minutes we cross the dunes in the midst of a wonderful silence broken only by the inevitable laughter and exclamations that everything travels in a dromedary provokes.

The sun was very low and gave a beautiful reddish color to the dunes. The dromedaries followed a path marked by dozens of previous excursions and surrounded by 4x4 vehicles. Our shadows stretched on the sand forming beautiful images.

After 10 minutes we have a small stop for the group photo. We resumed trip and the certain thing is that to ride in dromedary is not an activity to do all the day. The seat is uncomfortable.

Since we had been told that the walk to the camp lasted an hour and a half, we feared the worst. But luckily it included a one-hour stop in the dunes to watch the sunset. And indeed, we stopped in the shelter of one of the highest dunes. Fortunately we were practically alone. Surrounded by dunes everywhere, the feeling was one of unforgettable peace and serenity. Our guides took the opportunity to lie down on the sand.

Gradually the light became more reddish and the shadows lengthened until the sun went down behind the sand horizon. The Bedouins offered to write our names in the sand in Arabic script and to take all the photos we requested. Finally we returned to the dromedaries and in a short walk of barely 5 minutes we arrived at the camp already in gloom.

I imagined a camp in the desert as something impromptu and seedy but what awaited us was beyond all our expectations. The camp was mounted in a circle around a larger tent which acted as a dining room and other smaller auxiliaries, all raised in a hollow of the dunes, sheltered from the wind. Between the tents there were paths covered with carpets so as not to have to step on sand.

And the tents were spectacular. Each was planted on a concrete base. The floor was covered with carpets. They had a double bed and an extra bed, with a very comfortable mattress, bedside tables, lamps, clothes rack, wardrobe. They did not lack detail. But they also had a bath and shower with a trickle of hot water in the desert! The only thing they did not have was heating. I have been to more crappy city hotels.

We unpacked the suitcase and poked around the dunes for a while while the darkness covered the camp. In the middle of the tents there was a bonfire with chairs around where the different guests congregated. The beers we had bought on the road were also waiting for us there and it was freezing!

Before dinner we took advantage of the fact that the moon had not yet risen to get away from the light of the camp and enjoy the wonderful spectacle of the night sky in the desert. We identified stars and constellations. We even got to see the star of Bethlehem that was guiding the Three Kings who were about to arrive with their gifts.

At the agreed time, we were summoned in the dining room to have dinner. And I have to say that it turned out to be the best dinner of the whole trip. We have salad, harira, zucchini gratin with cheese and an exquisite lamb tahine, all washed down with French wine and beer.

After dinner, we had a pleasant conversation with the owner of the camp. Once outside we were ecstatic with the departure of a moon stained with blood over the desert horizon. In the stillness and calm of the desert, it is an unforgettable moment.

The day ended with a demonstration of Berber folklore by the workers of the camp who drove camels, cooked delicacies or sang beautiful Bedouin songs accompanied by drums and a kind of metal castanets called qarqaba. For half an hour we enjoyed the musical show, a bit touristy, but in the light of the bonfire and the full moon, it is very suggestive and captivating.

And the show ended, we went to the tents to try to sleep. The temperature had dropped a lot and it was close to 5 degrees. We put the alarm clock at 6 to see the sunrise in the desert and we went to bed with a thermal shirt and several blankets to see if we could remain warm.

Day 2

When the alarm clock rang at 6:30 in the morning we were completely cold. At that moment I suddenly understood the concept of great thermal differences of the desert climate of my geography classes. Despite the thermal shirt and the blankets we were frozen. Making heart and not without hesitation a bit about whether to send the sunrise for a walk, we get up. The hot shower in those early hours did not work so we quickly washed our faces, put on all the clothes we had and went outside.

The camp was in gloom but many of its inhabitants had decided to get up early like us to enjoy the spectacle that goes unnoticed daily in our urban lives: the dawn. We climbed one of the hills that surrounded the tents and we left the camp a few meters to enjoy in solitude. Slowly an orange strip appeared over the distant mountains of Algeria, which gradually gave way to greater clarity until suddenly the first ray of the sun broke through to us.

The color of the desert turned from a dull brown to a golden orange as the temperature began to rise slowly. The moon was still high in the sky, beginning its descent in the west. The early birds began to appear in the dorms with sleepy eyes and we headed for breakfast to the dining room where we thanked the hot coffee, the cakes and the toast with honey.

When we left the sun was already in full bloom and activity in the camp was frantic. We packed our bags and prepared to set off on the camel back to the edge of the dunes. During the time I was waiting, it was not idle and with the camera I was able to capture some very interesting moments from our Bedouin hosts.

They loaded the suitcases in a 4x4 and we headed to the herd of dromedaries waiting for us to undo the road of the previous day. Again there was laughter when getting on the bug, screaming when he stood up.

As we already knew what it was like to ride a dromedary and there was no intermediate stop the ride became a bit longer. We enjoy again the loneliness and the silence of the dunes, especially a huge S-shape accompanied by the moon.

After a half-hour long walk we reached the dromedary pier where the ineffable minibus awaited us. There were also the same kids from the previous day looking for a new tip. We descended with difficulty from the bugs and our two companion Bedouins spread a colorful cloth where they exhibited a few fossils, minerals and crafts that offered us for a small price. The truth is that we were not interested in anything but we bought several things because it seemed a very elegant way to leave a good tip.

And finally everyone happy and satisfied we resumed the march. The night in the desert had enchanted us. Only for her had the trip been worth it. However, it had become very short. With more days we could have spent a whole day in the dunes riding dromedary, walking, visiting herds and wells and we could have made a 4x4 trip through the dunes to enjoy an adrenaline rush.

Today we had a route of 375 kilometers between Erg Chebbi and Ouarzazate. The first stop was the village of Risani. One thing struck me. On the way we met a pastor who stopped on the bus to ask for water and we gave him a full bottle. In the desert it is an unwritten law to give water to the thirsty.

Finally we returned to the asphalt and in a while we arrived at Risani, a city that had been an important center of passage in the caravan routes that were going to Timbuktu. Today the city is famous for its market and because it is the place where the current Alawite royal dynasty reigns in the country.

First we stopped at the Moulay Ali Cherif Mausoleum, the founder of the Alaouite dynasty. The mausoleum is a mosque with a stately door that opens onto a landscaped courtyard with fountains. Unfortunately we cannot enter the temple, although we could peek through a small door and take a look inside. In fact, our guide did not know how to explain who the Moulay was and we had to look for it in the wikipedia.

Then we went to the village market. Since it was Friday there was very little activity but it turned out to be a very interesting visit. We went to the side of the souk to an area of ​​fruit and spice stalls under a wicker roof. In one of the spice stands the owner explained the different spices and products that he sold, all with infinite medicinal and miraculous properties for multiple ailments. The seated guy surrounded by baskets of spices was able to reach any of them with a long saucepan, loaded the spice in a bag and weighed it on a scale. The fact is that we bought some things at obviously increased prices.

Then we went outside and had an instructive walk around the city while enjoying daily life. It occurred to me to take a picture of a policeman who immediately called me and forced me to erase it. I did not want to leave the country without a police photo so a few streets later I tried again with another policeman with the telephoto lens and at a safe distance. I thought that I had achieved my goal when several minutes later the policeman approached me, asked me to see the photos of the camera and also made me erase it. And it seems that taking pictures of the authority is prohibited in this country. Well, in general, taking photos of people in Morocco is very difficult.

We continue strolling through another part of the souk with dozens of shops arranged in alleys, courtyards and squares. I thought it was one of the most authentic visits of the whole trip since they were not tourist shops but real local businesses of blacksmiths, hairdressers, tailors, butchers.

We went through another door different from the souk where the bus was waiting for us. My companions needed cash so they went to a bank while we were nosing around. At the door of the market there was a water carrier that offered free water to pedestrians that came from a goat skin that was hanging over his shoulder using the same cup. Another guide told us the last day that this is an activity paid by a faithful as an offering.

During the wait and covered by the tinted windows of the van I could take some more pictures. And of course I took my photo of Moroccan police. A few kilometers from Risani we made a stop at a seemingly anodyne desert spot. We see rock outcrops along the road that had thousands of fossils mainly ammonites and belemnites.

We spent some time snooping and found some loose that we take home as a souvenir. In the area there was a very nice countryman who sold high quality trilobites for a price much lower than in the store we had visited yesterday.

We continue our way to the town of Alnif, an oasis of Berber and crossroads located 95 km from Risani and known for its production of dates and carpets and for being one of the places with the highest concentration of fossil deposits in Morocco. Here we did another of the most authentic visits of the trip. We leave the van in a square and cross the town walking and enjoying the atmosphere of its market in full effervescence.

We go to a kasbah located in its urban center that is still inhabited. We cross the monumental adobe door and enter the labyrinth of narrow streets with adobe and adobe houses. It was a kind of Moroccan urbanization of 100 years ago and I could not help feeling a little intrusive while photographing the privacy of its inhabitants.

We returned to the bus and continued on our way. We made a stop to eat in the usual western-priced tourist restaurant, normal meal and commission for the guide. Yes, again salad, tahine, skewers and omelette. The truth is that we could not complain about quantity because there was enough food to feed another family.

A few kilometers further on we reach Nkob, another village-oasis. We stop in a restaurant to stretch legs and use the bathrooms. From the terrace we could admire the view of the palm grove. After another stretch of bus we made a new stop in the town of Tansikhte where the road crosses the Draa River whose valley we were crossing. It left us by the side of the river and we walked across the bridge enjoying the sunset light over the Draa.

Then we took a short walk along the edge of the palm grove where we could see the date palms up close. Of course all the way was dotted with stalls selling dates to hunt the greedy tourist. The truth is that the Moroccan signs are very photogenic.

Finally we arrived at this town of unpronounceable name where we climbed to a viewpoint located next to the town hall to enjoy the view of another beautiful palm grove at the foot of a hill. The day had not been bad. Waking up in the desert to see the sunrise and take a dromedary walk well into the morning is an activity that is not done every day.

And then on the trip we had enjoyed the fossil hunting and two very authentic visits, almost ethnographic, to the market of Risani and the kasbah of Nkob that we had liked a lot. Then we had the usual visits of filling of palm groves and others and the inevitable tourist food of all group travel but altogether it had been an entertaining and interesting day.

With the sunset we arrived at Ouarzazate where we went directly to the hotel where we were going to spend the night. It is a modern building imitating an old adobe ksar with a beautiful central courtyard that exerted as a lobby, a great pool with chillout area perfect for a summer night and spacious and functional rooms. The beds were comfortable and the wifi more than fine. The bathroom had no door and in the patio it was a cold. The pity is that it was located in the usual neighborhood on the outskirts of the city, dark, dirty and intimidating that did not invite the night walk.

We had dinner at the hotel. Although it was a closed menu it was one of the best dinners of the trip and they also had beer and wine. Unfortunately, a group of rather rude twenty somethings, shouted even more than us. And as if that were not enough, they stayed in the patio smoking, screaming and drinking until late at night that prevented us from falling asleep as we deserved. However we do not forget to leave clean shoes by the window to see what the Kings brought us that night.

Day 3

The day dawned cloudy and it was very cold. The Three Wise Men had passed through the dining room to leave gifts for all the children but they had left nothing for the adults. We had breakfast and we started again. The plan of the day was to visit Ouarzazate and then cross again the Atlas to Marrakech.

The Kasbah of Taourirt is one of the most impressive and best preserved in Morocco and has been declared a World Heritage Site. There were guided tours but we did not have time. Built in the 19th century, the citadel was the residence of the Glaoui family, one of the richest in the country. Its most famous inhabitant was Thami El Glaoui, who was a pasha from Marrakech between 1912 and 1956.

The exterior is built with adobe in a very sober style with some geometric decorations as the only decoration. The entrance leads to a rectangular courtyard from where you can see more closely the decorations on the walls.

The kasbah is an accumulation of halls, corridors, stairs, towers and terraces at different heights that form a complex but subjugating labyrinth. The interior walls are very thick to maintain the temperature and protect the strength of the winds and sand. There are chipped and wet spots everywhere, the walls are crooked and in general the building falls old but that gives it a lot of charm.

We saw some rooms profusely decorated with stuccoes and Islamic symbols but also Jewish as well as beautiful coffered ceilings. The main living room has a balcony over the patio where there is now an exhibition of handicrafts. It was impossible not to get lost in the kasbah but we managed to get out all the way to the patio. Finally we finished the visit visiting the kitchens that now function as a store.

Our guide today was strangely nervous. And it was that it had been snowing all night on the Atlas and he told us he did not know if the port was going to be open. We asked him what alternatives we had, but that's when the dark vein came and he began to ramble and ask us not to worry because everything had a solution. And that's when we start to worry.

In front of the kasbah, the Ouarzate Film Museum stands on top of a staircase. It has a majestic entrance flanked by Egyptian papier-mache statues and Roman chariots. The city is famous for having been the filming location for many well-known films over the past 60 years that have been filmed both in the natural settings of the Kasbahs of Taourirt and the nearby Ait Ben Haddou and in the Atlas movie studios that we were going to visit next. All this activity has left remains (decorations, photographs, technical material) that are now exhibited in this museum but we do not visit.

However, we had thought that it would be better to visit the famous Atlas Film Studios, the place where many of those films were filmed and which conserve many sets, sets and equipment from famous movies. The studios are out of town on the road to the Atlas. The monumental entrance door to the studios is also flanked by gigantic Egyptian papier-mache statues.

Within the studios there is a hotel called Oscar, in which the tickets are taken. The hotel is decorated with movie posters and objects related to the movies there and it seemed very nice. In these studies and in the surrounding area, scenes from such famous films as well as several scenes of Game of Thrones among many other films.

During the whole tour we were accompanied by a guide who explained the different sets. The temperature was very cold. A terrible wind had risen and the whole visit was on the outside visiting sets so we equipped ourselves with everything we had. We started the tour through a large open courtyard.

Then we entered a great set that recreated an Egyptian village around a temple with huge red columns. Then we went outside again where we visited a set that imitated an Arab kasbah. Here the famous scenes of the Gladiator slave market among others were filmed.

In the distance was a castle built to represent the city of Pentos in the series Game of Thrones. A terrible wind had risen that produced a real sandstorm that gave the sets an even more authentic air as if they had put special effects on the visit. Then we went to a decoration of an Egyptian palace used in Asterix and Obelix: Mission Cleopatra.

Next to it were other sets of the same film that reproduced the temple of Abu Simbel in miniature and the grandiose Egyptian palace of Julius Caesar which was reached by a road flanked by sphinxes in a blatant tribute to papier-mâché.

Whipped by the wind, we returned to the entrance where we visited a beautiful setting of a Tibetan temple erected for Martin Scorsese's film Kundun. And with this last visit we finished the tour. The cold and the wind had tarnished it a bit but I think the visit is worth it since you rarely have the opportunity to inspect some movie sets so closely.

The next stop was the star visit of the day and probably the whole trip. Ait Ben Haddou is a fortified city or ksar located on the side of a hill that groups several kasbahs surrounded by a wall with tall towers. All its buildings are made of adobe and is probably the best preserved ksar in Morocco. Although it was for nearly a thousand years an important place of passage for the camel caravans that linked Marrakech with Sudan, the buildings we see today date back to the 17th century. Although it is still inhabited by some families, most of its inhabitants now live in the nearby town on the other side of the river. The Ksar was declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1987.

In addition to being beautiful, the town is also well known because its streets have filmed scenes from films and series such as Gladiator (here is where Russell Crowe is sold as a slave), The Jewel of the Nile, The Mummy, Alexander the Great, Jesus of Nazareth, Prince of Persia, Lawrence of Arabia or Game of thrones.

Ait Ben Haddou is located about 30 km north of Ouarzazate. Before arriving we made a stop at a viewpoint from where we could take some panoramic views of the city. A couple of kilometers later we got off and walked for a while between alleys through the new town of Ait Ben Haddou until we reached the river where we crossed a narrow bridge to reach the ksar.

The town is small. The entrance street to the town is flanked by fossil, craft and souvenir shops. We strolled a bit along the lower part next to the mosque and several of the kasbahs in the city. Immediately we go to the upper part of the city.

From the top the views are magnificent towards the river and the adobe towers of the different buildings of the ksar. At the top of the hill there is a fortified enclosure with its own wall that has in its center the remains of an inghrem, a community adobe barn.

To the north there are also beautiful views of the walls, the mountains, an Arab cemetery and a synagogue with its Jewish cemetery. With this we ended the visit and headed for the bus.

We went along the road and in the roundabout where the road to the Atlas was going. There was a police control that blocked our way. Suddenly, the pleasant journey of 172 km between Ouarzazate and Marrakech crossing the Atlas had just become a 561-kilometer odyssey in the south of the country. Instead of 3 hours of bus we were waiting for more than 7 around the Atlas Mountains. Once recovered from the shock and as we could not do much more, we relaxed and prepared to enjoy the trip.

The sandstorm did not leave us during the first kilometers. The truth is that we passed through beautiful landscapes of half mountain and then we went through a snowstorm as few as I have seen. Who was going to say that we would see snow in Morocco!

Since it was not the habitual route, the whole route was full of buses of diverted tourists. Finally we stopped in another town where there was a restaurant of grilled meats, also seedy, dirty and crowded but we were not to choose.

We cleaned as we could the tables and the cutlery (as the Moroccans do not use them they had washed them expressly for us). We ordered a mix of kebab, brochettes, grilled chicken and kefta accompanied by their vegetables, bread and sauces. And surprisingly it was all delicious. It was probably the best meal of the entire trip. I love to leave the tourist circuits.

Finally at about 8 we arrived in Marrakesh totally saturated with buses. And to top off the day the city received us raining as if there were no tomorrow. We were going to stay in another riad, a beautiful establishment decorated with motifs from the 20s with its central patio with fountain (soaked by rain), small but cozy rooms, large beds, acceptable wifi and a very helpful staff.

We unpacked and went out to the rain to try to get to the site. The restaurant was in the middle of the medina. Fortunately we arrived at the site on time although soaked. But as it rained the terrace was closed. So they accommodated us in a narrow room. The place was nice but the coolest part of the restaurant was supposed to be the terrace and we did not see it.

The food was good although it was not anything special either. It was Moroccan food with modern touches and of course without wine or beer. They give us a piece of King Cake, which is a typical candy of the carnival Tuesday (hence mardi gras) and which looks very similar to the rosca de reyes. Inside the King cake there is a figurine and whoever touches it is the king of the day.

When we left, it was raining less and we went back to the hotel taking a walk through Jamaa el Fna and Kutubia square.

Rosca de Reyes King Cake
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