Most people have probably never even heard of the high-desert city of Ouarzazate (home of the Atlas Film Studios) or the ancient fortress of Ait Benhaddou or the lush green palm oasis of Fint, but directors such as Ridley Scott (“Gladiator” and “Kingdom of Heaven”), Martin Scorsese (“The Last Temptation of Christ” and “Kundun”), Oliver Stone (“Alexander”) and Mike Newell (“Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time”) certainly have. It’s the Hollywood of Morocco, and all of these films were shot there.
The man who truly deserves a statue in Ouarzazate’s central square, however, is the great British filmmaker David Lean. It was Lean (and his crew) who first descended on the region and immortalized its vast, uninterrupted landscapes in the 1962 epic “Lawrence of Arabia.”
A decade later the legendary American director John Huston arrived. Equally awed by what he saw, Huston used the area for a multitude of locations, including Sean Connery’s triumphal procession in “The Man Who Would Be King,” set before the ancient walled city of Ait Benhaddou, just 18 miles from downtown Ouarzazate.
Today Ouarzazate is one of the fastest-growing cities in Morocco. It’s also a city of Hollywood-worthy contrasts, where donkey-driven carts clip-clop their way past the entrance of Le Berber Palace Hotel, a grand establishment of elegant rooms and sweetly scented gardens, where Gucci sunglasses by the pool and Louis Vuitton luggage in the lobby is the order of the day.
The Hollywood experience, Moroccan-style is also accessible by booking a room at the Oscar Hotel. Its 58 cinema-themed rooms and eight suites are actually located within the walls of the Atlas Film Studios, four miles from the center of town. Anyone planning a stay at the Oscar can be sure of rubbing shoulders with an entire film crew, lounging by the pool with would-be starlets or sharing a martini in the Gladiator Bar with Ridley Scott.
It isn’t necessary to stay at the Oscar Hotel, however, to arrange a tour of the Atlas Studios and their expansive back lot. Visitors can stroll through sound stages and explore a vast array of slowly decaying sets and props, whether it’s a Roman palazzo from “Gladiator,” a Buddhist monastery from “Kundun,” a full-scale Egyptian temple lined with crouching sphinxes (from some forgotten epic) of a jet fighter left over from the sequel to “Romancing the Stone.”
While it is possible to fly directly to Ouarzazate, the truly adventurous way to get there is by car from Marrakech. This route involves taking a two-lane highway known as the Tizi-n-Tichka Pass Road, which was built in 1920 during the period of French colonial rule.
Spectacular at every turn, this white-knuckle, roller coaster of a road is traveled daily by every type of vehicle — from cars, SUVs and lumbering motor coaches to tanker trucks and motorcycles. And they all pass whenever they choose. Hiring a skilled driver as a guide on this road is a real asset.
By turns the landscape is arid and lush, dotted with picturesque Berber villages beneath the towering snow-capped peaks of the Atlas Mountains. The road winds higher and higher until it reaches the highest pass in Morocco at an altitude of 7,417 feet. From there, this ribbon of highway gracefully descends into the red clay region of the Moroccan high desert.
Shortly before reaching Ouarzazate there’s a turnoff that leads to Ait Benhaddou, which was designated a United Nations World Heritage Site in 1987. With its imposing fortifications, rising minarets and narrow passageways, Ait Benhaddou has provided the perfect exotic location for numerous films.
The only way to visit the city is by foot (either on one’s own or with a tour).
The jumping-off point is the small village of hotels, restaurants and craft shops that has grown up on the opposite side of the shallow river known as the Wadi Mellah. Wandering through Ait Benhaddou, with its labyrinth of walkways, is like being transported back to the magical era of Aladdin and the Arabian nights.
Because of its international clientele, Ouarzazate has also become a center for fine dining. The Restaurant Mogador offers the perfect place for a relaxing rooftop luncheon directly across the street from the city’s old Kasbah. Specialties are fresh-baked bread and a tajine (clay cooking pot) of beef with prunes.
But for a truly sumptuous dining experience, the best place is Le Jardin des Aromes. Owner Madame Siham Rida and Chef Sara Ziad have taken traditional Moroccan cooking to the next level. Their restaurant (a converted home in the traditional courtyard design) is an architectural delight of glimmering lights and intimate dining spaces, all set off by a shimmering reflecting pool. The tajine of rabbit I had was remarkable, as was the environment and the graciousness of the service. It’s also a favorite spot for the film crowd.
Just as in the golden age of Hollywood, Ouarzazate is experiencing a boom in real estate, and an enormous city-size development is currently under way across the river from the main city. It was through this sprawl of newly constructed roadways that my driver and I made our way to the scenic oasis at Fint, a mere six miles away.
Surrounded by towering cliffs of dark volcanic stone, the oasis lies at the bottom of a meandering river valley. Dotted with date palms and irrigated fields, Fint seems to exist outside the realm of time. It’s a place where women swathed in brightly colored fabrics still wash their clothes in the river accompanied by the splish-splash of their children.
There is only one small hotel in Fint, La Terrasse des Delices. The accommodations are far from grand, but the hotel does offer a picture-perfect patio that overlooks the river. And for those seeking an adventurous getaway, this hotel is ideal.
Unfortunately, with the encroachment of the new development, it is uncertain how much longer Fint can maintain its idyllic isolation and unspoiled atmosphere. To see what Fint looks like, the best idea is to rent “The Prince of Persia.” There is a grand processional scene in the movie that winds its way down into the oasis.
Ouarzazate also serves as the gateway to the Moroccan Sahara and its sea of gently flowing sand dunes. Tours are readily available to both locations. People traveling on their own should allow at least four to five days to explore the region, especially anyone who is going to navigate the road over the mountains from Marrakech. It’s a bit of a nail-biter, but worth it.
WHEN YOU GO
For more information about Ouarzazate: www.ouarzazate.com or www.Tripadvisor.com/tourism-g304018-Ouarzazate-Vacations.html
The Berber Palace Hotel: www.ouarzazate.com/leberberepalace/index_eng.htm
Oscar Hotel: Km 5, Route de Marrakech, Ouarzazate; 212-524-8822; www.hotels.com/ho313946/oscar-hotel-ouarzazate-morocco/#description, firstname.lastname@example.org
Jardin des Aromas, 69 Avenue Mohamed V, www.bestrestaurantsmaroc.com/en/restaurant-maroc/jardin-des-aromes.html
Fint: La Terrasse des Delices, www.terrassedesdeliceshotelouarzazate.com/hotel-morocco/