Casbahs highlight Morocco's desert landscape

MARRAKESH, Morocco -- Morocco is the kingdom that created the Casbahs, the massive desert fortifications designed to give shelter to ancient caravans and destined to become the symbol of mystery and romance.

The French Foreign Legion once rode here in pursuit of the native Tauregs and Berbers; the movie "Lawrence of Arabia" was filmed here and, according to U.S. tour operators, the route of the Casbahs and the dunes of the Sahara beyond is the hottest destination on the road to Morocco's south.

There are several ways to open the door to Morocco's southernmost attractions, but perhaps the most appealing road starts from the imperial city of Marrakesh, leads up and over the High Atlas mountain range and ends in Erfoud, the gateway to the Sahara.

For just a taste of the southern part of the country, travelers can make an overnight trip from Marrakesh to the desert town of Ouarzazate, located 128 miles away.

Visitors switch from Land Rover to camel to explore the dunes of Merzouga. Visitors also can spend three or more additional days and go all the way to Erfoud, with a night's camping in the desert for those who desire it.

For the best of all possible trips, one can return from Erfoud, not via the same road back to Marrakesh, but along the desert road to Zagora, which offers a number of small, good hotels, plus Land Rover or camel excursions into the Sahara.

The return north to Ouarzazate and Marrakesh then follows the Draa River Valley, visiting Tamnougalt and Timiderte Ksour en route.

A third routing makes the larger circuit, winding from Marrakesh to Erfoud and then heading north into the ever-green Middle Atlas region to the city of Fez.

From Marrakesh, the mountain drive twists and turns up and over the 7,400-foot-high Tizi n'Tichka Pass, through a rock-strewn landscape of bright rivers and tumbledown Berber villages, dropping down on the south side into a landscape of colors of gray-black basalt and ochre-red soil.

Perched on massive stone outcroppings or lying in protected valleys along the route are the crenulated fortifications and watchtowers of the medieval Casbahs, actually called ksour.

Hundreds of years ago, the Berber people holed up in these fortified villages within castle-like structures built of earth, pise (a mixture of clay and stone rubble) and straw.

The protective structures had high walls pierced by lookout slits and were topped by towers, which also doubled as granaries.

Ksour were stopover points for caravans from elsewhere in Africa bearing gold, spices and slaves.

On the route, no Casbah is more impressive than the Ait Benhaddou, a Unesco World Heritage Site that perhaps is better known as the film site for "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Jewel of the Nile."

Occupied in the 18th century by some 5,000 people, today perhaps 100 Berbers live here behind decorative walls from whose heights the oasis views of the date groves and flowering almond trees are spectacular.

Ouarzazate is small -- something of a pre-desert boom town -- but no beauty. However, restored rooms of the Taourirt Kasbah, including the harem's prayer room, the pasha's favorite wife's apartment and elegant reception rooms, are interesting.

Other good points include Michael Douglas' plane from the "Jewel of the Nile" that is parked in front of the lots of the Atlas Studios. Chez Dimitri on Boulevard Mohammed is a longtime restaurant favorite and there are many very good hotels, such as the deluxe Riad Salam, which occupies two converted Casbahs.

Driving west past flocks of grazing camels, among the touring treats ahead are the Dades and Todra gorges, carved out of limestone by rivers running down from the High Atlas Mountains.

The best base for visiting the Dades is the town of El Kelaa M'Gouna, where a rose festival is held in the spring, although its famous rosewater is sold year-round.

I stayed outside town in the Hotel Les Roses du Dades, one of Morocco's southern colonial hotels, with a view from the pool of the Casbah ruins across the river -- the same view I had from the wraparound terrace of my spacious room.

In Todra Gorge, where the high cliffs narrow and leave just enough space for the road and river, a good place to stop for lunch (kebabs and spicy stews of lamb and vegetables) is set up in a tent in front of the Hotel Yasmina.

Closest to the Todra Gorges is Tinerhir, a modern town and an interesting place to stay -- particularly on Tuesdays, market day -- and wander about the Glaoui Kasbah.

Carpet weaving is an established regional craft, with good buys available at the cooperative of the Hanbal tribe.

From here, it's a two-hour drive to Erfoud, where visitors switch first to four-wheel-drive vehicles for the 32-mile ride to the dunes of Erg Chebbi at Merzouga and then on to camels to sally forth across the sands that roll in towering almond-brown waves to the horizon.

Be here for sunrise and sunset as the desert turns to shades of gold, purple and crimson.

When visiting in spring, a visit to the Dayet Sjri salt lake, with its flocks of pink flamingos, is an added bonus, although travelers coming in October will be on hand for the Date Festival in Erfoud.

Booking a catered overnight affair in a desert tent can be a further addition to this classic Moroccan adventure, one that offers more deluxe comforts to those staying at the Auberge Kasbah Derkaouah, a lodging at the edge of the Sahara.

Quick tips: Visiting Morocco

When to go: The best time to visit Morocco is May to mid-June or September to mid-November.

How to go: Seasoned travelers can drive themselves around most of Morocco's southern reaches, with the exception of the sand dunes of Erg Chebbi. However, a private car or minivan, driver and guide is a much more enjoyable and informative way to go, and for a party of four it is surprisingly cost-efficient. Touring arrangements can be made in Marrakesh or through U.S. tour operators (preferably those who specialize in Morocco.)

Where to stay: In Ouarazazate, there is the Riad Salam with 62 rooms. Phone: (011) 212 488-3335; fax: (011) 212 488-2766.

An alternative to consider outside of town is Kasbah Tifoultoute, a 250-year-old Glaoui palace, which is now an inn with eight rooms and a good restaurant; fax: (011) 212 488-5899.

In El Kelaa M'Gouna, the Hotel des Roses du Dades has 102 rooms. Phone and fax: (011) 212 488-3807.

Tenirhir offers the Kenzi Bougaffer with 108 rooms. Phone: (011) 212 483-3280; fax: (011) 212 483-3282.

In Erfoud, the Hotel Tafilalet has 65 rooms. Phone: (011) 212 557-6535; fax: (011) 212 557-6036.

Auberge Kasbah Der-kaouah offers 11 rooms, two bungalows and two tents. Phone and fax: (011) 212 557-7140.

For additional information: Contact the Morocco National Tourist Office in New York at (212) 557-2520, or in Buena Vista, Fla., (407) 827-5337.

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