Being total movie buffs, we already lost count how many films shot in Morocco we have watched, most specifically in Ouarzazate, tagged as Morocco's very own Hollywood or locally-coined Ouallywood. The favorable weather condition (it's sunny by default), cheaper production costs, and exotic location, have lured a long notable list of filmmakers from all over the world through the years. I actually thought it was a far-fetched dream and until now I still can't believe we managed to pull off a great holiday in such a beautiful and exotic country.
Some of the more popular movies and television series filmed here include Gladiator, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Mummy, The Hills Have Eyes, Kingdom of Heaven, Prince of Persia, and most recently, Game of Thrones and Prison Break. Yes, Game of Thrones!
My husband and I have become utterly big fans of Game of Thrones and with the hit HBO series currently on break, we just had to quench our thirst for everything and anything GOT atleast. Fortunately, we were given an extra long weekend in Dubai last July during the Holy Eid celebration, so heading to Morocco for a five-day break was just one of the easiest decisions we've ever made. It was super hot in Morocco when we went there since summer season was at its peak, but we live in hotter Dubai so that didn't faze us one bit. We were beyond excited!
From Marrakech, we hired a driver for a daytrip to Ouarzazate. We initially wanted to join a bus tour with other tourists, but opted for a private tour instead so we can take our time and enjoy a much more relaxed excursion on our own terms without feeling constrained by tight schedule or other people. Our driver Ashraf picked us up from Cafe de France in Jma El Fnaa Square at eight in the morning. He was such a joy to travel with, and although he's honestly not the most reliable when it comes to taking photos, he was very careful, attentive to our needs, ever so game, and knows his Moroccan culture in and out. We learned a lot and really enjoyed his company.
After almost three hours of blissful driving, while singing, enjoying breathtaking views of the Atlas Mountains, old Berber villages, Argan oil specialty shops, and stopping briefly in between for photos and snacks, we reached our first solid destination which was Ait Benhaddou.
Declared as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, this well-preserved Kasbah was transformed by HBO into the City of Yunkai, the second city in Bay of Dragons (formerly Slaver's Bay) that Daenerys Targaryen freed, gaining her the loyalty of thousands of Unsullied army.
There was an option to explore the fortress on our own, but we chose to hire a Berber guide instead for MAD 100 to show us around. I think it's also a good way to support the locals who rely on tourism for their livelihood. Plus, our riad in Marrakech who arranged for our excursion charged us lower than what we expected, so we had the extra budget to indulge a little. It proved to be a good decision anyway since our guide made the experience a lot more fun and authentic.
I had no clue at all that exploring Ait Benhaddou would require some kind of hiking, and given that it was summer with the afternoon sun at its peak when we went there, I was a sweaty and exhausted mess who seriously almost fainted on our way up. It was literally an uphill battle going up to the fortress and the experience made me realize just how unfit and sedentary my current lifestyle is.
A splash of water right on the face later, the small shop inside the fortress selling locally made art pieces became my saving grace. The quiet artist manning the shop offered his carpet in the corner for me to lie down and cool off. I was too touched by his kindness that I ended up buying two of his paintings for MAD 80. He used all sorts of natural inks to paint and once the paper was put over the fire, the colors became more vivid and clearer. It's traditional Berber art according to our guide.
Only a few families still live within Ait Benhaddou since almost all of them have already moved to more modern villages, so most of the forts are already deserted. Some of them though have been converted into shops selling a variety of local souvenirs, carpets, art, fossils, and other knick knacks. You will be forced many times during the course of the trip to buy, but try to restrain yourself as it will be a lot more expensive compared to Marrakech or Fez where you can haggle to your heart's content.
It also became a little difficult to take decent photos with throngs of other tourists roaming inside the fortress like us. So many Khaleesi fans were up and about in every direction (their GOT fan shirts gave them away). I think we spent over an hour inside Ait Benhaddou before finally deciding to come down back to our driver who was waiting for us in La Rose Dusable Restaurant where we had our lunch.
Minus the near-fainting incident (for obvious reasons), it was an incredible experience overall. It's not everyday you get the chance to relive moments from your favorite television series. To see in actual the place where Emilia Clarke and Peter Dinklage filmed and being in one of your dream destinations all at the same time was actually surreal and mesmerizing. It's crazy and it's awesome! I don't recommend it to those with weak knees and joint problems, but if you are big fans of Gladiator and Game of Thrones who enjoy discovering historical sites, then Ait Benhaddou in Ouarzazate would be up your alley for sure.
After lunch, we visited Atlas Studios. It's one of the biggest film studios in terms of hectares that has helped brought to life some of the biggest movies from Hollywood and all over the world since the 80's. It's also probably the most popular tourist destination in Ouarzazate. Their guided tour costs around MAD 50 per person.
To be honest, we didn't spend much time inside the studio since we wanted to come back to Marrakech before sundown. A lot of the sets made mostly of plaster and created for movies such as Gladiator, Moses, Kundun, and Cleopatra are still intact. They're a bit old and rundown but the massively intricate Egyptian sets and temples built inside the property still looked impressive.
There was also a hotel inside the studio called Oscar Hotel where some tourists and production people usually check in and also a bar called Gladiator Bar serving refreshments. I was kinda expecting some sort of a glamourous showbiz encounter or something, but the atmosphere was particularly ho-hum when we went there since productions were on a temporary break. In short, my supposed "accidental meet-up" with Michael Scofield didn't happen. I did meet a new friend though, our local guide who insisted that we call him Brad Pitt.
Channeling my inner Cleopatra
They said these are the chariots used in the movie Gladiator.
We skipped the medina tour in Ouarzazate and headed back to Marrakech instead. The drive back was just as wonderful and breathtaking. It's so amazing how the landscapes and sceneries changed in colors and textures as we passed through like you're witnessing a rhythmic dance or something. I didn't even feel that we've been driving for over three hours since everything was so picturesque. Our driver told us we would have enjoyed camping in the Sahara had we come during the colder season, but I've already outgrown campings and stuff and felt like we've pretty much covered what we came for in Ouarzazate.
A lot of walking and I really felt so worn out after the tour, but it was a day of movies, history, and nature at its best. A day after my own heart of course.
Are you also a fan of movies or Game of Thrones? Is Morocco also on your bucketlist?