Travel Journal: Dadès, Drâa and The Valley of 1,000 Kasbahs

The sound of walking on pisé sticks with you. Each footfall is dulled, and a little hollow and echoing. It's disconcerting, giving you the feeling that the structure you're standing on could crumble if you shift your weight in just the wrong way. And it's something you're bound to notice as you venture out into Morocco's Drâa and Dadès Valleys.

The routes you'll follow through the region will lead you into what's nicknamed the Valley of 1,000 Kasbahs, and each of those kasbahs is constructed in the rammed-earth method of building known as pisé. But, fragile though they might sound to the untrained ear, these fortresses have stood since the days when camel caravans plodded out of the desert bearing gold from sub-Saharan West Africa and Sudan.

The Middle and High Atlas Mountains are the barrier between Fes and Marrakech, respectively, and the Drâa and Dadès. Crossing the Atlas can be hair-raising if you're sensitive to heights, twisty roads, and relatively few guardrails that would prevent a car from sailing off an icy road and down a mountainside. Luckily, they're also beautiful enough to provide plenty of distraction. Just keep your eyes up. 

After you've crested over the top of a mountain pass and begun to wind your way down, villages begin to appear as geometric shadows, set off only by the straight lines of their roofs and minarets, which are otherwise precisely the same colors as the surrounding hills. And then you begin to notice something more grand.

Skoura and Kasbah Amridil

The towers of huge, walled complexes bristle against the incongruous backdrop of palms and snow-capped mountains in places like the Skoura oasis. There, Kasbah Amridil, which dates to the 17th century, functions as a living museum. 

Walking its ramparts and ducking into its low-slung rooms, lit by carved wooden mashrabiya screens, brings traditional village life into vivid focus. Details like carved wooden locks and antique pottery in a smoke-smudged former kitchen sneak up on you and take your breath away.

Kelaâ M'Gouna

Further down the road is one of the epicenters of rose cultivation in Morocco. It's a bit quiet in the middle of February, when I had to poke around to find someone to sell me some rosewater from among the multiple shops selling it and every other rose-scented product imaginable. But when the flowers are out in full force in May, there's a large (and one has to assume, fragrant) festival. Climbing up a rocky outcropping along the side of the road provided sweeping views that are no doubt even more arresting when the surrounding fields are dotted with the pink flares of blooming Rosa damascena.

Tinghir

The outskirts of this town that acts as a de facto gateway to the Todgha Gorge are so beautiful they require, at minimum, a stop along the road to admire the valley of oasis-like garden plots and pisé buildings against their dusty red mountain backdrop. If you have a bit more time, venture in to visit the whitewashed Medersa Ikelane and walk through the palmeraie. 

Todgha Gorge

As the road climbs out of Tinghir, the rock walls rise, dwarfing all vehicles that pass through their shadows. As they climb, they also narrow, until it seems as though you might drive right into a dead end.

As soon as you can, get out of whatever vehicle brought you here. This is a place that needs to be experienced out in the open. The canyon walls rise 300 feet above you, but at its narrowest point, the passage through them is just over 30 feet across. The river burbles through the gorge, sometimes just a trickle over a rocky ravine, and the constantly shifting light plays on the textures of the rock. 

Pates des Singes

Just beyond Todgha Gorge is a spectacular rock formation that stands above a fertile valley of farmland. It's known locally as the "pates des singes" or "monkey's feet," an unforgettable name if ever there was one. It's best visited at sunset when the contrast between golden highlights and dusky shadows is at its highest. 

Spend the night in the Gorge (I highly recommend Chez Pierre) and experience just how cold it gets—you'll be thankful for a warming meal and a fireplace to gather around before tucking into a cozy bed. In the morning, as you're driving out, do not, under any circumstances, miss the chance to stop and look back. This is why: 

The Drâa and Oulad Othmane

To see the entirety of the Drâa Valley would require a great deal of time—certainly more than most people get for their annual vacation allotment. The Drâa River is Morocco's longest at more than 680 miles, and the valley encompasses more than 14,000 square miles of land. But even spending a few hours following the broad green swath of palms that snakes through the desert, demarcating the river's path, will leave you in awe of its might and its significance to the people of the region. 

In the monotone landscape that surrounds it, the valley is a vein of pulsating life. The green of the palms speaks of abundance, cool and nourishment in what is otherwise an austere, hot and arid world.

In the remote villages of the region such as Oulad Othmane, life carries on as it has for centuries—though with the additions of electricity, cell phones and cars. Walls not made of pisé are built with stones or hand-shaped bricks hauled in panniers slung over a donkey's back. Villagers we met were friendly but reserved, and one woman asked us not to take photos of her still-wet bricks because it would have been unlucky. You could pick out a village to visit almost at random and get a small glimpse of life that is profoundly different not just from that of the average American city, but from Tangier, Rabat or Marrakech. 

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Aït Benhaddou

This fortified village (or ksar) is one of the best-preserved of its kind in Morocco. It's not terribly far from Marrakech, making it a popular day trip for tourists, and it's also still home to handful of families who have lived inside its walls for generations. However, the impulse (and funding) behind much of preservation work is tied to two things: Aït Benhaddou's repeat performances as an atmospheric and otherworldly setting for movies and TV series, and its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If it looks familiar, you might be having a flashback to Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator or Game of Thrones. 

The ksar's UNESCO inscription came thanks to the integrity of the site's architecture. It's a prime example of the vernacular construction traditions (and materials) of southern Morocco that stretch far back in time. According to UNESCO, the buildings date to no earlier than the 17th century (still a pretty remarkable lifespan!) but local beliefs hold that the site has been inhabited for far longer.

When we visited, tourists were thin on the ground and the sun was casting warm light, wavering from gold to apricot to blush, on the landscape. On a dry patch in the riverbed in front of the ksar, trainers were taking horses through exercises that would prepare them for use in movies. Only fitting for this movie star of a village. 

Tamdaght

A short drive from Aït Benhaddou will bring you to the village of Tamdaght. It's a quiet place with its own centuries-old pisé kasbah, gardens of olive trees and date palms, and a handful of hotels that make perfect overnight pitstops (including Kasbah Ellouze, where we stayed). 

While in Tamdaght, we had the opportunity to meet and bake with the two sisters who supply Kasbah Ellouze with daily fresh bread. They warmly encouraged my clumsy kneading before taking us to their own personal earthen oven to bake the loaves. The sisters were a unique pair, as they were both unmarried and childless—an uncommon way of life for women in rural Morocco—and I couldn't help but admire them for obvious strength of character. 

Telouet

A more recently built but no less astounding site lies, half crumbling, in the village of Telouet. The Glaoui Kasbah was home to the last head of the powerful Glaoua tribe, Thami El Glaoui, who also served as the pasha of Marrakech. Unfortunately for him, he chose to align with the French during their occupation of Morocco—great in the short term, as the opulence of some of the kasbah's rooms illustrate, but a poor choice in the long run. When the French were forced out in the mid-1950s, he was viewed as a traitor. He died in the kasbah and his family fled, leaving the buildings to deteriorate.

But while the exterior looks like a stiff breeze could do serious damage, a series of interior rooms holds some of the most spectacular Islamic architecture in the country. Restoration efforts started in 2010, and will hopefully continue to preserve this wunderkammer of craftsmanship.

Every surface, from ceiling to floor and wall to wall, is covered in complex tile mosaics, finely incised plasterwork or carved and painted wood. Though the kasbah often gets passed by in favor of a visit to Aït Benhaddou, Telouet should be on your must-see list for any trip into the region. 

Zagora

One of the two main cities of the Drâa Valley, Zagora acts as a gateway into the Sahara. There's a famous sign in town that hearkens back to the camel caravan days, noting that Timbuktu is 52 days' journey away. 

Breaking the journey here before heading into the hamada and the dunes is well worth it. Get lost in the palmeraie, shop for desert-sourced crafts and artifacts and kick back for a comfy, charming stay at Villa Zagora

Tamegroute

In this village, just 10 minutes or so from Zagora, faith and artistry meet. Tamegroute was once one of the most noteworthy cities of the Drâa Valley. It was a stop for caravans carrying valuable goods out of the desert, but also the site of an influential Sufi religious order, the Nasiriyya, and its associated institution, known as a zaouia (akin to a religious school or monastery). Its members and scholars collected an enormous number of writings and manuscripts, forming one of the most robust libraries in North Africa and adding to Tamegroute's reputation as a center of learning. 

Tamegroute has also earned acclaim for its pottery, a legacy of the Nasiriyyah order founders' efforts to bring artisans to their city. No visit these days is complete with out a meander through the kasbah and a stop to see bowls, plates, vases, egg cups and more being thrown by potters who sit half submerged in a hole the ground, beneath which are the pedals that control their wheels. 

Green is the most famous (and alluring) color of Tamegroute pottery, but shades of brown are also common. Of course, the color palette expands further into the rainbow to meet the potential tastes of any tourists passing through town. You'll find Tamegroute pottery all throughout the country, but buying it here, at the edge of the desert, direct from the artisans, is an experience that's hard to match.

We traveled through the Drâa and Dadés with Wild Morocco, a company about which I can't say enough good things. For first time visitors to the area, having a knowledgable guide and translator is a huge help in getting your bearings and developing a deeper understanding of the stunning landscapes in which you find yourself. 

 
Gina Czupka