When it comes to making a Hollywood blockbuster, cast and crew travel all over the wolrld to get just the right location and ambience for the different scenes. This was certainly the case for the team working on Ridley Scott's Oscar-winning Gladiator. For the battle scenes of Germania, they travelled to Bourne woods in Surrey. They used a generous dose of technological jiggery pokery to recreate the grandeur of Rome at Fort Ricasoli on the island of Malta – a setting more recently chosen by Alejandro Amenabar for filming scenes for Agora. And the beautiful town of Ait Benhaddou in the desert of Morroco was chosen as the location for the African village where the disgraced general Maximus – played by Russell Crowe – is taken into slavery and trained as a gladiator, after the death of his mentor the Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Many of the inhabitants of Ait Benhaddou have probably never left their home, yet they are well versed in the world of auditions and casting procedures – and in how to land a role as an extra in a high-budget movie. This village, perhaps the most photogenic in Morocco, has certainly become used to being the haunt of film crews. It's not just popular with the producers of ancient Greek and Roman epics, either: it's been the setting for scenes from the great classic Lawrence of Arabia, the marvellous Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas adventure romp The Jewel of the Nile and it even played a part in the second Sex and the City movie. For Gladiator, though, little more was needed than to set up an arena alongside the existing adobe buildings, as the town is a perfect location 'as is': like other must-visit stops on the route of the kasbahs, Ait Benhaddou invites visitors on a veritable journey into the past.
Across the high Atlas mountains, around a hundred kilometres from the bewitching city of Marrakesh, first the kasbah of Telouet and then Ait Benhaddou rise mirage-like on side routes branching from the main road leading south from the ochre city to the desert. The crenellated towers decorated with geometric patterns, the crumbling ksar – the fortified town – and the walls surrounded by palm trees give Ait Benhaddou that perfect ambience that has drawn so many filmmakers. They speak of the days of camel trains that crossed the Sahara and the merchants who sought refuge in this sandy stronghold for themselves and for the goods they were carrying on the backs of their moody ships of the desert. Today, the almost deserted settlement is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and only a handful of families still live here; the rest of the inhabitants have long since moved to the humble village built across the creek, leaving the old Ait Benhaddou a virtual ghost town.
Just a little farther on lies Ouarzazate, which, rather than a town, is a single long street, lined with hotels ready to accommodate the Nordic hordes who come seeking the guaranteed year-round sunshine; there are film studios, too, that have served the multitude of movies shot in the area, most notably the Atlas Studio, a recommended stop on any tour. Although Ouarzazate itself offers little of interest, just a kilometre from the centre stands the imposing restored kasbah of Taourirt, another of these citadels of mud that symbolise the essence of Berber culture. Inside you'll find the chambers of the tribal leader Glaoui, the last great lord of Atlas.
On the road heading through pre-desert landscapes towards the dunes of Zagora and the spectacular Draa Valley, another handful of ksar are to be found.
But if you opt for the road out through the Dades valley, you'll find even more of these old fortified villages and kasbahs that have miraculously survived over the centuries. Two fine examples stand at the palm grove of Skoura, where paths lead off to the north to the villages of Asseghmo, Timatdit and Toudounte, all of which boast more of these authentic mud-walled castles. Continuing towards El Kelaa des Mgouna, famous for rose growing, the river gorge of Dades offers an appealing visit, or, even more impressive, that at Todra, running between the 300-metre-high walls of a canyon, before finally disgorging in the expanse of dunes of Merzouga that stretches out beyond Erfoud, a true Saharan village.
BMI, Easyjet and Ryanair all fly to Marrakesh from the UK. Look out, too, for organised packages that combine trekking expeditions or visits by road through the Atlas Mountains and the rest of southern Morocco.
If you are travelling independently rather than as part of an organised package, you'll be able to travel at your own speed and ramble at will among the mud fortresses. In this case, it is best to hire a vehicle; if you're intending to follow the off-road portions of the trails, it is a good idea to opt for a 4x4 vehicle.
Where to stay
There are many and varied options, but nothing quite like staying at one of the many kasbahs now transformed into hotels: Dar Ahlam belonging to the Relais & Chateaux chain; Ben Moro in Skoura; Dar Daif, 5 kilometres from Ouarzazate; Hotel Tomboctou in Tinghir; Ksar El Khorbat, in the Todra Valley, Kasbah Azul, near Agdz; or Kasbah Ellouze (T. 00212 5 24 89 04 59), close to Ait Benhaddou. They are all delightful possibilities, although none is quite as luxurious as the Kasbah Tamandot, a property belonging to Sir Richard Brandson, set in the heart of the Atlas Mountains and a perfect base to make an excursion to Ait Benhaddou.
Where to eat
Most of the hotels and kasbahs mentioned above also have restaurants open to non-guests that serve delicious local specialities such as couscous, tagines, pastela or lemon chicken.
Spend at least two days in Marrakesh, soaking up the atmosphere among the jugglers and magicians of Jemaa El Fna square, browsing the souks, strolling under the palm trees, visiting the palaces, savouring the delights of the chic restaurants and nightlife. For a beach break, there's nowhere like Essaouira. And, of course, add to the pleasures of the Route of the Kasbahs taking a walk through the gorges of Todra and watching a sunset over the dunes, in Merzouga, Rissani or Zagora.
Morocco Tourist Board