My biggest hobby (after traveling) is movies. And when I watch a movie I amuse myself recognizing actors and locations. Perhaps the first case can frustrate me (trying to remember in which other shows I’ve seen the same actor can become an obsession) but the second is always pleasant and rewarding.
It’s not difficult for me to remember places, and when it happens automatically I see in my head the phrase “I have been there!”. Thinking about it, most people I know who are passionate about travel are also movie fans. It’s like another form of travel.
The place we will talk about today, Ouarzazate, is the city of Morocco with the greatest connection to cinema. Let’s get started!
With a name of Berber origin that translates as “noiseless”, Ouarzazate was a transit area for trans-Saharan merchants who wanted to go from the south to cities in the north of the country, using a kasbah as a checkpoint. The fact that it was an area safe against the usual assaults that occurred along these routes possibly led to its name.
During the French colonial period, the initial kasbah grew into a well-structured city and became a customs post and administrative center.
Currently, despite being the provincial capital and having a considerable tourism industry (including a golf course and a convention center), its permanent population is modest (approximately 70,000 people). It still maintains its identity as a stop-off point from yesteryear and a gateway to the desert.
Two other important industries are the energy sector, with a recently built 15,000-acre solar farm, and the movie industry, which is its most visible development engine, including the largest film studio in the world.
What to do in Ouarzazate
Ouarzazate isn’t exactly an enjoyable city on its own. It’s more a convenient and necessary stop on the way from the Atlas to the desert. Although I don’t recommend spending more than a day here, I’ll tell you about its most notable features so you can get the most out of your stay here.
It’s easy to get around Ouarzazate. Its layout is centered around Mohamed V avenue and all its side streets. You’ll have no trouble getting around on foot. All the places I mention are at different spots along the avenue.
This kasbah stands out along the avenue. It is the core of the city and dates back to the 18th century when it regulated trade routes and served as the residence of the representative of the Glaui, a family that managed the region in a feudal system.
Visiting its inner courtyard is free, although to access its interior and several renovated rooms you have to pay 30 dirhams. Likewise, you can hire a guide on the spot, who shouldn’t ask for more than 150 dirhams for the whole group.
It’s a highly recommended visit, especially considering its historical importance and that generally the kasbahs in Morocco aren’t so well maintained as this one, although it is only partially restored and many of its rooms are closed to visitors.
It usually goes unnoticed, because after the kasbah the travelers leave the same way they went in. It’s better to leave on the side of the Berber neighborhood that arose under the protection of the Kasbah and that remains hidden if viewed only from the avenue.
If you’ve hired a local guide, you can politely ask him to accompany you through this amalgam of winding streets, adobe houses and little picturesque spots.
One of the locals’ favorite spots, this square surrounded by cafes and shops can be the perfect place to stop along the way and have some tea, a snack or satisfy your need to shop without pesky vendors attacking you.
On one side through some porticos, you will find the central market (also called the old market, as opposed to the new one, located in the middle of the square). This local market has products for everyday use such as footwear, clothing and food.
There are several sites where we can see Ouarzazate’s movie culture, such as the Cinema museum, located just in front of the Kasbah of Taourirt. If you’re a real cinephile it’s worth it to take the one-hour drive to check out the Atlas studios or the Cla studios.
If I had to choose just one, I would pick the Atlas studios first, as they are the oldest and scenes from The Jewel of the Nile, Kundun and Gladiator were filmed there.
The entrance fee is 80 dirhams per person, which is well worth it because it includes an experienced guide who spends two and a half hours sharing a thrilling treasure trove of knowledge with you. To buy tickets, head to the nearby Oscar hotel, which was originally a private hotel for the staff of the productions filmed here.
After an introduction about the history of the studios, we see several sets, some more recognizable and specific, created especially for some film and preserved as is, and some others with a more flexible design, for example, a small version of a Berber city, an Egyptian temple and the scenery from Asterix and Cleopatra.
Although Arab and Berber sets are mostly what we see, there is also a Tibetan temple and many other exotic sets. The reason is due to good business sense. If a movie requires settings from different locations or cultures (I think of movies similar to James Bond)… why not offer them right here? You have to acknowledge the Moroccan people’s talent for taking advantage of any business opportunity that comes their way.
If you have never seen a studio, this visit is essential to understand the magic of cinema, and how the result is much greater than the sum of its parts. This is the only way to understand that good filming, photography, lighting and editing are necessary for cardboard spaces, small scale sets and fake buildings give rise to unforgettable films.
Nearby Places of Interest
If you have a car at your disposal, there are several interesting sites around Ouarzazate and you can visit them on the way in or out without deviating too far from your route. You can also spend the night and see them the next day before continuing.
Ksar of Ait Ben Haddou
19 miles (30 km) away is what is probably the most iconic ksar in all of Morocco and, without a doubt, the most filmed. Missing this magnificent panoramic view would be a real shame.
Skoura Palm Grove
This is the furthest spot I’ll mention at around 30 miles away (50 km) although it is a normal stop if you’re headed to Erg Chebbi. This plain shelters nearly a million palm trees and is one of the most outstanding counterpoints to the arid landscape that surrounds Ouarzazate.
There are also more than a hundred kasbahs here. None of them are in very good condition but they add an element of humanity to the vastness of the palm grove.
On the way to the palm grove, it’s also a good idea to stop at the Al Mansour dam, an idyllic-looking lake and where, at certain times of the year, bird watching is possible.
This oasis framed by black rocks is an ideal place to stretch your legs while taking in the view of the lush crops that grow there. Enjoy a stroll along the river bank contemplating picturesque scenes or have tea with an unbeatable backdrop. It’s located just 6 miles (10 km) to the south, and for reasons that I cannot understand, it usually goes unnoticed by travelers.
And with this last scene this article on Ouarzazate ends. Maybe tonight I’ll watch a new movie and hopefully I’ll recognize some of the places where it was filmed. And if not, I’ll have to keep traveling to make sure it doesn’t happen again!
Much love to all and see you in the next post!
Coordinates: 30°55′N 6°55′W (see location)
Population: 70,000 approx.
Founded: Although in administrative terms Ouarzazate was founded in 1928, it has existed as a place of passage since at least the 11th century, when the kasbah Taourirt was built.
Climate: Average high and low temperatures by season: Spring (30-8 ºC; 86-46 °F), Summer (38-18 ºC; 100-64 °F), Autumn (32-7 ºC; 90-45 °F), Winter (20-10 ºC; 68-50 °F). With little rainfall throughout the year.
Where to eat: Usually travelers have lunch near the Kasbah Taourirt and the film studios, with tourist-oriented restaurants and international food options. In and around Place Al-mouahidine there is more local Moroccan cuisine and where the locals usually eat. Try ordering gamila, a typical dish of the area made from potatoes, vegetables and meat.
Ouarzazate is on the edge of the desert. If you want to know more, check out our page about the Sahara.