I was a little worried about our road trip yesterday (Wednesday. When you research the option of renting a car and driving around Morocco, you discover two very different schools of thought. One is dark: Moroccan drivers are terrible, the road-death toll is high, the pass over the mountains blood-curdling. On the other, sanguine, side of the fence, people attest that the roads are mostly well-surfaced and once you're outside the cities, driving is no big deal. We weighed both, and after talking to a couple of friends who've driven here, we decided that the advantages of getting from Marrakech to Fes in our own (rented) vehicle outweighed the alleged drawbacks.
Arranging the rental was also not without its complications. Go online and google “Morocco car rentals” and you'll find lots many choices. But the comments and reviews of most of them discouraged me. I finally posted a question on Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree travel discussion forum, and I heard good things about Malta Car. I emailed the main contact person, Jawad, and arranged for a car to be delivered to our riad at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, March 19.
This was a good call. It's possible I could have gotten a cheaper rental had we waited to arrange it until after we arrived here. But that would have required hours of work, and as it was, we didn't have time to see at least a couple of key Marrakech attractions. Instead two young people showed up at our riad as arranged, shortly after 9 yesterday (Wednesday) morning, then they led us on foot out of the inner medina to the place where they had parked our gleaning white Dacia Logan (a type of Renault). The young woman was sweet and charming; her male colleague efficient. They pulled out forms for us to fill in…
and a credit-card-processing machine to log our deposit and vehicle-rental payment. They patiently answered all our silly questions (“Do the windshield wipers work?” “What are the rules for entering a traffic circle?” etc.) When we got to asking about the details of how we should get out of Marrakech, they gallantly offered to drive us to the road out of town. And so they did! (Another colleague then collected them and took them back to the city.)
This was a godsend; it made our day easy. The car is fine, the roads are indeed well-paved. The weather was glorious and the scenery spectacular. We did occasionally get trapped behind a Scandinavian hogging the road in an RV, and some of the hairpin turns and low guardrails in the Atlas Mountains made me hold my breath. But there simply wasn't all that much traffic, and with a stop for lunch and a bit of roadside shopping and photo-shooting, we pulled into our B&B in Ait ben Haddou (the Cafe Baghdad) and around five hours after we bade Karima and her colleague goodbye.
We whiled away the rest of the day exploring the old fortified town (ksar) of Ait ben Haddou. It's a spectacular place — a UNESCO World Heritage site that in centuries past figured prominently in the salt trade. For more than 50 years, moviemakers have flocked here to shoot scenes from Lawrence of Arabia, Cleopatra, Gladiator, Babel, and more. The ksar served as a set for the second season of Game of Thrones. And people told us that just five weeks ago Nicole Kidman was here, starring in something called The Queen of the Desert.
When Nicole was filming, the movie-makers closed the ksar to tourists. So we lucked out by not arriving here then. Being in the set feels like being in a movie fantasy set, and there's more of the same on the road ahead of us — kasbahs, palm oases, and beyond, the beginning of the Sahara.