Fifteen Minutes of Fame… And Then Some: Ait Ben Haddou

It’s a sad truth that many places I visit in the world are disappointing. Well disappointing isn’t quite the word for it, more that, my ignorant, Hollywood skewed, image of things isn’t exactly what I had envisioned. For example, not everyone in Namibia lives in the bush and speaks in a clicking dialect. Similarly, the pyramids of Egypt, sit right on the edge of a bustling city, instead of standing alone, deep within the Egyptian desert. Hollywood films have often distorted our reality of how places on the other side of the world look, which is fair enough, it’s their job to make the world magical…
The tiny village of Ait Ben Haddou in central Morocco is the opposite of that. It’s actually how I envisioned all of Morocco to look more or less. Why is that? Probably because this little town is also the set of many, many Hollywood films.
In 1960, Ben Haddou was the setting for Lawrence of Arabia, and since then has been featured in over 27 major films. Classics like Ali Baba and the 40 Theives, and the Young Indiana Jones, and more recent films such as Gladiator, Prince of Persia, Babel and Game of Thrones have all been shot there. It is the quintessential “North Africa”. Originally built in the 1500’s, Ben Haddou is still an inhabited village. I’m not sure exactly how the locals feel about the constant stream of filmmakers in the area, but it sure has become a tourist destination due to them. And I can see why; staring at the town from across the river is one of those rare movie moments, where the place matches the ideal.

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Granada: Gypsies and Game of Thrones

As I said before, Granada quickly became one of my favourite cities. The free tapas definitely had a pull, but the city offers so much more than just free food and cheap beer (as if that wasn’t enough). Luke and I spent nearly 7 hours hiking around the town of Granada and we never ran out of things to see. Our hostel was in the middle of an Arabic market, right next to the winding corridors of the Jewish Quarter. The walls sported intricate mural graffiti from a local artist that reminded me of the decorated side streets of Valparaiso or Melbourne.
Granada is nestled in a little valley, which means most sightseeing involves some rigorous uphill walking. After wandering the lower streets of the city, we meandered uphill towards the Alhambra.
The Alhambra is the main sight in Granada. Not only it is the most popular tourist attraction, but it can also be seen from almost anywhere in the city. It’s an ancient fortress and palace, clinging to the side of a cliff top. Originally built by Arabs in the 800’s, the Alhambra is a stunning sight. The palaces within the fortress have walls of intricately carved marble and areas with stained glass ceilings. And for those that are Game of Thrones fans like I am, filming for the next season is taking place here and at the Alcazar in Seville. This will be Dorne! (A fact I couldn’t quite get over as I explored the area in childish excitement). There are so many royal gardens and forts and lookouts that the Alhambra takes nearly four hours to walk around completely. We managed to see the major sights faster than most tour groups and finished the highlights in just over two hours. With only one full day to see Granada, we wanted to make sure we saw more than just where the royals lived. We wanted to climb the hill to the church of San Miguel, where we were supposed to find both stunning views of the city, and Gypsies living in caves…
The hike up to San Miguel was more than we had anticipated. It’s definitely an uphill battle when you are climbing in the high heat of the afternoon in all black. But the sights along the way made it all worth it: tiny streets with whitewashed buildings and plazas full of locals, the mirador of San Nicholas with postcard views of the Alhambra, and finally the beautiful and towering church of San Miguel itself. And our guidebook was right: the views were incredible. From the top of the mountain you could see all of Granada in it’s glory, and particularly the immense size of the Cathedral that sits right in it’s center. We sat on a wall surrounding the church and gazed over the hill we had just climbed until we sufficiently caught our breaths. Granada really was amazing.
On our way down we joined up with a young guy from California to explore the gypsy caves. These are natural caves, found in the side of the mountain, that the Gypsy people have turned into homes. While some are very primitive, others have doors and furniture and even wifi! Some budget travelers prefer to squat in the caves with the gypsies instead of paying for a bed in a hostel. Although a great story and a money saver, I suppose you run the high risk of being robbed, or in the case of a man we met that lived there, being bit by a two foot long centipede while taking a siesta.
While some of these caves are homes, others are communal areas where gypsies will put on private Flamenco shows for money. We only explored the “residential” part of the caves… If you could call it that. As the three of us wound our way downhill through bushes and dirt paths, it was less a magical gypsy land and more like the slums of Granada. At one point we were fairly certain of being attacked by a wild dog that gave us a stare down and growled at us the whole way past him. We were very relieved to reach “normal” civilization without getting either robbed or rabies. But all part of the fun of exploring!
On our walk home we meandered along the riverside into the center of town. Probably one of the most picturesque views of Granada I’d seen. It was leisurely and quiet, with some caf├ęs and churches along one side of the path, and the winding river on the other. We arrived back at the hostel almost 7 hours after we had left it and were absolutely famished. At least we’d earned our fair share of tapas for the evening!

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