In kasbah country

Feature Olivia Gunning Bennani journeys through Morocco's valleys and mountains in search of ancient citadels.

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No one could say exactly how many kasbahs we'd find in Morocco's legendary Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs. We suspected more than a handful. The famed, ancient Tizi-n-Tichka pass leading south from Marrakech is the most adventurous route. This twisting, periodically perilous mountain pass, ascending 2,260 metres into the High Atlas Mountains, is the road we took in search of kasbahs.

Morocco is often referred to as a cold country under the sun, a startlingly true axiom during the winter months. As we set off from Marrakech, the midmorning temperature was 19°C, yet the snow-covered Atlas Mountains above promised an impending temperature plunge. The climb begins with the town of Ait Ourir where prickly pears line the winding roads and olive trees show off in well-watered grounds. Not a kasbah in sight.

Snow began to mount at the wayside - evidence of the snowplough that had preceded us. A precarious climb ensued with tourist coaches, hay trucks piled as high as double-decker buses and petrol tankers battling it out on the narrowest of bends. Moroccan villages, complete with cloaked men and ruddy children, passed. Still no kasbah. We began to wonder when. Not long, it turned out. Just after the Tizi-n-Tichka summit is the turning to Talouet, which houses arguably one of the nation's most notorious kasbahs. It is a time-ravaged maze of rooms that many consider dangerous in its disrepair.

The edifice is evidence of a dramatic (and relatively recent) political skirmish. The Talouet kasbah was the headquarters of the Glaoua, a notorious Berber tribe. The Glaoua - Lords of the Atlas - prospered in Morocco during the late 1800s and early 1900s after rescuing Sultan Moulay Hassan of Morocco from a mountain blizzard. Consequently, the Glaoua were dealt privileges such as armaments and key political positions. T'hami el Glaoui was Pasha of Marrakech from 1912 to 1956. Figures such as Winston Churchill and Charlie Chaplin are purported to have been his guests. However, the tribe fell from Moroccan favour when they plotted with the French against Sultan Mohammed V.

A tour around the kasbah of Talouet (take a guide, the interior is vast) affords a view of the extravagant Glaoui penchants: cinemas, harems, carved ceilings, intricate zellige tile-work and grand reception rooms all whisper of their lavishness. Most of the kasbah is built from pisé - most in the region are - but part is constructed from stone, which generally survives longer than the water-soluble alternative. In any case, it is a tumbling treasure.

Back on the main road we head towards the southern oases. All of a sudden another kasbah appeared before us. The village of Igharm Ougdal - no more than a ramshackle line of roadside buildings - has an un-signposted gem. And in true Moroccan style, we fell upon it by accident. Shaking wheat at the front door was a very weathered and smiling old lady. Her husband let us in. The building was used as a storehouse for grain. Locals hire areas out and visitors can enter, climb the stairs and peer into dark chambers. It is an immaculate piece of history.

In Morocco, ancient pearls are often astoundingly accessible and the magnificent fortified village of Ait Benhaddou is no exception. Around 30km from Ouarzazate, the terrain hinting of impending Saharan plains, we turned down a track and a chain of kasbahs, together forming a ksour, rose in ochre splendour over the Ouarzazate river. Ait Benhaddou used to be on the Sahara-Marrakech caravan path, although today it is more of a no-through road. Yet so impressive is the ksour, it has made many guest appearances in Hollywood backdrops - from Lawrence of Arabia to Gladiator - and has been named a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Local families still live in some of the kasbahs, and a trip over the shallow river - awaiting mules will see to this for you - allows entry and a tour of the celebrated village (a small tip to one of the local guides always helps). A glass of mint tea inside one of the kasbah courtyards will only add to what has to be the most prized of authentic Moroccan experiences. To really relish Ait Benhaddou, take a room in one of the charming guesthouses on the opposite side of the river and witness the grandest of light shows as the sun drops and rises against the amber-walled earthen village. We stayed with Brahim and his family at the conveniently named Chez Brahim. We were dealt a spectacular bedroom-window vision - directly opposite the ksour. Brahim's wife, Khadija, cooked up harira and couscous that night and msmen - decadently delicious Moroccan crêpes - the next morning.

Brahim built his guesthouse using the ancient practice and same materials as the kasbahs. Local soil is mixed with hay and water before being pressed and bashed into wooden moulds of various sizes. The resulting bricks, of various sizes, are then sun-dried. Thanks to this authentic technique, buildings rise in the same shades as the earth - burnt orange, crimson, salmon - depending on the sun's position.

While Ait Benhaddou is fast becoming a must-see for tourists, another treasure absurdly close by is largely ignored. The ruined kasbah of Tamdaght is a splendid example of construction. While it is effectively ruined, it's nonetheless worth a visit. Fine gardens surround the building and a tip to the guardian will afford a tour of chambers, once inhabited by Glaoui masters and their mistresses. Stopping in Ouarzazate is only advisable if you want to view the kasbah of Taourirt - otherwise the town is a rather uneventful place. But the Taourirt kasbah, another former Glaoui abode, is a spectacular series of towers and alleys. Part of it is a living, breathing medina area. You'll see washing hung out to dry, peanut salesmen and local crafts. The other part has been restored and is open to tourists during visiting hours. Its tapestry of apartments and passages within the bulky walls and beneath the fat girders tell of a bygone Glaoui period.

East out of Ouarzazate, in the Skoura environs, we reached the veritable Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs that the books tell of. The good news is that there really are hundreds of kasbahs to see. They pop up in villages among inhabited, flat-roofed houses, or next to rusty service stations; they loom on middle-of-nowhere plains between two hamlets, and nestle amid palm and olive groves. Most of them - not all - are pretty crumbly, but not for one moment are they boring. Never did we think: "Oh, not another kasbah". They are simply too striking in all their scorched orangeness.

One of the kasbahs we particularly wanted to visit is the one pictured on both the Moroccan Dh50 note and juice cartons. Across the olive and palm oasis towards the dry Hajjaj river, is the grand 17th-century Amerhidil kasbah. Our guide accosted us in a friendly way before we even got to the building, and he never left our sides until we got back to the car. He knew everything. He showed us chambers (some were occupied by sheep and chickens), the burial room, the mosque on the uppermost floor and the adjoining Quranic schoolroom. Ancient olive presses, couscous steamers and vast pestle and mortars were strewn around. Nothing is protected behind glass or museum bars. Birds nest in the earth-and-straw walls.

If you want to stay the night, there is the newly built Espace Kasbah, which is actually attached to the national monument. It's a terrific guesthouse, constructed to resemble a genuine kasbah and offers homemade, Moroccan-style cuisine and traditional furnishings. Back towards the main road, we stumbled upon the residence and marabout (tomb) of Sidi Aissa, his wife and domestic employees. The white dome still rises intact while the partially ruined dwelling place offers a good view of the burial place.

Last on our route was the fully restored Ait Ben Moro kasbah, which now operates as a hotel, sitting conveniently on the main road to Skoura. The owner, Mohamed, lives next door with his family and until recently he would open the kasbah doors for a small tip, showing visitors the building, including the mill and kitchens. The kasbah was originally constructed, so legend has it, in the 18th century by an Andalusian sheikh who had been expelled from Spain. It was renovated, appropriately, by an Andalusian, nine years ago. The restoration is unobtrusive; the original earthen walls are left quite unadorned and the surrounding garden is flourishing. Take one of the north-facing rooms. It will proffer one of the most breathtaking yet simple of earthly views across the palmerie, where red terrain is punctuated by verdure and the sometimes snowy High Atlas peaks escalate behind.