Ouarzazate: The Moroccan city loved by Hollywood with direct UK flights

The message: “Ridley Scott is here!” pops up on my screen when I’m standing barefoot in a bathroom at the Berbere Palace Hotel. I abandon my half-finished make-up, grab my key card and head to the pool.

I am in Ouarzazate (pronounced wuh-zuh-zet), Morocco, a small city south of the Atlas mountains, known as the “door to the Sahara desert”. This year, it became more accessible for Britons after Ryanair launched the only direct flight route from the UK.

I visit before the earthquake in September, which affected around 6.6 million people in Morocco, according to the British Red Cross. The High Atlas mountains saw the worst damage. Now, tourists have returned and travel companies continue to invest in the country. Ryanair is set to launch its fourth Moroccan base in Tangier.

January is an ideal time to visit with return flights available for less than £40 and highs of 17°C.

Morocco, Ouarzazate, Atlas Corporation Studios. (Photo by: Giovanni Mereghetti/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Atlas Corporation Studios, Ouarzazate (Photo: Giovanni Mereghetti/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty)

Ouarzazate has a long-standing allure for film-makers thanks to the nearby Atlas Studios. And, when the A-listers are in town, my hotel, built in the style of a kasbah (fort) is where they stay.

I reach its courtyard, which is surrounded by palm trees and walls. My travel companions point excitedly to a raised cabana on the opposite side of the pool. Sure enough, there he is: Ridley Scott, enjoying an aperitif.

Filming for Gladiator 2 has begun, and my stay has coincided with the arrival of stunt doubles and members of the film’s production crew. The sequel to Scott’s 2000 blockbuster will, reportedly, be released in November 2024, with Paul Mescal (who found fame in the BBC adaptation of Normal People) taking a lead role.

The studios are open for public tours. I am guided around vast hangars containing entire countries: Tibet in one, ancient Egypt in another. It is a playground for adults: I sit on Cleopatra’s throne.

Some sets are incredibly convincing, including one from Kingdom of Heaven (a 2005 epic directed and produced by Scott). My eyes tell me I’m looking at a castle of thick stone, but a quick rap of my knuckles confirms it is made from wood and plaster.

However, film sets are not this area’s main attraction. Mountains and desert are within reach, and one could spend days in its markets. Taourirt Kasbah is the obvious stop. Kasbahs are self-contained cities with walls made largely of rammed earth and mudbrick. Ouarzazate’s version has 300 rooms and a maze of passageways, steps and doors. It dates to the 17th century.

“As tourists you may first be looked at curiously here,” says my guide.

“But then we will smile and wave. Friendly is in our blood.”

I see a woman buying a large, fringed rug for a little over £50. There are walls of lanterns, tea sets, rugs, and babouches (leather slipper shoes). The air is filled with the smells of spices, such as saffron, and scented soaps, including orange blossom and lavender.

Ksar of Aït Benhaddou is also a vital addition to any visitor’s itinerary. Around 19 miles from the centre of Ouarzazate, it is a collection of kasbahs surrounded by a tall, fortified wall. A world heritage site since 1987, its narrow roads are full of sleepy art galleries and shops.

Here, I remember Ouarzazate is derived from the Amazigh (meaning “free people”) words for without (ouar) and noise (zazt); essentially translating as “a city without noise”.

Lucy Clarke-Billings in Morocco Image via Lucy
Lucy looking out at Ksar of Aït Benhaddou

There is much to see beyond the city. I travel five hours by car to Merzouga, a small town in the Sahara, near the Algerian border. It is known as a gateway to Erg Chebbi, a huge expanse of sand dunes. En route, a valley twists its way down to the city of Kalaat M’gouna. In the late spring, the area will be carpeted in pink petals, tons of which are harvested each year to be made into rose water.

The drive continues through Dades gorge, a canyon carved out by the Dades river. “Monkey’s finger” rock formations rise from a parched riverbed and sandstone cliffs, sculpted by time and the elements, tower above. The road narrows and rises into hairpin bends, revealing red-rust and mauve mountains stripped back to layers of strata.

Sahara desert, Erb Chebbi, Merzouga, Morocco
Erg Chebbi, Merzouga, a huge expanse of sand dunes (Photo: Getty)

After arriving in Merzouga, an hour before sunset, I wrap my head in cotton scarves, mount a camel and venture into the desert. For miles and miles, dunes rise and fall. There is no light pollution and all I can hear is the occasional camel snort. When the sky is full of stars, I find a bivouac. Its tents are draped in rugs offering protection from sandstorms, one of which is rolling in.

Singing and dancing provide the welcome, followed by a dinner of tagines. I tuck into a sweet and savoury blend of beef, apricot, almonds and spices, as the wind howls around me. Who needs a constructed set, I think, when nature is this filmic.

Travel essentials

How to get there
Return flights from Stansted to Ouarzazate with Ryanair

Where to stay
Berbere Palace Hotel has doubles from £272 a night, le-berbere-palace.hotel-rn.com
A stay at the desert camp is £89 a night.

Further information
visitmorocco.com/en