Lights, camera, africa: Morocco is a place of deserts, mountains and unique film sets

After a 15-minute drive into the infinite horizon of the desert road from Ouarzazate to Agadir in southern Morocco you come across a very unlikely looking petrol station.

From a distance, through the dust and heat haze, it looks like any piece of unremarkable roadside architecture, but the closer you get, the more peculiar it looks. Its sign, "Gas Haven – last stop 200 miles – cold beer" is pure 1950s American, all rhomboid panels and Jetsons circles on stalks. It's not so much weathered as beaten-up and ... not quite right.

In this North African country where almost everything looks artfully distressed, this petrol station has been art directed to look distressed, and it's dressed up for a landscape thousands of miles away.

Even in Nevada, it would be an unsettling visual conceit, like a Bates Motel or a House of Wax. That, in fact, is what it is: the abandoned set for the recent remake of the horror classic The Hills Have Eyes in which a car-load of tourists pull in to fill up and are dispatched in Grand Guignol fashion by a bunch of mutants.

Since the film-makers left, the only thing that's changed is the addition of a thin string of barbed wire to stop pan-Atlas truckers pulling up in a vain attempt to refuel. Most peculiarly, a Berber has set up camp inside. If you grease his palm with a few dirhams, he'll gladly take you on a tour of the fragile plaster structure that he now calls home.

The film that many cineastes may cite as the pinnacle of Morocco's cinematic history is David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, parts of which were shot in Ouarzazate in the early 1960s. But over the last decade or so southern Morocco attracted a more unusual bunch of auteurs as well as slasher-movie directors and CGI wizards. A mixture of big-budget detritus, renovated kasbahs and lesser-known landscapes have been brought to the attention of the cinema-going public and make for an off-beat way to tour the country, particularly the area within driving distance of Marrakech.

Ouarzazate is a down-at-heel town that marks the starting post of many a tourist trek through the Sahara. It may look like a scruffy, end-of-the-world sort of place, but it's the hub for Morocco's international film industry. A vast new studio complex, CLA, opened here recently, modelled on Cinecitta in Rome. The company owns everything from the front gates to the mountains in the far, far, far distance. You can tour the backlots of CLA, but far more interesting is its older sibling, Atlas Studios, a few minutes down the road.

It's possible to stay on-site at Atlas, in the kooky little Hotel Oscar, full of film posters and old projectors. It's home to many a visiting stuntman and best boy for the duration of a production. Alternatively, on days where there is no filming going on, you can spend the afternoon touring the abandoned sets.

There's something thrillingly Scooby Doo about walking around the huge Cleopatra's palace (from Franc Roddam's hallmark TV movie about the figure, and a later Asterix romp featuring Gerard Dépardieu). There are collapsing steps, columns piled around like giant toothpicks and Sphinxes with their rear ends torn asunder to expose their timber and plaster innards.

Most of the sets are open-air and in various states of disrepair, patched up only when someone wants to recycle them. Ridley Scott's 12th-century Kingdom of Heaven set stands, still immaculate, in the distance, while a fighter plane from The Jewel of the Nile sits in front of the temple from Kundun, just around the corner from a very dodgy looking fibreglass approximation of a red Ferrari.

A short drive from the Atlas Studios brings you to Kasbah Tamdaght, a barely standing settlement with some ornate crumbling turrets crowned by huge stork's nests. Camels and locals meander around. Tamdaght is a current favourite with film-makers looking for a verité locale, while its neighbour, the oft-filmed Ait Benhaddou, has become one of the most essential photo opportunities in the country.

Before Lord Grade, Franco Zeffirelli and Robert Powell came here to film Jesus of Nazareth in 1977, Ait Benhaddou looked like Tamdaght – close to ruin. The production team painstakingly reconstructed a village that is now on the Unesco World Heritage list, and it has remained a photogenic favourite for sword-and-sandal epics since. Gladiator and Alexander were both filmed around the artfully haphazard tiers of the village. The town itself is better experienced from an adjacent hilltop: the closer you get the less impact it has (shoddy souvenir stalls abound) and there's a lot more to experience in the surrounding desert.

Driving back from Ouarzazate, it's astonishing how much difference there is from one valley or mountain range to the next: silver streaks run through the rocks beside nearly dry streams, and pink flowers bloom in abundance in spring. It's also stunning how a mere flash of colour can often recall classic movies shot here: the striking jade banks of river bed close to Ait Benhaddou are where key scenes in The Man Who Would be King with Sean Connery were filmed, while a detour to the tropical-looking oasis of Flint reveals a stand-in for the kind of South East Asian tropics usually seen doused in napalm to the tune of the Ride of the Valkyries.

Twenty minutes' drive past Richard Branson's Kasbah Tamadot, 60km outside of Marrakech at the foot of Jbel Toubkal, sits the Kasbah du Toubkal. This hilltop palace is barely an hour south of Marrakech and has superb views of North Africa's highest mountain.

The once-ruined palace has been converted into something that is termed a "Berber Hospitality Centre". It serves as both a luxury mountain retreat and a budget options for adventurous travellers, and is a model for sustainable tourism, creating jobs in remote communities and providing a first-rate experience for guests. And it was also one of the main off-studio sets for Scorcese's Kundun, with the surrounding countryside standing in for Tibet.

Driving between Ouarzazate and Marrakech is a swerving, vertigo-inducing experience of perilous drops and snow-streaked peaks. There are barriers at the start and end of the climb and they're often lowered when sudden snowfalls make the road impassable.

The drive is up there with the Amalfi Coast and California's Highway 1 in terms of scenery, though you wouldn't want to be caught up there on ice. Every so often, on flatter terrain, you'll pass a big discoloured grey square near the road; evidence of a production team's base camp.

Low production costs (including free use of government-owned land and buildings) , a user-friendly attitude and committed work ethic from the locals has made Morocco more attractive than ever for foreign film companies. As James Cutting, a British expatriate who works in Morocco as a producer and location manager told me, "Finance aside, it's the diversity of the locations that brings people here. There are areas north of Fez, with tin-roofed Caribbean-style shacks and palm trees, which can easily double as Jamaica. Right now I'm looking for somewhere that can double as Canada and I'm sure I'll find it."

Back in the city, you might think that Marrakech, with its crazed souks, daredevil moped riders, labyrinthine medina and muezzin's call to prayer wailing across heat hazed pink rooftops is as cinematic as the Manhattan skyline. In fact, it hasn't taken top billing in as many films as you might think, although it has had its moments. For many buffs its finest hour was the pivotal murder scene in Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much, which was shot in the bustling main square of Djamaa El Fna, with its fruit stalls, amateur dentists, story tellers, snakes and monkeys.

Less iconic but eminently more entertaining (even if just for the repeated use of the word "minky") is Return of the Pink Panther. Within it, Marrakech appears in an odd Clouseauesque disguise as the capital of the fictitious nation of Lugash. More recently, parts of the Badii Palace, the 16th century Saadian royal palace in the Medina, doubled as a detention facility in the Jake Gyllenhaal movie Rendition. If it's the deserts and film studios that get most of the filming action, Marrakech is where the actors gravitate to, whether it be Ben Kingsley taking time out from the just-shot video game-turned-movie Prince of Persia, Brad Pitt staying at the super deluxe Amanjena in the Palmeraie, Jonathan Rhys Myers partying surrounded by belly dancers at Le Comptoir Darna or Colin Farrell leading a white pony around the pool at Nikki Beach for the wrap party for Alexander.

During the Marrakech Film Festival held each November, the city is star central. A few weeks ago, the garden at the Sofitel resembled the Chateau Marmont, with the likes of Charles Dance, John Hurt, Brian Cox and Christopher Lee breakfasting together.

More and more films are being shot within a day's drive of Marrakech's medina, partly because the landscape is so diverse, partly because the costs are so low and partly because – let's face it – if you were Brad Pitt, wouldn't you rather spend two months in rose-petal-strewn, orange-fragrant Marrakech than in a trailer in the Nevada desert?

Getting there

The writer flew from Gatwick to Marrakech with easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com). Marrakech is also served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Bristol and Luton, and Royal Air Maroc (020 7307 5800; royalairmaroc.com) from Gatwick and Heathrow. Atlas Blue (020 7307 5803; atlas-blue.com), a no-frills carrier operated by Royal Air Maroc, flies from Gatwick.

Staying there

Sofitel Marrakech Imperial Hotel & Spa (pictured), Rue Harroun Errachid, Quartier de l'Hivernage, Marrakech (0870 609 0964; sofitel.com). Doubles start at €215, room only.

Kasbah du Toubkal, Imlil, High Atlas Mountains (00 212 24 48 56 11; kasbahdutoubkal.com). Doubles from €168 (including a 5 per cent surcharge, which goes to the community), though a "salon" sleeping up to three costs only €136.

Visiting there

Amanjena: amanresorts.com;

Atlas Studios: atlastudios.com;

Le Comptoir Darna: comptoirdarna.com; Nikki Beach: nikkibeach.com/marrakech;

Palace Es Saadi: essaadi.com

More information

visitmorocco.com

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