Built by the French beside the perennial Ziz River, the little town of Erfoud is not characterised by the charm of a centuries-old settlement. It's red sand buildings, however, stand out in impressive contrast against the surrounding desert, and with its good hotels, restaurants and a lively souk, it is an excellent place from which to explore the surrounding landscape of desert and oases.
In the latter, the people live in fort-settlements knows as ksour, whose high walls, tightly packed houses and intricate pattern of paths and alleyways are as beautiful as they are charming. Made from lime and the red sand of the region, they provided protection from both marauding nomadic tribes and the scorching sun. Surrounding these settlements are the large palm groves that have sustained these communities on the fringe of the desert for centuries. Not far, the desert offers its own tourist attraction, in the form of camel rides to the sand dunes of Merzouga.
Cross the Bab el Oued bridge from Erfoud's main square and follow the track up a steep hill to the military fort of Borj-Est, which was built as an outpost of the French Army and was manned by the Foreign Legion. From here, the views across the entire region are stunning.
The Erg Chebbi is a range of gold-coloured sand that stretches for about 20 kilometres, some 25 kilometres south-east of Erfoud. Here, visitors book ahead to make sure of a place in one of the two dozen or so little café hotels that have sprung up around the one side of the Erg, a magnificent series of huge sand dunes whose changing tone in the light of dusk or dawn, draws a constant stream of romantically-inclined travellers.
As is often the case, the fun is not just in seeing a special sight, it is also in getting there. Although there is a good tarred road that leads from Erfoud to the Erg Chebbi, most visitors prefer to join the convoy of white Land Rovers in which local guides take them across the desert and through dry river beds to the sand dunes.