Morocco: First Impressions

Our incredible 10-day Moroccan adventure – as well as our first trip to Africa together – began with three days in Marrakech. Falling in love with this country and its culture was undoubtedly one of the highlights of our summer 2017 journey. In this piece, we’ll focus on documenting the sights, stories and laughter that filled a whirlwind & memorable day #1: our first impressions of Morocco.

Arrival in Marrakech

After an early morning flight from Sevilla with a connection in Madrid, we landed in Marrakech mid-afternoon, only to be welcomed by dry, 100-degree heat. Doing our best not to look like lost tourists, we wandered confidently through the airport until we found the driver that had been arranged by our riad.

very first interaction with our driver: “you two are lucky to come while the weather is so cool!” We laughed – then realized he wasn’t joking! – and hurled ourselves into the cooling oasis of our air-conditioned van.

The excitement quickly began building as we pulled away from the airport. Our eyes remained glued to the windows, trying to absorb as much of our new surroundings as possible: at first, a vast red landscape dotted with adobe-like structures appeared unwelcoming; but soon, the hostile desert transitioned to a calming suburbia, with gardens of lush greenery and colorful flowers. Closer to the city center, the pace of life accelerated: locals navigated the streets by car, by motorcycle and on foot; herds of camels sought shelter from the heat, but many simply surrendered to the sidewalk.

Entering the Medina

We soon approached what seemed to be a massive fortress with intricately carved walls of orange-red clay. Our driver remarked that these were the outer walls of the medina, and explained that their unique color has given Marrakech the nickname The Red City.

Marrakech was founded in 1062. Roughly 60 years later, protective ramparts (walls) were built – reaching as high as 19 feet (5.8m) – and stretching 12 miles (19km) around the city. When the walls were built, they surrounded the entirety of the city.

Of course, Marrakech has grown significantly in the last 900 years. So, today – the area of the city surrounded by the 12 miles of walls is known as the medina (“old city” or “city center”).

The Medina of Marrakech was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985.

Hospitality, Redefined

Within minutes of passing through the medina gate, our drive came to an abrupt end when we reached an area that was inaccessible to cars. We stepped out of the car and were met by a smiling, enthusiastic gentleman from our riad. He loaded our luggage into a wheelbarrow, and then escorted us through the windy, narrow path to Riad Kheirredine, roughly five minutes away.

The entrance to Riad Kheirredine; pretty unassuming…right?!

We entered the riad and were again greeted warmly, this time by an entire team of staff members. One friendly face served us a platter of hot mint tea, fresh fruits and dried fruits. Another then handed us a local cell phone, which was ours to use for the duration of the stay (this turned out to be quite useful, just a few hours later!). We then took a tour of the riad. From the mosaic-covered lower courtyard to the gorgeous rooftop terrace to the all-around stunning décor, it didn’t take us long to fall in love with this place!

We can say with confidence that our stay at Riad Kheirredine was the best experience in hospitality we’ve ever enjoyed in our years of travel. The property is amazing, but the staff who treated us like family is what truly made the experience special. Check out our complete review for more info on room options, the in-house spa & Hammam bath…and the overall travelhelix experience.

travelhelix tip: if you’re interested in making a reservation, book directly for the best rates and other perks!

Morocco Riad
The literal translation of “riad” is “garden.”
Morocco Riad gardens
A Moroccan riad is a “community-like house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard.” Typically, a riad will have some plants (in four planting beds) and a central fountain. Without these features, it is called a Dar, or “house.”

Sunset at el-Fnaa Square

After settling in at the riad and relaxing for a few hours, it was time to explore. With only a couple of hours of sunlight left, the riad staff recommended we head over to Jemaa el-Fnaa (el-Fnaa Square): one of the main attractions in the Medina of Marrakech, and the busiest square in all of Africa.

For 20 minutes, we navigated the narrow streets – densely-crowded with both locals and tourists – doing our best to avoid being run over by motorcycles. As we passed through the souks (“souk” → “market”), temptation lurked around every corner, but we remained focused on our destination, knowing there would be plenty of time for shopping in the coming days.

Enter el-Fnaa Square; enter…MADNESS! We quickly realized that the best way to absorb this scene was from an elevated position, so we chose a café at random, wandered up the stairs to the rooftop balcony, ordered a non-alcoholic beverage, and observed the wonderful chaos below:

juice vendors…food vendors…endless trinketry for sale…a monkey in a red vest playing hand cymbals…men with snakes wrapped around their necks, offering photo-opportunities to tourists…a spontaneous drum circle that erupted suddenly and inspired crowds of bystanders to begin dancing…

THIS was Marrakech. NOW we were IN THERE.

We remained on the balcony mostly in silence, soaking it all in. After capturing a few shots of the setting sun, we headed back down the stairs to begin the journey home.

Morocco - Jemaa el-Fnaa
Jemaa el-Fnaa: ominous skies above.
Jemaa el-Fnaa: wonderful chaos below.

Getting Lost in Marrakech… literally.

Let’s go back in time a few hours: before leaving the riad earlier that afternoon, we had been given very simple instructions from the staff:

“One of our guys (riad staff) will walk with you to Café Árabe, which is about halfway to the square…”

This happened!

“From Café Árabe, finding the square is easy. Our guy will point you in the right direction…”

Yep – no problem!

“Finding your way back to Café Árabe is also easy to do on your own…”

So far, so good!

“…but when you get to Café Árabe, STOP – and use the cell phone to call us. Someone will meet you at Café Árabe to guide you back. If you try to do it on your own, YOU WILL GET LOST – 100%!!!”

This is where things took a bit of a wrong turn, so to speak…

We…got lost. I mean…we looked at a map later…might as well have been in Montreal…we weren’t even close.

reflections from A: wanderlust D is always like ‘ ♥ let’s get lost!♥ ‘ so….I got us lost. I thought that’s what — or I guess maybe I should have — man I don’t have a clue where we are right now. 

reflections from D: stubborn-a$$ A doesn’t have a clue where we are right now. I mean, this place is a maze. And he’s no Christopher Columbus. Or mouse for that matter. Well he does like cheese a lot. Man I’m hungry. I’m calling the f*in riad.

Finally conceding defeat, we found a prominent landmark and called the riad. The phone rings. A concerned voice answers: “Danielle? Adam? We’ve been worried…ARE YOU LOST?!!!” Our buddy from earlier came to our rescue just as darkness settled in over the city.

The Aquatic Ambush of 2017

To add insult to injury: on our way back to the riad, we pass a group of kids – no older than 5 or 6 years old – playing in a fountain. We smile, wave and continue on our way… and then:

reflections from A: I felt a cold blast of water on my back and thought I got hit with a water balloon. So I spun around, and found myself face-to-face (staring down at) one of the ‘playful’ fountain kids…holding a cup… pointing in my face… and laughing hysterically. But he wasn’t alone: D was laughing with him. Who’s ready for a beverage?!

Our First Authentic Moroccan Tagine

A few laughs later, we were back at the riad to enjoy our first Moroccan dinner on the rooftop. Exhaustion started to set in for both of us, so we finished our platter of assorted appetizers and asked our waiter if we could take our remaining courses in the room. The staff happily obliged, and we headed downstairs to kick our shoes off. Minutes later, an incredible lamb tagine came knocking on our door.

Overall, the cuisine from Riad Kheirredine’s in-house restaurant was among the best we had in Morocco. We recommend dining here at least one night of your stay (we chose to dine here for 2 out of 3).

The rooftop of Riad Kheirredine just after sunset. The covered couches below offer a comfortable & beautiful setting for dinner outside. The same goes for breakfast, though we must caution you: bees are a concern in the early part of the day..
Pre-dinner bubbly on our private balcony.
DnA @ dusk & ready for dinner!

Closing Thoughts

We woke up 20 hours ago in Sevilla. It’s now midnight in Marrakech. We’re headed to bed with a mixture of emotions: awe, excitement & curiosity amongst them.

It’s been a long day, but it’s been a great day. We’ve tasted a bit of luxury, gotten lost, laughed… and been laughed at.

A perfect day one in Marrakech; an incredible first impression of Morocco.



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