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All Aboard the Marrakech Express (‘cos the times they are a changin’)*

*with a nod to some great 60s tunes!

[First published on the excellent, lively, vibrant and way-cool travel portal http://www.zipsetgo.com/]

 In 1962 – almost 50 years ago – Bob Dylan gave voice to a new generation and announced the “times they are a changing”. This new generation, born in prolific quantities in the aftermath of World War II, would witness seismic change in all aspects of social life and promised to challenge traditional power bases and authority structures. In the end the “baby-boomers” who embraced Dylan and the Beatles, who marched for civil rights and against Vietnam, who went naked at Woodstock and put a man on the moon settled down, piled on the pounds, joined the country club and took the corner suite as company CEO.

Now workplace sociologists tell us that this generation (the “Baby-boomers”  aged between 45 and 65 years) is being gradually replaced in the upper echelons of the corporate universe by Generation X (age range 25 – 45). This, of course, has huge implications for the meetings and incentive industry. While the baby-boomer generation liked its luxury and opulence and gravitated towards destinations such as Hawaii, the Caribbean, Paris, Rome etc Generation X, contrarily, prefers authentic experiences and steers clear of sanitised or homogeneous experiences. It’s a more spontaneous generation, seeking real encounters, open to novelty and adventure and preferred to “go with the flow”. For such a generation Marrakech may just be the perfect destination.

Two days before a fatal earthquake destroyed much of Western Morocco, the cats spontaneously evacuated the villages and towns, averting their own demise by following their primordial 6th sense early warning system. Cats are now in great abundance all over Marrakech, ubiquitous and omni-present even in such unexpected, implausible locations as the InternationalAirport!

You need to be patient, open minded and not adverse to a full gamut of challenging smells to fully enjoy and appreciate Marrakech. Your first exercise in patience will be upon arrival as the lines to clear immigration are painfully slow even if the uniformed officials do manage a friendly smile of welcome.

Marrakech is essentially low rise, the skyline punctuated by tall palm trees, and the occasional minaret, the tallest, at 70m, being the tower of the Koutoubia Mosque which dates from1189. The old town, or Medina, which you circumnavigate to get to the upscale Palmeraie area, is protected by an ochre 10km mud and lime rampart re-enforced by castellated square towers set at symmetrical intervals. Neon signs, advertisement hoardings and many other external expressions of a western socio-cultural environment are eerily conspicuous by their absence. You are clearly in a different time and place.

First impressions confuse and challenge you: stunningly beautiful brown eyed young women wearing trendy Abercrombie and Fitch string tops stand next to toothless old men in kaftans and fez; a latest model S class Mercedes carefully negotiates its way past a donkey and cart over-laden with mandarins; dark skinned street urchins sell you cheap hand –crafts and engage in good humoured banter about Man Utd and Barcelona, switching effortlessly between Spanish, English, Arabic and local dialect. And while the muezzin call the faithful to pray 5 times per day, this is Islam of the Maliki School which allows for a more flexible interpretation of the Koran.

The La Palmeraie district, meanwhile, hosts a staggering number of deluxe hotels including the Palmeraie Golf Palace and adjacent Palmeraie Village which together boast over 14 food and beverage outlets, a full spa facility, a vibrant, happening night club and, of course, a championship golf facility. La Palmeraie is essentially a desert oasis of leafy green palms which benefits from an underground irrigation system created in the 1200s by Ali Youssef ibn Tachfine, founder of Marrakech. The upscale appeal of Marrakech has not escaped the attention of the large luxury international hotels and Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental and Banyan Tree are all due to open shortly. European chain properties such as Le Meridien and Sofitel are already well established in the “new city” or Gueliz / Hivernage district.

Marrakech has tended to be a destination chosen by travellers seeking an out-of-the-ordinary, edgy visitor experience – it featured heavily with Istanbul and Goa amongst the hippie movement of the 1960s. The edginess of Marrakech is probably best experienced today by staying in one of the five or six hundred riads located within the Medina. The Marrakechi version of a B&B, riads are classic Moroccan homes set around a central courtyard with an average of 5 bedrooms. High end riads such as Riad Farnatchi set unrivalled standards in opulence and luxury and many riads fuse traditional berber and cool contemporary design. The iconic, and much larger, La Mamounia, built in the 1920s and home to such VIPs as Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle, was subject to a recent careful restoration under the watchful eye of hotel design guru Jacques Garcia – not be to confused with his near-name sake, tie designer and legendary deadhead, Jerry Garcia – and is accumulating international awards to beat the band.

So the times may be a-changin’ in Marrakech but this doesn’t seem to be the case as you arrive into the bustling Medina at twilight. It’s a beguiling, bewitching and bewildering encounter of the full sensory kind and you’re right back at a crossroads where ancient meets modern. Djemaa el-Fna Square is at the heart of the matter: vendors squeeze oranges at stands powered by small petrol generators while snake charmers make exotic music with primitive pipes. It’s a living theatre and you’re part of the performance yourself, acting the role of curious outsider in a place so novel and enchanting. There’s no way that you can dilute, adulterate or sanitise this experience – this is full-on authenticity and is the antidote to destinations where you simply skate across the surface.

Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Director, Ovation Global DMC

Ovation Global DMC is present in over 80 destinations worldwide, offering seamless destination management services to corporations, associations and agencies. www.ovationdmc.com

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