by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
Lasting First Impressions
It’s such a huge pity your access to the destination is bookended by nonsensical bureaucracy. There are long lines at passport control on arrival and even longer lines at passport control on departure too. In fact you’re lucky to make your flight at all despite checking in the regulatory two hours prior to take-off. There’s little rhythm or reason to the process: some travellers get through in less than a minute, others take 20. At one stage there’s an airport employee acting as an usher and he manages to make the queue move a bit but then he leaves and nobody replaces him.
Sandwiched between two numbingly frustrating experiences, however, Marrakech intrigues and inspires and offers up some of the best destination sights, sounds and sunshine you’ll ever have. It’s true this wasn’t the usual “travel for business” trip which these blogposts are crafted from. These were precious days with best friends at the private Villa of another great friend who has made Marrakech his home. But it was all planned and delivered with great poise and panache by Samuel Regnier, another old friend, now running Only One, a thoroughly reliable, creative DMC servicing all of Morocco.
The Villa, the amazing meals we enjoyed there, the fun we had around the pool, the spectacular home cooked Berber feast, I’ll pass over as, let’s face it, this is not readily available or accessible to every event professional considering Marrakech for their next programme. But here are 5 things you can do that will make your meeting marvellous and give your attendees a destination experience to treasure and recall.
Take a walk on the wild side
In response to our desire to avoid anything vaguely “touristy”, Sam arranged for us to be taken down the back alleys and side streets of the Medina, or Old Town, by local guide Abdel. There our senses were assaulted by sounds, sights and smells at once over-powering, disturbing and enlightning. Abdel took us to a wood-fired communal bakery where local residents bring their risen dough to be baked; he led us down alleyways where hawkers trade huge slabs of meat, oblivious to such practices as refrigeration; he walked us past countless market stalls each selling precisely the same thing, our pathway at all times criss-crossed by stuttering mopeds, over-burdened bicycles, the odd donkey or mule and a partridge in a pear tree.
The Desert starts to blossom
On another day we were taken by Toyota Land Cruisers deep into the Atlas Mountains that lie to the South of Marrakech. The clutter, claustrophobia and cacophony of the Medina were replaced by the aridity, grit and vastness of the desert but occasionally the parched red landscape was punctuated by unexpected villages and lush plantations of pine trees. We went off-road and followed dirt tracks leading to hidden Berber villages where tiny children clamoured around the vehicles excitedly crying “Stilo, Stilo!” – biros and pens, apparently, have more appeal than candy in these regions! For lunch we visited La Pause, an astonishing restaurant / hotel located in the middle of nowhere with its own precious water source but no electricity. There we enjoyed 5 star food and service under the protection of a Berber style tent and spoke Italian with our genial French host Eric who visits Belturbet, Co. Mayo every year to fish!
Tea with peasants and kings
Morocco will always be a place of extreme contrasts, the agrarian Berbers clutching to ancient traditions while international luxury hotels like Mandarin Oriental and Four Seasons try to channel the unique local experience into their 5 star business model. Somehow in Morocco all extremes meet around tea, the country’s number 1 import. We shared tea in the mountains with a Berber family, the dignified and gracious patriarch deploying oscar-winning histrionics in his demonstration of how real mint tea is made and served. By total contrast, we also took tea at the Royal Mansour, the King’s own residence- hotel in Morocco and experienced sybaritic luxury in privileged surroundings.
Meals to remember
For our two “off property” dinners, Sam booked contrasting restaurants. Dar Zellij, where we went on the first night, takes its inspiration from traditional Moroccan gastronomy. It was a night of primary colours the white courtyard juxtaposed by a canopy of fresh green boughs, the white table cloth accented by scattered red rose petals. The food there was unapologetically traditional, the service both graceful and gracious. Dar Zellij is not easy to find, or to find you way out of, as it’s located deep in the Old Town – but that just adds to the charm and mystique!
La Villa des Orangers, by contrast, is close to Jemaa el Fna Square and, behind its humble and unassuming street entrance, offers sophisticated French cuisine in the former home of a local nobleman. Part of Relais & Chateau, La Villa des Orangers discloses itself gradually to you as you wander through its many traditionally decorated rooms before emerging poolside where tables are set in the cool of the evening light. It’s a magical, enchanting and deeply romantic setting.
Full Moroccan Immersion
Perhaps the best thing you can do in Marrakech is allow yourself be confronted by a cultural reality that is manifestly different from that of most Western nations. In ways Morocco can be a bridge into the mysteries of the Arab world as it is an Islamic country comprised of moderate Maliki Muslims whose faith is integrated into their daily lives in quiet ways. Our guide Mokhtar, an erudite, scholarly man was a font of knowledge on all aspects of life in Morocco and it’s just as well as we drank him dry with our probing inquisition. He patiently explained the complexities of Moroccan ethnicity with 60% of the country having Berber origins, not Arab and pronounced convincingly on Morocco’s relationship with its coloniser France and with its monarchy where the present King is revered and held in high regard. He also successfully navigated the issues around women in Islamic societies and gave us a great understanding of healthcare and education in this modern, reforming nation – now the 3rd richest on the African continent.
Pádraic Gilligan is Managing Partner at SoolNua, a boutique consultancy | advisory working with destinations, hotels and venues on marketing, strategy and training for MICE.