Gardens of Marrakech features several outstanding riads, whose link is their gardens, the emotional and physical heart of the house, an outside room open to the sky, decorated and nurtured by the life-enhancing power of plants.
The success of a riad garden depends on the use of fine materials, a strict geometry and up until recently, a range of traditional plants. Its spirit has been described as: “a little bit of nature gathered from beyond the city, like a bouquet, and placed in a vase in the middle of the house.”
Another riad which again entranced this writer, is Riad Enija, altogether more quirky and original than expected. It was built in the 1730s by a wealthy silk merchant from Fez, in the more complex taste of that city involving pattern upon pattern, with an insistence on blue and white separating areas of incised geps plasterwork.
The first impression, as in all successful riad gardens, is of utter tranquillity in the thick of the souks, with the only sound that of birdsong and water, and the visual panoply of light and shadow created by the planting.
However, a dramatic impact has been achieved in the seven interconnected dars by the interplay of contemporary artefacts with the classical Islamic idiom, and it includes vintage 1950s pieces. The symbiosis is a triumph of inspired creativity.
Even more dynamically surrealist, the Jardin Majorelle is one of the glories of Marrakech. Its masterly use of bold, even shocking colour; the tension created by exaggerated verticals and expansive horizontals; and heights of poetic pleasure, such as the water-lily pool reminiscent of Monet, elevate the Majorelle to the status of a world-class garden.
Relatively small, it packs a big punch with its unfolding series of contrasting miniature landscapes or canvases. But the single most influential factor in the drama quotient is the choice of an exhilarating cobalt blue, which its founder, Jacques Majorelle, a painter and plant collector, chose for his villa and most of the garden structures as a result of his exploration of Berber villages.
Terracotta pots have been painted in this singing shade, with an extended palette of eye-watering citrus yellow and orange. Couturier Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé visited frequently, and in 2000 bought the garden, saving it from destruction by speculators, and endowing it substantially for the future. Saint Laurent requested that his ashes be buried in the garden he loved.
Two very different gardens are inspired by the concept of douar, a traditional little village. Les Deux Tours is not one of the Hollywood-style villas and hotels that have sprung up in the Palmery.
It is a guesthouse blending traditional materials and artisanship with modern convenience, some of which is pretty unique, such as antique brass four-poster beds hung with white muslin for siesta-time dotted around the lawns of broad-leaved grass, which is adapted to the climate.
A new take on a nomad’s tent? Not very “traditional village”, you might think. Yet beyond the series of undulating gardens of delight is the potager – a working (though decorative) vegetable garden, such as any settlement would have needed, this one feeding the guests.
A much grander property, the Beldi Country Club, is an ocean of rose gardens, scenting the air before you even glimpse them. The Arabic word beldi translates as “traditional”, but in Morocco evokes the authenticity of rural life and materials made in an artisanal manner, and naturally, there is a large productive potager.
There is also a clear commitment to traditional construction materials, heritage of the douar. Most of the buildings are of pisé, rammed earth mixed with lime and short lengths of straw. The tall graceful arches of the terrace are made of bejmat, terracotta briquette.
The Rose Garden, with its 3,300 bushes, has become the signature of the club.
Marrakech once had a thriving rose production industry, which collapsed after Independence in the 1950s. Nowadays, roses are used en masse in municipal bedding schemes, sheltered by palms, and create a beautiful entrance to the city from the airport. Once again, Marrakech is “the Rose among the Palms.”