Founded in 1071, the City of Marrakech was one of the first ‘garden cities’ in the world. Orchards, ponds, fountains, walkways and cultivated landscapes occupied two thirds of the city while rich, green farmlands spread out from its ramparts. But the demands of 20th century urbanisation gradually dried up Marrakech’s underground drainage system that for nine centuries gave water to its citizens and life to its gardens. Today the city is trying to reclaim its horticultural heritage and to bring back some of its former green glory.
Despite the encroachment of urban developments, in a city founded on an oasis, it’s hard to keep a good garden down and visitors to this vibrant and fascinating city will find some truly spectacular gardens blooming in the red sand desert, not least the Jardin Majorelle.
Created in 1924 by the French painter Jaques Majorelle, the Majorelle Gardens were a depository for his collection of rare and beautiful plant specimens gathered from across the globe and displayed in grounds that are as much a living art form as a garden. First opened to the public in 1947, after Majorelle died following a car crash in 1962, the gardens fell into neglect until they were acquired and restored by Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé in 1980.
Stepping into the Majorelle Gardens from the stifling heat of the Marrakech street is like switching the air conditioning on in the city. Engulfed by the shade of elegant giant bamboos whose fronds rustle and chatter as they sway hypnotically on their slender legs, I wander down the cardinal tiled path. Lining my way through the bamboo fields are terracotta pots in outrageous primary hues, their cultivated contents vying for attention with their containers. Alongside a pot so lemon I swear I can smell its scent, a vibrant, cobalt blue portico in the bamboo curtain acts as a window through which a narrow canal of still water stretches into the distance, its surface a mirror for the blue and bamboo canopy. It’s the sort of garden design that would have Capability Brown turning in his grave and Diarmud Gavin reaching for his sketch pad.
The dominant use of cobalt blue for the hard landscaping alongside tropical and sculptured plantings continues throughout the gardens, past water lily festooned ponds, latticed shutters and trompe l’oeil palaces. Wandering their tranquil paths is like being within a breathing, three dimensional canvas where, no matter in which direction the eye is taken, it discovers another stop and stare moment, another addition to the memory card.
Making my way through the busy streets of the new town, I find more parks in which to sit and enjoy the tranquillity and a stolen moment of cool. In Jardin El Harti birds take showers on the wing in the irrigation system’s jets of water that form rainbows around the trunks of gnarled olive trees. Standing out from the formal plantings and floral porticos, a sandstone tower rises like a turret looking for a castle, its slim windows designed to provide the very latest in housing for city pigeons. In the Cyber Parc I try to check my email at one of the many terminals that dot the landscape ’twixt ornamental fountains and palm lined avenues promenaded by lovers hand in hand, but there’s no WiFi today the screen informs me.
It’s all a far cry from the dust and noise of the medina, the face more commonly associated with this Morocco city, but it seems the oasis is making a come back and Marrakech will once more emerge as a garden city.
Jardin Majorelle, Rue Yves Saint Laurent; open every day 08.00-17.30; entrance 40Dh (£3)
Image copyright: Andrea Montgomery & Antoine Bertier
Posted : Wednesday, November 30th, 2011 at 11:00
Andy Montgomery is a travel writer and blogger currently living amongst banana plantations in the north of Tenerife. If she’s not sipping mojitos in a Cuban bar or clinging to some vertigo-inducing outcrop by her fingernails, she’s working on her Buzztrips travel website.