Mediterranean Garden Society
Trip to the Gardens of Marrakesh September 2022
The photograph at the top of this page shows the Water lily pond at the Yves Saint Laurent foundation
MGS member Chantal Guiraud writes - In September 2022, I went on an MGS trip organized by Angela Dunford, head of the Italian branch of the MGS. We had been waiting for this trip since 2020, it having been postponed several times due to the pandemic. I was really looking forward to arriving in a country that I had visited so many times during my childhood, as my entire maternal family had lived there. Having not been in Morocco since 2007, on this visit I found the people even more welcoming than before. I found a peaceful and joyful atmosphere and was able to stroll through the souks without being harassed by the vendors. I was able to stroll through the souks without being harassed by the vendors. I rediscovered the flavours of my childhood, including the sweet juice of the seedless white grape we called Doigt de Demoiselle because of its elongated shape, found by chance in an alley in Marrakech. I searched for a long time for the sfenj doughnuts sold on the Jemaa El-Fnaa square, without success. However, we found and devoured msemen (pancakes drizzled with honey) for breakfast. But let's get back to our subject: the gardens.
We began the trip with a welcome party in the Jardin Secret. Given the late hour, we were unable to visit the garden in detail, but we very much enjoyed our reunion with members from Australia, California and elsewhere and the performance by a troupe of musicians and gnawa dancers from the High Atlas. It was a very successful evening, and we promised to come back during the daytime to visit this haven of peace in the centre of the medina.
The following day, we began with a visit to Cactus Thiemann, which at 7 hectares and with more than 150 species is the largest cactus garden in Africa. Its largest specimen is an 8m high Pachycereus pringlei, brought from Europe by founder Hans Thiemann 40 years ago. His widow and two daughters now run the nursery and regularly supply the gardens we would be visiting on our trip.
Mohammed VI Museum
Next, we immersed ourselves in the impressive for the civilisation of water in Morocco, the ‘AMAN’, which opened in 2017 and is named after the much-loved current king. This is one of his many projects and aims to promote sustainable socio-economic and ecological development in the country.
The focus was on the Moroccan genius for water management. We discovered how, centuries ago, hydraulics allowed the creation of the first gardens in the desert; how, even today, traditional practices of sharing and valuing water operate across oases, mountains and plains; how, in ancient cities, water reached public fountains for cooking, bathing and watering gardens and orchards. Finally, the museum examined the challenges of water resources in the country today, resulting from the impact of climate change and population growth.
Hotel Jnane Tamsna
Our next visit was to the boutique hotel Jnane Tamsna, which lies in Marrakech’s palm grove. Dating from the 11th century, and established after the arrival of the Islamic Almoravids, this is the only palm grove north of the High Atlas. It extends over 13,000 hectares and contains 100,000 palm trees irrigated by underground canals called khettaras. The palm trees are useful for the production of dates and to shade the cultivated fields. This delicately balanced ecosystem is under threat from climate change and from the recent exponential growth of Marrakech.
The hotel complex, owned by ethnobotanist Gary Martin and his wife Meryanne Loum-Martin, was to be our lunch stop.
Jnane is the plural of jnana - the Arabic word for the paradise garden described in the Koran. Over time, the word has evolved to mean a form of garden that includes fruit trees, palms and vines. The property also has a vegetable garden, where Gary passionately and carefully cultivates a wide variety of vegetables, fruit and herbs.
Helene Lindgen’s garden
The next day we head for the Ourika valley, 30 kms south of Marrakech. Its inhabitants speak Berber and despite its proximity to the big city, it is still considered a relatively unspoilt valley, both in terms of the landscape and its traditional mountain way of life. Our first stop is a new garden commissioned from the talented team at Son Muda garden in Mallorca. The design reflects Helene Lindgens' philosophy. Her designs are geometrically structured, with linear island beds, hedges, and repeated vertical plantings. Various shades of green predominate, although the repetition of Mediterranean plants such as gaura, Carissa macrocarpa, hibiscus and Cascabela thevetia provides some colour. Features include water courses, water lily and lotus ponds, a rose garden, palm trees, olive trees, citrus trees and a vegetable garden, and not forgetting a Bedouin tent.
We then moved on to Anima, a garden, or rather a "botanical stage", where more than 250 exuberant plant species interact with whimsical artworks by Viennese multimedia artist André Heller, by Picasso, Keith Haring, and by little-known local artists. The garden is worth a visit on its own, but the mix of plants and installations creates a unique atmosphere. Anima's policy is to let visitors wander as they please, and to interpret the installations themselves.
Beldi Country Club
On the way back to Marrakech, we stopped at the Beldi Country Club, a historic meeting place for locals wishing to escape the city crowds. Ten minutes from the medina, guests are protected from the outside world as they stroll through several acres of rose bushes (13,000) palm, olive and fruit trees.
We sipped mint tea served in beldi (in Arabic, traditional, or handmade) glasses, produced in a workshop on site. The glass is blown, by mouth, using a technique which had almost disappeared but was brought back to life by Jean-Dominique Leymarie. The glass, created by a Frenchman and brought up to date by another Frenchman, has become a Moroccan icon. The workshop employs Moroccan craftsmen who trained in Murano.
We wandered through pavilions, terraces and pools and toured the two gardens with the head gardeners. The estate comprises 16 hectares of gardens, two hotels, a restaurant, a spa, and several swimming pools. But the highlight is the souk, with workshops for glassmaking, pottery, weaving, etc., and the option to buy pottery, crockery, carpets, embroidery and cushions on the spot.
Yves Saint Laurent foundation
We ended our stay in Marrakech with a visit to the Yves Saint-Laurent complex. The MGS is indebted to Madison Cox for organising the day spent at this superb property which includes the Majorelle gardens, the Yves Saint-Laurent Museum, the Museum of Berber Arts and the Villa Oasis. Madison, himself an MGS member, is President of the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint-Laurent, created in 2002 to preserve and promote the designer's legacy. He is also director of the Yves Saint-Laurent museums in Paris and Marrakech and of the Majorelle garden, and author of numerous books on gardens. He has designed more than 100 gardens around the world and uses techniques and a palette of plants gleaned from many eras, cultures and movements. We were able to appreciate his touch in the landscaping around the new museum, in the garden of the Villa Oasis which he designed, and in the Majorelle garden, which, under his guidance, has become one of the most significant gardens in the world.
On arrival, we were greeted with refreshments, then Madison gave us a talk about the estate, followed by a documentary on its history. Our tour commenced with the garden of the Villa Oasis, where Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Bergé lived from 1980 when they bought the property to save it from a building development. We wandered through exquisitely beautiful plantings, pale blue, anise green and soft yellow potted plants, citrus trees, a water lily pond, shady walkways and more.
Note the boldness of Yves Saint-Laurent's colours. He was the first to combine orange with fuchsia pink. (The photo at the top of this page shows the Water lily pond the the Yves Saint Laurent foundation,)
Majorelle garden and the Berber Arts Museum
After lunch in the shade of beautiful pavilions, we visited the Majorelle garden and the Berber Arts Museum.
The garden, of more than 9,000 sq.m., has a labyrinth of paths and brightly coloured buildings combining Art Deco with Moorish influences. The French painter, Jacques Majorelle, created this lush garden of exotic plants and rare species brought from all over the world. The singing of birds, and the sounds of water in fountains, streams and ponds, transports us to a haven of serenity. The walls of the former studio, now a museum, painted Majorelle blue, can be seen through the vegetation from all directions. This museum of Berber arts exhibits a wealth of jewellery, weapons, leather, basketry and woven items, attesting to the richness and diversity of a culture that is still thriving.
To conclude, I would like to thank all the people involved, our guides Mohammed, who never stopped telling us stories about his country, and L’Houcine; and the garden owners …
(See also the report on pre/post tours to Tangiers in 2022)
Text and photos by Chantal Guiraud
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