Mediterranean Garden Society

Trip to the Gardens of Tangier September 2022

The photograph at the top of this page shows Cape Spartel lighthouse


MGS member Chantal Guiraud writes - The second part of our journey took us to mythical Tangier, a white city, perched on a small hill, watching over Europe and Africa, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. A city of trade and interchange, polycultural, the first port in Africa, the gateway to an exotic world for generations of painters and writers in search of inspiration. It is worth mentioning that the locals have a better command of Spanish than of French. In fact, the main market square is called the Grand Socco - derived from the Arabic word 'souk' in Spanish.

View of Tangier

On the other hand, the word tangerine comes from Tangier, the main port for the export of this fruit. Scientists do not agree on its origin: it is either a hybrid of Citrus reticulata and Citrus aurantium, or a separate species, or a cultivar of the mandarin tree.

Tangier is also the city of cinema. Among Moroccan cities, it is the one that has been used most as a setting by filmmakers from all over the world. The team at the Tangier Cinematheque gave us a quick overview of films you should see before you die: Only Lovers Left Alive, El Chergui (The Violent Silence), Les temps qui changent, The Sheltering Sky and Flight to Tangier.

Donabo Botanical Garden

But we were here for gardens, not the cinema, and our first day took us to the Atlantic coast to visit the Donabo Botanical Garden, the newest garden on our tour. Created only 5 years ago, it is a woodland garden commissioned by Malika El Alaoui to honour her father, the late King Hassan II, a passionate environmentalist who lived on the property for 50 years. The garden was designed by Paul Belvoir, an English decorative artist with a passion for gardens. Donabo, from the Latin donare, meaning to give, is a testament to the welcome that every traveller finds in this mountainous region bordering the Straits of Gibraltar. The abundance of the fertile land, the mildness of its oceanic climate, and the presence of natural springs have made it possible to create a garden by the sea. It is situated in a nature reserve, where a hectare of forest has been transformed into a shady botanical garden.

Paul guided us through its ten gardens, including a Mediterranean garden, a Chinese garden with a water lily pond that transported us into a state of tranquillity and, of course, a Moroccan garden, with all sorts of medicinal and culinary herbs, including the spicy Atlas thyme and wormwood.

There is, of course, a garden dedicated to the main ingredient of the Moroccan drink par excellence. We discovered an incredible variety of different mints along the ‘Mint maze’, a fragrant and shady trail.

The Mint maze

The path continued through a rose garden, then into the potager, featuring various peppers and many varieties of vegetables.

It is notable that this garden includes a cooking school and offers young people and students the opportunity to study plants in their natural surroundings. I really appreciated the warm welcome and the informality of Princess Malika, the King's sister. She had lunch with us in the restaurant, where we enjoyed organic produce from the garden.

St Andrew’s Church, Tangier

Back in the city centre, we visited St Andrew's Church and its small garden. Although Morocco is now a Muslim country, this imposing Anglican church is a survivor of the international Tangier of the last century. Consecrated in 1905, on land donated by Queen Victoria, this structure reminds us of the flourishing interfaith relations for which Tangier was once famous. Inside the church, the Lord's Prayer is carved in Arabic behind the altar and quotations from the Koran appear on the Moorish-style walls.

The church warden, Yassine, guided us through the church and the garden, home to the cemetery.

The cemetery

Tangier Kasbah

Our very full day did not end there, because, before the visit to the kasbah, we went to see a very atypical place, the fondouk chejra, or weavers' district.

Without our guide we would never have found the entrance

The day’s small bonus was this pretty walk through the kasbah with its immaculate white walls, and the warren of streets carefully decorated with pots of flowers.

Kasbah decorated with pots of plants

Here I discovered the 'Rumi' shop, which sells candles made in Tangier with natural fragrances and 100% natural soy wax, presented in the famous Beldi glasses. The manufacture of this emblematic object dates back to the 1940s and is often an accompaniment to the service of mint tea.

Cape Spartel

The following day we set off for the Atlantic Coast to visit the garden of Italian writer and horticulturist, Umberto Pasti. Passing through the luxuriant hills of La Montagne and the pine forests of the Cape Spartel promontory, the spectacular route took us up to the Cape Spartel lighthouse. Built between 1861 and 1864 by an international team (USA, France, Spain and Morocco), the lighthouse marks the entrance to the Straits of Gibraltar. At a viewpoint 300m above the sea, we paused to enjoy the vegetation, refreshing breezes, panoramic view of the cliffs and crashing waves of the extreme north-western tip of Africa, with Europe in the distance. (The photo at the top of this page shows Cape Spartel lighthouse.)

Garden of Rohuna

After an hour's drive, our drivers parked the minibuses and we climbed valiantly up the hill for another kilometre before arriving at a gate, which seemed an unlikely entrance to the paradise supposedly hidden behind it.

Driven by a passion for the wild flora of Tangier and its region, for the past two decades Umberto Pasti, accompanied by his team of Moroccan gardeners, has created the garden of Rohuna, by transplanting plants threatened by urbanisation (5,300 species), and replanting them on this stony hill above the ocean, where they flourish throughout the year.

A Moorish bench

Inspired by English and French gardens of the 1930s, this is indeed a paradise, romantic yet wild. Between two small houses, the summer house and the winter house, the Jardin de la Consolation has been created: a series of garden rooms and terraces with lush vegetation, watered throughout the year to extend the flowering season. The surrounding Jardin Sauvage on the hillside is planted with flowering bulbs. Rohuna is a true Arcadia: a garden of incomparable beauty whose mission is to preserve the botanical wealth of the region. The greenery includes damask roses, Madonna lilies, Iris pallida, Dietes iridioides, tithonias, hollyhocks, carnations and geraniums. As far as the eye can see, there are large olive trees, holm oaks, viburnums and fig trees. It is important also to mention the gardeners, six of them, each one responsible for the maintenance of a specific area. They accompanied us on our walk and served an excellent lunch under a pergola at the top of the hill with a breathtaking view of the sea.

Riad Moktar

In the evening, we dined at the magnificent Riad Mokhtar, an old Arab-Andalusian house, built around a patio filled with trees and flowers.

The patio of Riad Mokhtar

American Legation Museum

On our last day we crossed the kasbah to visit the American Legation Museum. It has a unique history, the building being donated by the Sultan of Morocco in 1821 to the young American republic, at a time when Tangier was the diplomatic capital of the country. It was the first property acquired abroad by the US government and, for 140 years, it housed the US diplomatic and consular office in Morocco. In 1976, private donations allowed the creation of a foundation that transformed it into a museum and cultural centre. It contains a collection of artworks by Moroccan and foreign painters residing in Tangier and a research library. One room is devoted to Paul Bowles, an American composer, writer and traveller who spent most of his life in Morocco. Note that in 1777, Morocco was the first country to officially recognise the independence of the United States.

American Legation Museum

Garden of Veere Grenney

We left this historic place to visit the home of famous interior designer, Veere Grenney, located on La Vieille Montagne, close to the King’s summer palace. This chic neighbourhood, with its French name, hugs the slopes of the surrounding hills. We lunched here then strolled through the garden, which had breathtaking views of the straits.

Terrace garden with pittosporum in pots and Agave attenuata

Pots planted with pittosporum sit on the terrace near the house, adjacent to the pretty pavilion under which we had lunch. In the foreground, the luxuriance of the Agave attenuata contrasts with the sobriety of the pittosporum hedges.

The inner courtyard has clipped orange trees underplanted with a carpet of violets. Much to our surprise, these were in bloom when we visited in September. I assume that they are well watered from the abundant natural springs in the grounds.

The stairs leading down to the pool are lined with clipped Teucrium fruticans and Ipomoea alba. They took us on to four other terraces shaded by ancient pines.

Landscape designer, Christopher Masson, has recommended the use of Mediterranean plants such as palms, olive trees, brugmansias, plumbagos and night-blooming jasmine (Cestrum nocturnum).

There is a sense of abundance in this garden, controlled to a perfect extent by the straight lines of the long avenues and stairways. This is an English-style garden with an exotic quality due to its exuberance and use of colour, reflecting the cosmopolitan city of Tangier.

MGS group in Tangier

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 Marracech in 2022)

Text and photos by Chantal Guiraud

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