Archive for the ‘Morocco’ Category

My previous post featured a 19th century Moroccan palace of small rooms and many courtyards, with intricate patterned surfaces, scented plants, trickling fountains and a sense of intimate ease. This post now describes two very different gardens in the same city – one a vast ruin and the other a modern icon.

A drawing of the Badi palace in its heyday, by Adriaen Matham, 1640.

The Badi palace was a sixteenth century extravaganza, built by a Moroccan king in Italian marble and gold. With its vast and sumptuous design, and reputation for lavish feasts and debauchery, it barely survived its creator, being soon destroyed by a subsequent ruler.

Today it remains in the heart of Marrakech, a ruin shored up by the Culture Ministry – and an Ozymandian warning of the dangers of pride and excess. It is difficult to appreciate how splendid it once was, but the ruins give a sense of its vastness, with a main courtyard measuring almost 1.5 hectares (about 3.7 acres), centred around a monumental rectangular pool and four sunken gardens of roses and orange trees.

Where once were huge fountains and gold-topped pavilions, orchards and silver sculptures, now there are just the remnants of walls, and glimpses of old tiled paths and carved stonework amid the rubble. Storks nest on the crumbling ramparts.

In contrast, the Majorelle gardens in the new town are meticulously maintained. Created in the 1930s, the gardens are probably now the best known in Marrakech.

Plan of gardens

Plan of Majorelle gardens, from leaflet available at site.

The central features – an art deco studio, fountain, and pavilion, joined together by a rill – are famously cobalt blue. Around them, winding paths lead you through gardens of bamboo, palms and cactus.

Created by painter Jacques Majorelle, and restored in the 1980s by fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, the gardens are a visual feast, with coloured pots of succulents, water features, architectural planting and carefully crafted views.

Flower pot in suncactus in sun

These gardens are far from typically Moroccan, but they both have their own, very different, magic.

Postscript: I am entering the image above in Gardening Gone Wild’s April photo competition. The theme is matching the right light to the right subject, and this seems to me a fun example of an image that actually thrives in the dazzlingly bright noonday sun. As a painter, Jacques Majorelle understood how to use intense colours, spiky plants, and dramatic shadows to create a garden perfectly suited to the harsh North African light. I hope my image captures something of his theatrical design. It was certainly a change for me from photographing gardens in the soft light of northern Europe.

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In Marrakech, gardens are havens of peace, a refuge from the noise, toil and heat of the city. Enclosed, geometric, with cool splashing water and fragrant blossoms, they have long been perceived as places where mortals can experience paradise on earth. They differ from Western designs that value movement through gardens; instead these are places perfectly at rest.

The palais de la Bahia, in the heart of the Marrakech medina, was a lavish private home created by the sultan for his grand vizier (prime minister) in the late 1800s. Blurring the distinction between inside and out, it consisted of a series of ornately decorated rooms arranged around private courtyards. It was here that the vizier installed his four wives, two score concubines, and many servants and guards. Today, entry through a wooden gate leads directly to a tranquil walled garden full of the scent of orange blossom.

The internal courtyards each have their own character. The first is small and delightful, its four symmetrical beds edged with patterned screens and planted with orange trees and palms. A central stone fountain sits serenely among the bright, intricate designs of the zellij (mosaic tiles) of the flooring. The space is surrounded by arcades of ornate wooden fretwork, while handsome cedarwood doors open to reveal horseshoe-shaped arches and playful mirrors.

A second courtyard is simpler. In the centre is a large water basin, standing on checkerboard zellij flooring, while plain plaster walls are broken up by Andalusian style painted cedarwood doors.

The main courtyard is altogether grander – a large open space, coloured cream and pale green, with zellij and marble floor tiles, and a low rectangular central water feature.

Here are no plants, save for a few in pots, but palm trees (located outside the courtyard) tower over the low buildings and their lattice-screened arcades.

Image from linternaute.com

The final (and oldest) courtyard has a shabby charm all its own. In need of some repair to the crumbling floors and stonework, it nevertheless feels intimate and lush, with its bananas, jasmine, orange trees, bougainvillea and palms, simple water basins, and pretty screens concealing arcades of painted cedarwood and sumptuous tiling.

Designed to appeal to all the senses, with perfumed flowers and fruit, tactile surfaces, the sound of splashing water, and intricate visual patterning, these courtyards belie the simplicity of their layout to provide cool, intimate sanctuaries full of fine craftsmanship and lush greenery – a glimpse of heaven on earth.

The next post will be on a centuries-old ruined Marrakech garden, and a famous modern one…

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Moroccan patterns

We spent the past week in Marrakech. It was my first taste of North Africa; I had expected the earthy smells and colours, the noise, the warmth of the February sun. What took me by surprise was the intricacy of the city – its wooden fretwork, filigree tinware, calligraphy, mosaic tiles, the plasterwork like piped icing, the delicate mashrabiyya screens, even the tiny details of the fresh mint, rose petals and spices piled up in the souks.

Such patterning played a strong part in the gardens we visited. I will post more later in the week.

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