There’s a new garden to visit in Marrakesh and the best way to see it is to shop ‘til you drop. Now, I’m pretty keen on gardens but frankly a bit lily-livered when it comes to shopping. Lucky for me my two knowledgeable but naughty friends, Katie and Sarah, encouraged me to, tackle the souks with vigour, have lots of fun and buy something that I will love for life. It is exhausting but exhilarating – all these shops, heady with head-turningly amazing goods from hot-pink macramé loo seats to exquisite hand embroidered kaftans. There’s literally an adventure around every corner in the winding jigsaw of lanes and specialist areas that make up the Marrakesh souks. People get hot and heated, motorbikes steam through past babies and the elderly with no concern for life or limb, and the temper of donkey cart drivers is tested to the limit. And then you step into the luxe, calme et volupté of a garden – and that’s what we got.
The Secret Garden is in the middle of this mayhem, opposite the famous and rather romantic sounding, Café Arabe. Visiting it was a treat we were saving for our last day of an exciting four days of garden visits, laced with food, wine and laughter. Designed by Tom Stuart-Smith, the garden was commissioned by private clients who have been meticulously restoring the crumbling palace site with a heritage that goes back to the sixteenth century. The entrance to the garden today is cool, contemporary and very chic. There have been some serious design geeks at work here on everything from the choice of finishes and the signs to the loos to the look of the guide book and the uniformed staff. The garden comes in two volleys, the first is a small, intimate courtyard named The Exotic Garden and then you go through to The Islamic Garden, whose size mattered as proof of wealth in the congested old, walled city – or medina.
It was exciting to see what had been achieved here. I liked the Exotic Garden – the hard landscaping is a visual hit of clarity and calm which is zhuzhed up with a vibrant palette of exotic-looking plants. There is a tradition for the exotic here, especially in the early twentieth century when Morocco became a French Protectorate and suddenly expats could go crazy growing plants that at home would have been consigned to the greenhouse. The famously blue Jardin Majorelle falls into this category with its exuberant mix of cacti, bamboo and flowering exotica. Stuart-Smith has taken that style and overlaid it with a kind of urban cool which fits in so well with the Marrakchi architectural tradition which is less decorative than in other parts of the country, deriving from the spare, geometry of the Berber style from the Sahara desert. Local buildings are cubic, in dusky shades of rosy pink and sandy beige, with long, low silhouettes and flat planes. He’s kept the grid as his starting point with a rill and pool driving a central line down the space but has introduced a little syncopation which lightens the mood and creates little pockets of planting which I saw as mini gardens in themselves. An idea you could take home with you.
The mood changes as you move through to The Islamic Garden. This is a typical riad garden in form – roughly rectangular, enclosed, with pavilions at either end. It is Islamic in that the rules developed for them are based on a description of Paradise in the Quran, which is literally a garden. There are four rivers in Paradise of wine, water, milk and honey; there are date palms and figs; vines and other plants are mentioned by name. This gave rise to a layout that is basically quadripartite with a central fountain or basin and then further divided in fours as space allowed. Tom Stuart-Smith inherited this plan and has delivered a thoughtful contemporary interpretation. You can’t help but admire the sincerity of the scheme but something made me uncomfortable. All that fashionable grass didn’t work for me in this context – although it does give a blast of green to the area, which is the colour of Islam. The trees seemed a bit unhappy, neither free and easy, mingling together as in, say, the Grand Riad of the Bahia Palace, nor in close serried ranks, as the citrus in the sunken sections at The Badi Palace. Maybe it’s too smart – maybe it’s too young at the moment to be anything else? I was interested to hear one of the young Moroccan visitor attendant’s comment that, for him, it isn’t an Islamic garden. ‘My family has one at home, it is the life force of our home – plants are not cut and forced to be other than themselves. It is colourful and luxuriant with all sorts of traditional plants mixed together’ I know a bit about gardens in Marrakesh and have been lucky to see quite a few when writing my book on the subject. I rather agree with him. Plants are seen as honoured guests in the home and cutting or tutoring them is a breach of the rules of hospitality. You see plenty of topiarised shrubs in the city but I was expecting a different level of engagement from this garden. And then there’s the thorny question of importing a British designer. There’s a real debate here about a Western approach to garden-making when there is a local green heritage dating back nearly a thousand years. But that’s okay, we have a lot to learn from each other and the debate that will arise from this latest tour de force can only be a good thing.
We had to rush off after an hour or so, though we managed to take a delicious tea on the terrace outside the old pavilion first. A master perfumer was going to read our souls and ‘bottle our essence’ for the very reasonable price of forty euros each, but that’s another story. The garden had done its work and we felt refreshed and ready to face the public world outside. As I passed the rather handsome guardian of the gate I was left with one certainty – The Secret Garden will be the worst kept secret in town.
Le Jardin Secret
121 rue Mouassine,
For more about the garden visit: The Secret Garden http://www.lejardinsecretmarrakech.com/en/
For an idea of how the garden was made (it’s not easy transporting fully grown trees through the medina) see: Tom Stuart Smith http://www.tomstuartsmith.co.uk/projects/public-gardens/le-jardin-secret-marrakech-2\