An early start sees Tim Dawe appreciate the beauty of Marrakech’s Jardin Majorelle in contemplative peace.
We have treated ourselves to a short stay at Marrakech’s luxurious, and famous, Hotel La Mamounia. Its luxury is self-evident. Its fame derives from its guests such as wartime leaders Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, who secretly met here on the rooftop.
Guests rarely leave the 8ha grounds on foot, and never depart without limousine support. We do; despite the protestations of staff. With a spare hour or so before check-out we set off for the 3km walk to the recommended Jardin Majorelle.
The strong morning sun beats down, there is no footpath and obstacles abound. Finally we relent and arrive by taxi at opening time – and before the tour buses have completed their circuitous city pick-ups. Jardin Majorelle’s entrance sign welcomes visitors (600,000 annually) but “no picnickers and dogs”. That’s fine; my wife and I feel at home.
Painter Jacques Majorelle was born in Nancy, France in 1886 and studied in Paris. A fascination with Islamic art eventually led him to Morocco in 1917, where he settled, painted and exhibited. Majorelle eventually acquired 4ha of a palm grove near Marrakech’s medina turning it into a lush, botanical garden and artist colony. Facing prohibitive maintenance costs he opened his burgeoning garden to the fee-paying public in 1947. Notwithstanding his acclaimed watercolours, most agree his masterpiece is his garden and his fame lies in his distinctive ultramarine blue – Bleu Majorelle.
We arrive to a garden full of filtered morning light and empty of people. In an instant we’re immersed in soft greenery contrasting with the hard ochre and cobalt blue of the built structures. A walk plan indicates places of interest linked by shady paths leading to contemplative spaces under Bougainvillea-laden pergolas.
Our first stop is the large waterlily pond, viewable from many angles. Water is the theme in pond, pool and fountain yet there is an extensive arid setting for various forms of cactus that is curiously congruent. Overflowing everywhere colourful, urn-shaped pots complement the Moorish architecture and details. The rest of the world is blocked out with remnant old palms.
Jardin Majorelle is not large but its clever use of plantings and walls throw up unexpected vistas. First there’s the excitement of exploration, then the marvel of beauty, the play of light and enfolding spaces. But with still contemplation (we are blessed in our relative solitude) also comes a sense of peace and serenity. It’s perhaps a short step to the sublime. The sacre bleu, if you will.
To my untrained eye this botanical garden shows eclectic enthusiasm rather than curatorial professionalism; but that’s the point – it’s Majorelle’s garden. We wander paths without plans. Near a perimeter fence we find the Islamic Art Museum, built on a personal scale in Art Deco style. Its theme is North Africa rather than Islam and offers Tuareg jewellery, Berber textiles and ceramics and of course, the paintings of Jacques Majorelle.
In 1980 the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and partner Pierre Berge purchased the long- neglected garden to rescue it from developers and as a source of inspiration. They established the garden as a charitable foundation for enjoyment in perpetuity. Over the years Marrakech – cars, buildings and people – flowed out and around it, leaving a splodge of green on the streetscape. Following his death in 2008, Saint Laurent’s ashes were scattered over the garden.
Through the fence I spot the first of the morning tour coaches. In a stay lasting just 30 minutes we’ve breathed the fragrances and taken in the sights of foliage, birds and blueness. It’s now time to leave or risk diminishing this little high; we need to check out of the hotel. Our taxi driver takes us to Mamounia the long way around the medina, picking up an additional passenger on the way, but with fresh air beating back the rising heat, it’s a magic carpet ride.
Waiting in the hotel lobby I gaze out at Mamounia’s extensive estate, a former plantation remnant. Amid manicured lawns and a riot of colours it harbours gnarled, hundred-year-old olive trees, Barbary figs, Madagascar periwinkles and, of course, soaring palms.
Between breakfast and checkout, it has been a memorable short voyage between two oases in bustling Marrakech.