The hustle and bustle, the bartering and the banter, plus swerving out of the way of approaching scooters, bikes and donkeys are all part of the attraction of Marrakech, but sometimes you just want a bit of peace and quiet where no-one will try to sell you something, tempt you into their restaurant, offer to be your guide or run you over.
On a recent trip to the Pink City, we made sure to do all our shopping on Day One so that we had Day Two to do some relaxed sightseeing outside the medina. I was with a Moroccan friend and we each chose a place the other had never been. As it happens, our choices (the Jardin Majorelle and the Menara Gardens) were case study in the contrasting ways Europeans and Moroccans like to relax as well as the differences between how each culture organises and cares for its green spaces and cultural heritage.
I had been to the Jardin Majorelle before and find it inspirational. I am drawn to the contrast between the colours: the bright tropical foliage and the magenta bougainvillea; the yellow, orange and powder blue plant pots along terracotta paths and around murky pools. And, of course, the bright cobalt bleu majorellebuildings against the blindingly bright cloudless sky. The other big attractions are the tranquillity – interrupted only by the whispers of visitors and the tinkling of the fountains – and the shade. There is also a brand new museum of Berber culture, which we didn’t visit on this occasion, preferring to laze in the shadows of the palms. The café – in a small courtyard – is also excellent, although the prices are far higher than the world outside the walls!
French artist Jacques Majorelle was born in 1886 in Nancy. He travelled to colonial Morocco in 1919 to recover from ill health and founded the gardens in 1924. The gardens were opened to the public in 1947 and bought by designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé in 1980. Following his death in 2008, Saint Laurent’s ashes were scattered in the gardens. Bergé is President of the Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent Foundation, which manages the gardens.
It was this latter point on which my Moroccan friend remarked. He found the entrance fee (50dh – about €5) prohibitively expensive for the average Moroccan but conceded that such a charge was necessary to maintain the gardens in such excellent condition. He appreciated the foundation’s role in maintaining the gardens but thought it was a pity that they weren’t in public control for all to enjoy. We agreed, however, that the Moroccan government has other priorities at present. According to the website, Moroccan school and other groups can enter for free on request.
Jardin Majorelle, Rue Yves Saint Laurent, Marrakech
Tel: +212 (0)5 24 31 30 47
e-mail : email@example.com
The Menara Gardens are well-used by locals and entrance is free. As we entered, I overheard a German tour guide tell his group that the site was “the nearest Marrakech gets to something like Central Park.” However, the Menara are not public gardens according to the Western idea: there is no grass and the trees are part of an orchard rather than a designed landscape. The broad paved pathway is perfect for the promenade so well-loved in countries of more stable climates than Northern Europe, but there is absolutely no way to enjoy the view of the (snow-capped) Atlas mountains reigning over the Gardens’ pavilion and lake in the shade! If you are even remotely pale skinned, do not visit the Menara without a hat, parasol or – like the local ladies – a headscarf.
Although the café was closed (it’s under the bleachers at one end – these are apparently for spectators of a son et lumière show in the evenings), the gardens were full of folks enjoying them in their own ways. There were a bunch of kids beating the heat, jumping and diving into the basin artificially created for the 12th century Almohad ruler Abd al-Mu’min. Any attraction of that method of cooling off was quickly ruled out at the sight of the giant carp the size of small babies that periodically come up for air! The basin, which is ingeniously filled by run off from the mountains 30km away, serves a complex irrigation system for the surrounding olive groves. It is here that many local families were enjoying the shade, perched on the bumpy ground and the gnarled roots with picnics, barbeques and sound systems. We joined them for a while – those locals aren’t daft (we all know what the song says about mad dogs and Englishmen…..)
The gardens are named after the summer pavilion overlooking the water. It must have been very relaxing to be a sultan reclining in the shade surveying all that he owned! There is a small charge to enter the pavilion, but it didn’t look like there was much to see. Nowadays, the main view would be of the nearby airport, but surprisingly the noise didn’t carry at all. At the gates, there’s a great photo (and transportation) opportunity with a small herd of camels available for tourists’ use as well as a direct sightline down to the Koutoubia Mosque on the medina’s edge.
Menara Gardens, Avenue de la Menara, Marrakech
© Lynn Sheppard, words and pictures