I’m a gardener, so the number one site on my to-do list for Marrakech was not the Djemâa el Fna or the souks or the Saadian Tombs or any of the other truly Moroccan sites in Marrakech.
No. My first sightseeing priority in the city was a visit to the Jardin Majorelle, an architectural and botanical fantasy designed by French painter Jacques Majorelle and home of Yves Saint Laurent in later years.
In 1923, Jacques Majorelle bought land along a palm grove at the edge of Marrakech. He built a home and studio and, over time, created a fantastic garden using plants from around the world to create a “cathedral of shapes and colors.” Along with the exotic plants, he embellished his studio and the garden with pure primary colors –yellow, orange, red and, as the base for all of them, the brilliant Majorelle blue for which the garden is famous.
Maintaining the garden was always a bit of a financial stretch for the artist and he opened it to the public in 1947 as a way to help finance it. It wasn’t enough and, after losing part of it in a divorce, he was forced to sell his remaining share, along with the villa and studio, in 1961.
The garden remained opened to the public after Majorelle’s death in 1962, but it was sadly neglected for many years. It was at this point that Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé discovered it and, in 1980, purchased it to save it from destruction. They restored and expanded the garden, maintaining a home here until Laurent’s death in 2008.
This is not your ordinary garden
We arrived under the harsh sun of mid-afternoon, but immediately stepped into deep shade slashed with brilliant primary colors and errant rays of sunshine.
The red walkway led us through a bamboo grove punctuated by palms to a stream and viewing area.
Farther along there was a quiet lily pond, complete with turtles.
And there were cacti; lots and lots of wonderful, spiky cacti.
In no way does this represent a traditional Moroccan garden. It is an artistic fantasy, but the brilliant colors and the fountains surrounded by cacti are simply magical.
Don’t skip the Berber Museum
A Berber Museum in Majorelle’s former studio houses the Berber collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé.
On first entering it appears to be a very nice, but rather ordinary museum – a plain space displaying a variety of lovely, high-quality items. There are items of daily and ceremonial use and exhibits explaining Moroccan culture and tradition. There is also a wonderful collection of costumes, textiles, weapons and decorated doors. It is very nice.
It’s very nice. Not stunningly nice, but nice. And there is one more room in the museum.
This room is dark, with a swirling starry “sky” overhead and glowing cases filled with magnificent traditional Moroccan jewelry and ornaments. The gorgeous baubles almost float in the space, as if viewed by the light of a fire in the darkness of a desert night. It is absolutely gorgeous. . . stunning. . . magnificent. . . magical.
It’s a lovely fantasy
A few days later, we reconnect with our driver and he asks what we have seen over the past few days. At the mention of Majorelle, he asked if I liked the garden. My delight didn’t surprise him, but it did puzzle him. Why, he wanted to know, did I like the garden? He explained that visitors always want to go to the garden and seem to really like it, but Moroccans do not understand why. Moroccans do not think the garden is beautiful; it doesn’t even look like a garden!
He’s right, of course. Majorelle is not beautiful in the traditional sense. Nor does it have anything at all to do with the horticulture traditions of Morocco and the Maghreb. It is a fantasy garden that captures the pure colors of North Africa, but it feels more Mexican or Mediterranean than Moroccan. But that is not the point. It is an exotic fantasy brought to exquisite life, a living work of art.
The Jardin Majorelle and Berber Museum are operated by the Jardin Majorelle Foundation. It’s located in the French “new city” and is open seven days a week. There are separate charges to visit the garden and the museum, but admission to both is inexpensive and more than worth the cost.
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