Morocco, from mountain to desert plain, crowded city to tranquil oasis, is filled with the promise of adventure. Behind high walls in old medinas, within country estates where artists and art collectors have added unique personal touches, and in valleys enfolded in the mountains where fruit trees are covered with masses of blossom in spring – at every turn there are jewels to discover.
And when the winter rains have been generous, the countryside becomes a tapestry of wildflowers across upland and mountain valley – a botanist’s dream.
In cities such as Marrakech and Taroudant, where space has always been at a premium, we enter individual riads where high walls enclose living quarters built around compact courtyards. Elegant arched verandahs and colourful tiles with white stucco work, or plainer earth-coloured walls, are complemented by fountains and water channels, and planting that is either restrained – perhaps one or two palm trees, with sculptures or pottery for contrast – or more natural, with rambling bougainvillea, jasmines, banana trees, and even tortoises wandering around.
The word “riad” means green and fertile land, so its use in an urban setting underscores the high value placed in the Arab and Moslem world on natural greenery. This is hardly surprising, given the extreme contrast between desert and oasis, arid land and river valley, in the Middle East and North Africa.
Two gardens in Marrakech demonstrate this: Le Jardin Majorelle and Le Jardin Secret, the former an old-established property founded by French artist Jacques Majorelle, the latter recently created by Tom Stuart-Smith in the courtyards of two riads that had fallen into disrepair.
The charmingly named secret garden reveals intriguing contrasts: We pass from one courtyard with an international collection of plants, to a second and larger space laid out in the Persian style. Bisected by pathways laid with chevrons of blue-green tiles to imitate water channels, with a central pavilion and fountain, the space is a miracle of peace and tranquility. Venerable olive trees line the sides of four geometric beds in which citrus trees are under-planted with Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima), lavender (Lavandula dentata) and South African garlic Tulbaghia violacea.
Established about 100 years ago, the Majorelle garden was restored by Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent in the late 20th century. Exuberantly planted, its 300 species of plants from across the globe include immense trees, dense groves of bamboo, cacti, and water lilies in the main pool. Kiosks and ceramics are painted in Majorelle’s choice of ultramarine cobalt blue – “evoking Africa” – while the excellent Berber Museum features Bergé and Saint Laurent’s collection of costumes, jewellery and craftwork, in part displayed under a starry sky to evoke the desert and oasis in which the Berbers have traditionally lived.
We stay in hotels outside the walls of the bustling medinas. Surrounded by extensive gardens and orchards, they offer a persuasive blend of peace and privacy behind walls, with a sense of spaciousness and even vista – especially at Le Beldi, with its fields of roses, part of a revival of traditional cultivation for the artisanal perfume industry. Les Deux Tours has a more intimate atmosphere with its series of delightful courtyards and exceptional kitchen garden.
At Dar al Hossoun near Taroudant, the grounds have been notably well designed and planted by French landscape designers, and former owners, Eric Ossart and Arnaud Maurières. Specialists in designing gardens for arid environments, and with international reach, the duo have brought together an impressive array of plants, from monumental cacti, euphorbias, opuntias, and agaves to a delightful, double yellow Rosa Banksia trained around a palm tree. Flashes of colour at ground level are from flowering aloes and amaryllis, among others.
A star feature – as with a number of properties we visit in the vicinity – is Ossart & Maurière’s sunken garden. An inspired coup de théâtre, designed to fill the deep excavation left when soil was removed to construct beaten earth walls for the buildings, it forms a microclimate filled with plants that would not normally grow so far south in Morocco.
Still outside the town of Taroudant, we visit two exceptional estates where art and interior decoration meet garden design with fascinating results. Art collector Andrew Patrick’s beautiful garden is designed almost as a series of rooms – some wide open, and others more hidden behind a screen of trees or shrubs. From the carefully planned beds with a white theme – Rosa Iceberg and white Lantana camara among blond Stipa grasses – to the stately euphorbias and succulents, the hidden sunken area shaded by Jacaranda mimosifolia and the lovely walk beside a water channel with pergola overhead, it is truly beguiling.
Grand in extent and conception, the property of the late Chilean artist Claudio Bravo combines a vast collection of his paintings, and porcelain and memorabilia, with towering buildings and a sense of the wide vistas of historic Moroccan estates, notably with its orchards, lake and menara (pavilion). This is a wonderful spot for sitting on the verandah and enjoying glasses of Moroccan green tea, looking out over the water to the countryside beyond.
Rural Morocco beckons, and on our tours we travel among the Atlas Mountains, discovering in the foothills a landscape of arid slopes where argan trees (Argania spinosa) thrive – catching, if we are lucky, herds of goats in the act of climbing into them to browse the fruit. The scenery begins to resemble a Georgia O’Keeffe painting, with pockets of dense greenery contrasting with red earth and stark mountain shapes against a brilliant sky.
On a day in the High Atlas we journey among mountains and valleys, observing cherry, peach and pear trees in flower, and neatly terraced hillsides where crops are intensively cultivated close to water. The opportunity to visit a Berber village, perched high among the trees and mountain streams, and enjoy the hospitality of our guide in his home, is a highlight. Later, we go on to the Kasbah (fortress) de Toubkal for lunch on the rooftop terrace, with breathtaking views over the surrounding mountains. Descending back to the village of Imlil in the afternoon, through woods of walnut trees, we stop to look at kiosks and stalls – some quite impromptu – displaying colourful rugs and kilims for sale.
While in Taroudant and Marrakech there is a chance to visit the souks and browse in shops and stalls where carpets, textiles, spices, oils, soaps and myriad domestic goods are for sale along winding alleys. Typical of Middle Eastern and North African towns, the markets have for centuries been centres of commercial and social life, where visitors to public baths, bake houses and coffee shops may rub shoulders with customers of herbalists, tailors and purveyors of spices and other foodstuffs.
All this – and so much else besides – is to discover in Morocco, a country with as rich and diverse a landscape and culture as you will find anywhere in the region.
Written by: a global wanderer