The doorways of Marrakech are like entryways to Narnia. Latticed archways and studded posts hide tranquil courtyards with twittering birds. In Marrakech, secret doors lead to artist’s workshops and secret gardens are where legends choose to rest.
“You’ll get lost in the medina,” were the words I heard from anyone who had ever been to Marrakech before. And we did. It didn’t take very long; we didn’t even notice it happening. Only when we had finished wandering, bartering and browsing the stalls and wanted to be somewhere specific did we realise we had a problem. The alleyway we followed, assuming it would take us back to the square that was our meeting point, did indeed take us to a square, but it wasn’t ours. There was no alternative but to retrace our footsteps, back past the goods we had pretended we didn’t want, revisiting the vendors who had tried to charm us with their calls. We weaved our way around in a giant circle until, finally, things started to look a little familiar.
It baffles me how anyone finds an address in this warren. The wooden doors from Narnia and their intricately etched archways fascinated me, but it was so hard to recognise one from the rest.
Luckily our hosts/guides from the Fellah Hotel knew where they were going. They took us to the door of London-based Moroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj. Behind his terracotta walls and wooden door hid a rainbow-coloured Riad. The traditional Moroccan building was his home, gallery and studio combined. On the walls hung his work – photographs of local people draped in western clothes and framed in Moroccan products. Hassan’s Riad reflects his art; a combination of local culture and western influence, contemporary and commercial mixed with traditional culture. He takes a playful poke at both. Hassan’s home and his artwork are just one of the secrets the medina holds.
Marrakech’s famous garden, Le Jardin Majorelle, also holds a secret. Le Jardin was the retreat and studio of French artist Jacques Majorelle. When he passed away the property and gardens were bought and restored by fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé. The main gardens and Majorelle’s former studio are now open to the public. The verdant green space is sprinkled with plant pots in Yves Klein blue. Cactus plants live next to lily ponds; bougainvillea, coconut, banana and palm trees blend into one another. The grounds are ordered and tranquil, a world away from the chaotic city outside. Majorelle’s old studio is now a museum, the four small but perfectly arranged rooms explaining Berber culture and costume since 2011 (it was an Islamic art museum prior).
But there is more to this garden than most visitors will see, for the property expands further than what is open to the public. We were kindly invited through another secret door to the private home and secret garden of Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent. The elegant building and tranquil grounds we found on the other side are still home to Bergé today, and when Yves Saint Laurent passed away he wanted a part of himself to remain here too – his ashes are sprinkled besides a fountain in the garden.
We had lunch in a garden too. Le Jardin is a restaurant in the centre of a 17th century mansion, which has been restored by local entrepreneur Kamal Laftimi. Through a little door near Terrasse des Épices, we found a courtyard of twittering birds and turtles, who were roaming the floor. At Le Jardin traditional tagine is served up alongside modern fashion – on the upper level a pop-up shop hosts the work of a local designer.
This was my first taste of Marrakech and this introduction to its art, archways and courtyards has left me wanting much more. With the help of my local guides I learnt that whilst there is disorientation and bartering to be found in the alleyways of Marrakech, there is much peace and beauty hidden in its secret gardens.