Marrakesh: Cool enough for Yves Saint Laurent, cool for us
The oasis-like secret gardens in smoking hot Morocco, second home to the stylish set since the 1960s
The queue of politely dehydrating tourists snakes down the pavement and vanishes around a corner in a haze of brutal midday heat. The sun’s rays pierce their clothes. They’re sharp and heavy and lethal, and you wouldn’t get me to stand in that line for all the dirhams in Morocco.
Smugly, I don’t have to. I’ve already got a ticket for the Jardin Majorelle, a landscape garden in Marrakesh, Morocco. So I just walk on in. To another world. A mercifully cool one.
Long-established trees and bamboo create a canopy over polished oxide walkways. They’re flanked by palms and meander past water features and benches painted in hot yellow, teal and electric Majorelle blue. Yes, that’s a colour named specifically for the place.
Instantly, I understand how fashion god Yves Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre Bergé, came here in the 1960s and fell in love with the garden and the house at its centre. The property was open to the public at the time, and had originally been the love nest of French artist Jacques Majorelle (hence the name), who’d created it from scratch from the 1920s. It was Bergé and Saint Laurent’s purchase of the property in 1988 that saved it from the grubby paws of a property developer and, I suppose, what really solidified our knowledge of the couple’s love for Marrakesh.
Saint Laurent was born in Algeria, so his affinity with and seasonal decampment from Paris to Algeria’s peaceful neighbour, Morocco, made sense. One need only take a cursory glance at his archive to see how the colours, the climate, and cultures of North Africa captivated him and manifested in decades of inspired catwalk collections.
The archives, too, hint at the rich, famous and bourgeois bohemians who flocked to the walled red city, mid-20th century, to play, YSL-style. This hasn’t changed much. Every single one of the hundreds of cream-cab drivers who skirt around the edges of Marrakech’s walled Medina Quarter know the drill about visitors making for the New Town, with Majorelle on their bespoke bucket lists. With the Musée Yves Saint Laurent opening adjacent to the garden, the city is now sacrosanct for those with Le Smoking on their mind and the scent of opium etched into their memory. Which is – apparently – many, many people.
I lose my temper with the selfie snappers at Majorelle. Mind you, I find them vexing everywhere in Marrakesh. It’s a quick, cheap plane ride from Europe, and apparently everyone has popped over the pond for the weekend to take photos of themselves. So it’s better to avoid the usual tourist traps and, let’s be frank, there are plenty. I turn up my nose at the cruel snake charmers and chained monkey touters in the Jemaa El-Fna market and become a masterful eye-roller at chancers selling the exact same mass-produced pom-pom baskets and spices at every stall you pass.
They’re irrelevant once I’m in the dark recess of the Studio KO-designed Musée Yves Saint Laurent in Marrakesh. Its exterior might embody a contemporary desert brutalism of sorts, but the inside is pure luxe: glossy surfaces, high-shine lights and couture. Oh, the couture.
You want pictures of Yves with his famous friends? You’ve got ’em. You want hundreds of magazine covers or snaps of the man with French actress Catherine Deneuve, one of his muses? Those are there too.
They hang alongside rows of his flamboyant, life-filled sketches and the most staggering display of his clothes, his accessories, his magic. There are the jewel-toned evening dresses from the 1980s paying homage to artists such as Matisse and Picasso. There’s an inky patch of perfectly cut black suiting, bougainvillea-bedazzled capes; there’s even that Mondrian-inspired cocktail dress from the 1960s. This is the fashion that we coveted till Saint Laurent’s death in 2008. His work is a master class in creativity and craft, and influences what we all still wear today.
How to prolong the magic once you leave this enclave?
There’s Brit design royalty Jasper Conran’s L’Hôtel Marrakech for modern bijoux accommodation, and just up the tiny streets is the gold standard of relaxed expat glam, El Fenn – it’s the boutique riad hotel that belongs to Richard Branson’s sister, Vanessa. It’s all hot colour, international guests and secret courtyards. And El Fenn’s chichi store sells a curated selection of vintage YSL kit, naturally.
Majorelle is the Moroccan garden everyone flocks to, but hidden in the maze of the Medina is another place of green respite that flies low under the radar. One you could easily walk past, rushing off to another market, dodging the tourists, none the wiser. For a small fee, you’re given access, through unassuming doors, to two riads of fertile beauty. The first is crowded with plants collected from all over the world. Succulents and creepers, flowers and palm trees line paths and water features – many of which we’d recognise from our own gardens. They’re thriving in the extreme heat and form the perfect contemplative escape. Adjoining this is the more formal Arab garden. At its centre is a pavilion. Take a seat in its shade and watch its curtains ballooning in the late afternoon breeze, while bees move between pungent rosemary hedges, lavender bushes, olive trees and billowing grasses.
This, Le Jardin Secret (The Secret Garden), might have been open to the public only since 2016, but its provenance goes back centuries – to the 16th to be exact. That’s when the Saadian Sultan Moulay ‘Abd-Allah first built a palace on the grounds. Subsequent dynasties and eras saw the waning and waxing of the property – sultans, wealthy businessmen and judges called it home, but it was also neglected and forgotten for periods too, most recently in the 1930s. Which is why the massive restoration project that began in 2008 is so enthralling. In the truest sense of the idea, this eight-year-long archaeological and architectural feat unearthed layer upon layer of history. The most fascinating element? One of pure scientific endeavour. Where does the water come from? And how was it here, in this desert oasis hundreds of years ago?
This particular engineering milestone goes all the way back to the 11th century when some smart hydraulics and the town’s geography – it’s close to the Atlas Mountains – came together perfectly. That’s when Marrakech’s first ground-drainage tunnel, called a khettara, was built. It supplied water to the city’s mosques, hammams (bath houses) and really fancy homes. Le Jardin Secret was one of the latter.
You can still see the remnants of this revolutionary water system in between the mosaiced walkways and exotic plantings.