We stumbled upon a surprise during our first days visit to the the Medina in Marrakech. As I mentioned in my previous post we had not planned our visit to the souk preferring to take random turns and see where we ended up. This time wandering round a corner we came across Le Jardin Secret (secret garden). I usually carry a guidebook with me on our travels, which can always come in handy in case we get lost or cannot find a good café or restaurant close by. There was no mention of it in the book so we were curious to visit.
It turned out that the garden had only been open to the public since the middle of last year, and not made it into the guidebooks yet. This mean we would be among the first visitors to this renovated, large and ancient palace in Marrakech. Judges, Chamberlains and Tribal chiefs used to be the owners of Le Jardin Secret and the traditional manor house with one of the few towers in the Medina.
When visiting the Secret Garden, make sure you purchase a ticket for the tour of the tower as well as the garden, unfortunately entry for children under six years is prohibited to the tower.
We made our way down the steps into the exotic garden, the first of two that make up the palace’s grounds. The palace was actually created by fusing two Riads into one larger property. Gardens have always been the centre of Riads for centuries. We found ourselves in an oasis, filled with exotic plants, palms, grasses and trees. In the middle of the main path was a water channel running all the way towards a fountain in front of a burgundy coloured pavilion. There were signs explaining to us that water is a fundamental element of Arab-Muslim gardens. Water is considered to be a symbol of life and a sign of God’s existence and power. The water here in Marrakech has flown for hundreds of years, all the way from the Atlas Mountains into the town’s mosques, hammams and fountains thanks to underground channels, called khettara.
Le Jardin Secret is one of the few riads that is connected to this ancient system and this shows the privilege and wealth that the owners of this riad must wielded. We could see part of the hydraulic system, hidden behind glass, which allows the water to be distributed throughout the garden. This was incredible and interesting to see, Chris explained to Jerome that the water melting on the Atlas Mountains would flow into kilometre long channels and due to its pressure exit at the outlets in the city. I was more fascinated by the beauty of the plants and the buildings than delving too much into engineering, so I left this to the boys.
At the right side of the garden we found the hammam (bathhouse), which now partly houses the toilets. The other part has been restored and the floor partly opened to show the channels for the hot air to flow underneath the floor, heated by a wooden fire or these days with gas. A visit to a hammam is an important part of Moroccan culture and life, men, woman and children visit a hammam at least once a week.
We walked on and stepped into the second part of the garden, the Islamic garden. This section was much more spacious in size and arranged into four quadrants with a path and another water channel down its middle. I was immediately drawn to the beauty of the white pavilion, with its white gauze curtains that gently blew in the breeze. The floor here was laid with green, shiny, glazed tiles compared to the earthen terracotta ones in the exotic garden. Inside the pavilion we could see photos of what the Riad looked like before it was rescued and restored. The process to return it to its former glory took over eight years. You would have never dreamed of anyone being able to bring back all this beauty from what was almost a ruin.
Next to the pavilion we found the water basin where some of the water is stored. We strolled past the tables of the café, through narrow paths underneath lemon trees to Oud El Ward pavilion, the largest of the pavilions in the garden. All the walls in the garden and the buildings are covered in tadelakt, the smooth plaster, which is a typical feature of many grand Moroccan buildings. Inside this pavilion we watched a film, explaining the history of the riad and the water system. Jerome was interested in watching it and therefore we watched part of the film, before we climbed the steps up onto the roof terrace of the pavilion and the starting point of the tower tour.
The roof terrace was a great place to get a view over the Islamic garden and the pavilion on the other side. People were sitting there to enjoy a glass of Moroccan mint tea and the warm winter sun. The tower tour is every fifteen minutes and we did not have to wait long before the guide came back with the last tour.
The guide decided on doing the tour in English as the majority were English speakers or at least would understand English the easiest. He guided us up the narrow stairs to a room with an open skylight. The ceiling around the skylight was ornamental wood and painted with in red, green and navy blue. We had to duck our heads to walk though the door into the next room, this was deliberately so that everybody would bow in front of the lord of the house. The doors were an aqua green and intricately carved with flowers and leaves, as was the arch of the doorway. The ceiling of the next room was painted with colourful ornaments. Our tour guide explained what the various colours symbolise: white for god or peace, green for paradise, blue for protection and red for wealth and luck. Jerome listened curiously to the tales our guide told us but I could also see that he was eager to go to the top of the tower.
Soon enough we climbed the last few steps and found ourselves outside on the roof. Towering above the surrounding buildings, we stepped onto some wooden steps to one side so we got an even better view. In the distance we could see the snow covered mountains, they looked majestic against the blue sky. Our guide explained to us that none of the houses in the Medina are allowed to be higher than three stories. This privilege belongs only to the mosque towers (the Koutoubia tower was the tallest), which we could see popping up between the many rooftops and satellite dishes. We looked out on a sea of concrete and tiled roofs, interrupted only by a few palm trees. Outside the walls of the Medina, in the new town, the buildings are permitted to be seven stories high. The guide offered to take some souvenir shots of our little groups and then we returned via the stairs to the ground floor.
We walked along the green tiled path, through the exotic garden and left this peaceful retreat behind us in exchange of the craziness of the souk.