Must see and then see again
I have been to Marrakech several times and have seen the Majorelle Gardens twice – the first time in October during Ramadan a few years ago, and most recently in March this year when we took a holiday in Morocco with my sister and her partner. Marrakech is a great city but it's not overly endowed with world-class attractions and is more a place for just drifting around and experiencing being there. If you go more than once, it's almost inevitable that you'll be tempted back to see the same places when you return – especially if they are as fabulous as the Majorelle Gardens which change with the seasons and are well worth visiting at different times of year.
I'd firmly rate the gardens as the top 'paid-for' outdoor attraction in Marrakech vying for first place overall in the list of fee-charging attractions with the Ben Youssef Medersa. If you go for only a short visit, those two should be top of your list of must-see attractions. If you're the type of person who just likes to bumble along and stumble across things to see, this won't suit you at all because you'll almost certainly need a taxi to get there. The gardens are in the north of the city outside the walls of the old city in an area that has little else to lure you away from the city centre.
On the occasion of our last visit we took a 'grand taxi' from the rank by the Kotoubia mosque but we've previously been out in one of the horse drawn caleches when there were few tourists to be seen and the drivers were willing to be more 'flexible' on the prices. What it will cost you – by taxi or by caleche – will depend on just how good you are at negotiating prices – but don't waste too much time fighting because it'll only be a few pounds in total.
Majorelle - artist and garden designer
The gardens have become one of the iconic images of the city but are not at all Moroccan in their conception, layout or even to a large extent their plants. They were conceived – not surprisingly given the name – by a gentleman called Majorelle, a French-born artist who lived and worked in Marrakech in the days when the French were still in charge. I doubt anyone would have remembered Jacques Majorelle for his paintings because it's his garden that's made him still famous many years after his death. Majorelle moved to Marrakech in 1919 but it was not until 1947 that he gave the public the chance to witness his horticultural creation. After his death the gardens were closed and it was not until 1980 that the property was bought by the late Yves St Laurent and his partner (first romantically, then business-wise) Pierre Bergé. Between them they set about restoring the gardens to Majorelle's original glory and in the process made them one of the most famous and visited attractions in north west Africa. The Yves St Laurent angle definitely helped put the gardens firmly on the tourist map but I have little interest in St Laurent and whilst I'm very glad he and his partner brought the gardens back to glory, they are not the artists in this work – just the restorers and the publicists.
Blue is the colour
If I think about the Majorelle Gardens there's just one adjective that comes immediately to mind and it's BLUE. I loved the gardens so much that after our first visit I knew I wanted to recreate a bit of blue in my life. My husband bought me a log cabin for our garden as a very generous birthday present 7 years ago. There was no debate about it – we both knew it had to be painted Majorelle Blue. On a dull grey English morning, there's nothing like a bright blue building to remind you of warmer and more exotic places.
During our recent visit the art museum which makes its home in the gardens was closed for building work. Previously it had been closed for Ramadan. I sometimes wonder if it's ever open but it's not important, the art that matters is outdoors and I'm not especially interested by the museum. Entrance to the gardens costs 40 dirham or just over £3 at the time of writing. The gallery – if it's ever open – adds another 20 Dirhams on top. The gardens are open daily throughout the year, including religious holidays with the doors opening at 8 am and closing between 5.30 and 6 pm depending on the season. Slightly shorter hours are in operation during Ramadan.
Put it away madam - please
We visited mid afternoon and I was instantly irritated by the crowds. I like my tourism to be quiet and fairly private but there was no risk of that being the case on this occasion. Our previous visit had benefited from Ramadan keeping lots of the tourists away – no such luck this time. I was intensely irritated by coach loads of people who'd arrived on day trips from the coast or from cruise liners who seemed entirely oblivious to the fact that they were visiting a Muslim country. The Italians seem to be the worst offenders though most European tourists seem to suffer a collective sense of not being able to judge appropriate behaviour. I really don't want to see ladies of 'an age when they should know better' displaying their sunburn in bandeau tops and skimpy shorts and I take umbrage on behalf of the locals when exposed to quite so much flesh. Yes, it IS their holiday and they may only be jumping on and off air conditioned coaches but how about showing a little bit of respect for the culture of your hosts?
Round and Round the Garden - like a teddy bear
Enough bitching about tourists though and back to the gardens. When you enter you receive a map which should please all those people who hate to miss anything. Myself, I prefer to just drift around and see what pops up. I don't like to 'do' a place like this too thoroughly for fear of not ever needing to go back again. Always leave a corner or two unexplored to justify a return visit. Perhaps that's why we need the Museum to be closed – so we can justify another visit. Just inside the entrance is a blue and green tiled pool with a fountain. It's the sort of pool that looks like it should be for cleaning your feet before entering a mosque. The pathways lead you round the garden with deep blue painted terracotta urns holding some evil looking cacti and lots of friendlier palms. The use of water makes a big impact on the gardens and their atmosphere with pools, channels and ponds laid out in many different configurations. The search for perfect reflections attracts photographers and soon blocks the pathways on a busy afternoon. Bamboo and palms fringe the edges of a long narrow channel whilst mighty monumental cacti threaten to attack the unwary passer by. Between the taller plants, brightly coloured flowers fill the spaces and attract the eye. Bamboos have been attacked by visitors who've carved their initials in the 'bark' (if bamboo has bark – I'm not sure). A few ponds are home to fish, strutting their stuff in the water like St Laurent's cat walk models. Some are home to turtles or terrapins, including one pond where a bunch of deformed-shell turtles look like floating Fray Bentos pies. Bougainvillea blossoms introduce a variety of colours and lighten the look of some of the more formal and structured beds. One particular square pond close to the biggest blue building has the lightest green water and will almost certainly make any sore-footed tourist wish they could take their shoes off an have a paddle. Fans of cacti and aloes will be grateful for the invention of digital photography because this garden would have been a 'three-reeler' in the days of old camera film. During our visit many of the smaller cactuses were in flower. A woman I used to work with who was dying of cancer once told me that after visiting these gardens she knew that heaven must be filled with cacti.
The main blue buildings were the home and gallery of Majorelle and later St Laurent. The colour is alien to the Moroccan pallet but set off nicely by more traditional terracotta paths. The architecture is a cutting edge blocky modernism that doesn't fit with the city either – but it really doesn't matter. More traditional touches include Arabic arched windows and decorate ironwork screens. Tucked in a quiet corner St Laurent fans will find a monument to his life and work. If you have the patience of a saint, even on a busy day you can take photos that aren't filled with flesh-exposing Italian tourists.
In addition to the museum there's a shop selling a lot of stuff that seems to be very tangentially relevant to the gardens and a pleasant but rather pricey cafe which – if you have the brass neck of my sister – is a handy place for a toilet stop although I believe there are additional toilets elsewhere in the gardens.
Getting away again
Getting back to the city can prove more expensive than getting out there since the taxis are lined up and you don't have too many alternative options. We started a negotiation with a couple of drivers since we would need two petits taxis because none of the big ones were available. My husband started to video the drivers on his tiny little video camera and they were so thrilled by seeing themselves on screen that they gave in and accepted our price to take us back to town. My best advice on getting taxis in Marrakech is to stay cool, don't get angry, never stop smiling and don't be afraid to walk away and start a discussion with another driver. But equally don't get too mean about what you're willing to pay.