Riad Enija, Marrakesh, Morocco

Paths of wine, water, milk and honey

Words: Angelica Gray

Pictures: Alessio Mei

Everyone knows what a¬†riad¬†is, don‚Äôt they?¬† It‚Äôs an exotic, Arabian Nights-style place to stay in Morocco: too intimate to be a hotel, too glamorous to be a guest house. ¬†In fact, the term was hi-jacked by the tourist trade in the 1970s ‚Äď it really refers to a particular type of urban garden which is at the heart of the best houses in the old town, or¬†medina. ¬†One of the loveliest in Marrakesh is the Riad Enija, a nineteenth-century architectural gem, owned by designer Ursula Haldimann and her architect husband Bj√∂rn Conerdings.

To really understand a riad you have to go shopping.  Spend the day trailing around the souks getting hot and bothered among the jostling crowds.  Then, suitably softened up, knock on the door of the Enija and allow yourself to be led through a zigzag of passageways into the private heart of the home, the riad.  It is an exquisite experience to hear nothing but birdsong, feel cool, and luxuriate in fresh-green nature, contained in a highly decorated framework, with intricately carved plasterwork and vibrant mosaic tiles.  This is exactly what these gardens were designed to be - a little piece of restorative, natural heaven, after the trials of public life.

Ursula and Björn are deeply respectful of the history of this place and have done nothing to upset the balance of its traditional design.  The perfectly proportioned rectangular space is quartered by four paths which represent the four rivers of paradise: wine, water, milk and honey.  The fountain in the centre is a mirror to the heavens and the four planted areas are filled with a variety of trees, shrubs and aromatics.  What is new here is the range of species, the use of pots and the inclusion of a few quirky pieces of sculpture and furnishings.

Nature is revered in Islam so plants in a¬†riad¬†are treated as honoured guests and, as such, should never be trimmed or coerced in any way. ¬†There are times, however, when needs must and Ursula sends her husband into the kitchen while she gets on with the dark deed. ¬†‚ÄėHe just can‚Äôt stand to see them hurt‚Äô she explains, which, as it happens, chimes perfectly with the spirit of the place.

Not to be missed

It‚Äôs all about the structure. ¬†The essentials of¬†riad¬†design have not changed for centuries so it is worth understanding the basics before appreciating the infinite subtle variations. ¬†Notice the rectangular overall shape, the dividing paths raised above the planting, the central fountain and matching porticoes. Keep a look out for the resident tortoises too ‚Äď it‚Äôs easy to mistake them for odd bits of garden pottery.

Other gardens

There are several¬†riad¬†gardens to visit nearby ‚Äď each with their own quality. The big daddy is the¬†Badi Palace, a fabulous 16th¬†century ruin of a once fabled garden, where even Elizabeth I sent envoys to report on the splendours of the launch party. ¬†(Open daily but closed for lunch.)

Just a stone’s throw away is the 19th century Bahia Palace, built by royal vizier Bahmad.  It has two riad gardens well worth a visit; however, one is closed for restoration until late 2014.  (Open daily but closed for lunch.)

Just around the corner is the smaller, but very pretty, Dar Si Said, now a museum.  This was once the home of Bahmad’s brother, Si Said ben Moussa. People say that he may not have been as bright as Bahmad but he certainly had better taste.  Judge for yourself.  (Open daily except Tuesdays.)

Quibble

I love the juicy-jungle abundance of the planting but the cross-axial paths should be kept clear of stray branches, prickly fronds and other obstacles.  This is a garden to glide around in a dream-like state.

How to get there

Sorry, but you’ll have to walk - lanes in this part of the Medina were made for donkeys.  Plunge into the souks from the Place Jemaa el-Fna and the Riad Enija, on the Derb (lane) Mesfioui, is about ten minutes away.

The Riad Enija is now run as a boutique hotel.  Ring to make a reservation for lunch or dinner and you will be welcome to spend time in the garden.