The land of the Berbers is a dramatic interplay of gorges, mountains, desert plains and valleys dotted with date palm oases. Amongst these, where there is water, rise ancient kasbahs* in various states of ruin or rejuvenation. Some kasbahs have been bought by foreigners, often French, who have renovated and re-designed them often as guest accommodation, usually with gardens attached – either surrounding the building or as an internal courtyard.
There is a distinct poignancy to seeing the derelict mud-brick kasbahs and other ‘deserted’ dwellings being ‘reclaimed’ by the desert. It’s a stark demonstration of nature turning a geometric structure back into desert sand using sand-blown wind and a little rain to deconstruct what was once a large lived-in structure.
In contrast to the Berber home we visited, [see my previous Morocco story] the garden at this renovated kasbah seems designed as an escape – mostly from the heat! Set in the Skoura Palm Grove, the garden of the kasbah is contained within the usual protective walled boundary – protection from outsiders, but as much or more so from the wind and sand.
A profusion of flowering and fruiting plants create a colourful and interesting garden, and strolling around it there is lots to discover and pause to look at. There are distinctive areas, each with their own character and groups of plants. Particularly appealing is the beautifully tiled pond with its water fountain that soothed our eyes and senses after the harshness of the desert scenery. The pastel shades here are very restful, and the feminine pink flowers give a softness to this area that is a delight to sit near for breakfast.
A ‘succulent’ garden features along the front of the kasbah, with aloe, agave, kalanchoe, euphorbia, senecio, portulaca and haworthia. It is eye-catching as an interesting arrival scene alongside the entrance path, especially with the imposing kasbah building as a backdrop. I’m surprised there isn’t anything planted here to shade the building. The plants are mostly very low, giving an unobstructed view of the berber architecture – this may be intentional.
There are fragrant roses planted adjacent to one of the outdoor sitting areas, along with grasses that sway in the breeze, olives and colourful bougainvillea. Elsewhere oleanders, pelargonium, marigolds and figs look at home with the berber architecture, and are ideal for these dry growing conditions.
This garden as a whole is like a green buffer zone between the building and the general starkness that lies beyond the boundary wall. The surrounding palm grove yields to desert in all directions, it is seriously harsh out there. The garden is a welcome relief from this starkness when you drive through the entrance gate – it’s like a private oasis that instantly makes you forget the aridity. The building has a further ‘garden’, an internal courtyard which is even more protected from the outside elements. Its colours reflect the landscape it inhabits, and while it has a lovely central fountain, some greenery would make it so much more inviting (I am sure there are many constraints that make this difficult to accomplish, not least of them being scarce water).
The landscape in this part of the world is really quite spectacular – barren, stark and haunting at the same time. The Todra and Dades Gorges in the foothills of the Atlas mountain range are carved from limestone by meltwater flowing to the Draa Valley. The road weaves through the gorges, the sheer rock walls looming on either side with crops grown in small spaces eeked out on the flats, occasional date palms the only other large vegetation visible. These create unforgettable images as one travels through.
Emerging from such a gorge to the sight of an oasis stretching so refreshingly and starkly across the valley is a breathtaking experience. The date palms are magnificent and integral to Berber life. Annual harvest time is big, with fruit stockpiled at home for the coming year and any excess taken to market. Dates are a fruit that takes pride of place on the Moroccan table. I was sorry to miss the harvest, usually early October, but we enjoyed the luscious fruit in so many varied dishes and saw many varieties on sale in the souks and Berber markets. And other fruit trees are plentiful, with pomegranates and quinces fruiting at the time (November).
Apart from the kasbah-style accommodation, there are Berber-owned hotels in their traditional building style. We stayed in one that grew food to use in its kitchen – tomatoes and brassicas at the time we visited, with olive and loquat trees, grapevines and rosemary galore. This was quite different from the garden experience of the renovated kasbah – while the trees, vines and rosemary hedge provided amenity to the hotel, there was no doubt their food function was key in a region where growing opportunities are scant.
[Photos by Tony Maher and Louise McDaid]
Some North African terms:
*A kasbah is generally a North African citadel, originally a refuge for traders and travellers. It was a place of power usually under one family’s control, and they date from about the 17th century. A kasbah is called a ‘tighremt’ in Berber, as kasbah is an Arabic word is also used to refer to single buildings.
A souk is a sales area, originally a weekly or so market, but in areas of high commerce is now a regular market area (often maze-like).
A riad is a private house, often square-shaped, built around an interior garden with windows and doors leading inwards. These are former houses of merchants and noblemen renovated for tourists. Some of the luxury ones have small pools, a spa, a hammam and even gardens with orange trees, fountains – real escapes from the bustle outside!