Many times I have wandered through a crowded medina or old town in Morocco, dimly aware that just on the far side of the high walls there existed a secret world of dappled sunlight, where the only sounds are of running water and the cooing of doves. A frustrating experience this, for unless you know your way exactly, it is impossible to tell which of the labyrinthine alleys contains the entrance to the house and the garden beyond. Which is why, contrary to usual practice, I engaged an official guide to lead me to some of the hidden gardens of Fez el-Bali, the most inward-looking and unremittingly medieval of Morocco's ancient cities.
His name was Ben Said Aziz and he proudly proclaimed that he was a Fasi by birth and that he continued to live within the old city, in the Andalusian quarter. "Many of the old Fasi families have left their old houses to live in the new town or in Casablanca, but not me," he said. It soon became apparent that Mr Aziz had a way with the doorkeepers or domestic servants of Fez el-Bali. After a hurried exchange of words, the door would be opened and we would enter a courtyard whose existence could not be guessed at from the street outside. It also became apparent that the Moorish concept of a garden is different from ours. Some of the doors opened on to what was essentially an open courtyard with a central fountain - the only plant- life being a climbing vine or bougainvillea growing up one wall. Others were little more than orchards - densely packed masses of fig or orange trees which have somehow survived in the middle of the city. Then there were formal courtyards, whose elaborate tiles in the Fasi style gave an indication of the green lushness that lay in the garden beyond.
In some of the grander palaces up towards Dar Ziat Batha, the end of town closest to the Royal Palace, the garden was merely an annexe of the central courtyard. "This house dates from the 14th century when the Merinid dynasty ruled from Fez," whispered my guide, who did not wish to disturb the owner's afternoon nap. "It is still lived in by the same family, one of the richest in all of Fez."
Our clandestine tour of the medina continued, scurrying down alleyways that twisted back on themselves, to yet more grandiose palaces. Some like the Palais Mnebhi had been converted into restaurants for tourists; others lay in ruins or were being restored. I saw a side of Fez I would not have discovered unassisted. Yet only a few of these palaces possessed anything that equated with my idea of a Moorish garden. That is probably because my image of an idyllic Moroccan backyard had been formed by Yves St Laurent's Blue Garden in Marrakesh, a reconstruction of which was
displayed at this year's Chelsea Flower Show. It is known as the Jardin Majorelle, after the French painter Jacques Majorelle, whose brainchild it was and whose former studio stands at its centre. The gardens have an exotic atmosphere and the lush vegetation, with multi-hued bougainvillea and statuesque cacti ranged against the vividly coloured walls, conspires to produce vistas that would delight any surrealist painter.
I was enchanted. But I suspected that despite the horseshoe-arched gateway and the blue-painted water channel which runs through the middle of the gardens, what I saw was not so much a Moorish garden as a Frenchman's vision of an exotic allotment with a few Moroccan flourishes. Many of the plants, the bamboo forest and the profusion of weirdly-shaped cacti are exotica that have no place in a Moorish garden. The water-fly pond owes more to Monet than to Marrakesh. And apart from the towering date palms, there are virtually no fruit trees - an essential element in any Moorish plot.
In Marrakesh, the El Bahia Palace combines a formal courtyard with orange and banana trees around a central fountain, and a more extensive garden planted with olives, cypress and oleander that is overlooked by the wrought- iron grilles of what used to be the Vizier Bou Ahmed's harem. Sumptuous reception rooms open on to the first courtyard, their walls covered in Fez tiles, and it was here that one of the palace gardeners explained to me the intimate relationship between the building's plan and decoration and the hidden garden within. "Always there is a fountain, the symbol of life, at the centre," Said Hadoufi said. "The waters serve to refresh the air in the heat of summer. Also you will see that in this courtyard there are three elements, for which we have this saying - 'Vegetation for the pleasure of the senses. The geometric patterns on the tiles for the mind. And, above all, verses of the scripture for the heart'."
Similar considerations dictate the strict symmetry of the classic Moorish garden, in which paved paths divide the enclosed space into four equal parts, so that the earthly garden corresponds to the four parts of paradise. But thereafter all attempts at imposing any symmetry is abandoned and the trees and sunken flower beds grow in delicious disarray. Dark cypress and unpruned olive and fig trees provide much of the shade while the citrus and oleander delight the eye and offer shady recesses where students can work, mothers rest with their children, and old men stare out as if into infinity.
All this can be found in the gardens of the Kasbah des Oudaias, the oldest quarter of Rabat. The crenellated walls of a kasbah make a splendid backdrop, and the Kasbah des Oudaias is perhaps the finest example. Sadly, the fountains and water channels that form so important a part of a Moorish garden are rarely functional these days - an exception being the Palais Jamai, which overlooks Fez el-Bali. Originally built in 1879 for the Grand Vizier Mohammed Jamai, the palace was converted into a hotel in the 1930s and provided the setting for Paul Bowles's novel The Spider's House.
But it is the Andalusian-style gardens, cascading downhill in a series of terraces towards the medina which entranced me. Streams flow along its channels between sunken beds of scented roses hedged with rosemary. There is the murmuring of the seven fountains, a salve against the heat, while at night their shadows flicker seductively against the walls. This final touch may not be authentically Moorish; but with a medieval city laid out before me I was not going to quibble.
Getting there Jonathan Gregson travelled as a guest of Royal Air Maroc (tel: 0171-439 4361), which offers return flights to Marrakesh from pounds 354 plus pounds 26 tax. Cadogan Travel (tel: 0171-730 0721) offers a range of garden tours. A week in Marrakesh costs from pounds 399, including return flights and b&b accommodation, plus pounds 15 a day for garden visits. Countrywide tours, visiting different gardens each day, cost from pounds 598, including return flights and b&b accommodation.
Where to stay A night at the Hotel Palais Jamai in Fez (tel: 00 212 5 63433 1) costs from pounds 72 for a double room to pounds 330 for a private suite in the old palace.
Getting around A Group B hire car from Avis (tel: 0990 900 500) with unlimited mileage for a week costs from pounds 280, including CDW and a drop-off in another city.
Further information Contact the Moroccan National Tourist Office (tel: 0171-437 0073).