Why I love Europe’s hidden gardens

Why I love Europe’s hidden gardens

Last spring, my wife and I embarked on an extended family holiday through Spain, taking our two young children on a month-long road trip around a country we didn’t know well but quickly came to love, for its ancient walled cities and diverse landscapes, its full-bodied wine and its warm-hearted people.

As a gardener, however, the other great incentive was to tick off some of Spain’s signature gardens – the grand Moorish courtyards of the south and the drought-tolerant Mediterranean plantings of the country’s rugged interior and coast.

These unique horticultural attractions did not disappoint. The Alhambra and Alcázar palaces of Granada and Seville dazzled with their stately palm avenues and brugmansia-draped, water-rilled squares, while terraced gardens in Málaga and Ávila, stocked with native shrubs and wildflowers, positively glowed with contemporary naturalism. The jewel of the entire trip, however, was a stumbled-upon garden at the edge of Salamanca’s old town.

The Huerto de Calixto y Melibea, perched high on Salamanca’s Roman walls, is a rare oasis in the labyrinth of this ancient European city. A mere half-acre in size, this enchanting, semi-concealed garden was intended to be just that – a captivating, spirited sanctuary known to locals but otherwise revealed only to the curious. A little haven behind the tourism thoroughfare. Designed in 1981, in a consciously “romantic” style, it was inspired by the Spanish tragicomic novel La Celestina, which tells of lovers Calisto and Melibea and their fateful rendezvous in a walled garden at night. To me, its coupling of formal elements – structural evergreens and clipped hedging – with loose and sensual planting felt representative of both historic and contemporary Spanish gardens.

Jardin del Museo Sorolla, Madrid. Photograph: DCarreno/Alamy

We came upon the huerto by accident while ambling away from the city’s thronged Easter parades, following the lighter footfall through a low stone arch at the end of a narrow cobbled street. At once we were in the cool shade of ornamental trees that softened the signature desert yellow sandstone of the “Golden City”: low medlars and dark-leaved oaks, tapering Italianate cypresses, cherries white with abundant blossom and scattered Judas trees flushed pink.

The narrow grit pathways, pleasantly soft underfoot, were edged with velvet-petalled irises and wild alliums and, reaching the boundary wall, we could look back at tree-framed vistas of Salamanca’s two magnificent cathedrals. I may have embellished the unforgettable calm of this garden, washed in clear spring sunlight, in my memory, but its visitors, in happy gatherings below the canopy, seemed utterly relaxed and, as a parent, I felt secure in allowing our then three-year-old freedom to roam.

At the conclusion of a 2,500-mile trip steeped in plantings both formal and otherwise, I wondered why this garden had left such a distinct impression. Was it the romance? Gardens are intrinsically emotive environments and those of a romantic nature promote intimacy in place of awe (think Vita Sackville-West’s Sissinghurst in Kent, or the crumbling, wisteria-clad walls of Ninfa outside Rome). But it was something more.

In the context of travel, garden visiting is as much about the timing and experience – its setting within a city, town or rural landscape, and your receptiveness to potential serenity – as the plantings. For the holidaymaker, a good garden is one that puts you at ease, breaks up your itinerary and offers respite and recharge on the move. It may be a moment in the presence of cascading blossom or sunny meadow grass, or, indeed, the hypnotising movement of water.

Statue of Aphrodite in Zurich’s Patumbah Park. Photograph: ira008/Shutterstock

Increasingly, these are difficult qualities to extract from the signature gardens of European tourism routes. Three million visitors take in Granada’s Alhambra each year; Keukenhof in the Netherlands, famed for its sweeping tulip displays, has been known to see 26,000 visitors a day. Even Monet’s water-lilied Giverny draws over half a million annual visitors. Many of these destination gardens employ a staggered entry system to limit foot traffic. Nonetheless, the experience can feel pressured and inescapably impersonal – a little too much competition for the bench with the beautiful view.

My advice for those roaming abroad, then, is to indulge curiosity in pursuit of a botanical interlude, to leave a little time and space for following your nose into the greenery, but also to seek out a few potential surprises. Many of Europe’s most famous gardens – Versailles, the Chateau de Villandry, the Boboli in Florence – are worth experiencing, but there are alternatives that can fall under their shadow. The gardens of museums and galleries are often worth seeking out: the little garden of the Guggenheim Museum in Venice comes to mind for its green relief from a city hemmed by water and stone; it’s the same with the intimate, ornately tiled courtyard of Madrid’s Museo Sorolla and the lush, seaward-sweeping lawns of Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk, Denmark. Very often sculpture gardens, these spaces can prove every bit as tranquil as the airy chateau gardens of the Loire.

Public parks, too, can take you by surprise. Zurich’s Patumbah Park, the Comenius-Garten in Berlin and the soothing surrounds of the Arènes de Lutèce, Paris’s Roman amphitheatre ruin, are all invitingly green spaces that offer an infectious atmosphere or adventurous plantings, from elegant herbaceous perennials to unusual trees. On the subject of trees, I couldn’t imagine a more spectacular sight than Copenhagen’s Langelinie Park in full cherry blossom mode. It’s a display on a par with the sakura festivals of Japan.

The other thing gardens can do well is encapsulate their region, introducing the flora particular to that area of the world. This can provide a wonderful distillation of “place”, an immersion in vegetation very often removed from civic infrastructure or overly cultivated landscapes. Your first thought might be to head for a national, regional or city botanical garden, but in many cases there will be gardens nearby that relate to their environments in a less academic and more artful way.

Sculpture in the garden of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection Museum Venier dei Leoni Palace Venice. Photograph: Peter Barritt/Alamy

To get a flavour of central Europe’s high-elevation flora, for example, wander round the corner from Vienna’s University Botanical Garden to the small yet historic Alpine Garden in Belvedere Park: in late spring and summer it’s a treasure trove of pastel-palette, mountain-dwelling plants. At the other end of the climatic spectrum, the impressive Jardín De L’Albarda on the Costa Blanca gives a sense of the Mediterranean’s weird and wonderful arid-environment species, here exhibited with lavish Renaissance-style flair. Not only do these gardens exhibit the best of their natural surroundings, they speak of nature’s vital yet diminishing diversity.

This is all to say that gardens of all kinds – parks and urban oases, sculpture gardens or historic estates – can add a great deal to the holiday experience. What I learned most from our brief recess in the shade of Huerto de Calixto y Melibea was that a garden needn’t be famous or fantastic to warrant inclusion. Just as often, the less-exalted places communicate as much cultural identity, catch-your-breath beauty and seductive calm as the world-renowned hotspots.

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