Story and Photos By Ann Hattes
Flower-bedecked balconies decorate white washed facades along a labyrinth of narrow alleys in the old quarters of Cordoba, Seville and Granada. Fountains spray into mirrored pools in formal gardens designed for royalty.
Spain’s spectacular gardens combine many influences through the centuries. The Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans planted grapevines, olive trees, and date palms. With the Moors came orange trees plus herbs and flowers native to Asia. Exploration brought bougainvillea from South America and geraniums from South Africa.
In Andalusia, with its abundant sunshine and fertile soil, the gardens of Palacio Generalife, the former summer palace of the sultans, overlooks the Alhambra and the city of Granada. Views from the windows of the Alhambra palace frame the surrounding landscape like oriental miniatures.
The Generalife, in Arabic, Jennat al-Arif (i.e. garden of the architect) is Spain’s most famous garden and representative of late medieval castle gardens. Adjacent to a Moorish summer residence, the Generalife’s layout today shows Italian influences. The hedges, orange and cypress trees, pools and fountains create hundreds of inviting and secluded trysting nooks. Rumor says that Boabdil’s sultana met with her lover Hamet here. Upon seeing the intimate patios and pavilions myself I more easily understood her indiscretions.
In 1829 Washington Irving visited these gardens “high above the Alhambra, on the breast of the mountain…” and described them thus: “Here is everything to delight a southern voluptuary: fruits, flowers, fragrance, green arbors and myrtle hedges, delicate air and gushing waters.”
As a refuge from the heat, the Moors arranged their homes around interior courtyards that helped to cool their homes. Pools, fountains and complex channels like the “water stairway” in the Generalife gardens also helped keep summer temperatures down.
Having come from the desert, the Arabs relished using water and creating gardens. Improving on the canals and aqueducts constructed by the Romans, they used water not only for irrigation but also for beauty and enjoyment. As the Koran required ablutions daily, they created public baths and put fountains and pools in their palaces. In their gardens they appealed to the senses using aromatic plants and the soothing sound of water. Water was symbolic for the Moors who divided gardens into four sections by water channels representing the four Rivers of Life.
Seville, setting for Bizet’s Carmen and Rossini’s barber, is a city of orange trees. The city’s Moorish heritage means that most of the gardens are hidden away. The enormous Parque de Maria Luisa was built as a Romantic garden for the palace of San Telmo for the 1929 Latin American Exhibition. The Lions’ Garden here was modeled after the Patio of the Lions in the Alhambra.
The Murillo gardens, bordering on the walls of the Alcazar and leading into the Santa Cruz neighborhood are very Sevillian in style, full of arcades and foliage, ceramic work and abundant flowers.
For Expo 92 Seville planted gardens along the right bank of the river which leads into Torneo street, creating the Park of the Alamillo, the garden of the Guadalquivir and the Garden of San Jeronimo.
In Cordoba’s old Jewish quarter, brilliant flowers adorn white walls hugging a maze of narrow cobblestoned streets. Surrounding the Alcazar lies an Arabic garden with pools and cypresses. Cordoba’s Botanical Gardens have an Ethnobotanical Museum, the only one of its kind in Spain, dedicated to the relation between man and plants.
In Madrid, the Jardin Botanico with over 30,000 plants from around the world, sits just south of the Prado Museum housing paintings by such Spanish masters as Goya, Velazquez and El Greco. Plantings in the Real Jardin Botanico, commissioned by King Carlos II in the 18th. century, represent the Spanish Enlightenment’s commitment to the classification and description of the flora of Spain, Latin America and the Philippines.
Retiro Park was built in the 1630s to surround a palace and impress the world. Gardeners were imported from throughout Europe to create gardens that would provide both shade and flowers throughout a Madrid summer. Sections of the 300 acres were opened to the public in 1767 but it was not until 100 years later (1868) that they became entirely free to the citizens of Madrid and a favorite place to stroll.
La Granja (i.e. “The Farm”) de San Ildefonso, at an altitude of almost 4,000 feet near Segovia in central Spain, adjoins a little Versailles. Philip V, grandson of Louis XIV, yearning for the sites of his childhood, built the palace and gardens. The magnificent chestnut trees were brought from France at great expense. Abundant water feeds fountains, cascades and pools.
Barcelona’s Parc Guell with fantastic views overlooking the city was designed by Antoni Gaudi, one of the most original architects of the early 20th. century. A short excursion out of the city to Blanes leads to the Jardi Botanic Mar I Murtra with its fantastic collection of Mediterranean and tropical plants set on the cliffs above the town.
Experience the beauty and romance of Spanish gardens. Explore on your own and discover, as I did, a quiet little plaza with a tile bench for dozing, or the white walls of a narrow alleyway festooned with geraniums spilling from flowerpots.
Tourist Office of Spain: 212.265.8822; www.okspain.org
Insight Guide Spain: www.insightguides.com