Why I love Europe’s hidden gardens

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

As a gardener, however, the other big motivation 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-filled piazzas, while terraced gardens in Málaga and Ávila, full of native shrubs and wildflowers, positively glowed with contemporary naturalism. The jewel of the whole trip, however, was a scrub garden on the edge of Salamanca’s old town.

We immediately found ourselves in the cool shade of ornamental trees that softened the signature desert yellow sandstone of the ‘Golden City’

Perched high on the Roman walls of Salamanca, the Huerto de Calixto y Melibea is a rare oasis in the labyrinth of this ancient European city. Just half an acre in size, this enchanting, semi-hidden garden was intended to be just that: a captivating, vibrant retreat known to locals but otherwise accessible only to the curious. A little oasis behind the tourist thoroughfare. Designed in 1981, in a consciously ‘romantic’ style, it was inspired by the Spanish tragicomic novel La Celestina, which tells of the lovers Calisto and Melibea and their fateful meeting in a walled garden at night. To me, the combination of formal elements – structural evergreens and clipped hedges – with loose and sensual plantings felt representative of both historic and contemporary Spanish gardens.

We arrived at the whore accidentally as he walked away from the city’s busy Easter parades, following the lighter footsteps through a low stone archway at the end of a narrow cobbled street. We immediately found ourselves in the cool shade of ornamental trees that softened the distinctive desert yellow sandstone of the ‘Golden City’: low medlars and dark-leaved oaks, tapering Italian cypresses, white cherries with profuse blossoms and scattered pink Judas trees.

The narrow dirt paths, pleasantly soft underfoot, were lined with velvet-petaled irises and wild alliums and as we reached the boundary wall we could look back at the tree-framed vistas of Salamanca’s two beautiful cathedrals. I may have embellished in my memory the unforgettable tranquility of this garden, washed in bright spring sunlight, but the visitors, at cheerful gatherings under the canopy, seemed completely relaxed and as a parent I felt safe sharing our then three-year-old freedom to wander around.

For the holidaymaker, a good garden is one that puts you at ease, breaks up your travel schedule and provides peace and energy along the way

At the end of a 2,500-mile journey, 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 emotional environments and those with a romantic character promote intimacy rather than 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 location in a city, town or rural landscape, and your receptivity to potential tranquility – as it is about the plantings. For the holidaymaker, a good garden is one that puts you at ease, breaks up your travel schedule and offers peace and energy along the way. It could be a moment in the presence of flowing blossoms or sunny meadow grass, or even the hypnotic movement of water.

These are increasingly difficult qualities to extract from the signature gardens of European tourist routes. Three million visitors visit the Alhambra in Granada every year; Keukenhof in the Netherlands, famous for its expansive tulip exhibitions, is known to attract 26,000 visitors a day. Even Monet’s water lily Giverny attracts more than half a million visitors every year. Many of these destination gardens use a staggered entry system to limit pedestrian traffic. Yet the experience can feel pressured and inescapably impersonal – a little too much competition for the bench with the beautiful view.

My advice to those traveling abroad is to satisfy your curiosity and pursue a botanical intermezzo, leaving some time and space to follow your nose into the green, but also to look for 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 may fall under their shadow. The gardens of museums and galleries are often worth visiting: the small garden of the Guggenheim Museum in Venice reminds me of the green relief of a city surrounded by water and stone; the same goes for the intimate, richly tiled courtyard of the Museo Sorolla in Madrid and the lush, seaward-stretching lawns of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk, Denmark. These spaces are often sculpture gardens and can be as tranquil as the airy chateau gardens of the Loire.

Public parks can also surprise you. Zurich’s Patumbah Park, Berlin’s Comenius Garten and the tranquil surroundings of the Arènes de Lutèce, Paris’s Roman amphitheater ruins, are all inviting green spaces that offer an infectious atmosphere or adventurous plantings, from elegant perennials to unusual trees . As for trees, I couldn’t imagine a more spectacular sight than Copenhagen’s Langelinie Park in full cherry blossom mode. It is a display similar to the Sakura festivals in Japan.

The other thing gardens can do well is encapsulate their region and introduce the flora specific to that part of the world. This can produce a beautiful distillation of ‘place’, an immersion in vegetation that is often removed from public infrastructure or from overly cultivated landscapes. Your first thought might be to go to a national, regional or urban botanical garden, but in many cases there will be gardens nearby that relate to their surroundings in a less academic and artistic way.

For example, to get a taste of the high-altitude flora of Central Europe, walk around the corner from Vienna’s University Botanical Garden to the small but historic Alpine Garden in Belvedere Park: in late spring and summer it’s a treasure trove of pastel palettes, mountainous -dwelling plants. At the other end of the climate spectrum, the impressive Jardín De L’Albarda on the Costa Blanca gives a glimpse of the weird and wonderful species from the arid environment of the Mediterranean, here displayed with opulent Renaissance-style flair. These gardens not only showcase the best of their natural environment, they also speak to nature’s vital but declining diversity.

All this is to say that gardens of all kinds – parks and urban oases, sculpture gardens or historic estates – can add a lot to the holiday experience. What I learned most from our short break in the shadow of Huerto de Calixto y Melibea was that a garden doesn’t have to be famous or fantastic to be included. Just as often, the less exalted places communicate as much cultural identity, breathtaking beauty and alluring tranquility as the world-famous hotspots..

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