Category: Portuguese Gardens

I love this place. The Jardim Da Estrela (Star Garden) in Lisbon is fairly small, but captures every aspect of community life.

I’ve been here many times, but never in winter. The day after Christmas day (a Saturday), seemed likely to attract quite a few visitors, but it was a sunny 17 degrees Celsius, so it felt more like spring or late summer, and the place had a comfortable business about it.

The sun was low, capturing the brilliant leaf colours of Ginkgo and Cercis. There was joy all around; old men sharing a joke and a bench; young lovers embracing amid the long shadows; children trying out new bikes and scooters; friends sitting out with a smoke and a coffee next to arguing geese and under low flying parakeets; dogs exercising their owners still full from festive food; youngsters stretching themselves in the playground and keep fit fanatics doing likewise on the exercise equipment; only the games tables and community library lacked their usual clientele on this holiday break.

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This Star shines all year long- I smile, long and wide every time I visit.

Old School Gardener


WP_20150808_12_39_16_ProThe Star Park (Jardim da Estrela), is certainly one of my favourite places, not just in Lisbon, but anywhere (not that I can claim to be a well-travelled gardener!).

I was glad to be able to see it in mid summer once more, bustling with life across the generations but managing somehow to retain a serene calmness that makes you just want to sit and watch the world go by. And its also wonderfully cool under the many tall trees that give shelter from the hot summer sun. I always love seeing the voluntary library with its attentive manager and the beautifully ornate bandstand’s – perhaps one day I’ll hear it in use.

Sadly, the nearby English Cemetery, on which I’ve posted before, was closed on this latest visit, but we did manage to find a fascinating underground reservoir to visit as we wandered back towards the centre of Lisbon, where we finished the day with a walk around the Moorish district of Alfama and had a beery lunch overlooking the River Tagus.

The underground cathedral that is the Lisbon Patriarchal Reservoir

The underground cathedral that is the Lisbon Patriarchal Reservoir

Old School Gardener

WP_20150812_16_31_09_ProAnother day in Portugal, another visit, this time after we’d been to the airport to drop off our daughter. We’d been to the ‘Park of Nations’ (Parque das Nacoes), some years ago, but hadn’t managed to see everything at this site of the 1998 Expo.

For one, we hadn’t ventured into the large park which sits on the River to the north of the many exhibition and conference buildings that dominate the place, so that’s where we began. It was worth it. The park, beautifully landscaped in a series of wave-like mounds which afford a rich variety of settings, is a contemporary design which seems to work- as playground (kids love hills), performance space, running route and chillout zone. The riverside setting is especially impressive, with views towards (and under) the long Vasco da Gama bridge. Even the seats carry through the wave theme and the planting is subtle and mainly naturalistic, giving the feeling that you’re in the country, despite the ‘designed’ nature of the place. It looked pretty well looked after, too, which couldn’t be said of some of the other places later in our visit.

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After some tea and cake (how very British), we walked back along the riverside and then took the cable car that takes you along the riverside, harbour and to the aquarium. The views were great and took us over some gardens we would look at later.

After landing we discovered another couple of gardens we’d not seen before, beginning with the exciting water gardens: the long cascade was superb.

Taking in a space dominated by tall palm trees, a lovely rill and curious camel (only a full size replica), we ventured to a terraced garden that seemed promising. How disappointing to see the lack of maintenance on this splendid location especially the water gardens at its very top, which were empty and obviously neglected. The rest of the gardens looked reasonably tidy, but once the whole ensemble must have been brilliant. Maybe this is one example of how austerity has hit the country? Unfortunately, we found further evidence of this, such a shame for what was once a great emblem of the country’s investment in its future.

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For our next and final visit was to those gardens we’d seen from above, along the the riverside. I remember these gardens being a series of themed spaces, all I think, with some water features. Again we were initially disappointed to see the wooden bridge entrance closed due to safety risks and other areas, though accessible, were decidedly run down with hard landscaping in need of repair in various spots. The planting, however, seemed to be lush and varied, and passing the area a day or two later I saw piles of timber and other materials stacked, ready for use, so maybe some (overdue) repairs were about to happen.

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Despite the disappointment, I tried to understand the public investment challenges facing the country and overall, feel this modern day playground- apparently hugely popular with Lisbon livers- is still a great addition to the city’s green spaces.

Old School Gardener

An extract from a rather lovely painting in the Gulbenkian museum, Lisbon

An extract from a rather lovely painting in the Gulbenkian museum, Lisbon

A further day out in Lisbon on our recent trip to Portugal saw us making the most of ‘free entry’ day (Sunday), to museums and other places of interest.

To the north of the capital there is a cluster of places that are well worth a visit. We emerged from the metro at ‘Parque’ station to tumble into the splendid ‘Edward VII Park’ (named in honour of the former British monarch), with its long sloping parterre giving fabulous views of downtown Lisbon and the River Tagus beyond. This is the place- specifically the balcony by the tumbledown fountain’s where tourists come for a memorable shot of the city. And on our latest trip there were plenty of ‘selfie’ snappers in evidence, along with the long-standing row of market stalls selling all manner of cheap souvenirs. This is also the place that newly-weds come for their wedding shots, and it reminded me of when our daughter and her new husband did just that 5 years ago.

I’d discovered that nearby there were supposed to be some ‘estufas’ (hot houses), so we moved on. Sure enough, we came upon the massive shaded roof (of the cooler house) and then the expanse of glass that presumably housed the heat-loving collection.

What a find! Some parts of the hottest house were closed, but we managed to see some amazing cacti and other succulents. But the cool house, with its range of mature planting, all set within the walls of an old quarry, was truly superb. There was some floral colour, as well as some fun sculptures placed among the plants, but the real joy were the range and combinations of lush foliage beautifully laid out around pools and other water features.

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From here were rose further up the slope from the main park to another news place for us- an interesting, more contemporary park laid out in honour of the great Portuguese fado singer, Amalia Rodriguez. Curving grass terraces give way to a round, fountained pool surrounded by bog planting over which a boardwalk allows you to get up close and personal.

From here we fell once more, this time towards an old favourite, the Gulbenkian Foundation with its lovely surrounding gardens.

Stopping off at the Modern Art Centre for a quick lunch (very good value) and look at the exhibits, we then strode through the gardens. These are notable for the unified design which hinges on the movement through a series of small-scale spaces, with contrasting light and shade afforded by the many mature trees and shrubs. The other notable feature is the use of simple rectangles of (mainly) concrete to create a route which both moves you through the gardens (including subtle changes in level) and invites you to pause and sit or just people-watch. A clever design whichI found very pleasing to be within once more. And this time we also discovered the building which contains a cafe and some interpretation of the garden, including a fun interactive ‘design’ game where you can colour in different views of the gardens and then email these to yourself or anyone else, for that matter!

Of course, no visit here would be complete without a tour through the main museum, which houses the Armenian oil-tycoon’s collection of historic and artistic objects from around the world. I was especially pleased to see examples of art works by J.M.W.Turner and the French craftsman Lalique as well as some amazing illuminated books and oriental ceramics. Here are some pictures of some of my favourite things…

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All in all, a fantastic no low cost day out!

Old School Gardener

WP_20150814_16_59_40_ProOur trip north to Coimbra in Portugal meant that apart from looking into that ancient capital, we could stop off at a few places to and from it. I’ve already shared my experiences of the roman capital, Conimbriga, which we toured on our way back to Lisbon. But we also had time to visit the equally interesting town of Tomar, further south in the area of the Beiras.

After finding our way through the crowded streets to a convenient car park, we made the ascent to the ancient Convento Cristo- one more World Heritage Site, closely associated with the Knights Templar (of crusade fame, or is it infamy?) as well as the Jesuits who also made this place their HQ a few hundred years later. This was an impressive place, rugged and without much greenery apart from an impressive box parterre in one of the cloisters. Outside, its massive castle-like hulk looms over the town.

After our visit we headed back down for an afternoon tea and cake (as usual) and watched children chasing pigeons in the town square. We had a few minutes to spare before we needed to leave so we hunted down what the guide book described as a very interesting Synagogue. It turned out to be a delightful find- and also free to enter!

We were greeted by a young, chatty lady who was delighted to speak to us in English about this medieval place- the oldest in Portugal. She spoke of horrific tales of persecution her forbears suffered here- including two jews burned alive a few hundred years ago. She herself and an older volunteer also shared more recent tales of having to keep their religion secret; once more for fear of persecution. But today the synagogue is one of the area’s most attractive places to visit, all run on good will, donations and loans, including an impressive piece of religious furniture from London. They were keen for us to sign their visitors book and we could see that many more people, of many different nationalities, had visited that day.

WP_20150814_17_49_35_ProThey were obviously proud of their heritage and we were privileged to share it with them.

We visited this wonderful, historic abbey on the way north to Coimbra. It was built by one of Portugals’ earliest Kings as a gift in return for victory in a battle- hence the name, which literally means ‘Battle’. Several of Portugals kings are buried here, including Henry ‘the Navigator’.

Old School Gardener

WP_20150814_11_38_42_ProCoimbra, the second capital of Portugal (succeeded by Lisbon), is a fascinating place. Apart from some lovely river side parks and an historic centre, it has Portugal’s oldest University, which is perched on top of the steep hill at the centre of the old town, from where it dominates both the skyline and overall impression of the town. It also has university students who, as elsewhere in Portugal, wear long black cloaks over black suits and white shirts; very much in the style of Harry Potter and Co. (or should that be the other way around?).

We paid an interesting visit to the University, especially its OTT baroque library and other grand rooms (no photography allowed), which testify to its ancient past. We also had a lovely evening meal overlooking the river and paced our way through the city streets, including falling on an unusual fountain garden which was originally part of an adjacent religious centre and put together by one of Portugal’s’ most famous sculptors…

On the morning of our last day we also paid the Botanical Gardens a visit and these, like others I’ve visited elsewhere in the country, have an impressive range of mature trees, shrubs and other plants.

I found this tree fascinating; not sure of what it is, but it has developed a useful technique of growing its own buttresses as it extends its branches...

I found this tree fascinating; not sure of what it is, but it has developed a useful technique of growing its own buttresses as it extends its branches…

It was encouraging to see the major glasshouse in the course of regeneration and the novel introduction of an adventure trail with close supervision as you (not me!) slide your way around and between the many very tall trees.

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Old School Gardener

WP_20150814_13_52_49_ProAs you may have picked up, I’ve been in Portugal again  recently. As well as visiting some old favourites, we ventured north to the old capital of the country, Coimbra (more on this in later posts), and on our way back to Lisbon stopped off at a wonderful historical site called Conimbriga. This site, a few miles south of Coimbra, was the Romans’ capital while they were here in Portugal, some two millenia ago.

OK, I know that this blog is supposed to be about gardens and gardening. But I occasionally feature something that is only loosely connected (if at all), just to add a bit of variety. And in truth, there is a link to gardening here, as you’ll see later.

This extensive site displays the bones of an important Roman settlement and includes some sensitive reconstruction to help you get the scale and proportions of the place- the recreation of the Forum is particularly impressive.

And the other immediately remarkable thing is the wealth of mosaic floors on show, some open to the air, others carefully protected under a large sheltering canopy.

But the really noteworthy feature- well I think so- is the re-creation of the Fountain Gardens, including (for 50 cents a go) the chance to see the way the fountains might have embellished this calm, sheltered space set amid the bustle of the wider settlement.

After touring the open site, it was something of a relief (from the sun) to get inside the nearby Museum, which helps add further interpretation to the site and houses a range of beautiful artefacts discovered here.

Old School Gardener


Fountain in front of the Monastery Geronimos, Belem, Lisbon, Portugal. A place I've been several times, but can't remember the fountain ever being in operation!

Fountain in front of the Monastery Geronimos, Belem, Lisbon, Portugal. A place I’ve been several times, but can’t remember the fountain ever being in operation!

WP_20150810_13_00_34_ProOn my latest trip to Portugal, I was thinking there must be another classic garden to visit in the mountain hideaway of Sintra. But having checked, it seems I’ve been to all of them, and if you’re interested you can see them in my series ‘Portuguese Gardens’.

But there remained a lingering doubt (or was it hope?), that there must be an historic garden somewhere close. Looking at the Lisbon map, and planning our days out, it stood out in that large green lung that is the Monsanto Park: the Palace of the Marquesas Fronteira.

This classic house, originally built in 1670 as a hunting lodge in what was then the rolling, wooded hills of northern Lisbon, is still lived in by the current Marquis and his family, so the house is only partly open to visitors (via a very informative 45 minute guided tour). Today, the views are of the sprawling Lisbon suburb of Benfica, including the red-arched Estadio da Luz, home to that famous football team of the district. About 100 years after its inception, after the infamous Lisbon earthquake had destroyed his main home, the then Marquis decided to extend his hunting lodge and make this palace home.

WP_20150810_12_52_39_ProAfter being asked if we’re mind waiting for a later house tour (to enable the rest of the party to benefit from the French version), I had a little wander into this compact, but interest-filled garden. And I went round again after hearing about and seeing some sumptuous interiors.

The centre-piece, especially as viewed from the upstairs rooms of the house as well as the high terrace overlooking the formal pool, is a rather intricate box parterre, where the shapes are closely edged, leaving what seems to be an impossibly narrow gap between the bushes: still the gardener seems to manage somehow.

This impressive feature was only partly filled with a selection of roses, and though traditional, I find the combination of close-clipped box and rather more unruly roses not as satisfying as when the enclosed beds contain slightly shorter plants that themselves have a rather more symmetrical form, e.g. lavender or perhaps catmint.

The elevated terrace with its display of sculptures of Portuguese kings surrounded by metallic-glazed tiles, is also very satisfying to walk along and gaze from, including downwards to a well-stocked carp and goldfish pool, with a lone, and rather aggressive black swan! I could picture this pool being the centre of 18th century fun and games, with rowing boats taking important guests from one little grotto to another, deftly avoiding the fountains of water (which today at least, were not in operation).

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Nearby is a rather more naturalistic garden with tall trees and what must be at other times beautiful borders of hydrangea and agapanthus (I took the opportunity of gathering some seed heads of the latter). The walls of this area and indeed the rest of the garden, are beautifully tiled with traditional, if rather simply designed tiles, or azulejos, plus a vivid blue paint, the latter beautifully setting off fresh green foliage.

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There is also a rather lovely terrace with immediate access to and from the first floor of the palace, with another impressive array of classically-inspired sculpture, leading to another large grotto, this one covered inside with the broken pieces of crockery and other shattered ceramics, apparently some coming from the plates used at the Palace’s inauguration, and smashed to commemorate the event!

Similar in style to other Portuguese palaces and gardens of the time, Fronteira is nonetheless well worth a trip, especially for the way our guide brought it to life.

Further information:

Fronteira Palace website

Gardens and Landscapes of Portugal

Old School Gardener

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