Tag Archive: moorish

IMG_0788Our 2014 September visit to Portugal featured some interesting new places, including three wonderful gardens. The first I’m featuring was a visit to the home of wealthy ex pat Brits when it was established over a century ago. Monserrate sits in the mountains north-west of Lisbon in the regal suburb of Sintra.

The website which covers many of the Sintra garden gems describes Monserrate gardens and its palace as:

‘..one of the most beautiful architectural and landscape Romantic creations in Portugal… unique representatives of 19th century eclecticism.The Palace combines gothic and Indian influences as well as Moorish suggestions together with exotic and plant motifs which are harmoniously extended to the exterior. The gardens have received species from all corners of the world, which were planted according to their geographical origin. The front lawn of the Palace provides a well-deserved rest, while discovering one of the richest Portuguese botanical gardens.’

It was built in 1858 for Sir Francis Cook, an English baronet who had amassed a fortune as a trader and textile baron and was created Visconde de Monserrate by King Luis. Cook turned to an English architect, James Knowles jr. for the house design. He took inspiration from the many countries Cook had dealings with and also the flamboyantly oriental Royal Pavilion in Brighton, England, built for the Prince Regent, later Goeorge IV over 50 years earlier. I loved the round tower and proportions of the palac, the use of reflected light under the wide eaves with subtle creamy and terracotta hues to create a lovely warm glow. The rich decoration is a generally successful blending of eastern, moorish and gothic revival styles. Here are some pics of the house….

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Cook hired William Nevil as Botanical expert and landscaper. The project was completed within 5 years and was Cook’s summer residence. The entire estate was put up for sale in the 1920s by Cook’s great-grandson, and after many years of neglect was purchased by the state in 1949. Since then it has been open to the public as a national monument.

The English influence emanates throughout the gardens which have a romantic feel, especially as you wind your way along rough paths through shaded glades with waterfalls, pockets of sunlight and mock ruins, and eventually up to the rather more manicured lawn (the first laid in Portugal) that stretches away from the house down to the grounds. These also include specialist and exotic gardens with non-native plants from Cook’s personal collection. Here are some pics of the gardens and grounds…

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The Monserrate Palace is the smallest of Sintra’s three palaces but it is by far the most decorative – and beautiful-  and certainly captivated me, as did the winding and varied gardens – especially the Mexican Garden, some pics of which follow…

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It has taken 20 years to restore the gardens and the result was recognised in 2013 when they were voted the winner of the European Garden Awards in the category for “Historical parks”. In 1995 the park was recognised by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site as a part of several palaces and parks in Sintra. The citation for its latest award says:

‘Light and shadow, exotic and rare plants, winding paths and breath-taking views, but even new garden sections, such as the rose garden that was opened in the year 2011 by the Prince of Wales, make a visit to Monserrate, in spite of the many other wonderful parks in Portugal, a unique, fascinating and therefore “prize worthy” event.’

 IMG_0786Old School Gardener


By now we had settled into our week-long home in the mountains of Andalucia. We were even getting used to driving on the ‘wrong side’ of the road.

Today’s trip was to be our furthest afield, taking a couple of hours by motorway. It is a place I’ve wanted to visit for some time, principally because of the Mezquita (the former mosque) now the city’s  Cathedral- Cordoba.

Having found some parking we made our way into the city, even going past one of the old gates in the city walls, which said ‘you’ve arrived’. We stumbled upon a horse show in the buildings originally used to train up horses for the Spanish Royal family. After winding our way through the narrow streets we came out onto the banks of the River Guadalquivir and the stately old bridge which arrives at the edge of the Mezquita and other notable buildings. Later in the day we had a delightful ‘mooch’ around the old jewish quarter of the city and even found a couple of stylish patios (courtyards) which whetted my appetite for the spring festival that celebrates these – that will have to wait for another visit…..

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Andalucia.com describes the City:

‘Cordoba was founded by the Romans and due to its strategic importance as the highest navigable point of the Guadalquivir River, it became a port city of great importance, used for shipping Spanish olive oil, wine and wheat back to Ancient Rome. The Romans built the mighty bridge crossing the river, now called “El Puente Romano”. But Cordoba’s hour of greatest glory was when it became the capital of the Moorish kingdom of El-Andalus, and this was when work began on the Great Mosque, or “Mezquita”, which – after several centuries of additions and enlargements – became one of the largest in all of Islam.

When the city was reconquered by the Christians in 1236, the new rulers of the city were so awed by its beauty that they left it standing, building their cathedral in the midst of its rows of arches and columns, and creating the extraordinary church-mosque we see today.

As well as the unique mosque-cathedral, Cordoba’s treasures include the Alcazar, or Fortress, built by the Christians in 1328; the Calahorra Fort, originally built by the Arabs, which guards the Roman Bridge, on the far side of the river from the Mezquita, and the ancient Jewish Synagogue, now a museum. Cordoba’s medieval quarter, once the home of the Jewish community, is called “La Judería” (The Jewry), a labyrinth of winding, narrow streets, shady flower-filled courtyards and picturesque squares such as La Plaza del Potro. In early May, homeowners proudly festoon their patios with flowers to compete for the city’s “most beautiful courtyard” contest.’

 The Mezquita was undoubtedly the highlight of the day, its sheer size (both outside and in) taking my breath away. The inside was a fascinating and beautiful mix of Islamic and Christian symbols and art. The contrast between the relatively simple Islamic decoration and the gold-leaf splendour of the cathedral created within it was startling; and also evidence of the rather brutal way in which the Catholic church muscled in and sought to out do the evidence of Islam. This even extends into the large paved space outside- the original mosque wash basins set into the surface have been filled in and orange trees now fill them with their roots. It was the simpler, but exquisite architecture of the mosque that somehow left the most powerful impression on me, and which also probably appealed more to my own artistic taste…


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After this we took a tour around the royal palace (the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos), that sits nearby and is one of Cordoba’s major landmarks. Originally built in the 8th century as a caliphate residence, this complex of buildings and gardens reached major significance during the Middle Ages, when the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella lived there.

The Alcázar is a composition of massive fortress and royal palace and has some impressive water gardens; complete with statuary, topiarised Box and Yew, a series of arched fountains reminiscent of the Generalife in Granada, and some curious red flowers. I think they were some sort of Celosia but were quite tall and showing distinct evidence of fasciation– when a fault in the growing tip of the plant causes the stems and the flowers to flatten and become fan-like. Apparently some varieties of Celosia are raised especially for their dependably fasciated flower heads, for which they are called “cockscomb” …

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Rather numbed by the day’s series of wonderful sights, we made our way back along the motorway and mountain tracks and once more to another late night supper by the pool. Could we manage any more beauty on this scale?

Old School Gardener


It was our second full day. We left home along mountain tracks and soon found our way onto one of the very good motorways here. I guess it took us a little over an hour to reach our destination for the day, Granada. Deborah and I had been here before, some 9 years ago, visiting our daughter who was studying at the University. I was excited about returning, especially to see the Alhambra, which was one of the experiences that turned me on to garden design.

We spent the morning and early afternoon walking the streets. Oh, and took a rather disappointing open-topped bus ride of the city, which we’d done before, but this time it seemed to be a stagger from one traffic light to the next, amidst heavy traffic and which, I guess, lacked the novelty of that first trip. Still, a nice coffee in the precincts of the cathedral and a wander around the moorish quarter, including a wonderful lunch in a restaurant overlooking the Alhambra, all made for a good start to the day.

The afternoon began with the ascent to the main entrance to the Alhambra, where pre booked tickets are essential as the place gets very busy and you need to have a time slot for the most famous bit, the Nasrid Palace. Ours was for late afternoon so we had a few hours to take in the Generalife (the adjacent palace) and the rest of the Alhambra before the real treat. I seem to remember we didn’t get much of a look around the Generalife 9 years before, so today we began there and it was well worth spending more time amongst its wonderful gardens. Here are a few pictures…

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We wove our way through crowds towards the Alhambra and made it up to the castellated viewpoint of the Alcazaba, just in time to get to our allotted spot at the nearby Nasrid Palace. This consists of a series of interlocking rooms, chambers and courtyards or patios. It was worth the preamble.

As you enter the Palace you plunge into a room of near darkness, only to emerge into the dazzling light of the outside space. I’d forgotten how simple, peaceful and mystical the Patio of the Myrtles was, with its sheet of water and simple structural planting. I sat and took in the scene, which was rather like an outdoor cathedral- you know, even though there are people around and making noise, the space seems to dissipate and soften that so that it forms a sort of background murmur, almost of reverence?

The slow trickle of water from a fountain added to the ambience, quite a contrast to the rushing of the arched fountains in the Generalife (I’ll post a couple of videos comparing them in the next day or two). Here are some pictures of the outer Alhambra and the Nasrid Palace…

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The moorish ornamentation of the rooms and external walls is breathtaking in its complexity, but there is an overall harmony. The light is used cleverly to provide alternating experiences of rich, internal splendour and simpler, but equally impressive outside spaces. The Patio of the Lions was altogether grander and more ornamental in style, the sort of space you can imagine political deals being concluded under the loggia, perhaps having spent time meditating on these in the previous patio? From there we gradually ‘came down’ through simple, lush outside spaces which are more expansive, but still attractive; blocks of colourful planting beginning to re-engage you with the outside world of colour and noise.

Well, I got my ‘fix’. Our drive home was a little more eventful than our outward one, as we had both darkness and rain to contend with. But we rolled safely into the Cortijo and managed a late night supper (I think it must have been 11pm before we ate) round the pool. A quieter day tomorrow, perhaps?

Further information: Granada- Wikipedia

Old School Gardener

Paco de Sao Cipriano

Paco de Sao Cipriano

The latest meeting of the Norfolk Gardens Trust focused on historic Portuguese Gardens. Postponed from earlier in the year due to bad weather, the talk – which took place at Norwich’s John Innes Centre – was again delayed, this time due to travel problems!

I can say that it was well worth the wait. In a lively talk, gardening writer Helena Attlee explored a ‘cocktail’ of influences that have formed the typical historic portuguese garden. A fusion of historical, cultural and climatic factors has come together over the centuries, with the latest fashions and ideas in garden design being reinterpreted in the unique setting that is Portugal.

The country straddles the atlantic coast of Iberia and so its climate ranges from the warm and moist in the north to the near Mediterranean in the south, with the rocky outcrop of Sintra (just north of Lisbon) providing a microclimate that is particularly prone to damp air deposited from atlantic fronts. These climatic variations have clearly influenced the design and planting of gardens in the country, but arguably of greater impact has been the country’s historical development.

The Romans invaded in around 200 B.C. and stayed for around 500 years. Not surprisingly the gardens from this time show the features you’d expect of a roman garden – enclosed by a colonnade with a central water pool as the focus and with grand mosaics. Though even here, it seems that particularly Portuguese touches are evident – for example the curved niches and planting islands found in the pool of a reconstructed example of a roman garden at The House of Water Jets, in Conimbra.

Quinta da Bacalhoa - the Water tank

Quinta da Bacalhoa – the Water tank

Possibly the greatest influence on garden design came from the invasions of arabs and other peoples from north africa – the so-called ‘Moors’. Arriving in the 8th century and remaining for about 400 years they brought with them the traditions of brimming water tanks, high walls to enclose the garden and capture the exotic scents of citrus fruit as well as decorated ceramic tiles – otherwise known as ‘azulejos’ in Portuguese. These citrus trees – bitter oranges and lemons – were introduced from the Himalayas, and it was some centuries later that sweet oranges were introduced into Europe – possibly by the italians (from india), or possibly by the Portuguese (from China).  Interestingly, up until the 20th century sweet oranges were known across europe as ‘Portugals’.

Azulejos at Quinta dos Azulejos!

Azulejos at  Quinta dos Azulejos!

Azulejos began as geometric or botanical designs and used a technique which trapped the coloured glazes in ridged areas on the surface of the tiles – the so-called ‘aresta‘ technique. They were used extensively to cover walls of gardens and buildings. The moorish aesthetic is also evident in the later patterning of box parterres which are more complex than the patterns seen in the grand gardens of France, Italy or Holland.

Even though moorish rule of Portugal ended in the 12th century, many of the skilled craftsmen stayed on and continued to influence garden and house design in the following centuries. However it was not until the growth of Portuguese economic power in the 16th century (based on its exploration and discovery of new lands and leading to the founding of the valuable spice trade) that grand Portuguese gardens started to flourish. Design ideas also travelled from the far east and were absorbed into the Portuguese style of the time – this was when complex parterres, citrus groves and water tanks came into their own, alongside further developments in azulejos. Initially imported from southern Spain by King Manuel I,  the tiles now moved away from repeat patterns of geometrical or botanical themes to assemblies of individual tiles into grand tableaux of  mythical and amusing scenes. The arrival of a new technique – Maiolica’– meant that glazes, and so pictures, could be painted directly onto the tile surface.

Complex parterres at Quinta da Bacalhoa, a superb example of an early renaissance Poprtuguese garden

Complex parterres at Quinta da Bacalhoa, a superb example of an early renaissance Poprtuguese garden. The area beyond was originally an orange grove

Following a period of rule from Spain, Portugal again found its independence in the early 17th century and this heralded a new period of rich garden making, with Delft blue tiles becoming fashionable (the Delft factory had a production line just for Portugal) and the creation of cartoon-like scenes (known as singerie) featuring monkeys and cats mimicking humans in scenes such as going to the barbers and taking piano lessons!

During the 18th century new colonial ventures in Brazil resulted in discoveries of gold and diamonds which fuelled another period of wealth, which once more found expression in the country’s gardens and houses. This second ‘golden age’ put Portugal at the forefront of europe’s economic powers, such that King Juan V was the richest monarch in the continent and could afford to order a solid gold bath for his mistress (who happened to be a nun)!

The dramatic well stairway at the Quinta da Regaleira, typical of the design work of Mannini

The dramatic well stairway at the Quinta da Regaleira, typical of the design work of Manini

This period saw influences from the Italian baroque make their mark in Portuguese gardens. Architects and designers such as Nasoni and Manini added a new flamboyance to the gardens of the wealthy and the latter in particular brought an opera set designer’s skills to create magical spaces where the rich could entertain. Further developments in azulejos also occurred during this period, with new, brighter colours and styles arriving influenced by the French Rococo. Some of these were to provide amusing Trompe d’oeil (visual tricks). The tiled canal at the palace of Queluz is perhaps the zenith of the azulejo. Here, candlelit tableaux lined the walls of the waterway, along which royalty and aristocrats glided by in their gondolas on warm summer evenings.

Azulejos lining the canal at Palacio de Queluz

Azulejos lining the canal at Palacio de Queluz

The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 (and ensuing fires and tsunami) wrecked huge areas of the city and its surroundings and so few great houses and gardens of the time inn tht area remained intact. A period of austerity followed during which the country’s Prime Minister, the Marquess of Pombal, removed many of the privileges of the rich aristocracy. Many of the gardens that remained fell into disrepair and few new ones of any note were created.

'Camellia Architecture' at Casa do Campo

‘Camellia Architecture’ at Casa do Campo

During the 19th century a new fashion for Camellia growing was born, centred on Porto and the north of the country where the moist warm climate favoured them. There is much evidence of the splendour of these gardens still in existence today, the Camellia bushes being trained into architectural shapes and even into ‘outside rooms’ which remained in flower between November and March when little else in the garden was of interest. During this time the discovery of new plants in far away places had its impact in Portugal as elsewhere and exotic specimens from Brazil and other countries were imported to some important gardens, including by British emigres involved in the Port trade. Further romantic – style houses and gardens were created, such as Montserrate and the National Palace of Pena at Sintra.

Parque de Serralves

Parque de Serralves

Perhaps not surprisingly, the talk concluded with a single example of a 20th century grand garden (Parque de Serralves), a rather ‘minimalist’ affair  featuring simple clipped box topiary and no other colours but that of the pinkish terracotta of walls and paths and the sky blue tiles lining rills and pools. Another garden (Casa da Pergola in Cascais, near Lisbon), originally created in the 19th century with a house that was renovated in the 1920’s gives a rather more modest ‘cottage style’ example of some of Portugal’s more modern gardens.

Casa da Pergola, Cascais

Casa da Pergola, Cascais

From my own knowledge, the 20th and 21st centuries have seen investment in public gardens and parks, which in their own ways are as important as the grand palace gardens of the earlier periods. I’ll be posting some information on some of my favourites over the coming weeks.

So, how to sum up Portuguese heritage gardens?

Well, as you can see they have absorbed and interpreted fashions, styles and ideas from other cultures and with the particular climatic, social and cultural conditions in the country have made them something uniquely Portuguese. Apart from ‘oranges and azulejos’ the other characteristic features seem to be:

  • Terraces

  • Trough or cavity walls filled with plants

  • Water tanks

  • Topiary, especially complex parterres

As far as planting is concerned, this tends to follow the local climatic conditions so features roses, succulents, palms and colourful annuals , especially in the hotter centre/south, whereas ferns, exotics and of course Camellias are common in the warm, moist north and around Sintra.

A public garden in Braga, northern Portugal.

The Garden of Santa Barbara, a public garden in Braga, northern Portugal

Sources and other information:

‘The Gardens of Portugal’ by Helena Attlee (published by Francis Lincoln, 2008)

Gardenvisit- Portuguese gardens

Article by Helena Attlee

Sheila Sim photography gallery of Portuguese gardens

Old School Gardener

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