The Garden Guide

Book: History of Garden Design and Gardening
Chapter: Chapter 3: European Gardens (500AD-1850)

Best gardens in Spain

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Jardin del Monasterio de El Escorial, Palacio de Aranjuez, La Granja de San Ildefonso 501. In the beginning of the seventeenth century, under the reign of Philip IV., were laid out the finest gardens in Spain. These are the gardens of the Escurial in Madrid, of Ildefonso in its neighbourhood, and of Aranjuez near Toledo. Evelyn, in 1667, being anxious to receive some account of them, writes to the Earl of Sandwich, then the English ambassador at Madrid, who answers him in such a way that Evelyn was 'exceedingly affected with the descriptions, and greatly instructed in many particulars.' The gardens of the Escurial adjoin the palace, from which you descend to them by vast terraces and stairs of marble, varied by fountains. The garden, or rather park, below, is of great extent, and the compartments formed by the intersection of the alleys are filled with different sorts of fruit trees. This is the general outline; and for the details of the statues, fountains, trellis-work, basins, &c., we must refer the reader to Thompson's Description of the Escurial, or the art. Escurial, in the Encyc. Brit. The Escurial is in a wild and gloomy situation: there is no town or city nearer to it than Madrid, a distance of thirty-four miles. The terraces and gardens contain nothing remarkable. Ildefonso, and La Granja are the same. The palace was built by Philip V. Among the fountains are two remarkable ones with statues. The one representing Fame seated on Pegasus, raises a jet to the height of 132 feet: the other, called Plazuela de los ocho Calles, consists of eight fountains, which unite, and form a beautiful and chaste temple of the Ionic order, adorned by columns of white marble, (Inglis's Spain in 1830) The garden of Ildefonso is situated around a summer-house, or chateau de plaisance, of that name; and here nature and art, says P. Caimo (Lettres d'un Vago Italiano, &c.), combine to spread their respective beauties, and render this garden as magnificent as agreeable. Fountains, jets d'eau, canals, temples, covered seats, cabinets, bowers, grottoes, labyrinths, pastures, hedges of myrtle and laurel, are so distributed as to produce the best effect. The water is collected in streams from the surrounding mountains, and made to unite in a torrent which precipitates itself into an immense reservoir. Hence, from this abundant source, the fountains are as powerful as numerous, and no species of artificial ornament is omitted that can embellish a garden. The alleys are very long, some of them three fourths of a league. Most of them are kept shorn on the sides, forming a thick close surface from the ground to the summits of the trees, and statues are placed at regular distances. The garden of Ildefonso occupies a ridge, rising to the south, and falling both to the east and to the west. Near the palace it is laid out in the old taste, with clipped hedges and straight walks, highly adorned and refreshed with numerous fountains; but in proportion to the distance it becomes more wild, till it terminates in the uncultivated and pathless forest, where the craggy rocks appearing among oaks and pines, present a striking contrast with the works of art. This garden, Townsend observes, is delightful for its walks, which, although shady, are neither damp nor gloomy; and if it be true that beauty is founded on utility, this place will always deserve to be admired. In the present day, it is not uncommon to build the mansion in the middle of a field, open and exposed to every wind, without shelter, without a fence, wholly unconnected with the garden. Near the habitation all is wild; and art, if any where, appears only at a distance. In all this we can trace no utility, nor will succeeding generations discover beauty. On the contrary, in the garden of Ildefonso, we find every thing which in a sultry season is desirable; a free circulation of air, a deep shade and refreshing vapours to abate the heat; while, from its contiguity to the mansion, the access to it is easy, and at any time these comforts may be instantly enjoyed; yet without their numerous fountains, the clipped hedges, and the narrow walks, the circulation would be less rapid, the shade less deep, and the refreshing vapour would be wanting. (Townsend's Travels in Spain, vol. i. p. 360.) The gardens of Ildefonso, or La Granja, La Gasca tells us, are considered by many persons to be superior to those of Versailles; and what renders them most delightful, he observes, is their fine stately woods of lime, oak, elm, black poplar, aspen, horse-chestnuts, and other forest trees. The walks through these are completely shaded during summer, and the air is agreeably cooled both by the cascades of water which fall from the elevated summits of the high grounds, and by the diversified play of the numerous fountains. These circumstances, taken in connection with the natural beauty of the situation, render the whole a most enchanting spot. There is a kitchen-garden belonging to this residence, and various nurseries for propagating fruit and forest trees; the latter for the purpose of replacing the decayed plants of the gardens, and for giving away as presents. There is also a flower-garden, in which are cultivated various species of saxifrage, anemone, and ranunculus, which, being peculiar to cold climates, cannot be cultivated in the other royal grounds, nor even at Madrid. There also is the Erythronium Dens canis, and other northern bulbs. Among the culinary vegetables and fruit for the royal household are the red and common cabbage, broccoli, French beans without strings, lettuce, &c. Of fruits, there are the strawberry, raspberry, currant, and gooseberry; with many sorts of pear, apple, and plum, which deserve to be particularly noticed, on account of their fine qualities, and of the time they are in season. The royal gardens of Aranjuez, La Gasca tells us, are extensive and diversified. They are situated in a beautiful and fertile plain, through the middle of which flows the rapid Tagus. The charms of Aranjuez are of quite a different kind from those of La Granja. The latter would have been beautiful if the aid of art had never been sought; but the former would never have been noticed if the wealth of the kings of Spain had not been employed to make it a spot worthy of a palace. It is, however, well irrigated, and the woods are remarkable for nightingales. The gardens in 1830 were in the most perfect order. (Inglis's Spain in 1830.) Of the palace and gardens of Aranjuez, Baretti observes (Tour in 1776, vol. ii.), 'that a poet would say, that Venus and Love had here consulted with Catullus and Petrarch, in order to construct a country residence worthy of Psyche, of Lesbia, of Laura, or of some infanta of Spain.' The park, which is several leagues in circumference, is intersected by alleys, three and even four miles in length; these alleys are formed of double rows of elms, and are sufficiently wide for four carriages to drive abreast. On each side, between the rows of trees, is a canal kept clear by a continual stream which passes through it. This water has contributed to render the trees of an enormous size and thick verdure from top to bottom. The compartments, or islands, formed by the alleys and the canals, are covered with copse, and occupied with deer, wild boars, hares, rabbits, pheasants, partridges, and other wild animals and birds, which are regularly fed by certain shepherds or attendants, and have incredibly multiplied. This park, like the garden of Eden, is divided by a river (the Tagus); and, what is remarkable and prince-like, it is without surrounding walls, but verges into an open hilly country. The palace is near the centre of the park, on the margin of the river, and both banks are united by a bridge of five arches. In front of the palace is an immense circular level lawn, ornamented with four trees in its centre. On the whole, according to Baretti's description, this must have been the finest park in the old style in the world.