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Architecture & design

Discovering Spain’s finest gardens

— March 2012

Article read level: Art lover

Associated media

San Segundo: This 3,000 square metre plot nestles in the north-eastern corner of Ávila’s city wall, which is a constant reference point throughout the garden. An octagonal pool reflects the sky, so that it shines like a diamond

Patricia Andrew glimpses unfamiliar horticultural delights

Two new books are aimed at both the general reader and the garden specialist. And very welcome they are too – numerous new books on gardens have been published in the last few years, but although dozens cover British, Italian and French gardens, those of Spain have been relatively neglected. Indeed, many of the gardens featured in these two publications are likely to be unfamiliar to both garden-lovers and horticultural historians.   

Our principal guide, Eduardo Mencos, is a Spanish garden designer and photographer. This isn’t his first foray into publishing by any means, although his only previous major publication in English is the excellent  Spain in Light and Shadow  (Frances Lincoln, 2007). That took us on a whirlwind tour of his country, showing us its dramatic contrasts, from mountain ranges to immense plains, maritime areas to inland deserts, wild country to cultivated plains, and misty green northern landscapes to dry southern Mediterranean heat.

Now Mencos narrows his sights, concentrating on what he knows best and in one year producing two books on Spanish gardens. There’s a sense of ‘catching-up’ in the developments that he records, and with good reason, for gardens in Spain have suffered from the country’s political circumstances for much of the 20th century. The Civil War was followed by a long period of horticultural lethargy, from which Spain is now recovering. This new vitality has been influenced by the many northern Europeans who have settled in the country, as well as the new wave of Spanish designers, with their bold and original ideas.

Great Gardens of Spain is a collaborative publication, with a clear descriptive text by Anneli Bojstad, a Swedish writer who provides a helpful foreigner’s view of the subject.  She first saw Spain over two decades ago, and ‘Like so many pilgrims to the fabled south, I was seduced by these marvellous spaces’. She notes the history and successive influences on garden styles: the Roman origins, the Moorish designs, the imports of American plants and trees, and the artistic 20th-century creations by designers such as Antonio Gaudi, the architect responsible for Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia.

The luscious photographs reveal 40 of Spain's most beautiful gardens, large and small, historic and contemporary, with a diversity of styles and planting reflecting the extremes of climate. Many gardens combine incredibly elaborate and playful box hedging (a dull green – sombre but capable of withstanding summer heat and drought) with startlingly bright flowers. The Mediterranean gardens emphasize water features, as a relief from the searing summer heat, while the cactus gardens of the Canaries boast astonishing shapes of plants, brilliant flowers, and black and red lava soil.

Heat is the main enemy in this country, but the winters can be bitingly cold. The snowy scenes of Segovia and Madrid lend an almost Russian appearance to those gardens with classical architecture.  By contrast, the ‘English’ gardens, incorporated as foreign designs into the gardens of the green north-west of Spain, enjoy a mild and damp climate, with sweeping lawns and irregularly-shaped lakes that could pass for British scenes. 

All these gardens are open to the public, and the book beckons the readers to visit in person. A helpful list of addresses and websites is provided, together with a map showing locations of the gardens, and a bibliography of both Spanish and English publications. 

By contrast, Hidden Gardens of Spain takes us to private gardens. Mencos has written the commentary himself this time, and it’s a very personal account. Each of the owners has welcomed him ‘into their own little Eden’, and he relates their conversations with him about gardens that have been rescued, developed or created. 

He has attempted to choose examples of gardens from all over the country, especially those created within the last few years (though he admits failure with the Basque country – ‘It seems that gardening is another victim of terrorism’).  Again, there is a mix of historic and contemporary gardens, and we dash about from Galicia to Granada, Barcelona to the Balearics, Catalonia to the Canaries, Madrid to Mallorca. And again, a map is provided, but no contact details this time, for only by reading the book can you see these horticultural jewels.

Great Gardens of Spain  by Anneli Bojstad, Photographs by Eduardo Mencos is published by Frances Lincoln, 2011. 256pp., 250 colour illus. ISBN: 9780711226715

Hidden Gardens of Spain  by Eduardo Mencos is published by Frances Lincoln 2011. 160 pp.,  250 colour illus. ISBN: 9780711229921


Patricia Andrew
Art historian

Media credit: From Hidden Gardens of Spain

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