|Alentejo Day trip May 15 2012|
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On a day which turned out to be probably the hottest of the year so far in southern Portugal, a group of Mediterranean Garden Society and Jardineiros do Sotavento garden enthusiasts set off from the Algarve for a day trip to the Alentejo region. Confusion by the bus company meant that the group was only half the number originally planned, but in the spirit of the Dunkirk small boats, members embarked on their journey in a convoy of assorted cars.
The first stop was to Lugar do Olhar Feliz, near Cercal. This impressive garden surrounds a newly-built villa on the site of an old Portuguese farm, with far-reaching views over the spectacular Alentejo countryside. Arriving somewhat later than planned gave the group the opportunity to hear the carillon being played at midday whilst they consumed a much-needed picnic lunch in the welcome shade of the terrace.
Owners Ann and Jean-Paul explained that their garden was planned on sensory principles – plants would only be grown if they were either edible, scented, or made a pleasing noise (hence the carillon!). Braving temperatures approaching 40c, the group then toured the garden, which was divided up into a number of discrete areas. The rose walk had an extensive range of highly-scented varieties, all of which were procured from either France or the UK (mainly David Austen). The Citrus garden offered a number of rare species, including different types of limes, and one with fruit which are highly-prized by the Japanese. The visual senses were rewarded by white and blue colour-themed areas, whilst palms rustling in the wind enhanced the auditory experience. Whilst not based on dry gardening principles, the plant collection offered a number of ideas that could be applied to the Algarve.
Garden Description – Lugar de Olhar Feliz by Tamsin Varley
“Entry to the gardens is through immense iron gates set in a bold, no nonsense wall embellished with curves and scrolls and then along a long, sweeping driveway unusually planted with carob trees. I wondered at the choice of tree for the avenue as think driving along a road lined with mature carobs might be a dark and rather forbidding experience? The house is a cross between a Portuguese Quinta and a French Chateau, and is located at the highest point of the land. Our group gathered at the front of the house where there was a bed full of large dark red Phormiums in full flower. We then walked to the rear of the house onto an immense terrace which had two small beds of palms and Strelitzias. At this point, we all dispersed for lunch and we ended up under some much needed shelter by the pool which was surrounded by flower beds full of a wide variety of succulents.
After lunch, we all reconvened on the back terrace for a background talk about the gardens. We were amazed to discover that the lush looking gardens are just 10 years old. Jean-Paul’s basic philosophy is that a plant with no taste or smell has no business in his garden. He is also trying to bring together all the fruits from around the world (from temperate to tropical) to form a collection that will acclimatise to the Alentejo conditions. The style of his garden is Iberian Moorish with many white walls and tiles, symmetry and plenty of irrigation – thus bucking the current trend for dry gardening. His irrigation methods are very modern, and I personally think he’s missed a trick by not using regulated Moorish inspired rills and pools in at least some areas.
Linking the pool to one side of the house is a white painted pergola some 80 metres in length. Jean-Paul explained that the top of it was actually sloping from one side to the other to give the illusion of it being level. Apparently, if you actually have the top level, then the middle will look as it is bending inwards. The pergola is home to an immense rose garden – the flowers being various shades of pink and white. Apart from roses scrambling up the pillars, there were also a variety of grape wines and some wisteria with numerous spent flower heads which must have been a splendid sight at their peak. In the flower beds along the pergola, there were a huge variety of plants – many fruit and vegetables such as potatoes, garlic and strawberries as well as flowers and shrubs as diverse as hydrangeas and Acanthus mollis (Bear’s Breeches). Along the length of the pergola were tempting tiled seats set against white walls inlaid with pastel pink and blue floral tile panel pictures. About half way along the pergola a small gate away from the house leads to a cactus and succulent garden – all edible, of course! We duly admired prickly pears and various Agaves from which you could make a variety of alcohols including beer and tequila.
From the pergola, we walked through a small maze of paths set at right angles to each other and housing symmetrical beds of Acca sellowiana, (Pineapple Guava) a small tree from South America in the Myrtle family which has beautiful large pink petalled flowers surrounding a central bunch of long crimson stamens. Beds with espalier apple trees and more vegetables lead to the terrace below the house. Here we followed the path by an immense water tank on one side whose inky waters provide irrigation for the gardens and keep the house cool. The other side was lined by trimmed hedges of Cestrum nocturnum (imagine the scent when they’re in flower !) and some very unusual citrus bushes including Citrus medica var. sarcodactylis or the Buddha’s Hand. This purports to originate from north East India and has large yellow fruits segmented into finger-like sections. The thick rind can be candied but its main use is as a room freshener as it has a strong lemon aroma. At the far end of the water tank is a topiary delight of pomegranates – a pruned low rectangular hedge from which explode four standards pruned into lollipops.
From this terrace we could look down into three different colour schemed gardens – a classic white Moorish style garden with a pond in its centre flanked by a blue and a red garden theme either side, which we would return to later. We walked straight through the white garden and into a long rectangular area shaded by coconut palms. Here, many different vegetables and herbs were grown in neat rows including the invasive Glycyrrhizza glabra, a legume from which liquorice is extracted from the roots. From here we crossed a cobbled drive to a series of terraces where many different citrus trees grew along with bold borders of cannas which added bright colour to the sombre green foliage background. Some of the more unusual trees included Cistus x hystrix (the kaffir or makrut lime) whose distinctive double leaves are used in Asian cooking, the Limequat which is a cross between the kumquat and the key lime, and Citrus x meyeri (Meyer Lemon) thought to be a cross between a lemon and either a mandarin or orange.
As time was getting on, we rapidly retraced our steps back to the main water tank and then headed south between pruned Myrtus communis hedges to a small amphitheatre where plays are sometimes held, which was surrounded by yet more citrus trees and some unusual and eye catching white flowering Callistemon. We passed by more fruit and vegetable areas and ended up in the pomegranate and finger lime collection which are planted with a mulch of black pebbles with white paving paths. Citrus australasica or finger limes have unusual fruits the size of a finger which exude masses of tiny caviar like spheres in shades ranging from yellow to green to orange and red which are becoming very popular in gourmet cooking.
Due to time constraints, sadly, we had to bypass the small tropical garden. Instead, we revisited the colour themed gardens en route back to the cars. We started with the blue garden which was in the throes of a radical over haul. All that was left from before were some large Ceanothus shrubs with their powder blue flowers. The white garden is very tranquil and has an intimate and relaxing atmosphere – it was probably my favourite area of all. Here tall, thin Cupressus sempervirens added exclamation marks to the symmetrical flower beds full of white flowered daisies and the strongly scented Philadlephus (mock orange) surrounding the central pool. Perfumed white roses and a rambling Jasminum species clambered up the terrace walls. Our final port of call was the red garden with its vibrant tiling. This was very shaded and cool due to large mature trees, which I didn’t identify. Beneath them were planted a mixture of Fuschias, red geraniums, Dianthus and red roses to name but a few of the plants.” http://olharfeliz.typepad.com/
Reluctantly departing Olhar Feliz, the group then was keen not to miss out on a spending spree, and piled into the Espaco Sudoeste garden centre near Vila Nova de Milfontes to buy-up a range of orchids, succulents, climbers and other plants that can be difficult to find in the Algarve. The rarely seen Vitex purpurea trifolia (Arabian Lilac) tree with lovely grey green purple foliage was available and more than one found it’s way back to the Algarve. Bruno gave us a warm welcome and had extended his morning opening hours to make our visit possible. http://espacosudoeste.blogspot.pt/
Lastly, the group drove to Yves Crouzet’s Bambuparque, where a shady bamboo-lined avenue and cold refreshments were waiting to welcome us to the 100 Ha. estate specialising in producing bamboos ranging from dwarf to giant varieties. The plantation employs over 40 people producing plants in various sizes, bamboo canes, and bamboo shoots – notably for the Pandas of Madrid Zoo ! Large plant specimens are highly prized by garden designers and landscape architects, and demand has recently been increased from clients wanting fast-growing foliage to replace palms stricken with Red Palm Weevil. A number of participants were keen to re-visit in the autumn when planting in our own gardens would be more appropriate. Yves generously gave us a marvellous tour round his own garden showing the new planted areas and telling us his plans for the future, well worth a return visit to see progress. He is an enthusiastic and knowledgeable ambassador for this wonderful plant family. http://www.bambuparque.com/
All-in-all the trip was considered a considerable success and well worth a return visit for those unable to participate this time as a result of the transport challenges. A visit is planned for the winter months to see the citrus in fruit.
We are very grateful indeed to Jean-Paul and Ann, Bruno and Yves for their patience with the changes to our planned day, and also for their wonderful hospitality. Many thanks also to Tamsin Varley, Jane Claridge and Richard Hickman for their reports and photos.