Living Museums

Behind the gates of Madrid’s secret, historical gardens

21 March 2019

Our city gardens are something to be treasured dearly, with so many being lost over the years. Hundreds of grassy nooks and micro orchards have become victim to our ever-expanding metropolis, leaving those that remain with an almost mythical status.

The traditional Spanish garden with its gravel pathways and rigid lines of dusty hedges initially struck me as rather austere when I first moved here, but I’ve grown to adore spending a quiet moment under the flickering shade of a fig or orange tree, listening to water gurgling in a fountain, while breathing in the aromatic scent of Mediterranean plants – just as others have done for far longer than we might realise.

GARDENS BUILT BY THE ROMANS AND THE ARABS

The earliest landscaped gardens in Spain were built by the Romans. Often inside spacious courtyards, bordered by colonnades that not only provided shade for vegetation, but also cool air for the surrounding house in summer. This simple idea for natural air conditioning proved so effective that variations on this style of architecture continue to be popular, with many buildings containing an inner courtyard or bare central well that remains shady throughout the day.

Neat rows of trimmed hedges that could survive the harsh summers, were another element introduced in Roman times. These were typically built around water features, that became ever more complex when the Moors arrived in Spain bringing with them impressive engineering skills that summoned forth dancing fountains, technology that the invading Christians were unable to replicate.

FOLIAGE

As mentioned earlier, the Romans introduced hedges, while the Arabs were responsible for adding aromatic plants, such as jasmine and lavender, to the mix. Orange and lemon trees were also encouraged in Arabic times, though sadly the former do not seem to thrive in Madrid’s climate, a pity because orange blossom is one of my favourite scents! In the 16th century many species were introduced from overseas. Phillip II introduced English oaks, while other varietals, such as the ahuehuete tree, arrived from the Americas.

CHANGING TRENDS

The 16th century saw a renaissance influence come into effect with Italian fountains and fantastical topiary introduced into the gardens of the aristocracy. Since then fads and fashions in gardening have waxed and waned, with some of the country’s wealthiest people at one time spending fortunes on irrigating English style gardens complete with green water-guzzling lawns for themselves. Now grass is less of a luxury and lawns can be seen all over the city, lawns which, despite the sprinklers running each night, get increasingly dusty as the summer bakes the grass dry. The traditional Spanish garden by contrast, with its hardier foliage, remains green throughout the summer. Here are a few to enjoy within the city:

HISTORICAL GARDENS IN MADRID

LOPE DE VEGA’S GARDEN

Located round the back of the Casa de Lope de Vega Museum, this is one of the oldest gardens in the city. In the 17th century, the house was located outside the city walls in a verdant area that is still known as Huertas; a name that means kitchen garden in Spanish. Lope de Vega affectionately called his own little garden his huertecillo because artichokes, asparagus and herbs for his kitchen all flourished here. It’s said that the famous playwright loved to recharge his batteries here after a long day working at his desk.

Though you need to book yourself in for a tour to see the house, visitors are free to wander into the garden from the street.

JOAQUÍN SOROLLA’S GARDEN

The famous impressionist Joaquín Sorolla adored the intimate spaces of the Arabic-style gardens surrounding the Alcázar and Alhambra in Granada, so when it came to designing his own gardens, he took his inspiration from these. The gardens are notable not only for their beautiful tiles and bubbling fountains, but also for their gorgeous colours that reflected the palate of the painter himself.

While you have to pay to enter the Museo de Sorolla, anyone can wander into these gardens and spend a quiet contemplative moment here.

JARDÍN DEL PRINCIPE DE ANGLONA

While this garden was remodelled in 1920, it was done so in keeping with the style of the original version, retaining brick paths that were laid back in the mid-1700s. Again, an Andalusian and Roman influence can be seen in its fountains and low hedges, while a rose trellis betrays a classical influence.

A lovely shady spot open to visitors wandering in off the street, the garden contains fig, almond, pomegranate and strawberry trees. It’s located at the bottom-most end of Plaza de la Paja.

MADRID’S ‘ILLEGAL’ GARDENS

Fast forward to today, and a new type of garden is growing. Guerilla gardens such as this one in Lavapiés have been popping up all over Madrid since the recent crisis – people have been reclaiming disused land for use as public space by planting trees and vegetables.

The cactus garden

These formerly illegal gardens were and often still are met with strong disapproval, but the battle is slowly being won. With permission finally granted by the town hall, the concept is beginning to gain traction throughout the city.

THE SECRET FACTORY GARDEN

And there’s one more secret garden that very few have ever been able to access. Hidden deep within the grounds of Madrid’s old tobacco factory lives an isolated ecosystem – a real-life urban jungle that’s been cut off from the city for the best part of a decade.

The doors to the secret garden

Art Deco doors to the secret garden

The trees have grown tall and wide, interlocking together to create an almost impenetrable canopy, which captures the sunlight to feed the bulging roots that have begun to lift this decaying building.

Overgrowth in the secret garden

An old, broken clock in the secret garden

A tree inside the secret garden


This article was written in collaboration with published author Felicity Hughes of The Making of Madrid. Felicity can often be found digging through the Madrid archives for her history blog, which aims to explain how the events throughout Madrid’s past have made it what it is today.

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