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Travel

Gardens in the sun

If the Mediterranean sun gets too much for you then why not cool down by enjoying one of the region’s many wonderful gardens. By Norman Wright

Sometime the summer sun that draws us to the Mediterranean can be a touch too powerful. So if you are baking on a Spanish beach or sweltering in an Italian or Greek city the antidote could be a peaceful garden, dappled by shade with fountains and waterfalls making you feel cooler.

There are gardens to visit near many of the most popular tourist destinations.

Here are a few gardens that Choice suggests are worthy of visiting if you are ready to relax and chill-out away from the hustle and bustle of towns and busy beaches. If you know of any other gardens you think fill the bill let us know and we will share them with readers.

Spain

Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos (Spanish for Castle of the Christian Kings), also known as the Alcázar of Córdoba, is located in the historic centre of Córdoba (in Andalusia, Spain), next to the Guadalquivir River and near the Grand Mosque.

It was both a fortress and royal palace, commissioned in 1328 by King Alfonso XI of Castile with several royal residents over the years and was also used by the Roman Governor. The palace and gardens is part of the historic Cordoba UNESCO World Heritage site.

The old Alcázar orchard has been transformed into magnificent gardens with forest species including palm, cypress, orange and lemon trees, which surround a number of elegant fountains and ponds. The gardens are structured on three levels: the upper garden, the middle garden and the lower garden.

The King’s Walk is a walk bordered by a line of cylindrical cypress trees and is also divided into two paths by two narrow ponds.

On this walk, there are several sculptures of the Kings who built the Alcázar, which are located on pedestals aligned between the hedges.

The Royal Palace of Aranjuez is a former Spanish royal residence located 30 miles south of Madrid in the town of Aranjuez, an easy day trip to escape from the heat of the capital.

It was used as the seat of government in the spring with the court moving around the country and returning to the capital Madrid in the winter. The Royal Palace and the surrounding gardens, including the El Príncipe, La Isla and El Parterre, have inspired artists and composers over the years

Next to the Palace, flanked by the Tajo River, is the La Isla Garden, considered the most important and typical of the Hapsburgs era (16th century). White marble nymphs adorn the staircase leading to this cool orchard, where queen Isabel II would go for walks.

A small gate opens on to El Parterre Garden, located in front of the Palace façade, with endless paths lined with geometrically-shaped hedges, following the French trend of the era.

You can also stroll through the El Príncipe Garden and its 370 acres provide a paradise of peace, designed in the English style of the 18th century. Among the many secrets hidden in this immense garden are a wide variety of trees, fountains, ponds and monuments.

Italy

The Giusti Palace and Garden is a short distance from Piazza Isolo and near the centre of Verona. The palace was built in the 16th century and the garden is considered one of the finest examples of an Italian garden.

The Italian Renaissance gardens were planted in 1580, a splendid park of terraces climbing up the hill. They include a parterre and hedge maze, and expansive vistas of the surrounding landscape from the terrace gardens.

The actual unifying layout of the garden parterres dates from the early 20th century. The maze was reconstructed after 1945.

The Giusti family, owner of the palace since the 16th century, was entitled by the Austro-Hungarian Emperor to change its original surname to ‘Giusti del Giardino’ because of the importance of the gardens.

The Boboli gardens are one of the greatest open-air museums in Florence that embraces another site of culture in Florence, the Pitti Palace. The park hosts centuries-old oak trees, sculptures, fountains and offers peaceful shelter from the warm Florentine sun in summer.

The Boboli gardens are a spectacular example of ‘green architecture’, decorated with sculptures, and inspired many European Royal gardens, in particular Versailles.

A steep sloping avenue heads back down the hill toward Porta Romana, with a series of terraces and tunnels formed by the trees and foliage offering shade and hidden corners to sit.

The Viottolone is a large avenue, flanked by cypresses and statuettes that leads all the way down to the Isolotto, the large pool begun in 1618. In the centre of the pond is the fountain called Ocean on the island, surrounded by three sculptures representing the great rivers of the Nile, Ganges and Euphrates.

Villa d’Este was built in 1550 for Cardinal Ippolito d'Este, the son of Lucrezia Borgia and Alfonso d’Este. It occupies a stretch of hillside below the town of Tivoli, a few miles to the east of Rome, with spectacular views over the plain towards the capital. Built around an earlier monastery, the building is lavishly decorated with frescoes, reliefs and internal fountains.

The most striking part of the Villa d’Este, however, is its garden; a terraced extravaganza of shady trees and fountains.

Subsequent cardinal-owners added to the gardens, which after a period of decay have been restored in recent decades.

The garden is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its significance in the history of garden design, and its fountains are famous worldwide.

Film fans will recognise many of the garden's features in the opening sequence of Three Coins in the Fountain.

A number of paths and steps lead down through the formal slopes to panoramas and fountains. The Rometta is a tribute to Rome; a water feature that incorporates recreations of the city’s monuments; the Bicchierone fountain is a later addition by Bernini and the Ovato is an atmospheric fountain backed by a nymphaeum. Other highlights include the Fountain of the Dragons, a many-breasted sculpture of Diana, the long path of the Hundred Fountains and the massive cascade below the Water Organ.

Tivoli is easy to reach from Rome, and the Villa d’Este is a two-minute walk from the bus stop.

Villa Balbianello stands on the end of the Lavedo peninsula, in one of Lake Como's most outstanding locations. The view of the lake and mountains from the loggia connecting the two main buildings is simply breath-taking.

The villa was built by Cardinal Angelo Maria Durini in 1787, atop the remains of an ancient monastery of Franciscan monks. Villa del Balbianello includes two residential buildings, and a church and a portico overlooking the port, where a steep stairway leads directly to the villa.

In 1975, after alternating ups and downs, the villa – with its stupendous gardens – was purchased by Guido Monzino, Italy’s leading mountaineer, who, upon his death in 1988, willed it to the Fondo per l’Ambiente Italiano, the Italian Environment Fund.

Numerous laurel and boxwood hedges can be seen in the garden of Villa Balbianello, with specimens of oaks, camphor laurels, magnolias and cypresses in addition to azaleas and rhododendrons.

The villa is accessed by motor boat from the town of Lenno or other lakeside villages. This is a spectacular trip in itself, and James Bond fans will recognise the view from the lake from the film Casino Royale

Greece

Before it was became the Athens National Garden, this oasis of calm was called the garden of Amalia after the queen to whom it owes its existence. The interest of Queen Amalia, wife of King Otto, in the Garden was such that she is said to have spent at least three hours a day personally taking care of it. She also planted the iconic 25-metre-high Washingtonia palm trees that grab the attention at the entrance from the gate on Vasilissis Amalias Avenue.

This entrance is one of seven, the central entrance on Amalias Avenue, one on Vasilissis Sophias Avenue, three on Irodou Attikou Street and two more in the area of Zappeion Park.

The Garden is home to 7000 trees, 40,000 shrubs and other plants, making up 519 species and varieties, of which 102 are Greek, including Judas trees, oleanders and carob trees.

Centenarian Holm oaks, cypress trees and Canary Island date palms are also amongst the plants that have been a feature of the garden since it was first created. There are also six lakes.

Zappeion Hall, though officially separated from the Garden, is virtually an extension of it, with a courtyard featuring statues that recall recent Greek history, not to mention mythology.

One stands out, created by Henri Michel Antoine Chapu, Jean Alexandre Joseph Falquiere and Lazaros Sohos. It is the figure of English poet Lord Byron with Greece placing a wreath on his head as a token of honour and gratitude for his contribution to the struggle against the Ottomans.

Nearly 50 acres of land at the Botanical Garden of Crete features fruit trees from all over the world, while herbs, medicinal and ornamental plants form a unique park where the land’s formation and the region’s microclimate make it a paradise for hundreds of plants and animals.

It lies 11 miles outside the town of Chania, in the foothills of the White Mountains.

The landscape is completed by the lake in the lower part of the park, offering protection to ducks, geese and other water birds (and rare species), even to hawks that fly in the area. The park also has an open-air, stone atmospheric amphitheatre suitable for small events.

It is a remarkable transformation as the whole area was burned to the ground in 2003 and the Botanical Garden was created from the ashes of that horrific night.

During the summer months, the best time to schedule a visit is early in the morning, avoiding the strong heat. The park is open daily through to November from 9am (last entrance one hour before sunset). Price six euros.

Do you have any gardens to add to the list? Do you have any photos to share? 

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