The garden battle between order and chaos has been played over centuries in the gardens of Monserrate in the hill town of Sintra, half an hour out of Lisbon. When Lord Byron visited in 1809 the neo-Gothic palace was already a wreck, allowing the poet to use its derelict state as moral metaphor in his poem about Childe Harold. That made Montserrate a hot destination for all touring Romantics. One such was Francis Cook, an Englishman with a textile fortune, who fell in love with Monserrate and bought the ruined estate as his family’s summer holiday house. He renovated the palace as neo-Gothic England meets Mogul India, and added to the already romantic old gardens.
Monserrate is once-again a must-see for the exquisite fantasy of the palace and the wonderful gardens, which in 2013 won the European Garden Award for Best Historic Garden. For Australian visitors there’s the added buzz of botanical familiarity. Cook envisaged a global showcase of the new plants arriving in Europe. The first exotic tree he panted was an Australian native, a Norfolk Island pine, which now towers 50m. He followed up with a Bunya pine and Bangalow palms. Someone must have given him poor information about the growth habits of the New Zealand Christmas bush which nestles a bit too large and a bit too close to the ornately detailed palace. Likewise the Moreton Bay fig next to the neo-Gothic chapel was probably ill-advised, and now the moss and lichen-covered roots of the tree picturesquely straddle, support or strangle, it’s hard to tell which, the ruins of the chapel.
Given all the Australian plants that add their distinctive silhouettes to views of Monserrate, it’s somewhat ironic that after four generations of Cooks the gardens became overrun with Portugal’s most invasive weed, the Sydney wattle, Acacia longifolia.
When the suffocating skin of wattle began to be peeled back in the 1980s, one of the first revelations was another Australian feature, a tree fern gully. Like so many Victorians, Sir Francis was mad for ferns. (A big fern gully also features at nearby Pena Park, home to King Ferdinand II and Queen Maria. The royal couple had introduced tree ferns to Portugal after a state visit to the Azores islands, where the ferns were acclimatising on their way from Australia and fern-mad Britain.)
The fabulous eclecticism of the Victorian era gets full expression at Monserrate. As well as the fern gully, there’s a Japanese garden, a South African garden, a Mexican garden and a rose garden on an amphitheatre-like slope, featuring rambling and climbing roses that scramble over tree stumps making swathes of spring and summer colour. Portugal’s first lawn veers down a slope so vertiginously steep that it required the development of a new watering system.
At the extremities of the property, the wattle threatens to return but the gardeners of Sintra Parks keep it at bay, maintaining that fine line between chaos and control where nothing looks too neat and nothing looks wrecked. Byron wouldn’t recognise the place.