Serralves, Porto
Gardens, Travel

3 surprising gardens in Portugal

There’s no gardening in Spectrum this weekend. My column was ditched in favour of a feature on Spectrum Now. I’ll save it for another time, but it seems wrong to have no gardening to read on the weekend so here are just three reasons to go garden-touring in Portugal that you might not have heard of.

#1 Serralves Museum, Portugal

I went for contemporary art displayed in a fabulous minimalist building by Alvaro Siza Vieira, so imagine the thrill when I walked through the garden and found this:

Serralves, Porto

It’s the original art deco mansion of the 2nd Count of Vizela, who built it on the grounds of his family’s summer residence on what was then the outskirts of Porto. The brilliant formal gardens, which manage to integrate French 18th century formal style with Art Deco geometries and Portuguese colours, were originally designed by Jacques Greber in 1932 and were restored in 2001. Other treats in the grounds include mature avenues of trees, a lake, contemporary sculpture and the ancient natural sculpture of a 1000-year old olive. I almost feel bad telling you about it becausse the thrill of discovery is so great!

Serralves, Porto

#2 Queluz National Palace, Sintra

This baroque royal palace is between Sintra and Lisbon and so most tourists who day trip to Sintra miss it. And that’s a shame. For as long as anyone can remember it’s been painted a rosy pink, but researchers discovered it was originally sky blue and yellow, which looks fantastic, and much more regal than the pink.


I particularly loved the lead sculptures of mythical characters by John Cheere. Cheere had a thriving business mass-producing lead and plaster sculptures in mid-18th century London. Yet so few remain in English gardens that the Queluz collection holds the only surviving examples of many subjects. A team of restorers has been trained through the World Monuments Fund to preserve the collection. And you’d have to agree they are doing an amazing job:


#3 Palacio de Fronteira, Bonfica, Lisbon

Ok, this one might not surprise you if you have been assiduously reading Phaidon’s brick of gardens to put on your must-see list, The Gardener’s Garden. But Frontiera takes some getting to, partly because the 13th Marquis de Fronteira and his family still live here. You need to book one of the limited viewing opportunities by phone and arrive early, as the guide (who speaks Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian and English) does his tour in the first two languages who turn up.

Fronteira, Lisbon

The gardens are grand, slightly overgrown, almost tropically lush, and full of mad stories, satires and tributes told in tiles. Oh, and there’s a cranky black swan who stops you getting too close to the moat. You’ll want to linger and settle into imagining what it might be like to have this as your backyard.

Fronteira, Lisbon

These are just three of the gardens I loved on my trip. (I have also written about Monserrate in Sintra). There are plenty more, and I’m keen to take a tour to Portugal to see them again, and to revisit the charms of Lisbon and Porto, and eat more delicious sweets – I promise you, custard tarts are only the beginning! –  in 2017. If that sounds like something you’d like to do send me an email as an expression of interest. If I can round up enough people I can lobby Ross Garden Tours to put something together. See you there!

Fronteira, Lisbon

Other people's gardens, Travel

Modernist zen gardens in Kyoto

Kyoto’s most famous Zen garden is Ryoan-ji. Its raked gravel and 15 carefully placed stones make the world’s most recognisable garden image. (It’s so well-known I’m not even going to bother you with a picture.) I love Ryoan-ji, which despite the hoards of visitors adding their own snaps to the image load of the garden, still manages to instill a mood of mystery and quiet reflection. It was made by an unnamed monk in the 15th century and was the template for a dry stone Zen garden for four centuries – until Shigemori Mirei brought the Zen garden into the 20th century and introduced it to modernism. On a recent trip to Kyoto I was keen to see how Shigemori made this marriage work.

Shigemori’s original passion was not for the garden, but for other traditions in Japanese culture – painting and art history, calligraphy, tea ceremony and ikebana. The early decades of the 20th century were a tense time in Japanese culture as a modernising, westernising push clashed against a conservative desire to preserve Japanese traditions unchanged. Shigemori argued that Japanese culture was strong enough to survive engagement with the west and he tried to found a new arts school to pursue his modernising vision. Before he could get it going though the 1934 typhoon tore through western Japan, alerting him to the fragility of that other Japanese art – garden-making. He began surveying gardens all over the country, a project that culminated in the mighty 26-volume ‘Illustrated Book on the History of the Japanese Garden’. Shigemori was now the country’s expert on Japanese garden history and a year later, in 1939, he was given his first design brief – for the gardens around the hojo (abbot’s residence) in the Tofuku-ji temple.


Tokufu-ji, Kyoto

Tofuku-ji is a big complex of temples so famous for its maples that autumn crowds pack the pathways for momi-ji (maple viewing). The gardens aren’t easy to find through the crowds, the buildings and sub-temples; the upside of that being that there are few other visitors.

For Shigemori, creating modern gardens required following the approach of the old masters – combining knowledge and tradition with innovation. Even knowing this, the grid garden at Tofuku-ji comes as a shock.



Squares of clipped azaleas alternate with squares of raked gravel. The symmetry is not part of traditional Japanese garden design, yet here the grid references the patchwork of Japanese rice fields. The grid pattern is repeated in the next garden, but this time in moss and gravel, the grid gradually falling away into entropy.


Shigemori designed another set of gardens at Tofuku-ji, for the Ryogin-an sub-temple. The hojo here is the oldest existing one in Japan, its floor worn so silky you just have to sit and stroke it as you contemplate the garden. Dry stone Zen gardens, called kare-san-sui, are designed as an aid to meditation for monks in the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism. The patience, skill and concentration required to rake the specific pattern of the garden are part of Zen training and practice. An unwavering straight line is required in the Garden of Vanity, which is simply straight raked white gravel, edged in a straight line of river stones, backed by a bamboo fence and with a pavilion gazing onto the nothingness.

Ryogin-an, Kyoto

The emptiness of vanity is an easy message to read in this garden; the metaphor is a bit more obscure in one of the gardens in Zuiho-in, on the other side of the city.


The feudal lord who dedicated this temple, Otomo, was convinced by Portuguese missionaries to convert to Catholicism. Not long afterwards, Christianity was outlawed in Japan. In one of the gardens around the temple an asymmetrical cross is abstractly marked in stones and points to a stone lantern, beneath which is buried a statue of the Virgin Mary. The unseen statue is quite a powerful idea but my favourite garden here, is much more physical and energetic than this spiritual riddle. Stones in the form of a dragon leap from an ocean of waves of white gravel. The tines of the rakes used on the gravel form heaped ridges that add to the energy of the vertical rocks and the rising angle of the screening hedge at the back of the garden. It’s invigorating and serene at the same time.



Shigemori Garden Museum

Shigemori designed domestic gardens as well as temple gardens, but the only one it’s possible to visit is his own, now a ‘museum’. You need to book as only a handful of visitors are allowed in to see the master’s gardens and tearoom at any one time. There’s no wandering allowed. Views of the garden are controlled and when the shoji screen slides back from the tea house facing into the garden, the view revealed is of perfectly placed rocks, moss, camellias and pines, with glimpses of the suburb through the trees. The traditions of the Japanese garden, set in modern life.




Food, Travel

5 sweet treats on Maui

Spending all day on the beach is not good for your skin. So, in the interests of better skin, if not necessarily better health, my sweet-eating companion and I dedicated our Maui middays to finding the island’s best treats. Herewith – the fruits of our labours!

1. Chocolate tasting
Melanie Boudar used to be a gem buyer. Now she makes less permanent treasures – chocolates. Taste the range at her store, Sweet Paradise Chocolate, in Wailea Gateway shopping centre. Even better, go to her cocoa farm, Manawai Estate Chocolate, on the road out of Paia, where she grows the beans that will soon form the basis for her chocolates. First make your own hot chocolate, starting with roasted beans. (I’ve written about making chocolate from scratch here.)

Manawai estate hot chocolate

Follow up with a guided chocolate tasting, after which you’ll be amazed to find you can taste the difference between chocolate from Hawaii and chocolate from Venezuela.  I promise after this , you will never mindlessly eat chocolate again.

2. Dippy donuts
On Maui, donuts are malasadas and at Star Noodle in Lahaina, they come speared on a skewer to dip into chocolate or butterscotch sauce and roll in crushed peanuts. What makes this dessert even better is that it follows a great menu that ranges all over Asia, and doesn’t just stick with noodles. It feels a bit wrong to leave the beach to lunch in the light industrial area of town, but once the door to those delicious cooking smells opens, you won’t miss a view.

3. Banana cream pie 

Leoda's banana cream pie
Leoda’s Kitchen and Pie Shop is on the road north from Lahaina. There’s a welcoming diner-meets-plantation-house aesthetic to the fit-out and the menu suits, with great fresh salads and sandwiches. The draws for us though were the homemade pies. Maui is mad for the macadamia nut-chocolate combo they call macnut. As macadamias are Australian native plants we felt it a patriotic duty to indulge in the macnut choc pie. (It was the Hawaiians who commercialised the mac and until recently were the world’s biggest producer of macs, and its most enthusiastic coverers of it in chocolate!) Flag-waving aside, we found the macnut just a bit too rich, and sided with the North American classic – banana cream.

Celebrity trivia note: Leoda’s chef/owner is Sheldon Simeon, who fans of Top Chef will remember as a charming finalist in series 10. 

4. Coconut ice
There are several reasons you’ll need an ice cream when you get to Hana. The first is medicinal. The road is famously narrow and windy, the locals know no fear – nor speed limits – and, taking their lead, neither do the teenage boys in rental convertibles. So it’s a white-knuckle ride: a sweet ice will soothe those adrenalin jitters. And then, once you have walked to the base of Maimoku Falls waterfall and back, you’ll need an ice cream to cool down.

Coconut Glen's

Coconut Glen’s is the last food stall before Hana. Glen himself is a refugee chef from Boston. He’s also a vegan so his ‘ice creams’ are all made with coconut milk, and with a spirit of sharing.

Coconut Glen's

5. Best gelato

Home base for the Maui gelataria Ono is Lahaina, but there is an outpost in the cool old whaling village of Paia. Robert Mahler makes genuine gelato (which is denser and more flavour-packed than traditional American ice cream because it’s churned more slowly and so incorporates less air as it freezes) from locally sourced ingredients wherever possible. The coffee crunch – with chocolate, coffee and mac nuts – is hard to pass up, but save some room for the sensational salted caramel, and, because this is Hawaii, the only place on earth where people eat more passionfruit that we do – for the lilikoi, Hawaiian for passionfruit.

Murray River, Renmark

Take me to the river

It never occurred to me to go cruising on the Murray River in a houseboat –  until I did it. Now I’m scheming about how I can manage to do it again. We spent an hour and a bit one afternoon on a late-autumn day that felt like summer.

Murray River, Renmark

Our boat was one of Wilkadene Outback Star, luxuriuous. Three double bedrooms, huge deck on top, with a bar. Someone had thoughtfully stocked it with beers from Wilkadene Brewery. The river can be crowded with houseboats and water skiers in the summer, but we had it to almost all to ourselves, if you don’t count the pelicans.

Murray River, Renmark

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