By ROSI WARE The Key West Garden Club
Having just returned from a trip to the beautiful region of Andalucía in southern Spain, I can say with confidence that if there is one thing that Spain does better than many other places on the planet, it is gardens ... and that comes from a Brit!
Why are Spanish gardens better than the rest? The gardens represent that magical crossroads between the lush, contemplative gardens of the Islamic world and the highly structured gardens of Europe. What's more, as a leading colonial power for centuries, Spain had the ability to collect plants from around the globe. And unlike other colonial powers, the Spanish climate could actually grow those plants back home.
The palace gardens of CÃ³rdoba's Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos are the ones we visited in September.
The sprawling Moorish gardens are the perfect place to hide from the Andalusian heat and contemplate the city's rich botanical heritage. Actually, that heritage extends to many CÃ³rdoban houses in the old city, which often have their own take on the classic garden paradise.
The gardens of the Alcázar have a special place in the hearts of all those from the New World. It was here that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella met with Christopher Columbus in preparation for his momentous voyage. Some would say that these particular gardens changed the history of the world!
In early post Roman times a Visigoth fortress occupied the site. When the Visigoths fell to the Umayyad Dynasty (Muslim) conquest of Hispania, the emirs rebuilt the structure. Abd ar-Rahman I and his successors established the independent Caliphate of Cordoba; subsequently the city flourished and the Alcazar was expanded to a large compound with baths, gardens, and the largest library in the West.
Watermills on the nearby Guadalquivir River in Seville, powered water lifted to irrigate the extensive gardens. Much of this Moorish design remains today, situated in a southern part of the Alcazar grounds. The purpose of the design was to finish the gardens for the Royal Harem, at the place closest to the bathroom. It is thought that the work started in 822 A.D.
The Alcazar gardens were laid on three clearly differentiated terraces with the following design: on the top terrace, two large pools collect water from the mountains and channel it to the lower terrace, accessed via a wide flight of steps.
This terrace displays three large ponds arranged in a line, one after the other, and flanked by different colors of plants and cypress hedges. On the side of the terrace closest to the old wall, boxwood planted in a grid pattern provides the framework for a series of rose gardens. These are adorned by various statues whose solemnity rivals the shafts of the pruned cypresses.
Two of the statues are of Isabella and Ferdinand, the Catholic monarchs, as it was here that they granted an audience to Christopher Columbus to hear about his project for a new route to the Indies.
The Moors loved to include water in their garden designs because the Koran continuously repeats the idea that Heaven is a garden with running water, hence the numerous reflecting ponds and waterfalls in the gardens.
They also chose plants to enhance the sensual experience of walking through the gardens - fabulous perfumes of jasmine and old roses; herbs and citrus fruits within the clipped box hedges; the sound of falling water and the artistic mosaics on many of the ancient pathways.
Luckily for us, these beautiful gardens have remained well maintained, and still visited by tourists from all over the world. They can also be seen at night thanks to well-designed artificial lighting.
Considered gardens of love, it is good luck for wedding couples to be photographed there after the ceremony.
The region of Andalucía is worth visiting for the rich and long history of the cities of Cordoba, Sevilla and Cadiz and the beautiful white hill top villages. Yet, the gardens of this region are worth the trip alone.
NOTES: The Key West Garden Club welcomes volunteers to work on the historical fort, pull weeds, propagate plants and play in the sandy soil at the West Martello Tower from 9 a.m. to noon on Mondays.
Rosi Ware is a member of The Key West Garden Club. This column is part of a series developed by the Key West Garden Club. For more information visit www.keywestgardenclub.com.