I didn’t really know what to expect of gardens in the south of Spain, although Glyn Church had told me that the Alhambra and Generalife in Granada was simply amazing. What really caught me unawares was the depth of history. Our country is still so much of the New World that gardens of a mere fifty or sixty years in age are often described as heritage or historic. Indeed I have heard people claiming that their garden is “mature” after about 15 years.
Andalucian gardens in the south of Spain had Roman ruins, overlaid with the Moorish exotica and wealth, reworked by the Christian kings – marching down the centuries, layer upon layer. It was the Moorish influence which was completely new to me and that, apparently, is unique to the area. The Moors were the Arabic Moslems who crossed the seas and controlled large tracts of southern Europe for many centuries before they were defeated and expelled in the late 1400s. The Spanish gardens are known for the use of small intimate spaces rather than the huge water gardens of Islamic Persia and India. Ah ha! The origin, I suspect, of garden rooms in the modern, western garden.
All the Moorish gardens are restorations. While the palaces survived, the gardens certainly didn’t though I guess a certain amount of archaeological evidence remained, along with sufficient pictorial record to enable a reasonable level of accuracy in reconstruction.
There has been no effort to maintain the original plantings and indeed these gardens don’t have a whole lot of plant interest. In Spain’s hot, dry climate (even in autumn, it was consistently 35 degrees), only a limited range of plants can be grown. There is a heavy emphasis on buxus, cypresses, citrus, roses, grandiflora magnolias and annuals for colour. The only plants to stop me in my tracks were a colourful bramble (which would likely be a noxious weed here) and the sight of chorisias in full flower in the palace gardens of Seville. Chorisias are South American (so a later introduction) and in flower rather look like trees full of exotic orchids. I have seen one flowering in Auckland though I don’t think our summers are hot enough to allow our plant at home to reach its potential.
The Moorish gardens were all about creating formal, but intimate spaces cooled by water and shade where the nobility could take refuge from the heat. So the emphasis is on structure and hard landscaping to give the form. In a climate where it is too harsh to grow lawn grasses, paths and terraces are usually paved, often with pleasingly subtle mosaics and interesting detail. What impressed me about these fine gardens were the gracious proportions and the flow from one area to another.
At the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos in Cordoba (that is the palace of the Christian monarchs), the majority of the gardens were much more recent but the Moorish flavour remains, just as it does in the breathtaking nearby mosque cum cathedral. In a climate where sunshine hours exceed 3000 per year, the purpose of using vertical accents (mostly cypresses) to create a picture in shadows made sense. I have seen the technique copied without much success. I think it worked in Cordoba because they have so much bright sun that the shadows are really deep and welcome, because there were wide avenues left open to frame the shadows and because even on a cloudy day, there was enough strength in the design for it to work without any shadows at all.
These gardens have nothing to do with the peasantry. It was all for the nobility, usually royalty with deep pockets. In such a dry climate, the use of water for aesthetic purposes is in itself a statement of power. Nowhere was this more evident than at the Alhambra and Generalife, an entire complex of palaces, forts, towers, gardens, water features and even a village, all enclosed by fortified walls. Now one of Spain’s premier attractions, gardens and palaces have undergone major restoration. Interestingly, the palaces were modelled on similar principles to the gardens. They were not huge and the rooms were comparatively intimate, user-friendly even. Small interior courtyards and gardens were a frequent inclusion, usually with a water feature – a small fountain or pool with rill. It was the open rooms and galleries that really took my fancy. These had open sides, defined by Moorish arches, and an overhead roof – presumably to keep the sun out but to encourage as much air movement as possible. What wouldn’t I give for a Moorish garden room? The Alhambra was set on a promontory with views across to the neighbouring medieval village (the Albaycin) and surrounding hills and both gardens and palaces made use of the device of framing views, of drawing the eye outwards from these intimate and delightful small enclosures.
It rained on the day we visited. While clearly a most unusual event (few of the visitors were prepared for rain), we felt grateful because it cooled the air temperature on what could have been an oppressively hot seven hour visit and it bestowed a misty romanticism on the vistas which took my breath away.
What can we learn from the Moorish gardens of Andalusia? First and foremost, the sheer folly of trying to emulate garden styles rooted in a completely different climate and time and on a scale we can only dream about. It is one thing to extract ideas such as the garden room and the creation of gardens as a series of intimate spaces – a technique which has had a profound influence on western gardening. It is quite another thing to try and transfer the whole genre to a modern, New Zealand setting where it is alien. Leave them in the south of Spain – Moorish arches are more likely to look naff and tacky set against a backdrop of our wooden or summit brick bungalows. Similarly, the transplanting of the idea of the rill or narrow canal to a different garden concept rarely works. These tended to have a practical role in Islamic life (washing before frequent prayers) and were part of the engineering feat of moving water around a site long before electric pumps.
To transpose the rill or narrow canal in isolation is to ignore the wider context. Turning your back on the lushness and range of plants we can grow here in favour of a few cliched varieties is boring. But we can learn from the old masters when it comes to understanding the importance of getting the proportions right – especially in formal gardens – of making sure that garden rooms are not claustrophobic but that they combine intimacy with an invitation to explore further, of being bold when it comes to allowing sufficient width for paths and avenues, and of valuing the quality of materials when it comes to hard landscaping. Above all, the Andalucian gardens combined form and function, underpinned by aesthetics and logic. That alone is a lesson worth learning.