Are you an avid gardener who has won an award at your local garden show? A botany expert? Or, are you someone like me? I confess I don’t know much about gardening. I plant seasonal flowers in the pots by my front door. You know the type. Geraniums and petunias in the spring, mums and pansies in the fall. But, I love strolling through and enjoying the beauty of a well-planned European garden. No matter which type of gardener you are (or aren’t) you’ll want to include these in your travel plans.
Kew outside of London, England
This may be the mother of all gardens. With 40,000 plants and 300 splendid acres to see, you should think about devoting a full day for this experience. A bit of pre-planning would be wise, because you can’t see it all. If you can’t spend an entire day, check into a guided walking tour where you’ll see highlights of the season you are visiting in. You can take a first-come first-serve tour twice a day. Or, for a little more money, you can sign up in advance on a pre-booked tour.
What to see? Where to go first? The options are almost endless. There are so many extraordinary sights. Make sure to visit at least some of the glass houses. Palm House and Temperate House are two surviving structures from the Victorian era. There are also more recent glass houses to see and all are remarkable for the different plant varieties you will find inside. You are sure to stumble across the Aquatic Garden, where you’ll see 140 different types of plants grown in containers in the water. There are areas devoted to rhododendrons, azaleas, Mediterranean plants, woodland, bamboo, magnolias…and if you’d like a different view of all the trees make sure to take the new elevated Treetop Walkway.
Royal Botanical Gardens – Edinburgh, Scotland
We hadn’t planned on seeing these gardens when we were in Edinburgh, but on our last day our plans changed and we had an afternoon free. Sometimes the unplanned activities are the best. A short taxi ride brought us to over 70 acres of beautifully landscaped grounds right in the city. We spent the afternoon wandering around, enjoying the late afternoon sunshine of an August in Scotland. Without any pre-planning, we discovered all sorts of things in this oasis. We meandered through the Rock Garden; the Scottish Heath Garden where the Highland landscape has been emulated; and the Queen Mother’s Memorial Garden where you’ll find plants from four different parts of the world. We also visited the Chinese Hillside which has the largest collection of Chinese plants that you’ll find outside of China, and the Victorian glass houses with their palm trees and vibrant tropical flowers. If you are more of an expert gardener than I am, you may want to check out their website for educational opportunities. You can see listings of classes and workshops at www.rbge.org.uk. Sign up to take a class while you’re there. You’ll have your own garden looking remarkable after you return home.
Alhambra and Generalife Gardens – Granada, Spain
This is a UNESCO World Heritage site and if you are in the area you don’t want to miss it. The gardens have been referred to as “landscape architecture in an art form” and the very word Generalife translates to “architect’s garden.” It is a stunning place standing high, high on a plateau with the Sierra Nevada Mountains as a backdrop. The entire site dates from the 9th century, with the gardens dating back to the 13th century.
Originally the gardens were orchards and pasturelands, but they have evolved over time in to a lush landscape of fragrant roses, manicured shrubs, and pools with floating lily pads. The gardens are not formally organized, but have an East Mediterranean feel to them. These gardens will delight all your senses with incredible viewpoints of Nasrid Palace and the mountains, the sounds of running water and chirping birds, and the smells of vibrant flowers. Be aware that tickets need to be purchased in advance and have a time of entry printed on them. If you miss your time, you’ll need to wait until the next day and try again.
Nymphenburg Palace Gardens outside Munich, Germany
We visited these gardens after we had spent a sobering morning at Dachau Concentration Camp. It was the perfect place to reflect on the morning and to appreciate the beauty of life. The gardens are part of the Nymphenburg Palace and have a royal feeling to them. They have been through several transformations since they were created in the 17th century. Beginning as a small Italian garden, changing in the 18th century into a formal French style and finally into English landscape gardens.
The garden centers around large ponds lined with statues of Greek gods. You’ll find a huge variety of plants, deciduous and conifer trees, swans, geese and hidden pavilions nestled in corners of the gardens. With a little planning, you could take along a picnic of bread, cheese and wine. Find a spot under the shade of a tree, relax and watch the fish in the canals swim by. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by this garden spot not found on a lot of travel itineraries.
Villa Lante near Bagnaia, Italy
This 16th century garden is one of Italy’s greatest gardens and is considered by many to be the best example of the best period of garden history – the Mannerist phase of the Italian Renaissance. The first thing you’ll notice is the distinct lack of flowers. Instead you’ll find a lot of gracefully sculpted trees, hedges, shrubbery and topiary. Water plays a huge part in this garden and is a main focal point. There is a spring that has been used to create wonderful water features that follow the terraces on this hillside property with fountains, small waterfalls and grottos.
The other unusual thing about this garden is that the palaces and other buildings seem to have been created as garden accents rather than buildings to stand on their own. You must take a guided tour in order to see the gardens, but it’s well worth it to hear all of the history behind the magnificence.
Powerscourt – near Dublin, Ireland
These gardens are located a short drive outside of Dublin. The 47 acres you’ll enjoy are part of a large country estate developed over the last two and a half centuries. There are several parts to these well-planned gardens. As you leave the main house, make sure to pause for a few minutes to enjoy the view. You’ll look down over several Italian style terraces towards the pond. The terraces contain flowerbeds and large, ornate sculptures including life-sized winged horses. Past the pond your eyes will be drawn up to the fertile green of the Wicklow Mountains.
Once you’ve taken a little time to enjoy the view, you can begin your exploration. You’ll discover walled gardens that are full of colorful rose beds and herbs, a lake surrounded by Japanese red cedars, a Japanese garden, a sweet pet cemetery, grottos, a tree-lined avenue, and the Pepper Pot tower that provides wonderful views of the surrounding area. The day we were there the sky was grey and overcast, but the beauty of Powerscourt shined through.
Monet’s Garden in Giverny, France
It’s hard for me to separate Monet’s Garden from the actual village of Giverny, since the village has done a wonderful job of making itself an extension of the garden. But, separate they are. The gardens are located behind the house that Claude Monet moved into with his family in the 1880’s. Over the years he transformed the gardens into the serene setting you see in so many of his paintings. He used scenes from Japanese prints as his inspiration and created a garden that has been termed “unorganized.” It may be unorganized, but it’s bursting with the beauty of colorful flowers, stately bamboo, elegant weeping willows, ponds full of water lilies and the famed Japanese bridge covered with wisteria. The flower garden and the water garden seem to exist both separately and in conjunction with each other, which I think was part of Monet’s master plan.
If you plan on spending the night in the village (which I recommend) you may want to make a reservation in advance. We weren’t planning to stay, but circumstances caused us to arrive later in the day than we had hoped. We began the search for accommodations and finally found a house to stay in outside of the village. At first glance it seemed we had scored a prize. There was a massive locked gate leading in to the grounds, a pasture with a horse grazing in it, a garden smaller than, but similar to Monet’s, (even with a pond and bridge) and a stately home. Unfortunately, when we entered the home we realized it was broken and battered. It was very dirty, had leaky toilets and shower, and some of the windows were broken out. We survived our night, woke early and skipped the filthy shower. We still refer fondly to it as “the scary house,” but if we ever return we’ll have a reservation.
Traveling is always an adventure, but the sights you see make it all worthwhile. Try to get outside of the museums and churches to commune a little with nature. You’ll be very happy you included these gardens in your itinerary.