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1,000 Years of History in One Garden - Royal Alcazar Palace Gardens, Seville

The Alcazar Palace and gardens are one of the locations that make up the Seville UNESCO World Heritage Site that also encompasses the Cathedral and the Archivo de Indias, all in close proximity in the heart of Seville. Together they represent the best of the Spanish ‘Golden Age’, remnants of the Islamic culture that had a huge influence on the area, hundreds of years of religious power, royal sovereignty and the establishment of Spain as a important trading power through its colonisations in the New World.


The origins of the palace can be traced right back to 712 although considerably more building went on from the twelth century under the Almohad Caliphate, (the Almohad Caliphate was a North African Berber Muslim empire that controlled much of southern Spain and Portugal at its height). Since then, it has been added to during Gothic (thirteenth century), Mujedar (fourteenth century) and Renaissance (fifteenth – sixteenth centuries) eras. It has always been a residence of royalty and heads of state and now comprises a group of palatial buildings, with extensive gardens, all of which combine to give a rare blend of cultures from the original Almohad building through many classical styles from Renaissance to Neoclassical and Spanish Royalty still stay there today.


The gardens of the palace were originally the orchards and kitchen gardens, providing food for the palace, but are now gardens for relaxation and enjoyment with scented planting, geometrically planted gardens and frequent water features such as colourfully tiled fountains and pools, some of which will be well recognised by Game of Thrones fans where they were used as a location for the Water Gardens of Dorne. They currently encompass around 6 hectares.


Much of the palace, gardens and garden buildings are in the Mudejar style, a hybrid of Moorish, Gothic and Romanesque forms. Mudejar was a term given to the Moors, Muslims who stayed in the Iberian Peninsula following the Christian reconquest of it in the late Middle Ages. Typically, Mudejar art was influenced by Islamic art, but often produced by Christian craftsman for Christian patrons; a fusion of Muslim and Christian cultures living in peaceful coexistence.


The oldest parts of the gardens are the courtyards closest to the Palace, small patios connected by steps; Jardin del Principe (Princes Garden), Jardin de las Flores (Flower Garden), Jardins de la Galera (Galley Garden), Jardin de Troya (Troy Garden), Jardin de la Danza (Dance Garden), Jardin de Mercurio (Mercury Garden). These gardens were originally designed in the earlier Islamic times but were extensively remodelled in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to follow the Renaissance style. The Mercury Garden was named after the bronze statue of the god Mercury, which stands in the centre of the large pond, at the base of the Galeria del Grutesco facing the Jardin del Retiro. The water that fills the pond was originally collected from a Roman aqueduct that was used to irrigate the palace orchards and gardens. From the late 1500s it was transformed into the pond it is today. The Troy Garden was inspired by the Trojan War, commissioned by the Spanish emperor Charles V, and is surrounded by high walls, creating an intimate atmosphere. Orange trees, myrtle hedges and rosemary bushes provide sensory enjoyment, and it has a central fountain with sculptures depicting scenes from the Trojan War. The Dance Garden has an association with the Greek god Dionysus; god of wine, revelry and fertility and is the largest of the Renaissance gardens, forming a courtyard with a central fountain called the ‘Fountain of the Sign’. Palms, datura, myrtles and cypress are among the plants that grace this garden. The Galley Garden, named after the original planting and topiary that formed ships in hedges of myrtle and boxwood that incorporated canons with jets of water. Nothing remains of these now, but the garden now has green walls formed by orange trees on trellis, a technique of medieval Andalusian gardens. The Garden of Flowers is on the site of the old palace pigsties, which were replaced by Phillip II in the 1500’s. It is decorated with the remains of glazed tiles from the sixteenth centuries and retains the Muslim influence of a garden divided into four sectors and is planted with orange and lemon trees. The Prince’s Garden was named after a young catholic Prince who was born in an adjacent room to the garden. Again, this garden has four compartments divided by paths in a cross shape and with a central fountain.


The Garden of the Cross, behind the Garden of Flowers and Gallery Garden, was once one of the oldest parts of the garden. Unfortunately, it was badly damaged in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 and the medieval garden was buried. The Garden of the Cross now stands where the old Jardin del Laberinto Viejo (Labyrinth Garden) once stood and was created in 1910. The only remnant of the Labyrinth Garden now is the large fountain in the main pond that represents Mount Parnassus in Greece and originally symbolised the god Apollo and the nine muses although little remains of these representations today.


The sixteenth century saw the establishment of the Jardin de las Damas (Ladies Garden), an extensive garden created to commemorate the nuptials of Emperor Carlos I and Isabel of Portugal. In this garden is a central fountain, with a bronze statue of Neptune on the top and it is laid out with 8 compartments and smaller fountains at path intersections. The garden is backed by the Galeria de Grutesco, (Grotto Gallery), extended out from an original Almohad wall in the seventeenth century by Italian architect Vermondo Resta, and which stretches 160m in an L-shape with open arches to view out of both sides; over the Ladies Garden on one and the Jardin del Retiro on the other. The Galeria de Grutesco was decorated with a variety of stones, with plaster and paintings interspersed.


Later gardens, established in the modern era are the Jardin del Retiro, Jardin de los Poetas (Garden of Poets), Jardin del Laberinto (Maze Garden) and the Jardin Ingles (English Garden). The current Maze Garden was designed in 1914. It is made up of clipped myrtle, cypress and thuja and inspired by Renaissance labyrinth gardens. The English Garden is of a more naturally wild design, with a wooded area with oaks, cedars, gingko, magnolia and chestnut trees. It was designed to celebrate the marriage of Alfonso XIII and Victoria Eugenie of Battenburg in 1906. The Retreat Garden, or Jardin del Retiro, also known as the Jardins del Marquis de la Vega-Inclan after the Marquis de la Vega-Inclans who transformed the garden in the early twentieth century. It is built on the original medieval palace orchards and follows a geometric design with twenty sections, linked by paths, some with water flowing and fountains at intersections. Hedges of myrtle and cypress line the pathways and citrus and palm trees are frequent. A huge circular pergola stands on the site of an old water wheel that used to irrigate the original gardens. The Garden of Poets was designed to incorporate influences from Renaissance, Romantic and Islamic styles and was designed as refuge for the poet’s group, ‘Generation of 27’, by the then Director (Curator)) of the Alcazar, Joaquin Romero Marube and with the help of Javier Winthuysen, a Sevillian landscaper.


Several graceful and striking buildings are found within the gardens. The largest of these is the Carlos V Pavilion and was built on the site of an old Muslim qubba to commemorate the marriage of Carlos V to Isobel of Portugal. It mixes traditional Mudejar style with Renaissance and has four arcaded galleries with graceful arches around the sides and is decorated with sixteenth century tiles. The centre has a fountain, although it isn’t possible to go inside. Next to the Carlos V Pavilion is the Cenador del Leon, built in 1644 by Diego de Orejuela. In front of it is a large fountain set within a rectangular pool, with lion statue, giving the pavilion its name. The pavilion has a tall semi-circular arched niche topped with an ornate domed roof.


The Alcazar gardens take you on a walk through over 1300 years of history in architecture, design and gardens. They incorporate over 187 different plant and trees species including date palm, Washington palm, Mediterranean dwarf palm, bougainvillea, agapanthus, oleander, wisteria, jacaranda, acacia, orange, lemon almond, fig, quince, lemon verbena, honeysuckle, jasmine, laurel, lavender, myrtle, rosemary, sage and many more. Water, in pools, ponds, fountains, spouts and channels, is never more than a few steps away and colourful tiled benches and fountains are found, almost around every corner. No visit to Seville would be complete without a visit to these gardens and the palace itself. Despite being a major tourist attraction, it’s totally possible to find space and solitude in the gardens, especially if you visit first thing in the morning and head to the gardens before you explore the palace and book your ticket in advance to save queuing and ensure entry at your preferred time.


© Vicki Gardner 2024 This article and images are available for publication from GAP Plant and Garden Photo Library


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