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I Found Narnia! (My favourite ever garden to date...) The stunningly beautiful Monte Palace Gardens in Funchal, Madeira

The Monte Palace Gardens in Madeira are quite simply the most captivating gardens I've ever had the privilege to set foot in. The valley, in which the gardens are situated, is crisscrossed with paths meandering along the sides, some hidden, some obvious. The gardens are stuffed full of art including ceramic tiles, sculptures and statues as well as repurposed architectural features such as stone window frames, arches and old gates. If ever a garden came close to Narnia, this is it. Having read a few articles about the gardens, words such as magical, enchanting, unforgettable, dramatic, tranquil and stunning feature regularly. Not only are the gardens home to a huge variety of flora featuring proteas, orchids, azaleas, hydrangeas and one of the world’s biggest collections of cycads but also to some of Madeira’s native plants such as ferns and trees including cedars, laurels and the Canary laurels.


Madeira is an island that rises sharply out of the sea, the top of an ancient volcano, the sides of the island rise steeply up to its highest point at 6,000 feet and it has a steady, tropical climate throughout the year. The steep mountain sides are cut through with precipitous ravines. The Monte Palace Gardens are nearly 2,000 feet up on the mountainside and covers about 25 hectares, with magnificent views over Funchal town. The land was originally part of an estate bought by British Consul General, Charles Murray, in the 18th century. It was then sold to Alfredo Guilherme Rodrigues in 1897, who built the palatial house at the centre of the gardens, and which was later turned into the Monte Palace Hotel. Following Rodrigues death in 1943, the hotel was subsequently shut. In 1987, the Portuguese businessman Jose Manuel Rodrigues Berardo bought the house and land with the intention of it housing his collections of azulejos (Portugese ceramic tiles) and other architectural features that he saved from historic buildings being torn down as well as for the formation of a tropical garden which would enable visitors to, ‘discover the same sense of tranquillity which it always manages to instil in me’. The gardens and collections are now cared for by the Associacao de Colleccoes.


As you enter the garden and start to descend into the garden proper, you come to the Monte Palace Museum, really 2 museums in one building.  The top two floors house a collection called ‘African Passion’, a large collection of sculptures from Zimbabwe, featuring some internationally recognised sculptors such as Henry Munyaradzi, Bernard Matemera & Fanzizani Akuda. The ground floor houses the ‘Mother Nature’s Secrets’ exhibition, a magnificent assortment of over 700 mineral specimens from all around the world. From here the paths down lead to the first of the Oriental gardens and from hereon, most paths are lined with panels of azulejos, coats of arms, doorways, windows, and statues. The History of Portugal, a set of 40 panels illustrating the most important events of Portugal’s past and The History of the Portuguese in Japan (a commissioned set of 166 tiles by Argentinian artist, Alberto Cedron, to depict the historic ties between the Portuguese and the Japanese after Portuguese first visited Japan) are amongst the first you come across. Berardo wanted the gardens to educate , as well as entrance, hence the visual aspect of these pieces.


The two Oriental gardens are a homage to Chinese and Japanese cultures; their Buddhist beliefs and deep respect for nature and symbolism. Marble Foo dogs, pagodas, bridges, a Torii gate, statues, dragons and water feature heavily in these gardens. Foo dogs are found at the entrance to the northern oriental garden and are seen as guardian lions, rather than dogs. Miniature islands, ornamental bridges and koi carp all intermingle with buddha statues, Chinese lanterns and lush, tropical planting schemes.


At the centre of the garden, close by the Monte Palace itself, are the central lake and water features. A high waterfall tumbles into the lake and the path takes you behind the falling water, numerous fountains spray and the looming fortress sprays water all around. Swans and koi swim gently in the waters. You can walk right around the fortress, through a green and damp ravine bringing you around to the back of the lake. As water features heavily throughout the garden, with rills, ponds, a wishing well, fountains and waterfalls, the air remains relatively damp and cooler than elsewhere on the island.


Exploring further down the ravine, paths bring you out at the second Oriental Garden which lies directly beneath the Monte Palace itself. Here a large pagoda houses a huge bronze buddha statue, koi carp swim in linked pools, with ornamental bridges spanning them, statues abound and bamboo lines paths.


The Monte Palace itself was shut but is surrounded by statues and art work and has stunning views over Funchal town and bay. The ‘Skipping Girl’, a bronze statue by James Walter Butler sits in the centre of the staircase at the front of the Monte Palace and to the side is a venerable, ancient olive tree planted in around 300BC by the Romans and moved from Portugal to Monte Palace due to the formation of a huge lake in Portugal.


In the lower end of the gardens, stone archways poke out of the verdant foliage, enticing you along small paths and reminiscent of scenes from Narnia. In some places, urns and other ornaments sit amongst the prolific planting. Hydrangeas and birds of paradise line paths. Cycads, the ‘living fossils’ that first appeared during the Mesozoic era, two hundred million years ago, grow in the lower part of the garden, along with sequoias, azaleas and rhododendrons.


Everywhere in this magical garden are lush greens, textural foliage, bright colours in flowers and art, paths to lose yourself in, water tinkling and tropical jungle planting. A haven of tranquillity, art and paradise.



Vicki Gardner 2023 This article and images are available for publication through GAP specialist plant and garden photo library with further images through Shot by Women.

www. shotbywomen. com


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