One of the highlights of a holiday in Madeira is a visit to the Monte Palace Tropical Garden. It is the starting point for the island’s famous Funchal toboggan ride, in which visitors hurtle down the steep and narrow Madeiran lanes for around 2km in what are essentially wicker baskets on wheels. But the palace at Monte, and more specifically the gardens that crown the hilltop estate that overlooks Funchal, are very much an attraction in their own right. A keen horticulturist is likely to spend a happy day wandering through the 70,000 m2 site, admiring the 100,000 or so species of flora. Even for the less committed botanist (those of us who are happy to appreciate the vibrant colours without feeling the need to get our heads around the Latin names or understand the intricacies of floral family trees) there’s plenty to enjoy at Monte. Here are just a few of the highlights.
Cultural links between Japan and Portugal go back a long way. The Japanese port of Nagasaki was visited by Portuguese explorers in the 16th century and their influence was significant. They spread Christianity in south-western Japan (Nagasaki still has many churches) and even the Japanese word for ‘thank you’ (Arrigato) is said to derive from the Portuguese ‘obrigado’. At Monte Palace this link is celebrated, with Japanese gardens, a traditional tea house and red ‘tori gates’ typically found in Japanese shrines. Meanwhile a giant iron panel with 166 colourful ceramic plates depicts the many aspects of the 450-year relationship between then Japanese and Portuguese. International Gardens In fact the world theme continues with Portugal’s global influence celebrated with displays from China, Indonesia, India and South America. Look out for the Asian orchids (orchidacea) and the camellia (from the Theaceae family), an ever-green plant with winter and spring blossom.
The Monte Palace estate was for much of the 19th century owned by Englishman Charles Murray, who enjoyed Madeira’s mild climate and long hours of sunshine. When he sold his land to Alfredo Guilherme Rodrigues in 1897, Rodrigues decided to build a palace in the style of those he’d seen along the Rhine in Germany. It soon became a luxury hotel and long after Rodrigues passed away the property and its land were donated to the foundation which manage the gardens today. While the house itself is not part of the garden visit, there are indoor exhibitions in the gardens, most notably of contemporary African art.
While the plant life of the gardens gets the most attention, its animal residents are also note-worthy. There’s a group of resident black swans in the shallow central lake, while the park’s many peacocks can be seen parading through the grounds and stopping happily for photographs. The koi carp in the park’s lakes are also popular. With a lifespan of up to 100 years, they are understandably symbol of longevity and considered lucky. Refreshments As you’d expect from a garden of this size, there’s a cafe with refreshments and a great view of the grounds. As a bonus, there’s even the opportunity to enjoy a free sample of Madeiran wine.
Photo by Wouter Hagens (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons