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Ajuda Botanical Gardens (Lisbon, Portugal)

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Oldest botanical gardens in Portugal, dating back as far as 1798.

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      19.04.2011 12:08
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      A lovely way to end a hot day of sightseeing

      The Jardim Botanico da Ajuda is one of Lisbon's oldest and most atmospheric botanical gardens. Located in the Belem area, with all of its beautiful views of the Tagus River, the botanical gardens sit high up on a hill, just opposite the magnificent royal Palacio da Ajuda.

      We chose to put the botanical gardens last on our Belem agenda. The gardens are open until dusk, and I love to visit shady and esoteric gardens in the quiet of the evening, when most of the crowds have disappeared. We arrived around 6pm and had the place to ourselves, free to wander along the sandy paths, accompanied only by strolling peacocks. The distant River Tagus still gleamed blue in the sunshine far away, as we sat on the warm stone terraces, beside romantic fountains and underneath huge ancient trees. It was a perfect visit.

      ~~History~~

      After the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, the royal family settled high on the hill; a place that had not been so badly affected. The Italian botanist Domingos Vandelli was invited to design the Ajuda Royal Botanic Gardens, which were laid out in 1768, primarily as a means to educate the young princes and to provide a beautiful place for the royal family to relax. This was one of only fifteen botanic gardens in Europe at the time and it was the first one in Portugal. The garden was owned by the royal family until 1910 and substantially restored in the 1990s.

      ~~Visiting~~

      Getting into the garden itself is a little confusing. We initially tried an imposing ornate metal gate just opposite the Royal Palace, but were disappointed to find it locked and a sign firmly telling us that it closed at 5pm. Luckily a friendly visitor on the inside of the gate shouted to us that it was open for another hour, and told us to walk the circumference to the wall on the exact opposite side of the garden. This was a bit of a trek in the heat, but we followed the ancient stone wall round and eventually found the entrance and bought our tickets.

      The garden itself is not large; we spent an hour there and this was plenty of time to look around and soak up the atmosphere. We entered on the upper terrace; a long white stone walled walk which gave beautiful views down to the ornate and ornamental lower terrace. It was a beautiful introduction to the garden, as the upper terrace allowed us to admire the precisely cut symmetrical box hedges below. These are laid out in a traditionally Italian or French formal style, with circles laid within diamonds and walkways in between. The view from the upper terrace was magnificent as the beauty of the formal gardens was framed by the intense blue sky and sparkling water of the Tagus in the distance.

      The garden is divided into eight parts, planted with plant species from around the world and there are still plants from several of Portugal's former colonies. The eight areas are Africa, the Mediterranean, North and Central America, Asia, Central Europe and Atlantic, Macaronesia Region, Australia and New Zealand, and South America.

      On the upper terrace we enjoyed sitting underneath the huge Schotia Afra; a tree so immense and old that its 18.5 metre crown has to be supported on a network of iron railings. Nearby is another very ancient tree; a three hundred year old Dragon Tree. Sitting on one of the many benches underneath these trees, we were enchanted to see several beautiful peacocks strolling around us. These seemed to be completely tame and came right up to us. It was also the first time I had seen a pure white peacock.

      Two attractive hothouses are located on the upper terrace. These were constructed by King Louis, one of them specifically to grow orchids. Today one of them is a restaurant, the other contains ferns. Although it is not particularly exciting to go inside them, they are beautiful to look at from the outside, with their ornate ironwork and decorative doors.

      At the end of the upper terrace is the scented garden. At this time of the evening the fragrance was intense. Signs told us that we were free to touch these plants to enjoy their smells, and each sign was also available in Braille.

      Walking down the curved stone steps to the lower terrace, we wandered along elegant curving paths, coming across fountains as we went. One of the most beautiful of these fountains was a fantastic Baroque fountain decorated with stone serpents, fish, sea horses, and mythical creatures.
      The whole visit had been a peaceful and cool end to our day in Belem.

      ~~Facilities~~

      There is a restaurant which is located in the upper terrace, but this was closed at the time of our visit.
      A garden shop remains open until the last visitor departs, and sells a very good selection of plants, garden furniture and ornaments.

      The entire garden is very accessible to the disabled, with ramps leading down to each level.

      ~~Opening Hours and Charges~~

      In winter the gardens are open from 9am to 6pm (1 Oct to 31 Mar)
      Spring - 9am to 7pm (April)
      Summer - 9am to 8pm (1 May to 30 Sept)

      The gardens are open all year except 25 December and 1 January.

      Tickets cost 2E per adult and 1E for youths or students.

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