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Pazo de Oca (Spain)

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The Pazo de Oca is a manor house in Galicia, Spain, with famous gardens open to the public

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      14.01.2012 10:53
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      Delightful gardens in north-western Spain

      My initial reactions on arriving at the Pazo de Oca were mixed. I instantly took to the buildings and their setting, at the centre of a tiny hamlet in the hills of inland Galicia. Facing us across an open green square was an elegant baroque stone chapel with ornate twin bell-towers, from which elevated walkways, supported by arches, stretched off to either side. The one to the right became a balcony where it joined, and could be accessed from, the first floor of the 18th-century Pazo (manor-house) itself. The manor's frontage occupied the entire side of the square, mostly two-storeyed but rising to a three-storey crenelated tower at its corner. Opposite stood an attractive terrace of contemporaneous houses built in matching ochrey-grey granite with tiled roofs. Although my wife and I were there to look at the gardens rather than the architecture, I was greatly encouraged.

      Less encouraging were the four large coaches parked at our end of the square. Not that we had any difficulty finding space - there were few other cars - but the presence of the coaches outside suggested the presence of crowds of visitors within, potentially spoiling the atmosphere. As it happened, we were lucky. The coach parties turned out to be leaving just as we entered. In any case, the grounds are so extensive, some fourteen hectares (thirty-five acres) all told, that it would probably have been easy enough to avoid them as we went round. Nevertheless, at a busy time crowds could prove to be a problem; I have read somewhere that this is the most-visited garden in Galicia. We were there on a weekday, outside the peak holiday season but before even the earliest camellias were in bloom. Camellias are a noted feature of Galician gardens, and those of the Pazo de Oca are among eleven on the Ruta da Camelia, a route followed by numerous enthusiasts when these attractive plants are to be seen at their best, late autumn into spring.

      So by visiting when we did we missed the herds, but we also missed one of the main horticultural features, which you might not think a very advantageous trade-off. To me, though, it was just fine, since I'm no great horticulturalist, enjoying gardens more for their overall appearance and ambience than for any specific botanical interest. And at Pazo de Oca we had come to a garden - indeed a set of gardens - of great variety, notable beauty, and beguiling atmosphere. Apart from which there was, in September, still plenty of colour from flowers and fruit to engage the eye all the way around. Tolerable weather too, a touch overcast but not oppressively hot, with just a rustle of breeze to animate the foliage.

      You gain no immediate impression of the scale of the grounds as, having paid your Euro4 to enter, you pass directly through from the main entrance to the Pazo into the first courtyard beyond. This is arranged in classic parterre style with clipped box hedges around the borders and a central fountain. Such courtyards, bare-pathed and enclosed by stone buildings, can sometimes seem rather austere, but here the hard outlines are softened by planting: shrubs and trees behind the box, star jasmine climbing up the arched rear of the manor, petunias in pots. Descending down steps you next pass between two further parallel box hedges, over which you see on one side a traditional hórreo, a granary raised on stone stilts to thwart rodents, and on the other a stylish period greenhouse, unfortunately not open during our visit. Beyond the greenhouse is the "geometric garden", with more box hedges forming a maze, decorated with rose bushes. Nerines also contribute colour to alleviate the eye.

      At this point in your visit you might be thinking "for formal gardens these are attractive enough, but nothing extraordinary", but by this point you have seen only a fraction of what is on offer, and the character of the place is about to change, first subtly, then dramatically. The box borders now become irregular, leading you along winding trails between clumps of camellias, of course, but also red cedars, yews, magnolias, sequoias and eucalyptuses. Many are rare and notable specimens, and listed as such in official catalogues, including a particularly celebrated Camellia reticulata. I have to confess that their finer points probably escaped me, but there was no denying the soothing overall sense of greenery and shade that between them they created.

      The recommended route around the gardens, which we have been following so far, has brought us back up behind the manor to the rear of the chapel. Cunningly, it goes on its circuitous way, saving the best till last, but I don't have that much patience. Let us take a sharp right through the shrubbery to emerge at the head of a sequence of two ponds on two levels, slanting off at an angle away from the house, introducing a pleasing asymmetry to the layout as well as a novel style to the ornamentation. Water splashes down through a pipe into a fountain to connect the two ponds. Each is about forty metres long by fifteen-to-twenty wide, and each has at its centre a sculpture in the shape of a boat, manned by heraldic figures, carrying a cargo of planted citrus shrubs and patterned ceramic pots with flowers. Each is also fringed by further decoration in the same mossy granite: columns and pergolas, arches and boat-houses, but so tall and leafy are the surrounding trees and so dense the adjacent planting of vines, hydrangeas - rather faded, alas, when we were there - and potted petunias that the overall atmosphere is anything but stony. Rather, it is simultaneously watery, green, exuberant and mysterious. There is some symbolism involved, of course. I have read variously that the upper pond represents heaven, trade and prosperity, while the lower one depicts war and purgatory. Significantly, the upper ship is planted with sweet oranges, the lower with bitter. But you don't really need to know all that to be enchanted.

      Let us walk back up past the ponds to enjoy their intriguing ambience a second time on our way to re-join the recommended route. In doing so, we pass an overgrown wash-house to reach a huge stone header tank, and it is now that we appreciate fully the degree to which the gardens depend on the storage and distribution of water, not just to feed the ponds, but also to irrigate the whole, through cleverly contrived canals and pipes discreetly set into the landscape. We are now following the Paseo do Conde (the Count's Walk) through the upper part of the garden, with fine views down across the orchards and vineyards of the estate - fruit is grown here on a serious scale - to the meadows of the valley beyond.

      Zigzagging down from here brings us through a fine avenue of mature lime trees to the horta, the most productive part of the gardens, where further grape vines and other fruit (kiwis seemed to be a particular feature) overhang the pathways on trellises, while between them vegetable patches are interspersed with flower-beds, so that cannas, marigolds and dahlias are planted beside cabbages, pumpkins and tomatoes. The effect of this mixed planting is as colourful as it is original. Doubtless in spring other flowers could be found here too; in September their fragrance might be missing, but the scent of ripe fruit almost made up for it. The pergola-covered walkways culminate in two little stone amphitheatres, each with fountains at the lower end of the garden, too small perhaps for plays to be staged there, but crying out for a performance of some kind. Either is a pleasant place to sit awhile and reflect on what you have seen, before walking back through an area of topiary to the formal gardens through which you originally entered.

      According to its leaflet, the gardens of the Pazo de Oca are open each day from 9.00; no closing time is stated. When we went in about midday, my wife and I were told that they would close at 2.00 for lunch, but that we could let ourselves out through the latched main gate if we left after that time, which we did. So we were there a little over two hours, and could easily have spent longer without running out of things to see. There is no café at the Pazo, or seemingly in the village, but fortunately we had brought a picnic and found the green outside an excellent place to eat it, enjoying the peaceful ambience and attractive architecture as well as the food. There is, I'm glad to say, no gift shop either. There is a small exhibition room, displaying horticultural implements, which might be a good place to shelter if it were raining, but I cannot say added much to our experience. It is the gardens that are the main point of the place, and they are lilies that need no gilding.

      The Pazo de Oca is owned by the Duchess of Medinaceli, and managed by her Fundación Casa Ducal de Medinaceli. The gardens have been restored after long periods of neglect in the early twentieth century, introducing new features while essentially recreating the style of the original. So far as I could see, a magnificent job has been done, and more expert bodies evidently agree with me since the place has been officially declared both a national monument and important historic garden. I understand the Medinaceli foundation also manages the Casa de Pilatos in Seville, which I shall make a point of seeing when I am in that city this coming spring.

      If you find yourself in north-western Spain and have any interest in gardens, or even just in atmospheric places, then the Pazo de Oca is well worth a visit, even a diversion from your route. It is located only about 25 kilometres south-east of Santiago de Compostela (and it is surely not just ill-advised but impossible to visit Galicia without going to Santiago de Compostela). If travelling by car, leave the AP53 motorway at the junction for Ribadulla (which will also enable you to see the nearby gardens of the Pazo de Santa Cruz de Ribadulla, another very attractive estate laid out in contrasting style, the owner of which hospitably let us in without charge, seemingly puzzled that anyone would want to see his gardens when the camellias were out of season). There is a railway station at Cira, but this would still leave you with a few kilometres to cover by foot or taxi to the gardens. Or there would, of course, appear to be coach parties.

      However you reach it, the Pazo de Oca is a lovely place, fascinating to visit and not to be missed if you are in Galicia.



      © Also published with photos under the name torr on Ciao 2012

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