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Gardens of Portugal - Casa de Mateus

Gardens of Portugal - Casa de Mateus
Gardens of Portugal - Casa de Mateus
Gardens of Portugal - Casa de Mateus
Gardens of Portugal - Casa de Mateus
Gardens of Portugal - Casa de Mateus
Gardens of Portugal - Casa de Mateus

The Casa de Mateus, just outside Vila Real in northern Portugal, will be familiar to anyone who has ever drunk a bottle of Mateus rosé wine. The facade of the house features on the label of each bottle – despite the fact that no wine has ever been produced on the estate.

The house was designed by the Italian Niccolò Nasoni and is said to be a near-perfect example of Baroque architecture. It’s widely considered to be one of the finest country houses in Europe. The house and garden are open to the public, and often form the backdrop for concerts and other events.

I will leave the house to better qualified people to describe – but I can say that the gardens are a delight. There are some commentators who scorn Portugal’s Baroque gardens, but I haven’t tired of the style yet. (Perhaps it’s because the neatness and orderliness of these gardens reminds me of the state in which I was able to maintain my home until I got married.) I approached the Mateus garden the wrong way, as I later found out. As you enter the estate from the main road the trees give way to reveal a large pool – or rather, water tank – beyond which lies the house. The recognised route to the garden is to circumvent the tank and walk through a passage beneath the central, double-balustraded staircase of the house, which leads you onto the main terrace. But before I got anywhere near the house my eye was caught by a smaller stone tank way off to the right, and I headed off that way instead. I thereby approached the garden from the side, via a path between the old orchards and vegetable plots. The path is intersected by archways of box providing framed views in two directions: towards the house and towards the distant landscape. The smaller tank that had caught my eye turned out to be the irrigation tank for the productive part of the garden in years gone by (there are still some vegetables and fruit trees now, but not much to write home about).

I then descended to the lower gardens via the impressive cedar tunnel. This tunnel, wonderfully cool and welcoming on a hot day, is so dark inside that I failed to photograph it satisfactorily. This was an impromptu visit; my tripod was left behind that day, and hand-held exposure was impossible without going up to 3200ISO – something to be avoided in garden photography. But as they say, “always leave yourself something to go back for”. I shall return to photograph it another day.

Emerging from the cedar tunnel I entered the first of two lower parterres, which are separated by a tall hedge shaped in wave form. This first parterre contains box-edged beds, which at the time of my visit were filled with blue and yellow iris. The second parterre, beyond the undulating hedge, is much more formal in style. It’s a ‘broderie’-type affair: a concoction of low box hedges in various patterns – fleur-de-lys, crowns and curves – all laid over gravel. Linking the two lower gardens at one side is the stone retaining wall, festooned with fragrant climbing roses.

The main terrace, at house level, was the last part of the garden that I came to – and my favourite. This contains a beautiful fountain, together with the usual beds edged in box. There was comparatively little colour here when I visited other than lush green, but I will certainly return in the spring in order to see the magnolia and camellia in bloom. There were several gardeners at work, trimming and clipping – one of them using the tallest ladder I have ever come across to clip a high hedge. I regret not stopping to chat with them, but this was not an arranged visit and for some reason I felt shy. I later learned that one of the Mateus gardeners had been interviewed on a British television programme a few years ago, at the age of 104. There’s dedication for you.

Further information about the garden can be found in Helena Attlee’s book, Gardens of Portugal (Lincoln press).

(Incidentally, for any oenophiles out there, Mateus rosé wine with its iconic flask-shaped bottle went out of fashion after the 1970’s, but sales took off again when it was re-launched in 2002 in slightly drier form to suit the modern-day palate. Apparently it was one of the wines found stockpiled in the vaults of Saddam Hussein’s palaces after his downfall. We all know what good taste he showed in every other aspect of his life, so clearly there can be no finer commendation for the wine than this.)

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