July may have been balmy here, but in Madeira David Overend finds a garden where tropical plants are really flourishing.
I took a cable car to a garden. Most people would have got in the car, caught a bus, even walked, but I caught a cable car.
This garden, however, was a bit different – an inspiring garden in a stupendous position overlooking the Madeiran capital of Funchal.
Monte Palace Tropical Garden has its origins back in the 18th century, when the British consul of the time bought the land to the south of the town’s famous church and built himself a stunning estate.
Fast forward a couple of centuries and the Jose Berardo Foundation, took charge and spent a lot of time and money turning the estate into 70,000 square metres of paradise; a monumental, sloping garden packed with a luxuriant mixture of tropical and indigenous plants.
There are 100,000 different species of plants with a section reserved for the local species from the Laurisilva forest, with some nearly extinct species known as the Mocanu. The garden is also famous for having the largest collection of cycads in the world, some 60 out of 72 species, mostly from South Africa.
But it’s too easy to simply talk numbers. Monte Palace Tropical Garden has so much more to offer – fountains and lakes filled with koi carp, and a stunning art museum.
The garden is a place to get lost and to wander. Even when it’s busy, it’s easy to find a quiet spot, a place to sit and try to take in the magnitude of what’s on offer. It’s a wonderful mixture of greenery, vivid spots of colour, inviting pathways, stunning plants, the sound of birds and an atmosphere all of its own.
Then there are the water features, the sculptures, the scents... if Madeira is a paradise island, then the tropical garden is its heart.
A few hundred feet down the slope towards Funchal is the renowned Botanical garden, which boasts more than 2,000 plants and a stupendous view over the capital. It, too, can be accessed via the cable car, but it can’t compete with the size and originality of Monte Palace. Visit it, yes, but then head on upwards to Monte.
The only problem with the tropical garden is that sometimes it hides itself among the clouds, so it’s always best to check the weather forecast before setting out.
The 10 euro entrance fee is money well spent; the trip in the cable car is more expensive but a fittingly stunning way to arrive. Alternatively, take a bus – that’s another experience completely.