During the recent week of a real English winter, my only digging has been round the wheels of the car, embedded in snow at various points up the drive to the house. On the coldest mornings, I have given up and returned to a mental travel among little-known gardens that are havens of camellias and spring flowers in mid-February. How many of you know much about the historic gardens of Portugal? Perhaps you have seen a few at Sintra in its unusually favourable climate for trees and hedging. My mental image of them amounted to a few painted tiles behind stone benches and dazzling bougainvilleas between the gardens and hideous, encroaching modernity.
I have been completely wrong but it has taken an excellent new book to open my eyes. As its author, Helena Attlee, aptly observes: "Thousands of visitors are drawn to Portugal each year but few of them visit its gardens. Their loss is your gain." It could even be a gain at this very moment. Some of the best are magnificently equipped with camellias, many of which are now out in flower.
Her Gardens of Portugal is the essential companion, not least because she gives the addresses of the many good gardens open only by appointment. I hope their owners do not live to regret her generous research.
In the south of the country, the once-royal garden at Queluz is relatively well known abroad. It has become the beneficiary of funding from the World Monuments Fund and I have written in the Financial Times about its appeal to restore the garden's great series of statues, made and exported by John Cheere near London's Hyde Park.
Queluz was a royal botanical paradise in the 18th century but it turns out to be only one of a score of architecturally planned gardens worth hunting down. Decay and neglect are flourishing in many of them but there is still plenty for sensitive visitors to take to heart. Attlee writes of a "quirky soul which survives vibrant and intact" or of "absurdity in a captivatingly light-hearted garden". I trust her entirely and her book's photographs are excellent.
Gardening in Portugal has been a historical roller-coaster. The first great flowering was in the early 16th century when Portuguese ships were navigating the Cape of Good Hope and bringing spices and irresist-ible luxuries back from Asia. The great -survivor from this era is Quinta da Bacalhoa, every aspect of which deserves a superlative, writes Attlee. It has the painted tiling, or azulejos , which is such a feature of walls, seats and even pillars in Portuguese garden design. The gardens of this era owed a debt, like so many, to the designs in Renaissance Italy. The best painted tiling I have seen on pergolas outside Attlee's book is in the cloister garden of San Domenico, the Italian headquarters of the Dominican monastic order in Bologna. It measures up to Portuguese standards, although Portugal has finer scenes of family members on prancing horses and more busty classical heroines. I have often thought that wittily painted tiling of this sort would be a fine addition to cramped London gardens in places such as London's Fulham. The da Bacalhoa garden owes its restored state to an American buyer in 1936, Orlena Scoville.
Wars with Morocco and then with Spain clipped Portugal's prosperity but news of gold and diamonds in Brazil restored it in the early 18th century. Garden-making flourished again with the Italian inspiration of Niccoló Nasoni, an imported genius who brought in the baroque style. He coincided with the ascent of the trade in port wine. It did not add only to 18th century gout, it also boosted the profits available for garden building and entrenched its English growers in style around Porto. Even in 1900, they struck a visitor as behaving as if they "owned the city, so Britanically, so unconsciously arrogantly" with their cricket pitches and rowing regattas and "jolly, self-contained British life". They were the ultimate British expats and their gardens showed it. Nasoni's most famous building evokes vin rosé , not port. He designed the Casa de Mateus so familiar on the labels of Mateus rosé, although the grapes for this wine were not grown around this magnificent house.
An age of exuberant gardening was shaken by the devastating earthquake round Lisbon in 1755. It was further shaken by a remarkable moderniser, the Marquis of Pombal, who attacked the country's education, Jesuits and aristocracy with particular energy. Other noble gardens suffered but his own continued to prosper and its tiled terracing, classical statues of authors and remarkable Poets Cascade can still be visited with pleasure. His fervour was followed by Napoleon's invasion and its ruinous wars. Noble gardening was hit yet again. It was not extinguished, however. Attlee has a fascinating account of yet another Italian import, the set designer Luigi Manini, who arrived from a career at La Scala opera house in Milan. He applied his skill to the magnificently sited garden of Quinta da Regaleira, where enough survives to be a tribute to interior designers when let loose outdoors.
He is not, however, the high point of her story. I am intrigued to be reminded of a superb Portuguese garden in the mid-1930s, honoured for its white peacocks, orange trees and elegance by the famous landscape gardener Russell Page. It turns out to be the Casa dos Biscainhos, one of several worthwhile gardens in the damp, garden-friendly north. Apparently many of the local townsmen emigrated in the 1960s and the public gardens were left to the women, a tradition that persists.
Biscainhos has been owned by the town council since the mid-1960s. In 1805, a visitor wrote: "When I entered the house's drawing room all the dames of honour were seated - guess, reader, where? On the floor!" By the 1960s it sounds as if they were out in the flower beds instead.
At Biscainhos, Page saw amazing camellias, clipped into the shapes of huge houses. I now see what he meant. Camellias took off in Portugal in the early 19th century and in gardens such as the stunning Casa do Campo the results are wonderfully visible. Camellias are pruned into tightly circular shapes, up to 30ft high. As I write they are flowering all over their glistening evergreen leaves, an almost incredible sight.
In England the recent frosts have ruined camellia buds outdoors. In Portugal they are at their best, with roses to follow in March and rivers of blue agapanthus while we are still shivering among our daffodils. Portuguese staircases of stone, tanks of water and façades of exuberant houses are the ideal antidote to late winter. in Financial Times, 14/15 de Fevereiro de 2009
The Gardens of Portugal, Helena Attlee (Frances Lincoln, London).
FOTO: Jardim do Palácio dos Condes da Calheta em Belém, Lisboa