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In this Madrid 'museum,' every masterpiece is green

By Irene WoodburyContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / February 23, 2005


I've never traveled to India, but I have stood in awe under a 90-foot Himalayan cedar. Wandering the tranquil pathways and greenhouses of Madrid's majestic Royal Botanical Garden, I've also marveled at cactus from Madagascar, shrubs from Siberia, tropical greenery from Africa, and wisteria from East Asia.

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What good fortune that a break in a week-long spring rain led my husband and me to the imposing wrought-iron gates of this regal Madrid landmark.

Inside, we found an oasis of haunting beauty - a striking panorama of plants, trees, and flowers from five continents that captivated us with its grandeur.

The 18th-century garden is a favorite haunt of Madrilenos. It is not just one of Europe's oldest and most diverse botanic gardens, neatly compact on 20 acres, but it is set right in the middle of this frenetic, noisy city of 3 million. That makes it a cozy urban retreat, a no-stress zone for locals and visitors alike.

Few attractions in any big city are so wonderfully convenient and yet easy to miss. Abutting Madrid's main promenade, the traffic-choked Paseo del Prado, the garden is perfectly positioned near Madrid's three great art museums. Across a courtyard looms the Prado; the Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Reina Sofia are within a 10-minute walk. The elegant Ritz is close by, and the bustling city center, Puerta del Sol, but a few minutes away.

We came across this treasure almost by accident, as we emerged from a side door of the Prado to clearing skies one afternoon. A mere 100 yards distant sat the main entrance of the Real Jardin Botanico.

Over the wet days, we'd had our fill of wall-to-wall Goyas and Picassos, and now one look inside at the splendor of Eurasian trees and arbors covered with Chinese flowers had us yearning for masterpieces of the greener variety.

We weren't disappointed: 30,000 plants and 1,500 trees from hundreds of countries awaited us.

It's not necessary to be a botany expert, or even a garden enthusiast, to enjoy the flora and fauna as well as the fountains, statues, grape arbors, crammed greenhouses, pavilion art gallery, and flourishing fern and rock gardens.

One step inside and we were on the first of three themed terraces. Beckoning was a brilliant array of tulips in raspberry, crimson, orange, lemon, and luminous white. Nearby were trimmed hedge enclosures holding pink and red poppies amid patches of white pansies.

I was also drawn to rhododendrons from Japan and Korea and six-foot-tall Japanese camellia bushes with pink, salmon, and creamy white blooms. Their sweet, heavy fragrance was complemented by the delicate aroma of Chinese peonies with their yellow stamens peeking coyly through voluptuous pink petals.

Though spring had barely sprung, the garden was also rich with the sights and scents of daffodils, exotic red-flowered bushes with pods of white buds (Pieris formosa), white and burgundy hyacinths, European primroses, South African irises, and a pink and white European ground cover (Aubrieta deltoidea). Everything is labeled in Latin, with information in Spanish, sometimes English, also provided.

The garden's springtime tableau is especially dazzling, but summer, fall, and winter are also spectacular. Many of the flowers and shrubs bloom on the same schedule they do in their original countries, as if they maintain a nostalgic longing for - or irreversible genetic link to - their native lands.

The city's weather is an almost perfect mix of Atlantic and Mediterranean conditions that sustains everything from Tasmanian daisies and Manchurian geraniums to Canary Island date palms.