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May 31, 2012

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The Jardim Botánico: A Hidden Gem in Lisbon

Posted by Hansel Hernandez, Historic Preservation and Cultural Heritage Consultant
World Monuments Fund

To be honest, when I came to Lisbon last summer to work on a conservation project, the last thought in my mind was to visit gardens. My priority was to discover the vast and rich architectural heritage of this capital city, learn about their rare and large museum collections, and of course savor the succulent Portuguese cuisine with an emphasis on desserts. The Jardim Botánico de Lisboa was not even listed in my traveler’s guidebook; something to be completely overlooked. But fate had something else planned for me.

I was living in the Rato neighborhood and to get to downtown Lisbon I had to walk down Rua da Escola Politécnica, which stretches one kilometer and borders the trendy neighborhoods of Principe Real and Barrio Alto. Today this up-and-coming streetscape is filled with bars, restaurants, pastry shops, boutiques, parks, and lookout terraces.

After several weeks of seeing the sign at the entrance gates, I decided to go in and explore. Entrance fee was only 1 Euro. I am glad I did. Behind the former university buildings fronting the street, the gardens are laid out in contained terraces following the slope of the hill—Lisbon is all hill crests and valleys—which winds down towards Avenida Liberdade, the Champs-Élysées of Lisbon. But the avenue is completely shut out: the depth of the topography and lushness of the gardens act as an invisible, magical screen. You find yourself in this very peaceful, verdant environment conducive to rest and quiet contemplation.

The history of Lisbon’s Botanical Gardens harkens back not to the nineteenth century, but to the sixteenth century. In Portugal history and heritage is made up of many, many layers. When you think something belongs to one era further research reveals a different story.

The garden makes up the former grounds of the Quinta do Monte do Olivete, a sixteenth-century estate founded by Dom Fernão Telles de Menezes, former governor of India and later of the Algarve region in southern Portugal. Dom Fernão ceded his estate to the Jesuits in 1589 so they could build their Cotovia Novitiate.

Between 1609 and 1759 the Jesuits undertook a thorough study of botany in the gardens of their novitiate. The research gathered for almost two centuries laid the groundwork for the eventual creation of a botany department at the school.

In 1837, the Polytechnic School of Lisbon opened in the former buildings of the novitiate, on what is now the Rua da Escola Politécnica. Its mission was to give scientific training to officer candidates to the national army and navy. In fact, the army school shared the space with the polytechnic for a number of years.

In 1843 the building burned to the ground and a new building was projected only for the polytechnic. Work began in 1857. In 1911 the University of Lisbon was created and it was decreed that it should have a school of science. The polytechnic became the new School of Science, and it operated as such until 1985, when the school moved to new headquarters at the University City.

I very much enjoyed coming to the gardens, this magnificent, peaceful, and open green space right smack in the middle of the city; I could not help but think of the same effect and feeling one has when visiting Central Park in New York. I returned to the gardens several times. There are fountains (in disuse), small greenhouses, some outbuildings, and even an elegant astronomical observatory building. And of course, there are old-fashion benches so you can take the weight off your feet, snack on something, perhaps nap, relax, contemplate while under a cozy bamboo screen, or a giant weeping willow. The gardens have a large variety of tropical plant species namely from New Zealand, Australia, China, Japan, and South America. These plants thrive here in Lisbon’s temperate climate and the many micro-climates found in the gardens.

Presently the former academic buildings on the site house the National History Museum, the National Science Museum, the National Natural History Museum, and the Teatro da Politécnica. The University of Lisbon has a big ambition to transform this place into an important scientific, artistic, and cultural center for the city. But the economic reality of Portugal, as in the rest of southern Europe, is a harsh one. Some government assistance the university had received for the maintenance of the buildings has ceased. An imminent threat has been temporarily halted: a out of scale condo development adjacent to the gardens which would have obstructed views and completely alter the open verdant surroundings has been nixed.

It is behind these historic buildings fronting Rua da Escola Politécnica that the Botanical Gardens are located. The 6 acres in the center of Lisbon are waiting for its inhabitants to re-discover it.