Take three eccentric Englishmen, one perhaps even more eccentric Scot, an idyllic landscape with a near perfect climate, and a good deal of luck – the ingredients of Monserrate, just outside Sintra in Portugal.
If Sintra is a fairy tale of fortress, dream palaces and seaside buildings on a mountain, Monserrate goes one better with romantic grounds, Gothic ruins and constructed monuments. It could be Coleridge's Xanadu, except he wasn't the poet who visited.
Each of the Englishmen contributed to the estate. Byron, who did visit, was the Scot who wrote as though Vathek and William Beckford, author of the novel, were one and still living there. The luck came when the Portuguese government belatedly realised it was allowing a World Heritage site fall into ruin.
Beckford was the second tenant, following Gerard de Visme who built a house and planned much of the garden. In his short time there Beckford had a waterfall and Vathek's arch constructed, and probably ordered the mock dolmen. He also had two stone pines planted where they still grow beside the fall, and may have added to de Visme's gardens.
Most of what visitors see now is due to Francis Cook, who purchased the estate after both predecessors and Byron had died. Like Beckford he brought out a gardener from England as well as an architect who refashioned the palace. As the gardens include plants from every continent so the palace blends Venetian, Portuguese and Indian styles. Like it or not, it has some wonderful features such as the music room where concerts are still held and below stairs where the kitchens and food storage are ingeniously managed.
It was never going to be enough just to bring in plants; like the building they had to be managed. Irrigation systems, diversion of water and dams created the first lawn in Iberia as well as desert gardens and swamp gardens. The continuing need of gardeners was made plain to us on hearing an English voice and found there were four students from Kew on an exchange project. The were cutting out disease from naturalised fuschias but had recently planted tree ferns that would not reach maturity in their lifetime.
Monsarrate is both vision and visionary. Byron seemed to think it was there for ever but dedicated management carries more weight than romance. The gardens are constantly evolving: the most recent apect is an English rose garden inaugurated by the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornward. Above all (literally) are the stupendous trees.
One day is certainly not enough to appreciate all that Monserrate offers. Each season demands a visit. As in the best romantic concepts it has borrowed landscape too, from the surrounding mountains to the plain beside the Atlantic.
There is a helpful plan for visitors complemented by signposts from one garden to the next or to the very good cafe and the palace. Stately pleasure dome (it has three) or Brighton Pavilion fantasy, you have to go inside. Although in great need of restoration it had some very well completed areas with interactive displays in a choice of languages for further investigation.
The fabulous wealth needed for Monserrate may no longer be the prerogative of the kind of people who created it but its fame has no need of another Byron.