Top Spring Gardens

Marvel at the Laburnum Blossoms at Bodnant, the riot of colour at Keukenhof and our other favourite floral fiestas

Featured April 10 Words by Alex Mitchell
ALL PHOTOS © PHOTOLIBRARY, 4CORNERS
Top Spring Gardens

It's spring and from Milan to Manchester, Europe is changing colour, shedding its washed-out browns and greens for reds, yellows and creamy whites. Tulips burst into life, magnolias shamelessly thrust their cup-like blooms to the sky and laburnum blossoms drip like melting butter. Spring is the perfect time for some post-winter colour therapy.

From medieval walled pleasure gardens to rolling estates and municipal parks, the continent's gardens have woken up. But how do you pick your way through the dizzying lists of famous gardens and, just as importantly, how do you know when is the best time to visit? No one wants to turn up only to find the wisteria is past its peak, the roses are being deadheaded and the bulbs are nothing more than limp leaves flopping on the grass.

Our insider's guide to the most spectacular spring gardens in Europe and north Africa will ensure you get your timing just right. Then all that's left is to discover for yourself these breathtaking gardens, taking time to sit back and smell the flowers.

HIMALAYAS WITHOUT TRAVEL JABS
BODNANT GARDEN, WALES
» Fly to Liverpool
» Perfect for rugged outdoor types
"Have you ever been to the Himalayas?" the late British industrialist Lord Aberconway was once asked. "No," he replied, glancing out of the window at his 30 hectares of soaring conifers and gigantic rhododendrons. "There has never seemed much point." With stunning views of Snowdon above a hillside bursting with magnolia, azalea and rhododendron blossoms, this Welsh wonderland is about epic landscapes, tinkling brooks and enchanting walks in the dell. You half expect Frodo Baggins to appear round the corner.

Visit in March and April to see magnolias, camellias and spring bulbs. From early April to the middle of May the rhododendrons are magnificent, while late May is showtime for the azaleas. But perhaps the most stunning sight of all is in early June, when you can wander through a 55m-long tunnel dripping with golden laburnum blossoms. www.bodnantgarden.co.uk Stay at Craig-Ard Hotel, doubles from €85. Book at www.hotels.easyJet.com

LILY PADS AND SKETCHPADS
GIVERNY, FRANCE
» Fly to Paris Charles de Gaulle
» Perfect for art lovers
When Monet sat painting his now legendary lily pond, he didn't put in the gardeners he employed to scoop algae from the water, pick up floating willow branches and wipe the lily pads clean every day. Nor did he include the roadworkers he paid to tar the road next door so dust from passing traffic wouldn't spoil the reflection in the deep, blue water. Getting his Japanese water garden to look this good didn't come without effort.

"Apart from painting and gardening, I'm not good at anything," Monet was fond of saying. They couldn't have been more compatible passions. He created this garden in 1883 and recreated it again and again on canvases right up to his death in 1926. No wonder visitors coming to Giverny feel a real sense of déjà vu. And yet, somehow, it lives up to all expectations.

The best time to visit is in May, when the flower garden just outside the house is a riot of irises, poppies, wallflowers, peonies and roses and the Japanese bridge across the pond is draped in mauve and white wisteria, a vine planted by Monet himself. www.giverny.org Stay at Domaine de la Corniche, doubles from €70. Book at www.hotels.easyJet.com

A BOLD, BLUE DESERT BOLTHOLE
JARDIN MAJORELLE, MOROCCO
» Fly to Marrakech
» Perfect for people needing a bit of colour in their lives
Morocco is a stone's throw from Europe, making it easily accessible for those wanting a refreshing spring break in an exotic location. In the tropical atmosphere of Marrakech, French artist Jacques Majorelle splashed a vibrant palette over his garden, painting its walls a rich, deep blue inspired by local tiles. One of those bohemian Europeans attracted to the sexually liberated atmosphere of 1920s Morocco, Majorelle stuffed the gardens with cacti, succulents and over 400 varieties of palm, all of which still dominate the space. When he died in 1962, the place went wild, but was saved almost 20 years later when bought and restored by the French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé.

It's the antithesis of the naturalistic English style, an unashamedly flashy setting for showcasing cacti and exotic palms against bright yellow window frames, apple-green doors and red paths. But it's the cobalt blue of the walls and fountains that really dominates, perfectly offsetting the shady foliage and lily pond. Go on a hot spring day when you can wander around the shady courtyard to the sound of tinkling fountains. www.jardinmajorelle.com Stay at Mont Gueliz Hotel, doubles from €68. Book at www.hotels.easyJet.com

TULIP FEVER
KEUKENHOF, NETHERLANDS
» Fly to Amsterdam
» Perfect for a family day out
Ever wondered what St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow's Red Square would look like as a flower display? Go no further than Lisse, half an hour from Amsterdam, where the iconic building has been recreated using 65,000 bulbs in response to this year's Russian theme at the annual Keukenhof bulb bonanza.

Even when it's not undertaking floral feats of engineering, this 30-hectare park is pretty spectacular. Bursting with seven million bulbs, it's planting as painting.

Every spring, visitors pile in - 43 million since the park opened in 1949 - to ooh and aah at the crazy numbers of tulips and daffodils and the blue stream of grape hyacinths coursing down to the lake.

Visit from March to May, with the best time being the end of April to the beginning of May. Spend an hour or so at the park and then hire a bike and picnic on bread, cheese and Amstel beer by the sides of the bulb fields around Keukenhof. But don't get too sentimental about the flowers - it's their bulbs that are most prized, so once they've flowered for a week, a big machine crawls across the fields munching off the flowers in order to get the bulbs ready for sale. www.keukenhof.nl Stay at Estherea, deluxe room for two adults and a child from €220. Book at www.hotels.easyJet.com

ROMANCE FOR WATER LOVERS
VILLA LANTE, ITALY
» Fly to Rome
» Perfect for couples
Algae-shouldered sea gods lounge each side of a waterfall, Pegasus spouts nobly in a serene pool and water trickles down stone steps that wend their way up and down the hillside. Turn up to this garden thirsty and you may soon regret it. But come looking for romance and this shady, meditative hillside idyll has all you could ever wish for.

Probably the best-preserved garden of the Italian Renaissance, Villa Lante is all about water, gushing from the mouths of beasts, between urns and even through the centre of a giant stone table where cardinals apparently used to cool their wine. Created in the 1560s, the design is all very symbolic, with a climbing succession of spectacular fountains and sculptures representing man's journey from the wilderness to civilisation. Rationalism, represented by the stone, is contrasted with the rough, wild nature of the water and it all ends in a clipped yew parterre at the bottom - the triumph of civilisation. You don't have to be literate in Rennaissance symbolism to enjoy some time here on a hot afternoon, hearing the trickle of water and resting in the shade. www.infoviterbo.it/villa_lante_bagnaia_eng.htm Stay at B&B dei Papi Charme & Design, doubles from €110. Book at www.hotels.easyJet.com

BEST OF THE REST

CHATEAU DE VILLANDRY, FRANCE
PARIS ORLY
Anyone who didn't think a cabbage could be beautiful, can't have been to this chateau near Tours, which is known for its vegetable displays - perfect inspiration for allotment holders. www.chateauvillandry.com

PATIOS OF CORDOBA, SPAIN
MALAGA
During the May festival, the streets of Córdoba are bejewelled as potted geraniums are elevated to an artform. www.patiosdecordoba.net

SISSINGHURST, UK
GATWICK
Stroll through spring bulbs down the lime walk in April and drink in the climbing roses in Vita Sackville-West's Kentish creation from May to June. www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sissinghurst

ISOLA BELLA, ITALY
MILAN
A ship of flowers sets sail in Lake Maggiore - this colourful, sophisticated island being particularly lovely and dramatic in spring when its camellias, azaleas and rhododendrons are in full blossom. www.lagomaggiore.net

LEVENS HALL, CUMBRIA
MANCHESTER
Fans of Alice in Wonderland will love Levens Hall, which boasts the finest topiary garden in the world, a fantastical place where yew and box is coaxed into brave bulges and beasts. www.levenshall.co.uk


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