This August Shirley-Anne Bell discovered a plant lover’s delight in what, at first sight, might have seemed an unlikely place: the Costa Brava
Think Blanes, the Costa Brava resort, in August and chances are you imagine monolithic hotel blocks, overlooking beaches full of toasting holidaymakers, and indeed, it is a fabulous place if you want to lie in the sun and cultivate your tan.
However, for the more active holidaymaker, there is a real treasure to discover. On the cliff top overlooking the cobalt blue waters of the Mediterranean is the Jardi Botanic Mar i Murta (Sea and Myrtle), founded in 1921 by the German Karl Faust and now in the hands of an international botanical research foundation.
It is not a dusty, academic experience (though, usefully, it does mean that everything is well-labelled!). As soon as you reach the entrance, draped in eye-watering purple bracts of bougainvillea, you will be seduced by the layout with its inviting paths and contrasting planting over 41 acres of sub-tropical, temperate and Mediterranean gardens.
The first feature is a surreal landscape of bananas in fruit, sun-bleached succulents like the Canary Island Aeoniums, and forests of tall cacti. These are interspersed with fat pumpkins of Echinocactus grusonii (the unkindly named ‘Mother in Law’s chair’!), and African succulents including aloes and towering euphorbias.
This gives way to the welcome cool of a shady sub-tropical pergola, draped in the pink trumpets of Datura rosei, and the strange flesh-coloured flowers of Aristolochia grandiflora, which are fertilized by flies.
A tunnel plunges through to a pond bordered by flowering cannas, and palm trees like the wonderful Brahea armata, the ‘blue palm’, which is draped in flower like long tresses of blonde hair. Shady groves of 10-metre (30-feet) high bamboo, Phyllostachys viridiglaucescens give relief from the heat, while Chlorophytum comosum 'Variegatum', our common spider plant, tumbles over the border edges, and huge shrubs of Nerium oleander are starred with pink and white flowers.
The landscaping is cleverly designed to reveal viewpoints, or Miradors, over the sea, framed by agaves, where you can watch tiny boats far below you, and scuba divers exploring the rocky outcrops. The cliff-side path leads to a tiny ‘temple’ near the foot of a fabulous set-piece staircase, a memorial to the early Spanish botanist, Antoni Palau Verdera. In the spring its green masses of Drosanthemum floribundum are studded with purple flowers, while massed cannas in flower frame the steps in the summer.
It is a brisk uphill walk from the seafront, or a short taxi ride, and in the summer there is a regular bus service. However, as the garden is open all year round, and there is a succession of flowers from February through into the late autumn, a visit would definitely be a real treat, whether in high or low season.