The University of Lisbon Botanical Garden was designed as a scientific garden, planting began in 1873 through the initiative of professors Andrade Corvo and the Earl of Ficalho. Tucked away in the Principe Real district, near the legendary Bairro Alto, the Botanical Garden is a lush retreat from the afternoon sun. Well that is what the tourist information says, but perhaps it should be renamed ‘The Lost Gardens’. When I finally found the entrance to the gardens I noticed a sign saying that “works are being carried out” but the only evidence of this was the red and white striped tape blocking off access to several of the crumbling pathways. Access denied.
The gardens look as though they have been neglected since 2008 – the notice showing which flowers are in bloom was dated April, 2008. My visit was in May 2012. The padlocked entrance was rusty and the paintwork was peeling. No-one had come this way for a long time. The bright pink Bougainvillea still managed to flourish though. The paths that lead through the park were uneven in places, rock strewn in others and covered in leaf debris from the winter. Treacherous smooth worn cobbled steps lead up to the Xerophyte plant area where drought-tolerant plants can be found such as aloes and cacti. It is steep and sloping here but indicative of the different species of plants from Africa, New Zealand, Australia and South America. There is a sign to the Butterfly House, but it is not clear which of the dilapidated buildings it is in.
Moving downwards I discover a man-made disused lake and river, both dry and empty of any life. There are no ducks, no fish and no sign of any gardeners either, though there is some evidence that the edges around some of the beds have been recently trimmed. I hope that this garden is restored as it is a tranquil oasis in the middle of a hot and dusty city; the sounds of the city are muted and the air is filled with birdsong. You can wander through collections of palms from every continent, creating a tropical environment. There are cycads too, real living fossils, now living in the undergrowth. There are bamboos, orchids, bulbs and grasses too, though few flowers were in evidence.
In addition to significant collections of preserved specimens and seeds, the garden housed the Astronomical Institute Observatory and the Meteorological Observatory, which was opened in 1863, with continuous records going back to the nineteenth century. Also located at Jardim Botânico is a department of the Science Museum, which visitors can see by appointment. Unfortunately many of the historic buildings are now in disrepair.
The €1.50 entrance fee will not help to revive this garden. I believe it was that price back in 2008. I hope that the economy of Portugal improves and civil and nature conservation groups get involved to rescue this important collection of plants which were brought here to assist their survival. That survival seems under threat now.