Birdsong brings a garden alive, no matter what time of the year or what garden. Lesley Bellew joined gardens historian Caroline Holmes and ornithologist Tim Earl on a Palaces and Gardens cruise.
Like thieves in the night we crept out of our beds, pulled trousers over our pyjamas and tiptoed up to the Bridge Deck for a mid-ocean rendezvous in the eerie darkness.
As Minerva sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar we watched the palest of gold sun begin to rise between the mighty Riff Mountains on the African continent and the tip of southern Spain.
With binoculars at the ready, and a cup of tea to hand, we could make out the coastline of Tarife while we waited for migratory birds to grace us with their presence.
Morning had now well and truly broken with young, speckled gannets checking out Minerva while we reaped a lively geography-cum-history lesson from our birdman Tim Earl, who was worryingly chirpy at 6am.
Up came a shout: “Audoin’s gulls, Audoin’s gulls.”
Two elegant gulls came into view and close enough to display their distinctive red bill and red legs.
Tim’s enthusiasm was contagious and when a few stowaways blew in on the Mistral between Spain and Portugal, he was on patrol to feed them up so they could continue on their way.
Dazed reed warblers could count themselves lucky – they would have fallen straight into the sea had Minerva not been passing. A yellow wagtail and collared dove also hitched a ride and were treated like royalty by the paying guests.
Tim Earl’s animated commentaries dove-tailed nicely with tours on this Palaces and Gardens cruise as we sailed from Italy to France, Spain and Portugal. Passengers could chase around Corsica with Tim looking for the indigenous nuthatch or tune in to birdsong while strolling around magnificent palaces.
Gardens historian and guest speaker Caroline Holmes took our understanding of garden visiting to an intellectual level and combined with Tim to offer an appreciation of nature’s wonders.
At the 18th century Queluz National Palace, in Lisbon, formal geometric box parterres
gave way to open spaces where, by the waterside, visitors once danced on camomile
lawns while an orchestra played on balmy evenings.
In the surrounding orchards, wildflowers were left to their own devices while blackcaps and finches brought the former royal summer residence alive.
Caroline said: “When people look at pictures of gardens they forget the sounds. At Queluz, the scent and colour of the orange groves combined with the birdscape make this a very special place to visit.”
In Elche’s palm groves, a nightingale proved her point as its song lifted the beauty of the UNESCO world heritage site to create a memory of Spain to treasure for life.
This was Caroline’s first assignment on Minerva and she fitted in a treat, taking our understanding of garden design to another level, spiced with colourful stories of fashion, conceit and intrigue.
We revelled in the tale of banking heiress Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild who made her gardeners wear berets with a red pom-pom so she could see they were working on her 17-acre estate in Nice.
At its height, the Rothschild family possessed the largest private fortune in modern world history so when Beatrice built her coral pink villa between 1905 and 1912 she indulged in her every whim. She even sliced off the top of the cliff at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat to create a garden in the shape of a cruise liner sailing into the Cote d’Azur.
We were almost falling over ourselves to see deck upon deck of exotic planting during the Fete of Roses and yet, despite all the warnings, the villa and gardens were more fragrant and spectacularly flamboyant than surely even Beatrice had dreamed.
The Alhambra, in Granada, is now Tourist Central but we were well-prepared to imagine an oasis of peace as well as grasping in the symbolism and poetry in the decorative motifs.
We could picture the sultan sitting in the shadows while his guests made their way through a myriad of gardens, passing carpet-like flower beds and carved marble pillars creating a forest of shadows.
Every courtyard was criss-crossed by water, reflecting the sun onto ornate carvings like crystals. We stepped into the glistening marble Patio of Lions - and all we were missing was a flying carpet to complete the magic.
Lesley Bellew travelled on Minerva with British cruise line Swan Hellenic which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. Minerva is a small ship, carrying a maximum of 350 passengers.
To view 2014 cruise programmes visit www.swanhellenic.com or call 0844 822 0679.