From Damascus to Kyoto: Victoria Alexander’s Garden Travels

When we asked author and photographer Victoria Alexander to share some of her favourite green places from around the world for this month’s Adventure issue she gave us so many gorgeous images and stories that we decided to divide them into two posts so we didn’t have to cut any! Here’s the second instalment of Victoria’s world tour of planty places. This week, she’s meandering from Syria to central Victoria via Ireland and London.

Nur al-Din Bimaristan (البيمارستان النوري), Damascus, Syria

Syria is in the news so often for obvious sad, bad reasons but what’s not often said is that it is one of the most friendly countries of all to visit. Enchanted by greenery, early Muslims were pioneers in creating gardens and plant collections that were in contrast to the arid natural world; they created earthy gardens that gave way to heavenly gardens.  The love of plants is shown in their poetry – just think of the thirteenth-century Persian poet Rumi who did his theological education in Syria.

The cool shade provided by trees, floral perfumes, plants and the musical sounds of water were worshipped.”

Having experienced the Syrian way, it’s a memory that lingers forever.

Located in the al-Hariqa quarter in the old walled city, just south of the market and southwest of the great Umayyad Mosque, Nur al-Din Bimaristan was originally built as a hospital and medical teaching centre in AH548/1154AD. It stayed that way until the 19th century. Now, it’s a museum dedicated to the history of Arab science and medicine. It’s architecture is fascinating – there’s an elaborately decorated entranceway with Mesopotamian influences and a courtyard with beautiful stonework and a large iwan on one side.

Travelling through the Middle East, it’s easy to be overcome with courtyard envy.  Like so many others, this one has a fountain at the centre – Islamic hospital central courtyards were modelled on the Prophet’s home in Medina – and is surrounded by flowers and a display of medicinal plants. It was believed the view and scent of flowers reached the brain and influenced it. They were valued for their calming effect, basil in particular as an anti-depressant and tranquiliser with its aroma having beneficial effects on the mind. They also recognised the healing effects of beautiful scenery and views, so that all the south-facing rooms have windows overlooking Damascus and the gardens of al-Salihiyya.

Traditional small Ryokan, Kyoto, Japan

I’ve been privileged to travel twice in Japan with a Japanese friend who is a ceramicist. Apart from the obvious cultural and language benefits, this has meant I’ve been accepted to stay in a traditional two room ryokan where, because the couple who own it only speak Japanese, they normally accept only Japanese guests.

A refined multi-course breakfast is served on a mixture of lacquerware and ceramic bowls and plates by the kimono wearing wife (also a ceramicist) in a tatami mat and rice paper screen room where you sit on the floor and look out through large windows onto this small garden.  Traditional music plays softly in the background. Everything about this ryokan is authentic, quintessentially Japanese, and as it has been for what feels like centuries.

You share the wooden bath and bathroom with the owners and are given an allocated time when it’s all yours.”

Of course, there are many larger and more notable Japanese gardens (blossom season is something everyone who can should experience at least once) but this small one feels like an intimate treasured secret – and just as inspirational – because it is representative of the type of gardens I expect others have in their homes too.

A sculptors’ garden, Cork, Ireland

I’d love to be able to tell you exactly where this is but cannot. Chasing images for my book, Real, I took myself off to Ireland where I spent ten days travelling down small roads with a gorgeous Irish photographer as driver and guide, stopping on a whim whenever it felt right to do so.

We uncovered all sorts of treasures, including this sculptor’s garden, studio and home. It’s somewhere in Cork and the experience feels as fresh as yesterday. His slatted timber workshop had belonged to a metalworker for about sixty years previously and this kindest of sculptors had left it exactly as he had found it. The light hitting the dust on the rusty tools was heaven for this photographer, as was his garden where he sat quietly having lunch on an old wooden bench. The whole experience encapsulated the warm Irish hospitality we were shown everywhere.

Chelsea Physic Garden, London, England

It’s far from it, but when you’re in this garden it feels like a well-kept secret. The heat trapping high walls surrounding the Chelsea Physic Garden create a microclimate as well as a feeling of seclusion and separation from the bustling world outside. Physic here means the science of healing. It’s lovely to think that The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries who chose the site close to the River Thames in 1673 did so to make use of the warm air currents. And better still, because they could moor their barge to make plant finding expeditions to teach apprentices to identify plants, specifically those which might be dangerous enough to kill someone and those that do not.

River access also allowed plants arriving from around the world to find a home in the British Isles via this garden. In the 1700s a global seed exchange, called Index Seminum, was introduced. It still exists today.

Wandering around the 3.5-acre garden, past the rock garden with alpine plants, the oldest olive tree in Britain and the various glasshouses has become a must-do when in London for this writer.”

When I arrived last year there was a glass jar of freshly picked sweet peas on the ticket counter making the welcome even more memorable.

Laid out in sections it includes gardens of medicinal plants, pharmaceutical beds with plants arranged according to what they treat, world medicine arranged by culture, edible and useful plants and a world woodland garden. The Chelsea Physic garden is the oldest botanic garden in London, with somewhere around 5,000 different herbal, edible and medicinal plants.  In 1983 the garden became a registered charity and it has been opened to the public ever since.

Daylesford and nearby towns, Victoria

Wandering the streets of Daylesford in spring it’s impossible not to stop to absorb almost every front garden – their colour, care and individuality turn a walk into a stroll. It is, however, a wonderful place to visit in any season. It’s an area where I find myself feeling as if “I could fit into this way of life”.

Established 155 years ago, Wombat Hill Botanic Gardens has views over the rooftops of timber houses and feels an integral part of setting the mood for the area. It occupies ten acres on a volcanic hill and has loads of well-established trees. As seems to be my want for places that I love, it also has a secondary purpose – there’s a café in the centre, right next to a glasshouse full of begonias. Like all good gardens that bring people together a Friends group was formed in 1995.

There’s so much more to this area. About a half hour’s drive away you’ll find other wonderful gardens –  The Diggers Club garden at St Erth and Lambley Nursery and garden.

Victoria Alexander is an author and photographer who has been pre-occupied with homes and gardens all her life. She admires people who know how to grow both. With a love of the imperfect, she sees in three dimensions and is endlessly curious about the world. She can never have too many flowers. Check out Victoria’s WEBSITE / INSTAGRAM