Fanciful monsters, Jules Verne flying contraptions, a mezquita in Cairo, Edwardian ladies on camels…the Jardin del Pasatiempo.
The poor young girl that works in the Tourist Office in Betanzos must have very few visitors, given the way she jumped out of her chair to welcome me, and by the time I left I had a shopping bag full of books and leaflets giving me more information than I really needed for a brief afternoon visit. There again, I suppose I shouldn’t complain, because it gave me an excuse to take a coffee, sat in the sun in a wicker chair at the Café Versailles in the colonnade of shops and cafes that line the delightful Plaza Hermanos García Neveira.
My first view of Betanzos was through a narrow arch beside the river, with a steeply curving cobbled road leading between ancient houses; interesting, but not overwhelming, but like a little box that slowly unfolds to show an unusually large and ornate interior, I soon discovered that this apparently uneventful little town is a total delight, thanks in no small part to the brothers García Neveira.
Juan and Jesús García Neveira were stony-broke when they set off for Argentina in the middle years of the 19th century. Forty-some years later they returned to their home town, if not as rich as Croesus, then pretty well off, and they spent a large part of their fortune on philanthropic ventures to beautify the town and do ‘good works’ for its inhabitants, with everything done in the latest Modernista style. The grand Escuelas García Hermanos, that doubled as a school to educate and feed local children, using all the latest educational methods, and somewhere old people could go to get a decent meal, at a time when the ‘third age’ wasn’t even invented; an-up-to-the-minute lavadora, a public washhouse that dangles over the river and was the height of industrial elegance at the time; and the Plaza Hermanos García Naveira, (beneficent they might have been, but they wanted it to be known), and where their statue now stands, watching over the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those they helped. But the most delightful of all their many delightful works is the Jardín del Pasatiempo.
When the brothers returned to Betanzos in 1893 Don Juan began to construct a fantasy park on the outskirts of the town. At a time when most people barely left the street they lived in, never mind travel half way around the world, his intention was to show the locals the wonders he had seen on his travels. A cornucopia of caves, pools, grottos, gardens, statues and moulded relieves, which he grandiosely called his ‘parque enciclopédico’. I’m not sure which encyclopaedia he was talking about, and it’s unlikely he actually saw some of the weird monsters and machines that decorate his folly, unless he partook of some seriously strange herbs on his travels. But the effect, even more than a century later, is wonderful in a gigglish sort of way, and must have been absolutely jaw-dropping when the first visitors passed through the gates.
I was disappointed when I was told that the garden was closed on the day I visited Betanzos, but I took a walk to peer through the railings anyway. I’m not sure if the sneaky Don Juan designed a hidden entrance, but I discovered one, descended a narrow flight of steps disappearing through a plant-covered grotto, and suddenly found myself stepping out into a whacky wonderland of mythology and scary beasties, all alone except for two Edwardian ladies and one gentleman sat on camels and escorted by a couple robed as if they had just stepped out of the desert. Sadly, they were statues, fixed in time, and unable to regale me about their adventures, as I’m sure the brothers García Naveira would have done to packed houses.
I went through an entrance inviting me into the Mezquita Mohammed Ali in Cairo, and worked my way upwards, ducking through dark caves of cement stalactites and stalagmites, until I came to a mirador with views across the town, much changed since Juan finished his Disney-esque garden. The silence was eerie – and I was dubious about making my way back through the gaping mouth of a ferocious lion.
On my way down to the main pool, I passed an enormous map of the Panama Canal, which wouldn’t have even been opened when the brothers made their homeward journey. Eighteen shields represented the Hijas Republicanas de España, the Republican Sons of Spain, the countries that make up South America; Venezuela, Uruguay, Honduras, Mexico, and onward. For some reason they also thought to include Brazil, but my limited geographical knowledge whispered to me that surely that was Portuguese.
Layers of terraces, twisting, turning and curving steps, sometimes overhung with bushes, other times disappearing behind a statue, finally bring me to the pool, covered in floating plant life and reflecting in its dark depths the cupola-topped Fuente de las Cuatro Estaciones that stands in the middle. A fearsome sea monster made an open-mouthed snap at me, while a winged serpent made a viscous attack on an enormous bat. A deep sea diver wielded his heavy mallet, about to strike open a treasure chest, and a phantasmagorical underwater carriage trundled its way across the ocean bed.