An Emperor In The Borda

Across Avenida Morelos from the Cathedral, el Templo de la Asuncíon de María, lies the Jardín Borda, a sizeable walled garden of terraces, shaded paths, fountains, large ponds and even a lake for pleasure boats. It’s a beautifully quiet and tranquil place, away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Cuernavaca where local traffic roars up Morelos, belching out the pollutants that hide Popocatépetl from view most days. Pass through the large wooden doors from the street and you’re met with a blue courtyard, palm shadows playing on the walls and a glimpse of the garden beyond. 

This place has an intriguing and, amazingly, a regal connection. First José de la Borda, the Taxco silver magnate, built a sumptuous holiday home here in the late 1700’s. When he died in 1778, his son Manuel inherited the land and transformed the property into a botanical garden. The enclosed garden next to the house was essentially a private park, laid out in Andalusian style (though I’ve also read that it was inspired by Versailles, which I find hard to believe), with terraces, kiosks and large artificial ponds, the gardens featuring hundreds of varieties of fruit trees, ornamental, native and exotic plants. The place became famous throughout Mexico and the residence and gardens never lost their appeal, eventually becoming a hotel after the demise of the de la Borda family. 

So, in 1865, after a trip to the Yucatan, the new anointed Emperor of Mexico, Maximilian, and his Empress Carlota, selected this place as their summer residence, converting the former hotel into an Imperial Palace. The imperial couple, surrounded by their court, staged spectacular parties in the gardens, entertaining Austrian, French and Mexican nobility with moonlit concerts, the guests bobbing in tiny row boats along with the ducks in the ornamental lakes. Today, there’s hardly anything left of the Emperor’s residence, save for the front of the building, a crumbling colonnade and a few rooms, devoid of any reference to their time there. 

Just in case you didn’t realise that Mexico ever had an Emperor, here’s a brief overview…

After the second French intervention in 1861, due to the suspension of payments for the Mexican external debt by President Benito Juárez, Napoleon III of France ordered that a monarchy be created in Mexico, placing a European Catholic prince on the throne. The Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Hapsburg arrived in Mexico in 1864 in the company of his wife, Princess Charlotte of Belgium. Maximilian and Carlota, as she become known, believed that they had the support of the Mexican people. But nationalism in Mexico was still running high, and other factors were at play that would ultimately doom Maximilian’s reign. The Emperor and Empress of the Second Mexican Empire “ruled” briefly from 1864 until his execution by firing squad in 1867 (see famous painting by Manet). The Empress Carlota had already returned to Europe in an attempt to gain support for her husband and his throne, but Napoleon refused to meet with her. She slipped into depression, described at the time as succumbing to  ‘a grave attack of mental aberration’, in other words, she went mad. However, she died in 1927 aged 86 years old. 

Anyway, back to the Jardín Borda. I’m afraid it’s not in the best of shape, compared to famous gardens of note elsewhere. Look, it’s a lovely, peaceful and quite beautiful space so I can’t take that away, but it just lacks the care and attention you’d expect of a prized city garden. 

Surprisingly, most of the fountains don’t hold any water, so the hydraulics that this garden was famed for are not in full working order, which is a real shame given the climate this city thrives on. The massive and spectacularly beautiful pink Bougainvillea demand attention all over the garden but mostly are wild and out of control. The ponds are wide and shallow but the surrounding paths and garden ornaments are cracked and decayed. The lake and stage are in a sorry state of repair, too, the water an alarmingly bright green, with only some ducks and the odd turtle to move the water – with one particularly aggressive and very persistent duck very keen to chase Ants off the stage. Now that was funny. 

It’s a mystery to me why the natural and historic wonders of Cuernavaca aren’t better looked after, loved even, with proper care taken of its prized assets. 

As reported earlier, the barrancas are sadly more cess pits and rubbish tips than the natural wonders they are, let alone the very lungs that give this place the climate it boasts about. But reading the accounts of the Jardín Borda from years ago (see below), you understand that this wilful neglect and wanton abandonment is unfortunately part of the Mexican way. I’m sure there are local civic groups clamouring for change; environmental ‘friends of Cuernavaca’ that regularly attempt to clean up the barrancas plus the historical and literary societies that decry the loss of identity, but unfortunately, the lack of political will, voice, initiative, funding and, perhaps more importantly popular support, stymie all action.  

‘The broken pink pillars, in the half-light, might have been waiting to fall down on him: the pool, covered with green scum, its steps torn away and hanging by one rotting clamp, to close over his head…this place, where love had once brooded, seemed part of a nightmare.’ 
– Malcolm Lowry, Under The Volcano 

And if that sounds rather harsh – and that was published in 1947 – then what about this account of the Jardín Borda by Charles Macomb in his book, ‘Viva Mexico!’ in 1908, even if he does, amidst the scorn, manage to concede some pleasure in the place.

“It lies on a steep hillside behind Cuernavaca, and even if it were not one of the most beautiful of tangled, neglected, ruined old gardens anywhere, it would be lovable for the manner in which it tried so hard to be a French garden and failed. Joseph, it is clear, had the French passion for formalizing the landscape, for putting Nature into a pretty strait-jacket; but although he spent much time and a million pesos in trying to do this at Cuernavaca, he rather wonderfully did not succeed.”

“The situation, the flora…the walls, the fountains, the summerhouses, the cascades, and the ponds…all combine to give the place an individuality, sometimes Spanish, sometimes Mexican, but French only in a remote manner…”

“It hangs precipitously on the side of a ravine when it should have been level (one is so glad it is not), and the dense, southern trees – mangoes and sapotes and Indian laurel, with which it was planted, have long since outgrown the scale of the place, interlaced and roofed out the sky overhead with an opaque and sombre canopy. In its impermeable shade there are long, islanded tanks in which many numerous families of ducks and geese live a strangely secluded, dignified, aristocratic existence – arbours of roses and jasmine, and heavy, broken old fountains that no longer play and splash.” 

I revisited the Jardín Borda after first writing this post thinking perhaps I’d missed something earlier and had been a tad too critical. It’s actually a really lovely garden and in this late afternoon light it really did feel different – especially with a small Sunday crowd – lovers canoodling by the now tinkling fountains, young families taking in the fresh garden air and old folk sitting around enjoying the peaceful shade overlooking the boating lake. Traditional Mexican music wafted through the garden from a small market that had set up on one of the shady paths and all seemed right in this world. So, whilst it’s interesting to read these critical accounts of the Jardín Borda from the past, it’s also encouraging that the garden has survived and indeed seems to be thriving, charming if slightly dilapidated.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Bevanlee says:

    “it’s also encouraging that the garden has survived and indeed seems to be thriving, charming if slightly dilapidated “ These are words one would welcome about oneself, so therefore delicious to read about the garden. Re Maximilian – I bet he was sorry he said yes to the México gig 🙄

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Guy says:

    Wow – a duck with legs!


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