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’. The most delightful of all their many delightful works was the Jardín del Pasatiempo.

When the brothers returned to Betanzos in Galicia 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; the Jardín del Pasatiempo 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. Unfortunately, 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 with a plaque of the Mezquita Mohammed Ali in Cairo hanging over my head 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 the  Jardín del Pasatiempo, his Disney-esque garden of the weirdly wonderful. 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 plaques beside it represent the Hijas Republicanas de España, the Republican Daughters 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 a pool covered in floating plant life and reflecting in its dark depths the cupola-topped Fuente de las Cuatro Estaciones, The Fountain of the Four Seasons, 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.

It is one of the most wonderful gardens I’ve ever visited, and it made me think that with all the amazing technology we have nowadays, I doubt that anything we can create would seem half as impressive to us as did this boisterously wonderful garden of the imagination when the Dons Juan and Jesús escorted their first wide-eyed and wondering visitors to their Jardín del Pasatiempo. If every town and city had patrons like the brothers García Naveira they world would be a better place… or at least a more interesting one.

Avenida Fraga Iribarne s/n, 15319 Betanzos,

GPS 43°16’38.8″N 8°13’10.5″W