Bridget Gleeson writer + illustrator

Secret gardens in the big city

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‘My life, which seems so simple and monotonous, is really a complicated affair of cafés where they like me and cafés where they don’t, streets that are friendly, streets that aren’t, rooms where I might be happy, rooms where I shall never be…’
— Jean Rhys (Good Morning, Midnight)

On Friday afternoon I was walking around downtown Buenos Aires with my sister Liz, pushing my baby niece, Luisa, in a stroller. We were in the neighborhood to go to the central bank and the post office, but who are we kidding – Liz and I always use errands like these as an excuse to go out to lunch. We didn’t have any particular place in mind; we decided to just walk north along Reconquista, one of the Buenos Aires streets that’s recently been turned into a pedestrian thoroughfare.

That’s when we accidentally stumbled through the shadowy doorway of the Convento de San Ramón Nonato, a grand and gorgeous convent with a leafy central courtyard.

I wasn’t familiar with the convent; later, when I looked it up, I read that it dates from 1722.

To our great surprise – we had never heard of this! – hundreds of people were having lunch on the portico. There wasn’t just one restaurant: there were three restaurants, one with elegant waiters, white linen tablecloths and wine decanters, plus two others with more casual wooden furniture and specials (22 pesos or about US$5.50 for grilled pork and potatoes) advertised on a large chalkboard. The grassy central plaza was filled with girls eating their sandwiches on park benches, winter flowers about to blossom, and a trio of overfed cats chasing each other around. Secret garden in the middle of the city! We had suprema a la napolitana (chicken breast with tomato and mozzarella), salad and the house wine – Luisa had mashed potatoes – at the most crowded eatery, El Patio. Excellent value and a stunning setting for lunch.

It all makes me nostalgic for other cities I’ve called home in the past; other ‘secret gardens’ I’ve stumbled upon. At the end of my year of study in Rome (what’s that I said about how I always discover the best things about a place right before I leave?) I walked into this garden, behind a gate just one block from my apartment at the time.

And Prague, beautiful Prague! My friend Elizabeth found this little garden tucked away in Staré Město near the river. We used to go there and drink takeaway cappuccino. So many good times in these little parks and gardens of Prague!

Oh, those were simpler days.