Castle Dreaming: Love in Paronella Park

Leafing through tourist brochures on a visit to Cairns, I was immediately intrigued by ‘The Spanish Castle’. The glossy pamphlets pictured a balustrade and behind it the remains of a once grand, Mediterranean-style house hollowed out by fire or flood. The buildings were moss-covered and encroached upon by the luxuriant green of the tropics. ‘Come see the dream,’ the brochures said. The ‘dream’ was a castle grandly decaying in the middle of the Queensland rain forest. I asked our concierge about the park. Her recommendations had so far taken us on tours to Kuranda and the Tablelands.

‘Oh Paronella Park,’ she said.‘It’s beautiful.You should definitely go, being on honeymoon and all. It’s incredibly romantic’.

A fairy castle slowly devolving in the arms of nature; both grand and impermanent. Much like love itself, I thought. My metaphors were febrile (I blame the humidity) and self- reflexive. It only seemed right that I should discover Paronella Park at this precise juncture in my life. I was on honeymoon with a man as improbable as a Spanish castle in the Australian jungle. At once funny and kind, sexy and nurturing, Jason represented the second marriage I would once have said was as likely as a snowflake in one of the nastier circles of hell.

But here we were. Here Paronella Park was. ‘An award-winning tourism experience began as a love story a century ago,’ I read from the brochure, ‘The leading man was a Spaniard, José Paronella, a dashing young farm worker who dreamed not just of a better life, but one with all the trappings including a castle for his queen.’

At the entrance to the park we were ushered through the gift shop and cafe to await our guide on the verandah. We were directed to mosquito repellent, drinking water, umbrellas and a warning. A laminated A4 sheet of paper was handed round. It pictured a salt water crocodile idling in the pool beneath the Mena Creek waterfall. Swimming was now banned. My daughter, eager for all bodies of water in the way of small children, was disappointed.

It was after lunch and the dense air felt heavy on my shoulders, but there was a giddiness in my stomach. It was the excitement I always feel when my writerly imagination finds a new bone to gnaw on. And what a juicy bone this was. Love. Decay. Menace. Our guide was chatty and enthusiastic, with the twangy vowels and salty expressions of the far north Queenslander. She reiterated the warning about the crocodile that had taken up residence six weeks before – the first time this was known to have happened at Paronella Park.

Our first stop was in front of the cottage that José Paronella had lived in and that now served as a museum. From the grounds of the cottage we had an unimpeded view of the castle. Up close it was just as magnificent and improbable as the brochures suggested. Paronella, a Spanish immigrant born into poverty in 1887, built the castle by hand. As a child his grandmother told him stories in which turrets and balustrades served as the backdrop for sweeping tales of chivalry and valour. And here was the backdrop made real in the most unlikely of places, hewn out of Paronella’s imagination and ferocious work ethic. Fire and flood had attacked the castle from without, and Paronella’s choice of materials meant concrete cancer threatened the structure from within.

Our guide’s interpretation of the castle and grounds was grandly romantic. The seemingly Sisyphean task of transforming the jungle was an act of love, the object of José’s love, his wife Margarita. His ‘queen’. They both came from the small village of La Vall de Santa Creu in Catalonia, Spain and were engaged during a visit José paid to his native village in 1924, after more than a decade in Australia. Margarita returned to Queensland with José and eventually ran the restaurant he built on the lower grounds of Paronella Park. Locals and tourists would pour in on weekends to enjoy Margarita’s fabulous cooking. The less affluent would picnic at the tables and benches José built by the waterfall, perhaps buying some of Margarita’s homemade ice cream from the kiosk.

Despite the decay it was not difficult to imagine the park in its 30s and 40s heyday. Families picnicking on the grounds, children exploring, nubile young men impressing their sweethearts by leaping from the top of the waterfall into the pool. Half-listening to our guide I closed my eyes and felt the past close behind me. How wonderful it must have been, especially during the war years when the spot was popular with servicemen, particularly Americans coming to the park for their precious R&R.

I was under the sway of the guide’s stories, the humidity, the touch of my new husband’s hand. I felt slightly intoxicated. But beneath my reverie something hummed. Something troubled. It was something the guide had said.

When José left Spain for Australia in 1913, he was engaged to be married not to Margarita, but to her sister Matilda. I read later that during the eleven years José spent establishing himself in Australia he didn’t write to his fiancée in Spain. Not once. When he returned to Spain to claim her, José found that Matilda had married someone else three years earlier and now had a child. The awkward triangle was resolved by Matilda’s mother, who suggested that José become engaged to his former fiancée’s younger sister.

The arrangement was entirely practical. I wondered how to square the facts with the hearts and chocolates version that makes Paronella Park so popular for weddings and carefully orchestrated marriage proposals. Was it a genuine love match between José and Matilda, a connection so transcendent that José felt no need to write letters to his lover? Was he shocked and heartbroken to find she had married? Or was the wonder that she had waited eight years before committing to someone else? Was José’s decision tactical, a ploy to ensure that the marriage did not go ahead? Or was it something he didn’t think about, so engrossed was he in his various ventures in the new world – canecutter, miner, cook, speculator. According to his biographer, Dena Leighton, José’s sole explanation for eleven years of unbroken silence was merely a hatred of writing letters.

***

If the romance narrative was a conceit, then how to make sense of this breathtaking but frankly odd site? If Paronella Park was not a love story, what was it? I lingered at the falls, gingerly peering over the balustrade at the catfish in the water. Having grown up in the Kimberley I knew what crocodiles could do, and how fast they could do it. But how wonderful it must have been to swim there, with the waters of Mena Creek tumbling over the falls. Exploring the calmer water in the shallows, or perhaps taking out the wooden boat that Paronella made available for his patrons.

To the right of the falls is one of José Paronella’s incredible feats of engineering: what may be Australia’s first hydro-electric plant. The sheer energy of the man was staggering. My amble in the tropical heat was taxing enough, so to have built the park – the castles, the restaurant, the gardens, the plant, the steep grade of 47 stone steps connecting the upper and lower grounds – suggested a will that bordered on the super-human. What drove him?

Perhaps Paronella’s romanticism was less specific and more a general, kindly facilitation of love and pleasure. Certainly, the park’s marketing is keen on the idea of the grounds as a ‘pleasure garden’. In their opening line in the foreword to Leighton’s biography, The Spanish Dreamer, the present owners describe the park as Paronella’s ‘Spanish Pleasure Garden’. The last pleasure garden I’d visited – Bolsover Castle in the north of England – had little stone grottos carved into the garden walls where lovers could disappear into candle-lit privacy and do whatever it is lovers in pleasure gardens do. One gets the feeling José would have had an apoplexy at the thought. If my guide is to be believed, the entry fee charged to the GIs during the war included the cost of swimming trunks to guard against skinny-dipping. A young girl who worked for the Paronellas told how José had flushed with anger when she received a male visitor and only calmed down when assured that the visitor was her brother.

So if not romance and not pleasure, what did motivate Paronella? If Paronella Park’s instigation was commercially motivated, it didn’t continue so. The park was one of the few ventures on which Paronella lost money. He was a savvy and versatile entrepreneur. He’d trained as a baker in Spain and later worked in Australia as a canecutter and miner. He saved enough to buy his own farms and mines and also invested cannily. Dena Leighton paints him as industrious, temperate and perhaps a little hard-nosed. He was close with money. Once, nearly tempted to lay a bet on a ‘sure thing’ by a friend, he returned the notes to his pocket. ‘I made it, I’ll keep it,’ he is reported to have said. Paronella Park never really made any money. The work needed to keep nature at bay was unending, the upkeep relentless. Yet he kept at it; for reasons that cannot have been financial in nature.

Civic mindedness doesn’t seem an entirely plausible explanation either. José’s return to Spain in 1924 was partly motivated by extortion threats he was receiving from the Black Hand, a mafia outpost. The Black Hand had a choice piece of information to blackmail Paronella with: his refusal to pay his taxes.

José left Australia on a false passport to dodge the tax officials. On his return, they were waiting. An official advised José that in his absence the tax department had removed a thousand pounds (about 51,000 pounds in today’s terms) from his bank account in Innisfail to cover the debt. Paronella was furious, and had to ask a friend to stand guarantor for his future compliance to be permitted back into the country with his new wife.

Romance. Pleasure. Money. Community-spirit.

Whatever drove Paronella to build his park, I’m fairly sure that none of these entirely covers it.

***

At one point in my ramble through the grounds I found myself quite alone in a bower. A fat spider regarded me from her web. Light rain plinked from the sky to the rubbery leaves and onto my hair. I was disoriented, unsure which path returned to the museum and which doubled back to the secluded catchment named after the Paronellas’ daughter, Teresa. Somewhere behind me was a pool of water that hid an ancient predator. I just had time to feel the first tingle of panic when three or four tourists folded into my path. I exhaled and laughed at my foolishness. When I caught up with my tour group it was at the gutted remains of the ballroom.

What was now no more than a blackened ruin was once a ballroom large enough to fit dozens of dancing couples who would converge on Paronella Park at the weekends. José had imported a disco ball from the United States at exorbitant cost. It glittered above the live swing band and throng of dancers. It must have been a thing to behold. The present owners, I am told, plan to restore the ballroom to its former glory. Indeed, they are committed to ‘preserving José Paronella’s dream’.

What manner of dream though?

I left the park thinking, it’s beautiful, yes. Even mesmerising. But what does it mean?

When I returned to my hotel I took my daughter swimming in the pool in the late afternoon. Pretending to be a mermaid in the shallows, she found a tiny and disoriented turtle. The hotel management relocated the turtle to the pond out the front of reception and gave my daughter the honour of naming him. She chose ‘Kid’. The ensuing excitement kept her up till past eleven. When she finally slept I lay awake listening to the busy silence of the tropics. After each downpour the froggy chorus started. Then the owls.

As the fan whirred overhead something occurred to me. I sat upright.

‘What is it babe?’ Jason mumbled.

‘He never lived in it.’

‘What?’

‘Paronella. He built a castle that he never lived in.’

It suddenly seemed incredibly important that José chose to live in the well-appointed but comparatively humble cottage across the way from his castle. He didn’t want to live in it. He just needed to see it. The tangible fact of it. That grand house proved how far he had come. Proved that poverty and the anonymity of poverty had been transcended. If the castle was about love, it was about self love; a great I am.

Watching the flood waters carry away much of the park in 1946 must have been agony. A forty-minute long torrential downpour was enough to sweep all that toil and planning away. Leighton describes the incident in The Spanish Dreamer:

Mud, debris, dying plants and trees lay everywhere. All the garden soil had gone; and the tropical orchids that Margarita so treasured. Only the bare rock remained. Paths had been washed away. Huge cedar logs lay stranded throughout the park. And the buildings were a scene of chaos.

Jose stood in tears.

There was nothing to say.

Later that evening, tables and chairs from Paronella Park were seen floating downstream towards Innisfail like toy furniture.

Shortly thereafter José was diagnosed with inoperable stomach cancer. He was confined to bed in the cottage until his death in 1948. If my instinct about his relationship with his park is right, looking out the cottage window to the ruins must have been like looking in a mirror and seeing no reflection.

S.A. Jones is a historian, writer and regulatory analyst. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Age, Overland, Kill Your Darlings and The Drum. She is the author of Red Dress Walking and her new novel is due for release in 2014. She was recently named one of Australia’s 100 Women of Influence.

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