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Paradise in a Garden

Our tours in May/June this year showed us some of Italy’s most splendid gardens, ranging from the Renaissance splendour of Villa Lante to the exotic Argentinian abandon of La Mortella. We were absolutely delighted to have Christchurch-based landscape architect Robert Watson with us. As predicted, he was passionate and knowledgeable about the gardens as well as being extremely good company.

An early stop was the magnificent Summer Palace of the Popes at Castel Gandolfo near Frascati with its manicured hillside gardens, terraces and parkland stretching over 55 hectares. There was no sign of the present Pope but we were reliably informed by a local restaurant that he did pop in from time to time to pick up a take-away meal.

Note to readers – judging by the meal we had there, this would be a far cry from what Kiwis think of when they hear the words “take-away.”

The famous 16th Century garden at Villa d’Este in Tivoli did not disappoint despite the showery conditions which somehow added to the experience of seeing the fabulous fountains and water cascades.

An absolute contrast was the delightful and relatively small garden at Torrecchia Vecchia in southern Lazio, where a charming ‘wild’ garden has been created using attractive stone ruins and an elegant villa as a backdrop. We had the whole place to ourselves with our own private guide who works at the garden so it was a very special experience for us. In fact, it was really quite magical because the guide met us at an unprepossessing looking gate on a country road and led us down a very long driveway through fields dotted with horses until we reached the secluded location of the garden and villa which enjoy a completely private panorama of the surrounding countryside.

The next three gardens were situated north of Rome and close to the medieval town of Viterbo.

The first of these was the imposing Villa Farnese at Caprarola. The Villa’s gardens were designed not long after the Villa d’Este gardens and are equally impressive. They are accessed through the apartments on the piano nobile and each is a formal parterre garden of box topiary with fountains. We enjoyed walking up past the dolphin cascade to the chestnut woods which lead to a secret garden and summerhouse (casino) that now belong to the President of Italy.

Closer to Viterbo, at Bagnaia is another wonderful 16th Century garden at Villa Lante, designed by Vignola for Cardinal Gianfrancesco Gambara. The gardens are a sheer delight, sited on several levels and featuring fountains, cascades, pools and dripping grottoes as well an extensive wooded area. We enjoyed spotting the family symbol (a crayfish) on the statues, frescoes and the dramatic cascade linking different areas of the garden.

The last of the three gardens we visited in this area of Lazio was possibly the best known - the Sacro Bosco or Parco dei Mostri at Bomarzo. This amazing garden was also created in the 16th Century but it is very different from its neighbours. The garden is essentially a wooded valley randomly scattered with grotesque stone sculptures ranging from elephants and a giant tortoise to a tilted house. No one knows the reason for the design but it represents a very real contrast with the great Renaissance gardens and must have been as astonishing to visitors at the time it was created as it is to us today. On the way out of the garden several of us took advantage of a fortune telling machine. The results will not be shared!

We were sorry to leave this fascinating area of the region but we were keen to see Ninfa further south, which has been described by the garden writer Charles Quest-Ritson as “the most romantic garden in the world.” This is quite a claim but we were not disappointed. This is a relatively new garden created by Gelasio Caetani in 1921. It is a garden in the English Garden style crossed by numerous small springs as well as the river Ninfa and it enjoys a very favourable microclimate enabling plants from all over the world to thrive. However, it is the design of the garden around the ruins of the medieval town of Ninfa which creates the magic. I can honestly say I have never seen water in a stream as clear as we saw at Ninfa – it was breathtakingly transparent. Ninfa is not an easy place to visit because of its very limited opening times but it was very definitely worth the effort and it marked a fitting end to our Garden Tour.

That, however, was not the end of it for some of our clients who decided to continue with us to the Amalfi Coast. Fortunately Robert Watson was still with us so we could not have been in better hands.

While in Amalfi, we made our way up to Ravello, high on the hills overlooking the Amalfi Coast. This delightful town is home to some spectacular musical events but on this occasion we headed for the spectacular gardens at Villa Cimbrone. This is the garden with the Terrazza dell’Infinito (Terrace of Infinity) lined with marble busts that sparkle in the sun and contrast so stunningly with the azure colour of the sky and the sea far below. Robert made friends with one of the gardeners so we had the perfect person to answer our questions about this amazing garden.

After a few blissful days in Amalfi, we were driven via Positano to our hotel in Sorrento overlooking the Bay of Naples. While in Sorrento we took a ferry to the island of Ischia, where the late classical music composer Sir William Walton and his flamboyant Argentinian wife Lady Susanna Walton created a superb garden called La Mortella. This garden is an absolute riot of colour with plants sourced from all over the world. It is an absolute must-see for garden lovers and we were delighted we had the opportunity to visit it. Gazing out at the sea from the top of the garden where the Walton memorial is sited is a moment I will never forget.

From exquisite Renaissance formality to dreamy romance to triumphant blazes of colour, we saw it all in Italy’s gardens and we know there will be even more to see when we visit the lakeside gardens of the North on our next tour. Come with us!

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