Take a Stroll Down the Garden Path

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So many visitors to Italy now plan to drive for at least part of their trip. It can be nerve wracking in downtown Rome or Naples, but once you're out in the country, tooling down a strada provinciale or strada statale, the equivalents of our two-lane highways, it gives you the opportunity to see all sorts of wonderful sites you'd only glimpse from afar on the train. Everyone immediately thinks of hill towns and castles. Here's another idea to consider: the glorious Italian gardens that have been so carefully recreated by landscape artists all over the world. Many of the originals are open to the public, and they offer fantastic places to slow down, regain some of your waning strength, even have a picnic lunch if you plan ahead (just be sure not to litter!). The most famous gardens are those in the Lakes District, the Medici villas outside Florence and the papal villas just outside Rome. Here are a few lesser-known beauties.

Val d'Aosta. As you know if you read our section about this region, it is studded with spectacular castles, almost all of which are surrounded by gardens. But there is another kind of truly unique garden to visit here, the Giardino Alpino Paradisia, named for an alpine lily that blankets the high-altitude fields in the spring. Hovering 5000 feet above sea level in the Grand Paradiso National Park, it is a living carpet of alpine flowers (about 1500 varieties) and lichens. Take SS507 about 15 miles from Aosta, to Cogne. Open mid-June to mid-Sept.; the best time for flowers is mid-June to mid-July. Our favorite hotel in the area is Miramonti.


Trentino. Picturesque Mount Bondone dominates the southwest horizon of beautiful Trento; 19 km from town and at an altitude of 4500 feet is the park called Viotte del Monte Bondone. Well-known for its rich alpine flora as well as for its ski resort, Viotte lies in a broad hollow surrounded by several mountain peaks including the Palon (6857 feet), Doss D'Abramo (6886 feet) and Monte Cornetto (7152 feet). It is host to a rifugio (mountain hut) called "Alle Viotte" and to the Alpine Botanical Garden, which is actually part of the Museo Trentino di Scienze Naturali and contains over 2200 species of plants both from the region and from the mountains of the world. For directions and opening hours, click here to visit the Alpine Botanic Garden website.


Piedmont. Turin's Parco del Valentino is one of Italy's most beautiful parks. Over 100 years old, it has well-laid paths, abundant flower beds and delightful stands of trees in a truly bucolic setting. Between Ponte Umberto I and Ponte Principessa Isabella, on the left bank of the Po River. Open to the public.


Lombardy. Oasi Zegna is situated in the Biellese Alps. It stretches for about 100 sq km, from Trivero to the Valle del Cervo, along the road known as the Panoramica Zegna. Oasi Zegna is a great place for families, because it is equipped with a special system of signs that creates a dialogue between nature and the visiting community. The goal is to instill a new kind of respect for nature, based on knowledge of the eco-systems and environment in which we live. Click here to visit the Oasi Zegna website for more information.


Veneto. If you really want to learn about Italian gardens, Villa Barbarigo Pizzoni Ardemani is one of the world's most important examples. Its 150,000 sq. meters are divided into separate areas by box trees, with perfectly manicured avenues of statues and fountains stretching towards the lovely Euganean Hills beyond. The most impressive part is the landing stage where the city of Venice's barge, the Burchiello, moored after being pulled down the Brenta by a team of horses. There is also one of the most intricate and largest mazes still in existence. In Valsanzibio di Galzignano, about 15 miles from Padua. Another landmark is Parco Giardino Sigurtà, considered to be one of the world's finest garden complexes. It spreads out over 120 acres, featuring densely wooded hillside, expansive lawn, and exuberantly colored Mediterranean flora. You drive in, park, walk through one section, get back into your car, drive to another section and so on. There are 13 sections, each with its own parking area. About 15 miles from Verona in Valeggio sul Mincio. For directions and opening hours, click here to visit the Parco Sigurta' website. You can visit both these extraordinary parks, as well as Lake Garda, the jewel-box town of Verona and the spectacular churches of Padua, if you spend a few days at Verona Winery.


Liguria. If you are driving to Italy from France or Monaco, the first great garden you come to is Villa Hanbury. Created in 1867 by an Englishman who eventually expanded the terrain to 45 acres, it is considered one of Europe's finest private gardens. Sir Thomas Hanbury had traveled extensively in the Far East, and he had a brother who was a pharmacologist - so it's no surprise that the grounds abound with exotic plants (which thrive in the year-round mild climate) and medicinal herbs. Hanbury's daughter-in-law Lady Dorothy is responsible for the superb landscaping. Today the garden is under the care of the University of Genoa, which is steadily repairing the damage received during World War II. Outside Mortola, about 6 km from the French border, just off the A10 autostrada. Another fun thing about this park is its proximity to France and Monte Carlo. The closest places for lodgings in Italy are Bordighera and San Remo.


Tuscany. The monumental villas around Lucca provide an extra reason to visit this wonderful part of Tuscany. Villa Reale, built by Napoleon's sister and recently restored by French landscape architect Jacques Greber, is a romantic park with woods, streams, a lake and even a natural amphitheatre formed of decorative hedges. Five miles from Lucca in Marlia. Click here for details about all the historic villas and gardens around Lucca.


Umbria. Our favorite Italian landscape designer, Ippolito Pizzetti, restored the beautiful natural garden surrounding the Antico Eremo Camaldolese di Sant'Angelo, a 13th-century convent outside Todi. Mediterranean flora abounds in an inspiring hillside setting. The garden only is open in summer, Friday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-1 p.m. and 3-5 p.m. Admission free.


Latium. South of Rome is a little-known paradise that is one of Italy's most interesting gardens. The ancient village of Ninfa was completely destroyed in 1382. Over the centuries it literally sank into the swampland, until an Englishwoman, Ada Caetani, rediscovered it at the beginning of this century. The family has continued its valiant efforts, draining the bogs and bringing back to life the ancient bridges, planting extensive gardens which are quintessentially English in an obviously Italian landscape. Open to the public (guided visits only, 10 Euro/person) the first weekend of every month (April-Oct.), and the third Sunday of April, May and June. Via Provinciale Ninfina 68, 04013 Cisterna di Latina. From the A1 Autostrada, exit at Frosinone.


 Latium. One of the most spectacular rose gardens anywhere is the one in Rome, which overlooks the ruins of the emperors' villas on the Palatine Hill. Occupying a prime spot on the Aventino, another of the Seven Hills of Rome, the Roseto was Rome's Jewish cemetery for centuries, before being presented to the city in the 20th century. The garden layout pays tribute to the site's history, with paths forming symbols such as a candelabra. There are literally hundreds of varieties of roses here, and you can spend hours wandering, photographing and choosing your favorites: from the huge colorful extravagances of roses like Rinascimento to the sweeter pale specimens hiding shyly behind their bolder cousins. A small section of the garden is reserved for the roses of the Ancient World: Gallica means from France; Alba is the Latin adjective for white; Damascena means from Damascus. The Romans found that their fragrance had inebriating properties. At the end of a lavish banquet, when the guests were already excited by the effects of food and wine, the perfect host arranged for cascades of rose petals to fall from the ceiling. In the roseto, the scents and colours create a memorable experience, especially when combined with the backdrop of the Palatine ruins and the open space of the Circus Maximus. Il Roseto Comunale is on Viale del Circo Massimo. The nearest Metro station is Circo Massimo (Linea B). Normal opening hours, with free entry, are 8am-6.30pm every day during the May-June flowering season.


Campania. If you love great gardens (and we mean great gardens!), you might want to consider taking a detour to the island of Ischia. Just off the coast of Naples, next to its sisters Capri and Procida, Ischia is special because it's a thermal island. Running beneath the ground are countless naturally heated springs, which have made this a spa island since the Roman Empire, and there are still all kinds of spa services provided here, from the spartan type that pleases the northern Europeans, to the fancier New Age type we Americans prefer. Weary 21st-century urban warriors love to soak in the warm pools that dot the island – and the same springs that feed them also soothe the roots of myriad tropical plants. This is where La Mortella comes in. On the western side of the island, this large property has been home to Lady Susana Walton, widow of composer William Walton, since 1949. Like so many ex-pats who have come for a break and never left, the Waltons planned to stay only long enough for him to finish "Troilus and Cressida," but they never left. Sir William passed away in 1983 and is buried here; Lady Susana still thrives at 79, and today welcomes visitors to the garden that famed British landscape genius Russell Page began designing in 1956. Today there are more than 800 rare plants from four continents, but more than just a huge collection of thriving plants, La Mortella (named after the myrtle shrubs that have always grown wild here) is a little world unto itself, dedicated to the preservation of beauty, of peace, of tranquility, of love. Well-known sculptor Simon Verity's work is also present in the Temple of the Sun, created inside an ancient cistern. And Lady Susana's latest project will foster her strongest passion: music. Her brand-new Greek theatre is big enough for a full symphony orchestra to perform amidst the colors of the lush tropical vegetation and against the backdrop of the setting sun. La Mortella is open to the public April to October. Much of it is accessible to the disabled. For information about visiting, click here to visit La Mortella's website.


Calabria. Catanzaro is a noisy, traffic-ridden town, so if you are there for any length of time, take your frazzled nerves to Villa Trieste, a former convent which was transformed in 1881 into public gardens. You'll be soothed by charming flower beds, shrubberies, ponds, waterfalls, sculptures, and breathtaking views of the Sila mountains and Ionian Sea. Open daily; admission free.
Sicily. You may envision this as a barren island, but it is full of lush gardens. Perhaps the most characteristic one is Palermo's Villa Bonanno, a magnificent garden with palms, Roman ruins and mosaics, and a papyrus pond. Open daily.

Links to other sites

LatinaWeb calls Ninfa "The Medieval Pompeii."

Great Italian Gardens has photos and details about hundreds of private homes you can visit in Italy.


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