Continuing with the November theme ″Why I keep coming back to Italy″ …
There are plenty of wonderful places to walk off a delicious meal in Italy. One of my favorite places to stroll is an Italian garden. Large or small, formal or informal, famous or forgotten, Italy provides a wonderful assortment of gardens for every taste. And when I’m busy touring around the country, it’s been a joy to discover a peaceful garden where I can escape the crowds and just enjoy the lovely scenery with a few locals. Here are a few of my favorites.
A wonderful area for visiting formal gardens is Lake Como, where there are several Villas with their large, manicured gardens. One of the largest gardens can be found at Villa Carlotta, an easy boat ride across the lake from Bellagio. The villa itself is now a small museum with several wonderful sculptures by Antonio Canova, but the almost 20 acres of botanical gardens are what attract the most visitors. Give yourself plenty of time to walk the trails that wind up and down the hillsides and terraces that showcase a wide variety of plants and garden styles.
A smaller garden, with a dramatic setting that juts out onto the lake is Villa del Balbianello. This small jewel on Lake Como is also the setting for the James Bond film, Casino Royal. After a ferry ride to the town of Tremezzina, you can hire a boat to take you to the villa. However, it’s also an easy and scenic walk from the town. Although the villa is closed to the public, there is no charge to visit the lovely gardens with shaded paths and beautiful statuary.
There are many more gardens to explore on Lake Como and nearby Lake Maggiore. It’s also easy to find guided tours of gardens and villas in this area on the internet. There is an entrance fee for many of the major villas, but several gardens are free. Use the handy ferry system to take a leisurely cruise on the lake and stop at several venues in one day.
For more information on the gardens and villas of Lake Como, you can visit several good sites on the internet, including the Lake Como Pages.
Gardens near Florence
When in Florence, cross the Arno river and take some time to explore the Boboli and Bardini Gardens behind the Pitti Palace. There is a ticket that includes the price of both gardens.
This is a relaxing place to take a stroll and enjoy lush gardens, classic sculptures and ponds—and maybe some shade on a hot day. Be sure take the time to walk over to the Bardini Gardens (head a bit east and south, going up the hill a bit). Few people explore this far, but if you do, you’ll be rewarded with terraced gardens and some great views of the city—especially the beautiful Brunelleschi Dome of the Duomo.
Just up the hill from the center of Florence is the quaint town of Fiesole, where the wealthy families of Florence often took a break from the hectic city life. It’s a great spot for tourists to escape the crowds and enjoy the fresh breezes up on the hill. Besides some fun restaurants, there’s a Roman theatre, Etruscan ruins and the Villa Medici, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Although you can’t visit the villa itself, anyone can visit the classic gardens for free. The gardens offer great views of Florence and the surrounding countryside. Be sure to look for the secret garden with the best views of the surrounding Tuscan landscapes.
The owner of La Foce gardens spent her formative years at Villa Medici, which inspired her love of gardening. Located in the heart of Tuscany, not far from Montepulciano, La Foce, is the former home of Iris Origo. This American expat, along with her Italian husband, built a fabulous garden in an undeveloped area of Tuscany. Guided visits are available twice a week and well worth it. You can even stay in their lodgings nearby. Along with amazing vistas of the Tuscan countryside, you can enjoy the beautiful gardens and learn some history about this amazing family that shared their knowledge of farming, built a school and hospital and also provided shelter to WWII orphans.
The Amalfi Coast
On the Amalfi Coast, we enjoyed two lush gardens in the hill town of Ravello, just above Amalfi. Villa Cimbrone, is one of a few Italian gardens designed in the English Garden style. Walk along the trails and enjoy the exotic plants, fountains, small temples and pavilions—with the spectacular backdrop of the sparkling Mediterranean Sea below. Try to go in the late spring when the viburnum and other native plants show the most color.
Another smaller garden, the Villa Rufolo, also provides dramatic views from its walkways and terraces. During the summer, the villa hosts an outdoor music festival on the main terrace. Although the gardens are smaller and less formal, it’s a peaceful place to explore almost any time of the year.
Some of my favorite gardens aren’t even mentioned in the guide books. In the popular town of Taormina, Sicily, we found an idyllic city garden just beyond the famous Greek Theater. While trying to dodge the tourists crowding the main road, we stumbled upon a side road that led to the town’s main gardens. Once again we were rewarded with open space, beautiful statuary and an empty bench to enjoy the panoramic views of the sea below us.
Whether it’s a big city like Florence or Rome, or a small town in the countryside, if you take the time to find a garden, you won’t be disappointed. When you pick up a city map from the tourist office, look for the green spots on your map to find the local parks & gardens. If you venture off the popular tourist routes to one of these gardens, you’ll be rewarded with a quiet spot to reflect, to refresh yourself and to relax with other Italians.