Rose spotting in Italy
Italy has some truly magnificent gardens, writes Alice Spenser-higgs
GARDEN tourism is blooming, and Italy seems to have joined France and Britain as a desirable destination, given its splendid Renaissance gardens, art and history and, of course, regional Italian cuisine.
Last year Ludwig’s Roses offered its first Italian garden tour, with an emphasis on roses, and included cookery lessons with two accomplished young chefs who doubled as tour guides.
Marco Guisti and Claudio Bernardoni of Al Fresco repeated their successful recipe last month with a 10-day Tuscan experience, led by Ludwig Taschner’s multilingual wife Pamela, who is planning two tours in September.
What is so enticing about a garden tour? For me it is about a fresh injection of ideas and energy, of stepping into another world where people garden differently because it is, quite simply, a different country with a different culture and way of living.
The Italian love affair with roses is evident in Tuscany. They are everywhere, used with a rustic ruggedness in tune with the agricultural nature of the area.
Climbing roses are trained along fences that border the road or stand as magnificent flowering shrubs in backyards, along with bales of hay and chickens.
Even in small-town gardens, roses are used as standalone specimens, alongside other shrubs, rather than as a bedding plant. Alternatively climbers are trained up to frame a front door.
In many vineyards roses, usually red, are planted at the end of each row of grapevines.
Montepulciano wine maker, Simona Fabrioni Ruggeri of Villa S.Anna, admitted the practice was more aesthetic than practical — as a disease-prevention programme.
In the mediaeval sections of towns such as Bagnaia, Montalcino, or San Quirico D’Orcia with their dark, narrow streets with limited light, it was amazing to see how climbing roses are coaxed up walls and onto balconies.
Besides the roses, residents in these labyrinth-like streets, make use of every inch of space with pots, troughs and window boxes filled with flowers such as petunias, pansies or violas, as well as herbs and veggies. Like their rose growing, they have made an art of container gardening.
The tour itinerary included the famous and sublimely romantic Gardens of Ninfa, established in the ruins of a small Roman town and restored by the aristocratic Caetani family who took over the land in the late 19th century.
The garden was started by Roffredo Caetani’s mother, an English woman, Ada Wilbraham, and continued by his Americanborn wife, Marguerite Chapin. It is now managed by the Roffredo Caetani Foundation and is listed as one of the world’s top 1,000 gardens to visit.
Climbing roses scramble over gently decaying ruins, waterfalls tumble into steams banked with wild irises, and pathways meander around the garden, with a surprise around each corner.
About 1,300 different species of plants from around the world, including many of our own, populate this 8ha garden.
Another landmark garden was Villa Lante, regarded as one of the best examples of a formal Renaissance garden. The lower, main garden is square, constructed as a parterre and from there, terraced gardens progress upwards. Every section is linked by water, which cascades downwards through rills, channels and fountains.
A garden with a more recent history was La Foce Val d’Orcia that was built between 1924 and 1939 and designed by British architect Cecil Pinsent for the Origa family. Reclaimed from a barren hillside, the house and garden were the lifetime’s work of Antonio and Iris Origa, and were almost lost during occupation by Mussolini’s troops.
Today, the garden’s atmosphere is one of serenity. A series of terraces overlook the d’Orcia valley, with hedges of bay and Cyprus, leading the visitor through gardens are filled with banks of wisteria, lemon trees, lavender, roses and perennials.
This same tour of gardens, which includes guided walking tours of Siena, Pienza and Montepulciano, the monastery of San’Antimo, the hot springs of San Filippo, and finishes in Tivoli with its magnificent gardens of Villa d’Este, takes place from September 21 to 30.
An earlier tour, from September 11 to 20, starts in Pisa, and includes guided walking tours of Florence, Lucca, Livorno, San Gimignano and Viareggio. The base will be the Varramista wine estate in Tuscany, with day trips to gardens such as Villa Gamberaia and Villa Garzoni.
What an entrance! Climbing roses growing in pots and some window boxes make up the sum total of this ‘garden’ in the village of Pienza.
Roses and Santolina (cotton lavender) complement the Tuscan scenery of rolling wheat and sheep fields outside Pienza.
A sea of rose blossoms offsets one of the many ruins that give the Ninfa Gardens its unique atmosphere.