Explore Italy’s Secret Gardens

With so much to see in Italy, many travellers overlook the country’s beautiful gardens and lose out on a special experience as a result. For these are no ordinary, peaceful patches of green; they are often reflections of artistic expression with exotic designs and formal layouts. The best-known gardens are the elegant, noble estates of Villa d’Este near Rome, the Royal Palace of Caserta close to Naples and the Boboli Gardens in Florence, but there are other—secret—gardens to explore…

The Most Romantic

The Garden of Ninfa is southeast of Rome near the hill towns of Sermoneta and Norma. This delightful garden is a romantic oasis in the valley. The gardens were planted in the ruins of a once-noble estate, around the remains of a medieval watch tower. It’s as if some spontaneous act of nature is reclaiming the land and creating beauty among the ruins.

The eight-acre site has meandering paths, babbling brooks with stone bridges overhung with wisteria and water canals with little cascades. There are more than 1,000 plant species, including more than 300 varieties of antique roses. It is an enchanting spot and is frequently called “the most romantic garden in Italy.”

The Most Artistic

The Bosco della Ragnaia, near Siena in Tuscany, is a magical forest and a work of modern art. Created in 1996, the goal was to create a space that blends nature and art—it’s called “the garden reinvented.” Hedgerows, trees and paving stones are laid out in geometrical designs, while sculptures, columns and fountains represent the artist’s ideas of metaphor and peace. The garden’s paths are metaphorical, as well. For instance, The Straight and Narrow leads to the Secret Garden, while The Long Road uses optical illusion to appear longer.

The Most Beautiful

A private estate on the volcanic island of Ischia, off the coast of Naples, La Mortella is the result of a 50-year labour of love and determination. Created by Susan Walton, wife of composer William Walton, it was opened to the public in 1991 and has often been named the most beautiful park in Italy. Walton’s music, along with that of other classical composers, is played during the summer months in the Greek Theatre, built into the hillside overlooking the Bay of Forio. A foundation in Walton’s name promotes chamber music on the island and provides scholarships for young local aspiring musicians.

The Valley Garden is a lush paradise of palms, water lilies, trees and exotic plants, including a profusion of orchids. Plants form coves and corners, and fountains spurt among lotus and ferns. The Hill Garden is a completely different environment, sculpted onto the rocky slope. Steep paths wind up through different terraced levels, but it is no less exotic, with its Temple of the Sun and Thai Pavillion. There are breathtaking views of the sea up there, too.

The Most Unique

Outside Capalbio, in the Maremma district of Tuscany, you’ll find a unique garden that blends nature with artistic expression and colourful whimsy. Created by artist Niki de Saint Phalle, it’s home to enormous, vibrant representations of the 22 tarot cards. Saint Phalle’s imagination has conjured up a playful park dotted with steel and cement sculptures that are covered with tile, glass and mirror mosaics. The sculptures are made to be played with, walked through and climbed on. In fact, Saint Phalle lived inside one of the sculptures while working on the garden.

There are fountains for frolicking and trails for walking through the Mediterranean scrub. The artist designed the garden to fit the landscape and called it “a small Eden where man and nature meet.”

The Most Exclusive

Castel Gandolfo estate south of Rome has long been an elite retreat, first for Roman emperors, followed by Rome’s aristocratic families and then for the popes. The pontifical palace of Castel Gandolfo has been the Pope’s summer residence for centuries.

Surrounding the palace are acres of manicured gardens and carefully-tended flower beds, with pretty walkways and lovely overlooks opening onto Lake Albano. For centuries, this remained an exclusive garden, used only by the Vatican. Pope Francis, however, has thrown open the gates to this splendid park to permit the public to enjoy its beauty.

On the grounds are the pontifical palace known as Villa Barberini, the ruins of Emperor Domitian’s villa, and the Vatican Observatory, as well as the beautiful formal garden.

Image: ©iStock.com/aizram18

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