It was at a meeting of heritage rose lovers that I first heard about Ninfa, a romantic, rambling, Italian garden built in the ruins of a medieval town. People spoke of it in reverential terms and my interest was piqued by their idyllic description – old roses and vines cascading from ruined towers and trees, scrambling along crumbling archways and overhanging crystal clear streams.
I put it on my garden ‘bucket list’, never really expecting to get there as it only opens for 25 days a year and is away from the usual tourist route in the heavily-industrialised Pontine Plain, South East of Rome. However, I have the incredible fortune to work as a garden tour guide for Travelrite International and in May, on a journey from Rome to Sorrento, I got the opportunity to see if the anticipation lived up to the experience.
The garden was developed by the last three generations of the Caetani family, from the 1920s to the early fifties when the ruins were uncovered from rampant ivy and the 32 metre castle tower renovated.
The soil is rich, well drained and moist and as part of the restoration thousands of trees, shrubs, roses, and other plants were imported from around the world to create year-round interest. The garden is planted in the informal English garden style and the structure comes from the medieval ruins.
The garden has spring-fed lakes and a crystal clear river which create a perfect mirror for reflecting garden views.
Open areas have collections of trees including judas, magnolia, walnut, crab apple, cherry and maple.
I’m a rose aficionado and was overjoyed to discover that we were there at the peak bloom time. Many of the roses grown at Ninfa are common in warm Australian gardens and it was good fun identifying some of my favourites as plants are not labelled.
Massive banks of the single, white flowered Rosa filipes ‘Kiftsgate’ clothe the walls and create a carpet of petals and other rambling shrubs included hybrid musk beauties ‘Penelope’, ‘Ballerina’ and ‘Buff Beauty’.
Climbers abound and include star jasmine, wisteria cascading from the bridges and climbing hydrangeas (Hydrangea petiolaris). Fragrant roses scrambling through the structures including ‘Mme. Alfred Carriére’ with cupped blooms of creamy white tinted with pink and the ruffled, quartered, apricot tea rose ‘Gloire de Dijon’.
Other old roses included the multicoloured ‘Mutabilis’ which has single blooms of parchment that darken to rose pink and crimson, so it looks like the bush is covered with multicoloured butterflies. Modern roses like ‘Iceberg’ and a collection of David Austin rose beauties add to the floral palette.
Named after a small temple built near the springs and dedicated to the Nymph goddess, Ninfa was founded in the eighth century and at its peak in the 13th Century when it came into the ownership of the Caetani family. The town had seven churches, a castle and housed about two thousand people in 150 homes.
Unfortunately civil wars, caused by a schism in the Roman Catholic church, led to the town being destroyed in 1381 and efforts to resettle it were thwarted by outbreaks of malaria.
The garden covers 8 hectares (20 acres) and has a magical feeling with a relaxed and varied plant palette. The curator and his six full time gardeners run the garden on organic principals and we were delighted to see boxes attached to the trees from which ladybirds are released.
The garden has automatic reticulation and gardeners looks after their own particular area, pruning and planting to maintain a wild and informal ambience, a style that looks easy but which is surprisingly difficult to achieve.
I loved it all but I did find the lavender walk, which has a kilometre of lavender bushes lining the paths, too formal for the rest of the design.
A river flows from a lake just above the garden and travels through the centre of the town and is diverted into streams lined with drifts of irises, arum lilies and statement plants like giant rhubarb (Gunnera manicata).
My only frustration is that all visits to Ninfa are with a guide and follow a prescribed route. I normally enjoy touring new places with a garden guide but on this occasion I felt that the guide was just there to ensure that we did not stray from the paths and to move us through in our allotted hour. The guides do try to stagger tours so you have some semblance of exclusivity but the garden is extremely popular with 70,000 visitors each year so lingering is discouraged.
Ninfa is a garden to be savoured and is truly deserving of all the superlatives lavished on it by the garden literati. It invites slow meandering, time to sit and contemplate the beauty and frequent photographic stops which were not possible due to time constraints.
It may have taken the edge off my enjoyment but if I ever have the opportunity to visit again I’ll be the one hurrying to be at the front of the queue and dragging my feet as we leave!
Deryn Thorpe takes garden tours for Travelrite International. Her next tour is an October cruise: Fall Colours Garden Cruise Canada and USA with Deryn Thorpe.