As gardeners, it is usual for us to want to see gardens that might inspire us. One garden I had read about, and heard about from fellow horticulturists, is the Italian garden of Villa Gamberaia, on the outskirts of Florence.
While recently holidaying in Florence I decided to visit the garden. I had heard it was quite easy to reach the garden by the local bus from central Florence, so decided to try this. The number of the bus is 10. It leaves from Piazza San Marco, every twenty minutes, and the trip only takes around 20 to 30 minutes. The tickets can be bought from the newspaper sellers in the square and cost around a euro each way.
When we went to the spot where we needed to catch the bus, we found the route and timetable attached to a pole. There was no mention of the Villa! The driver also did not seem to know about it. We caught the bus, and I was concerned that we might be going the wrong way.
We travelled up into the hills around Florence, which did seem like the right direction, and the scenery soon became decidedly rural, and in a very Tuscan way. Rows of tall phallic pines punctuated the vivid blue sky, and hillsides were covered in olive groves. We reached Settegnano, the final stop of the bus’s route, and looked for a sign for the Villa. None!
I asked a teenage girl who got off the bus with us if she knew of the Villa, and she said it was the second street on the right, as you went out of town via the street near the post office in the main square. We headed off on foot and reached the second right hand turn, and there, finally was a sign: Villa Gamberaia!
It was quite a long walk, possibly fifteen minutes, actually out of the town, along a dusty road in very hot weather, with little shade along the way. The upside, however, was, as you walked along the road, below, to the right, you could see Florence shimmering, the dome of the Duomo standing proudly above the city, even after all these centuries.
We finally reached the garden, and were confronted with a locked gate to the left side of the impressive main gated entrance (also locked). I buzzed the Office button, and the gate opened, rather eerily, electronically. It is important to check what dates the garden is open on their website. It is often closed to the public.
As one looked at the villa, on the left was a more humble structure, from where tickets were sold. The young man who met us there was polite but distant. He gave us a map and our tickets (€15 each). We then walked up the main drive to the villa. The drive was flanked on both sides by erratically clipped cypress hedges. They had a definite Alice Through the Looking Glass meandering form!
The map of the garden gave instruction as to where one could walk. The main terrace lawn was off limits (probably a traffic issue), but the narrow stone path that hugged the villa was luckily available to visitors. The view from the terrace, over Florence and the Arno river valley, was again magical, especially as carved dogs and lions sat a top the sandstone parapet, observing we visitors.
We went behind the house (also out of bounds), and were greeted by the formal parterre-style water garden. As with all other water features throughout the garden, none of the water features here were working. At least, in this garden area, there was water in the pools. All others water features throughout the garden were dusty dry.
The paving in this area of the garden is carefully laid patterns of small white pebbles in a crossing axis, oddly almost more attractive because of the weeds growing around them.
At the end of this garden is the famous cypress walk that curves around the end of the space as a letter U. Sadly part of it has died, and this vacancy has been filled in with sheets of plastic leaves, that are horrible, faded green. Later, I asked the young man who sold us our entry tickets, why this had been done, and he said it is to fill in the hedge until the real one grows back. Sadly, this did not seem to be happening!
As it is September, we were not surprised that the roses were almost finished and the hydrangeas and azaleas but a memory, but we were disappointed that the two large osmanthus in the water garden were not yet flowering. The perfume would have added so much to the space.
Again there were lots of statuary, especially dogs and lions, many very engaging. The odd putti, was also to be found. Below this formal garden there was a chlorine swimming pool, with the most enviable view over the countryside.
You could walk in the cool of the hedge, and through a break, gaze out through a ‘window’ cut into it, again over the Tuscan hills. To the left of this spectacle was a towering pine, with the classic tessellated bark they are famous for, on full display.
Shaded by the pine’s canopy there was large statue of a goddess (Diana?) with a bow, gazing serenely down on us. When one turned away from her the bowling alley was discovered, running along the side of the house, and, indeed, beyond the front entrance we had come through.
Before one reached this area there were two other gardens: a sort of semi-formal woodland garden, again with panoramic views, and above it a more formal parterre style two-tiered shell garden, known apparently as a cabinetta, crowned with statues and busts in stone of elegant men and women. Along one side of this garden there is a row of terracotta pots with Hydrangea macrophylla in them, past flowering, but with lush green leaves to make one feel cooler.
Even higher up from here there were many terracotta pots of citrus, in rows, all so stressed I feared some would not make it to the end of the summer. Their leaves were dull and wilted; very upsetting! Beside the trees was the limonarium, an Italian orangerie, where the citrus are housed in the colder months.
Down the bowling alley, there is another feature garden with seating, shells and textured rocks called the nymphæum. Above it was an impressive stand of cypress. The nymphæum is built into the earth, and the pressure from the soil is obviously now causing its walls to lean dangerously close to collapse.
On a positive note, in a row, leading to the nymphæum, one finds lovely large azaleas standing guard in terracotta pots, with garlands in relief. They seem to accompany the visitor as one walk to the end of the garden. Obviously in spring they would be magnificent!
Generally, sadly, the standard of care throughout the garden is decidedly poor. One wonders how much maintenance is actually carried out. Seeing the garden was like visiting a sick friend, definitely worth doing, but it would have been better to see it in good health! Similar gardens I visited during the same holiday had the same entrance fee, but I felt that the money taken was being used for the upkeep of these other gardens, unlike Villa Gamberaia, as they were well maintained.
We headed back to town, now in the middle of the day, with little shade along the route, glad to have some bottled water as we return to the bus stop. We just miss a bus but the next one comes along in twenty minutes, giving us time to buy bread and stamps before we head back to Florence.