I have had the pleasure of leading a number of garden tours through some of the great gardens of Europe, but if pressed to nominate a favourite region, it would have to be the area of Italy from Rome south to the Amalfi Coast near Naples. Aside from the spectacular views from most of the gardens there, there is a surprising range of plants from sub-tropical species to all sorts of plants that thrive in temperate regions. Add in the rather hedonistic culture of the locals for the evening hours, and you have all the ingredients for a very memorable trip.
(A word of caution as well for the inexperienced traveller, there are also pick pockets with the skills of a stage magician that will make your valuables disappear in a flash! However, a good strategic security plan or an experienced tour leader will usually see you through the areas where such dangers lurk without incident, but it is rather essential to have a plan of some sort.)
For those who have are wondering, the Amalfi Coast is an area of coast line a couple of hundred kilometres south of Rome, or if you think of Italy as a rather large figurative boot then it represents the ‘shin’ area. The largest city is Naples (Napoli) whose landscape is dominated by the famous volcano, Mt Vesuvius, and of course Pompeii is a ‘must see’ attraction nearby. But for gardeners the area to the south of Naples is the real attraction, with smaller towns such as Sorrento, Positano and Ravello being the places to spend your long lunches around visits to landmark gardens.
Driving the narrow roads along the surrounding cliffs allows for panoramic views of the azure blue seas and the spectacular slopes that are typically clothed in brightly coloured plants such as bougainvillea and geranium. Along with the ornamentals to provide flamboyant flavour to the landscape, there is also abundant use of productive plants to provide the culinary flavour to the region. The urban landscapes abound in fruit and vegetable gardens with citrus and olives often being used as street trees. The rich soils there are derived from the volcanic eruptions of Vesuvius that coated the landscape with mineral rich parent materials. One senses that a planting a pencil into the stuff would yield an abundant crop….
There are a couple of ‘must see’ gardens that showcase perfectly the borrowed landscape of the plunging cliffs and slopes that border the spectacular sea views. The first of these is Villa Cimbrone. One of the obvious and attractive design features of these gardens is the way they have been designed to frame the amazing views that continually draw your eyes away from the garden that you are standing in. Indeed the highlight of the garden is its Terrazzo dell’lnfinito (the Terrace of Infinity).
The quality of the experience there is beautifully described by American writer Gore Vidal (who lived nearby from 1972 to 2004) and wrote of Villa Cimbrone:
“Twenty five years ago I was asked by an American magazine what was the most beautiful place that I had ever seen in all my travels and I said the view from the belvedere of the Villa Cimbrone on a bright winter’s day when the sky and the sea were each so vividly blue that it was not possible to tell one from the other.”
Also in the picturesque village of Ravello is another panoramic garden built around an ancient 13th century mansion, namely Villa Rufolo. When I was there in 2012 the terrace gardens were a riot of colour, featuring various beds of colourful annuals such as petunias. On a typically bright sunny day the light highlighted the riot of colours which seemed to sum up the over the top, some might even say kitsch, design of the garden. Given the expansive, fun loving culture of the Italians the old saying of “When in Rome…..” sprang to mind.
Another garden excursion that is well worthwhile requires a short boat ride to a volcanic island not far off the Italian coast called Ischia. Filled with beautiful villas and gardens the island is home to a botanically themed garden called La Mortella. The garden was commissioned by Lady Walton and designed by a British landscape architect, Russell Page, to incorporate the dramatic topographical features and volcanic geology of the site. The garden covers 2 hectares and features lower garden, called The Valley, while the upper terrace gardens are known as The Hill, with all areas being connected by easily accessible walking paths.
La Mortella also boasts a major collection of rare plants that are beautifully displayed around a series of water features and three tropical greenhouses, the Victoria House (featuring a pond with a giant water lily, the Orchid House (with not only orchids but many other spectacular exotic tropicals) and an intriguing Sun House. The grounds feature all manner of plants from the temperate regions of the world and if you are a dedicated plant person you will want to devote a whole day to exploring La Mortella and wandering around the streets of Ischia.
Whether you choose to make a self-guided tour or join one of the specialist garden tours on offer through the various operators, you should research the beauties of the Amalfi Coast before deciding on your final itinerary. To spend an afternoon or two sitting on a garden terrace looking out over the azure blue sea on a warm Mediterranean spring day was one of life’s great gardening pleasures for me.