Historically a trailblazer in garden design, Italy still wows us with its gorgeous giardini. Fleur Kinson finds the ideas of every age in full flower across a small area of the northern lakes.
Italy is one of the great gardening countries of the world. The nation’s horticultural inventiveness has blossomed for centuries, and proven hugely influential in the evolution of the Western world’s ideas about green spaces arranged for pleasure and contemplation. For example, it was Renaissance Italians who took the enclosed, inward-looking gardens common to medieval times and turned them outward to face the world in grand formal arrangements, decorated with statuary and jazzed up with clever fountains. And it was in Padua and Pisa that the world’s first botanic gardens sprang up, as living catalogues of plantlife. In short, Italian gardening creativity has given the rest of the world a lot to emulate, and to elaborate upon.
Today, together with Tuscany and Lazio, one of Italy’s key areas for garden-lovers is the northern lakes – Como, Maggiore, Garda and others. Thanks to the unique lakeside microclimates, plants from cold temperate zones and from sub-tropical ones are all happy here. The lakeside air is always moist and the temperatures moderate despite the northerly latitude and the snow-clad Alps rising dramatically in the near-distance.
But it’s not just the diversity of species that makes the northern lakes such a blessed spot for gardens. The lie of the land, climbing up and down lake-plunging hillsides, creates all sorts of natural theatres for arresting garden display. Lake views give each garden extra drama; the green hill that teems with tumbling shrubs and flowers is all the more breathtaking for ending in an expanse of glittering blue. Plants and statues framing serene vistas of water make the lake a feature in each garden’s design. It’s a deeply romantic arrangement, made even more so by the evaporation-haze that so often hangs in the lakeside air and lends a dreamlike quality to the outlines of surrounding mountains.
Knowing how many gardens of different styles and periods lie around Italy’s northern lakes, I set myself a challenge to see as much variety as possible within a mere 48 hours. I would visit seven very different gardens set beside two of Italy’s largest lakes. I would encounter sheer romance, happy effusion, austere formality, Baroque playfulness, and serene modern spaciousness. It would be a whirlwind tour through many different ideas on what a garden could be.
Villa Balbianello – the height of romance
On a secluded headland in Lake Como’s southwest, the tiny 18th-century Villa Balbianello sits where a medieval monastery once provided bottomless tranquillity to a gaggle of Capuchin monks. It’s late afternoon when I arrive by boat, the only way to reach the place. The sunlight is warm and honeyed, with a golden evening not far away. Elegant stone urns on tall columns keep watch over the landing dock, drawing the eye up to the high branches of spectacular plane trees pruned to twist and angle like candelabra.
I climb steep paths in dappled light, past palm trees sprouting from sheer rock, and am soon at the height of the two belltower-tips of a pink church. Topography is the chief enchantment of this garden. Steep, smooth slopes of land – covered in close-cropped grass or carpets of fragrant bay bushes – rise and fall in sensual, appealing curves. Formal layouts are impossible on such terrain, and flowers are irrelevant when the surrounding views are so stunning – framed with foliage or dramatized with statuary. I follow pretty, tilting paths to one private nook after another.
Perhaps the garden’s most striking object is its central loggia, straddling a small hilltop and giving heart-stoppingly beautiful views in two directions. Small-leaved ficus pumila crawls over its columns in drunken filigree patterns, echoing the decorative stonework below. In another part of the garden visible through the loggia, there sprouts an astonishing tree – a giant holm oak clipped into a mushroom shape. Allegedly, it so impressed visitor George Lucas that he recreated it in an alien landscape in one of his Star Wars films. This whole garden has obvious cinematic appeal, and movie fans might also like to know that Daniel Craig’s James Bond spends some happy time recuperating here in Casino Royale.
Villas Monastero and Cipressi – tumbling fecundity
On the other side of Lake Como, in the tiny town of Varenna, two neighbouring villas promise a pair of lovely gardens. I cross the lake in the early morning. Varenna is still asleep, its clutch of ancient lanes empty and silent. Despite the town’s picturesque perfection, it’s never swamped with visitors – not even in the height of summer. So its two beautiful villa-gardens never lose their tranquillity. Secretive and rambling, they leave you free to wander sinuous paths thickly lined with flowers and greenery punctuated by bijou bits of architecture. Both are centuries-old botanic-style gardens, with lavish growth of exotic species, but the key aim of each seems to be simply to provide a wonderful place to stroll lost in thought, delighted by what crops up along the way.
I start with the Villa Monastero’s garden. Long and thin, it spreads for a kilometre along a steep, leafy slope of hillside. My nostrils constantly meet with warm and dry then cool and moist air as I step in and out of the jungly shadows, each fluctuating draught mixing with the shifting fragrances of leaves and flowers. The garden is a journey, continually delighting you with new novelties en route – a citrus gallery, a fountain, a frescoed loggia, a hexagonal turret perched over the water…
Next door, at the Villa Cipressi, the garden is less a journey than a winding meander. Intimate narrow paths snake up and down a series of terraces sprouting dense greenery. Sudden vistas across the lake compel you to stop and stare. Like the Villa Monastero’s garden, this is a meditative, mind-clearing place – silent and private-feeling. The gorgeous lake views arrive like sudden moments of clarity and perspective in your thoughts. Having wandered these two gardens, I leave Varenna feeling very relaxed and clear-headed indeed.
Villa Della Porta Bozzolo – arch formality
In the afternoon I drive west, stopping at little Casalzuigno to the north of Lake Varese. Here the 17th-century Villa Della Porta Bozzolo unfurls its extremely formal garden. Layout, rather than plantlife, is the keyword. Creating a long, stern central axis, eight balustraded terraces flank a grand staircase which climbs a sloping lawn to meet a steep path climbing straight up a hillside. Eroded statues punctuate the balustrades, while needlelike cypresses stand on sentinel-watch around the lawn. With few exotic plants, and largely flowerless, the garden is stark or pristine depending on your taste.
I wander down a side avenue to an imposing Baroque folly, then go into the villa itself. On walls, ceilings, shutters and doors, the decoration is effuse – in complete contrast to the austere garden outside. But the quality of the decoration is patchy – the ballroom frescos are overbright and amateur, the patterns on shutters and doors clumsily-painted. It’s a reminder that while Italy is absolutely stuffed full of art, not all of it is great! Uncomfortable-looking bedrooms lead to interesting reception and dining rooms. Best of all are the cavernous kitchens festooned with blackened pots. And the library, where dour wooden bookcases contrast with giddily painted walls. All in all, a lot to see, and I’m glad I made a little stop in Casalzuigno.
The Borromean Islands – worlds apart
The next morning, I spend a couple of hours exploring two of the tiny Borromean islands in Lake Maggiore. Despite being less than a ten-minute boat ride from each other, they couldn’t be more different. On Isola Madre, a quiet, rustic 16th-century palazzo stands covered in flowering creepers. Behind it, a dozen or more acres of land are arranged as an English-style park – landscaped in the 19th century to frame vistas of lake and plantlife. It forms a pleasantly rambling botanic garden, with an evident love of exotica. White peacocks emerge from the underbrush and stride past palm trees, banana plants and hibiscus – all the more striking with snow-topped Alps standing in the distance behind them!
Lulled by Isola Madre’s tranquil greenery, I’m wholly unprepared when I land on Isola Bella. It’s a sort of floating theatre, a carnival of Baroque excess. Historical generations of visitors have sneeringly used words like ‘vulgar’ and ‘absurd’ to describe the palace and garden here, but it doesn’t stop them coming! Isola Bella is by far the most visited of the Borromean islands, and it’s a thoroughly entertaining spot. The palace is filled with all sorts of wondrous, over-decorated rooms – the craziest surely the stone-clad grottoes downstairs where giddy aristocrats used to lark about in sprays of water. Outside, a ziggurat of terraced land bears an extravagant shellwork folly festooned with strident statues. Various boldly formal arrangements of flowers and shrubs dot the small island’s periphery. It’s all a delightful spectacle.
Villa Taranto – serene modernity
After lunch, I head a few miles round the lake to Verbania, to wander sixteen lovely acres of landscaped botanical gardens at Villa Taranto. Scotsman Neil McEacharn bought the house and land back in the 1930s and spent three decades artfully arranging 20,000 different plants into this sprawling, captivating place. (He christened his home ‘Taranto’ because he knew Italians would struggle to pronounce ‘McEacharn’!)
I wander a serene terraced garden with oblong pools of waterlily and lotus flowers – the cool modern lines very refreshing after the loud Baroque-n-roll on Isola Bella. I stroll winding paths which open out to pretty vistas of vegetation, tiptoe into glasshouses teeming with greenery, and meditatively wander separate avenues devoted wholly to showcasing different species of azaleas, maples, rhododendrons, camellias, dahlias…
Five hundred years of ideas in European gardening seem to meet and mingle at Villa Taranto. There are formal arrangements, statuary, fountains, flowerbeds, lawns; there are carefully categorised exotica; there are landscaped valleys and freeform woods. Being the most modern of all the gardens I’ve visited, Villa Taranto has the benefit of hindsight – taking all which has worked in the past and bringing it together in one beautiful place. I take a last look behind me as I leave the garden, my 48 hours coming neatly to an end, and I wonder what garden innovations the next five centuries might bring.
Lenno, Lake Como
+39 034 456110
open March to November (see website for dates)
10am to 6pm
closed Mondays and Wednesdays
access is via boat from Lenno
Varenna, Lake Como
+39 0341 295450
open every day March to October
9 or 10am to 5, 6 or 7pm, depending on day
Varenna, Lake Como
+39 0341 830113
open March to October
9am to 7pm
Casalzuigno, near Varese
+39 0332 624136
open February to December
10am to 5 or 6pm, depending on time of year
+39 0323 31261
open every day April to September
9am to 5:30pm
+39 0323 30556
open every day April to September
9am to 12 noon, 1:30 to 5:30pm
access to the Borromean islands is by boat from Arona, Stresa, Baveno, Pallanza and Laveno
Verbania Pallanza, Lake Maggiore
+39 0323 556667
open every day April to October
8:30am to 6:30pm, or to 5:30pm during October