Exploring Northern Italy’s Villa Gardens
Published: June 2009
By Mary Tonetti Dorra
From elaborate landscapes outside Genoa to formal estates along Lake Como and the French border, T+L tours the villa gardens of northern Italy.
It was with a touch of envy that I visited La Mortola, the 49-acre gardens just three miles west of Ventimiglia on the French-Italian border, my first stop while touring some of the region’s most beautiful public gardens. Imagine having the time, the energy, the means, and the taste to design what is a horticultural paradise spilling right down to the Mediterranean. Thomas Hanbury, a wealthy Englishman who made his money in China trading in silk, tea, and cotton, created this place with the help of his botanist brother Daniel in 1867, and it’s now known as both La Mortola and the Hanbury Botanical Gardens.
Hanbury first saw the crumbling Palazzo Orengo on holiday; it was located on a perfect site and offered an ideal climate. While this was an important attraction for him, I am convinced it was the incredible views of the sea and mountains that clinched the deal and led him to buy the stunning pink palazzo and surrounding land for his dream garden. Like his fellow Brit, the Scotsman Neil McEarchern, who planted the botanical gardens at Villa Taranto, on Lake Maggiore 87 years later, Hanbury had a vision. He wanted a landscaped garden that would bring together native flora with as many exotic plants as he could find. He collected a variety of roses, wisteria, and salvia. Other beautiful features are the cycads and succulents, a cypress walk that stretches the entire width of the garden, and enormous oaks and pines. Sculptures from various periods surprise you in unexpected corners, adding immeasurably to the enchantment of the garden.
After Hanbury’s death, his daughter-in-law Lady Hanbury took an equally strong interest in preserving the garden and eventually, in 1960, left it to the Italian government. Since 1986 it has been under the care of the University of Genoa. One strongly feels the presence of Thomas Hanbury throughout, as well as his love and curiosity for the natural world. For a few hours I was transported into a simpler 19th-century life, where strolling in a beautiful garden was an understandable passion.
My friend Charlotte Temple and I could have reached our next destination, Bellagio, in an efficient 21st-century way, following the strong commands of the GPS and taking the highway from Genoa north to Como. But we didn’t. Instead, we were thrilled by what we discovered serendipitously. The serpentine state road follows extraordinarily beautiful cascading streams in the National Park of the Maritime Alps, which dominates the northwest corner of Piedmont. By taking the longer route—which dipped briefly back into France—we were introduced to Limone Piemonte, a delightful little town. The Col de Tenda pass separates the Maritime Alps from the Ligurian Alps not far from Cuneo, where we stopped for lunch at the Osteria della Chiocciola to enjoy the zuppa di verdure and the house-made ravioli.
Bellagio has been a destination for garden lovers since the time of Pliny. From the lakeside Piazza Mazzini, we arranged to have a water taxi take us to the three gardens we particularly wanted to see.
Arriving at the villas by water was a special treat, as that is the way visitors traveled in centuries past, and it is by far the most dramatic. The owners and drivers of Bellagio Water Taxis, Luca Venini and his Australian wife, Jennine, ferried us to the three pearls of Lake Como: Villa Melzi, Villa del Balbianello, and Villa Carlotta, all in one afternoon. Luca, a native of Bellagio, filled us in on the local history and the current gossip, and showed us places on the lake that were of particular interest to nature lovers.
Our guide at the Villa Melzi was the charming Daniela Vaninetti. She was there punctually to meet us, complete with wellies, tattoos, and a diamond-studded smile. She showed us enormous 19th-century redwoods, white pines, red oaks, and water-craving swamp cypresses from North America.
In May the garden is aglow with azaleas and rhododendrons. A Moorish pavilion placed right at the water’s edge, a well-manicured allée of pollarded sycamore trees, and a delightful Japanese water garden are among the attractions.
Unlike Villa Melzi, the complex of Balbianello, the next place we visited, is owned and maintained by the Fondo Ambiente Italiano—the Italian National Trust. The peninsula on which we find the estate juts dramatically into Lake Como and has views of three different shores. In addition to the gardens, a magnificent 18th-century loggia, which has columns delicately laced with well-tended garlands of ficus, is open to the public. Originally commissioned by Cardinal Angelo Maria Durini at the end of the 18th century, the gardens of Balbianello have been modified by subsequent owners and reflect French, English, and Italian influences—all quite typical of the pleasure gardens of this period.
Built around 1690, Villa Carlotta was once known as the Villa Clerici, but was renamed in 1843 for Princess Carlotta of the Netherlands when she received the home as a wedding present.
Before Carlotta and her husband, Prince George of Saxe-Meiningen, added to the garden, previous owner Gian Battista Sommariva left his mark. He’d bought the estate in the early 1800’s and embellished it extensively, adding statuary, a stone tower, and thousands of plants to the already extensive collection of shrubs and trees, perhaps in competition with his political rival Francesco Melzi d’Eril, the owner of Villa Melzi, across the lake.
In the summer months, one is drawn to the woodland dell dotted with blue hydrangeas behind the villa that Carlotta and her husband expanded. Also, you can stroll, as guests once must have done, in what appears to be a stunning rain forest complete with numerous collections of exotica—ferns, giant magnolias, bananas, and orchids—that had become a passion among horticulturists of the period.
We ate dinner at the Villa d’Este hotel, where we had rombo (turbot), splendidly prepared and so fresh that the delicate flavor of the fish came through as it often doesn’t. What a pleasure to be in this restaurant, overlooking the impeccably manicured formal gardens of the hotel.
The next day we left como and drove to lake Maggiore to see the Borromean Islands, and in particular the Isola Bella, perhaps the finest example of 17th-century Italian Baroque garden art. When seen from the town of Stresa, the island looks like a giant ship: the Borromean Palace at the stern balancing the 10-terraced garden at the bow of the island.
Milanese architect Giovanni Angelo Crivelli is credited with the original design of the palace and the grounds that were shaped into a step pyramid, decorated with turf, pebbles, shells, and ornate mosaics. One reaches the gardens by passing through the palace and six lavishly decorated grottoes.
Punctuated by immense cone-shaped evergreens at each corner, the parterres in the Garden of Love prepare the guests for the extravaganza of the water theater that towers over the island garden. The theater is richly decorated with niches, fountains, and hanging plants.
A spectacular collection of sculpture adds to the delight of the place, symbolizing the rivers and lakes of Italy, the four seasons, and the Borrome family’s power. Statues are dramatically silhouetted against the sky and the elaborate Italianate balustrades and fountains.
We ended the trip at the palazzo Villa Durazzo Pallavicini, just outside Genoa in the suburb of Pegli. The park has beautiful trees and shrubs, in particular the camellias, which date back to the garden’s inception in 1840. Soon after, set designer Michele Canzio whimsically created for his patron Alessandro Ignazio Pallavicini a “drama in three acts,” in which the garden visitor, the “hero,” treks through the Triumphal Arch, passes through “hell,” represented by the dark grotto, and ends at “Paradise Regained,” in the brilliant sunshine. And indeed it was.
Mary Tonetti Dorra writes for the New York Times, Gourmet, and Elle Decor.
When to Go
The gardens are open from March through October; the flowers are best in April and May.
Reserve a car and lock in your rental rate before you travel. Avis (800/230-4898; avis.com), Budget (800/404-8033; budget.com), and most other major agencies have locations in Milan and Genoa. Bellagio Water Taxis (39-33/8524-4914; bellagiowatertaxis.com) has boating services on Lake Como.
Where to Stay
Where to Eat
Antica Osteria di Vico Palla The wild sea bass trossiette is a standout among the Ligurian seafood dishes. 15R Vico Palla, Genoa; 39-01/0246-6575; dinner for two $63.
Osteria della Chiocciola Named for escargot, the local specialty. 1 Via Fossano, Cuneo; 39-01/716-6277; dinner for two $88.
Hanbury Botanical Gardens 43 Corso Montecarlo, La Mortola Inferiore; 39-01/8422-9507.
Villa Durazzo Pallavicini 13 Via Durazzo Pallavicini, Pegli, Genoa; 39-01/0698-1048.
What to Read
Garden Lover’s Guide to Italy by Penelope Hobhouse (Frances Lincoln Publishers, $6.95).