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Exploring Northern Italy’s Villa Gardens

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.

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