Thursday, 10 July 2014

Villa D'Este - I never promised you a water garden

Along with the sunshine there's got to be a little rain sometime.....

Halfway down the stairs is a stair where I sit

We are seated on the terrace of an ancient Italian palazzo, now turned B&B, in the narrow back streets of the old town of Tivoli, tucking into our first cappuccinos of the day and a rather good breakfast spread of ham, cheese and a variety of different breads.  There is also a yoghurt each with the word 'intero' stamped on the label.  I'm wondering if this is a sympathetic hint.  Our accommodation has the quirkiest of bathrooms converted from a narrow steep stairway with the shower at the top, handbasin at the bottom and half-way up the dimly lit stairs is, not Christopher Robin, but an antique porcelain toilet! On our arrival I had joked that this is not the place to have an upset stomach in the middle of the night! :(

The breakfast terrace is al fresco but part of a large internal courtyard with the outdoor terraces of other houses overhanging at different levels, all linked together in a higgledy piggledy fashion all displaying part of their owner's lives.  I am contemplating this and my expression must be moving in tune to my thoughts as the Bedsock suddenly asks me "What are you thinking?".  "I'm thinking that there are an awful lot of ornaments,  plant pots and pieces around these terraces and wondering where the best place would be in the event of an earthquake" I reply.  Judging by the expression on his face, next time I would be better to just say "nothing" as the Bedsock always does.

Villa D'Este when the water flows

The downside of having a highly active and vivid imagination is that I am always planning for disaster scenarios - but I have had no premonition of the day's potential disaster.  After all we are merely wandering a few hundred metres through the town to the lovely Villa D'Este, garden of fountains.  Even before Monty Don got excited about it on his Italian Gardens series I had wanted to visit - we hadn't been able to fit it in during our last visit to Rome so in many ways this holiday had been planned around it. It's a perfect, sunny morning after the torrential rain and thunderstorms that have dogged the last few days of holiday.  Our travels may be coming to an end but I have saved the Villa D'Este til last, after Ninfa it may not be the best but it is certainly been at the top of our Italian garden wish list - I can't wait to see the corridor of 100 fountains

100 fountains but will the gargoyles be gargling for us?

We have arrived early(ish) to avoid the crowds but as we approach the reception desk DISASTER! There is a sign up saying the fountains are not on. I stare at the sign in disbelief.  Then I stare at the lady behind the desk in disbelief. "What do you mean the fountains are not on?" I gasped. "We've come all the way from the UK just to see the fountains" I exaggerate slightly.  "It's because of the rain" replies the receptionist.  My head explodes.

"What do you mean because of the rain" I rant "You mean to tell me that in the 1500s Ippolito d'Este created a fabulous fountained f*****g garden using only natural water pressure and yet in this day and f*****g age a bit of rain has stopped the whole damned show? Even British Rail hasn't come up with a worse excuse!"  This rant went on a fair bit longer and it is possible (hopefully) the swear words were only in my head.  Eventually the Bedsock calmly asks when the fountains will come back on.  The receptionist shrugs, at first she says they don't know but we can go in to see the gardens anyway. Why would we want to pay to see a 'water' garden with no water? It will be like going to a Rolling Stones concert with no Mick Jagger! I start to weep and tear my hair out.  "Maybe eleven o'clock" they will be back on" says another receptionist.  We decide to go for another cappucino then return.  My heart has sunk and I'm worried that the sign on the desk saying the 'fountains are off' is rather well-used. I am also irrationally annoyed by the woman taking ipad photos in the Piazza where we are having our coffee. 

Later, googling will inform me that the fountains being turned off is far from unusual and that many visitors are in for a disappointment.  Apparently, after a lot of rain the river supplying the fountains silts up and they shut the supply off.  As Tivoli is in the 'thunderstorm corridor' of Italy, this must happen quite often.  They still let people into the garden at full price though!!

We return to the reception an hour later with a certain amount of trepidation. "Are the fountains back on yet?" I query. "I don't know" shrugs the receptionist as if it is all a bit irrelevant.  The more helpful lady finds out for us.  You can judge from my pictures of the most fabulous, fascinating, f*****g fountains in the whole world whether they were on or not!

Not since the fountains of Barcelona danced to the sound of Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballé have water features been this wonderful.

Glorious grottos - we particularly loved the lichen and the ferns which looked like bunches of hanging grapes

OMG! Look! there she is again in full ipadding mode!

Gargling gargoyles

The Italians seem very keen on the tits squirting water theme - particularly useful if you have nine of them.

Everywhere they could flow water they flowed water

We loved this boat fountain

OMG! Is there no stopping her?

 Was Villa D'Este the perfect bucket list garden? Of course it was - it was full of fun, frivolous, frothy, frolicking fountains [FFS! that's enough fs Ed. ]

Travellers tips: If you are visiting check the weather forecast on previous days when rain may have built up. If they say in the morning the fountains are off - try again later in the day.  Try and allow some leeway in when you visit by staying nearby for a couple of days -visit the Villa Adriana (a few kms away) and if you are very fit the Villa Gregoriana has a deep gorge you can walk down close to the Villa D'Este.  The town of Tivoli itself is a bit scruffy and no great shakes and be warned that the unattractive industrial suburbs of Rome stretch pretty much right up to Tivoli itself so not the nicest way to approach such a gem.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Villa Lante - Boxed in


The third garden on our Lazio list, Villa Lante, was our first  Italian Renaissance garden.  Formally styled, highly controlled, no discernible flowers.  I remember Monty remarking that in some of the Renaissance gardens these box hedged patterns would originally have been home to flowers and herbs but I quite like the sparsity of colour and rigidity of design at Villa Lante.  As it happens it is not Monty that has drawn us here but a recommendation from Alys Fowler on twitter where she mentioned that it was charming and quiet.  Alys was right on both counts - it is small, perfectly formed and surprisingly, we have the place to ourselves.

Villa Lante is an example of the Mannerist phase of the Italian Renaissance - you can read the 'science bit' here.  I don't generally read too much information in advance of visiting the gardens, I prefer to have a rough idea of their history and then my own emotional response to them. I wonder if this is a mistake. I know how much difference having an audio guide makes to the experience of visiting an art exhibition and how it can give life and purpose to paintings and artwork that I might otherwise just wander past.  Do I need to understand a garden to appreciate it?

There is plenty to appreciate at Villa Lante whether you are informed or not. The intricate and precise patterns of the box hedging

fab fountains

statues with the requisite lichen and moss

But there was also an annoying  down side to Villa Lante - when we visited,  much of what is a relatively small garden in the first place, was chained off.  Even the main terrace with its maze of box hedging was only possible to view from a central walkway, yet everything about it begs you to wander through the design itself and discover its hidden fountains.

What strikes me first during our visit is that the garden is designed to be viewed from the top terrace and there are going to be a heck of a lot of steps to climb. My energy is limited so hauling myself to the top had better be worth it!

When I did a day's Photography Course with Clive Nichols at RHS Wisley the one thing I remember is his advice that the lens you should use most for garden landscapes is your telephoto to bring the background into the foreground.  The two photos below illustrate why - the first makes the top terrace of the garden seem a realistically long way away,

the second, taken with the telephoto lens, is the more attractive picture, but gives the impression that you could be up to the top with a leap and a skip.

I am determined that having come all this way I am not missing out on the top terrace view, I want to get the shot of the view down the terraces from the top of the long rill. Here we have it

and for no obvious reason some b****** has stuck a builders rod  and tape right in the middle of it spoiling the shot!  I am tempted to take it out to get a perfect photo or to photoshop it out later on but am minded to remember Anne Wareham's views about prettifying and perfecting gardens in this way, airbrushing out their faults like magazine models.  (It is odd how Anne has come into my consciousness at these gardens, I feel like she is there with me EEEEK!)

This was the Bedsock's favourite bit of the garden - the grotto at the top. By this time we were so annoyed by the amount of restrictions to the public that he took the chains down for his photo.  I guess these chains were to discourage small children from drowning themselves and adults from paddling in the water.  Personally I would either give people credit for some common sense, or discourage small children by not letting them in,  or let them suffer the consequences. Otherwise, unusually for Italy, it all gets a bit 'health and safety'.

Overall a very lovely garden with fabulous vistas, compact but with interest on each different terrace.  Is it a 'bucket list' garden? For me it is grouped with other slightly similar Renaissance gardens at least one of which should be seen before you pop your gardener's clogs.  I was glad that we had picked Villa Lante from this genre.

As I waited for the Bedsock to retrieve the car and collect me from the gates I noticed this chic, intricate, moth.  I tweeted a photo of it requesting identification and resident twitter expert on everything Simon Suter identified it as a 'boxtree moth'. By coincidence a night later there was a TV programme warning about the imminent invasion of the UK by these critters.  It was no coincidence that the 'boxtree moth' was hanging around a garden full of hedges!

BTW  A little brain teaser for you.  12 letters. What do you call someone who likes making love to an entomologist?

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Bomarzo - into the mouth of hell

"This isn't going to turn out to be another 'Black Gang Chine' is it?" asked the Bedsock as we made our way through the modern reception block, along some open parkland and into the wooded gorge that houses the monstrous sculptures of Bomarzo. "Of course not!" I reassured, remembering our disappointment some decades ago when visiting the Isle of White 'attraction'. We found not "a steep-sided river valley where the river flows to the sea"  as chine is defined, but an horrendous, kiddy, theme park.

Dear reader, for once in my life I was wrong, and the Bedsock had been strangely prescient. Monty Don has a lot to answer for.

If Ninfa (see previous blog) was top of my Italian Garden bucket list then Bomarzo was a close second. I hadn't re-watched Monty's Italian Garden Series since it was first broadcast in 2011 but I remember the impact his tour around the Parco dei Mostri had on me, dark, brooding, mysterious and begging to be explored (the gardens that is, not Monty). Created in 1552 by one of the Orsini family and hidden in a 'sacro bosco' (sacred wood) near to their palace in the hilltop village of Bomarzo, Monty described it as a garden like no other. "Fantasies and visions that loom out of the trees ... spiced with horror." and indeed, viewing the programme, it seemed a raw, slightly sinister place,  a complete contrast to the beauty and romance of Ninfa.  We HAD to go there.

Civitella D'Agliano with us last house bottom right

We had rented a gorgeous house in another nearby hilltop town of Civitella D'Agliano. Just for a week but enough to fit in both Bomarzo and Villa Lante in between doing absolutely nothing but read, sleep pillowed on a cloud of jasmine fragrance

float in the pool

watch the hummingbird moths on the honeysuckle outside our door,

or realise that somebody has been watching you watching the hummingbirds..

The Bedsock was most chagrined to miss the whipsnake - I called to him to look out the top window to see the snake from above but he thought I was going to nag him about something and ignored me.

Anyway this has nothing to do with Bomarzo - I just wanted to make you jealous.

Back to Bomarzo and we are wandering along well delineated steps and formal pathways, past rocks roughly hewn into the shape of various monsters and exotics.  The happy, sunny, day dapples its way through the shading trees and the atmosphere is about as far from sinister as a Teletubbies picnic.

Although water is flowing somewhere at the bottom of the not very deep gorge it isn't filling any of the fountains - and there is nothing sadder than a fountain with no water (as will become apparent in a future blog about Tivoli).  Around every corner is another sculpture hewn out of the existing rocks but despite the horrific subject matter of some there is just no shock value - it's all just "yeah..... Next". 

Hercules tears asunder Cacus

Monty had recounted that the garden was "loaded with riddles and anarchic puns" which no-one has ever fully deciphered (how can we know this?). But even the 'Tilted house' that Monty made so much of, its out-of-kilter floors causing him to mis-step due to the visual 'prank', is a tad tedious. I had been excited to enter this and stumble for myself but it's just an obviously, slightly sloping, floor which Monty hammed up.

As we completed our regimented circuit of the statues the Bedsock and I had a little rant discussed why we thought it failed and agreed that the garden needed a misty, gloomy, wet day to set it off. It would have been better accompanied by the thunderstorms that set in the following week, rather than the hot sunny blue skies of our visit.  The sculptures needed to loom out of a mist of moss and damp slime to be truly atmospheric and be hidden from the viewer, by winding, unkempt pathways, so that happening upon one would be a sudden, visual shock.

Puff the Magic Dragon - not shocking enough!

I'm very disappointed that Monty has given me such a wrong idea of the place. No doubt the TV shots hid the railings around the sculptures (which were not so much to protect you from the monstrous statues but to protect them from monstrous children playing on them) but how else had they given us the impression of  gloom and doom so necessary for the garden to work? Was it the deliberately doleful musical score that added to the much needed mournful atmosphere?

We photographed this lady in as 'loomy' a way as possible

On our return from hols I rewatched  Monty's visit (about 35mins in) to see what he actually said about Bomarzo and guess what? IT'S NOT MONTY'S FAULT!  His filming took place in just the wet, misty weather that the garden needed and the statues WERE looming.  Monty tells the viewer that what he absolutely loves is "the green, the way you go from earth to stone to tree with this one green which goes up through" making it all connect.  He even strokes the green mossiness of the statue to make the point. Unfortunately, since he made the programme SOME BLOODY IDIOT HAS CLEANED THE MOSS OFF!

Ironically,  the main theme of Orsini's garden was a revolt against the attempt to apply order.  He may have succeeded in this vision at the time but now my criticism is the order that as been imposed on it.

On leaving the reception area we found a series of posters of old photographs, taken when the garden was just rediscovered.  This must have been the most magical time to see the sculptures, every child's dream to uncover a sleeping monster in the undergrowth

a strange juxtaposition between the farmers flock and a stone elephant

What a shame that in reclaiming the garden it has been too over-formalised for our taste.   Parc dei Mostri - a pleasant place for a shady stroll with sculptures - not a bucket list destination.

Note: Surprisingly Monty informs that the statues would originally have been brightly coloured and painted making it even more like the 'Mouth of Hell' at Blackgang Chine pictured at the top of this blog.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Ninfa - ruins and ruminations


We are on our way to Sermoneta, a small, historic, hill-top town a few kilometres to the south of the famous Ninfa garden. Rounding a corner of the narrow country road we screech to a halt beside the clearest bluest lake we have ever seen, spending a few minutes catching metallic blue glimpses of Emperor Dragonflies as they skit across the translucent water.  The scene holds all the promise of a great day to come when we will visit the garden billed as the most romantic in the world.

Sermoneta is worth a visit, we stay at the somewhat spartan Hotel Principe Serrone with the grumpiest service and worst breakfast ever but the view, and a wonderful porcini and truffle lasagne in the charming Trattoria Ghost at the top of the village, makes it all worthwhile. (Be warned the friendly owner will force you to drink a complimentary limoncello after your meal - opt for the grappa!)

Breakfastless and without even a decent cup of coffee is not the best way to start the day, nevertheless we opt to get to Ninfa as early as possible to avoid crowds and have a better light for our photographs. At dead on nine o'clock there is already a queue forming.  The gardens are 'tours only' and there are no English speaking ones until mid-morning. This doesn't bother me - I have come to absorb the beauty of the garden in my own way, not to listen to the intrusive cawing of a tour guide who will reiterate all those things I can read online. We tag on to the first tour group led by a young man with a softer timbre to his voice than some of the harsher female guides. As the tour group winds into the gardens we edge further and further towards the back, lingering until we lose them round a corner, the sight and sound of them out of range. By cleverly placing ourselves in the space between our group and the next one we are left alone and feel more like we have the place to ourselves.

Ninfa, along with Bomarzo, Villa Lante and Tivoli form the main strand of our holiday, following in the footsteps of Monty Don's Italian Gardens series in 2011.  Regular readers will remember I am not a huge Monty fan but this is him at his linen clothed, straw-hatted best, inspiring the viewer to boldly visit gardens they have never boldly visited before.  But how does the reality compare to the often idealised version presented on these programmes?  (You can find them on Youtube, Ep3 Ninfa 50mins in.)  Leaving aside the fact that Monty getting access to private parts of the gardens denied to mere mortals makes me want to spit.. have I planned a whole holiday around a carefully edited, primped and perfected, TV produced 'garden lie' of the kind Anne Wareham detests so much? Truth will out - but for now I am happy to say that for once Monty and I concur.. this is "the most romantic garden ever".

Ninfa is a deserted and derelict medieval town owned by the Caetani family who reclaimed it in the 20th century and transformed the ruins into a botanical garden.   The ruins, once an architecturally beautiful, busy town are perhaps even more lovely now in their state of managed decay, preserved and planted in such a carefully considered way as to appear totally natural.  The picture that heads this blog is the one which, for me, most evokes the ambience of Ninfa - but what does it comprise of? An old wall, the fabulously fragrant Italian jasmine (seen and smelt everywhere) and a view to a purple cotinus 'smoke bush',  ubiquitous in many an English urban garden or park (including my own) and growing wild all over Greece. And yet the scene is so much greater than the sum of its parts, it evokes secrets, romantic trysts, passion, nostalgia and even a slight tristesse.

Around every corner lies a surprise, a small new world to be explored, new fragrances to inhale, the smell of spice, vanilla, musk hanging sensually in the air.  In every crevice a tiny plant clings or climbs. In spite of the tour groups of Italians it feels peaceful, their chatter absorbed and quieted by the luscious bushes and trees. Transfixed we stand and stare, owning the space for some short time.. not just passing through it.

Ultimately I am discontent with our pictures. We have failed to capture the true atmosphere of the place, perhaps because being led around in a group leaves no time for considered camerawork, perhaps because the continual movement from light into deep shade is tricky, or perhaps because the timeless beauty of the place can never be encompassed by static pictures. I have seen very few, even by the best photographers, that do it justice.  This doesn't stop anyone's attempts though...

I find the idea of 'iPadding' it quite hilarious although we saw this happen at various of our locations.  Worse, but quite fascinating, was another couple who dropped behind the group, a woman of a certain age who insisted on photobombing every tree, every plant, every romantic bit of ruin with her plug-ugly mug in front of it! Her long-suffering, nondescript, husband obeying her every command for yet another 'selfie'.  And what a self she was! What she lacked in any kind of beauty she made up for in dashing self-confidence and the sort of multi-coloured bad trousers that seem popular in Italy this year. All posturing, flashing eyes and pouting that would have done credit to Sophia Loren! A woman of a certain age myself, I envied her self-belief - we are all only as beautiful as we believe ourselves to be and in that way we convince others, as she had, quite clearly, convinced her husband.

There is one thing that bothers me a great deal about Ninfa. The last  of the Caetani owners left Ninfa to a foundation who only allow visitors in (and one feels, even then, with a certain amount of sufferance) at extremely limited times, generally the first weekend and third Sunday of each summer month (unless you are going with a specially booked group or are Monty Don). Why? Understandable if it was used as the pleasure park of the owner for their own private delectation but it is owned by a foundation. What is the point of upkeeping this paradise if nobody gets to see it?  I wrote about the famous Saiho-ji Moss Garden in Kyoto, where in order to keep the photobombing, ipadding, riff-raff from kicking the moss around, the monks charged a small fortune to enter it and made you prove your worth by writing scripts for an hour in the temple. At Ninfa we would have been happy to pay considerably more and sit making pasta shapes for an hour or so as a condition of entry.

With Japanese gardens in mind I wondered how it compared with Kenruoken, for me, the absolute pinnacle of garden perfection.  Certainly it fulfilled the six attributes of a perfect Japanese landscape garden, panoramas, spaciousness, seclusion, artifice, antiquity, and watercourse.

The river vegetation really was that green!

The water.. that is what may cause Ninfa to topple Kenruoken from it's lofty peak on my gardens list - water.  The movement, the sound, the cool air flowing from it, the lush, damp vegetation and above all the astonishing clarity and colour of the water. Crystal pure, coloured by the deepest sky blue and fluorescent green of the reeds, rich with the texture of its underwater growth it out-Monet's Monet whose lily pad ponds were never so beautiful.

Astonishingly these are the genuine colours!

It is mesmerising, desirable, I want to melt into the water's embrace and float downstream like Ophelia, my hair curling into the reeds, tangling with the tendrils and branches until I become as one with the river. No watery doom here, it is the sparkling life-blood running through the vein of the garden.

A copper demoiselle posed obligingly for us

Where it succeeded less well for me was in the more obvious artifice, the wildflower border alongside a manicured lawn, too obvious to be wild,

the bamboo grove a construct that felt out of place (although it did give the Bedsock chance to do the moan about how all he ever wanted was a pot of black bamboo and I won't let him have one).

Our time in the garden was over too quickly, we could have sneaked back in and wandered the same route again on pretence of a lost camera lens if challenged.  But our stomachs were growling and we needed our morning coffee.  We drove back to Sermoneta and picked up a freshly carved porchetta panini  in one of the pretty bars in the piazza. Perfection all round.

Ninfa gardens taken from the town of Norma high above


Check the official Ninfa information site for opening times.  I doubled checked this many times before our visit to ensure they hadn't decided to close for the day for some random reason as often happens in Italy.

If you are going to visit Ninfa then try and also plan in a visit to the Pantanello Nature reserve pictured at the back of Ninfa gardens (above).  This will need to booking in advance see website. We didn't have time to see this or realise it was a significant wildlife site and needed booking. It was a great shame to miss it whilst we were there.