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.
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.