In the garden: The most romantic garden in the world

It’s been a very, very long time since I’ve been to Italy, and when I was there I never visited a single garden. However, I have seen many Italian gardens. It is that the classical style based on the gardens of the Roman and Italian Renaissance has been reproduced everywhere, no more than in Great Britain. It became popular after the aristocracy and wealthy tourists returned from their Grand Tours of Europe with a desire to recreate the magnificent formal gardens they had seen.

They were impressed by the way these gardens imposed order on nature with geometric lines and symmetrical landscaping – a fine example can be seen at Tatton Park. It was so different from the 18th century designs of landscape architects like Capability Brown and Humphry Repton. These gardens surrounded the stately homes of England with meandering rivers and gently rolling lawns set against copses of trees to create a pastoral landscape. They generally included classical temples, picturesque structures, and follies – ornamental buildings with no practical purpose. For example, Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Stafford, built a ruined faux Gothic castle in 1708 to impress visitors to his estate.

And yet, this English style found its place in Italy, where it influenced a particular garden, the Garden of Ninfa, often described as the most romantic garden in the world. There was no need to construct fake buildings there as there were genuine ones, some dating back to Roman times. Located in the province of Latina in central Italy, this garden sits on the site of the ancient fortified settlement of Ninfa, which had its own castle in the 12th century. The town had houses, churches, mills, a lake and a river running through it, but it was sacked and burned in 1171 by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. In the 14th century, it was deserted, then repopulated 300 years later before falling back into ruin due to the invasion of the marshes which brought malaria.

It was not until the 19th century that a transformation began when the Caetani family had the marshes drained. Ada Bootle-Wilbraham, wife of Onorato Caetani and an experienced gardener, planted cypresses, oaks and beeches. From 1921, the creation of English gardens was seriously launched by their son, Gelasio Caetani. Gelasio has traveled extensively, returning with rare plant species to beautify the garden. He restored some of the medieval town buildings, including the original tower and town hall. The work was continued by the descendants of the Caetani family until the last heir, Lelia, transferred ownership to the Roffredo Caetani Foundation, which currently manages the garden.

And what a garden it is. Surrounded by hills and rich in wildlife, everything thrives in a humid microclimate thanks to frequent rains and the Ninfa River which flows gently through the garden. The Caetanis had planted 1,300 plant species, including 19 varieties of magnolias which must be magnificent in the spring. Roses clamber over old stone structures while others are almost hidden by cascading blooms of huge wisteria vines sprouting with abandon. There are groves of fruit trees laden with citrus fruits, ornamental cherries and hazelnuts. You can see bananas and avocados growing there, and there is even a clump of Chinese bamboo.

Now considered an Italian natural monument, the garden covers an area of ​​105 hectares (260 acres). However, it is only open to the public at fixed times from April to November when guided tours are organized. I’m not sure I’ll be leaving for a Grand Tour of Europe anytime soon, but if I ever go back to Italy, I’ll be sure to have The Garden of Ninfa on my bucket list.

In the meantime, if you want to experience the garden, you can — virtually. There is a great walking tour available on YouTube which is where I discovered it. With the sounds of gently trickling water and the chirping of birds, it’s like being there. The only thing missing is the scent of roses.

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