The Italian people have been no slouches in creating steep, cliffside gardens with spectacular drops to cool, glistening blue-green water.
I don’t have many free hours for gardening at this time of year because mostly I am occupied with gawping at Corsica and the Côte D’Azur on the Tour de France. Wowzers. I am sorely tempted to a Mediterranean holiday by all this giddying about on bicycles by the sea, though I’d happily forego the aching legs and sore bum of the long-distance cyclist. Give me a nice tree to sit under, and a book.
There are plenty of nice trees to park yourself under in Kirsty McLeod’s The Best Gardens in Italy: A Traveller’s Guide (Frances Lincoln, £20), which came out in paperback recently; it is now much better shaped for travel than it was in luscious-but-gigantic hardback. In particular, there are plenty of trees beside lovely Mediterranean views: the Italians have been no slouches in creating steep, cliffside gardens with spectacular drops to cool, glistening blue-green water.
Energetic Italian gardenmakers, yes, but also Englishmen and women, and a fair number of those 19th-century sort of indeterminate Europeans: Habsburgs, Austro-Hungarians, Holy Roman Postmasters. The most famous gardening Englishman in Italy must be Thomas Hanbury, who in the 1860s created La Mortola in Liguria, not too far from Monaco. He was the dude who purchased Wisley for the RHS, but his Italian cliff-top outpost is a far cry from Wisley’s utterly Surrey setting. La Mortola is a sort of fantasy, with cactuses and palm trees and winding paths and huge terracotta pots – even what McLeod describes as a datura “copse”. Wow, a whole mini-wood of hallucinogenic trumpet flowers. No slouch.
Hanbury intended his garden to be botanic in concept, and worked closely with his brother Daniel, a pharmacologist intrigued by the number of plants used in medical drugs. But “Never go against nature” was Hanbury’s refrain, so there are also plenty of stands of pine, wild tufts of cistus, the rock rose, and a whole section devoted to succulents, all of which tolerate the salty, moist sea air.
Elsewhere along this glittering Italian coast there are more traces of England. Villa Boccanegra, a short drive from La Mortola, was owned and designed by Ellen Willmott, a contemporary of Gertrude Jekyll and a fantastically flighty heiress whose violin was a Stradivarius – she lived the rest of her life by the same luxurious principle.
Willmott worked with ferocious intensity to make a garden in this unpromising spot; unpromising, that is, apart from the million-dollar views across the Med. Water tanks were created and war waged against the intrusive Italian railway – what were they thinking, wanting to run a set of rails along this beautiful coastline? Flowers were specially bred to honour her (see below), and agaves, yuccas, aloes, cannas and mimosas were planted on a grandiose scale.
McLeod’s seductive book finally invites the reader to ponder the difference between English and Italian gardening ways. Having just finished Tim Parks’s Italian Ways (Harvill Secker, £16.99), devoted to thinking about the Italians via their railways, I begin wondering if it would be possible to do the same via gardening. The English make winding paths of descent through groves of trees; the Italians carve dramatic staircases straight up the hillside. The English spend thousands on plants, the Italians preferred to allocate their lira to stylish statuary. Highly symmetrical box and cedars line the Italian paths; wiggly old olive trees grow haphazard over the English ones. A bit of mildly nationalistic pondering – what better way to while away my hours under a tree by the sea.
La Mortola is open to the public daily in summer; Villa Boccanegra is bookable for group visits only. www.gardensinitaly.net