A gardener’s pilgrimage to Ninfa

“You must go to Ninfa if you are interested in romantic gardens,” I was told very firmly by One Who Knows. So I obeyed. That was the prime reason we went to Italy as part of our trip just concluded. And because Ninfa has very limited opening days, the entire itinerary was organised around one of those dates.

In the event, that became irrelevant. For reasons too complicated to explain, we ended up on a hot Thursday afternoon entirely alone in il Giardino di Ninfa with the run of the place. We were shown how to operate the exit gate in order to let ourselves out and left to it. To understand the nature of this privilege, I should explain that Ninfa is only open for 17 days a year for a grand total of 111 hours and that casual visitors like ourselves are generally accommodated by a one hour escorted tour.

Herbaceous planting in the rock garden was a delight

Ninfa is often referred to as “the world’s most romantic garden” – a phrase first ascribed to UK garden writer, Charles Quest-Ritson and latterly also taken up, I think, by leading gardening broadcaster, Monty Don. It would not be exaggerating to say that it has achieved international cult status and there aren’t too many gardens in that particular basket. Dating back to the early 20th century, the garden is continued these days by a foundation set up by the originating Caetani family.

It is not your classic Italian garden full of intersecting axis and formal spaces. Not at all. Indeed, it is described as being English in style – a descriptor I have met before in a northern Italian garden described to us as being in the “romantic English style”. By this is meant soft edged, informal design with more focus on plant variety, seasonal change and groupings of plants – more frou frou, as I call it, than the heavily clipped and controlled style of the usual Italian gardens of stature.

The garden of Ninfa is built around the ruins of an entire town that was sacked in 1370 after being occupied since Roman times. The scale of the ruins is nothing short of astonishing to a New Zealander unaccustomed to centuries of visible occupation. To create a garden around such imposing structures is a dream situation. In a hot dry climate, water is even more important and the abundance and sound of flowing water is integral to the magic of Ninfa, blessed as it is with the river of the same name flowing through the garden. Irrigation is necessary to achieve the lushness and growth in what is a harsh, dry environment.

A late blooming rose – most were over

I knew we would be too late for the roses and if you plan to visit this garden, if it is possible to time it right, that would add a great deal. But I imagine in these conditions, peak rose season is measured in a few weeks of May and any garden needs more to it than a short peak season based on a single plant family. And that was the case. Ninfa has a feel of its own. The water views are beautiful. We loved the soft herbaceous plantings of the area called the “rock garden”. The structure of the ruins gives a breath-taking framework. To be alone in this garden was a grand experience.

Most of Ninfa is truly romantic. This new path, not so much.

Is it a romantic garden? Yes, without doubt it is. Is it the most romantic garden in the world? I would not go as far as that but others clearly think it is. Is it flawless? No, but what garden is flawless except a static one? And that is a contradiction in terms. We were disturbed by the new lavender walk which, while well executed, was rather too amenity in appearance compared to the gentle naturalism of the rest of the garden. We weren’t too sure about the blue haze from copper spray on the ruins behind every climbing rose. If the roses had been in bloom, we probably would not have found our eyes zeroing in on that blue background. It adds a certain patina to history if you don’t know that it is caused by spraying.

The blue patina

In terms of planting, Ninfa has a much wider plant palette than most Italian gardens which tend to rely on the repetition of about 10 key plants. By international standards, it is not a hugely remarkable plant collection but in an Italian context, it is and it shows a measure of gardening skill that is not often evident in many of the famous gardens of that country. These are harsh gardening conditions which is why so many Italian gardens rely on structure, design and space for their impact, rather than plants.

The view out to the surrounding countryside

It amuses me that the Italians credit this romantic, naturalistic style to English gardening while the British (and other nationalities) flock to Italy for its romance. It is such a beautiful country. I kept thinking I was in an E. M. Forster novel (though A Room With a View was set in Florence, not nearby Sermonetta). Ninfa sits like an oasis of soft green lushness within an age-old landscape rich in history and possessed of its own natural, harsh beauty. Even the light is different in Italy.

If you want to know more about Ninfa, the official website is http://www.fondazionecaetani.org/ but a general search on Ninfa will bring up a wealth of material. It is located in the area of Latina about two hours south of Rome and requires either hiring a car (!!!!)  or sorting out a taxi transfer.

Look! Just look at the centuries old wall panels in the roofless church which may even be the one where Pope Alexander 111 was consecrated in 1159

The modern orange rose beside the moat worried me but not Mark so much. I just felt that the softer shrub and climbing roses fitted the environment better than this one.

11 thoughts on “A gardener’s pilgrimage to Ninfa

  1. Carol Hickey

    An excellent and gently critical review of Ninfa.You’re right…ancient stonework provides a wonderful framework as well as a romantic touch. I feel there’s another story in the means of transport you needed to get there. Does it make you grateful for Taranaki’s bountiful rainfall?Oh there is another story.. have just read it and chortled merrily, which I hope you too can do, now.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Yes, the shock of the car rental episode has faded somewhat though the trek across town in heat has added a new phrase to our repertoire: “It’s do-able” (to be said in in a grim tone of voice when there is simply no alternative!). Visiting almost anywhere else in the world makes us realise how blessed we are in our gardening conditions here. But it is also travelling that makes us review what we are doing, opens our eyes to other ways of gardening and generally gives us wider contexts. Given our interest in soft-edged, romantic gardening, a visit to Ninfa was a must and we were blessed to have the time and space to be able to look at what we think makes that place special as well as the aspects that were maybe slightly jarring to our perception of that garden.

  2. Pat Webster

    Abbie, I can’t get over how fortunate you and Mark were to have Ninfa to yourself. I’ve been twice and liked the garden the second time more than the first, but each visit meant contending with hoards of school children. The ruins are spectacular and the roses, when in full bloom, almost overwhelming in their abundance. From your photos, I’m guessing that the day was hot and humid enough to be unpleasant, but in the shade of some of the magnificent trees, with the water running nearby, and all by your lonelies, that must have been unimportant.

    I’ll try to post on facebook a photo of one of my favourite views of Ninfa.

    As for the new lavender walk, the old grass path was getting threadbare, for obvious reasons. A pity they had to pave paradise.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      It was certainly hot, Pat, but a dry heat that is manageable. And such a bright light that it made photography difficult. I get that they had to make a path, but that path? And a meandering, wider path set on the same level as the grass and comprised of fine grit rather than narrow crazy paving would have been less intrusive. The twin rows of lavender on raised mounds just accentuated the visual impact of the path. I seem to remember that some of the other paths were a sort of packed golden grit – why not continue that theme? Also, given that the usual visitor experience is as a guided group, that narrow path would require them to be marched down two by two for quite some distance. I could not get my head around why they would have chosen the option they did. But aside from the path, it was indeed lovely.

  3. James

    You were indeed fortunate to have the run of the place. We had to book a tour last September. Fortunately, we were the only two on the tour, though a visit to Sermonetta was required too. Once at the garden, we were handed over to a guide for a strict one hour tour. She talked ceaselessly and didn’t like my lingering behind to take photographs or just to experience the garden. I do remember that path well, and admit it gave me impetus to wander out of bounds rather that along its rigid length. Ninfa was beautiful but didn’t live up to my expectations. I think it might have been otherwise without the Italian guide. We were given absolutely no freedom to wander and experience the garden. But the flowing water and its sound almost made up for the gracelessness of the visit.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Ah, yes. That is what I had heard so I am mindful of the privileged position we were in on this occasion. I understand we also trod the same path at the Old Rectory in the Cotswold village whose name I have temporarily forgotten? Now there was an experience I will write up shortly.

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