2019, Gardens of the World, Uncategorized

Armchair Travelers’ Gardens: Villa D’Este, Italy

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The View from the street level

Rome is a lovely place to visit, and I would jump at an opportunity to go back at any time of the year, but in the heat of summer, sometimes the sultry streets are too much, no matter how much gelato is put in your way. The antidote is a trip to Tivoli, a small town about an hour to the north, to visit the gardens at the Villa D’Este.

Commissioned and built in the 1550s by Ippolito D’Este, the villa and gardens are still much as they were then. Built into the side of a very steep hill, the Villa is hardly recognizable as such from the street; you goe through a small, rather unassuming door, and suddenly you are in a mansion with frescoes, gilt molding, and even an indoor fountain. It is grand and impressive, but as soon as you walk outside, it pales in comparison with the garden.

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The garden is not what you might expect in that there are very few flowers; certainly no effervescent flowerbeds or rows of neatly planted annuals. Instead, different shades of green and textures of leaves combine to give a sense of peace and coolness. The garden is very formally laid out, with long, curving staircases and winding paths, and the plants act as frames for the garden’s most impressive features, the fountains. There are hundreds of them, and the sound of water permeates the atmosphere as much as does the spicy perfume of the bay hedges.

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The fountains also date back to the 1550s. The water that they use comes from the nearby river, travels along underground aqueducts, and then stored in multiple cisterns before being pumped up to the fountains via hydraulics. As one looks at them all, it is hard to remember that no electricity is being used to run them. And, let me say again, there are hundreds of them. First, you must walk along “The Walk of 100 Fountains”, which is well named because it consists of a mossy wall with scores of stone lion’s heads and other openings through which the water flows. Next is the Fountain of the Organ, which is built so that when water is forced through its pipes, it makes a sound that resembles  that of an organ.  Nearby is the Fountain of the Birds, which includes several bronze birds that have pipes inside so that they warble when the water courses through. Every so often, however, a bronze owl swings in front of the birds, and when he does, the birds go silent, and all you hear is the hoot of an owl. And remember – no electricity!! This is only the tip of the iceberg; I only wish I had space enough to do the other fountains justice.

You can spend a delightful day there, discovering each fountain and its story, walking the shady pathways, and working up an appetite for the tremendous Italian meal that is sure to follow. When in Rome… But first, check out the Villa D’Este!

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2019, Gardens of the World, Uncategorized

Armchair Travellers’ Gardens: Alnwick Garden, UK

A modern take on the traditional garden

   

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The formal garden at the top of the Grand Cascade

     About 35 miles from the Scottish border lies the town of Alnwick (pronounced “AN-ik”), a picturesque little market town on the River Aln with a population of approximately 9,000. It is also the site of Alnwick Castle and Gardens, which has been the home of the Percy family, (eventually given the title of Northumberland), for over 700 years. The current Duke attained the title upon the premature death of his elder brother, and thus suddenly and unexpectedly found himself in charge of 125,000 acres, comprising some 500 farms and 700 houses. The garden had once (200+ years ago) been glorious, but was now a shadow of its former glory, and as the Duke was busy learning about the running of the Estate, he asked his wife if she would like to do over one of the gardens. Although he thought she would plant a couple of roses and call it a day, the Duchess (who is quite young; 59 now, 38 when she started) embarked on an ambitious and visionary plan to turn the land into a garden that would be classic and yet use all that modern technology had to offer. It was not to be a private garden, either, but to be open for everyone to enjoy. She interviewed designers and began to raise money, and now, about 8 years and millions of £ later, the garden is being called one of the most important gardens of modern times. 

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     Often, when in beautiful gardens, I find myself wishing that the other visitors would all disappear so that I can fully enjoy what is around me. Quite unexpectedly, during my visit to Alnwick, I found the opposite to be true, as it is designed for people, and people are part of it. There are fountain gardens, some of which encourage children and those who are children at heart to play in them, and there are formal rose gardens, and walled gardens bursting with perennials of all colors, shapes and sizes. There is even a Poison Garden (more about that in another writing), enclosed in a high wall and accessible only with a guide through iron gates marked “These Plants Can Kill”. The Grand Cascade is worth the trip alone. Framed by Hornbeam pergolas that form tunnels that you can walk through, the water in the cascade tumbles down 21 weirs, as fountains jet water in intricate patterns, sometimes soaking the spectators! The garden is open year round, and even the Grand Cascade plays a part in the winter, as it is carefully monitored so that there is only just a skin of ice on it, which, when lit, creates a magical effect.

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Did I mention that there’s a huge tree house, complete with restaurant?
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And a bamboo maze!

     I was so impressed by the garden, and its accessibility to all, that I wrote to the Duchess of Northumberland, and was pleasantly surprised to get a long, thoughtful letter in return. “So much has changed in garden design over the past 16 years since I began the project.”, she wrote, “In those days children weren’t welcome in gardens and what I was planning was unusual. Nowadays most newly designed gardens consider not only children but also families and local communities, which is as it should be!”

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The Grand Cascade
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Inside the Hornbeam walk along the side of the Grand Cascade
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A July border
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Alnwick Castle, in its Capability Brown setting. (Some of Harry Potter was filmed here!)
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The Gardeners Cottage
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Inside the vegetable garden

    The Alnwick Garden is an inspirational place, and I highly recommend a visit. Another time I will tell you about the Alnwick Poison Garden, which is certainly very interesting, although hopefully not inspirational!