Gardens to visit in Italy
Florence is an historic gem beloved by artists and plant lovers alike. BBC Gardeners World Editorial Assistant, James Jessel, shares his thoughts.
French writer Stendhal was profoundly struck by the beauty of Florence: ‘I had palpitations of the heart… Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.’ As a self-confessed history nerd, I've always been fascinated by the city, having visited several times. With so much to see, though, it's easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of ornate churches and great works of art, by the bustle of city life, and by the heaving tide of tourists. Where better to seek solace then, than in one of the city’s many idyllic gardens?
The most famous of these gardens is the magnificent Giardino di Boboli. South of the Arno and behind the imposing Palazzo Pitti, these gardens were first built for the Medici and were so large they required the construction of their own aqueduct. Wandering through the grand cypress avenues and branched archways, it’s easy to forget that you are in the heart of one of the busiest tourist cities in the world. Around every corner there is a playful statue or enchanting glade – with architectural highlights including the Fountain of Neptune and the frescoed and stalactite-encrusted Grotto del Buontalenti.
For a longer stay, the Boboli gardens are the perfect place to immerse yourself in greenery – ideal for escaping the whine of scooters and the chatter of tourists. Despite the Boboli being the most famous, the Oltrarno quarter is also home to two even more picturesque gardens.
‘I had palpitations of the heart… Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.’
Just south of the Ponte alle Grazie is the Giardino Bardini. It doesn’t sell itself short – a sign above the entrance announces that it is ‘the garden with the best view of Florence’. Its elegant baroque terraces climb precipitously towards a commanding viewpoint overlooking the city. Seasonal highlights include hydrangeas and agapanthus, but the garden’s real showstopper is its wisteria tunnel during spring. This frames the breathtaking vista across Florence with a waterfall-like cascade of fragrant lilac blooms.
Another of my favourite gardens, I first discovered by accident. It was a hot day, and I had decided to climb up to the lovely basilica of San Miniato al Monte. Although the walk is fairly steep, many tourists make the trip to see the panoramic views from Piazzale Michelangelo. This is a large square above the city – its balustrades crowded with couples and bristling with selfie-sticks. Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun, and I soon found myself in need of a bit of a breather. It was then that I noticed the unassuming gateway to the Giardino delle Rose.
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This led to a lovely rose garden, with tumbling terraces and a bucolic, natural feel. This public garden – so easy to miss on your walk up to Piazzale Michelangelo – was the perfect place to sit and appreciate the sheer majesty of the city below. It was a reminder of how, behind every corner in Florence, there is something beautiful and precious to discover.
It was there that the words of that histrionic Frenchman came to mind. Cradled among the rolling Tuscan hills, was the place where the arts and sciences were reborn. To the right was Santa Croce – the resting place of Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and Galileo. At the centre of it all, was the crown-like dome of Santa Maria del Fiore. In front of me I saw the work of centuries of human excellence and endeavour, while all I could hear around me was the gentle hum of bees among the flowers.
- Getting there: Direct flights are available to Firenze from several UK airports, with Pisa the closest alternative
- Where to stay: See Florence tourist board website for recommendations
- When to visit: Visit in late Spring to see the gardens looking their best