Villas and Gardens of the Italian Lakes
Dawn creeps slowly over Lake Maggiore. I watched, enchanted, as it washed over patches of snow on distant peaks, and dispelled slender skeins of cloud draping the opposite shore. The rising sun threw a golden path across the lake, then scattered tiny points of light like fallen stars, that danced across its rippling surface. Within a half-hour, the view from my hotel balcony in Stresa was postcard-perfect.
There were many more visual delights in store on this holiday, and, although we’d see swathes of tulips, banks of forget-me-nots and vibrant velvet pansies, and also azaleas, rhododendrons, wisteria and magnolias all blooming with abandoned abundance, one flower would be the star: the camellia. The mild climate and rainfall pattern make Lake Maggiore’s western arm an ideal environment for growing these rose-like enchantresses, and we would see countless examples over the coming days.
For me, the joy of taking an escorted tour – I prefer to call them guided tours – is that you cut to the chase: do and see what you came to do and see. Someone else works out the itinerary, sorts out transportation, accommodation, entrance tickets and, on occasion, exclusive private tours. On this trip, that someone else was Kate Williamson, the RHS Garden Holidays Tour Manager, a qualified tour guide, locally resident but British-born, with English as a mother tongue, and encyclopaedic local knowledge. In such good hands, all we had to do was relax and enjoy a succession of glorious gardens. And for me, that spells delight. My own garden is a source of endless pleasure, albeit a lot of hard work as well – and chats with my travelling companions, over breakfasts, lunches, drinks, dinners and occasional gelati (reader,we were in Italy) revealed that each of us had our own little patch of heaven, aka a work in progress – and every garden we saw on this tour was a source of inspiration.
We began with a visit to the terraced, valley garden of Villa Anelli, built in 1872 by a Milanese lawyer who planted a variety of fashionable exotic plants, including camellias. Today the garden is home to one of Europe’s most important collections of camellias, with some 600 specimens from 200 varieties; and the villa is the home of the Italian Camellia Society’s current President: Andrea Corneo, who gave us a private garden tour, and shared some secrets of camellia success. We called next at a specialist wholesale nursery, where an order for camellias was being prepared for shipment to Windsor Castle.
Another day was dedicated to three of the Borromean islands, tantalisingly visible from Stresa. It took 40 years, in the 1600s, to transform a rocky crag inhabited by fishermen into Isola Bella. Intended to astonish and delight the aristocratic Borromeo family’s visitors, it was given the form of an imaginary galleon, with a palace at the bow and an elaborate garden terrace, inspired by the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, where the bridge would be. Isola Madre has a simpler style and largely unspoilt appeal, with woodland, and a mix of Mediterranean and tropical plants, amid which stunning white peacocks strut. In between seeing these two show-piece garden islands, we spent a pleasant lunch hour on picturesque Pescatori, still a fishing community, with eateries galore.
The gardens of Villa Taranto, which we visited the following morning, were created in the 1930s by Scotsman Neil McEachern, who spent his considerable fortune creating an English-style garden with thousands of plants from all over the world. Having no heirs, McEachern gave the garden to the Italian state, who now maintain it and plant 80,000 bulbs every year for the Spring displays. Then we headed north along the lakeshore and into Switzerland, to visit Gamborogno Botanical Park, which has the world’s largest magnolia collection.
On the fifth day, we transferred to Lake Como. On route, we called at Villa Cicogna Mozzoni. Known for its frescoes, this Renaissance house and its seven-level terraced garden were was built in keeping with Vitruvius’s principles of symmetry and proportion, laid down by in 20-30 BC. The property pleases the eye, but presents an enormous restoration challenge for its heirs, one of whom gave us a private guided tour.
We visited two Lake Como villas with gardens. The largest, Villa Carlotta, was given to Princess Charlotte of Prussia by her parents in 1850. The austere house is now a museum gallery; the extensive gardens feature banks of vivid rhododendrons and azaleas, numerous native and exotic trees, and a steep-sided fern valley.
Afterwards we went by boat to Villa del Balbianello. This exquisite ensemble of architecture and landscape, harmoniously imposed upon an almost soil-less promontory, stole my heart. The garden is not filled with flowers; it’s small (compared, that is, to the others we saw) and perfectly formed, epitomising precision planting with its regiments of pollarded plane trees, enormous umbrella-pruned Holm oaks, neat box parterres, and laurel hedges. Less orderly are the cascades of wisteria festooning the promontory’s steep sides.
The main house is built on and into rock. A separate loggia, extravagantly swathed with creeping fig, sits on higher ground with breathtaking views.
Our last day was at leisure. Some took a boat to see Bellagio’s gardens; others, including me, wanted a change of focus, I went to Como’s outstanding Silk Museum, to learn more about this unique fabric, and saw samples dyed in colours as beautiful as any flower in any garden I’d seen.