The Perfect Italian Garden – Villa Gamberaia – Part I

I had really been looking forward to visiting Villa Gamberaia.  I was also a little apprehensive.  Like the movie that gets rave reviews and then turns out to be … good, but not great, and after all the hype, ends up disappointing.

Many of the greatest garden designers and writers of the 20th century – Edith Wharton, Cecil Pinsent, Bernard Berenson, Charles Latham, Geoffrey Jellicoe – loved it.  Some even went so far as to declare it the “perfect” Italian garden. The opening page of the guide which I purchased on my first attempt to visit the garden featured this quote by Harold Acton:  Nowhere else in my recollection have the liquid and solid been blended with such refinement on a scale that is human yet grand without pomposity… It leaves an enduring impression of serenity, dignity, and blithe repose.

I almost didn’t get to see it.


Villa Gamberaia sits on top of a hill on the outskirts of the village of Settignano.

From the Tea House in the Bardini Gardens, where I took shelter a few days later during yet another downpour, I imagined I could see it in the hills between the two statues.


It’s a half hour ride on the #10 bus from Piazza San Marco. I checked the schedule at the fermata.  Just enough time to pop over to Piazza della Santissima Annunziata, where  perhaps the saddest, as well as one of the most endearing sights in Florence are located.  (I’ll write about them later during a break from the gardens)

The Museo degli Innocenti stretches along the east side of Piazza Santissima Annunziata. The “Innocenti” refers to the abandoned newborns that were once left at the church.

The Museo degli Innocenti stretches along the east side of Piazza Santissima Annunziata.

I would have loved to linger, but blue skies had been a rare occurrence so far this trip.  I rushed back to the fermata.  The bus hurtled along streets I didn’t recognize.  Once more I was glad I wasn’t the one driving – yet.  The streets were narrow, crowded.  At one point we were stuck for a while behind a garbage truck.  Most  residents of Florence live in apartment buildings.  Most of those buildings do not have garbage chutes.  Many do not have elevators. Residents haul their garbage to enormous bins set out along the streets.


There’s barely room for a few pedestrians and the occasional Vespa,
let alone garbage trucks, along some of the narrow alleys in the historic centre of Florence.

The streets are so narrow, there isn’t room – not even by Italian standards – for the enormous garbage trucks that lumber along the streets of our cities, emptying our private garbage bins.  Instead, small trucks lift up the communal bins, one bin per truck, and haul them away … somewhere.  This was all so engrossing I didn’t notice what was happening overhead.  Not until all of a sudden it started to pour – piove a catinelle – literally – rain buckets.  There was a young couple seated not far from me – with two adorable little girls.  When they boarded the bus, I got the feeling it was their day off.  Had they promised their daughters an outing in the countryside?  They looked at each other in dismay.  My sentiments exactly.  Only I didn’t have two young children with me.

Who even thinks of garbage in a city that is a virtual open air art gallery?

Who even thinks of garbage in a city that is a virtual open air art gallery?

It was still pouring by the time we reached Settignano.  It was 10:30 – too early for lunch, so I headed for the bar on the other side of the little piazza and ordered a cappuccino.  One euro, 20 centesimi.  The best and cheapest cappuccino I had had so far.  Eventually the rain subsided.  It didn’t stop.  It subsided.  There was no way I was going to be able to take any photos.  I had no entourage to hold umbrellas over my camera – or me.  But since I was already there, and given the trouble I’d had finding so many gardens in the past, I figured I might as well find out where this one was.  The address is Via del Rossellino, 72.

Via del Rossellino.  For someone used to Canada’s roads, it’s sometimes hard to tell a main street from an alley.

Via del Rossellino. For someone used to Canada’s roads, it can sometimes be hard to tell a main street from a side alley…

Italian street names are posted, not on poles like in Canada, but on plaques mounted on buildings parallel to the road in question.  Perhaps thinking that no-one could possibly mistake the little alley for Via del Rossellino, the locals had installed the plaque, not parallel, but at a 90 degree angle to Via Rossellino.  I ended up on a muddy path in a vineyard partway down the hillside.   One of those situations that reveals what may be one of the least recognized and most important advantages of travelling solo.  Since there is no-one to say uncharitable things to, no-one on whom to cast disparaging looks, you are spared having to apologize for any unseemly behavior afterwards.

...let alone even imagine that something like this might be a two-way road.

…let alone even imagine that something like this might be a two-way road.

Soggy and miserable I eventually arrived at the villa.  I was – quelle surprise? –  the only visitor.   The receptionist, taking pity on me, offered to check the meteo (forecast).  Domani mattina (Tomorrow morning) it looked like there might be a window – a very small window – when it would not be raining.  Would I be able to come back?  I decided I would be able to come back.  I headed back to the little piazza and under the awning of the parrucchiera (hairdresser), which was doing a remarkably brisk business for such a tiny hamlet, waited for the bus back to Florence.

After a few minutes a tour bus appeared.  It was one of those enormous, high-end affairs.  Incredibly, it quickly became apparent that the driver intended to drop off his passengers right in front of the local bus stop.  Watching the driver of the small local bus negotiate the tiny piazza had been interessante.  Watching this behemoth promised to be interessantissimo.   The driver actually managed to get halfway around the piazzetta before he had to stop – blocked by two more or less legally parked cars.  He got out, looked around, called out to a passerby – Di chi sono queste auto?  (Whose cars are these?) It sounded more like an accusation than a request for information.  The owners were – where else in a small village? – in the bar.   In the meantime people, previously hidden by the heavily tinted glass, started to emerge.  A more disconsolate group would be hard to find.  They were young – American students was my guess.  A few had umbrellas, some those flimsy plastic capes.  Most just trudged ahead, ignoring the rain.  You’ll just have to take my word on this one.  I have no photos of any of it because I didn’t want to risk mucking up my camera.  Besides, apart from what would have been a great shot of the tour bus trying to get around the piazza,  it seemed mean-spirited to take any of the students.

I had lost a morning and would have to skip the visit I had planned for Fiesole, but unlike the group, I had the option of trying again the following day.  Another thumbs up for travelling solo.

Poppies along the lane to Villa Gamberaia

Poppies along the lane to Villa Gamberaia