If you have ever looked out on your garden and wondered if maybe you shouldn’t give one of those experts a call, you may be reassured to learn that one of the most beautiful gardens in Italy was designed by a couple of amateurs. It is called Villa Cimbrone.
But first a word about how to get to the garden. It’s in Ravello, a village perched on the mountains a few kilometres inland from Amalfi village.
The road up to Ravello starts from Amalfi, the village the coast is named after. No matter where you’re staying along the Amalfi Coast, take the ferry to Amalfi.
From the vantage point of the ferry you will be able to judge for yourself the views that have made the coastline famous. But there is another point in favour of the ferry.
Driving the coastal road is much more terrifying than any guide book will lead you to believe – whether you’re behind the wheel or wearing a hole in the floorboard on the passenger’s side.
If you still are not convinced, you might want to consider that the road from Amalfi up to Ravello is even narrower than the coastal road – which is why you have to transfer to a smaller local bus at Amalfi.
One of my all-time favourite signs is on this road – AUTOBUS IN MANOVRA. Easy enough to figure out even if you don’t speak Italian, but it wasn’t until the first time I saw a bus being ‘manoeuvred’ that I realized what was involved.
The tornante (hairpin turns) are so tight even the expert local drivers can’t make it in one go. You know you’re coming up to one of these turns because you’ll be startled out of your wits by a sudden horn blaring. On the ride up one time I made a point of sitting at the front of the bus to see how the drivers manage to turn the enormous steering wheel and lean on the horn at the same time. They don’t. There is a tiny lever attached to the lower left of the driver’s wheel. Just a flick of the pinky sets the horn blaring.
The purpose of the horn of course isn’t to shatter your already frayed nerves – even being a passenger on the bus is not for the faint of heart. It is to warn oncoming traffic that a bus is approaching. Any cars that fail to give the driver enough room – and ‘room’ here is a relative term – we’re talking about inches – have to back up, an excruciatingly slow process, and then wait while the bus driver does a three, four, or sometimes even 5 point manovra.
Also to keep in mind is that, even if you do manage to drive up to Ravello with your nerves and relationship more or less intact, you’re not out of the woods yet. You still have to count on the amazing good fortune of finding an empty spot in the tiny ‘P’ lot on the edge of the village. All of which is guaranteed to put you more in the mood for a glass – or two – of wine than looking at gardens.
And finally, whatever you do, do not walk up. You can always walk down, as I did one time. I came across several young couples – fit-looking, regular gym workout types. I wondered whose idea it had been. From their grim expressions – especially the two young women – they might as well have been on treadmills back home for all the enjoyment they were getting out of the spectacular scenery.
On to the garden. One of the amateurs behind its creation was a London politician, Ernest Beckett, later Lord Grimthorpe. In 1904 he paid 100 lire – makes you want to cry – for a piece of land in Ravello. The property was known locally as Cimbronium, Latin for ‘rocky outcrop’. In addition to the rocks, for his 100 lire Lord Grimthorpe got a ruined farmhouse, a bit of forest, and a neglected vineyard.
And the other amateur? Nicola Mansi. Grimthorpe’s tailor. A native of Ravello. The Oxford Dictionary defines coincidence as ‘a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection’. Whether you believe they are “God’s way of remaining anonymous” (Einstein) or simply signs that we’re “on the right path” (author Simon Van Booy), their chance encounter was a remarkable coincidence. One can’t help wondering if Grimthorpe would have created the garden had it not been for Mansi. Or whether Mansi would have ever returned to his village of origin had it not been for Grimthorpe.
Eccentric Englishman that he was, Grimthorpe hadn’t just engaged in a bit of senile foolishness. He had already seen the property several years earlier while on the ‘Grand Tour’. In those days Ravello was very popular among European aristocrats and artists as a place for ‘rediscovering one’s soul’. His friends had talked him into making the climb up in the hopes that it would help shake him out of the deep depression he had fallen into after the death of his young wife.
Once he got going, Grimthorpe didn’t want to just restore the abandoned farm – he wanted to turn it into a work of art. If you’re having a hard time identifying the architectural style in this cloister, not to worry. It’s a jumble of Arabian, Sicilian and Norman design elements – absolutely gorgeous if, like me, you’re no purist in these things – and it sets the tone for the garden.
One of Grimthorpe’s ideas was to replicate an ancient Roman garden. He also wanted exotic botanical elements. Unfettered by any concepts of traditional garden design or horticultural history, he went ahead and placed ‘Roman’ statues amidst exotic plants discovered long after the fall of the Roman Empire.
Parallel to the peony borders is the grandly named Viale dell’Immenso. The wisteria covering the pergola overhead has already finished flowering. If you look closely you can make out the seed pods (the long thin, light green things hanging from the trellis). There is always an element of frustration to visiting gardens. Come too early, you miss the roses. Too late, you miss the wisteria.
The Viale dell’Immenso is, of course, beautiful. But even more beautiful is the view it leads to. Before my first visit I had read a few articles about this view. In each, the writer used what struck me as rather an excessive number of superlatives – words like spectacular, breath-taking.
But as I got closer, I began to sense what all the fuss was about. It’s called Il Terrazzo dell’Infinito.
Many have declared it the most spectacular view in the world. There are a lot of great views I’ve yet to see so I’ll just say it’s spettacolare – or maybe mozzafiato – mots-suh-fee-ah-toe (cuts off your breath) – or meraviglioso or…
On my way up on this return visit I had been wondering if the effect would be as strong as the first time. I think it must be like wondering about falling in love for the second time.
Eventually, and only because I really wanted to see what else Grimthorpe and his tailor had come up with, I dragged myself away from the terrace.
Just a few steps away a staircase led down to a shady, wooded area. The contrast was almost unsettling. A path lined with some rather straggly lavender – I couldn’t help wondering how much bloom there would there be down here – led to a temple-like structure.
In his will – he died in 1917 just after the garden was completed – Lord Grimthorpe stipulated that his ashes were to be buried, not next to those of his wife, but at the foot of this satyr carrying Bacchus, the raucous god of wine and debauchery.
Close by was a familiar statue. You don’t have to be an expert in sculpture – I’m certainly not – to see that it’s essentially a duplicate – minus a hand – of the one at Villa San Michele. When Munthe found out about the copycat statue – southern Italy was a small world even then – would he have been flattered or annoyed? Since they’re both copies – the original is in the National Museum in Naples – he couldn’t have put up much of a fuss.
Enough of this shady grove. Time to head back up to the sun. As I wandered around looking for the way up, I came across a beautifully winding path lined with boxwood.
At one of the curves was a statue – an unmistakably Renaissance statue. Even after all the jumbling of styles so far, this was a surprise. The Renaissance was really only a northern phenomenon – barely registering on the psyche of southern Italy. Spend enough time down here and you begin to feel as if it took place in another country – which is exactly the point of view shared by many Italians north of Rome.
Even in May it’s obvious that growing roses here is a challenge. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what the gardeners would have to do to keep them going over the sweltering heat of the long summer ahead. But it was easy to see why the Englishman would want to give them a try.
The rather maudlin inscriptions scattered around the garden puzzled me. They seemed so at odds with the spectacularly beautiful garden. A sign of Grimthorpe’s struggle to reconcile his soul with the paradoxes of human existence?