Gardening in the Ruins of a Medieval Village

There are many things to love about travelling around Italy.  Moltissime. (moal-tees-see-may)  One of them is the way you can get in the car and, in the wink of an eye by Canadian standards, find yourself in a totally different landscape.

About two hours north of Caserta (‘The Queen’s Garden’, last week’s post) is a garden that many consider the most romantic not just in Italy, but in the world.

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The garden is set in the valley surrounded by the Lepini Mountains.

You many be wondering what kind of garden there could possibly be in such a barren, desolate landscape.  After what seemed hours of white knuckle driving along narrow, twisting roads, I was asking myself that very question. There are two routes to the garden. I took the shorter, ‘scenic’ route through the mountains.  I learned later that nobody, except for the locals, takes that route.

I had left early, in plenty of time to make my 11 a.m. appointment.  But after a while, I started to get a very bad feeling.  It wasn’t that I was lost.  Whenever I stopped to ask, people would just nod their heads and point down the road.  “Avanti, Signora, avanti.”

Of all the gardens in Italy I’ve visited, this had been by far the most difficult to arrange.  I had  designed my entire itinerary around it.  It is a private garden and if, like me, you are not with the BBC or some similarly august organization, but simply a lowly member of the ‘public’, you can only visit the garden by guided tour.  Nothing untoward there.  The restricted access is based on the concern – totally legitimate in my opinion – that the garden is too fragile to handle hordes of visitors tramping around it willy nilly.  The logistical nightmare stems from the fact that those tours are held only when the garden is at its most beautiful. Another totally reasonable idea, except for the fact that apparently the garden is at its most beautiful for a very short period, which means that tours are offered only on the 1st and 3rd Saturday and Sunday of April and May, the 1st and 3rd Sunday in June, nothing in July or August and a few days in September.  And now, after all that planning, changing hotel reservations, shuffling things around on my itinerary, the possibility that I might be late, might actually miss seeing the most romantic garden in the world was becoming more possible with each hairpin turn of the decidedly unscenic mountain road.

Convinced that I had somehow missed the sign, maybe I’d whizzed by it on one of the few occasions when I’d managed to get out of second gear, I decided to stop again.  A fellow was sitting in his car by the side of the road.  “Buon giorno.  E’ del posto?”  (Good morning.  Are you from around here?)  When he replied that he was indeed del posto, I asked the way to the garden.  Now I may not have known exactly where the garden was, but I did know that in the grand scheme of things, it was a hair’s breath away.

Unless you’re a saint, I’m sure you would have been as contrariato as I was when this person del posto shrugged and said he wasn’t sure.  (In case you’re not sure, contrariato is not one of those faux amis; it means precisely what it looks like – ‘to be in a bad mood as a result of something which does not meet one’s expectations’.  My sentiments exactly!)  We were at a fork in the road.  He pointed half-heartedly to the left.  “Forse di là.” (Maybe that way.)   For some reason, I was not convinced.  As I stood there, getting more and more contrariata, a group of cyclists came by.  Sunday mornings, cyclists all over Italy take to the country roads.  Cyclists, I said to myself, will know the area.  They aren’t going to waste energy getting lost.  Time for the magic phrase.  I walked over to a few who had stopped to admire the view.  “Buon giorno.  Mi dispiace disturbarLa, ma…”    Without a nanosecond’s hesitation one of them pointed.   A destra (to the right).   “Meno di due chilometri.” (Less than two km.) I promised never again to get upset if I got stuck behind a group of cyclists.


Whether or not the garden lived up to its romantic reputation, its name was certainly enchanting.  It’s called the Giardino di Ninfa after the ninfa (nymph) whose tears for a lost lover turned into the stream that runs through the valley.

The real-life Ninfa was a prosperous little village along the banks of that stream.  After the fall of the Roman Empire, it became a popular resting spot for a steady stream of  pilgrims travelling along the Via Francigena between Rome and Naples.  All went well for over five hundred years.


At the end of the 13th century, Ninfa’s good luck changed.  A fellow by the name of Caetani took a fancy to the village and bought up the whole thing.  What with all the shops and inns and villagers’ homes, not to mention seven churches that were crammed inside the village walls, space was in short supply.  Nevertheless, the first thing Caetani did was to build himself a grand castle.


Remaining tower of Caetani’s castle.

Unfortunately for the village and its inhabitants, Caetani was not only wealthy, he was also the nephew of Pope Boniface VIII, which meant that his extended family consisted of a bunch of factions vying for power.  These feuding factions took turns attacking the strategically located village and less than a century after Caetani’s arrival, succeeded in razing the village to the ground.  Malaria took care of the few survivors.


Water-loving plants, like these Japanese Iris, grow along the banks of the streams that flow through the garden.

The village lay forgotten and abandoned for hundreds of years, until the arrival of the first of three women who would transform the abandoned ruins into a lush garden.


Ninfa’s new lease on life began at the end of the nineteenth century with the marriage of Ada, an English woman, to Count Caetani.   Ada was a real outdoorsy type.  She loved hunting, climbing, hiking.  One of her favourite outings was to take her children, and any unsuspecting guests who happened to be visiting, on rambles and picnics in the medieval village, planting rose cuttings along the base of the crumbling walls as they wandered among the ruins.


In May, climbing yellow roses, perhaps one of Ada’s cuttings, smother a crumbling wall.


Clematis and day lilies thrive on one side of this crumbling wall…

Over time what had begun as a kind of game developed into a real passion.  Perhaps fearing for his mother’s safety and, even in those less litigious times, possibly also that of her guests, her son, Gelasio, an engineer by training, started to clear the undergrowth and stabilize the walls.


…while Abutilon (Flowering Maple) and coreopsis have taken over the other side.

It’s not just the contrast between the luxuriant, almost overgrown plants and the desolate, barren mountains I had driven through, that creates a sense of extraordinary lushness.  Those mountains protect the valley from harsh, winter winds.  Add to that the moderating effect of the Mediterranean, only a few kilometres to the west, and you end up with a kind of natural greenhouse in which the plants really do grow larger – and live longer – than they normally would this far north.


An unlikely combo – Umbrella Pines and banana plants.

The second woman was Marguerite, an Anglo American who married Gelasio’s brother. Her goal was to create a ‘wild, unkempt landscape’.  We all know how much time, effort and money it takes to create that effect.  Records have been found of some of the plant orders she placed.  One from the early 1930’s included over one hundred different species of roses from a nursery in England.  Another, dated June 1940, just as Italy was about to enter World War II, was for 1,000 Russell lupins and half as many Dianthus.

It might be tempting to dismiss her garden, no matter how beautiful, as the frivolous plaything of a woman of privilege, insulated by her family’s extreme wealth from the events taking place around her.  That was not the case.  During the same period, gardens throughout Italy were being ‘restored’ by order of Mussolini to his vision of the classic Italian garden.  Marguerite’s wild, untamed garden was an unambiguous rejection of Mussolini’s campaign to promote the patria and of the Fascist movement he led.


Marguerite’s “wild, unkempt landscape.”

The third woman was Marguerite’s daughter, Lelia.  Lelia took her mother’s vision one step further.  Hers was to be a garden ‘on the verge of collapse’, at that moment when Nature is about to gain the upper hand.  Perhaps she was aware of the ‘Third Nature’ Renaissance garden designers had aspired to. (‘Boboli Gardens, Part II’, Nov. 24, 2013).

Bamboo, the artistocrat's fence.

Bamboo, the artistocrat’s fence.

Lelia’s lasting contribution to the garden was the foundation she set up with her husband.  This was a relatively unknown concept in Italy at the time, but as the son of a British diplomat, her husband would have no doubt been familiar with the National Trust system in England.  After the Fondazione Caetani had been set up, the garden received an important – and unexpected – boost to its survival when the Italian government declared 1800 hectares surrounding the garden a wildlife oasis, thereby protecting the nymph’s stream, the lifeblood of the garden, from pollution.


When we got to this part of the tour, I felt a bit sorry for our guide.  She had done an excellent job, I thought.  Apart from myself and two older Dutch women, who spoke excellent English but no Italian, our group consisted of a motley group of Italians – couples, friends, three generations of families on a Sunday outing.  Her well-rehearsed script was a bit heavy on the history of the garden – lots of dates and names of popes and cardinals – but the group was extremely attentive and there wasn’t a lot of dawdling or stepping where we weren’t supposed to.


Until we came to where the stream widens.  And then there was a chorus of ‘Che bello!’ this and ‘Che bello!’ that.  And ‘Vieni qua.’ (Come here.)  Guarda questo! (Look at this.)  I was with the Italians on this one.  Being a courteous and respectful tour member and keeping up with the guide was one thing.  Rushing through this enchanting landscape was another. Usually I try very hard to respect local customs and expectations, so as not to fall into the ‘Ugly Tourist ‘category.  But I could not resist staying behind to get a few ‘tourist free’ shots.




To ease my nagging conscience, I made sure I wasn’t the only one.  Besides, I could see her up ahead, like little Bo-Peep with her straggling sheep behind her.  The tour ended within the walls of Caetani’s palace.  To make amends for my lingering, I offered to take a photo of a threesome by the castle gate.  I had watched each of them take turns photographing the other two.  They were surprised, probably as much to find out that I spoke Italian as by my offer, but they were delighted.  There.  Good deed for the day.  Done.

The end of the tour.

At the base of Caetani’s tower, the end of the tour.

It had been quite a challenge getting here.  I’d had a few dark moments, thought a few uncharitable thoughts on the way.  But, as often happens, the whole experience, even getting there, turned out to be one of my favourites.

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