I really was not prepared for the perfection of Ninfa. I had watched Monty Don’s programme on Italian Gardens, purchased books on the subject and read the online blogs. I noted the comments of our tour organizers that “they had saved the best to the last” and was informed that the New York Times called Ninfa the most romantic garden in the world. Even so, the natural splendor of the place astonished me.
Ninfa was the final garden in a two week tour starting in Lucca, moving through Tuscany, ending in this wonderful property, south-east of Rome. The expedition through the Italian countryside (organized by Travel Specifics) was satisfying in endless ways but after two weeks of enchanting hilltop villages, scrumptious Italian food and wine, and more gardens than I could keep track of, my cup had runneth over. But after only several minutes inside the protection of Ninfa, the peace of the place wrapped itself around me and all those other more controlled and contrived gardens to the north paled in comparison.
Most Italian gardens are firmly ensconced in history and discussion of ancient Etruscan walls is almost commonplace. Ninfa, too, is a town with a history, a stopover for merchants and pilgrims travelling between Naples and Rome for more than 600 years. Ninfa was a place of importance—the site of a castle, seven churches, 14 towers, houses, mills and close to 2000 inhabitants. The prosperity came to an end in 1381 when it was sacked by mercenaries, struck by plague and malaria and left abandoned as a ruin for six centuries.
When the property of Ninfa was revived, it was reinvented rather than restored. The underbrush was cleared, pathways created, plants introduced and streams incorporated. Today, the pathways meander by plants so perfectly placed to seem natural and luxuriant. The garden both uplifts and calms.
The more characteristic features of Italian gardens—formality, symmetry, fountains, statues, closely trimmed hedges—are missing. Instead, the ruins of the 1000 year old walls, towers and bridges create the backdrop for ferns, trees, vines and roses. Springs emerge from underground and flow throughout the property into the small river, famous for its ancient bridge and stunning vista, and of course it is the springs along with the intense sunlight that are responsible for the lushness of the growth and the size of the trees.
If ever there was an enchanted garden, this is it. And it’s not just my point of view. Check out the hundreds of birds, the 500 types of roses, the vines framing a fading fresco or watch the visitors as they wander about Ninfa, lost in thought, wondering how they found themselves in this mystical place.
By Barbara Reinhardus
Photo credits Barbara Reinhardus
© Riding the buses 2013