Box-edged flower beds, lemon trees in terracotta pots and shady cypress walks are part of the magic of Italian gardens. Statues and fountains adorn them and the bigger ones even show off with elaborate artificial grottos. Italian formal gardens were first created during the Renaissance and from there conquered the rest of Europe all the way to the symmetrical gardens of Fontainebleau. Here are four historic Italian gardens that you’ll not only want to visit, but that you can stay in!
Villa la Foce: English meets Italian
Iris and Antonio Origo bought la Foce in the Val d’Orcia in the 1920s and returned the crumbling estate to its former splendour during decades of hard work. The family was rewarded with one of the most beautiful views in Tuscany. The accurately landscaped garden of Villa La Foce gives way to a panorama that stretches over the UNESCO heritage valley all the way to mount Amiata.
Iris Origo designed the garden together with English landscape architect Cecil Pinsent, who had already planned the gardens of Iris’ childhood home, the Villa Medici in Fiesole.
La Foce’s gardens can be accessed by the public during guided visits on Wednesday afternoons and on weekends from end of March to late October (10€ per person). However, guests staying at the villa or at one of the many beautiful Tuscan farmhouses that belong to the La Foce estate are invited to an exclusive, private visit of the gardens on the first Monday of their stay.
Castello di Celsa: well-kept secret
A little known treasure not far from Siena, Castello di Celsa is an insider’s tip for a reason. The castle has been owned by the noble Aldobrandini family for centuries and is not open to the general public. But garden aficionados know that there is a way in!
The Limonaia, the former conservatory where lemon and orange trees used to hibernate in big terracotta pots, has been painstakingly restored and offers an incredibly beautiful setting for a Tuscan holiday. Rental of the former Limonaia includes a private pool with gorgeous views over the countryside of Siena, and – most importantly – personal access to Castello di Celsa’s jewel of an Italian formal garden.
La Ferriera: a modern Renaissance
Close to southern Tuscany’s coast and in vicinity of Niki de Saint-Phalle’s Tarot garden lies the La Ferriera estate. The former foundry was discovered by Contessa Giuppi Pietromarchi in the late 60s. A garden aficionado, the Contessa spent decades landscaping the grounds around the house and managed to turn them into a most incredible contemporary private garden.
Casa dell’Arco, a rental property on the La Ferriera estate, is a beautiful combination of traditional artisan work blended with contemporary art and design. But even though the interiors are of highest standard, the garden loving traveller will want to spend most time sitting in one of the many shady outdoor ‘living rooms’ that the Contessa created all around the house.
Vivo d’Orcia Estate: in the shade of an extinct volcano
Italy’s summers are hot and dry and a challenge to any gardener’s paradise. But high up on the slopes of southern Tusany’s mount Amiata lies the Vivo d’Orcia estate, made up of a castle and a small medieval hamlet, where one can always find a little shade and a refreshing breeze .
It is here that I spend long hot August days in the beautiful dry gardens that had been designed exactly for this season by the English landscape architect Jonathan Radford. The morning starts with a swim in the pool, and a light lunch is followed by a siesta during which the wind can be heard rustling through the leaves of the centenary woods that enclose the hamlet and its castle. The rest of the day is enjoyed under a pergola (my favourite is the one of Casa di Pietro), ideally with a glass of chilled white wine in one hand and a book about gardening in the other.