Our favourite Mediterranean gardens to visit next year
Like many horticulturists our love affair with the Mediterranean started with plants. We have a fascination for the history of exotic plants arriving in Europe and nurserymen like Philippe Andre de Vilmorin who helped introduce many of these plants to Europe. Plants like Westringia the coastal rosemary, and Grevillea, now commonplace around the Mediterranean but once spectacular introductions from the new world. Many of the European gardens that we love are those that take the Mediterranean style we know so well and twist it with gems of exotic plants, the Leptospermums, Acacias and even the more humble Fuchsia.
We’ve been fortunate to make gardens on islands like Cyprus and on the coasts of Italy and France and always sourced our plants locally. In Cyprus we are supplied by local aromatic farms set up for the fragrance industry and buy small trees from the forestry commission for a euro a piece. Our best ever find was a field of 900 year-old olive trees, once listed in an ancient doomsday document, that a local farmer was grubbing up. We re-homed many proving the toughness of this tree even in such a harsh, dry climate.
We do realise though that, a little like Ralph Lauren’s unique idea of English tailoring, we’ve made those gardens based on an ideal of a Mediterranean garden. From visits to well known places certainly but also from being invited into private gardens and less known places, sitting under the olives, drinking in the atmosphere and the wine. Our design style is much more informal than the high precision planting styles of the gardens we see at Chelsea Flower Show and inevitably that comes from the relaxation of gardens that we’ve made in warmer Mediterranean and Caribbean climates. Here are some of Andrew’s favourite Mediterranean places to get that feel and inspiration.
Majorca – Jardines de Alfabia
Of all the Balearic gardens this one has to be top of the list. I was first drawn there by the famous view of water spraying out from pots along a covered walkway but found a garden that merges with the landscape, perfect terraces of palms and grottoes. It’s a grand garden in a rural setting, unfussy but sumptuous and a perfect retreat from the coast if you need to get away from the crowds.
Spain – the Generalife Garden
This might be an obvious choice but its here for good reason. One of the best-loved castle gardens of Europe and probably the most photographed water features in the world. The enclosed courtyard of the Patio de la Acequia is timeless with proportions that any designer would do well to copy. The garden is much changed from it’s original 13th century design but it’s a great visit if you have non-gardeners with you as its hard not to fall for its charm and there’s a castle to distract them whilst you soak up the atmosphere.
Italy – the Bardini Gardens
The Bardini Gardens are just a short distance from the gates of the famous Boboli Gardens. The gardens are on a site going back to the 13th Century but as a relatively unknown garden, renovated and then opened in 2005 it’s easy to have the garden to yourself. The terraces on the hill are everything you think of when dreaming of Italian hillside gardens, shady walkways banked with long drifts of Hydrangea beneath Wisteria roofs. Views of Florence and that other great garden nearby are an added bonus
Italy – Villa e Giardino Peyron al Bosco di Fontelucente
Who could resist a garden with a name like this?! One of the best of the historic gardens of the Fiesole Hill it owes its name to the nearby woodland and like the Bardini Gardens it has terraces and fabulous views of Florence but it is more spacious with a formality in parts, numerous fountains and a lake with olive groves, citrus trees and Cypress as well as flowers in abundance.
Israel – The Jerusalem Botanical Gardens
The Jerusalem Botanic is one of those gardens that has plants you’re completely familiar with but also has those exotics that we can only hope to produce under glass. As a botanical garden it naturally has a diverse collection of plants from across the planet beyond its oldest Mediterranean garden that has magnificent Cedars of Lebanon. Its motto of ‘Plants Grow People’ means that it’s a great family visit for children as much as plantaholics.
Italy – Parco dei Principi Grand Hotel Sorrento
When visiting Sorrento its tempting to stay ‘in town’ but just a mile out of the centre is this jewel of a hotel designed by the great Gio Ponti set within a plot of land once owned by the King of Naples. It’s a fabulous place for any lover of 1950s Italian aesthetic but it also sits in a wonderful garden at the top of the cliffs. There’s a hint of faded glamour from swimming in the cliff top pool surrounded by flowers and palms, or dining under the stars. Why settle for visiting gardens when you can stay within one?
France – Jardins Ephrussi de Rothschild, Cap Ferrat
It’s not often you get to step inside a piece of history and the Villa and Jardins Ephrussi tell a story of a singularly dedicated woman’s aim to establish a villa and gardens in a quite inhospitable place. The gardens were designed by Harold Peto and Achille Duchene and by all accounts this is not a place entirely conducive to gardening. The completion of the gardens in the early 20th century require dynamite and a lot of imported soil. Apparently the gardeners were required to be dressed as sailors with berets with red pompoms! This is a series of nine gardens on different themes, unsually for the Mediteranean there is a Japanese garden, but also a rose garden and they host a rose festival in early May which I am told is worth planning to visit.
Cyprus – CyHerbia Botanical Park and Labyrinth
Having made gardens across Cyprus you get to know that the locals hold great store in the power and value of plants and especially herbs. There are though relatively few gardens to visit and this garden is a great introduction to what they do best here, the organically grown herbs and aromatics for the fragrance industry as much as for wellness and health. If you’re on a family holiday the labyrinth maze is a great diversion for the kids!
Italy – Castel Gandolfo
I had been unaware of this gem of a garden until quite recently when, watching Jude Law in ‘the Young Pope’, I suddenly noticed this amazing garden. This is the papal summer residence, a country retreat just 20 miles south of Rome which now, under the express orders of the current Pope Francis, is open to the public for the first time. This is a garden of shady Holm Oaks, Umbrella pines and geometric parterres that give a structure to the garden year round supplemented by Begonias in the summer months. Maybe not a romantic garden but certainly a stunning example of the power of the gardener over nature.
And finally, this might be a little cheeky but it’s always good to see into other people’s gardens and I have an abiding memory of a stroll around the ramparts of Dubrovnik. Our intention was to see the views of the Adriatic (so strictly not the Mediterranean) but we spent nearly all of our time gazing into the terraced gardens of all the houses crowded within the city of walls. I brought back an idea for a show garden from here, so you never know what ideas you might steal!