The Amalfi Coast, south of Naples, proved to be a remarkable vacation spot. I recently returned from a weeklong visit there. A surprise for me, besides the winding roads up and down the mountains, which I am grateful I never drove, had to be an English garden we found in the town of Ravello.
The Amalfi Coast, south of Naples, proved to be a remarkable vacation spot. I recently returned from a weeklong visit there.
A surprise for me, besides the winding roads up and down the mountains, which I am grateful I never drove, had to be an English garden we found in the town of Ravello.
The site of the garden is the Villa Cimbrone, which required climbing a series of stone steps –– too many to count –– to reach.
The small village of Ravello sits high above the Amalfi Coast. Its origins date to the fourth and fifth centuries. To avoid the devastating attack of the barbarians, and after various attempts at colonization in southern Italy, Roman noblemen and aristocrats built settlements on the Amalfi hills where towns like Ravello are situated today. The Roman colonies brought their art and culture.
Villa Cimbrone, built in the 11th century, owes its charm not only to the extraordinary beauty of the place, but also to its Roman culture and tradition.
The name Villa Cimbrone comes from the rocky ridge on which it stands known as “cimbronium.” As a villa, it belonged to wealthy and influential families of Florence and Naples.
Around the 17th century, the fate of the villa becomes unclear.
At some stage, it became an integral part of a nearby monastery, Santa Chiara, which I passed on the way up to Villa Cimbrone.
Englishman Ernest William Beckett, Lord Grimthorpe, purchased the property in 1904 after his grand tour –– a trip through Europe the sons of Englishmen of the time took to see the world and finish their education.
Lord Grimthorpe sought to create a garden for the villa like no other. He consulted a French botanist for the choice of the trees and plants for the flowerbeds.
According to recent studies, the English writer and gardener Vita Sackville-West, who knew one of Beckett’s daughters, may have helped plan the garden. She was a friend and admirer of the English garden designer Gertrude Jekyll, whose numerous books line the shelves of the villa’s private library. Jekyll represented the latest fashion for the English garden at the turn of the 19th century, especially with her herbaceous borders.
Today the park-like garden covers what seemed acres.
You walk along an alley of trees called the Avenue of Immensity and end at an arch enclosing the Statue of Ceres. After walking under the arch, you stand atop the mountain at a spot called the Terrace of Infinity, staring in amazement at the Mediterranean Sea stretching far below. The view goes on forever.
Page 2 of 2 - In the garden you also find a collection of roses, one variety named after Lord Grimthorpe’s daughter. Along another pathway, statues of Mercury, David and Bacchus add to the richness of the garden experience by replicating the English practice of classical sculptures that appear as a surprise to the visitor.
The English component includes the lawn, the rows of trees and the flowering shrubs, but also the unexpected moments like the view at the end of the Avenue of Immensity.
You never expect to see it, but you do, and stand in amazement before the view of sky, mountains and the water below.
Today, the Villa Cimbrone is a hotel, and the grounds are open to the public.
My visit was in May, so the small number of people there on that day made it easier to see the garden. In the heat of summer, I am sure the numbers increase.
I expected to see Italy, but never knew I’d also find an English garden, one I will not soon forget, in a setting like no other.
Thomas Mickey is a master gardener from Quincy, Mass., and professor emeritus at Bridgewater State University. Reach him at www.americangardening.net.