God’s country: the Italian gardens where popes have trodden

I missed Italy a lot during the lockdown. Of course, I also missed friends, family and unauthorized travel, but visits to Italy are annual events in my life. I have just corrected the absence and spent some time in gardens near Rome, one already familiar to me, another new to my eye.

New to me are the Papal Gardens of Castel Gandolfo, about 15 miles southeast of the city. They are now open to the public. In the 17th century, Pope Urban VIII began commissioning formal gardens on a hilltop overlooking the exquisite Lake Albano. Others followed suit and in the 1960s and 1970s Pope Paul VI loved the place as a summer residence.

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He became a heli pope. In 1975 he began traveling by helicopter from Rome to Castel Gandolfo, unaware that carbon fumes could damage what he believed to be God’s creation. He died in 1978 during a summer retreat to Castel Gandolfo. The current Pope Francis, a city pope, prefers the city and since 2014 it is he who opens the gardens to paying visitors. The helipad is not part of his weekend schedule.

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The main papal gardens are spread out over three terraces, one on top of the other, with beautiful views over the lake and the vast plain below. They were taken over in 1929 by the large Barberini family, themselves a source of popes. The terraces are still held up by the retaining walls of one of Rome’s most feared emperors, Domitian, who reigned from 81 to 96 AD. Long before the popes, Domitian had a palace on the same hill. At the end of his reign he declared himself equal to the god Jupiter. In his own way, he wanted to be considered infallible.

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Domitian’s palace above Lake Albano is only partially known and understood to this day. Visitors could never feel safe and secure. On the lake, Domitian insisted on being towed in a small boat by a very long rope behind a man-powered galley, lest he be irritated by the splashing of the oars.

The Long Frontier, Castel Gandolfo

The Long Frontier, Castel Gandolfo © Harriet Rix

In his gardens he had a small theatre, faced with polychrome marble, where he met deputies of the Senate, whom he caused to travel to him from Rome. The most impressive ancient survivor in the gardens is a huge brick portico. More than 300 meters long and very high, it once led visitors up the hillside to meet Domitian, the self-proclaimed peer of Jupiter.

In the 1940s, it became a haven for many of the city’s residents who had to take shelter from nearby Allied bombing raids. Among the families were pregnant women, some of whom gave birth in a bedroom set aside for the purpose in the Pope’s residence. The babies became known as the Pope’s children, a category that had long been in limbo. If they were boys, many of them were baptized in his name Pio.

On the main terrace of Gandolfo, the most impressive are the senescent trees, evergreen holm oaks and fine pines, Pinus pinea, whose rounded heads were compared in antiquity to large mushrooms. The main attraction of the garden is the view from the first terrace of the parterre beds of the second below. They are hedged with boxwood, still rot and moth free, and densely planted with white and pink fiber rooted begonias for summer and fall.

These beds were introduced in the 1930s based on old prints of the terrace when they were owned by the Barberini family. Spreading rosemary bushes line the sidewalk from which they are best viewed, along with the Italian staple myrtle. This long terrace of papal beds is the most impressive: the begonias are annually replaced by flowering plants for spring.

The further the patio progresses the less tidy it gets so I went down to see what went wrong. There is a lot of grass and green weeds in the other beds, but the papal gardeners do not aim for regrowth. They didn’t bother with the full ad. After a very dry summer, they have to pull weeds again.

Umbrella pines, Castel Gandolfo

Umbrella pines, Castel Gandolfo © Harriet Rix

Enthusiastic garden observers will certainly enjoy Castel Gandolfo. Don’t be put off by a previous visit to the Vatican Gardens in Rome. Popes have also enjoyed walking there, and the current Pope Francis has used the paved paths under the trees of the garden for his personal jog. Admission tickets give access to functions and fountains, but neither they nor the level of gardening are differentiated.

An artificial grotto mimics the grotto at Lourdes, complete with a white statue of the Miracle Sanctuary’s Bernadette. On one side, a pile of jumbled rocks contains begonias with fibrous roots, pink only. I give him very bad grades.

The Vatican Gardens are known for their mixture of English, French and Italian styles. For a mix of history and beauty, head to Ninfa, the beautiful garden near Sermoneta, a further 40km past Castel Gandolfo as you head south-east past Rome.

Ninfa also has a papal connection. When the Garden was still an inhabited city, Pope Alexander III was born there in 1159. crowned in one of the churches, the ruins of which still present roses like Mermaid and White Rock in a heavenly setting.

In 1381 the city was devastated by feuds and fighting, but over the last 100 years it has been brought to new glory and life by members of its owning Caetani family. With much help from American and English wives in the family, Ninfa became a garden like no other, fed by plentiful water, amidst ruined medieval buildings and planted by owners with an exquisite sense of plants and space.

The enchanting gardens of Ninfa

The enchanting gardens of Ninfa, where Pope Alexander III. 1159 © Giacinto Canini/Getty Images/iStockphoto

I first wrote about it in 1987, shortly after the death of Hubert Howard, husband of the modern garden’s leading genius, Lelia Caetani. A lifelong painter and thoughtful gardener, she was well described by a contemporary as a “shy beanstalk”.

Since 1987, Ninfa’s visiting days have multiplied and its fame has spread to television screens, often with commentators not knowing what the most beautiful roses are. It has been run by its supervisor Lauro Marchetti, who has maintained the standards instilled in him by the owners from an early age.

After 35 years of service, Marchetti has retired from the day-to-day running of the garden. Its beautiful springs and rivers are increasingly threatened by drought and alternative uses outside of the gardens. Fields of kiwifruit now line the approach to Ninfa, crops that need to be lavishly irrigated by its river. During the first lockdown, Ninfa attracted 60,000 visitors who flocked to the outdoor beauty. Gatherings are a challenge for any garden, but especially for one that is planned as a retreat.

After 120 days without rain, Ninfa’s garden is still green and charming. The river’s water level was raised slightly by dams further up the valley. Also blooming in October is the Caetani family’s rose selection, led by La Follette and copper-pink General Schablikine. Agrippina, mother of Emperor Nero, was never so beautiful as the scarlet rose named after her, which blooms a second time on Ninfa’s walls.

Prime time in Ninfa is in May, but a pre-booked ticket is required: giardinodininfa.eu gives details. So far everything is fine in this idyllic port in Italy.

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