The Gardens of Ninfa, Lazio
I don’t know about you, but when someone suggests going to visit an ornamental garden, I must admit I usually stifle a yawn. Maybe my English heritage means that I just take great gardens for granted: maybe it’s an appreciation you grow into. That said, I have just one exhortation to make: whoever you are, go and visit the Gardens of Ninfa in Latina, south of Rome.
I actually happened upon the privately-run Gardens of Ninfa by chance, which is a pretty tricky thing to do: they are only open on select weekend dates from April through to October (see details below). I was accompanying friend and photographer Susan Wright who was shooting the garden for her upcoming book so we had the privilege of entering before the crowds, early in the morning. With no expectations, I was stunned to stumbled upon a medieval ghost town, with crumbling houses, bridges and the shell of a centuries old church, open to the sky and the wind, improbably filled with flowers. In and around the mossy ruins, roses clamber over fairytale arches, while the former moat of the medieval borgo is planted with hundreds of Arum lilies.
The history of the Gardens of Ninfa
It looks like a love story between nature and the past, and it is; although the two have been conjoined by human hands. In the 1920s, the Caetani family, ancient feudal lords in Ninfa, started landscaping the long-deserted town with a unique, English vision marrying architectural ruins with the irrepressible life of flora. English because the inspiration came from Ada Wilbraham, British wife of the then Prince Onorato Caetani. She had evidently inherited the Victorian fascination with the medieval, and approached the project with a poet’s eye.
In its design, there’s also an almost Wordsworthian appreciation of the transforming power of nature, as climbing roses and mosses re-roof crumbling cottages, while shimmering jasmine vines light up broken windows with tiny white stars. The fast-flowing brook that courses through the 150 acre garden is a brilliant, emerald green, radiating with the life of the waterbed and bubbling with brown trout.
Now, some of the medieval buildings have been lovingly restored, and are in part home to the curator and his family, who run the gardens on behalf of the Roffredo Caetani Foundation. Principessa Lelia Caetani left no heirs, but established a fund for the eternal care of Ninfa in the 1970s. It looks like it’s in good hands.
The Gardens of Ninfa are only open a handful of days a year, so sadly, expect crowds if you visit; guided tours are compulsory to ensure that visitors respect the delicate habitat. On the tour, however, you learn about the history of Ninfa and its botany, with everything from tropical plants to indigenous trees like the Magnolia and lofty Cypress, as well as antique roses brought from England by the Caetani clan.
There has been a settlement here in the shadow of Monti Lepini since the days of the pre-Roman Volsci tribe, which subsequently became a rich merchant stop-off along the Appian Way in the Middle Ages. But warring popes and the arrival of malaria from nearby marshes brought Ninfa to its knees in later years, and by the 16th century, the town had been completely abandoned. Now it teems with life again, home to more than 150 species of birds and thousands of rare trees and plants in a unique paradise shaped by man. Oddly enough, it seems like a fitting destiny.
Essential information for visiting the Gardens of Ninfa
How to get to the Gardens of Ninfa: Only by car. Allow about an hour and a quarter from Rome. It’s signposted quite poorly, but you essentially take the via Pontina south to the town of Cisterna in the province of Latina, and then head towards Norma. Good maps essential.
Entrance fee 2017: €12 per adult, children under 11 go free. All tickets can now be purchased online, in advance, and include an obligatory guided tour. Click here.
Opening times Ninfa 2017
Days open and opening times 2017:
April: 1, 2, 9, 16, 17, 23, 25, 30
May: 1, 6, 7, 14, 21, 28
June: 2, 3, 4, 18
July: 1, 2
August: 5, 6, 15
September: 2, 3
October: 7, 8
April – May – June: 9 – 12 14.30 – 18
July – August – September: 9 – 12 15 – 18.30
October – November: 9 – 12 14 – 16
Essentially, the ticket office is open from 9-12, then 14.30-18.00 in the spring; expect slight variations in high summer (open 15.00-18.30 in the afternoons) and the autumn when it closes at 16.00.
See site for full details and to book your tickets in advance (in English and Italian) here.
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© Rome blogger Isobel Lee