The gardens of the Amalfi Coast are among the most beautiful in the world, sharing their landscape splendor with extraordinary coastal views. Here are five to visit in spring, when flowers burst into full bloom, daytime temperatures are still moderate, and crowds less prevalent.
VILLA CIMBRONE, RAVELLO
Writer and long-time Ravello resident Gore Vidal described the view from Villa Cimbrone’s garden as “the most beautiful sight that I have ever seen in the world.” Vidal was referring to the seascape from the villa’s Terrace of Infinity overlooking the Bay of Salerno where the cerulean sea surrounded by terraced hills with umbrella pines fades to an aqua sky. The villa’s property, perched on a rocky promontory called Cimbronium, was sought after since Roman times—in the last 1000 year years numerous noble families owned the land, which now includes a hotel, the luxe Villa Cimbrone (the gardens are open to the public 9 AM until 8 PM). Among the many owners was a British aristocrat, Edward Beckett, Lord Grimthorpe, who restored the villa and created the gardens with help from his friend, famed English gardener and writer Vita Sackville-West. As if realizing dramatic flourishes were needed to compete with the magnificent seascape, Beckett created an environment with theatrical verve that included included elements of both English and Italian garden design. Here you’ll find everything from grottoes, temples and classical statures to a lush assortment of flowers. Word spread among Grimthorpe’s set about his idyllic haven by the sea, and many prominent names came for a visit, among them E.M. Forster, D.H. Lawrence and Winston Churchill. Greta Garbo stayed at the villa, no doubt finding she could enjoy her much-coveted privacy in unusually beautiful surroundings, where bougainvillea, wisteria, oleander and roses bloom in spring and summer.
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VILLA RUFOLO, RAVELLO
Built in the 13th century, the Villa Rufolo was owned by the powerful Rufolo family and by other area nobles over the centuries. Although the garden was immortalized in Bocaccio’s Decameron, the sumptuous landscape that flourishes today evolved from the work of Scottish botanist Francis Nevile Reid, who bought the property, then in disrepair, in 1851. The formal garden, home to what many describe as the most photographed tree in Italy, sprawls over two levels and includes both exotic and local plants.There are countless alluring spots: In season bougainvillea and roses cover pergolas, and manicured flower beds showcasing seasonal flowers and succulents are interspersed among the many tree and plant varieties, among them cypress and umbrella pines, palm and citrus trees, European box, English ivy, jasmine and water lilies. As with the Villa Cimbrone the views overlooking the water are outstanding. During the summer you can take in the scenicsplendor from a stage on the garden’s lower level where the the annual Ravello Festival is held, this year from June 30 to August 25th.
LA MORTELLA, ISCHIA
This striking garden on the island of Ischia was created in the 1950s by Susana Walton for her husband William, a well-known composer of film and opera scores, as well as coronation marches for England’s King George VI and Elizabeth II. Russell Page, one of the most highly regarded landscape architects of the 20th century (clients included the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Gianni Agnelli), did the initial work on the garden, designing its layout over several levels of once barren terrain. Despite its position on a volcanic slope, the Waltons and Page managed to created a lush and colorful environment with some 3000 species of plants, man-made streams, pools and fountains, its beauty drawing such visitors as Prince Charles and Laurence Olivier over the years. There’s a nymphaeum (a grotto-like area that in ancient times was built to honor water nymphs), a structure found frequently on the grounds of Renaissance villas; a temple to the sun; and a Greek theater with views overlooking the sea. One of the garden’s most spectacular plants found in the Victoria House (a conservatory), is the mega water lily (Victoria amazonica), with flowers that can grow up to a foot in size. The female plant is a night-owl, flowering just before sunset; its male counterpart wakes up earlier, in late afternoon, eventually taking on a new color and changing sex before sinking into the water. In early spring, purple and pink geraniums from Madeira color the lower part of the garden, called the valley, where you’ll also find enormous tulipfera, so called because of the tulip-like flowers the trees produce. La Mortella’s museum/recital hall, in homage to Walton’s accomplishments, is the site of many concerts in spring, summer and autumn. For more information: www.lamortella.org/en
VILLA SAN MICHELE, CAPRI
Axel Munthe, a Swedish doctor and writer, immortalized his Capri home in the The Story of San Michele, which became one of the best-selling books of the 20th century. Perched on a cliff about 1000 feet above the sea, the villa and gardens offer some of the most dramatic views in Italy, reaching from the Gulf of Naples to Mount Vesuvius. The land on which Munthe built his home was the site of ancient dwellings; as a great collector of antiquities, he filled his villa with classical objects. Artifacts from a Roman-era structure on the property can be found in the multi-level garden, reached by a vine-covered colonnade and pergola. From here a path leads to the spectacular lookout guarded by the now iconic stone Sphinx. The garden, filled with pine, cypress (a beautiful allee leads to the chapel), and palm trees, remains verdant throughout the year, but in warm weather it is awash in color from the bougainvillea, hydrangeas, camellias and azaleas in bloom.There are leisurely walkways and secluded areas where you can rest, but you can also linger over lunch or coffee at the Cafe Casa Oliv on the property. Munthe, who was Swedish, maintained close ties to the Swedish royal family as their physician. Sweden’s Queen Victoria (as Crown Princess) came to visit when Munthe was alive and the country’s current monarchs, King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Sylvia were guests of honor at the villa’s centenary. Throughout the summer numerous concerts and theatrical performances are staged in this sublime setting. For more information: villasanmichele.eu/en/
THE GARDENS OF AUGUSTUS, CAPRI
Capri’s famous Faraglioni are part of the sweeping sea views from the Giardini di Augusto along with the pine-dotted cliffs that stretch into the clear green sea many dramatically-perpendicular meters below. The multi-terraced garden offers different vantage points from which to admire other parts of the scenery, including Capri’s Marina Piccola and the relentlessly twisting road that leads to this garden, which was once owned by German industrialist Friedrich Krupp. (He also developed that serpentine hillside road, called Via Krupp; it is frequently closed because of the danger from loose rocks.) The garden’s flowers, many set in manicured flower beds, include geraniums, dahlias, begonias and bougainvillea. For more information: CapriTourism.com