Italian Lakes (2013)

INSIGHT: GARDENER’S GLORY

A perfect climate and oodles of millionaires have made the lakes lush with lavish gardens.

The lake villas are a testament to the whims of wealthy owners, the finest enjoying bewitching waterside settings, which often juxtapose manicured formal gardens with untrammelled views of distant mountains beyond.

Set in the foothills of the Alps and sheltered by mountains, the lakes enjoy balmy sunshine and frost-free nights, particularly around Garda and Maggiore, where a Mediterranean microclimate prevails. The meeting of the Mediterranean and Alpine climates makes for an extraordinary exoticism, with plants ranging from camellias and azaleas to Kashmiri cypresses, Amazonian water lilies, Japanese maples, African palms and Chinese bamboo. Giant rhododendrons and hydrangeas are as common as bougainvillea, roses and magnolia. Beyond the laurels and cypresses, the well-tended topiary and water gardens are the exotica of palms, hibiscus and the lemons so associated with Lake Garda.

The same diversity underpins the landscaping: nothing less than a history of European garden design in miniature, combining the French preoccupation with perfect geometry with a Dutch tradition of topiary and an English love of lawns, woodland and bubbling brooks and communion with nature that epitomised the Romantic ideal.

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Isola Bella, an island tower of flowering terraces.

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Villa Gardens

The formal Renaissance garden was inspired by Roman ideals of structure and symmetry. Set in the foothills of Varese, Villa Cicogna Mozzoni is a frescoed Renaissance villa enveloped by Italianate gardens, including formal box hedges, fountains and a grandiose water stairway. In Verona, Giardino Giusti presents a succession of box hedges, parterres, fountains and whimsical statuary fading into a forest of greenery.

Villa Melzi , on Lake Como, was the first garden in the lakes to be designed along “English” lines. The neoclassical villa enjoys an intimate mood created by an ornamental pool framed by cedars, maples, camphor and myrrh. A whimsical grotto opens onto enchanting Japanese water gardens, while on the terraces above, neoclassical statuary gives way to gently rolling lawns.

Villa Carlotta , also on Lake Como, is awash with colour, its planting evoking an exotic map of the world: cedars of Lebanon, Egyptian papyrus, Japanese maples and banana trees. Formality merges into informality, with the villa bordered by a profusion of pink and white azaleas and a theatrical staircase climbing to the lemon terraces. Nearby, Villa del Balbianello has the most seductive setting of all, its 18th-century gardens studded with cypresses, magnolia and plane trees, framed by wisteria-clad views accentuated by artfully sited urns and arches.

On Lake Maggiore, the battle between the classical and Romantic aesthetic is played out on twin islands. If Isola Madre’s floating botanical garden feels Romantic, with its riot of haphazard planting, Isola Bella revels in Baroque theatricality, the ship-shaped terraces crowned by a four-tiered folly studded with shells and topped by cherubs, gods and a heraldic unicorn.

In nearby Pallanza, Captain Neil McEachern devoted his life to his beloved Villa Taranto , importing exotic plants from the tropics, from coffee, cotton and tea to Amazonian water lilies, lotuses and Egyptian papyrus, creating not only a delightful spot but a botanical marvel.

All of the gardens listed here are open to the public.

Just Gardens

Villas do not have a monopoly on gorgeous gardens. South of Lake Garda, the Parco Giardini Sigurtà has gentle parkland and seasonal gardens dating back to the 17th century.

In Gardone, Western Lake Garda, the Giardino Botanico Andre Heller is an established botanical garden enlivened by provocative installations by Heller, an Austrian artist.

In sleepy Varenna, on Lake Como, Villa Monastero is a former Cistercian convent reborn as a cultural institute, with beguiling gardens. After admiring them, slip away to the lakeside terraces of the neighbouring patrician hotel, Villa Cipressi, or retreat to the even more palatial Villa d’Este.

On Lake Maggiore, the Isole di Brissago are a brace of botanical islands, while halfway up Monte Mottarone, above Stresa, Giardino Alpinia pays homage to the tiny Alpine plants of the world.