Join Michael McCoy on the third installment of his travel series.
This time, he journeys to Italy, where he falls in love with the romance, beauty, and the extravagance of it all. You’ll want a cuppa for this one.
Words and Images: Michael McCoy
The Grand Canal, Venice
I love, and have learned to savour, the first twenty-four hours in another country.There’s something about the change of scene, change of air, and change of light that sends the adrenalin soaring. And on the first day in Rome, where RGTI always starts its Italy tours, my joy-levels are always off the charts.
The first thing we do, upon arrival with a group, once we’re checked into the hotel, is to take a walk through the centre of Rome. I can feel it as I write – the sheer magic of winding through those old narrow streets, and arriving, abruptly, in the charming, ancient market square of the Campo de’ Fiori. That’s just a foretaste – a virtual teaser – to the gob-smacking entrance, a few streets away, into the Piazza Navona, once used for chariot races and now the perfect setting for Bernini’s priceless Fountain of the Four Rivers. And then, squeezing your way through a little more of the maze of streets, you swing around the corner to be confronted with the stupendous scale of the Pantheon. After 2000 years, it remains the largest unsupported concrete dome, and nothing can prepare you for that moment of visual confrontation. Even after multiple visits.
The Teatro Massimo on Isola Bella, Lake Maggiore
Villa Gamberaia, Florence
Villa d'Este, Tivoli
Isola Bella, Lake Maggiore
That sense of double-take – of not quite believing your eyes – becomes almost your permanent state, throughout a Ross Garden Tour in Italy.
There’s the scale and outrageous vision of a garden such as the Villa d’Este, for which a rich and powerful cardinal redirected 40% of the water supply to the local town, Tivoli, for his personal and ornamental use. The water is thrown around in such original and inventive ways, you’re impressed even now.It’s impossible to imagine how such feats of imagination and engineering would have impacted a visitor arriving in 1570.
And then there’s the achingly lovely, quiet scenes that unfold around Ninfa, widely considered the most romantic garden in the world. The combination of fragile rose blooms flung over crumbling, ancient ruins is indescribably poignant.
There are moments when it’s your nose you can’t quite believe. The first time I took a group to Lucca it was mid-autumn, and while we walked the walls of the city, I kept getting whiffs of a magical scent. Then we descended into a garden on the edge of town, and in doing so entered into a virtual pool of perfume, eventually traced to several huge old specimens of Osmanthus fragrans.In my mind, the entirety of Lucca spends September bathed in this scent, and I’d return there just to experience that again. I’ve attempted to recreate the moment by planting two osmanthus in my own garden, but meanwhile I get a hit by sticking my nose into a bag of dried Osmanthus blooms that I found in an Asian grocer when I was shooting Dream Gardens in Sydney. I take a sniff, and I’m immediately back in Lucca. In fact, I’m going to go and do that now.
The beauties of Italy aren’t, of course, all man made. The Italian Lakes are of such phenomenal beauty that resorts were established there as long ago as Roman times. The surrounding mountains, which cross over into Switzerland, form great bowls around these lakes which, due to hot-spring input and the temperature-modifying effects of large bodies of water, result in a microclimate encouraging exceptional growth on a wide range of plants. Add early Italian wealth and baroque extravagance into the mix, and you end up with a garden as fabulously theatrical and wonderfully over the top as that on Isola Bella, floating like a great layered wedding cake just off the shore from Stresa on Lake Maggiore.
Two of the five Ross tours I’ve led to Italy headed south from Rome, passing through Sorrento on the way to Sicily. The gardens on the Islands of Ischia and Capri, or along the Amalfi coast, are plant-celebrating creations, entirely different from the classic scholarly gardens of the north. That points to their ex-pat origins, as American and British celebrities took to the area a century or so ago. They carry a faded Hollywood glamour – a kind of horticultural and historical patina – that is as inexplicably appealing as flakey Tuscan lime wash.
And Sicily is, of course, an entire world of its own, with unique gardens to match.I’m no great fan of cactus, but when you see them used in great repeated sweeps with other exotic plantings of palms and bamboo against a muscular, fortified building like the Villa San Giuliano, you can’t help for fall in love with them.
But that’s just Italy, all over. You can’t help but just fall in love – with its rich history, its wonderfully expressive, passionate people, its exceptionally diverse landscape, and its extraordinary gardens.