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Resplendent Rome’s gardens

We have a lot of great things in America, but we don’t have anything like this.

I’m in the monstrous garden of Villa Lante, a Renaissance estate some 80 kilometers outside of Rome. This section of the garden is shrouded by a thick canopy of trees. A massive stone dining table stretches out before me with a fountain of water flowing down the length of it at the center.

The centuries-old stone table and surrounding grandeur seem like they belong in a “Narnia” movie. The striking sight reminds me that I’m a long way from home.

Villa Lante is just one of several striking estates that I’ll visit this week. I’m traveling in Italy as a guest of Collette on their Eternal Gardens of Rome tour, a product created in cooperation with England’s Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). I’m joined by a representative of the RHS, as well as a handful of garden enthusiasts from the U.K. and one from the United States.

My fellow travelers are here to see famous European gardens, but you don’t have to have a green thumb to enjoy this tour. Throughout the course of this five-day tour, I’ll marvel at the pope’s private park, a garden built atop the ruins of a medieval city and two of the most astonishing estates in Italy.


A Mannerist Garden

Villa Lante is one of the most famous relics of the Renaissance in Italy. Built progressively between 1520 and 1580, the magnificent estate was the home of a cardinal who, like many in the Catholic hierarchy of the time, used an impressive home and garden to show off the wealth and power that came along with his prestigious position.

As we approach the estate on our motorcoach journey from Rome, our RHS friend, Sabatino Urzo, who grew up in Italy, tells us about the immaculate design and detail of the garden we’re about to see.

“This is one of Italy’s foremost examples of a formal ‘mannerist’ garden,” he says. “When you see it, it’s like the feeling you get when you talk to someone really, really clever. It’s a very sophisticated garden.”

We arrive and enter the main gate of the estate, and find a large, well-maintained and perfectly symmetrical shrub garden surrounding a large stone fountain. This garden comprises mostly box shrubs, laid out in four quadrants of intricate design that neatly mirror each other on each side.

Our local guide spends some time telling us about the estate and the cardinal that lived here, before leading us into the additional garden areas that continue up the hillside from this formal fountain. These “surprises,” as the guide calls them, are laid out in a series of terraces that we can’t see from the foot of the hill.

As we climb into the woods on the hillside, we encounter a number of fantastic old sculptures and fountains, surrounded by shrubbery and vegetation. The large outdoor dining table is here, as is a magnificent “chain fountain” that spills down a series of stairs to transport water from one terrace to another. At the top of the hill, we find a grotto where three waterfalls trickle from the mountain springs that feed the fountains on the entire property.

The cardinal built this estate to impress his visitors. And I am, indeed, impressed.

Beauty in Ruins

“It’s a perfect harmony in a perfect setting. Everything is natural.”

Sabatino is excited about our visit to Ninfa, a medieval historic site that has been converted into a spacious and beautiful garden. As we approach the site, he ticks off a list of some of its accolades: The gardens at Ninfa have more than 300 kinds of roses, and the site has been called the world’s most beautiful Romantic garden by the New York Times.

There is a steady drizzle of rain as we exit the motorcoach and begin our tour. Our local guide, Julie, explains more about the site’s history.

“Ninfa is a garden built on the ruins of an ancient city,” she says. “It dates back to around 700 A.D., but it was destroyed in 1382.”

At first, our tour feels more like a visit to a medieval historic site than a beautiful garden. We enter through the walls of St. John’s Church, which has sat in ruins for more than 600 years. As we step out the other side, though, a lush world of trees, shrubbery, roses and bamboo spreads out before us.

The Lepini Mountains, along with nearby lakes and the ocean, help to create a microclimate hospitable to a wide range of plants from around the world. These plants are situated around the ruins of the city, creating a timeless combination of man’s design and nature’s beauty.

As Julie leads us around the gardens, we encounter the River Ninfa, which flows through the middle of the site. The water here is crystal clear and smooth as glass, even on a rainy day. It looks cool and perfectly drinkable.

The rain comes and goes during our tour of the garden, but nobody seems to mind. The mist, combined with the lush vegetation and stone ruins, make us feel like adventurers exploring the remains of a hidden city.


Rome’s Garden Jewel

Rome is understandably steamy in August, and the oppressive warmth of the city has made this a perfect day to escape to one of its lesser-known jewels. If you’re not a garden enthusiast, you may never think to visit the Rome Orto Botanico, or botanical garden. But on a hot afternoon, this quiet site across the Tiber from the core of Rome makes a perfect respite from the high temperatures and summer crowds.

Founded in the 1880s, this 30-acre garden sits adjacent to Palazzo Corsini, a palace that was once inhabited by the queen of Switzerland. Today, it is owned by the University of Rome.

Our group walks through a quiet, amiable entrance to arrive at the entrance of the garden, and we then separate to take in its sights at our own pace. A grand avenue of palms leads guests through the center of the garden. From its main path, we branch off independently to see smaller areas such as a rose garden, a bamboo garden, a Mediterranean garden and a “valley of ferns.”

I spend some time exploring the indoor arid garden, as well as a tropical greenhouse where exotic plants grow in the warm temperatures. There’s an herb garden, where dozens of fragrant plants grow, as well as a series of small statues and fountains.

My favorite part of the visit, though, is a slow walk up the side of a hill on a path through a garden of shaded evergreens to a Japanese garden. Situated atop the hill, the Japanese garden features a pagoda and a koi pond.

A cool breeze blows through the air, and the sound of water trickling into the pond is soothing. From this vantage point, I take in a wonderful view of the rooftops of Rome while I revel in the beauty and quiet of the garden.


The Vatican’s Back Yard

Some of the most influential people in the world have walked through this garden. But few outside of the Catholic elite ever see it.

Thousands of people are lined up at the Vatican — as they are every day — to see the Sistine Chapel and other landmarks in this seat of the Roman Catholic church. We are not in line with them, though; our tour has bypassed the queue and the best-known attractions to visit the Vatican gardens, which are accessible only to groups.

“We’re off to the smallest state in the world,” Collette tour director Maryse Blouin had told us as we approached the Vatican. “It’s 109 acres, and half of that is gardens. The gardens were started in 1279 when the pope moved to the Vatican and started an orchard there.”

Today, that small orchard has grown to encompass 27 gardens that line the hills tucked behind the Vatican buildings. Much of the area is an English-style landscape garden with native trees and bushes, but there is also a French garden, a small rose garden, a stone garden and a beautiful Italianate garden.

Spread throughout these areas are more than 100 classical statues, fountains and monuments. Some, such as “Peter in Chains,” depict scenes from Scripture or Catholic traditions. Others have been given as gifts by foreign heads of state.

As we explore the grounds in relative solitude, I understand why popes have come here to pray and reflect through the centuries.

“The old German pope [Benedict XVI] loved theses gardens,” our Vatican guide Alexandria tells us as she points out his favorite spot. “Whenever he could, he would come spend a couple of hours here.”

Today, the retired pope’s apartment overlooks the Vatican garden, so he is never far from the trees and flowers he loves.


An Amazing Estate

This is what my fellow travelers came here to see.

Villa d’Este is renowned throughout Europe as one of the most impressive garden estates in all of the continent, and my fellow travelers from the U.K. have been eagerly anticipating our visit to this site.

After making the quick 25-kilometer trip from Rome, I can see what all the fuss is about. This UNESCO World Heritage Site combines the best of Italian Renaissance art and architecture with a terraced garden inlaid with marble and fountains.

Like other villas in the area, Villa d’Este was built by a powerful Catholic cardinal. It took 30 years of work, from 1550 to 1580, to complete the home and gardens. After that, the estate was occupied for about a century and then was empty for another century.

“It was found in complete abandon in the 1800s,” our local guide told us as she led us through the home toward the garden. “It was very difficult to restore.”

The hard work of restoration paid off, however. This four-hectare estate has more than 30,000 trees, and its three-terrace garden includes 51 fountains and 61 waterfalls. One long water feature, spanning nearly the length of one terrace, has more than 100 jets of water.

As we walk through these garden terraces, I am struck by the intricacy of their designs. The pathways are paved with imported marble, and fine mosaics along the way demonstrate the work of skilled Renaissance craftsmen.

From the bottom of the estate, in the circular garden surrounding a 2,500-year-old cypress, I look back up the hillside to the series of fountains, sculptures and balconies that stand out before me.

This is so entirely different from anything that we will ever have back at home and yet so worth making the long journey to see.