Deryn ThorpeNinfa – is it worth all the superlatives?

It was at a meeting of heritage rose lovers that I first heard about Ninfa, a romantic, rambling, Italian garden built in the ruins of a medieval town. People spoke of it in reverential terms and my interest was piqued by their idyllic description – old roses and vines cascading from ruined towers and trees, scrambling along crumbling archways and overhanging crystal clear streams.

The rose-decked entrance to Ninfa. Photo Deryn Thorpe

The rose-decked entrance to Ninfa. Photo Deryn Thorpe

I put it on my garden ‘bucket list’, never really expecting to get there as it only opens for 25 days a year and is away from the usual tourist route in the heavily-industrialised Pontine Plain, South East of Rome. However, I have the incredible fortune to work as a garden tour guide for Travelrite International and in May, on a journey from Rome to Sorrento, I got the opportunity to see if the anticipation lived up to the experience.

The garden was developed by the last three generations of the Caetani family, from the 1920s to the early fifties when the ruins were uncovered from rampant ivy and the 32 metre castle tower renovated.

Ruins at Ninfa. Photo Deryn Thorpe

Ruins at Ninfa. Photo Deryn Thorpe

The soil is rich, well drained and moist and as part of the restoration thousands of trees, shrubs, roses, and other plants were imported from around the world to create year-round interest. The garden is planted in the informal English garden style and the structure comes from the medieval ruins.

Crystal clear stream at Ninfa. Photo Raymond Rousset

Crystal clear stream at Ninfa. Photo Raymond Rousset

Bridge over crystal clear water at Ninfa. Photo Deryn Thorpe

Bridge over crystal clear water at Ninfa. Photo Deryn Thorpe

The garden has spring-fed lakes and a crystal clear river which create a perfect mirror for reflecting garden views.

Ancient olive and perennials at Ninfa. Photo Deryn Thorpe

Ancient olive and perennials at Ninfa. Photo Deryn Thorpe

Rich red maple at Ninfa. Photo Raymond Rousset

Rich red maple at Ninfa. Photo Raymond Rousset

Open areas have collections of trees including judas, magnolia, walnut, crab apple, cherry and maple.

Rosa filipes 'Kliftsgate' at Ninfa. Photo Deryn Thorpe

Rosa filipes ‘Kliftsgate’ at Ninfa. Photo Deryn Thorpe

Wall with Rosa filipes 'Kiftsgate' at Ninfa. Photo Deryn Thorpe

Wall with Rosa filipes ‘Kiftsgate’ at Ninfa. Photo Deryn Thorpe

I’m a rose aficionado and was overjoyed to discover that we were there at the peak bloom time. Many of the roses grown at Ninfa are common in warm Australian gardens and it was good fun identifying some of my favourites as plants are not labelled.

Massive banks of the single, white flowered Rosa filipes ‘Kiftsgate’ clothe the walls and create a carpet of petals and other rambling shrubs included hybrid musk beauties ‘Penelope’, ‘Ballerina’ and ‘Buff Beauty’.

Rose and smokebush at Ninfa. Photo Deryn Thorpe

Rose and smokebush at Ninfa. Photo Deryn Thorpe

Climbers abound and include star jasmine, wisteria cascading from the bridges and climbing hydrangeas (Hydrangea petiolaris). Fragrant roses scrambling through the structures including ‘Mme. Alfred Carriére’ with cupped blooms of creamy white tinted with pink and the ruffled, quartered, apricot tea rose ‘Gloire de Dijon’.

Other old roses included the multicoloured ‘Mutabilis’ which has single blooms of parchment that darken to rose pink and crimson, so it looks like the bush is covered with multicoloured butterflies. Modern roses like ‘Iceberg’ and a collection of David Austin rose beauties add to the floral palette.

Flowering perennials beneath an ancient olive at Ninfa. Photo Raymond Rousset

Flowering perennials beneath an ancient olive at Ninfa. Photo Raymond Rousset

Archway at Ninfa. Photo Raymond Rousset

Archway at Ninfa. Photo Raymond Rousset

Named after a small temple built near the springs and dedicated to the Nymph goddess, Ninfa was founded in the eighth century and at its peak in the 13th Century when it came into the ownership of the Caetani family. The town had seven churches, a castle and housed about two thousand people in 150 homes.

Unfortunately civil wars, caused by a schism in the Roman Catholic church, led to the town being destroyed in 1381 and efforts to resettle it were thwarted by outbreaks of malaria.

Allium at Ninfa. Photo Raymond Rousset

Allium at Ninfa. Photo Raymond Rousset

The garden covers 8 hectares (20 acres) and has a magical feeling with a relaxed and varied plant palette. The curator and his six full time gardeners run the garden on organic principals and we were delighted to see boxes attached to the trees from which ladybirds are released.

The garden has automatic reticulation and gardeners looks after their own particular area, pruning and planting to maintain a wild and informal ambience, a style that looks easy but which is surprisingly difficult to achieve.

Lavender walk at Ninfa. Photo Deryn Thorpe

Lavender walk at Ninfa. Photo Deryn Thorpe

I loved it all but I did find the lavender walk, which has a kilometre of lavender bushes lining the paths, too formal for the rest of the design.

Magnificent Gunnera at Ninfa. Photo Raymond Rousset

Magnificent Gunnera at Ninfa. Photo Raymond Rousset

A river flows from a lake just above the garden and travels through the centre of the town and is diverted into streams lined with drifts of irises, arum lilies and statement plants like giant rhubarb (Gunnera manicata).

My only frustration is that all visits to Ninfa are with a guide and follow a prescribed route. I normally enjoy touring new places with a garden guide but on this occasion I felt that the guide was just there to ensure that we did not stray from the paths and to move us through in our allotted hour. The guides do try to stagger tours so you have some semblance of exclusivity but the garden is extremely popular with 70,000 visitors each year so lingering is discouraged.

Waterfall at Ninfa. Photo Raymond Rousset

Waterfall at Ninfa. Photo Raymond Rousset

Ninfa is a garden to be savoured and is truly deserving of all the superlatives lavished on it by the garden literati. It invites slow meandering, time to sit and contemplate the beauty and frequent photographic stops which were not possible due to time constraints.

It may have taken the edge off my enjoyment but if I ever have the opportunity to visit again I’ll be the one hurrying to be at the front of the queue and dragging my feet as we leave!

Deryn can't get the smile off her face! At Ninfa.

Deryn can’t get the smile off her face! At Ninfa.

 

Deryn Thorpe takes garden tours for Travelrite International. Her next tour is an October cruise: Fall Colours Garden Cruise Canada and USA with Deryn Thorpe.

 

Like this post? Why not share it with a friend?


Deryn Thorpe

About Deryn Thorpe

Deryn Thorpe is a fanatical gardener, who is passionate about communicating her love of gardening. She is an award winning print and radio garden journalist and also works as a tour guide and Perth garden consultant, visiting home gardens to provide advice on design and planting. Go to Deryn Thorpe

6 thoughts on “Ninfa – is it worth all the superlatives?

  1. Thanks for taking us through Ninfa Deryn. I hadn’t realised it’s so controlled – does take the edge off a little, but nevertheless still on my bucket list.
    Sometime ago I had a tiny taste via Google maps – following the road around the perimeter and peering in where it was possible 🙂 Desperate measures!

    • It really was wonderful Kim – nothing else like it garden wise anywhere in the world that I have seen.

  2. Dear Deryn, thank you for bringing me back to Italy. The story of Ninfa is fascinating: the Marquise Lavinia Taverna who passed away recently was a passionate botanist and gardener, and designed this garden collaborating with Russel Page.
    It’s an enchanting garden, very romantic, and it’s quite different from the most famous Page’s gardens that I find a bit cold: you can see and feel the warm touch of a brilliant person behind as the Marquise was.

    It’s also probably a garden that suggests to Australians (from the temperate area) a sense of familiarity because the climate there is very similar to here (more or less!), so are the plants.

    Thank you Deryn!

    • Carlo the family certainly did a wonderful job in designing the garden – must be amazing to have a palette like the ruins to work with !! I live in Perth and most of what they grow was very familiar, though they get more rain and have no water restrictions!
      .

  3. sandy on said:

    Looks beautiful, Deryn! Shame about not being able to just wander, but wow, it must have been lovely to just spend time there. That arch bridge is gorgeous. 😀

  4. We very much enjoyed our visit to Ninfa. My sister and I were super keen to go and our respective partners much less so. But after the tour finished they both said it was the best garden they’d ever seen.
    My understanding is that the guided tour restrictions are because of the danger posed by all those unstable ruins. They can’t let people wander about as it’s too likely they’ll climb on something and be injured, and roping off those areas would totally spoil the garden.
    Thank you for taking me back there!

Leave a Reply (no need to register)