Bernard ChapmanGarden review: historic Villa Gamberaia, near Florence

As gardeners, it is usual for us to want to see gardens that might inspire us. One garden I had read about, and heard about from fellow horticulturists, is the Italian garden of Villa Gamberaia, on the outskirts of Florence.

VILLA GAMBERAIA SIGN AT THE GATE

While recently holidaying in Florence I decided to visit the garden. I had heard it was quite easy to reach the garden by the local bus from central Florence, so decided to try this. The number of the bus is 10. It leaves from Piazza San Marco, every twenty minutes, and the trip only takes around 20 to 30 minutes. The tickets can be bought from the newspaper sellers in the square and cost around a euro each way.

View towards Florence on the road to Villa Gamberaia

View towards Florence on the road to Villa Gamberaia

 

When we went to the spot where we needed to catch the bus, we found the route and timetable attached to a pole. There was no mention of the Villa! The driver also did not seem to know about it. We caught the bus, and I was concerned that we might be going the wrong way.

View to Settignano

View to Settignano

 

We travelled up into the hills around Florence, which did seem like the right direction, and the scenery soon became decidedly rural, and in a very Tuscan way. Rows of tall phallic pines punctuated the vivid blue sky, and hillsides were covered in olive groves. We reached Settegnano, the final stop of the bus’s route, and looked for a sign for the Villa. None!

I asked a teenage girl who got off the bus with us if she knew of the Villa, and she said it was the second street on the right, as you went out of town via the street near the post office in the main square. We headed off on foot and reached the second right hand turn, and there, finally was a sign: Villa Gamberaia!

Almost there!

Almost there!

 

It was quite a long walk, possibly fifteen minutes, actually out of the town, along a dusty road in very hot weather, with little shade along the way. The upside, however, was, as you walked along the road, below, to the right, you could see Florence shimmering, the dome of the Duomo standing proudly above the city, even after all these centuries.

We finally reached the garden, and were confronted with a locked gate to the left side of the impressive main gated entrance (also locked). I buzzed the Office button, and the gate opened, rather eerily, electronically. It is important to check what dates the garden is open on their website. It is often closed to the public.

As one looked at the villa, on the left was a more humble structure, from where tickets were sold. The young man who met us there was polite but distant. He gave us a map and our tickets (€15 each). We then walked up the main drive to the villa. The drive was flanked on both sides by erratically clipped cypress hedges. They had a definite Alice Through the Looking Glass meandering form!

The map of the garden gave instruction as to where one could walk. The main terrace lawn was off limits (probably a traffic issue), but the narrow stone path that hugged the villa was luckily available to visitors. The view from the terrace, over Florence and the Arno river valley, was again magical, especially as carved dogs and lions sat a top the sandstone parapet, observing we visitors.

Main water feature at Villa Gamberaia

Main water feature at Villa Gamberaia

 

We went behind the house (also out of bounds), and were greeted by the formal parterre-style water garden. As with all other water features throughout the garden, none of the water features here were working. At least, in this garden area, there was water in the pools. All others water features throughout the garden were dusty dry.

Dry water feature in the cabinetta at Villa Gamberaia

Dry water feature in the cabinetta at Villa Gamberaia

Weeds grow among the pebbles at Villa Gamberaia

Weeds grow among the pebbles at Villa Gamberaia

 

The paving in this area of the garden is carefully laid patterns of small white pebbles in a crossing axis, oddly almost more attractive because of the weeds growing around them.

Back of the cypress hedge filled in with faded plastic leaves

Back of the cypress hedge filled in with faded plastic leaves

 

At the end of this garden is the famous cypress walk that curves around the end of the space as a letter U. Sadly part of it has died, and this vacancy has been filled in with sheets of plastic leaves, that are horrible, faded green. Later, I asked the young man who sold us our entry tickets, why this had been done, and he said it is to fill in the hedge until the real one grows back. Sadly, this did not seem to be happening!

Main axis of the formal water garden, Villa Gamberaia

Main axis of the formal water garden, Villa Gamberaia

Villa Gamberaia and the last rose flowering

Villa Gamberaia and the last roses flowering

Last roses flowering in the formal water garden at Villa Gamberaia

Last roses flowering in the formal water garden at Villa Gamberaia

Osmanthus in the formal garden, Villa Gamberaia

Osmanthus in the formal garden, Villa Gamberaia

 

As it is September, we were not surprised that the roses were almost finished and the hydrangeas and azaleas but a memory, but we were disappointed that the two large osmanthus in the water garden were not yet flowering. The perfume would have added so much to the space.

Again there were lots of statuary, especially dogs and lions, many very engaging. The odd putti, was also to be found. Below this formal garden there was a chlorine swimming pool, with the most enviable view over the countryside.

You could walk in the cool of the hedge, and through a break, gaze out through a ‘window’ cut into it, again over the Tuscan hills. To the left of this spectacle was a towering pine, with the classic tessellated bark they are famous for, on full display.

Beautiful tessellated bark on the pines

Beautiful tessellated bark on the pines

 

Shaded by the pine’s canopy there was large statue of a goddess (Diana?) with a bow, gazing serenely down on us. When one turned away from her the bowling alley was discovered, running along the side of the house, and, indeed, beyond the front entrance we had come through.

Cabinetta with shell and pebble design

Cabinetta with shell and pebble design

 

Before one reached this area there were two other gardens: a sort of semi-formal woodland garden, again with panoramic views, and above it a more formal parterre style two-tiered shell garden, known apparently as a cabinetta, crowned with statues and busts in stone of elegant men and women. Along one side of this garden there is a row of terracotta pots with Hydrangea macrophylla in them, past flowering, but with lush green leaves to make one feel cooler.

Limonarium, Villa Gamberaia

Stressed citrus in the Limonarium, Villa Gamberaia

 

Even higher up from here there were many terracotta pots of citrus, in rows, all so stressed I feared some would not make it to the end of the summer. Their leaves were dull and wilted; very upsetting! Beside the trees was the limonarium, an Italian orangerie, where the citrus are housed in the colder months.

Flowers in front of the Limonarium, Villa Gamberaia

Flowers in front of the Limonarium, Villa Gamberaia

Cypress tower above the Nymphæum at Villa Gamberaia

Cypress tower above the Nymphæum at Villa Gamberaia

 

Down the bowling alley, there is another feature garden with seating, shells and textured rocks called the nymphæum. Above it was an impressive stand of cypress. The nymphæum is built into the earth, and the pressure from the soil is obviously now causing its walls to lean dangerously close to collapse.

Column in the Nymphæum, Villa Gamberaia

Column in the Nymphæum, Villa Gamberaia

 

On a positive note, in a row, leading to the nymphæum, one finds lovely large azaleas standing guard in terracotta pots, with garlands in relief. They seem to accompany the visitor as one walk to the end of the garden. Obviously in spring they would be magnificent!

Ugly plastic sheets of leaves try to fill gaps in hedges at Villa Gamberaia

Ugly plastic sheets of leaves try to fill gaps in hedges at Villa Gamberaia

 

Generally, sadly, the standard of care throughout the garden is decidedly poor. One wonders how much maintenance is actually carried out. Seeing the garden was like visiting a sick friend, definitely worth doing, but it would have been better to see it in good health! Similar gardens I visited during the same holiday had the same entrance fee, but I felt that the money taken was being used for the upkeep of these other gardens, unlike Villa Gamberaia, as they were well maintained.

Gate into the formal water garden at Villa Gamberaia

 

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39 thoughts on “Garden review: historic Villa Gamberaia, near Florence

  1. A wonderfully frank piece about a grand old garden Bernard. I really enjoyed the journey when I visited it some years ago. It sounds like very little maintenance has happened since then. No doubt the economic situation in Europe might be impacting. However, your descriptions of the beautiful borrowed landscape that are one of the best features of the garden (in my book) brought back memories of the beautiful spring day I spent there. Thanks for that!

    • Bernard Chapman on said:

      Thanks, Angus, I always value your input. Helen Young, our fellow hortie has suggested the time of year, very late hot dry Summer, is a factor in the state of the garden. I accept the garden would look better in Spring, but the structural problems need to be addressed, such as leaning walls and dry water features. I agree, it would be lovely to have a ‘borrowed landscape’ that included the Arno River Valley and the dome of the Duomo!

      • And if the garden doesn’t look anywhere near its best in late summer, then a reduced entry price should reflect that.

        • carlogabriele on said:

          Unfortunately September is not a really good time for visiting gardens in Italy: usually the summer is hot and dry, and plants struggle. October is much better: the first rains give the time to the plants to start to grow again

          • Bernard Chapman on said:

            Dear Carlo,

            Thank you for this. Unfortunately there are two points it does not address. One is the fact that we can actually water plants, not just rely on rain. Throughout Italy I saw many dead, dying and stressed plants, both in pots and in the ground. When I suggested they should be watered, I was met with suspicion and told below ground water and rain would solve the problem eventually! I do not know if tap water is more expensive in Italy (it is frighfully expensive in Australia), so this may be why gardens do not get this extra water.

            The other point is some of the problems with the gardens were to do with structural maintenance and upkeep. These are unaffected by drought, but if some remediation is not carried out, some features of the garden will not survive in the long term.

            Regards, Bernard Chapman

  2. Kim Kelly on said:

    Bern, A wonderful journey of a delightful garden (I agree with you that it could be maintained better-for the health of the plants) It reminds me of Stan Hywett Hall in Akron, OH, with its gardens. Next time you come to visit, I shall take you and Edward there.

    • Bernard Chapman on said:

      Dear Kim, I am glad you enjoyed reading the article. I believe we may have been to Stan Hywett Hall. We visited a magnificent and very well maintained garden near Medina. It was a garden where obviously the original owner had spent a lot of money, but what shone through was the love of plants and garden design that these people had. I would visit it again, when next we visit Ohio! Hugs, Bernard

  3. Ines Stewart on said:

    I loved your sympathetic account of this garden. It did not encourage me to want to see it, as you might expect. I would want to visit it in season after the effort it takes to get there. Have you written about other gardens that you would recommend?

    • Bernard Chapman on said:

      The only other garden I have written about before was a private one for a house Edward and I rented in Provence about four years ago. I think you saw that one. I am about to start an article on the garden at Ville Ephrussi de Rothschild, near Nice. The intention it will also appear on GardenDrum. I will keep you posted!

  4. Derek on said:

    Great to see a garden so off the beaten track. Sounds like the garden and environs is a bit of a time capsule to a grander time. A little TLC goes a long way.

    • Bernard Chapman on said:

      Thanks for reading it, Derek. It is disappointing when something we have travelled to see does not live up to expectations, but that is also an important part of what travelling is all about! Hugs, Bernard

  5. Wendy on said:

    A delightful article complimented by fabulous photos – what a wonderful journey getting there!

    • Bernard Chapman on said:

      Thanks, Wendy. I agree the journey to the garden was quite an eye opener and actually quite a lot of fun! It was lovely walking along the road out of town, to see Florence laid out below us. Magical!

  6. To Bernard and Edward , This is a classic “Bernard ” piece of writing complimented by fabulous photos by Edward. When I say “classic” I mean that Bernard’s love of gardens shines through and his sadness at the neglect shows compassion for starving neglected plants. The trip to reach the gardens sounds like many experiences I have had in East Timor.. no sign posts only local knowledge.. but well worth it when you finally arrive. Thank you…

    • Bernard Chapman on said:

      Dear Susan, You are right that I was quite distressed to see the plants so neglected. Overall the garden looked OK, but something as simple as watering could have made such a difference! The bus was a hoot, really a worthwhile experience. Hugs, Bernard

  7. Fiona on said:

    Guiding us through the garden is so tantalising. Sounds like it is in need of some TLC and skilful renovation. Thank you.

    • Bernard Chapman on said:

      Dear Fiona,

      Funny that you should say the garden needed some TLC. I was desperate during my visit to start helping the plants! It is a good garden. It could be better! Hugs, Bernard

  8. Larry Vincent on said:

    A journey of exploration, beautifully described.

    • Bernard Chapman on said:

      So brief, dear friend, yet succinct! It was a delight to visit the garden, just disappointing that the garden needed more love! I intend to send my article to the Villa. It will be interesting how, or if, they respond! Hugs, Bernard

  9. Angela on said:

    Bernard, we love your descriptive accounts of places visited and enjoyed Edward’s images of the garden. Reading your detailed account of the journey transported us to share in the experience. Although the garden is in a certain disrepair, the romance of your storytelling is heightened by knowing your passion for gardens.

    • Bernard Chapman on said:

      Dear Angela (and Jim!), I am glad we visited, but am sad that the garden was not more cared for. I ache when I see a plant that is stressed. I do not understand why others do not feel the same! Thanks for reading and enjoying the article. Edward’s photos were, of course, amazing!

  10. Katie B on said:

    Bernard – it’s gorgeous out there! Our next trip to Florence we’ll have to make a point to venture out there. – Katie & Beau

    • Bernard Chapman on said:

      Thanks, Katie, for your comment. It was such a pleasure to meet you in Florence. It is certainly worth going up into the hills around Florence, and the garden, although faded, is still impressive.

  11. Jill on said:

    Bernard, I really enjoyed reading the article. Your descriptions are a guided tour through the garden. The pools are lovely but what a pity the water features were not working and were rusted and unkempt. It would be wonderful to see the roses fully flowering in the formal water garden. The photos are beautiful and such a treat to see the tessellated bark on the pines, the column in the nymphaeum, the cabinetta with shell and pebble design and the views of the villa with surrounding gardens. It made me think of walking through the lovely garden in Ravello, but the latter was well maintained.

  12. Bernard Chapman on said:

    Thanks, Jill. It would be good if the maintenance is better without doubt, especially to have the play of water in the fountains and water features! Hugs, Bernard

  13. Kris on said:

    Beautifully written article, felt as though i was there. The photos were fabulous too, enjoyed them very much.

    • Bernard Chapman on said:

      Kris, Thanks for having a read. Edward’s photos, all taken on an Iphone were pretty impressive, I think, and really captured both the beauty and decay of the garden. Hugs, Bernard

  14. Hennievg2 on said:

    “Wonderful article. Bernard should be paid a commission by the garden’s trustees! Edward’s photo’s really complement the journey. Well done…”

    • Bernard Chapman on said:

      As you are such a keen and talented photographer, Hennie, Edward is touched by your comments about his photos. I think you would enjoy the garden, even the bus trip is something I believe you would enjoy! Maybe we can do it together one day.

  15. Jude van der Kley on said:

    Thanks for the wonderful article and fabulous photos, so sad that such a beautiful garden hadn’t been shown a bit more TLC.

    • Bernard Chapman on said:

      Dear Jude, meeting you in Positano was a highlight of the Amalfi Coast! As you are a keen gardener, I appreciate your comments. Let us hope the garden gets some TLC, but, as a iIaliaphile friend has pointed out, the financial situation in Italy is tough, so obviously garden funding also suffers.

  16. Sharryn on said:

    Dear Bernard, Very much enjoyed learning about the Villa Gamberaia garden through your eyes. Even though you pointed out the shortcomings you also convinced me that, when visiting Florence, Villa Gamberaia is a must see living garden. I would love to see the villa also. it is wonderful that visitors are able to access significant historic buildings which are in private hands. Thank you.

    • Bernard Chapman on said:

      Thanks, Sharryn. The garden really is worth a visit. There is much beauty here, not all faded. I do not mean to suggest the garden is unloved. I do not know how many gardeners look after the place, or their skills, horticultural and landscape wise.

  17. Bernard Chapman on said:

    Dear Hennie, I agree, even though the garden needs some repair, it is still beautiful and worth a visit. I am sure you would have loved Edward’s photos. I think you would also enjoy the bus ride from Florence. Maybe we can do it together one day!

  18. Neale and Chris on said:

    Dear Bernard, we are indebted for your wonderfully interesting and well written description of this interesting, charming and beautiful garden. To us, its “off-the-beaten-trackedness” only adds to the allure!

    • Bernard Chapman on said:

      Dear Neale and Chris, Thanks for your kind comments. Although I agree it was an adventure in itself getting to the garden, I was also amazed how quickly (20 minutes!) one leaves the centre of Florence and is actually in rural Tuscany!
      If you have friends who love Italy I would love you to share the story with them.

      Hugs, Bernard

  19. Matt on said:

    An interesting garden, Bernard.

    But what a shame it is not being adequately maintained. The detailed and highly varying stone/pebble work still looks very grand, in that iconically Italian way. If I ever visit the garden I will take your advice and make sure it is in the end of spring, at the latest.

    What other Italian gardens did you see on your trip?

    Cheers
    Matt

    • Bernard Chapman on said:

      Thanks for reading the article, Matt. We actually did not visit any other gardens in Italy this trip, but did get to Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild near Nice (France). It was interesting to compare the level of maintenance. The French garden, with the same entrance fee, looked loved, lush and alive. I have heard in Italy, as the economy is so depressed, it is difficult for locals to find the funds for maintenance.
      I do think it is worth seeing this garden. There is another garden just outside of Rome we could not visit because our dates did not coincide with those for its opening. I believe Jennifer Stackhouse has written about it on Garden Drum. I have heard it is a must. I will try to find out its name, and let you know. Cheers, Bernard

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