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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

News: Stresa Highlighted In Ten-Day Garden Tour

Some come to Stresa for it's views of mountains, lakes, and villages. But many also come looking for views of manicured gardens, flower beds, and exotic plants. And why not? With Stresa as a base, lovers of giardini can easily visit several famous Italian gardens: Isola Bella, Isola Madre, Giardino Botanico Alpinia, Villa Taranto, and Villa San Remigio, to name the closest and most well known. For those of you looking to combine this with a more far-reaching garden tour, here is an article, written by Steve Whysall for the Vancouver Sun, detailing a ten-day Italian lakes garden tour of Italy, which does, of course, include Stresa, of which he seems particularly fond, calling it his 'all-time favorite'. After all, four out of the five photographs used to illustrate the article are of Isola Bella.

I'm offering this article here as inspiration to plan your own garden-based trip.

Off to tour Italy's lake gardens

Tour starts in Milan and includes visits to Isola Bella and Isola Madre on Lake Maggiore

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Today I am in Bologna on my way to Milan to lead a 10-day garden tour of the great Italian gardens around lakes Maggiore, Lugano, Como and Garda, as well as time spent in the Dolomites and in the Romeo-and-Juliet city of Verona.
I'm in Bologna because I have heard so much about this city's food culture, especially in and around its old Roman quarter (Quadrilatero) that I thought it would be a good way to recover from jet lag before launching into the garden tour, which kicks off in Milan on Tuesday.
There are about 30 of us doing the tour, which also includes time in Milan to see spectacular sites such as the magnificent 700-year-old cathedral, as well Leonardo's iconic Last Supper fresco and, of course, the groundbreaking styles of the fashion district.
You can follow our experiences on my In the Garden blog at I intend to post an entry with photos every day, so you can follow along with us.
This is my fifth European garden tour, the second one to Italy. Two years ago, we visited great gardens in central and southern Italy, including Villa d'Este outside Rome, Villa Cimbrone in Ravello on the Amalfi coast and top gardens in Florence, Sicily and Padua. This time, we are concentrating on Italy's famous lake district, just north of Milan, starting with visits the first day to three of the outstanding gardens on Lake Como at villas Balbianello, Melzi and Carlotta.
Most of the gardens on this tour rely heavily on their context within the greater natural landscape with spectacular mountain and lake views. They were all built specifically to take advantage of this superb "borrowed landscape" - the scenery that comes for free outside of the garden. But it takes skill and intelligence to design and structure gardens to take maximum advantage of what Alexander Pope would have called "the genius of the place".
If you saw the James Bond movie, Casino Royale, you will have seen glimpses of the gardens at Villa Balbianello. It was the location chosen for the final scene where Bond tracks down the illusive Mr. White. It was also the garden and villa featured in scenes from the Star War's movie Attack of the Clones.
A beautiful formal garden, Balbianello is located on a small wooded peninsula on the western shore of Lake Como and features some very elegant terraces.
The garden at Villa Carlotta dates back to the 1690s and contains a romantic woodland while the terraces are loaded with lemon and orange trees in large containers.
On the outskirts of Bellagio, Villa Melzi is considered the "pearl" of Lake Como with wonderful, structural formal shrub and flower gardens that are outstanding year-round and have been enjoyed over the centuries by countless aristocrats, politicians and artists, including the composer Franz Liszt.
The next day, we start out on Lake Lugano, visiting the city that gives the lake its name as well as the eccentric, almost fantasy landscape of Parco Scherrer, built by textile baron Arthur Scherrer in the 1930s.

An amazingly eclectic work, this garden contains a world of features, including Greek temple, Venetian fountain, statues of Greek and Roman gods and heroes, a classical Renaissance garden, a Moorish garden mimicking Spain's Alhambra, and much more.
This garden was designed to impress people with a big, global, sweeping and inclusive vision of all that is fabulous and fantastic in gardens around the world - a celebration, really, of the world of wonders from Egypt to India, Greece to Japan.

You think it would be enough for the day, but no, we are headed after lunch out to Lake Maggiore to visit two of my all-time favourite gardens, Isola Bella and Isola Madre, part of what is known as the Borromeo group of islands.
I remember seeing pictures of Isola Bella and reading about it in one of Penelope Hobhouse's books more than a decade ago and thinking 'What a wonderful place' and 'wouldn't it be nice to go there.'
But I never thought I would. And then, lo and behold, I did, back in 2004, on my first trip to Italy.
This is where Napoleon and Josephine spent time together, looking out from the superb 10 levels of terraces filled with exotic, tender and fragrant flowers and fruiting trees to the gently lapping blue waters of Lake Maggiore below.

The craggy rock of an island was transformed into this stunning, almost ethereal garden of delights in the mid-1600s for the Borromeo family and named by Count Carlo III after his wife, Isabella.
Isola Madre is Isola Bella's sister island and is regarded by some garden critics as the more refined, big sister, being less theatrical and desperate to please. Both island gardens are, of course, delightful, but Madre is certainly bigger and has some special plants from North Africa, as well as wonderful climbers, orchids and other specialties.
It will be a fabulous contrast of styles and after the curiosities of Scherrer, it will certainly provide a soaring conclusion to a splendid day's adventure.

Next, our journey will take us into the high Alps and the pretty villages of the Valtellina valley and on to the majestic Bernina Glaciers, St. Moritz and into the Dolomites, then down to Verona where, of course, everyone will want to see Juliet's balcony, Roman area and herb square (Piazza delle Erbe).
But we will also stop to see Giardino Giusti, the 16th-century garden designed by Count Agostino Giusti. This is considered one of Italy's most famous gardens and was a must-see show garden on any 18th century Grand European Tour.
It is still a charming garden full of grace and beauty with an excellent assortment of features including an elegant avenue of pencil-thin cypresses, dolphin fountain, statues of Minerva and Apollo, grotto carved out of tufa and a maze, believed to be one of the oldest in Europe.
We will also slip into Andre Heller Botanical Gardens, named after the Austrian artist whose foundation now runs and maintains it.
Started at the turn of the 20th century by dentist and naturalist Arturo Hruska, the botanical garden contains more than 2,000 plants covering a wide range of climatic zones.
Today, it is admired not only for its beautiful plant collection and interesting design features, but also as a place where contemporary art is often displayed. So it has become known as a garden for art as well as a plants.
The part of the tour I have been most looking forward to comes up next when we visit Lake Garda and Sirmione, where the Roman poet Catullus wrote his wonderfully touching poems, including Hail and Farewell (Ave Atqua Vale).
I have been memorizing (and learning to sing) Tennyson's Frater, Ave Atque Vale poem, in preparation for this. James Joyce, Erza Pound, Thomas Hardy and many others have made a cultural pilgrimage to "olivesilvery Sirmio" and I can't wait to do the same.
Back in Milan, there will be time to see Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper, and many other sites around the city before we say farewell to one another.
Join me each day on my blog to see more photos and details of this special garden tour.

These other posts are blooming with garden ideas:

all photographs in the article are credited to Handout Photo and the Vancouver Sun

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