We had intended to visit Villa Gamberaia on the first day of our holiday but a union strike scuppered our plans and we had to delay it by a day. This was one of the few gardens I managed to catch on TV when Monty had his Italian gardens programme on earlier this year. It looked amazing and I couldn’t wait to visit it whilst we were in Florence.
The villa as seen from the road approaching Gamberaia from the village of Settignano
The garden is on the edge of the village of Settignano, on a hillside just northeast of Florence. We caught the number 10 bus from San Marco square, which runs every 20 minutes and takes just under half an hour to get to the village (the last stop on the route). It was no hassle at all. Of course, you could take a taxi but it costs 25 Euro for one way and probably wouldn’t get you there a great deal faster. The bus cost less than 3 Euro per person for a round trip (buy tickets from a tabacchi before boarding as it’s slightly cheaper and remember to validate/stamp your ticket on board the bus).
We got off the bus in the centre of the village and walked up the hill to the garden entrance. It was very exciting and it felt great to escape the city and into the countryside for a while. We spent an enjoyable few hours there. And how many other garden visitors did we see in this time? A big, fat zero, which was lovely for us.
Villa Gamberaia has passed through several owners since it was first built by Zanobi Lapi, a rich Florentine merchant, in 1610. It had fallen into disrepair when the Germans set fire to the villa as they retreated from Italy towards the end of World War II. After the war it was bought by Marcello Marchi in the mid-1950s who set about restoring the house and garden. Gamberaia is now owned by Luigi Zalum, Marchi’s son-in-law, and is open to the public. You can even stay there as the villa now runs holiday rentals.
The garden’s attraction is that it is on a small, domestic scale – more intimate and approachable – yet incorporating typical Italian garden features you would associate with larger estates. It also has many of its essential design and original features still intact. Small, beautiful and perfectly formed, you could say. Its sensational location helps too, of course.
The long driveway, lined with cypresses (Cupressus sempervirens), leading up to the house heightens the sense of anticipation and expectation. The closely planted, tall trees mean you can’t see a thing other than what’s straight ahead.
Moving round to the right of the house from the driveway you are met by a lawned terrace with beautiful views down towards Florence. You can just make out the Duomo in the distance in the background of the picture.
Axis from the villa (behind me) through the parterre garden. This is on the direct opposite side of the villa from the entrance drive. From here you can’t make out the parterre at all.
View from the end of the parterre garden back to the house. The parterre garden is built around four rectangular pools. The Romanian Princess Ghyka, who owned the villa from 1896-1925, replaced the planted parterre de broderie which was there previously with parterres of water. It is hard to make full sense of the layout from ground level. I’m sure the sight would be pretty arresting from the loggia on the first floor of the villa – the view from up there of the parterre garden in front and Florence stretching out below the hill to the side must be absolutely stunning (and is probably the vision from the TV programme that stuck in my head). This is the most striking part of the garden and as you can see, predominantly green with box hedging and topiary and yew columns.
One of the four rectangular parterre pools – hard to see from the ground behind all the buxus. Legend has it that Princess Ghyka used to have a bit of a dip in these pools at night.
An arcade of cypresses, or the belvedere as the guidebook calls it, encloses the end of the parterre and surrounds a semi-circular pool. They appear to be having some problems with this and they had lost one of the trees.
The broad, long bowling green runs the length of the garden with the villa on one side. At one end is a nymphaeum (just seen in the photo) and behind me at the other end is a large Corsican pine and a balustrade beyond which are views over the Tuscan countryside. They even had a stone bridge built over the road at the front of the property to accommodate the bowling green which runs over the top of it.
To the other side of the bowling green is the gabinetto rustico. Large pots of hydrangeas sit on the ground whilst a wisteria arch can be seen top left. The walls are decorated with pumice stone and shells – it felt a bit harsh, arid and baked here after the lush green and cool pools of the parterre. Above the gabinetto rustico, steps to the left lead up to the lemon garden, where potted citrus plants are arranged and the limonaia is situated, whilst to the right you find the selvatico or boschetto (neither are pictured here).
View from the top of the gabinetto rustico, across the bowling green and back towards the parterre.
It wasn’t all green. Mixed borders in front of the lemon house.
Citrus in pots
The Nymphaeum – a dark, mysterious corner of the garden – sits at the far end of the bowling green. An enclosed circular area, surrounded by tall cypresses, it wasn’t my favourite part of the garden. It seemed rather tatty down here and I couldn’t make out what was supposed to be going on. In the niche sits a rather eerie, sinister looking figure – thought to be either Neptune, Dionysus or Pan.
Villa Gamberaia taken from the parterre garden using a wide-angled lens
One of the dog statues, sitting on top of the wall that surrounds the terrace.
After visiting the villa we had a late lunch at Enoteca La Sosta del Rossellino in Settignano where we enjoyed some local, organic wine with a plate of delicious pasta. Great wine, food, a lovely host and charming interior. I can highly recommend it.
For a few more shots from my trip to Florence see my Flickr set here.