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Florence Part I – Boboli Garden

September 20, 2011

For some reason my expectation of Florence was that it was going to be too hot with narrow streets overly crowded by people and traffic. I was expecting it to be pretty but also to be a little chaotic. I’m not sure what I was basing this on as it turned out to be a fairly relaxed place and although the streets were narrow, most of the centre of town was happily traffic free. The weather, whilst hot was not uncomfortably so. It stayed in the high twenties, touching the thirties, but for me it was perfectly fine to walk about in – which we did plenty of (Florence is ideal for ambling around, admiring the architecture and discovering all the streets and squares on foot). And whilst it was buzzing with tourists it wasn’t as horrendous as I feared it might be. The benefits of travelling in September! There were a few queues around but we did a good job of avoiding those whilst still seeing everything we wanted to. Oh, and it was more than just pretty. It was stunningly beautiful.

The Duomo viewed from Boboli gardens

As well as a lot of walking around the city we also did a spot of garden visiting. First up was the Boboli garden attached to Palazzo Pitti on the south side of the Arno river. Just about everything in Florence is within walking distance of the centre. We wandered over from our hotel after breakfast on our first full day. There was a strike on and lots of museums were closed – including most of the Pitti Palace – but luckily the gardens weren’t affected.

The Pitti Palace was home to the ruling Medici family. It was bought by Eleonora di Toledo, the wife of Cosimo I de’ Medici, in the mid-16th century  and Niccolo Tribolo was commissioned to lay out the garden, which stretches out on the hill behind the palace. The main axis – at the bottom of which is where we entered the gardens, emerging from stairs leading up from the palace courtyard – was very impressive and leads from a stone amphitheatre behind the palace up the hill to a fountain of Neptune. The other dominant axis is a large allée that runs at a right-angle to the first, down the hill, past groves and gardens on either side, to the Isolotto Bacin at the bottom – a large, oval basin with an island in the middle on which stands Giovanni da Bologna’s Oceanus fountain. Here quite a few people were taking refuge on the benches dotted round the side.

The garden was huge and hilly. Some visitors were struggling slightly with all the walking and inclines involved. Its vastness made it more of a park or a landscape than a garden to me. In fact, it does serve as the city’s public park for locals. I found it hard to make much of an emotional connection with the place, although that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy visiting it. I like a garden that makes me want to think, stop, linger and soak it in. I didn’t really feel the desire to do this at any point in this garden. Perhaps the place to do this was from inside the palace, basking in your power and rule over all that you surveyed – enormous, designed gardens on one side; bustling, rich city on the other. If you like classical, grand, imposing, Italianate gardens with lots of statuary and fountains (many of which weren’t on) you’ll love it. We traipsed around, up and down, before walking over to the much smaller Bardini gardens included in the entry on the Boboli ticket.

Looking back down from the gardens to the Pitti Palace. Neptune fountain behind us. Sadly I didn’t get a photo of this axis from the palace/amphitheatre up the hill as the sun was shining directly into the camera lens from the top when we arrived.

Neptune fountain - one of the few, if not the only one, that was actually on. I thought it was a bit disappointing.

The Viottolone. A grand avenue of cypresses running down to the Isolotto basin.

Isolotto basin - probably my favourite bit of the garden. The Oceanus statue in the centre, surrounded by a moat, was huge and impressive. Just in the background you can see citrus in pots lining the path and the central island. According to Monty's book 'Great Gardens of Italy', the island would have originally housed a rabbit warren and maybe hens (for eating).

One of the many groves to the side of the cypress avenue. These woodland areas or 'ragnaia' were used for hunting songbirds (again, for eating!). Some of these parts, including the tunnel-trained walkways running down either side of the cypress avenue were closed off - I assume for maintenance reasons.

Me looking at the Limonaia (or orangery) built in 1777-78 for housing/growing citrus. Obviously before the understanding of photosynthesis or even what plants needed to grow - it was pretty dark inside that building! The beds here looked the most interesting and well kept in the garden but there was no public access.

Parterre by the palace getting a late summer trim

Beautiful views over the skyline of Florence from the gardens

The Belvedere cafe in the Bardini gardens where we stopped to refuel with iced tea and sandwiches

Not a bad view from the cafe terrace over the Arno river

The Baroque steps which run from the terrace by the cafe steeply down the hillside was the prettiest part of the Bardini garden. The other main part of the garden (not pictured here) was an 'English wood' featuring lots of viburnums and camellias (where we got bitten to pieces by mosquitoes!).

Coming up: Florence Part II. I’ll be posting some photos from the gardens at Villa Gamberaia.

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