The Giardino di Ninfa ‘has been called the world’s most romantic garden’. Travel websites endlessly repeat variations on this phrase. In fact Charles Quest-Ritson in his 1992 book ‘The English Garden Abroad’ described Ninfa as ‘the most beautiful and romantic garden in the world’. That’s some publicity to live up to.
There’s no denying Ninfa is an atmospheric place. Informal paths meander among beautiful trees and picturesque ruins draped with climbing roses. Wildflowers mingle with cultivated varieties of bulbs and herbaceous plants, giving the impression of a garden created in gentle cooperation with nature. There’s a crystal clear trout stream with still, reflective pools, bird song and butterflies and, on the garden’s occasional opening days, hundreds of visitors in carefully shepherded tour groups.
The garden occupies the remains of a medieval town, repeatedly damaged in wars between rival noble families and finally abandoned in the fourteenth century. Members of the Caetani family, dukes of Sermoneta, first started to develop gardens in the ruins in the 16th century but the garden owes its current form to a nineteenth century Englishwoman, Ada Bootle Wilbraham, wife of the fourteenth duke. Successive generations of the family added to the variety of botanical specimens in the garden and restored some of the ruined buildings.
Over the centuries richly varied ecosystems have developed in this protected environment and the garden is now registered as a Natural Monument by the Lazio region. This precious and delicate place could easily be damaged by the wandering feet of hordes of tourists so restricted opening is essential to its protection. It would be a great place to linger, listening to bird song and the water cascading over the mill weir, daydreaming among the ruins or picnicking in the shade of a gnarled old tree, but at the end of your one hour tour you’re expected to leave. Exit through the gift shop.
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