Two Florentine Gardens
18 August 2015
As you will know, the blog is on holiday. I hope you might be too… or at least, I wouldn’t try reading this all at once. It’s a blog in at least two parts.
We had arrived in Florence late on Thursday evening, and woke early, to a morning of sparkling sunshine. Through our friend Kim Wilkie, we’d arranged to visit La Pietra, the beautiful villa owned by Harold Acton on the hills to the north of Florence. For eighteen years, Kim has been working on the restoration of the garden and landscape of this sublime villa, now owned by New York University.
We were meeting Nick Dakin-Elliot, Kim’s friend and collaborator, and wonderful gardener, who 16 years ago arrived at La Pietra for a one-year sabbatical… and never left. We’d made a plan with Nick to meet in the centre of town early on Friday morning.
We walked down from our hotel, with its beautiful view across the skyline of Florence.
Little scenes caught my eye along the way, as they do:
The cleaners at the Loggia dei Lanzi reminded me a little of the floor polisher of the Pantheon, (which is still probably my favourite blog of all time).
As we arrived at our rendezvous, a window-cleaner was getting some enthusiastic help at the lower level from his son:
We met Nick as planned, batting into town in his tiny green Fiat, and made our way up the steep hills to La Pietra.
Here is the agrarian landscape – once wasteland – that Kim and Nick have restored to productive olive groves… with beautiful meadow grassland beneath. Incredible.
The fiat parked outside the villa, a perfect combination.
And after a tour of the dark, gloomy, oppressive, magnificent villa, we walked out into blinking sunlight into the gardens:
A bed of zinnias… the seed turned out to be from a stock of plants that had originally been planted in the 30’s by the Actons – Harold’s parents, who had restored the villa and the gardens and created this monument (as Kim described it) to ‘the Anglo-American-Florentine love affair of the 1930s.’
The shell loggia at the end of the terrace was a dream.
Nick was a brilliant, knowledgable and deeply sympathetic guide
The garden descends down the hill via a beautifully-designed series of spaces… axes and long vistas.
The restoration has entailed, here and there, dramatic reconstruction of the built elements – but always making sure that when the work is done, you would never know it has happened. Here is a flight of steps halfway through being relaid with a pattern of tiny mosaic pebbles. Incredible.
Statues being cleaned:
…ghostly in their protective covers;
With beautiful views back down to Florence from various key points within the landscape:
I liked the lighting at the Wisteria pergola.
Our favourite of all was the beautiful vegetable and cutting garden…. Nick’s love of this area was evident too At the end of the garden is the great Limonaia, where the lemon trees are stored in the winter. It is a beautiful, magical space: beneath the coconut matting is bare earth, which is the best for keeping the lemon trees at the right temperature and humidity. Needless to say, a few statues watch over them.
Nick walking past the front of the villa…
…to collect some pots from a dusty pot store at the back of the garden…
Watched over by this extraordinary statue of Diana in her unrestored shell grotto, which was startling in its beauty of execution. And then it was time to leave. A dream. We returned to Bellosguardo and dozed by the pool and slept the afternoon away.
We had a morning in Florence on Saturday – before we were driving down to meet Valentina at her lovely house in Chianti. Another early start, another beautiful morning:
The hotel gardens are fine in their own right:
A narrow footpath winds its way through the farm owned by the hotel – with amazing views across Florence. It felt strange and refreshing to be in the middle of the countryside, so close to the city.
If Charlie and I ever decided to move to Florence, our shop is ready to go. The Boboli gardens are a dream. I hadn’t been for years – literally, in fact, for decades.
Another day, another limonaia. Perhaps even more beautiful for being completely empty this time.
Around the corner is this building, an even grander lemon house, although sadly not open. But we sneaked photographs through the rusty iron railings.
More vistas.The water garden was empty, and sublime, a great limpid green basin surrounded by citrus pots and statues. We made our way up the steep avenue to the main gardens.
At the very peak, striking views across to the little church of San Miniato al Monte, and to the hills south of Florence.
I love the network of little white vans that encircle Florence.
Looking down to the Pitti Palace:
And across to the Duomo, Brunelleschi’s dome shimmering in the morning heat:
Really, you should enter the Boboli gardens through the Palazzo Pitti, but I’m afraid we left that way, slightly seeing the drama of the piece in reverse, on our way out….Leaving the great stadium….
and descending into the courtyard as opposed to the other way around. Ah well.
The courtyard grotto is a delicate, beautiful space…
In contrast to the extraordinary muscularity of the architecture that surrounds it…
Reluctant to pull ourselves away from Florence, we popped up to the Ospedale degli Innocenti, Brunelleschi’s dream building (to my mind), but which was in a rather sorry state of disrepair.
We popped into to the New Sacristy of San Lorenzo…
before a superb lunch at La Ménagère, which felt a bit different to most Florentine places. Really good.
We arrived at Val’s house. Hot from the road, we leapt into our swimming trunks and down to the pool, with impeccably bad timing. A massive thunderstorm rolled in on cue.
But it doesn’t rain in Tuscany for long. The sunshine was soon back.Possibly my favourite spot in the world, lying on the cushions of Val’s wall.
It was time to relax, in what is probably the most relaxing house I know. Happy holidays!