I enjoy hearing stories and seeing paintings of nymphs, the graceful female nature deities who inhabit rivers, meadows and woods in classical mythology. So when I discovered that there was a garden in southern Lazio whose name is linked to them, it was soon on my list of places to visit.
Hailed by many as one of the most romantic gardens in the world, Ninfa offers you the chance to surround yourself with the natural beauty of lush flowers, trees and running streams. It is only open for a few days during the year to preserve its delicate environment, but it is worth checking whether one of these days falls within your holiday period, which you can do here.
This eight-hectare landscape garden near Latina features a castle, ancient and medieval ruins, rivers, lakes and fountains that you can wander around, a range of vegetation and trees ranging from oaks to cypresses, and flowers including rambling roses. It is probably at its best in the late spring and early summer, but I visited in November when the autumn light and colours created their own charm.
Inside the garden you can see ruins of the ancient city of Ninfa, which may have been named after a Nymphaeum here, a temple dedicated to nymphs. These divine spirits were usually portrayed as young maidens who loved to sing and dance and dwell near rivers and forests. Here is an interpretation by English late Victorian painter Henrietta Rae, depicting the classical story of the water nymphs abducting the youth Hylas.
In the Middle Ages, the town of Ninfa became a rich settlement near to the Appian Way, a strategic Roman road. Pope Alexander III was crowned here in the 12th century, but it was later sacked by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. In the 16th century, the noble Caetani family first created a garden on the site, but it was slowly deserted and neglected in the 17th until the 20th century.
In the 1920s however, Gelasio Caetani started renovating the area in an English-garden style and restoring some of the buildings as a summer residence. Guided by his English mother Constance Adela Bootle-Wilbraham, a garden enthusiast, he set about planting several of the exotic species he found on his travels, which still flourish here today.
On the Open Days, guides lead visitors in groups around the site. We started our tour by heading towards the first set of irrigation streams, where we had a glimpse of the castle, originally built in the 12th century and expanded in the 14th century.
We wandered through ruins, trees and groves before arriving at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, which was the principal church of the settlement, dating as far back as the 10th century. You can still see the remains of the semicircular apse with 12th century frescoes depicting St. Peter, and the pretty 13th century Romanesque bell tower.
Our guide then led us up a pathway lined with lavender bushes to a more open part of the garden where we could see a range of trees and flowers. We passed apple, pomegranate and cherry blossom trees, armand clematis, hydrangea and jasmine plants, among many others.
When we reached the River Ninfa, we saw the Ponte del Macello, which means the not-so romantic bridge of slaughter, possibly because the town’s slaughterhouse used to be nearby here. Despite its name, this was a magical little corner of the garden.
After passing some exotic plants including bamboo, we arrived back at the castle, where we had a great view of its tower and medieval battlements. To the left you could wander into another small garden, from where you could also peer into the back of the ruins, which had a very mystical atmosphere.
If you are travelling by car and spending a few days in Lazio while Ninfa is open, it is a great choice for garden and nature lovers. The first chance to see it in 2016 will be in March. I hope to go back in the late Spring when I can see its flowers in all their glory.
For more information about the Garden of Ninfa see here