We were whisked away from the flatlands, the Piana del Sele, and the difficulties that the area faces, and off to the wealth and glamour of the Amalfi coast. First stop Ravello. Empty. Out of season. Marvellous. Who could resist the little entrance square, bounded to the east by the fragmented remains of the outworks of the ancient Villa Ruffolo. Then, into its garden. Courtyards, towers, the strange, half Moorish cloister, each monochrome arch sporting a pot of crimson cyclamen, and then out into the garden proper.
Well, it’s a breath taking site, falling down through a series of terraces to the cliffs and the green-grey sea. It’s all rather a timewarp. Ravello, hugely rich until the 18th century or so, then forgotten, was taken up, in the 19th century, by wealthy travellers from northern Europe, anxious for its hugely romantic situation, and of course, for the lemons, the seafood, and the whole charm of Italian living. For them, garden taste at the time consisted of ‘bedding’, often using some of the half-hardy smaller herbaceous plants just introduced from central America, South Africa and so on. Verbenas, begonias, pelargoniums, calceolarias, and many more, were used to create brilliantly coloured patterns, often over large areas, and were, in the north, conspicuously expensive as plants needed to be replaced each season. By 1900 or so, fashion had moved on, but more of that in the next garden.
In the Villa Ruffolo, the terraces are planted up with roundels, triangles, ovals, in the Victorian manner, but instead of the defined colour schemes that would then have been used, use mixed colours of Impatiens and Begonia semperflorens. The result of what was probably from its beginning a rather weak design, is now as much a muddle as a the sort of bedding schemes still sometimes found in seaside resorts on the British coast. A pity, because the mix of ruinous and still functional buildings, all at different levels, and all of them perched about the system of terraces is totally ravishing. Oh, that’s J (top)being romantic on a terrace below…
Whomsoever controls the garden could usefully have a look at the bedding schemes on show most summers at Kew gardens (there are pictures on the web, though a visit would be more fun). These use both ‘classic’ bedding plants, plus much newer introductions, and are often extremely elegant and satisfying, and would make lounging on those wonderful terraces even more rewarding. But a trip to a garden south of Rome, Ninfa, where a romantic eye has turned a ruined town into a garden, would, to my taste alone perhaps, be even better. The Villa Ruffolo could be every bit as lovely, and every bit as famous.
Fame, of course, envelops Ravello’s second amazing garden. Gore Vidal called it ‘the most beautiful place on earth’, though perhaps as he lived in Ravello, that was to be expected. On a June morning, when the philadelphuses that flank the main avenue are in flower, the walk to the Terrace of Infinity must be as close to rapture as any garden can give.
But more of that later. Lunch. Oh, but on the way to the next garden, passing signs and a charming organic vegetable garden, easily viewed from the lane, and attached to an hotel and cookery school… Ah, and the snow here no longer swirls. It comes down straight, swift and heavy.