My job takes me to all sorts of interesting places, some nice, some not so nice, but always interesting. This week I have been in Tuscany learning about winemaking and tasting some remarkable wines. This definitely counts as ‘nice’, or ‘bello’ as the Italians would say. Italy is my favourite place to travel, exceeding even my passion for India and the Far East. I love everything about the country, apart from the dodgy roads and even dodgier politicians. The people are charming and hospitable, the food is fresh and delicious and the countryside drop-dead gorgeous. What’s not to like?
As far as Tuscany goes I have visited Florence and Siena, but never ventured far beyond their city walls. The gardens I have visited have either been botanical ones or formal ones, such as the Giardino Di Boboli in Florence and Orto Botanico in Pisa. What a treat therefore to spend a couple of days based at Castello Di Albola in the sparsely populated, steeply-wooded Chianti region, getting to know fine wines amidst stunning scenery and luxuriant gardens.
Castello Di Albola is one of many prestigious estates owned by the Zonin family. It is one of their favourite homes and every detail of the castle, park and vineyard is overseen by them with impeccable, understated taste. It’s not difficult to appreciate why the Zonins hold the castle in such high regard. Perched on the crest of a hill, reached via a series of switchback bends, the castle has uninterrupted views of wooded hills and vineyards as far as the eye can see. The main grape variety in this region is Sangiovese, the juice from which is the defining ingredient in Chianti wines. From the high windows of the castle the Zonins are masters of all they survey. On the horizon one can spot a handful of other dignified villas and a rambling farms, but otherwise there is little evidence of human habitation. Only birdsong and the occasional breath of wind ruffling the vines breaks a deep, earthy silence. And in early May, after plenty of rain, the landscape is greener than England.
We stayed for two nights in a farmhouse on the estate called Villa Marangole. Once upon a time this would have been a working farm, but now it provides accommodation for visitors to the castle. The villa’s gardens are simply planted with roses, geraniums and rosemary, these quickly giving way to olive groves and wildflower meadows. Against the mellow stone walls grow campsis, wisteria and climbing roses. A precipitous driveway is lined with oaks, the new foliage brighter than a highlighter pen when the sun shines through them. On the terrace there are lemon trees laden with fruit. The villa’s swimming pool looked inviting but the water was far too cold for anyone to brave a dip. Oh, to return again in high summer and plunge in!
At the castle itself the gardens are somewhat grander, yet still simply planted. The earliest parts of the building date back to the 12th century, with successive Tuscan nobility making their marks over the intervening years. The castle’s walls are adorned with climbing roses (all in the rudest of health, although some not enjoying the wet weather), and lashings of star jasmine, Trachelospermum jasminoides. In this one respect I am able to achieve similar results in England, with my star jasmine bidding for world domination and requiring regular pruning to keep it in check. On the lowest terraces, geometric borders are meticulously prepared for summer vegetables, a few already planted up with sweet peppers and salad leaves. There are dahlias, lilies and asters for cutting. Castello Di Albola enjoys a continental climate, with winter temperatures averaging 4°-5°C (39°-41°F) and 30°C (86°F) in summer. At 350-650 meters (1.150-2.150ft.) above sea level some of the vineyards are the highest in the Chianti region. The soil is composed of clay and limestone, with good drainage.
A multitude of traditional terracotta pots and troughs, many stitched deftly together with metal staples, are home to candy pink geraniums of the trailing variety. Others sport lemon trees, bearing enough fruit to make vats of limoncello or a thousand lemon tarts. What a luxury to have such a ready supply. The spectacle of these well grown trees only serves to highlight how disappointing citrus fruit are when they are grown in the UK. I had ideas about growing lemons in my garden room, but appreciate now that I don’t have the space to do them justice or the sun to ripen the fruit.
Below the family’s private accommodation one terrace is planted exclusively with a prostrate form of rosemary. I saw the same trick used in other gardens to superb effect, the silver-backed foliage cascading over shallow walls or clipped neatly into a low hedge. A combination of natural habit, strong sunlight and a dry situation ensures that the rosemary grows slowly and neatly, necessitating minimal trimming. This might be something to try at home, if you are able to exercise sufficient restraint to restrict yourself to such monastic simplicity. I love the look of it, but the temptation to plonk something gratuitously exotic in the middle, just because I could, would be too much.
Tuscan gardeners borrow heavily from the landscape beyond their garden gates. And with countryside this beautiful why wouldn’t they? Back at Villa Marangole, a brick and stone gateway, crowned with a newly shooting trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) frames a view of another estate building, surrounded by cypress trees (Cupressus sempervirens) and Italian stone pines (Pinus pinea).
On this short trip I discovered why the Brits fall in love so easily with Tuscany and it’s stunning landscape. The countryside is similar enough to find empathy with, yet sufficiently different for it to stimulate the senses. For nature lovers there are familiar plants and birds, alongside those not commonly found in the UK. And for adventurous gardeners like me, there is inspiration aplenty, with sufficient commonality of climate to make recreating the same ideas at home possible. If I took away one thing, it’s that simplicity is key. All one needs is some strong evergreens – bays, rosemary and olives if one can grow them – and a palette of roses, geraniums, star jasmine and wisteria to create one’s own Tuscan idyll. TFG.