I like to see an historic garden or two when in Europe and Valsanzibio looked like an opportunity we should take. Lorraine, of course, doesn’t need a lot of prodding when it comes to gardens and it wasn’t that far from our accommodation. Awarded with the first prize as ‘the most beautiful garden in Italy’ in 2003 and as the third most beautiful in Europe in 2007 and alternatively labelled “The small Versailles” or “The Pearl of the Euganei Hills”, our hopes were raised of something special to view.
So we arrived in the carpark looking forward to a stroll but, apparently, in the times when it was constructed and for two centuries later, visitors arrived via the water and pulled up at Diana’s Pavilion with its half a dozen pilasters and statuary surrounding it. I strolled over and pondered what it must have been like to pick up a gondola or such and enjoy a leisurely paddle to the welcoming gates of the Barbarigi between the welcoming angels on their separate pillars.
The pond these days is covered with algae and the canal is no longer there but you can readily romanticise as to how it might have been.
We want to ask the ticket seller some questions before we enter at a more subdued portal these days but he immediately points us towards another gent. We get extremely lucky, he is the head gardener and it’s obvious from his enthusiasm that this is his job from heaven. There are seven hectares of garden with 800 trees and 100 different species, mostly planted in the mid-1600’s. Taking up 60,000 square metres are the boxwoods, mostly forming hedgerows while the 40,000 square metres of Hornbeam plants are trained to form tunnels of leaves, ideal for those summer months when shade can be at a premium. At the opposite end of the scale are a couple of magnificent Atlantic Cedars that tower over all else. He is at great pains to mention the swans though, apparently they’re special.
We stroll down the ordered pathways, set in a square-ish layout. All manner of items come into view to break up any possibility of monotony. There are fountains (33 water features), statues (more than 60) and grottos, mostly semi-hidden until you’re upon them in this lavish Baroque-style garden.
Then there’s quirky bits like the rabbit’s island and the labyrinth; the like of the former I’ve not seen before. It features a small circular island with a couple of hares and an open stone roundhouse surrounded by a low hedge, then a moat with a couple of fountains spraying, then another hedge on the outside.
Around Valsanzibio somewhere there’s one of those surprise fountains where you don’t realise when or even if the water actually flows; then, suddenly, you’re wet. Just the ticket on a hot afternoon! Luigi Bernini, top Vatican architect in the day, was an expert in such matters and followed the required desired outcome that the garden of Valsanzibio had to be a monumental symbolic road trip to perfection; a journey that brings man from the false to the truth, from ignorance to Revelation.
We pass the Revelations Fountain and reach what once was the residence and stables, utilized by the Nazis during the war but now by staff as storage and such, before turning around and taking a different route on the return. We wander for a time around the Decumano, or water boulevard, which is where the original entry took you immediately to. It’s quite magnificent; three long rectangular pools with resident swans and many sculptures, my favourite being the Fish Pond of the Four Winds set beyond the Rainbow Fountain.
Unseen, just beyond a box hedge, is the labyrinth, and it’s here we head next. The stats of this piece give some idea of just how much work is involved in the garden generally. The entire pathway of the maze, around 1.5 kilometres, is made up by eight thousand square meters of boxwood walls trimmed annually. This pruning work takes one thousand and five hundred hours of work, with the help of manual and mechanical cutters (but, in any case, always guided by hand!); ladders, levels and plumbed lines. Furthermore, eight hundred trips of special wheelbarrows, filled up with cut twigs and pushed, on average, for about six hundred meters to the end of the narrow corridors, are needed. These trips cover about 1.000 km and take almost three hundred hours to which you need to add another equivalent amount of time for loading, tidying up and unloading. Then, there is plant replacement, fertilizing, dunging, hoeing – all done by hand, pesticides treatments and weed clearing…in other words, the annual working hours of a professional gardener are not enough!
We make our way in and ascend the tower in the middle. There’s a young lady there and we get chatting. Turns out she’s looking after a small tour group that’s currently doing the rounds (or should I say “squares”) of the maze. We haven’t the energy or the inclination to get lost and “find ourselves” as labyrinths are designed to do, so we move out, down another shady lane, back to the car and off to Este.