October 23, 2010

World Class Garden: Villa Carlotta

World class gardens have something to garden against.  A man made structure.  A wild area to contrast with the tamed garden.  A wall.  A backdrop. 

At the Villa Carlotta in Menaggio, Italy, the gardens have the ultimate backdrop --- a sparkling alpine lake ringed by mountains.  Lake Como.

This is how we got to the public garden for a visit: the lake ferries transport residents between all the little villages that cling to the steep hillsides up and down the lake.

When you step off the ferry and enter the grounds, you realize you will be climbing.  The garden spills and cascades over precipices and the villa is built right into the hillside.

The lake is the backdrop, and the steep terrain adds an element of tension that the garden "tames" with its beautiful tended plantings.

The villa was built at the end of the 1600s for a Milanese marquis, and later owners turned it into a must-stop on the Grand Tour of Europe for art lovers and high society.  Masterpieces of painting and sculpture filled the halls, and a romantic park was created out of the hillside with azaleas, rhododendrons, pathways hedged in boxwood, and overlooks to view the lake.

Georg II of Saxen-Meiningen
In the mid 1800s, after various owners, it was given as a wedding present to a Prussian princess named Carlotta, and it is known as that today: Villa Carlotta.

She and her husband Georg II of Saxen-Meiningen enhanced the gardens with rare and unusual plant specimens, but really let the villa and the art collection go.  There is a picture of Georg on the Villa Carlotta website, and he's a little intense looking.  But apparently he was a plant lover.

Things got a little iffy in World War I, when a Prussian villa owner in Italy was considered a big problem, but the gardens and the villa survived, later taken over by a public trust.

Now the gardens have wonderful features like a bamboo forest, Japanese garden, a rock garden, paths lined in massive rhododendrons and a garden of mounded azaleas that must be stunning in spring (their web site has descriptions and pictures of each garden area, including photos of the azaleas in bloom).

There are grottoes to discover, and waterfalls and hidden spots, all packed together in a very small space. 

There are some flowers, but English style mixed borders are absent.  Instead, this garden relies on the bones of its incomparable lake views and steep enclosed paths to lure you up and down the hills. 

After touring (and climbing) the garden, lunch was at a hotel across the lake in Bellagio*, looking back toward where we'd been.

Dinner was at our own hotel back in Menaggio, looking across the lake to the lights turning on in the towns, and the celestial light of a gentle sunset over the Alps.
This is what you travel the world for.

*yes, the same Bellagio where George Clooney has a villa, and yes it's right there on the water, and yes he was staying at it the days we were there.  No, we did not see him, but I'm pretty sure he saw us zipping by on the lake ferry.


  1. Simply stunning. These are the second set of photos from Italy I've seen in less than 24 hours. I think God is trying to make a point...I must get back to Italy soon and hopefully take my children with me. I would love for them to be able to share the beauty and the richness of the culture with us ;-)
    Thanks for sharing your trip!

  2. What a place. The grass path through that one planting looks like a stream of green cascading down a hill. What inspiration you found here for your Villa.

  3. Wow! yes, definitely worth traveling the world to see. the views are stunning, though I was puffing a little bit, just imagining the uphill climb. Thanks so much for sharing these fantastic photos!

  4. Um, so you knew I would ask about my boyfriend, George? Why, did you talk to him, huh? ;)

    Stunning photos, and yes, a great impetus to travel the world (or at least to the beautiful places.)

  5. Thanks, everyone, for joining me on this visit.

  6. What a beautiful place, Laurrie! Thanks for sharing it with us. Seeing these lovely gardens could almost make you forget about not seeing George Clooney:)

  7. Rose, I can certainly see why George Clooney wanted to have a place there! If I could afford it I would too....

  8. Lovely photos. I was in Bellagio a year or so ago and although there was an extra seat at our table for lunch, George Clooney never showed up!

    I wish I'd known about the Villa Carlotta then.

  9. Lorrie, you simply must go back. I know I'd like a return to Lake Como, there's so much more to see.


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