Dispatches from Italy: The stunning topiary gardens of Villa del Balbianello

Written by Doug Oster on .

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"It's great to be king," Joseph DiLuccia of Bangor, Pa said while over looking Villa del Balbianello in Lenno, Italy on Lake Como.

It wasn’t actually a king who built this place in the 1700's, but Cardinal Durini who wanted a quiet summer residence.

He couldn't have picked a better place.

blog villa arriving by boatOur group felt like kings when we pulled up to the villa in a boat.We felt like kings as we were taken by boat to the estate. Gentle waves rocked the boat as we stepped off the craft and into paradise.

We’ve been lucky as we’ve toured these last few gardens to be lead by Italian garden designer Carlo Maria Maggia who has enlightened us to their secrets. In broken English his passion for these places always comes through.

This is a garden of topiary art of the highest sort. The scenic view of Lake Como is often framed through trees, shrubs or vines which are expertly trimmed.

It's not a big garden, but it's a spectacular one. Villa Balbianello is the ultimate summer hideout.

Walking up the first path, we were greeted by cheery rose colored cyclamen hugging the ground. It seems every space is filled in this garden.

Tiny daisies cling to rock walls, pretty pink roses are intertwined with pointed greenish gray agave. But it is the topiary which takes your breath away. Light posts covered in spiral green vines, columns and walls covered in the same. I wonder how long it must take to prune each one to perfection. Out in the courtyard we hard the gardeners arguing as they snipped at the plants on the wall. We wondered if one had trimmed too closely and was reprimanded for doing so.

On a lower level, overlooking the lake, it's hard to guess how long gardeners have worked to prune a spectacular-looking tree into an oblong oval. This tree stops you in your tracks and for once the lake and mountains must take center stage. It's wonderful to watch visitors linger under it’s tightly pruned leaves.

As our boat sped away, I wished I had the summer to spend at this incredible villa.

Our tour of Northern Italian gardens keeps getting better, with each garden topping the last.

I wonder what tomorrow will bring as we venture to Lake Maggiore.


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Above: One of the first plants to see were these cyclamen in full bloom along the side of the path to the villa.

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This huge tree in the lower courtyard is something special and attracts visitors.

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It seemed that every crack and crevice was planted with the just the right species. These little daises grew along a rock wall.

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When was the last time you saw roses planted with agave?

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One thing that makes these Lake Como gardens something special is the mist, fog and clouds which seem to come and go every hour or so.

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I wonder if this statue has been watching the villa since the very beginning.

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With each turn this garden provides topiary surprises.

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These gardeners are in charge of keeping everything trimmed to perfection.

(Top image: It was amazing to see the villa from the boat as we approached. Doug Oster photos/Post-Gazette)

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Dispatches from Italy: Mountains, water a majestic backdrop to Lake Como District's villa gardens

Written by Doug Oster on .

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It didn’t seem possible that our bus could fit through the narrow streets driving through the Lake Como District in Italy on the way to Villa Carlotta.

Many times our driver stopped the bus as a truck approached from the other direction, there was no way both would have made it through. I was so glad he was driving and not me.

Lake Como is breathtaking and so different from Venice and Verona. The mountains rise over the deep water to form the perfect micro climate for plants.

This is a place to see palm trees growing in consort with carlotta front viewThis is the view which first greets visitors to Villa Carlotta.

Villa Carlotta itself is a masterpiece built in the 17th century, the gardens are mostly formal and with the lake and mountains as a background the two play together like a good orchestra.

Entering the villa offers a look at what life must have been like so many years ago. The fountain welcomes visitors as they gawk at the facade of the mansion.

Each step through the garden offered something different. At first it was roses covered in droplets of dew which gave way to an amazing bed of annuals topped off with a palm tree.

The lake and mountains seem to call to you every few steps. Sometimes they are framed by a weeping beech other times they serve as a background to kissing topiary swans.

There is a steep climb through a shady, tropical garden. Palm trees flank a small waterfall which eventually finds its way to the lake. Near the top visitors are rewarded with Japanese maples and a forest of bamboo. This is where one of the first surprises appears. I had never seen turtleshell bamboo before, the name explains it’s growth habit.

The second big surprise came in the form of bright yellow blooms, were they little daffodils in September? Even though walking on the grass is forbidden, I had to figure out what they were. Luckily, no one was around and the Italians are a pretty relaxed about rules and regulations. When I got closer I still had no idea, although the flowers resembled crocus, I had never seen a yellow, fall blooming crocus. I showed the pictures to some of the plant experts touring with me and still no luck. It wasn’t until one of the tour guides, Anna Marie saw the photo that it was confirmed as a fall blooming crocus. I have to find some bulbs to plant this fall.

Our tour ended in the shadow of a beautiful white marble statue in the atrium of the villa.

The first day in Lake Como was amazing, I can’t wait to explore another villa tomorrow.


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The light illuminated these begonias in a shady bed at Villa Carlotta.

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I had never seen bright yellow, fall blooming crocus before. I have to find bulbs for this plant to put in this fall.

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This annual flower bed was filled with an assortment of flowering plants topped off with a palm tree.

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Isn't this a wonderful little grotto?

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There's no escaping the spell of the lake and mountains. Topiary kissing swans are in the foreground to complete the view.

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This long waterfall leads to the lake and is flanked by palm trees.

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Turtleshell bamboo was a surprise, I've never seen anything like it.

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One of the first things to see when visiting Villa Carlotta was this dew covered rose.

blog carlotta statueOur tour ended in the atrium.

(Top image: The view of the mountains and Lake Como is spectacular from Villa Carlotta. Doug Oster photos/Post-Gazette)


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Dispatches from Italy: Spectacle and magic in the gardens of Verona

Written by Doug Oster on .

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Sometimes the stars align to make a garden visit magical, that’s what happened at Giardino Giusti in Verona. The spectacular views standing on top of the towering "Mascherone" were sweetened by songbirds hidden in the spires of cypress trees. At noon, the city’s church bells sang in concert with the birds creating a natural symphony performance. Just when I thought it couldn't get any better, the uplifting music of a piano accompanying ballet dancers drifted out of the windows of an adjoining school as I worked my way downhill on a winding stone path.

blog mascheroneThe Mascherone -- This is the first thing you see in the distance when entering the garden. Should it breath fire?What’s a "Mascherone" you ask? It’s the first thing you see when walking in the garden and was built to emit tongues of flame from its mouth.

Giardino Giusti was the first major garden we’ve seen since getting to Italy and it’s simply spectacular.

The cypress trees reach for the sky creating axis points for long paths which are bordered with perfectly trimmed shrubs. There are mazes and topiary, everything an Italian garden should have.

Even though most of the garden is perfectly formal, one of the things that makes it so wonderful are the edges, which are whimsically planted with an assortment of innovative and fun combinations.

Ordinary orange lantana is allowed to intermingle with tall, stoic anemone with tasteful results.

Soft pink begonias are permitted to go wild along an ancient rock wall.

The hillsides are filled with drifts of blue plumbago which were constantly being visited by several hummingbird moths. Even though we only had an hour to explore the garden, it was imperative to watch the moths work their magic searching for nectar.

One of the things many European gardeners embrace is to let beautiful weeds bloom freely too, it's something I admire. The tiny flowers of wild, yellow mustard were the perfect foil for the blue blossoms of the plumbago.

Only in Italy would you see a long line of clay pots filled with lantana perched single file along a weathered rock wall. The display drew visitors to it and made gardeners smile.

In many ways, this was the perfect Italian garden, mixing formality with chaos and doing it with a sense of humor.


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Above: Italian gardens are filled with the most interesting details made from stone.

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There are many stunning views from the top of the garden.

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These pink begonias are allowed to go wild along a rock wall.

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The formality of the garden in the center works perfectly here.

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Walk up to the top of the garden to be rewarded with a beautiful view of Verona

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Common lantana is allowed to intermingle with beautiful, tall anemone.

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Only in Italy would you see something like this and it makes me smile.

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Climb to the top of the "Mascherone" for an amazing view of the garden and Verona.

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Wild yellow mustard is set off by blue plumbago.

(Top image: The beauty of a formal Italian garden is unmatched. Doug Oster photos/Post-Gazette)


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Dispatches from Italy: A contessa opens her home to us in Venice

Written by Doug Oster on .

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Tour guide Franca Zanchi ushered 32 Pittsburgh gardeners through a maze of stone walkways through Venice finally reaching Palazzo Malipiero Barnabo after a 20 minute walk. It is thought to be built in the 11th or 12th century century and was bought by the Barnabo family in the 19th century.

The gardens were created sometime in the 18th century and the palace was renovated in 1951 to bring it back to its former grandeur.

The garden is filled with surprises, the first one greets you as you walk out of the house. It's is a small statue of a woman laying on a bench. Right next to the beautiful statue were yellow-throated mandevilla vines blooming under the watchful eye of another sculpture.

The statues are everywhere and they offer classic beauty at every turn, a fountain runs in the center. Old fashion roses release their intoxicating fragrance in every corner of the garden. A white rose hangs over the edge of a wall which leads an out to a scenic view of the Grand Canal. Standing at the edge, with the flowers in the foreground and historic estates across the canal, transports visitors to another time, and although much has changed in so many centuries, these gardens and homes have stood the test of time.

While the sun sank low in the sky, white anemones danced in the soft breeze the canal provides.

This is a place to sit and watch the boats diligently circumnavigating the canal. Nothing would be better than a glass of good Italian wine with friends and the good company of these beautiful plants which have shared a storied history with the palace.

While visiting the third floor drawing room, filled with 18th century antiques, Contessa Anna Barnabo appeared to say hello. Although she was not feeling her best, she could not contain her smile as the visitors gushed about the chance to explore her garden and home.


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A yellow-throated mandevilla blooms under the watchful eye of a sculpture.

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A look at the garden towards the Grand Canal.

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Statues and anemones are back lit by the setting sun.

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This white rose hangs over the wall looking over the Grand Canal.

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Old fashioned roses fill the garden with fragrance.

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You'll have to look closely when walking out of the house toward the entrance to the garden to see this beautiful statue hidden at the side.

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The setting sun lights up these anemone as they dance in the breeze.

(Top image: An overall of the entrance to the garden. Doug Oster photos/Post-Gazette)

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Dispatches from Italy: Hidden 19th century Venetian palace garden

Written by Doug Oster on .

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There's no hint of the palatial secret garden tucked behind a rough brick wall that borders a narrow walkway in Venice.

Our guide for the day, Franca Zanchi, rings the bell next to plain, brown double doors which open into a dark hallway.

Franca's gold eye shadow, chartreuse scarf and stylish silk jacket makes her an Italian vision. She's filled with wit and wonderful information. As she leads our group to the main courtyard of Palazzo Nani Bernardo we're greeted with an ancient wisteria who's trunk is as thick as a tree. We duck under it as we walk into the formal garden defined by boxwood shrubs.

Built in 1550 by architect Vittoria, the palace is right on the Grand Canal. The view is stunning, and so is the the garden, which is young in comparison, dating to the 19th century.

A tall palm tree centers the first bed, surrounded by bright red cannas. Another bed is filled with roses which are fading as their season ends. They are meant to be cut for aromatic bouquets, not for display.Towards the back is a long border of pink phlox which are in full bloom.

An interesting variety of trees and shrubs line the 12 foot tall walls, some are familiar and others are a mystery.

Seeing a double, purple rose of Sharon warmed my heart as it's one of my favorite plants.

Anywhere else this garden would be considered on the small size, but in the confines of Venice, it's huge. The designer has taken care to fill it with special plants.

Seen from the above, from the windows of the palace, this old treasure reveals the secret of its great design which relies on simplicity.

Standing along the gravel paths of this historic garden it's hard not to wonder about the people who enjoyed this space over all these centuries.
My next post will feature Malipiero Barnabo, another amazing palace and garden along the canal.

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