The 'grand tour' of Europe: from garden to garden

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"Il faut cultiver son jardin" ("One must tend to his garden"), wrote the French philosopher Voltaire. And Europe's plant lovers have been doing so ever since.

The Council of Europe, in Strasbourg, France, has proposed a Garden Cultural Route to protect and nurture the Continent's rich horticultural heritage and diversity.

The exact gardens on the tour haven't been determined yet, but it is expected that the Alhambra in Spain, France's famous rose gardens, and Sissinghurst in England will be among them.

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But those aren't the only fascinating gardens in Europe. Here's a small sample of my favorites. Taking you to some of the most beautiful features of Europe, this garden tour will exhaust you long before it is exhausted.

Italy

In La Morta near Ventimiglia - on the coast near the French border - the Giardino Botanico Hanbury overlooks the Mediterranean 300 feet above sea level. Created by Sir Thomas Hanbury in 1867, it was taken over by the University of Genoa in 1987 and is now a plant lover's paradise with exotics from all over the world flourishing in the warm, lush climate.

Giardino Giusti is located in Romeo and Juliet's city of Verona. This delightful 16th-century garden - originally used as a setting for plays and concerts - is built on two levels linked by a spiral staircase. The complex design is set off by lemon trees and terra-cotta statues. The ideal is to coincide a visit to Verona with a summer-evening opera at its famous theater.

Villas and gardens - along with regional cooking and festivals - are highlights of the Castelli Romani, towns 25 kilometers from Rome.

Between Frascati, Grottaferrata, Nemi, and Albano, you can visit the villas of Aldobrandini, Falconieri, and Pope John Paul II's summer residence, Castel Gondolfo. The whole area is like a green balcony hanging over Rome, just a short train ride from the Eternal City. The views, the villas, and the fresh air explain why the region has for centuries been the principal papal escape.

France

A forerunner of Versailles, the classic French garden of Vaux-le-Vicomte, in Maincy, epitomizes designer Andre LeNotre's skill with perspective and his use of the elements of surprise and variety inside a formal design. It's southeast of Paris, 55 kilometers by car or 30 minutes by train.

The Parc St Bernard at Hyeres on the Cote d'Azur offers spectacular views of the Riviera and the perennially in-flower region. Terraced gardens contain many unusual plants, and seven different species of fragrant lavender.

Two classic French rose gardens are within easy reach of Paris - L'Hay-les-Roses in the Val de Marne and Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne at Neuilly. Both have collections of old and species roses, in addition to climbers and ramblers that spill over pillars, pergolas, and arches. The best months to visit are June and July.

Giverny - the name itself can't be disassociated from that of the French Impressionist painter Claude Monet. He escaped frequently to his house and gardens in the so-called "Valley of the Impressionists." The gardens have a magical atmosphere when not overrun with visitors. Open daily except Monday from April to October, but best avoided in July, August, and on weekends.

Britain

The Tresco Abbey Gardens in the Scilly Isles, Cornwall, are a sloping paradise in which to escape crowds and study subtropical plants. Take a train to Penzance, and then hop a helicopter for a 20-minute ride to the island or ride the ferry, which takes 2-1/2-hours. The gardens are open year-round.

Sissinghurst Castle Garden near Cranbrook in Kent, one of Britain's best-known gardens, is owned and maintained by the National Trust. Created by Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson in the 1930s, its name comes from a Saxon word meaning "clearing in the woods." The garden is, in fact, a series of some 10 separate gardens, all delightfully different. Walls and hedges separate them, creating for the visitor the impression of peace and seclusion. To maintain this illusion, it is best to visit before the crowds arrive.

Spain

The ancient Muslim palace of L'Alhambra (the word for "red" in Arabic), in the city of Grenada, is considered by many the Eighth wonder of the world. Perched in a forested hilltop above the city, its vast, bejeweled gardens, dating to 1250, feature cypresses, laurels, roses, and oranges, laid out between water-spouts, mosaics, and finely chiseled white-marble columns.

In late June and early July, the gardens form the backdrop for Grenada's international festival of music and dance.

In a two-hectare enclosure, the Jardin de Aclimatacion of Orotava in Tenerife, Canary Islands, contains a profusion of tropical trees and flowers, native and imported.

Founded in the 18th century on the order of Charles III, the island's botanical gardens are located among the bananas and bazaars of Puerto de la Cruz, and feature greenhouses of orchids and cactuses more than 200 years old.

Gardens are also a highlight of the Andalusian capital, Seville - notably those of the Parc de Maria Luisa, opposite the Plaza de Espana, with its elegant pavilions linked by lakes and bridges.

Switzerland

In the heart of Lago Maggiore (Lake Maggiore), the islands of Brissago are now home to the Botanical Garden Isole di Brissago. Opened to the public in 1950, they are set around the former home of the Baroness Antoinette St. Leger, and contain plants from around the world.

Boats jointly operated by the Swiss and Italian navigation authorities will take you there from the lakesides of both Locarno and Lugano. Another short trip leads to the Riviera del Gambarogno. From here, take a bus from the village of San Nazzaro up to the hillside where Otto Eisenhut created his own public Eden, Vivaio Eisenhut, a 17,000-square-meter garden containing 950 varieties of plants, with camellia- and magnolia-framed views of the surrounding lakes and Alps.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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