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A Riviera Work-out

In Spring 2004, the Italian, Swiss and French branches of the MGS set out for a series of garden visits under their 'personal trainer' and Italian Branch Head, Carol Smith.

Our first task was the descent of the garden at Boccanegra, where our guide was the owner, Ursula Piacenza. Outside the house glorious, blowsy pink roses festooned the olives. The views down to the sea and along the coast were breathtaking, and our breath was certainly taken as we descended this cliff, disguised as a garden. It must have been a one-in-one slope, but undeterred (and unroped) we clambered down through the ancient olive groves, admiring the collection of rare plants that had managed to make themselves at home on this perilous hillside. The garden was founded by that intrepid lady Ellen Willmott, who was a great patron of plant hunters in the early twentieth century. Many plants are named after her, but we couldn't find Miss Willmott's Ghost (Eryngium giganteum), so called because she would often scatter the seed in gardens she liked, or perhaps because of her prickly temperament. With aching calves but satisfied eyes we staggered back to our cars.

Before our next descent at La Mortola we were allowed a sumptuous lunch, kindly provided by Carolyn Hanbury on the terrace of her house just above the famous garden. A Banksian Rose was in perfect bloom above the table as we ate. Carolyn gave us a brief history of her family's involvement with the garden since its foundation by Sir Thomas Hanbury in 1867; if her memory failed, she was helped out by Alasdair Moore, whose biography of Sir Thomas had just been published. Then it was time to resume our fitness regime. Down the slope we plunged, ballasted by our excellent lunch, weaving our way back and forth across the slope among this remarkable collection of plants. And that is really what La Mortola is becoming; its character as a garden is being overtaken by the botanical interests of the present owners, the University of Genoa. We saw astonishing collections of agaves, of fruit trees, of cycads; some of these collections were well tended, others less so. When we reached the sea, there was a café to restore ourselves for the climb back to the gate.

Wednesday was revision of the calf exercises and, in the afternoon, work on the back. We began with the stiff ascent of the Pallanca Exotic Garden. This cliff had been planted with an outstanding collection of cactuses; some looked like round, pale yellow cushions; some stood straight up like the cactuses in a western film; some looked as if they had been moulded out of plasticine. They were grotesquely fascinating, but I wonder how many visitors go away thinking “I must plant a cactus when I get home”. And even if a visitor were so inspired, the lack of labels meant it was hard to know exactly what species or cultivar one was admiring.

The afternoon was devoted to a lesson on palms in the Parco Ormond at San Remo. Our experts, Claudio Littardi and Marcello Semeria, were wonderfully enthusiastic in explaining the intricacies of the palm's feeding system and how to tell a Phoenix from a Washingtonia – with Carol as interpreter, and help with botanical matters from Nick Hooton. Our guides introduced us to most of the major trees in the Parco Ormond and by the end some backs were feeling the strain.

Thursday was a test of grit. We battled strong winds as we crossed the frontier into France to visit Menton's botanical garden at Villa Val Rahmeh. The plants were extremely well labelled, but the garden lacked the romance it must have had when packed with layers of underplanting by Miss Maybud Campbell (also know as La Dame aux Daturas), whose home this once was. The botanists had been at work again, arranging plants in strict rows by family or by use; there was, for example, a section devoted to tropical fruits, another to spices and yet another to American food plants. All very educational but not beautiful. As we were leaving, the rain, which had threatened in fitful gusts, became a downpour that was to last the rest of the day. So we had the worst of the weather for the best of the gardens – William Waterfield's Clos du Peyronnet. We peered out from under umbrellas as, undaunted, William introduced us to his remarkable collection of plants. But here the plants were set in a garden beautifully designed by William's uncle Humphrey Waterfield. The garden is just a hectare but it seems much bigger because of the varied and subtle way in which views suddenly open up and are closed. Perhaps the most striking moment happens as the visitor crosses the top of the garden; an opening in the planting reveals a totally unexpected vista of pools descending the hillside to a canal running across the slope at the bottom of the hill, and in the distance the blue (we had to imagine it) waves of the Mediterranean.

Even the unpleasant weather couldn't dim the enthusiasm of the smaller number of members who persisted to the end of this excellent programme, and that evening we celebrated our grit at a final dinner together. Satisfied, and certainly fitter, we went our various ways on the morrow.
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