It might have been my whining, my frequent deep sighs, or my total lack of enthusiasm for cooking; something told my husband that I could really use a change of scenery. Knowing that my sister and brother-in-law were planning a trip to Italy gave him a brilliant idea. Would they let me tag along? They agreed and I was speechless. What an opportunity! A Lonely Planet Rome City Guide was my Christmas present, so I started reading up on Rome's most popular sights. I asked for travel tips on Dave's Garden's Vacation and Travel forum. I tried to become familiar with the map of the city and weighed various sightseeing possibilities. I practiced my Gratzie and Per favore. And having recently joined the ranks of Dave's Garden writers, I also started thinking of possible article topics.
I had a lots of potential article themes, and much more, on my mind when I deplaned in Italy last April. (Very soon, my primary thought became "How the heck am I gettting to the hotel when my credit card won't work in the cash machine?" Luckily, I could use my credito for a train ticket to the center of Rome .) At 7 am, after little sleep, I boarded a train with the morning rushhour crowd, sat on my suitcase and peered out the window to soak in any possible view of a European countryside. While my fellow passengers ignored the humble abodes that we passed, I craned my neck to absorb my first looks at real Italy. Many a modest home had a neat garden laid out, butted up against the right of way. In the small plots I picked out fig trees and grape arbors. And in the uncultivated, ungroomed margins between houses, corn poppies (Papaver rhoeas) were already in bloom. I was smitten.
After solving my cash flow crisis, Joel, Sue and I were raring to go for our first day of walking in the center of Rome. Of course we were awed by statues and fountains at every turn, but green accents flourished in the midst of the marble, stucco and stone. The residents of Centro Storico district seemed almost as fond of fiori as the more rural neighbors I'd spied on early that morning. Window boxes, rooftop gardens and large urns on the street softened the hard lines of the architecture. Flowers were never far from my mind or my eyes as we wove through the crowds.
Speaking of crowds, the famous Spanish Steps were among our first major sites. They were dressed up as they are every spring with dozens, perhaps cento (a hundred) large potted azaleas in full glorious bloom. I asked for flowers, I got flowers!
The azaleas on the Spanish Steps had already filled my floral quota for the day. The rest of our afternoon was devoted to eating gelato , gawking, dodging street vendors and weaving through masses of cars and people on narrow streets in search of the Trevi Fountain.
Day two of our touring began at Palatino. The site of the beginnings of Rome's development, Palatine Hill is now a parklike setting containing ancient ruins and slightly more modern remnants of landscaping by a series of affluent past residents. The paths and terraces offered stunning views. We strolled between olive trees (real olive trees!) and around chunks of fallen marble adorned with climbing roses and lush ivy. Sweet, white citrus blossoms scented the air around the partially restored Orti Farnesiani formal garden, where a huge palm tree provides a focal point at the end of the beds. (One small note: Have you heard that Rome is full of fountains that you can drink from? That's basically true. However, as I strolled around an algae-filled trough behind the aviary ruins, I heard another English speaking tourist quenching his thirst from its outflow on the level below. I think the lesson is to wait for somebody else to drink first.) Some parts of Palatino are ungroomed, giving the opportunity for wildflowers to spring up. I could easily spend a day here, if I had brought a picnic lunch. We chose to move on so we could see the Coliseum that day too.
Rome contains a number of parks, but since this was our first visit to the city, we concentrated on the most famous manmade attractions. Likewise, according to one respondant to my thread in the Vacation forum, and my Rome City Guide, there are many notable gardens in Rome. La Sapienza University manages Rome's botanical garden, the Orto Botanico. While I didn't have time to visit the twelve-hectare Orto and work my way through 8,000 plant species it's said to hold, I did have a great dinner around the corner- is that close enough?
And the Pope has a private garden. I caught a brief view of it through a window in the Vatican complex. The formal and informal gardens, fountains and grottoes of the Giardini del Vaticano can be toured with an advance reservation. Sorry, but we couldn't commit to that plan.
The Villa Borghese would make for a lovely day of sightseeing. However, we did only a visual tour of Villa Borghese from a hotel shuttle. We just couldn't fit it in. Neither could we find a free morning to go to the Campo de' Fiori. Although it is no longer the literal "field of flowers" that its name says it is, Campo de' Fiori houses an extensive fuit, vegetable, fish and flower market every day. Again, this experience is now on our "must see next time" list.
Above left, roses on Palatino; above right, view from Palatino; left, view of Vatican Gardenswildlfowers on Palatino
citrus blossoms, Orti Farnesiani
a pool amid ruins of an estate
By our third day, I still wasn't sure what kind of article I'd produce from my sightseeing. To be honest, I didn't care too much. The whole experience was both exciting and demanding. Still, plantaholic that I am, even taxi rides were naturally a chance to look for botanical specimens both familiar (redbud treees, cyclamen, planetrees, roses) and unfamiliar (palm trees, towering pines, those things with big spiky leaves and not yet open flowerbuds that I'd need to check out on Plant and Tree Identification Forum.) I also had an eye out for plant-themed gifts that could be brought home. There was a florist shop near the main train station, and an occasional street flower stall.
Many visitors to Rome spend a day in a villa, the Renaissance equivalent of a luxurious country home. We chose the Villa D'Este, outside of Rome, for a day trip. In the heart of a little town at the top of a hill, Villa D'Este more than quenched my thirst for a garden. Fantastic fountains are a unifying theme throughout the backyard of the villa there; water is led through a network of features that trickle, spurt, and gush their way around hedges, flowers, and massive ancient trees. At times the water rests in pools accented by fern or moss encrusted walls, or the biggest Spathiphyllum I've ever seen. The day I visited Villa D'Este was the day I found my personal heaven. It's too bad that the weather wasn't picture perfect that day. My photographs from Villa D'Este aren't the best. I highly recommend that you take the Villa D'Este link here and view the photo gallery. On a more down-to-earth note, I appreciated the signage in the Villa gardens which had more English language material than the signs in a number of other sites we'd toured. Villa D'Este also housed a nice gift shop for those with botanical interests.
We had two more full days in Rome, and full they certainly were. We feel sure we made the most of our time and energy there; we just didn't have enough of either to see it all in one trip. I would love to have brought back many more pictures to share. I suppose, if I write an article a week and live on pane and acqua, I can afford to go back next year...
See you later, I've got some writing to do!
Left, a rose at Villa D'Este; right, a European mallow on PalatinoReferences and creditsPrimarily, thanks to my sister, brother-in-law and husband for cooking up the plan to get me to Italy! Garwood, Duncan, and Abigail Hole. Rome City Guide, Lonely Planet Publishing, Oakland, 2008. All photos taken by and property of author. Highlighted words are Italian. I used Freetranslation.com to double check my words.