WHEN I FIRST SAW LA MORTOLA in 1979 the gardeners were on strike. Sit-in, rather: they were picnicking round the mouth of the cave where they keep their tools, just below the entrance gates. If St Peter kept any gates on earth it should be these. Through them you see a paradise of plants descending, by a thousand steps and a score of terraces, to a sapphire sweep of sea.
The gardeners’ grouse was not about pay, but neglect. The Hanbury Botanic Gardens, to give them their full name, were a magnificent legacy from their English creators to the Italian state. Anyone who knows how Italy works can imagine what happened next. Things, I am happy to say, are going smoothly now, I always wonder, though, as I pay my annual visit, what the state of play will be.
La Mortola lies on the frontier between Italy and France, a short walk from Menton/Mentone, at the point where the Alps make their final glissade into the Mediterranean.The spot was chosen by Sir Thomas Hanbury in the 1840s for a private botanic garden on a heroic scale in a place where frost is almost unknown. His family kept it and elaborated it for a century, until the Second World War.
What do you find there in midwinter? Not, I admit, a lot of flowers. It is the season of evergreens – but in heady variety. On the day I was there a gale was whipping the sea into white horses, but the garden was strangely still. A sweet smell of growth, of oils and resins, filled the air. It is spiky plants at the top of the garden: palms, yuccas, aloes and agaves in their rigid finery. Lower come the proteas with their deep green whorls.Then an orchard of citrus trees glowing with orange and lemon lamps, then a forest of eucaplyptus and a grove of acacia, in flower by now, I expect.