Three days of visiting gardens around Rome with the International Dendrology Society (or a harmonious subset of it) was not quite the fast-forward spring we had expected. It had been cold and wet for weeks and just brightened up for our visit. If our English spring arrived four weeks late the Roman one was certainly no more punctual. You might be surprised how many Japanese cherries grow in and around Rome, though, and how well they blossom. Above all, to one who usually visits later in the year, the shock impression was of green. The Campagna looked like Ireland. And there are so many elms.
I had almost forgotten how the elm does something no other tree does: it flowers and fruits before it produces leaves. The unripe fruit appears as little pale green discs that make it the greenest tree of all when the forest is just thickening to fawn and tan and purple with catkins. Rome is full of elms, a green counterpoint to the black banners of what should be called the Roman pine – the huge umbrellas that shade streets and squares and crowd the sky of the Borghese Gardens.
Ninfa was our first out-of-town call. ‘The most romantic garden in the world’ seems to have stuck to it as a subtitle. I wouldn’t argue. Our party was small enough for it to be easy to hang back and be alone by the river (subtitle: ‘the most beautiful river ……’) It is mesmerizing to watch the long green weed that undulates below the speeding ripples and the long trout that hang motionless below the bridges. Magnolia and cherry blossom were almost the only flowers. Oranges and huge grapefruit lit the deep green of the orchard like lamps.
Ninfa is by no means the only great garden concealed on an ancient estate within a few miles of Rome, nor the only one sheltering in massive ruins. Pines and cypresses, white-trunked planes and magnolias are the common theme. In a month or so it will be roses.
The Pope, we were told, only goes to Castelgandolfo, his summer residence, in July. It stands on a ridge between the Tyrrhenian Sea and Lake Albano in its volcanic crater, where breezes keep the dense shade under its evergreen oaks perpetually cool. The immense terrace looking towards the sea is to topiary what St Peter’s is to altars. Most memorable of all, though, is the half-submerged cloister, seventy feet high and 120 yards long, built for Diocletian’s after-lunch exercise (in his day it stretched 300 yards). There are as many ghosts as people in Rome.