Visiting the Giardini Hanbury on the Costa dei Fiori of the Italian Riviera

Mistress teaches me to see and feel and appreciate

If you find yourself rattling around on the Côte d’Azur not far from the Italian border, here is what to do.  Drive across to Ventimiglia, to the Costa dei Fiori, and stop at the Giardini Hanbury and enjoy the unique setting and incredible collection of exotic plants.

Begun in 1867 by Stephen Hanbury with the assistance of his wife, brother, and a number of scientists and ecologists, 40 years later at the time of his death the catalog contained 5,800 exotic species and was operating a global seed-exchange program.  The gardens are set in the most extraordinary landscape, and cover a total of 20 hectares, a bit more than 50 acres.  They plunge down a steep hillside and into the sea, and the terraces and paths that make the whole garden strollable are filled with mystery and joyous vistas.

The Villa Hanbury which lies at the centre of the property has lovely fresco work, and there are follies in the garden which are true architectural curiosities, including Stephen Hanbury’s mausoleum.  

After Sir Stephen’s death, his daughter-in-law took the rains as the First World War came to a close.  She made extensive improvements to the gardens, added to the species list, and laid out what we see today.

Severely damaged in the second World War, and lacking in funds or presence to oversee restoration, the Hanbury family sold them to the State of Italy in 1960.  They have been under restoration since 1987 and are today considered one of the 10 most beautiful gardens in Italy.

The beauty of the setting takes your breath away.  From the grand arch up on the road, there is a vertiginous stone path that plunges down several hundred feet to the heart of the property.  To either side are wandering paths, shady bowers, and a highly curated collection of plants.  The plants are all labelled with their common and Latin names, are organised by theme, such as “Australia” or “food plants” or “succulents”.

If you are a keen gardener, you will know the importance of the passage of time.  To be able to stroll through a garden whose trees were largely planted over 100 years ago, is to walk the mature dreams of visionaries who never got to see what they created—but could well have imagined.

I was overwhelmed by the scents that wafted by.  With almost every step, there was something new to enjoy.  And to see so many wondrous and exotic species, things never heard of, let alone witnessed, was an uncommon delight.  Laid out formally like an Italian garden, with bowers and plant-covered walkways, fountains, statuary, and this incredible shimmering sea down below, it is truly spectacular.

It was a delight to be there with my family, though my SO peeled off with one child the second she saw me actually stop to read a species name, not to be seen again until we exited after being summoned out by a phone call.  

“Where are you?”

“We just got down to the bottom.”

“We’re at the top again.”

“Right.  Okay.  On our way.”

That is a microcosm of life.  In my focus on the plants and setting, I didn’t notice that one of the outbuildings was open with an exhibit.  Only after we were driving away, did my SO ask all innocent and demure, “did you see the wonderful exhibit on all the exotic woods of the world?”

“yes, they were displayed as cutting boards, all polished and shined, and they told all about their use and suitability,” our (now her) child said.

“Oh no, really?” and of course a few people know how dear cutting boards are to my heart!  [they are a true culinary passion and I have most impractically dragged family and friends around to buy them and have equally impractically carried them in my suitcase on various trips].

“Yeah.  Mama and I promised not to tell you until we had driven at least a few minutes away.”  I could feel my hands tense on the steering wheel.  Oh well.  Now I know we will be going back, and soon!

The child who accompanied me on my meanderings shared my wonder and joy at the plants we encountered. I will admit that a few little bits and bobs found their way into my pockets for a date with a little rotting hormone and a happy new home.  I’ll consider fulfilment of my debt to society and species preservation.

But more than anything, as I walked through these gardens, I felt Mistress all around me and coursing through me.  Her passion and knowledge of plants and gardens has turned up the joy in my life for such things—admittedly starting from a keen entry point.  She was in my eyes, guiding them, relishing what we saw.  It was so utterly, and incomparably exciting.

There was a sensory overload from the views, the smells, but also the details, the individual plants.  Few places radiate such beauty.  And for the passion I knew Mistress would feel in such a place, I could feel her on me, in me, and she was dancing through my skin like a pod of Dolphins, covering me with this prickling sensation, making me know she was there.

What an unexpected treat and joy to be able to feel her presence with me, to know that she would enjoy it, and to know that my appreciation for it had increased a hundredfold for what she has taught me, how she is guiding me, how she is coaxing my growth.  To be a seedling in the garden of the Enlightened Empress, rooted to her, committed, forever trusting, puts me in a state of total bliss.  Just the thought: wherever I am, wherever I go, and whatever I do, my commitment to this most amazing person is rooted and growing, establishing itself.  That is a source of excitement and optimism, but also deep comfort, like your favourite sweater on a cold, wintry day…there are just some things that feel right to your core.

The garden of the Enlightened Empress is not just a physical garden, but also a spiritual one.  I dance and play in it and those of us who come to serve and worship this magical human know what a special place it is. Some people call it “sub-space”.  I call it home.  Thank you Goddess for enriching life—everything looks and tastes better now.  I am most humbly and respectfully at your feet.

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