Adriatic Gardens

I’m watching – and loving – Monty Don’s latest gardening/history/travelogue programmes about gardens around the Adriatic. His series are always a delight; many garden programmes focus, not unexpectedly, on the plants, flowers and designs of gardens, but while his contain those elements they also feature so much more.

This series follows on from other favourites including Italian Gardens, Around the World in 80 Gardens, Islamic Gardens, and American Gardens. The latter was perhaps my least favourite, simply because US gardeners seem to prefer order and artifice where I love my gardens informal, blowsy, romantic – even, dare I say it, a little bit neglected. A trait I apparently don’t share with Monty himself, given his comments on two gardens in Venice in the first episode!

The programme, like previous series, included a whole series of gardens in and around the city of Venice – some reasonably well known and open to the public, others tucked away behind the facades of palaces and churches, and some very private indeed. They were all beautiful, if surprising – not just because they were there at all in what’s often perceived as a very urban, built-up city, but also because they were so green. You expect Mediterranean gardens to be full of geraniums and bougainvillea, but these were much more restrained, featuring trees, grass, foliage, and flowers in subtle shades of white, soft yellow, or green. The result was startling but incredibly serene; in a hectic city these really are pockets of tranquillity.

My own favourite, though, was the Villa Barbarigo, a larger garden set in the countryside beyond the canals and squares of Venice. As Monty explained, the country homes of wealthy Venetian families gave them more space to let their imaginations run wild. And here, the family had definitely done just that. There were vast avenues, statues galore, trees, waterways and fountains, and some rather more playful features such as a giant labyrinth, a whole island of rabbits, and a stairway featuring sonnets, where visitors were soaked with water if they ran up the steps too quickly.

The garden apparently carries a hidden message about man’s journey through life, with perseverance past all of its wrong turnings and dead ends leading to salvation. It reminded me very strongly of the gardens described in one of my favourite books, Mark Mills’ The Savage Garden, where a similar theme amongst the statues, grottoes and water courses of a similar garden conceals a message about a centuries-old murder. That idea has always fascinated me, and I could see exactly where Mills might have got his inspiration while watching the scenes from Barbarigo.

The next episode is all about the gardens of Croatia, which is a country I know little-to-nothing about. I can’t wait to find out more.

Credit: picture of the labyrinth at Villa Barbarigo from

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