“ City: Collodi / Country: Italy / World Region: Europe „
My wife is the keen gardener in this partnership. I don't mind it, but I'm not fanatical (not that she is either mind you). However, we both quite enjoy visiting gardens while on our travels, especially when the weather is nice. And when we were in Tuscany last year, the weather was very nice. But nice weather and a pretty garden would not, on their own, have driven us to visit VILLA GARZONI (actually, we were driven by me) in the stunning hill-top village of Collodi, 17km north-east of Lucca.
Sound familiar? Carlo Lorenzini, the author of Pinnochio, grew up here and used Collodi as a nom-de-plume. Honest. Would I lie to you?
But that's another story.
Collodi is a spectacular little town that spills down the side of the hill like a gushing cascade - though it's rather drier. There's a castle at the pinnacle of the settlement, but Villa Garzoni dominates the scene, standing sentinel at the entrance to the town. But just outside the confines of the ancient town, lie the Gardens of Villa Garzoni.
The Garzonis were a powerful family who originally hailed from Pescia but they sided with the Ghibellines and as a result, had their property confiscated around the 13th century. They then settled in Lucca and by the 17th century had risen in prominence to the extent that they were able to build a handsome villa in 1633. It's thought the same Marquis Romano di Alessandro Garzoni who had the villa built was the architect of the gardens. Sadly, he never lived to see them finished. He would have been hard pushed to, since they allegedly took 170 years to complete. Obviously there was no bonus system in place for the workers who fashioned them.
Collodi was surprisingly quiet when we visited, although it was quite early in the morning and by lunchtime the trickle of tour buses was turning into a torrent. There's a massive car and bus park on the other side of the river from the gardens - fortunately, a road bridge crosses nearby so we didn't have to paddle to it. I expect the car park is there to cater for the visitors to the Parco di Pinocchio, but it's not exclusive and it's also free (I never paid to use it anyway).
Suitably 'disencarred', we strolled past the Pinnochio Park entrance and the myriad souvenir stalls to the entrance to the Gardens. Entrance is 5 euros but if you buy a combined ticket for here and the Pinnochio Park (which we did) it works out at only 3 euros. This doesn't seem like an awful lot of money...and it's not.
The gardens are laid out like a botanical amphitheatre, with the stage being home to exuberant dancing fountains falling into star-shaped ponds - the contents of which were all but obscured by giant water-lilies in full bloom. Giant carp managed to poke a hungry snout through some of the gaps to snort a fishy salute to the black swans and various water-fowl parading what open stretches of water they could. Peacocks and other exotic birds of unknown origins patrolled the gravel chipped open spaces between the various ponds and fountains.
All around are literally hundreds of statues and sculptures, blazing colour from formal flower-beds and whimsical examples of the art of topiary. It's all quite breathtaking.
As if this scene of splendour wasn't enough, following the geometric lines of the flower-beds leads the eye towards the centre of the garden, then onwards and upwards towards the spectacular 'stalls' of this arboreal auditorium. And spectacular is no exaggeration.
The garden rises steeply through terraced levels to a huge statue at the very top which spouts a plume of cool water and begins a series of channels and cascades falling swiftly, and some not so swiftly, all the way down to ground level.
As I said, this garden rises very steeply, but there are level terraces every few metres or so. Whilst the ground level garden is more formal, the terraces are semi-wild and surrounded by thick woodland. At the top is a bathhouse (sadly disused). In fact, the garden fell into a state of near dereliction at one time and is still undergoing extensive renovation. This means that some areas of it are a little untidy with some of the ornate stonework needing quite a bit of attention. This doesn't detract from the experience however, far from it. The wildness of the terraces gives it an almost magical, mythical quality. You almost expect to come knee-to-face with a pixie (or the Italian equivalent).
The views from the top of the garden looking down are surpassed only by the views from the bottom looking up.
We climbed up one side of the main water cascade and descended on the other. While the terraces appear symmetrical (and they are in size), both sides have a completely different feel. This is mainly to do with the stonework and the plants, but it makes all the difference.
There are various little nooks and crannies to explore, and lots of secluded areas with benches to rest and muse. Right at the bottom, below a grand staircase, lies an unusual little grotto. It has the appearance of being very natural, yet at the same time, very man-made. Very strange and very spooky. And very beautiful.
There's not a lot more to be said about the gardens, save the fact that they're open from 9am till sunset from late February to late October, from 10 am till sunset at weekends and public holidays the rest of the year.
There's a cafe and restaurant on site, as well as a shop selling local produce - these are also open to non visitors.
In conclusion, these gardens are supposedly considered not only the best in Tuscany, but possibly the best in all Italy. While I can't vouch for that, they are pretty impressive and one can only imagine how spectacular they were in their heyday. They're worth a detour in their own right if you're in the Lucca region, but combining a visit here with an exploration (and climb) around the old village, a spot of lunch and some souvenir shopping (you can't imagine how many variations of Pinnochio trinkets are available) then a not-to-be-missed excursion around the Parco di Pinocchio makes for a very pleasant day out.
Piazza della Vittoria, 1 / Collodi / Italy / Tel. 0572 429590.