The Italian Almanac

Ninfa garden

Romantic Garden

Ninfa, the world-famous garden south of Rome, stands flush in its autumnal glory, bracing for the last visitors who'll have the chance to enjoy its extraordinary array of visual, olfactory and auditory delights this year. They are in for a special treat as the gardens will be staying open for the turning of the leaves.

The one-off, later-than-usual opening will "put on a spectacle to rival anything New England has to offer", curator Lauro Marchetti says. Now is in any case one of the best times to enjoy Ninfa's unique mix of river, ruins, wildlife and plants, once the best-kept secret between Rome and Naples.

The garden, built by three women in the shell of a medieval stronghold where a fleeing pope was anointed, used to be the preserve of VIP guests like the late 'uncrowned king of Italy', carmaking giant Gianni Agnelli, or the British royal family. But since the last of its long-established owners, the Caetani family, died in 1977, a foundation now opens it to the public as often as the demands of conservation allow.

Two weekends a month, from April to October, lovers of nature, history and beauty come to this flower-covered ruin dubbed "the Pompeii of the Middle Ages" by the 19th-century German historian Ferdinand Gregorovius and considered by many the most romantic garden in the world. October sees Ninfa at its climactic height, with its wealth of ornamental trees reviving after the onslaught of the summer heat - although Ninfa's climate is always milder than the steamy marshland around it.

Ninfa astonishes by its variety: Himalayan magnolias, Chinese acacias, Japanese cherries, cypresses, birch, hawthorn, American sweet gum and Italy's tallest poplar. Or the more exotic dragon's claw willow, the 'wig' or 'fog' tree, giant-leafed Amazonian river plants across the water from a knobbly and seemingly precarious Roman bridge, a huge bamboo grove that shoots up out of a spring, and the quirky Tillandsia epiphyte that rings the cedars like hand-warmers, drawing nourishment from the air. All kinds of flora seem to do well in Ninfa's river-cooled environment, and the scents of its flowers, herbs and trees enrich the sensory experience.

A wildlife sanctuary since 1976, Ninfa is also home to badgers, dormice, orioles, owls, kingfishers, herons, falcons and, of course, waterfowl. Sparrows, jackdaws and thrushes nest in the Ghibelline castle. Furtive rustlings and seemingly respectful yet joyous twitterings charm the ear. The river's trout are descended from those brought by the Romans, and a fat carp flops out of the lake now and then to add to the treats for eye and ear.