Imagine visiting, in a very beautiful Italian hill town, nineteen of the most exquisite private gardens which open their gates only every two years and then just twice. Thanks to friends we were advised of the opportunity of doing just that.
This was our very special treat when, yesterday, we visited Buggiano Castello (in Pistoia province just across the border from Lucca province). The event was entitled “the countryside within the walls” and it was quite remarkable to discover how many attractive secret gardens were enclosed within the tightly-knit urban settlement of what was originally a castle.
Most of the gardens were quite compact but some were of considerable size. Many had the most varied citrus fruits. (Buggiano’s speciality) and all were immaculately kept with wonderfully long views over the Arno plain. Each garden gave one so many ideas on how to organise one’s own Italian garden! After all, we none of us have anything approaching Caserta!
Organised by the municipality of Buggiano with the support of Expo 2015 (yes, it’s reached here too!) and FAI (the Italian equivalent of the UK’s National Trust) the garden opening was very pleasantly and skilfully organised. It’s the eighth time it’s been running – the first year was 1999. One has to leave one’s car at Borgo di Buggiano, itself an attractive little place, and take the navetta (shuttle bus) to Borgo Castello. There were a fair number of visitors present but nowhere did one get that impression of overpopulation one has to suffer at places like the Chelsea Flower show in London.
Each of the nineteen gardens on display had a specific name i.e. the” liberty-style garden”, the “baroque garden”, the “garden of the Hesperides”. There was even a ” tortoise garden”:
Smartly-uniformed young attendants assisted the owners who were most cordial towards us, supplying refreshments including limoncino and vanilla liqueurs and always ready to answer one’s questions. Folk and classical musicians at some gardens provided soothing sounds and there were exhibitions of traditional agricultural and household implements, an art show and children’s activities.
At the top of the borgo is the main square with the parish church and the praetorian palace. The church has a wonderful cosmatesque pulpit, now used as a baptismal font, and contains many works of art.
The praetorian palace has fragments of frescoes and was housing an arts exhibition accompanied by a harpist.
We thought we’d do Buggiano’s gardens in one hour. As it was, the place was so fascinating we were there for four admiring the skilful planning of gardens often laid out on small plots with precipitous slopes and odd shapes. Indeed, we would issue a health warning here. Because of the frequently steep stairs and slopes less-able-bodied visitors should beware. We didn’t know this and brought my wife’s 93-old mum along who faced the challenge robustly. If she could do it at her age then I’m sure other people can at any age!
Incidentally, the gardening and horticultural tradition in Buggiano Castello is rooted in the distant past. Documents dating back to 1427 reveal the interest of the local inhabitants in growing citrus fruits and laying out lovely flower and herbal gardens. It’s Buggiano Castello’s micro-climate which favours the cultivation of often delicate fruits and flowers.
Buggiano Castello is not a secret with those involved in the world of music. This plaque near the pretorial palace shows it was once a villa belonging to one of the greatest bass voices of all times: his recording of Mussorgsky’s songs and dances of death remains unbeatable. There’s a Boris Christoff prize festival here every year around September.
Buggiano’s palazzo Sermioli once belonged to that great Joseph Haydn re-discoverer, H. C. Robbins-Landon. He would sign off his highly stimulating articles with the phrase “Buggiano Castello”. Now I know where he lived and what a beautiful garden he had too! It’s a pity he had to give the place up in 1975 after having lived there for fifteen years. Robbins-Landon was apparently a great flirt and was described as someone who “seems to change his wives the way a coachman changes horses.”
As I write this the background music is Haydn’s string quartets. Without H-L’s researches it would have been rather more difficult to realise their existence and also of the great Austrian’s one hundred and four symphonies, every one of which has something special to reveal.
All garden entry funds go towards the upkeep of Buggiano Castello, surely one of the loveliest and least known hill towns in our part of the world and so near to Bagni di Lucca and Lucca itself!
The next time we’ll be able to visit the heavenly gardens of Buggiano Castello is in 2017. It’ll be quite difficult to wait that long!