Spring is in the air and that means the Garden of Ninfa, which has been called the most romantic garden in the world, will soon be open for its limited 2017 season. Ninfa is the Italian word for nymph. It is an apt name for this sylvan place that time forgot, with its flowers, trees, and gurgling streams, and its ruins covered in vines.
Located near Cisterna Latina 75 km (46 miles) southeast of Rome, Ninfa has a long and colorful history. A thousand years ago, it was a small town by a flowing stream, home to a temple dedicated to the water nymphs from whence it got its name. By 1100 it had become an important and wealthy place next to the only north-south road that was passable when the Appia Antica was flooded.
Pope Alexander III was crowned there in 1159, but the town’s honor and glory would not last long; the Pope’s enemy the Emperor Barbarossa sacked the town. It eventually passed into the hands of the Caetani family, though it suffered a long and steady decline starting in the 1300s. During subsequent centuries, nature took its course, engulfing the abandoned medieval town, which faded from sight.
But not from memory. In the early 1920s, Gelasio Caetani decided to reclaim the swampy land via a custom-built drainage and irrigation system, and establish a garden amid the ruined town with the help of his English-born mother and American-born sister-in-law. Gelasio’s’ niece Leilia Caetani and husband Hubert Howard continued the family’s work. They imported plants from all over the world; the 8-hectacre (20-acre) site is home to more than 1,000 plant species, including dozens of roses, clematis, climbing hydrangea, water irises, ornamental cherry trees, cypress, magnolias, oaks, and poplars, among many others.
Today, a foundation maintains the garden, which is only open on certain dates and is accessible only via a guided tour. In 2017, visiting season kicks off on April 1. The majority of open days are in the spring, though the season runs through November 5. Check online for dates and to buy tickets–and if you are going to go, get there early. If you have a few minutes before your tour starts (or after it ends), you can cross the road and visit the Horti Nympharum, a classic citrus garden across the lane complete with fountain, a family of swans, and castle ruins to wander through. There is a separate entry fee for that garden, but it is worth the price.
Finally, if you are making a day of it, head up to the walled hill town of Sermoneta for lunch; the town itself is charming, and the views of the valley from above are gorgeous.