Still-green fields, ripe persimmons hanging off bare branches, avenues of leafless trees with gnarly bark, crisp scents detectable in the cold, white and yellow bulbs poking through woodlands: this is winter in Tuscany.
Tuscany is home to many magnificent gardens, and winter is a wonderful time to visit them. Winter reveals a garden’s structure and design, elements hidden in spring and summer, the ‘rhythm’ and flow, from its wild side to its calculated details: the silhouettes and shadows of the deciduous trees; paths that lead to spectacular overlooks, with cypresses looming in the distance; the contrast between soft surfaces and hardscape; the play of water and light; the role of pergolas, pots, urns and statues; the historic villa in the distance, the towering conifers; groupings of winter-flowering shrubs and evergreens that are overshadowed by their showier neighbours in the warmer months.
There are blooms and colours, too: lush underplantings of hellebores and bergenias are in their prime in winter garden. The bright red, purple or yellow berries on the holly bushes pop alongside the strong shapes of magnificent evergreen topiaries. The air is clean and moist, and there are surprising scents of daphnes and viburnums planted near doorways and pathways. Free of crowds, the gardens are havens of peace and quiet—almost magical.
Pull on your boots, embrace the chill and take a winter walk through some of Tuscany’s most beautiful gardens. Here are some of my favourites, open all winter, guaranteed to inspire and invigorate.
Villa Garzoni – #Collodi
An ornamental baroque garden set in a striking valley. The garden rises from a semi-circular parterre through terraced flights of stairs to a water cascade and up into the woods. November to February, open Monday–Saturday, 9am–noon and 2–5pm. www.pinocchio.it/giardino-garzoni-c2/
Villa Reale di Marlia – #Lucca
This extravagant baroque garden includes an impressive water theatre featuring fountains and mosaics; Spanish and Italian gardens, a world-famous lemon tree garden, a semicircular wall of yew bushes, and an aptly named green theatre. November 1–February 28, open Sundays and holidays, 10am–4pm. www.parcovillareale.it
Palazzo Piccolomini Garden – #Pienza
The perfect Renaissance garden in the perfect Renaissance town designed by Pope Pius II, who also commissioned the garden. It has a wonderful loggia on three sides, with spectacular views across the Val d’ Orcia on the fourth, seen through an arched wall. Little charms like a small hanging garden, double pruned box hedges and gravel paths leading from the papal palace round out its refined aesthetic. Open Tuesday through Sunday except holidays, 10am–12.30pm and 3–6pm. www.palazzopiccolominipienza.it
Villa Poggio Torselli – San Casciano in #ValdiPesa
This fifteenth-century villa features an avenue of ancient cypresses leading to a terraced garden encircled by lemon trees. Local stones are used throughout. Winter wonders include hedges of violets and pansies. Open Monday to Friday 10am to 5pm. www.poggiotorselli.it
Villa Gamberaia – #Settignano
Edith Wharton was impressed by this formal eighteenth-century garden, noting that it ‘combines in an astonishingly small space, yet without the least sense of overcrowding, almost every typical excellence of the old Italian garden.’ Take note of its olive groves, ilex woods, terraced walls, fruit trees, fountains, paths, stone deities and troubadours. Monday–Saturday, 9am–7pm; Sunday, 9am–6pm; last entry one hour before closing time. www.villagamberaia.com
Bosco della Ragnaia – San Giovanni d’Asso #Siena
This expansive woodland park and garden near Siena is a contemporary work of art masterminded by the American artist Sheppard Craige. Lined with oak trees, the garden also has an ‘altar to skepticism’ and a ‘tabernacle of the big certainties,’ adding a touch of existential whimsy. Open daily throughout the winter, except December 25. www.laragnaia.com
La Foce – #Pienza
Created by Iris Origo, this beautiful garden overlooks the spectacular Val d’ Orcia. Box hedging, laurel trees, pergolas, fountains, terraces and narrow passageways abound, yet the garden’s compositional unity is impressive. Public guided visits are offered on December 26 and January 1; visits on other days require a reservation and a minimum of 20 participants (e-mail email@example.com for information). http://www.lafoce.com
Several of these gardens are best reached by car: if you’re relying on public transportation, two of the easiest to reach are Villa Gamberaia in Settignano (take bus number 10 from piazza San Marco in Florence) and Villa Poggio Torselli.