Two Florentine Gardens

As you will know, the blog is on holiday. I hope you might be too… or at least, I wouldn’t try reading this all at once. It’s a blog in at least two parts.


We had arrived in Florence late on Thursday evening, and woke early, to a morning of sparkling sunshine. Through our friend Kim Wilkie, we’d arranged to visit La Pietra, the beautiful villa owned by Harold Acton on the hills to the north of Florence. For eighteen years, Kim has been working on the restoration of the garden and landscape of this sublime villa, now owned by New York University.

We were meeting Nick Dakin-Elliot, Kim’s friend and collaborator, and wonderful gardener, who 16 years ago arrived at La Pietra for a one-year sabbatical… and never left.  We’d made a plan with Nick to meet in the centre of town early on Friday morning.

We walked down from our hotel, with its beautiful view across the skyline of Florence.

P1000023 Little scenes caught my eye along the way, as they do:P1000051 P1000053 P1000055 P1000058 P1000060 P1000087

The cleaners at the Loggia dei Lanzi reminded me a little of the floor polisher of the Pantheon, (which is still probably my favourite blog of all time).P1000093 P1000099 P1000102 P1000104 P1000112

As we arrived at our rendezvous, a window-cleaner was getting some enthusiastic help at the lower level from his son:P1000113

We met Nick as planned, batting into town in his tiny green Fiat, and made our way up the steep hills to La Pietra.

Here is the agrarian landscape – once wasteland – that Kim and Nick have restored to productive olive groves… with beautiful meadow grassland beneath. Incredible.

The fiat parked outside the villa, a perfect combination.P1000119

And after a tour of the dark, gloomy, oppressive, magnificent villa, we walked out into blinking sunlight into the gardens:P1000123

A bed of zinnias… the seed turned out to be from a stock of plants that had originally been planted in the 30’s by the Actons – Harold’s parents, who had restored the villa and the gardens and created this monument (as Kim described it) to ‘the Anglo-American-Florentine love affair of the 1930s.’P1000127 P1000130

The shell loggia at the end of the terrace was a dream.P1000133P1000148 P1000134 P1000141

Nick was a brilliant, knowledgable and deeply sympathetic guideP1000145 P1000146 P1000155 P1000160 P1000161

The garden descends down the hill via a beautifully-designed series of spaces… axes and long vistas.P1000164 P1000168 P1000171 P1000173 P1000175 P1000176 P1000178

The restoration has entailed, here and there, dramatic reconstruction of the built elements – but always making sure that when the work is done, you would never know it has happened.  Here is a flight of steps halfway through being relaid with a pattern of tiny mosaic pebbles. Incredible.P1000179 P1000180

Statues being cleaned:

…ghostly in their protective covers;P1000183

With beautiful views back down to Florence from various key points within the landscape:P1000189 P1000190 P1000200

I liked the lighting at the Wisteria pergola.P1000202 P1000207

Our favourite of all was the beautiful vegetable and cutting garden…. Nick’s love of this area was evident tooP1000213 P1000216 P1000218 P1000220 P1000221P1000228P1000235P1000234 P1000227At the end of the garden is the great Limonaia, where the lemon trees are stored in the winter. It is a beautiful, magical space: beneath the coconut matting is bare earth, which is the best for keeping the lemon trees at the right temperature and humidity. Needless to say, a few statues watch over them.P1000236 P1000239 P1000244 P1000246 P1000247 P1000253 P1000257 P1000258

Nick walking past the front of the villa…P1000263

…to collect some pots from a dusty pot store at the back of the garden…P1000278

Watched over by this extraordinary statue of Diana in her unrestored shell grotto, which was startling in its beauty of execution.P1000273 P1000275And then it was time to leave.  A dream.  We returned to Bellosguardo and dozed by the pool and slept the afternoon away.


We had a morning in Florence on Saturday – before we were driving down to meet Valentina at her lovely house in Chianti. Another early start, another beautiful morning:
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The hotel gardens are fine in their own right:P1000325 P1000334

A narrow footpath winds its way through the farm owned by the hotel – with amazing views across Florence. It felt strange and refreshing to be in the middle of the countryside, so close to the city. P1000338 P1000339

If Charlie and I ever decided to move to Florence, our shop is ready to go.P1000344 The Boboli gardens are a dream. I hadn’t been for years – literally, in fact, for decades.
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Another day, another limonaia. Perhaps even more beautiful for being completely empty this time.P1000361

Around the corner is this building, an even grander lemon house, although sadly not open. But we sneaked photographs through the rusty iron railings.P1000369 P1000371 P1000373

More vistas.P1000379The water garden was empty, and sublime, a great limpid green basin surrounded by citrus pots and statues.P1000381 P1000387 P1000390 P1000396 P1000406 P1000410 P1000411 P1000413 P1000415We made our way up the steep avenue to the main gardens.
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At the very peak, striking views across to the little church of San Miniato al Monte, and to the hills south of Florence.P1000436 P1000438 P1000443

I love the network of little white vans that encircle Florence.P1000455

Looking down to the Pitti Palace:P1000456

And across to the Duomo, Brunelleschi’s dome shimmering in the morning heat:P1000465 P1000469

Really, you should enter the Boboli gardens through the Palazzo Pitti, but I’m afraid we left that way, slightly seeing the drama of the piece in reverse, on our way out….P1000478Leaving the great stadium….P1000481 P1000483 P1000486

Pittiand descending into the courtyard as opposed to the other way around. Ah well.P1000495

The courtyard grotto is a delicate, beautiful space…P1000497 P1000501

In contrast to the extraordinary muscularity of the architecture that surrounds it…P1000505 P1000510 P1000513 P1000517 P1000518

Reluctant to pull ourselves away from Florence, we popped up to the Ospedale degli Innocenti, Brunelleschi’s dream building (to my mind), but which was in a rather sorry state of disrepair.P1000532 P1000539 P1000542

We popped into to the New Sacristy of San Lorenzo… P1000544

before a superb lunch at La Ménagère, which felt a bit different to most Florentine places. Really good.Bar Bar1

We arrived at Val’s house. Hot from the road, we leapt into our swimming trunks and down to the pool, with impeccably bad timing. A massive thunderstorm rolled in on cue.P1000567 P1000568 P1000574

But it doesn’t rain in Tuscany for long. The sunshine was soon back.P1000577Possibly my favourite spot in the world, lying on the cushions of Val’s wall.
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It was time to relax, in what is probably the most relaxing house I know. Happy holidays!

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