In Bordighera, the Gardens of Villa Hanbury created by Thomas Hanbury (a Londoner who made his fortune in Shanghai and fell in love with this part of the coast and its truly unique climate), sweep across the promontory of Mortola just a stone’s throw from the hamlet of Latte di Ventimiglia. Their wholly strategic position is enhanced by the exceptionally varied panoramas set amidst lush green vegetation.
Here typically Mediterranean flora intermingles with a host of more exotic species, forming an outstanding collection of some six thousand plants, all of which are grown in the open air. The result is a piece of heaven on earth, a garden of wonders, the only botanical park of its kind in the world, a place where every single plant, shrub, hedge and flower is catalogued and marked.
The overall layout of the garden (which has been changed several times over the years to take account of new landscaping trends, contemporary tastes and the demands of botanical research) helped preserve the historic via Julia Augusta, one of the most important roads of its day (the best-kept part is still inside the garden) and preexisting main routes; all other paths through the garden were built crossways or lengthways to the originals. Still standing are the ancient retaining walls, esplanades and old brickwork boundary which separates the Villa from the sea.
Each level of the garden is linked with steps, ramps and sweeping, flowering staircases. By creating the gardens, the entire Hanbury family set out to preserve and encourage spontaneous local vegetation in the wilder, less accessible parts and, where necessary, thicken out the ranks of trees (every possible variety of pine, olives) and shrubs (myrtle, laurel, rosemary, broom). On the banks of the stream they planted oleanders; in the shadier and higher areas, wisteria and lilac; at the foot of the walls, passion-flowers and roses, ivy and begonias; on the terraces, tumbling geraniums and pelargoniums.
The south-facing part of the garden where the flower-beds are less ordered was embellished with agaves, aloes, opuntia, cacti, cereus, spurges and yuccas. The Hanburys also created a palm-grove, Australian forest and colour-themed gardens (pink, white, orange) filled with seasonal blooms and bordered with neat hedges. An orchard and citrus plantation were positioned amid beds of anemones, freesias, irises, crocuses, jonquils and squills so that the eye is drawn to them. Each level of the gardens was given an elegant finishing touch with the addition of sculptures, fountains, tubs, colonnades and pillars, amphorae, stone seats and temples.
The palazzo belonging to the MarchesiOrengo di Ventimiglia (the main building on the estate) was also left almost untouched. To make it more comfortable, the tower was raised to improve the view even further and new sections were added (the terraces, arched loggia and portico at the front of the house). Service buildings were positioned for different purposes: casa Bellini below the nurseries for staff; a cottage on the east bank of the stream (the Sorba) to house scientific experiments and the original site for Sir Thomas’s archaeological finds; the gardeners’ lodgings, cowshed, casa Natalini, stable, hayloft and custodians’ house on level ground. To irrigate the gardens and plants, the family were forced to reshape the grounds and, at some cost, design a system to collect and distribute water. In an altruistic gesture, the Hanbury family donated the gardens to the people of Italy. Upkeep is now the responsibility of the Botanical Institute of the University of Genoa.