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BOLOGNA'S SECRET GARDENS
Events | Bologna City | Itineraries
Lifting the lid on the city's glorious parks and gardens
Walking around Bologna, the streets of the historic centre can give the distinct impression of being poorly equipped when it comes to gardens. Under the porticoes one anonymous doorway follows another in close succession with no break for front gardens or even courtyards. Yet very occasionally, thanks to lucky timing, you'll catch a tantalising glimpse through an open doorway of one of the numerous lush and often lavish gardens that are hidden behind palazzi throughout town; look again and the green mirage at the end of the corridor has been replaced by a firmly closed front door.
For three days each May, however, thanks to the well-organised annual event, Diverdeinverde those doors are opened and the public is welcomed in to explore and enjoy some of Bologna's loveliest private gardens.
As co-organiser Silvia Cuttin explains, “the initiative was inspired by similar open gardens events held in London and Amsterdam and, having seen the latter, I must say how lucky we are in Bologna to have such a huge variety in our gardens.” From tiny cottage gardens combining decorative areas, often with historic origins, and vegetable patches, to contemporary, sometimes vertical, gardens and magnificent formal parks surrounding grand villas, the range is indeed startling.
One of the public's favourite among the event's private gardens – with good reason – is at Palazzo Masetti Zannini in Via Ca' Selvatica, near the Porta Saragozza city gate. After passing a former stable block swathed in aromatic star jasmine, you reach the gate to the garden, an astonishing and magical place dedicated largely to bird life. “We don't use pesticides so that birds are free to come and feed from our trees,” says Cesare, the latest in the Masetti line and a passionate gardener. “We never get to eat any of our grapes or cherries ourselves – the birds have always got there first,” he adds. The palazzo was used in the past as a cloistered convent (one of nearly a hundred in central Bologna before the advent of Napoleon to the area, when they were forced to close down or move out) and the garden is still enclosed by a high wall; there are romantic tunnels smothered in vines and wisteria and even a pair of resident tortoises and a duck pond. This is one of the very few gardens to open occasionally during the year and as dates are not fixed, follow it on Facebook to find out.
The very different gardens lying behind the grand palazzi on Via Santo Stefano are accessed, like the majority of those in the centre, via a long entrance corridor which opens midway onto an internal courtyard before reaching the garden at the rear. Here layouts are generally more formal, with statuesque trees including a centuries-old trees cedar of Lebanon and a selection of palms, surprisingly common around Bologna's gardens and stunning against the glowing yellow rear wall of the building at number 63. A few doors down at number 75 another garden is accessed by a narrow grassy avenue presided by bay trees, there are lovely rose arbours, crenellated walls and a tower house at the end of the garden.
Refreshments and seating are provided by many home owners who enjoy sharing their gardens and chatting with visitors, while in other cases there are actual catering services or charity food sales.
As Cuttin points out “the event is really popular and it's growing each year: for 2018 we've had 50 gardens, that's 14 more than the last edition and though the majority are within the city walls, there are some wonderful gardens outside the centre.” Bicycle hire is discounted for the event and a team of volunteers helps owners to manage the influx of visitors - who sometimes have to pass through the house itself to get to the garden - also providing information on the gardens and the plants and trees growing. Provisional plans are underway to launch a second open gardens event this autumn, focusing on out of town locations around the province but that's still to be confirmed (watch this space!).
Meanwhile, enjoying green Bologna needn't be limited to one weekend each year – the city has some lovely gardens and parks open all year round. The university's Orto Botanico, for a start is a real oasis on busy Via Irnerio in the centre of town. One of Italy's oldest botanical gardens, it was founded in the mid-16th century and has a rock garden, several ponds and greenhouses, a woodland section and plenty of grassy areas and benches for relaxing with a book or picnic; most species are labelled, there are info boards and you can even follow a QR code trail.
The city's largest and most frequented park is Giardini Margherita, between the Porta Santo Stefano and Porta Castiglione city gates. Popular with roller-skaters and runners, sunbathers and afternoon dozers, the park has large expanses of lawn, a reproduction of a Villanovian iron age hut and children's attractions including trampolines and a merry-go-round. The several refreshment areas include the Chalet bar which stands over a lake that's laced with fountains and is home to a community of turtles while another, the multifunctional Le Serre occupies the former municipal nurseries. An appealing garden context and atmosphere has been cleverly maintained with seating surrounded by greenery in and around greenhouse structures of all shapes and sizes and there are in-theme features such as flower-pot lamps. Regular events are held and the dishes and cocktails served use produce from the on-site vegetable and herb garden where possible.
The hills around Bologna are the place to go for more rural country parks. Parco Cavaioni (bus 52) is the setting for the farmhouse restaurant Ca' Shin while Parco di Villa Ghigi is a charming park, great for walking as well as being the base for the Villa Ghigi foundation which is behind the open gardens event as well as all sorts of other initiatives including activities for children and guided walks for all.
For a quick green fix in central Bologna take a table under the hanging garden at Bio’s Kitchen and enjoy a meal of delicious, high quality organic food or pop into Wood, a gastro-bar just down the road from the Two Towers, where you’ll be welcomed by a lush vertical garden on the entrance wall. And if you’re hit by the inspiration to create your own vertical garden, you can stock up on advice and the wherewithal at the Senape urban nursery in the centre of town. As well as plants and garden accessories, here you'll find a small stock of drinks for an impromptu break amongst the plants.
The perfect base for exploring the gardens and parks of Bologna is without a doubt Hotel Porta San Mamolo where country-chic rooms overlook a charming courtyard garden and you can enjoy breakfast among the plants.
The 6th edition of Diverdeinverde will be held 17-19 May 2019: check out the official website (www.diverdeinverde.fondazionevillaghigi.it) and be sure to save the date in your next year travel plan!
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