Europe’s Most Beautiful Gardens

Courances, France

The UK Telegraph is counting down the 50 Most Beautiful Gardens in the World. Why don’t we take a look at some of the European selections?

Courances, France (image above)
Is this the perfect example of the French formal garden? Created in the mid-17th century – reputedly by Jean, father of the great Andre Le Nôtre – the garden is filled with water in many moods, although it is serenity that sets the tone. In front of the château, to the south, is an elaborate box parterre that prefaces a perfect rectangular still pool, surrounded by lawns and trees. This vista continues along a broad grassy walk to a small circular pool with a statue of Hercules (symbolising strength and virtue) and on to a larger pool and amphitheatre. The woodland on each side of the main vista contains many more delights, with allées cutting through and pools, canals and cascades to discover. The other side of the house is dignified by a pair of long rectangular canals. The singularity of the conception is what appeals so much and lends this place its sublime beauty.

Alhambra, Spain

Alhambra, Spain
The fabled patios of this Moorish fortress-palace in Granada, constructed between the 9th and 14th centuries, still retain an extraordinary sequestered atmosphere, especially if a visitor has the foresight to plan a visit to avoid the crowds. Spaces such as the Court of the Lions (late-14th century) are not gardens in the familiar sense, in that they do not contain plants, but the sight and sounds of water, the play of light and shadow and the decorative effects of the rich yet delicate carving and stucco-work turn these outdoor living rooms into works of art. Above the palace proper and across a gorge lies another palace complex, the Generalife, which contains more greenery and is not as formally organised. Its highlight is the celebrated long, rectangular pool adorned with arching fountains in the Patio de la Acequia.

Isola Bella
Isola Bella, Italy

Isola Bella, Italy
A garden that looks like a ship is worthy of celebration indeed, and this extraordinary place – situated in the middle of Lake Maggiore and accessible only by boat – does not fail to live up to expectations. It was Count Carlo Borromeo’s idiosyncratic vision in the 1630s which saw this villa and garden constructed over a period of 40 years. The island is oddly shaped and rises naturally at one end, which means that there is no apparent rhyme or reason to the “formal” design of terraces and parterres, which seem to multiply as one moves on. It is all dictated by topography. From a distance it is the tobelisks on the highest terraces that help lend such a ship-like air to the place, but when one is on the island the series of six connecting grottoes beneath the palace command the attention first, followed by the monumental stone “theatre” topped by a statue of a unicorn.

Giardino Giustino
Giardino Giusti, Italy

Giardino Giusti, Italy
In On the Making of Gardens (1909) Sir George Sitwell of Renishaw Hall described the “intensely solemn loveliness” of this urban garden in Verona, which takes a hold of most people who visit it (Goethe and John Evelyn included). Tall, elegant cypresses at first seem to define it, but the garden’s several levels are most affecting on the ground, with the flatness of the lowest accentuated by the smoothness of boxwood parterres punctuated by modest fountains and statues. The garden was originally laid out in the 1570s, with fountains, statues, grottoes and a labyrinth, all of which survive. Later additions include a late 18th-century parterre in the French style, a woodland area with grotto and decorative stone masks on the highest ground, together with a belvedere offering views of the city. The subtle organisation of these spaces chimes with a modern sensibility.

Powis Castle
Powis Castle, Wales

Powis Castle, Wales
This is a garden which inspires passionate devotion among a large segment of the garden cognoscenti; it draws people back again and again. Powis is an unusual fusion of a steeply terraced garden in the Italian Renaissance tradition, with 20th-century herbaceous planting of the highest quality. The terraces were created in the mid 17th century at a time when the house, which started life as a 13th-century seat of the Princes of Powis, was also being remodelled. What we see today is a remarkable composition of multiple terraces of lawns, topiary and themed borders, giving onto a massive lawn, then rising again into woodland, with views of the fields beyond that. It is quite a spectacle. Original 18th-century statuary has survived here where it has been lost to so many other gardens. The planting detail is much enjoyed and constantly changing: colour is certainly not eschewed and fuchsias are in abundance, together with pelargoniums, nasturtiums and a many more tender specimens.

Villa Lante
Villa Lante, Italy

Villa Lante, Italy
For the majority of seasoned visitors, this garden just east of Viterbo is simply the most sublime Renaissance garden experience of all – a hillside water garden of the 1560s where the twin pavilions that act as “the house” are absorbed by and remain subordinate to the rhythms of the landscape design. And what rhythms these are – the water first emerges from the gnarly Grotto of the Deluge at the top of the garden, complemented by flanking Palladian loggias that act as small dining pavilions. This tension between smooth rationality and rough nature is continued throughout the design, with rationalism triumphing in the large, ordered fountain parterre at the foot of the garden. Perhaps the most memorable moment is the Fountain of the Table on the third level of four, which consists of a long stone table with a central runnel down its length. Cardinal Gambara, who commissioned the garden, made reference to his family name by using the crayfish motif – “gambara” means crayfish.

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