The Gardens of Ninfa Hack

thumb_IMG_2028_1024My mom was here for three weeks and we had many adventures, which I’ll be telling you about in the coming days (unlikely) and months (more likely). The first thing I’ll be telling you about is our outing to the Gardens of Ninfa. According to the Upstairs Vegetarian’s big fancy newspaper, these have been called the “most romantic gardens in Italy.” I don’t dispute the sentiment but I tried to find out who first called them that and everything referred back to the same 2002 New York Times story, sometimes mistakenly claiming that the Times called Ninfa the “most beautiful gardens in the world.” My point is that the Times didn’t call them the most romantic etc. It just made the observation that they had been called that. A guy called Charles Quest-Ritson — excellent name — wrote a book called Ninfa: The Most Romantic Garden in the World but it was only published in 2009 i.e. seven years after the NYT article came out. And that’s how facts are made, my friends. Anyway, the Times story is interesting and here’s the link.

I’d never been to Ninfa before. Mostly I was put off by the weird hours. It’s only open a couple of days a month during the summer. And you have to go in with a guided tour so they can keep an eye on you and make sure you’re not tromping around ruining all the romantic (or beautiful) flora and fauna. Ninfa is located about 40 miles southeast of Rome, near Sermoneta. It has a pretty wild and wooly history. The town dates back to Ye Olde Roman Days and probably got its name from a nearby temple dedicated to some water nymphs (there’s a lake on the premises). Ninfa did well in medieval times because people needed to pass by there on the way from Rome to Naples and the Ninfans charged them a huge highway tax. Pope Alexander III was crowned at Ninfa in 1159. I can’t seem to find out why but it was during one of those confusing Antipope times and he wasn’t all that welcome in Rome. Later the German Emperor Barbarossa (who was the Antipope’s big defender) came along and burned down the town because Alexander was hiding out there.

In the 13th century, Ninfa and a bunch of other towns became the fiefdoms of Onorato Caetani thanks to the intervention of his uncle, Pope Boniface VIII — a very bad guy (Boniface, that is) if you listen to Dante. Onorato put in the gardens. In 1382, two Caetanis had a big war over who should be pope and ended up destroying the town. Again. Poor Ninfa. The town was briefly repopulated during the 16th Century but that didn’t last because the Pontine Marshes, which Italy had been trying to tame since Roman times, began to encroach on the area and malaria, as they say, was rife. BTW, it was our old pal Mussolini who finally put paid to the marshes in the 1930s. But that’s another story (and a good one). I’ll tell you about it another time. The Ninfa gardens were (re)created in the 1920s by Gaetano Caetani in the English style under the guidance of his Brit mother Lady Constance Adela (Ada) Bootle-Wilbraham and — sorry Charles Quest-Ritson — if that’s not the best name you’ve ever heard I’ll eat my hat!

So here’s the hack part (see title of post). Everything is a hack these days so I thought I’d jump aboard that bandwagon. When we arrived at Ninfa in the late morning it was scorchingly hot and there were about a bazillion people ahead of us in line. I stuck Mom in a nice shady spot and queued up while the UV (who was our chauffeuse during Mom’s visit, thanks UV!) set off to get the skinny. Here it is: there is an English language tour twice a day, at 10:30 and 3:30. If you go on the English tour you can completely bypass the bazillion people in line and go sit in a nice shady spot to wait for your guide with the other nine people who know about this. Good, eh? Just don’t tell everyone or it will be ruined.

It not being anywhere near 3:30 we went off to troll for lunch. Nearby we found a fantastic spot called Il Casale di Nonna Lina. Very picturesque and brilliant food. Here’s what we ate:

Fagioli all'uccelletto (beans little bird style), with bacon and tomato sauce. Very Tuscan dish this.

Fagioli all’uccelletto (beans little bird style), with bacon and tomato sauce. Very Tuscan dish. I don’t know why it’s called this. Are the beans supposed to look like little birds? Did people used to cook birds in this manner? My favorite Campbell’s soup used to be bean and bacon. Maybe that’s why I love this dish so much. 

Lasagna with cherry tomatoes and burrata (Mom and the UV had this).

Lasagna with cherry tomatoes and buratta (Mom and the UV had this). Buratta, BTW, gets spell-checked as buritto!

An a big hairy steak with lardo casually draped over it. Obvs that was mine.

A big hairy steak with lardo casually draped over it. Obvs that was mine. I heart lardo

We finished by splitting a slice of strawberry cheesecake.

We finished by splitting a slice of strawberry cheesecake.

Cute, eh?

Cute, no?

Okay, now that I made you sit through all that historical stuff, not to mention lunch, with no further ado I present to you the most romantic (or beautiful) garden in Italy (or the world)! No waiting!

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Il Casale di Nonna Lina. Via Le Pastine 70. Doganella di Ninfa. Tel: 0773 310179.



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