By Louise Cameron

Genoa, according to most of the Italians we encountered, is vastly under-rated as a travel destination. The entire hillside port city is a World Heritage Site full of Renaissance palaces and six-to eight-story buildings stunningly enhanced with a panoply of architectural and artistic trompe l’oeil. Unsurprisingly, the food is delicious and the people are warm and welcoming.

After settling in at the smartly-renovated Hotel Melia, our group boarded a charter bus for an overview of the city. Several of our fellow travelers had arrived a day or two earlier and particularly enjoyed their visit to the monumental 19th century Staglieno cemetery that is so full of statuary and interesting mausoleums it is considered to be an open-air museum. We were able to glimpse it from above and below as we toured the area.

Genoa was an important port founded in the fourth century. Famous of course for its native son, Christopher Columbus, it became a city of great wealth in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries when many of its palaces were built. Quite a number of these enormous buildings are still standing, although they are now often used by local government or institutions and some have sadly deteriorated. Our first visit, to the Palazzo Lomellino (1653) on Via Garibaldi, was an exciting introduction to the wealth of design in architecture, the decorative arts and landscape that awaited us in Liguria and Tuscany.

Our second day began with a visit to the Palazzo del Principe and its formal gardens. Built by the famous naval commander Andrea Doria, it overlooks the Gulf of Genoa and houses a glorious collection of tapestries featuring the battle of Lepanto. Its handsome, but run-down garden features a large fountain and the beautiful ricciolo, or pebble mosaic, which we were to see throughout the region. That evening our group was entertained in an elegant apartment where we had cocktails and a variety of local delicacies in the small garden and on the terrace overlooking the city. The owner accompanied us, along with several of her friends, to dinner in the private club Circolo del Tunnel, located in a palazzo owned by the young couple who were having us for lunch in their castle the next day.

On our morning drive out into the country we stopped at a former hunting lodge owned by a Count whose wife is an enthusiastic gardener. This was a very personal garden and she, like all the other gardeners we would visit, lamented the condition of her lawns and plants due to the year-long drought that has plagued the region. Among her collection of roses and shrubs were a variety of lilies, bergenias, annuals and dozens of cascading plants that tumbled over terrace walls. The short drive to Montaldeo was picturesque; we could see our destination, the Castello, from miles away. Our host was kind enough to bring a car down for those who had trouble walking, but most of us chose to take the ancient stone-paved walk up to the castle. The delicious lunch of local specialties was served by staff wearing jackets with the Marchese Doria’s coat of arms on the buttons and the tables were set with crystal and plates bearing the same. Before joining us for the meal, our hosts gave us a history of the castle and a short tour of the elegantly comfortable and immaculately renovated main floor.

On the way to Santa Margherita Ligure we visited a romantic villa and garden right on the sea, roamed at will through its winding paths and sampled local wine and hors d’oeuvres from yet another generous table. Nearby, we were treated to a tour of an enormous garden lovingly cared for by a ship-builder’s widow and her gardening staff. The olive grove produces 300-400 liters of oil from the harvest that is pressed the same day it is gathered. We saw a specimen arbutus (strawberry tree) that still had some of its red fruit, pots of fruiting dwarf pomegranates, purple hebe plants, dahlias and spent tree peonies. We were then invited into the modern villa to see the collection of model ships and to sample delicious sandwiches and wine. My favorite new taste of the whole trip was our hostess’s specialty — tempura battered and fried inch-long salty sage leaves, accompanied by fried zucchini blossoms.  

Upon disembarking from the crowded boat we took for the short ride to Portofino the next morning, we were met by an extraordinary gardener who lived in a tower on one of the hills overlooking the harbor. We all filed through the iron shore-side gate to her garden and climbed the paths weaving through displays of every kind of plant that could be grown in the region. Many of these plants are familiar: oleanders, camellias, plumbago, wisteria, hibiscus, hydrangeas, rhododendrons, pittosporum, lilies of the Nile, iris and lantana. We were served refreshments on one of the many seating areas built into the mountainside and, after catching our breath, were able to ask our hostess about the history of her gardening. She bought the property over 30 years ago and spent two years just cleaning it. In 2016 a storm destroyed many of the large trees and left everything in a jumble. She has never seen a plant she didn’t want to try to grow and is hoping for a natural garden as she cleans up again.

After that exhausting but exhilarating visit, we headed to the fabulous Hotel Splendido for midday cocktails on the lawn and lunch on the colonnade overlooking the hotel’s immaculate gardens. Nothing was scheduled for the afternoon, so my husband and I roamed the upper streets of Santa Marguerita, visited the cathedral and its handsome garden, peeked in some of the shops and relaxed on the hotel garden terrace before turning in early.

Italy is about the size of California and is comprised of 21 regions, with a population of roughly 50 million. We were now leaving Liguria for Florence, the capitol of Tuscany, stopping along the way in the town of Pietrasanta. Michelangelo worked here and there are more than 200 artists’ studios in the area. Our purpose was not only to see the little town with its marble parquet sidewalks, but to visit Nicola Stagetti’s multi-generational studio and the three other studios on his property. It was a messy, but fascinating place and Nicola showed us one of his prize-winning sculptures and his computer-driven carving machine. A four-course lunch followed at the well-known restaurant LaBrigatta di fillipo located only a short walk through the town.

Our hotel in Florence, the Villa Cora, was once home to the Empress Eugènie, wife of Napoleon III. It is an elegant five-star property minutes from the city center overlooking the adjacent Boboli Garden. There is a spa, an excellent restaurant and a heated pool. We our suppers here, as we were worn out from miles and miles of walking each day. There is so much to explore in Florence, but on our first full day there, we left for San Domenico in the nearby countryside to visit Villa Gamberaia, where we were met by landscape architect Mariachiara Pozzana, who has written a book and a booklet on the garden. Next on the agenda was a tour of the garden of the charming Villa Le Balze by kind arrangement with Georgetown University which now owns it. Lunch of eggplant rolls filled with homemade noodles in tomato and basil sauce, veal medallions, field greens, wild berries and sorbet, coffee and chocolates was served at the Villa San Michele, a former monastery that is now a Belmond Hotel.

Elizabeth Namack, an American who came to Florence over 20 years ago, is a superb guide who gave us an excellent walking tour of the city center, including the Baptistry, the Duomo and the recently re-opened Opera del Duomo Museum. After our tour, we had a very special visit with a Marchesa whose family lives in the glorious Palazzo Gondi overlooking the heart of the old city.

Our next to last day in Florence, we again headed out to the country, to the famous 14th century Villa La Pietra, for a private tour of this property recently owned by Arthur Acton, who laid out its gardens in 1908. His son, the collector, dealer and author Sir Harold Acton, left the property consisting of five villas on 57 acres and its contents to New York University in 1994. During the Second World War, the Actons had to leave because they were declared enemies, but luckily, the property was never breached (or used as a hospital) and it remained intact. The University has been working ever since to restore it to the glory of its heyday in the 1930s and to preserve this important collection. We were fortunate to have a private art tour of the ground floor of the villa followed by a tour of the statuary-filled Renaissance revival gardens with the head of the horticulture department.

We saw the limonaia where the potted citrus trees were stored during the winter and learned that the protected pomarias, or fruit gardens, were extremely important for fresh produce in the days before the railroads opened up distant markets and that they were good money-makers for their owners. This visit was particularly fascinating because so much is known about the property when the Actons lived there and the restoration is still on-going. It takes about $300,000 annually just to maintain the gardens and to keep its staff of eight, along with student volunteers.

We again boarded our bus and drove to Arcetri, where our lovely hostess from the night before in Florence gave us a delicious buffet luncheon in her country home, the former convent where one of Galileo’s daughters lived. This was followed by a late afternoon visit to Villa Bardini, which is adjacent to the Boboli Gardens. I was pleased to see a collection of Charleston’s own Noisette roses against the walls along one of the main paths.

A visit to Florence would be incomplete without seeing the Uffizi Gallery. We joined our guide again for one of the best museum tours I have ever experienced. Elizabeth talked us through the centuries of Italian painting; it was wonderful. All of us wanted to linger in the museum shop, but we had one last visit on the agenda before we went back to Villa Cora to get dressed for our farewell cocktails and supper out on the terrace and in the formal rooms.

We were privileged to have refreshments in a beautifully appointed apartment on the ground floor of a villa attached to one of the largest private gardens in Europe situated within city walls. The owner gave us a brief talk on the history of the property and walked with us through part of its grounds, which are owned by several family members. With the afternoon all our own, Price and I chose to take a taxi to the Santa Maria Novella Farmacia and indulge in buying some of its exquisite scented products before having cappuccino at a sidewalk café and heading back to the hotel for a last dip in the pool.

 

Louisa Pringle Cameron is a native Charlestonian married to retired plastic surgeon, Price Cameron. Her third book, Charleston: City of Gardens, is being published by the USC Press and will be available in April 2018.

Mercury newspaper racks are located at the following locations:

The Meeting Street Inn

Clair's Service Station at 334 Folly Rd.

Harris Teeter on Houston-Northcutt Blvd.

The Square Onion in I'On

Mt. Pleasant Library on Mathis Ferry Rd.