by Silvana Rivella & Gianluca Errico

LA MORTOLA-GRIMALDI. Almost at the border with France, the Balzi Rossi Promontory (close to the famous Villa Hanbury Gardens) host one of the main prehistoric sites on Europe. The caves are located just below the village of La Mortola – Grimaldi, in a high rock wall descending steeply to the sea, and receive the name from the reddish color of the rocks. What few people know is that the earliest researchers of the site were the French scientist Horace de Saussure and the Prince Florestan I of the nearby Monaco. In fact, among the fifteen caves, the “Florestan cave” is so named for the Prince of Monaco who in 1846 financed the first excavations.

View of the Mediterranean from inside the Cave discovered by Prince Florestan I of Monaco in 1846

Actually, Prince Florestan was more an artist than a politician. He was a very cutivated person, greatly attracted to the world of natural sciences that he studied during his whole life in Monaco and especially in Paris, where he died aged 70 in 1856. Then, the Balzi Rossi Anthropologic Museum was founded in honour of the two reserchers in the late 19th century (1898) by Thomas Hanbury, a very rich Englishman in love with this part of Liguria and Côte d’Azur. Hanbury visited Europe from 1866 to 1869, and in 1867 started travelling the Côte d’Azur. It is most probable that he sejourned in one of the newly built Grand Hotels of Monte-Carlo for a while, admiring the work in progress of that paradise on earth. Actually, Prince Florestan’s heir, Charles III, had created the Monte-Carlo-Spélugues district between 1850 and 1883. When Hanbury saw and purchased the abandoned villa of the Orengo di Roccasterone family at La Mortola – Grimaldi, he planned to make there a botanical garden with the help of his brother Daniel, a distinguished pharmacist and botanist. Daniel Hanbury was an essential partner to his brother in importing plants from Orient and in selecting specimens.

Thomas Hanbury (1832-1907)

From 1873 Hanbury employed a curator of the Hanbury Botanical Gardens (H.B.G.) that since the end of the XIX century to today received an enourmous number of important visitors. Among these was, in 1882, Queen Victoria of England, while she was residing and sketching in Chalet des Rosiers in Menton; her son Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught with his wife Princess Louise Margaret of Prussia, his brother Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, which Queen Victoria could not stop going into Montecarlo’s gambling rooms …and his sister Princess Beatrice; Princess Eugenie; King Albert of Saxony and Queen Carola; Prince Ernest of Saxe-Coburg; Kuo Sung Tao, the first Chinese Quing Dinasty minister to be accredited in Europe in 1878, when he was appointed Minister to France; the then Prince of Naples; in more recent times Winston Churchill was wheeled up and down the steep slopes in Queen Victoria’s special chair in the 1950’s; the socialite icon Marella Agnelli, creator of the gardens of Villa Frescot, the Agnelli house in Piedmont; her grandchild Alain Elkann, President ofthe Friends of H.B.G.”; T. S.H. Rainier and Grace of Monaco and of course their son, H.S.H. Albert II of Monaco were hosted many times at Hanbury House. In 2017, in the occasion of the 150th of the Hanbury Gardens founder, the Monaco Sovereign also planted a rare Australian shrub, the Theaceae Camellia sasanqua during a VIP ceremony in the Australian sector of the vast Hanbury Gardens. Sir Thomas Hanbury died at La Mortola on 9 March 1907. He was buried in the gardens under a pavilion in moresco style.

Mausoleum pavilion of the Hanburys in the gardens of Villa Orengo at La Mortola

Lady Hanbury gave the villa Hanbury to the Italian State in 1960 and after a period of neglect the house and gardens were restored by the local office of the Arts Ministry. HBG are now run by the Genoa University. Today, the Gardens continue to live by the planning ideas of its founder.

In Ventimiglia, Montecarlotimes.eu met Mrs Judith Wade. The founder of the Association GRANDI GIARDINI ITALIANI kindly granted an interview with our journalist Gianluca Errico about the GGI Association and the Hanbury Botanical Gardens. 

Q. Mrs Wade, can you give us some informations about the Hanbury Botanical Gardens?

A. British owned business ‘Grandi Giardini Italiani’ (GGI), is a network of the finest open gardens in Italy including Villa Hanbury in Ventimiglia. Obviously the Hanbury Botanical Gardens were among the first to join my Association. The Hanbury Botanical Gardens Center and its activities will be sometimes seen through the eyes of the past, sometimes with an eye towards the future and sometimes with ”no eyes” by sensing scents, shapes and by touching and tasting flavors. There will be many opportunities to get to know how much the Hanbury family legacy has taken root in the Ventimiglia area and how much of this is still appreciated by those who live here, one and a half centuries later. Recently, a new space of visits has been realized, equipped to receive tourists groups with mobility problems and disabilities. GGI works with both privately owned and state run gardens, which collectively attracted an impressive 8m visitors from Italy and overseas in 2017. Since 1997, that is more than 20 years, passion and entrepreneurship increased the number of participating gardens from 12 to 124.

Mortola- Grimaldi -Italy – The Villa Hanbury and its Botanical Gardens

Q. Mrs Wade, what do you actually think of the enormous success atteined by Grandi Giardini Italiani?

A. “I like to think of Grandi Giardini Italiani as a factory of creativity spread over the whole of Italy, where thousands of people are committed to enhancing Italian gardens all year round to give added value to visitors. Over the past two decades I have dedicated all my time to the GGI initiative and am thrilled at the growth and success we have been able to achieve. Twenty years ago I could never have hoped for so much, so by looking at the network now, I can only ascertain that sometimes dreams really do come true!

Q. Mrs Wade, how did you succeed in this great challenge, the foundation of Grandi Giardini Italiani?

A. First above all, I was looking forward to making people knowledge the immense artistic heritage of the Italian botanical gardens. At the time, a permanent promotion for this sector of the tourism did not exist at national level. Generally it was considered as a minor branch, despite the favourable weather and the amazing range of gardens that could be visited. Then, I decided to approach the different property’s management, as a suitable and innovative pattern could improve both the maintenance status and the gardens’ renovation and development.

Q. Were you expecting to creating a positive imitation’s effect ?

A. Yes, useful examples like the famous “case histories” yet existed in the past. To succeed, we had to apply them. A positive imitation’s effect actually made the network’s members realize that investing in staff and events could create a virtuous self-financing system. As for including a much wider audience, I also wished to make the offer less elitist and exclusive and to develop marketing models linked to the actuality of this crucial sector of tourism.

Q. Did Grandi Giardini Italiani also turn its interests in publishing?

A. Since its inception, GGI has started its own publishing company, launched its own film production company, created many additional regional networks and won 3rd place at the Chelsea Flower Show for a Neapolitan garden designed by Arch E Bortolotti. It has produced a number of books including some available in English like the GGI guide book , the ‘Ask Russell Page’ and ‘The Negombo Gardens’, which can be purchased at Waterstones stores. I personally wrote the text of a luxury  photo book “Grandi Giardini Italiani ” (Rizzoli, 2002). In more than 200 pages, the book is full of photographs and texts presenting the finest gardens from northern to southern Italy: an incredible journey to discover the botanical heritage, the art and the history of the country.

Stunning view of the lake of Como from Villa Melzi Garden



Q. Did the Network make a lot of efforts before succeeding?

A. It is indisputable that Great Italian Gardens’ exponential growth in twenty years is not just “expected”. The number of visitors’ increase is due to the improvement of facilities, the creation of events and of educational courses. In the good old times, concerts, theatre and parties were usually organized in beautifully maintained gardens, full of fountains and wonderful blooms. The gardens were home to actors, dancers, musicians, and to an army of creative people. Therefore, my point was to fix “creativity” as a main tool in the managers’ meanings. Today, a calendar of routinely 700 events a year is sold out, both in Italy and in the recently founded Gardens of Switzerland, the network of the finest gardens to be visited there, positioning the gardens at the centre of the country’s cultural life.“

Q. Thank you Mrs Wade… just a last question  about the youth’s approach to this important sector of tourism.

A. “We are training young people to make them able to sustain the growth of the properties. The creation of skilled jobs develops into small business, so that by now I am happy to see young, well trained and enthusiasts people deciding to work stably in a cultural sector”. I like to think of Grandi Giardini Italiani as one of the widespread creativity factory on the whole Italian territory, where thousands of people are involved throughout the year in the value of the Italian gardens..”

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