Hanbury Gardens on the Ligurian Riviera

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Hanbury Gardens on the Ligurian Riviera

In the 19th century, Thomas Hanbury chose Cape Mortola in Liguria to establish today’s Hanbury Botanical Gardens. It became the model for English gardens and villas all along the coast, shaping the Ligurian Riviera as we know it today.


Along the northwestern coast of Italy in Liguria at the border of France, the capes of the Riviera are bright with green palm trees, orange citrus fruits, a riot of flower colors, and a myriad of plants from Mediterranean species to the exotic. The Ligurian Riviera was already known and admired by Grand Tour travelers in the 18th century. But the area really started to gain traction in the collective travelers’ imagination (of the English, in particular) during the mid- to late-19th century, due in no small part to one English gentleman named Thomas Hanbury.

The Ligurian Riviera blossoms

In 1867, Thomas Hanbury purchased land and a villa right at the border of modern day Italy and France on Cape Mortola. He used his substantial fortune that he’d acquired at this young age through business in Shanghai to specifically pick land in La Mortola instead of the other capes nearby; he was enchanted by its beauty, fertile soils, and temperate climate (which also helped ease his asthma problems). Hanbury Gardens, Cactus Hanbury Gardens, Cactus - © Antonio Angelo

The average 19th century English aristocrat had a passion for gardening. But, many of the exotic plants that they brought home to their cooler, cloudier country had to be kept in greenhouses, if they survived the climate change at all. Today, it’s trendy to talk about the seasonality of fruits and vegetables, but don’t forget that all plants grow according to nature’s clock; basically, back then, if you didn’t send or receive roses in February, your relationship wouldn’t have been at risk! The Mediterranean climate held that much more allure for its ability to support all manner of vegetation and flowers, year-round. Thomas Hanbury bought his villa and property not only for leisure gardening, but also to develop its land into a botanical environment. He planted plenty of ornamental flowers and trees, but his focus was on the exotic, the medicinal, and even the cosmetic uses of his plants. His gardens and villa were soon emulated throughout the Riviera by other wealthy Englishmen, whether created as a mark of prestige or for aesthetic reasons, and patches of land sprouted with palm trees and exotic plants all along the coast. Thomas Hanbury, however, may have been unique in his desire to cultivate diversity. At the time of purchase, the land around the 11th century villa, which itself had been constructed over an ancient Roman domus, was a mix of agriculture and evergreen forest. Most plants growing around the property were vineyards, olive trees, and orange trees—and here, we happen upon another tie connecting the Ligurian Riviera to England. Citrus, which hails from China and has been planted in Ligura since the 1600s (including the now almost 100% Italian-grown chinotto) are another relic of cultural exchange between the Italians and the English: bitter orange is the principle ingredient in the beloved English marmalade. Today, about 60 species of citrus grow in the gardens.
“The tall window at one end gave upon the famous garden which rose steeply behind the house, terrace above terrace, a garden half phantasmal now in the twilight, with masses of pallid blossom foaming over old walls, with winding steps, mighty old jars, great dark trees happily placed, and a profusion of flowers, halted and paraded, by the battalion, by the phalanx, their colours still glowing, but seen beneath deeps of submerging blue, unsubstantial and mysteriously profound as they dissolved away into the gloaming.” G. Wells, Meanwhile: the Picture of a Lady, descriptions inspired by Hanbury Gardens
The gardens were destroyed during the Second World War, but in its transference from the Italian State in 1960 to the University of Genoa in 1983 (in cooperation with the Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities, for its villa), it has been restored and replanted. Half of its 18 hectares (almost 45 acres) of land are cultivated, while the rest of the land is left to naturally grow. In fact, the University operates the gardens as naturally and organically as possible, retaining their original purpose: not just the leisure grounds for visitors, but a utopia of biodiversity.

Visiting Hanbury Gardens and around

Villa Hanbury, sea view Villa Hanbury, sea view - © Tim Gage

Visitors have been admitted to the gardens since 1872 (and how many of them were on their own Grand Tour?), and today the paths take visitors through acres of fountains, statues, landmarks, and—of course—thousands of plants. The villa itself cannot be visited. Surrounding the territory today and right up to the border of France, the land grows not only with exotic plants and citrus trees, but acres and acres of vineyards. Hanbury Gardens, Buddist bell Hanbury Gardens, Buddist bell - © Stefano Costa

Cape Mortola itself sits right inside the tiny Rossese di Dolceacqua zone, the name of the soft and fruity red that’s produced here; and it borders on the Riviera Ligure di Ponente wine zone, which runs along the coast from Ventimiglia (a few kilometers from the villa and gardens), through Imperia, Alassio, Finale Ligure, Savona, and further. Here, world-class Vermentino (the variety considered a “contender to challenge Sauvignon Blanc”) and distinctive, almost saline Pigato wines are produced. Look for white wines certified as Riviera di Ligure Ponente DOC. The Hanbury Botanical Gardens website lists the plants that bloom each season, and there is color and diversity year-round. However, even they bring up the caveat of summertime. Because the University treats their plants as naturally and organically as possible, this means that the hottest, driest months of the year tend to get a little brown. It’s not everywhere, but “don’t be shocked,” they advise, to see dead palm fronds protecting the tree trunks, seedpods left to dry on the plants for harvest, and things generally looking less lush than the cooler months (they also try to keep a balance between helping the plant survive yet not forcing unnatural production by overwatering them). Spring and fall are ideal visiting times. Hanbury Gardens, Marco Polo mosaic Hanbury Gardens, Marco Polo mosaic - © Palmasco

The Herbarium and Seed Bank are both noteworthy. Thomas Hanbury created the Herbarium in the 1890s, and, after a period of neglect following World War Two, today it holds 26,100 specimens. The Seed Bank lists over 300 plant species, all of which are handed out to institutions for free in an international seed exchange that began in 1883 (sorry, gardeners: the seeds are not given to individuals!). Hanbury Gardens, the tomb of Sir Thomas Hanbury and his wife Katherine Pease Hanbury Gardens, the tomb of Sir Thomas Hanbury and his wife Katherine Pease - © Stefano Costa

Beyond the main show of verdure, several fascinating structures lend an eclectic air to the cultural milieu of the grounds: the Japanese bell from a Buddhist temple dated 1764; the mosaic of Marco Polo crafted in 1888; the Moroccan-style tomb of the Hanburys; and pools, fountains, pergolas, and statues dotting the landscape. You don’t have to be a botanist to appreciate the beauty of the grounds.