Just across the Italian border from Menton even before reaching the centre of Ventimiglia, you will find one of the hidden gems of the Riviera, the 19thcentury Villa Hanbury Botanical Gardens built by British entrepreneur, philanthropist and botanist Sir Thomas Hanbury. Fair enough, the term “botanical garden” may conjure up a dry and boring place full of signs with Latin names to designate some obscure inanimate objects ie. plants and flowers and may not exactly set the pulse racing but believe me, this is one of my favourite parts of the area to just get out, relax and see something different amidst nature. This is thanks to the beautiful setting, the lovely microclimate and most importantly, the mystical Oriental vibe of the place, soaked in a melancholic and nostalgic atmosphere where time seems to have stood still. In this article, I’ll try to help you travel through time to 19thcentury China to understand the history and convey why I love this place so much, why you should spend a couple of hours of your time visiting it and some practical advice about how to optimise your visit… Enjoy the journey!
What’s there to see?
In my view, the main stand out feature of Villa Hanbury is its geographical setting, on the beautiful Cape Mortola peninsula that juts out of the coastline just east of the Franco-Italian border near Menton, where the lines blur between the French and Italian rivieras.
The garden stretches down on a slope from an altitude of 103m down to the Mediterranean Sea. Entering from the road at the highest point of the garden, you basically wind your way down, following a suggested itinerary through some lovely and wild flora that benefits from the pleasant microclimate, to the seaside, where you can have a picnic and then walk back up to admire the view from the terrace of Sir Thomas’ villa. In order to enjoy the visit at a leisurely pace, allow at least two hours, more if you want to spend time for lunch at sea level. You can find more detail about the actual visit in the highlights section below.
Historical background and Sir Thomas Hanbury
The geographical setting is also the main reason these gardens exist and to understand their history, it’s important to find out more about the person who created it. Sir Thomas Hanbury (1832-1907) was born in Clapham, London (very close to where I used to live!) to a middle-class Quaker family but quickly developed an entrepreneurial streak as a merchant in silk and tea and this is what brought him to Shanghai in the Chinese Empire, an up and coming trade destination that had just opened up at the time, in 1853. Over the next twenty years, he amassed a considerable fortune notably trading cotton, despite it being a particularly turbulent period in Chinese history (as the 2000-year-old empire started to crumble amidst constant rebellion) and ended up becoming Shanghai’s major property owner.
Despite this, his humanistic views and cultural curiosity (having learned Chinese) made him very popular with the local Chinese populations and he was staunchly opposed to the opium wars that the British had ignited during that period and had landed them with the top prize of Hong Kong.
After over 10 years in Asia, Sir Thomas decided to spend some of his money in order to take a nice break in Europe with his family and ended up on the French Riviera. It’s actually his elder brother, Daniel Hanbury (1825-1875), a prominent botanist, who discovered the abandoned villa of the Orengo di Roccasterone family on Cape Mortola in 1867 (also located directly on the ancient Via Aurelia Roman road linking Rome to southern France and then Spain) and saw the massive potential to create a wonderful botanical garden thanks to the different microclimates within the 8 hectare complex. Sir Thomas, who despite not being a professional botanist at the time was a cultured man and a lover of nice things, agreed and promptly purchased the whole grounds, subsequently employing a German landscape artist and horticulturalist named Ludwig Winter to develop the gardens. These quickly became famous amongst the local intelligentsia and were visited by plenty of Belle Epoque aristocrats and even Queen Victoria, who at that time was still the Empress of India. After leaving China permanently in 1871 and closing down the businesses, the Hanbury family settled down in the villa and added plenty of Asian architectural touches to the garden, more of which later.
Upon the death of Sir Thomas in 1907, the garden stocked at least 5800 different species but after the First World War, the garden went into a state of decline until Lady Dorothy Hanbury (1890-1972), the wife of his son Cecil (a British Member of Parliament), decided in 1925 to start replanting and developing the garden to perpetuate the family legacy.
The garden was badly damaged during the Second World War and in 1960, Lady Dorothy ended up selling the whole package to the Italian State. This was followed by another period of neglect and decline until the management was passed on to the University of Genoa in 1987. Since then, the situation has improved and although there is still plenty of room for more improvement, the garden is truly charming and any visitor will fully understand the vision of Sir Thomas Hanbury.
Highlights of the visit
Here are the main points of interest that you should really see, the information was gleaned from my trip on a very sunny weekday morning in early March: this probably wasn’t the best time to visit as the gardens may seem a little barren on the photos. The managers told me that the best time to visit was from April to June, when the flowers were in full bloom, but that the garden exuded charm all year round, something I am quite inclined to believe. As I mentioned in the introduction, I’m hardly a passionate botanist, but like Sir Thomas Hanbury, I do like beautiful things, so I’ll focus on the nice views and the architectural gems rather than the Latin names on the flowers which you can discover by yourselves 😉
- Although the garden slopes all the way down to sea level, there is only one public entrance, right at the top on the side of the main road: once you have gone through the monumental main gate and bought the tickets (9€ at the time of writing), make sure you head straight to the bookshop just to the right and pick up the free special leaflet with the pedestrian itinerary and a very detailed description of the buildings and of the flora, very important as it indicates the best routes up and down so you don’t see the same thing twice. There are also arrows on the way but the signposting isn’t always that great, especially on the way back up.
- Winding your way down, you’ll enjoy some nice panoramic views whilst walking through the succulent plant areas (notably agave plants which are famous for making tequila!) and some nice architectural features like the Mermaid Fountain and the small Tempietto, a pavilion brought from England in 1947 where Lady Dorothy Hanbury is buried.
- One of my favourite spots is the Dragon Fountain, with a large and very ornate Japanese bronze fire-breathing reptile that Sir Thomas bought in Kyoto, looking threateningly at a pond surrounded by papyrus trees from Egypt. The small turtles sitting next to the dragon also seemed like bronze sculptures until closer inspection whereupon one of them moved its head, it turns out they were just sunbathing!
- You will then enter a small terrace under the main Palazzo (the largest part of the villa which you will see on the way back up), containing the Scented Garden, which as the name suggests, will provide you with a sensory overload if you visit at the time the flowers and herbs such as jasmine, honeysuckle, sage and lavender are in bloom.
- Walk down to the beautiful Moorish Mausoleum, built in 1886, where the ashes of Sir Thomas Hanbury and his wife Katherine Pease are interred.
- Then head down the wide Cypress Avenue, amidst Australian eucalyptus trees planted by Daniel Hanbury for their pharmaceutical properties before crossing the bridge that spans the old 1stcentury BC Roman Road, Via Iulia Augusta – the current main road, known as via Aurelia between Rome and the French Riviera actually passes through a tunnel beneath this part of the garden and you cannot actually hear any car noises.
- Head down towards the seaside through some picturesque olive trees and then a citrus garden before reaching the very nice refreshment area, complete with a sage garden and an olive press, where you can get a sandwich at the canteen or else have a picnic. The bar building actually used to be a laundry and this whole area was used by the Hanbury family to grow vegetables whilst they lived in the villa.
- Do a quick detour behind the bar and through the undergrowth, across the mouth of the Rio Sorba to the seaside – through the fence, you’ll enjoy some stunning views from the tip of Cape Mortola both west towards Menton, Cap Martin and Monaco and to the east towards Ventimiglia.
- Head back uphill on a parallel pathway, past a Venetian style well and through the pergolas, across the Roman road and past the Dragon Fountain towards the South Terrace of the pink Palazzo and take a rest whilst enjoying the beautiful view from the Pavillion, a small temple designed directly by Sir Thomas and admiring the lovely marble loggia that was added when Sir Thomas bought the villa in 1867.
- Go around the side and check out the main Piazza in front of the Palazzo, the highlight of which is the large 18thcentury Japanese bell that comes from a Buddhist temple. You can also check out the 1888 mosaic by the main entrance representing Marco Polo, the first European merchant explorer of East Asia and the Silk Road who probably inspired Sir Thomas Hanbury in his successful business career.
- Head back to the main entrance via the valley of the Rio Sorba and enjoy the wild vegetation and the last of the unique vibes from the garden before leaving.
The official website is on this link: very helpful and provides plenty of background information in English and Italian so if you have time, read up before you go.
The standard entrance ticket at the time of writing was 9€ (a bit expensive but worth it given the maintenance required to keep the garden looking decent), check out the website for the most up to date opening times and prices.
The garden covers around 9 hectares so there is a fair bit of uphill and downhill walking – if you follow the recommended itinerary, the slopes are not too bad and there is an electric car available for those who require wheelchair access to be able to enjoy the gardens, it’s a nice touch.
What is the best time to visit?
As I mentioned before, the best time indicated by the guides is April to June, when most of the flowers are in bloom so anytime from Easter onwards is perfect. The summer is the driest period and all the flowers are on “standby”, Sir Thomas himself wanted to close the garden in the summer to visitors but it ended up staying open in order for more people to have the opportunity to visit. Some more detailed explanations are given on the official website.
How to get there?
- By car: this is by far the easiest option, the address for the GPS is Corso Montecarlo 43, La Mortola, 18039 Ventimiglia (IM). It’s located a few kilometres after the Ponte San Luigi border crossing with France (not the one by the coastline but the secondary one slightly uphill and inland). However, note that parking is a major issue as there is no dedicated parking space so make sure you arrive early and park on the side of the road opposite. It’s quite a bit of a hassle but definitely the simplest way of getting there.
- By train and bus:if you don’t have a car, take the train to Ventimiglia station and then bus line no. 1 direction Ponte San Luigi, get off at the stop called “La Mortola), about 15 minutes from the city centre. Note that the buses are not that frequent so plan well in advance, you can find up to date timetables on this link(Riviera Trasporti section of the timetables page).
If you do have some spare time afterwards, you can head back to Ventimiglia and enjoy some Italian vibes (as indicated in my blog article) or else drive uphill to the nearby villages of Grimaldi Superiore and Mortola Superiore, to enjoy an alpine feel and some nice views over the coastline and countryside.
Hope you enjoyed this article and that this will inspire you to visit this beautiful location. If you did, please feel free to like and subscribe to the French Riviera Blog and to the Facebook page, also all your comments and feedback are welcome to make this blog better and provide the best insider information!