I ran my hand over the ancient gate. Despite furrows in the wood, it was smooth and waxy from centuries of human touch. With a push, the gate opened onto a secret walled garden, the Hortus conclusus. Lemon trees laden with bright yellow fruit stood to attention and the morning’s drizzle lingered heavily in the air. Wisps of mist floated like sheer chiffon, drifting in soft white clouds against the glossy green of the trees.
Though this was a place I should not be, the lemons with their happy enthusiasm seemed to urge me on. Their scent reached out and pulled me in. The perfume sparkled high in my nostrils, invigorating me. I felt alive and inhaled the beauty of this private world. Lemon zest lingered on my palette, a sweet tang as if I had taken a bite of forbidden fruit.
I took the path to a central octagonal stone basin, the remains of what had once been a grand fountain. Across the garden, an ancient wall fountain still tinkled clear pure water, and I listened as the cascade sang of its medieval past.
I turned toward the ancient fishponds. Here I found a goose on a central island, baying like a dog at the moon. This was not a place for strangers, and the bird’s territorial bellow affirmed its sole inhabitance of the island. In the other fishpond, two swans circled, wings hunched chicly across their backs. They swam quickly. I heard an elegant swish, webbed feet paddling with the grace of Nureyev. It was as if the swans were sentries in a dramatic ballet, eyeing me, warning me, that this was their domain, their stage.
I was drawn into the Hortus conclusus at Giardini di Ninfa, a place strictly off-limits to the public. Ninfa, 80 miles south of Rome, is the most romantic garden in the world. I believe her to be the most beautiful. In the 1920s the hands of talented gardeners created Ninfa around the ruins of a medieval village.
Ninfa appears wild but is quietly contained to mimic the natural world, wandering lushly beside a stream of transparent spring-fed water. Roses ramble up decayed stone walls and wisteria drips in mauve curtains from her timeworn bridge.
Ninfa has always held my heart and on this joyful day, I was blessed to see her at her finest. However, I couldn’t leave her; I couldn’t tear myself away from Ninfa. I wanted to linger, then I saw the gate to the Hortus conclusus, the garden behind high stone walls once reserved an aristocratic family of the medieval castle. It’s a place of privacy away from prying eyes, a garden for reflection and contemplation.
I had to see it, so I did.
But along with stealing a peek at this private world, I wanted to belong to this place of perfection.
So that day, in Ninfa’s Hortus conclusus, I surreptitiously declared myself the owner of this small realm of paradise, along with the goose and the swans.