I’ve just returned from a wonderful holiday travelling around southern Italy. Whilst I was there I fitted in a trip to the island of Ischia and the stunning garden La Mortella up in the hills.
It was owned by the British composer Sir William Walton and his Argentinean wife, Susana, both of whom have now died but it has passed into a foundation who care for and maintain it. Susana started to develop it in 1956 with the help of the English landscape designer Russell Page and subsequently following her own inspiration. Lady Walton opened the gardens to the public in 1991 following the death of Sir William.
It is a subtropical and Mediterranean garden set on a hillside of what was formerly volcanic rock, named after the myrtle bushes that grew between the rocks. It now consists of a series of terraces with various water features dotted across the garden, a concert hall and an outdoor theatre set into the hillside both of which host classical concerts throughout spring to autumn, a museum with memorabilia and manuscripts of Sir William.
The main entrance starts at the bottom of the hillside, you don’t really get a sense of how high up the hill the gardens stretch fortunately or you’d never climb to the top. When I went in early September it was an oasis of green with a very restful atmosphere.
The lower garden is dominated by subtropical plants, a large pond with water lilies and a rill leading to a small fountain.
Once I climbed higher the garden took on a more Mediterranean feel with a sense of light and openness. Terraces with steps and irregularly shaped beds all filled with lots of sun loving plants, leading up to another large pond, sadly when I visited I had just missed the agapanthus which encircle it. A smaller body of water with stepping stones feeds into the pond. A Thai style pergola provides a lookout point over this area. Tall bamboo stretches into the sky with brightly coloured canna dotted around. A stunning passion flower was also to be found in this area.
The path then led me across the terraces from where you could gain a sense of the height of the garden and the complexities of the site, with steep terraces of myrtle and rosemary falling away down the hill. The planting here was more sparse but none the less interesting and inspirational. Prostrate rosemary has been used to soften the terrace walls which falls attractively and smells wonderful as you brush past. Silver leaved plants are used here which are typically found in dry loving spots.
On following the route back down the hill I passed a rock shaped like the Matterhorn (or a piece of Toblerone!) under which William is buried. The last resting place for a composer whose wife created the gardens for his solitude and creativity. Finally there was a small pool in memory to Susana, the driving force for the transformation of a barren volcanic hillside into the beautiful gardens we see today.