Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Garden of the Vila Le Balze

Tradition has it that the word paradise comes from a Persian word meaning garden. Paradise is indeed what came to my mind when, last week, we visited this garden in Fiesole, outside Florence.

The fact that it was a very sunny, warm day, in the middle of January, might have influenced my judgment!

"Le balze" means the cliffs and the garden is on a sliver of land on a literal cliff overlooking the valley of the Arno and the city of Florence. It does not appear to be well known. None of the books on Tuscan gardens I checked mention it. Perhaps in part because it is difficult to photograph as the garden is narrow and relatively small.

The steep road takes you to this building surrounded by high walls topped by a loggia. All this gives you no hint of the garden.

You walk in through the small gate in the middle of the picture above, and you enter the first of two "garden rooms" (Vita Sackville-West is thought to have visited the garden in 1923 and been influenced by it).

This first room has formal lawns and pleached trees (In her book Green Thoughts, I remember Eleanor Perenyi describing pleached trees  as "hedges on stilts").

On the right is a limonaia, a building where you store lemon/orange trees in winter to protect them from the cold. In front of the columns are shrubs that have also been covered against the cold.

From this first"room" you walk into the next room just in front of the house. On this side of the house is another, very attractive, loggia catching the morning sun and overlooking the second garden room.

You can go to the right or to the left of the house. Here is the way to the left of the house. Look how skilfully the perspective is managed. You would think the end of the vista in the picture below is a kilometer away when it is in fact not very far.

This path to the right  takes us to this long gallery that overlooks what lies below and the city of Florence.

When,  on this long walkway you look to the left, you get a panoramic view of the whole area and of a meadow where Chaenomeles japonica was in bloom together with Anemone coronaria, a plant native to the Mediterranean.
Somewhere along the gallery is a narrow staircase that takes you to a  lower terrace.

 and, further down the cliff, to a service area with a greenhouse.

Walking to the end of the gallery, you eventually come to the back of the house (where hedges have been covered to protect them against the cold).

There is also, at the end of the garden, a sitting area under shade trees which must be very inviting in the heat of summer.

From there you go back to the entrance, walking on the other side of the house, where a pergola  follows  along the upper property line (just as the gallery does on the other side of the house).

This pergola is cut off in the middle by a magnificent double staircase. You can go up left to the pergola above the back garden, or right to the pergola overlooking the front garden.

Between the double staircases, is a statue at the upper, pergola level, and a grotto at the lower level.

There is also a shady sitting area on the upper story, under the vines covering the pergola.

The house and garden were designed for Charles Augustus Strong by two English architects Geoffrey Scott and Cecil Pinsent. The latter was responsible for the garden design. 

Strong had it built with money he inherited from his father-in-law (who happened to be John D. Rockefeller).

Here is a view of a section of the pergola overlooking the back garden.

If you walk under that pergola all the way to the front, you end up in the loggia you see above the wall, in the very first picture of this post.

That loggia overlooks the first garden where we started the tour.

The house and garden now belongs to Georgetown University which was gifted the property by Strong's only child. Georgetown does a beautiful job of maintenance. The staff is very friendly and pleased to let visitors see the garden. You wander on your own.

We were there the day before the Junior Year Abroad Amercan students were to arrive for the next term. Presumably, when the students are in, the garden is not as quiet as it was when we visited it.

From the loggia,  these romantic circular stairs take you back downstairs.

We are now back at the entrance gate (on the left in the picture below). It is always difficult to say why exactly you like a place but if I could visit only one garden in the Florence area, this would be the one.

It might be the sense of peace and order (the garden is beautifully maintained) or the impression of size and space cleverly created in what is actually a confined area.

Of course you would need  to have a bequest from a very rich father-in-law, if you wanted to build a house or a double staircase like the ones in this garden.  

However it is easy to relate to the scale of Le Balze. Although the property is 3 acres, only about half an acre is gardened. The 3 acres include an olive grove.

There is the surprise effect, each section of the garden being very different from the others. Each one offers a capital view. My pictures do not do justice to the place whose beauty takes your breath away.


  1. I wonder if it would have the same atmosphere in the height of summer?

    1. Given the style of gardening (hardly a single flower) I think the season would not have much effect. It is probably nicer in winter as I would think in summer the lawns might dry up.

  2. Smart use of walls, arches and sculpture to show off the garden.

  3. Combien y a-t-il de jardins publics dans cette ville?!?

    1. Il y en a en effet beaucoup (mais encore plus de jardins privés) et ça n'inclue pas les parcs, aussi très nombreux. Au premier coup d'oeil, la verdure semble rare à Florence, mais quand on y regarde à deux fois, on se rend compte que c'est très vert.

  4. The garden of Vila Le Balze looks bigger than it is with half an acre gardened. We were already twice in that area but have not yet seen this garden, ooh I want to go again. Love the name limonaia for an orangery.

    1. The gardened area might be bigger, but with its clever use of perspective, it appears much bigger than it is. There are 2 "room" at the front, 2 at the back and hardly anything beside the house. When you go again visit the Medici villa right across the road (it does not open in witer

  5. Amazing views! I like "hedges on stilts".

    1. The views are responsible for a good deal of the attraction.

  6. It's very pity that I didn't visited this garden when I've been to Florence. You're lucky. Alain. I love pergola and loggia, wonderful views!

  7. Oh, it must be wonderful to visit such places in January! I can almost feel the sun warming my face and smell the fragrant air of early spring days when Chaenomeles japonica is in bloom...
    Thank you for the tour in this fascinating garden!

    1. Sara, I think you are better at describing it than I was!

  8. Hello Alain, this garden has a very intimate feel, coupled with stunning views across the landscape. I've noticed that italian gardens seem to be high on structure with less on bright (gaudy) flowering plants. I hope you continue to discover hidden and secret gardens like this on your travels.

    1. Thanks Sunil. I am sure there are more colours in summer but in winter you see the "bones" of the garden which are much more revealing than the blooms.


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