It’s hard to improve upon a city as visually stunning as Rome, but the oral explosion that takes place every May certainly does its best. Tiffany Parks stops to smell the roses.
One of the most stunning spots in the entire city, the Spanish Steps draws thousands of tourists and Romans alike every day of the year. A meeting place for the city’s young people as well as a backdrop worthy of a grand opera, the towering staircase and its sweeping curves are a monument to the late baroque splendor that Rome did so well. In fact, it’s little wonder that the site has been featured in dozens of films, from The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone to The Talented Mr. Ripley to the ubiquitous Roman Holiday. No one can question the Spanish Steps’ perennial appeal, but there’s one time a year they outdo even themselves. From mid-April to mid-May, hundreds of bright pink azalea plants cascade down the steps, creating a luxuriant oral carpet that transforms the already gorgeous staircase into a dramatic culmination of art and nature. Visit at dawn to see the steps free of crowds.
Another of Rome’s most spectacular spots is the Circus Maximus. When viewed from the lower slopes of the Aventine Hill (on Via del Circo Massimo) the sprawling expanse of the 250,000-seat ancient arena, with the ruined palaces of the Palatine towering above it, is a sight you won’t soon forget. An identical view is visible from the Roseto Comunale, a communal rose garden, just a few steps up the hill. Every spring, this 100,000 square foot garden opens to the greedy eyes (and noses) of Rome’s lucky residents and visitors. Plots of roses in every color imaginable are lovingly tended by Antonello Santelli and his fellow gardeners. The garden cultivates over 1100 species of roses, and the oldest bush is the 60-year-old Belle Portuguese with a stem as thick as a cherry tree trunk. Shaded by umbrella pine trees and with a view of the majestic Vittoriano from certain corners, the rose garden is one of Rome’s most little known (and loveliest) sites. What’s more, starting the 18th the Premio Roma competition gives visitors the chance to ogle new and even more spectacular varieties of roses.
Tucked away in a quiet corner of Trastevere, beneath the slopes of the Janiculum Hill and the Fontana dell’Acqua Paola, or Fontanone (“big fountain”) as it is more commonly known, is Rome’s very own Botanical Garden. While the garden’s earliest origins date all the way back to Pope Nicholas III in the 13th century, what you see now was laid out in the mid-1800s and remains little changed even today. Covering 12 hectares, the gardens feature a bamboo forest, a Japanese garden, a valley of ferns, ponds teeming with aquatic plants, a rose garden, an evergreen wood, hundreds of palm trees and umbrella pines, and at least as many species of flowers. You’ll also find turn-of-the-century glass conservatories housing rare orchids and carnivorous plants, delicately carved fountains, and caves and nymphaeum begging for exploration.
FROM ENGLAND TO JAPAN
In the 1960s, Italian noblewoman Marchesa Lavinia Taverna purchased an empty tract of land in Ardea, a then-rural area near the Lazio coast, a few dozen kilometers southwest of Rome. She commissioned British landscape architect Russell Page to turn it into a traditional English garden. The result is the Giardini della Landriana, a magical place that is open to visitors only a few days a month, but well worth the planning required. The gardens are divided into thirty “rooms” including a rose garden bordered by thyme, lavender, and clove, an orange garden, an olive garden, and a “blue lawn,” where hydrangeas and other blue blooms cover virtually every visible space. It’s the perfect place for a lovers’ walk; romance is in the air as you wander through the grounds’ carefully trimmed box hedges, winding paths, and delightful hidden ponds.
EUR is a neighborhood that is well off the typical tourist agenda. With its stark Fascist architecture, most of which was commissioned by Mussolini himself, it doesn’t exactly conjure up most people’s idea of the Eternal City. Some, however, adore the modern district’s minimalist style and meticulously well-organized town planning. Parco del Lago dell’EUR features an artificial lake, one of the highlights of the area, where locals come for picnics or paddle- boating on sunny days. Spring sees the lake bursting with color as the cherry trees lining the banks, donated by the city of Tokyo in 1959, partake in their annual blossoming, or sakura, as this stunning phenomenon is known in the Land of the Rising Sun. Pack a basket for your own unforgettable Japanese- style picnic under the blossoms.
For exceptionally enthusiastic botanists, don’t be limited by the confines of the city. Take off for an adventurous blossom-themed day trip and you won’t regret it. Described by The New York Times as the most beautiful garden in the world, Ninfa is a nothing short of an enchanted forest, straight out of the pages of a fairy book. The tiny medieval hamlet of Ninfa was abandoned in the late 1300s due to an outbreak of malaria. The village fell into disrepair, and wasn’t salvaged until the 1920s when Gelasio Caetani turned it into a pleasure garden. The site is happily located in the path of several natural springs, and the result of this plentiful irrigation is a miniature eco-system where numerous varieties of flora are able to thrive. The crumbling medieval castle, the lazy stream with its curving stone bridge, and the myriad of flowers and plants that surround them transport visitors to a place where magic is very real.
Despite its out-of-the-way location, Villa d’Este is a magnet for Rome day-trippers, particularly the botany-inclined. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the high- Renaissance villa was built for Cardinal d’Este in the 16th-century and was decorated by many of the master painters of the day. But visitors flock here more for the award- winning garden than for the frescoed walls. The hundreds of fountains (literally!) and eye-popping water works are impressive all year long, but in May the garden tops itself by bursting into life with the flowering of wisteria, roses, daffodils, azaleas, and dozens of other varieties. Wander through the nearly 500,000 square feet of manicured gardens, marvel at the many-tiered terraces and bubbling fountains, and peek into the Grotto of Diana, all the while remembering that this is how the “princes of the church” once lived.
BUDS FOR SALE
If you’re not content simply to admire May’s floral ornaments around the city, but long to take some posies back with you to your hotel room, you won’t have trouble finding some. Make a pit stop in Campo de’ Fiori , one of the city’s most famous fruit and vegetable markets, where a large section is dedicated to local, seasonal flowers. Or keep your eyes peeled for the tiny three- wheeled trucks—a relative of the Vespa scooter known as the Ape—that roam the city, displaying and selling more plants and flowers than seems physically possible for their size. Serious flower-buyers should head straight to Rome’s wholesale flower market (Via Trionfale, 45), open to the public on Tuesdays only, from 10am to 1pm. Be sure to bring your bargaining skills!