A huge, angry stone face looks down on visitors through giant spires of cypress trees at Giusti Garden, a terraced greenscape behind a palace in Verona, Italy. The intimidating mascherone (figurative decoration) was originally designed to breathe fire, probably the only thing that could make it more foreboding.
It was just one of the surprises that 33 gardeners (myself included) found during a tour of one of the finest examples of Italian gardens.
Gently sloping trails led to a grotto at the top of the mascherone. On the way, we saw an array of beautiful plants, some of which I’d never seen before. A hummingbird moth danced from flower to flower, gathering nectar from low-growing blue plumbago that softens the trail’s edges. Pale pink begonias grew wild along an ancient rock wall next to a stone bench amid swaying white windflowers. After the short trek, we were rewarded with stunning views of the main garden path and Verona itself. Shakespeare set three of his plays in the city, including “Romeo and Juliet.” The Giusti family has owned the palace since the 16th century, and the gardens were created in 1580.
We reached the summit at just the right time. The cheerful, high-pitched songs of birds hidden in the thick green foliage joined at noon with those of church bells, creating a lovely symphony. As we worked our way downhill along a winding stone path, we caught another bit of music — the sounds of a piano drifting out the windows of an adjoining school.
I adore the way many European gardeners embrace weeds, letting them bloom in the right spots. Tiny flowers of wild yellow mustard were the perfect foil for the blue blossoms of the plumbago. In a formal garden, the mustard flowers would have been eliminated because they aren’t a cultivated species.
Our descent offered yet another view of the center garden. Cypress trees reached for the sky, creating axis points for the long paths. Neatly trimmed topiary, a maze, and huge planted containers were on display — all typical parts of great Italian gardens, but still striking. We could get a close look at the many statues or take a seat and listen to the cascading water of the fountains.
As we kept walking, we were greeted with another surprise: a long line of clay pots filled with lantana blooms in many colors, perched single-file on a weathered rock wall. The simple beauty of the presentation was spellbinding. The fact that some of the pots were cracked only added to the effect.
As our tour ended, I looked over to see common orange lantana mingling with statuesque white anemone that danced in the breeze. Behind them, pink hibiscus swayed in consort.
This combination embodied the feeling of this place — chaos and order living together.