We spent a year in Italy, taking a break from jobs, pursuing our interests in food, history, architecture, language and culture. We were in Bologna, Rome for seven months, and finally Florence—with occasional excursions to other Italian cities. We return whenever we can.
Roberto e Cinzia
When we left Rome at the end of April, one of my regrets was that I wouldn’t be seeing the wonderful rose garden in full bloom (on the lower slopes of the Aventine Hill across from the Circus Maximus). I’m still sorry not to have seen Rome’s roses, but as it happens Florence has perhaps the best rose garden we’ve ever visited. The iris garden that I recently wrote about is on the eastern hillside below Piazzale Michelangelo, and the Giardino delle Rose flows down the western shoulder in terraces and gentle slopes while providing entrancing views over the city.
Florence’s municipal rose garden first opened in 1895, and now has 330 varieties on show, and I really mean on show. May is the ideal month for seeing the blooms at their finest, but what makes the garden as a whole so engaging is that it is planted in what I would call a naturalized style. Unlike typical geometrical-plan rose gardens, this one incorporates other flowering plants, small trees, shrubs with colorful foliage, and expanses of grass with the rose bushes seemingly growing here and there at random.
Herbaceous borders add interest.
Iris and snapdragons
Greenhouse and cultivation beds.
An amusing addition to the garden is a legacy of the late artist Jean-Michel Folon, ten large bronze sculptures, of which a few show up in these photos. There is also a restful Japanese garden that dates from about 1995.
The giardino is open from 9 a.m. until sunset, and based on our experience I recommend Sunday morning for a visit. Church bells from San Miniato above and from the Duomo, Santa Croce and other churches across the river made a cheerful accompaniment to the tuneful local birds. Here’s a short video to give you an idea. If it won’t play for you or it’s missing, go to this YouTube link.
There had been a thunderstorm with heavy rain during the night before, so we were fearful that the blossoms might be ruined. But though a few bushes had light carpets of rain-blasted petals, most were still incredible. The multitude of buds still coming is quite amazing, both on climbers and floribunda(defined on a placard as a rose-bush with repeat-flowering blooms in bunches).
The Pilgrim, very aromatic.
Varigata di Bologna
Wait a minute, that's a peony!
One of the older and most fragrant varieties, from 1892, Blanc Double de Coubert.
The Garland, an intensely fragrant variety dating from 1835.
I couldn’t include all the beautiful varieties we saw, nor can I squeeze in the intense aroma that perfumed so many of the bushes, so my advice is to plan a trip to Firenze in May and experience the Giardino delle Rose for yourself. You’ll know you’re in the right place when you find this road sign with the rampant rose canes apparently following its instruction. Then just duck in the secret gate at the bottom of the garden.
From 1927 until 1957 there was a sports car road race in Italy called Mille Miglia (thousand miles). After a tragic accident killed bystanders and a driving team the race was no longer run. But for many years there has been a replacement of sorts, a time-trial road rally for cars built before 1958, still called the Mille Miglia (MM) and still roughly following the 1000-mile figure-eight course through Italy from Brescia in the north to Rome and back. It is no longer a high-speed race but a series of time and distance challenges where the driving teams try to come as close as possible to the average speed between checkpoints designated by the organizers—about 50 km/hr (31 mph), which includes slow passages through historic town centers. For many of the older cars it is also an endurance test.
Over twenty years ago we happened to see the Mille Miglia as it went through ancient Siena, the throaty exhaust rumblings echoing through the narrow stone-walled streets and the exotic aerodynamic car shapes of the 40s and 50s making an engaging contrast with the medieval surroundings. So when we found that this year the rally would be going through Florence we were eager to see it. Of course things change in twenty years, and a difference this time was the intermixing of several other car rally groups with the 387 official vintage cars. There was a Ferrari Tribute rally with 140 cars (an official part of the MM program), some Mercedes and Porsche club cars, a big gathering of Triumphs, and at least two vintage car touring groups that merged in as well. Add to that the city buses, taxis, bicycles and hordes of free-range pedestrians and you’ll begin to see the scene.
The rally route ran past the Palazzo Pitti (Pitti Palace, shown above), very near our apartment. Although the Ferraris started out ahead of the vintage cars, in the miles and hours en route from Rome some order was lost. The hot cars started passing by us shortly after mezzogiorno (noon), the old racers about 2 pm, and they didn’t finish until nearly 5 pm, by which time a light rain had arrived.
A few of the Ferrari rally cars. Above an F40. Below, 2009 Scudria Spider 16M, 2012 SA Aperta, 2011 458 Spider, and 2012 FF
The photos below are a small selection of the hundreds of cool cars we saw. (If you visit the official Mille Miglia site you can see pictures of all 387 old cars and discover lots of rally particulars—such as the registration fee: €7260. The list of Ferraris is here.)
Above, 1930 OM 665 and a 1925 Bugatti Type 35A. Below, 1933 Fiat 508 S.
Above, 1928 Bugatti Type 43. Below, 1938 Lancia Astura.
Above, 1926 Bugatti Type 35A. Below, 1933 Aston Martin Le Mans.
Above, 1932 Alfa Romeo 8C 2300. Below, 1937 BMW 328.