As we emerge from our homes to embrace the summer season, there’s never been a better time to get outdoors and visit Italy’s most beautiful parks and gardens. The Grandi Giardini Italiani (Great Gardens of Italy), a network of 140 gardens, makes it easy to discover and visit the most beautiful green spaces all over Italy.
From villas with hedge mazes and botanical gardens to contemporary art parks and the famous “Giardini all’Italiana”, this green network offers a wide range of experiences to anyone who loves art, culture, nature and botany. First established in 1997 by Judith Wade, a Scottish entrepreneur who lives on Lake Como, the Grandi Giardini Italiani is a leader in horticultural and sustainable tourism in Italy. And unlike other networks of its kind, it is a cultural company, rather than an association or philanthropic organization.
“Italy’s biggest asset is culture, so I don’t see anything wrong with making a company out of cultural heritage,” begins Ms. Wade. “Money makes the world go round and it allows us to provide services to our guests, create work for local professionals and sustain our patrimony. I didn’t go into this for the profit: I’m just an entrepreneur who saw an opportunity to set up a business in the world of cultural tourism.”
As tourism has evolved, travelers have increasingly sought out experiences that reconnect them with the great outdoors. While they may spend the morning visiting a museum and have a leisurely lunch at a trattoria, they might spend an afternoon reading a book in a garden.
On average, 8 million people a year visit parks and gardens in the network and Ms. Wade is constantly expanding her portfolio of services. Guests can sleep and dine in historic gardens all across Italy, from Villa La Massa in Tuscany to Casa Cuseni in Taormina. And other oases, like the Negombo Thermal Park on the island of Ischia, offer guests the opportunity to swim in healing hot springs.
And this year’s pandemic provides an occasion for the Grandi Giardini Italiani to serve the local Italian market, too. “So many people have been isolated and trapped inside their homes over the past few months, so we feel that our gardens can be beneficial and even therapeutic at this time,” she says. “We opened 50 of our gardens earlier this year on Mother’s Day, despite the economic losses of doing so, because we aren’t just a bene culturale – a cultural asset. Our gardens are a bene sociale – a social good.”
The network is highly regulated and has always streamlined the tourism experience: tickets are sold in limited quantities online, so visitors have the time and space to enjoy the gardens at their own pace. Ms. Wade sees tourists not only as guests, but as stakeholders who are investing in her product. “We need to give the right value to our historical gardens. That’s why we’re constantly improving our services and providing innovative products and experiences,” she says. “After all, people have alternatives – they don’t need to be here. We need to treat everyone as a valued guest.”
As to our uncertain future, Ms. Wade is optimistic that we’ll find smart solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. “Darwin said it’s not the strongest who win, but rather those who learn how to adapt. Take the example of orchids, one of the oldest and most fragile plants on earth. Yet they have survived over centuries by using their roots to grow on trees. There’s a lot we can learn from the earth: nature always renews itself, and we will too.”
She believes learning to use technology better will make a difference – and shifting our mindset to benefit the collective planet, rather than our individual profit, is key. Thanks to an investment from Elon Musk, she has established the first Electric Lake in the world on Lake Como, allowing visitors to charge their electric cars when they come visit gardens on the lake. And she’s constantly looking to form new partnerships to fuel the exchange of new ideas.
Ms. Wade’s dream is to put the Grandi Giardini Italiani on the stock exchange and make it a public company in order to get more people involved in her vision. “So many people love Italy and would appreciate the opportunity to invest in a network that helps promote its artistic heritage. This company isn’t just mine after all: Italy’s beautiful gardens belong to the world.”