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Italy: Around Lake Garda – The Botanical Garden of Gardone – The Heller Garden

A short, well signposted, slightly uphill walk from the rear of the Grand Hotel will bring you to one of the gems of Lake Garda. The Botanical Garden, which spreads over 10,000 m2 of hillside, is the home to over 2000 species of plants from different continents and climatic zones. Cleverly interspersed throughout the garden are fine works by 20th century artists of international repute. Some of these works have been chosen to add a thought provoking spiritual dimension, which embraces both Eastern and Western traditions. When a few quirky, often playful surprises are thrown into the mix it becomes clear that this is no ordinary botanical garden.

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Its original creator was Arturo Hruska, a celebrated dental surgeon and much travelled naturalist, who between 1910 and 1971 transformed a sadly neglected vineyard into a plant lover’s paradise. Several small, artificial lakes were built: fed by spring water and linked by meandering rivulets they now provide congenial homes for Koi carp and trout. Towards the upper reaches of the garden is the pièce de resistance, a 10m mini-mountain made to resemble dramatic Tyrolean peaks. Today the garden reflects the vision and philosophy of André Heller, a multimedia artist who purchased the garden and its villa in the late 1980s, with the stated aim of building a centre of ecological consciousness.

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Although the garden is not large it provides an intense botanical experience. The many towering exotic trees offer welcome shade for the comfortable viewing of the luxuriant shrub layer and ground flora. Short, sometimes narrow pathways seamlessly link the representations of selected regions of the world:Central American plains butt up against the Dolomites, a right turn out of the Dolomitic rocky area quickly takes you past Lago Koi to an Indo-Chinese landscape, and then further down the hillside you are into African savannah. Seventy of the 2000 or so plant species are tagged with a number, and can be identified using the key in your guide sheet. André Heller is, however, adamant that his garden is not an academic exercise in botanical classification. And his approach surely has much merit: a rigid, over emphasis on categorisation can all too easily detract from the reality of the one-ness of the world’s ecology.

Scattered around the garden, sometimes half hidden but occasionally dramatically obvious, are sculptures and installations by an array of eminent artists, which include Mirò, Roy Lichtenstein, Keith Haring, Mimmo Paladino and Auguste Rodin – a mouth-watering prospect for those who have an interest in 20th century art.

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Those who are reasonably sure-footed can make the short ascent to the summit of the mini-mountain, where they will be rewarded by a marvellous panoramic view of the garden together with a glimpse of Lake Garda. They will also be able to enjoy the impressively varied tree canopy in all its glory. But most importantly every visitor should allow time to sit on one of the benches, absorbing the tranquillity whilst perhaps reflecting upon the one-world message of the garden. A visitor, who has fixed expectations of what a botanical or even an Italian garden should be, might have some difficulty with this one. If, however, you enter this unique garden with an open mind you most probably will, as André Heller hopes, leave with a happy and peaceful heart, and hopefully with a raised ecological consciousness.

Related Sites:

Albergo Gardaland

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David Jackson
David lectured in Science at a Midland college (UK) for many years. He now writes about places he visits regularly with the intention of providing useful information for visitors.

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