GARDENS: Palazzo Parisio’s illustrious gardens
What is it about the walled gardens of the lavish Palazzo Parisio in Naxxar that make them so distinctively beautiful?
The gardens, which have established a local reputation and received international acclaim, boast a baroque style, uniquely Mediterranean colours and an appeal that spans the four seasons.
As the only privately-owned garden in Malta open to the public, they create the ideal spot for whiling away the hours in tranquil contemplation.
But perhaps it is more than their structure and style that make the gardens striking.
di-ve.com spoke to the Christiane Ramsay Scicluna, the Baroness of Tabria, owner and “mother” of the gardens, to find out just what it is that gives them their fantastical air.
Sitting in the restaurant that opens onto the garden would leave any visitor feeling an overwhelming sense of stillness and tranquillity that invades the senses. The intensity of colour – the vivid green of the freshly-cut grass, the potent magenta of the bougainvillea, the deep purple of the hibiscus flowers – might make one feel as though his senses were heightened, his vision becoming sharper, more acutely focused and detail-sensitive.
A cold glass of lemonade is well worth pausing for, and fresher lemons would be hard to come by. Against a bright blue sky and unrelenting sun, it is hard not to lose track of time.
The Baroness, who takes great interest in the upkeep of the gardens and personally manages their development, exudes a fondness for the gardens that is reminiscent of the tenderness a mother has for her child. When asked how she would describe them, her first words are “a labour of love”, and indeed, it shows.
The gardens have a clear-cut structure paired with an irresistible combination of Mediterranean accents, colours and perfumes that transform from season to season. The twisting paths through the orange grove wind past flowering trees and shrubs, creating a lush landscape that features even exotic species like jacaranda and oleander, jewel-like cinerarias and fragrant freesias, spiky agapanthus, over 65 species of hibiscus, a vast assortment of bougainvillea and a profusion of cascading geraniums.
A considerable collection of citrus plants is also prominently featured in the gardens, including varieties such as Washington naval oranges, collectors’ pieces like citrus aurantifolia (a type of orange), kumquats, tangerines, Seville oranges (ideal for marmalade), bergamot, the old-fashioned, crinkled Canaliculata oranges, grapefruits, pomelos and a number of oranges whose trees travelled from Sicily and the Amalfi Coast in Italy to Naxxar.
According to the Baroness, the gardens owe their layout to her great grandfather, the Marquis Giuseppe Scicluna, who designed them with the help of a landscape gardener in 1785. The gardens exhibit some of the finest Italian symmetry and landscaping, which she says she does her best to embellish, for instance, with flowers. There are trees that have been there for 200 years, she says, and their maturity gives the gardens a sense of timelessness.
Since the gardens’ design was put in place, hedges and lawns have been added over the years. The Baroness explained that the original layout was complete with fountains, water conducts and gates, and the squares that the garden restaurant overlooks, which were all made of earth, have now been paved.
But the richness of this garden does not come easily, the Baroness was quick to explain.
“A garden, being a living thing, is impossible to perfect, and I would love to improve it further. Additionally, it is a challenge to maintain a garden in this condition in Malta, where we have a tough climate – especially in summer – to cope with, so it is not always easy,” she said.
She went on to say that as everyone knows, the main way to success for a healthy, thriving garden involves two simple ingredients: water and sunshine. Palazzo Parisio’s gardens indulge in an abundance of water that trickles almost unseen through a complex irrigation system. Malta, which is blessed with sunshine nearly year-round, does the rest.
Palazzo Parisio’s gardens enjoy automatic irrigation where possible, the Baroness said, which prevents wasting water and gives plants just the amount they need, twice a day: once early in the morning and once during the night, so as not to evaporate in the midday sun.
The garden has been the object of the Baroness’ attention for nearly 10 years, and she does her very best to bring the garden up to the standard visitors see today. She then chuckles, admitting that really and truly, her effort has been one of trial and error, an attempt to understand which plants best suit the local climate and, in turn, require the least upkeep.
She found that hibiscus grows very well and cultivated a collection of them, even though there are not typically elements of the classical botanical garden. She was also successful in growing 50 species of bougainvillea.
The Baroness learned much about gardening through doing, and as she describes it, “flowers bring so much joy”. Her love for the gardens inspired her to share that joy with locals and tourists alike.
“I always loved gardens, animals, plants, nature… I grew up abroad and saw many things. Coming home to Naxxar, I found a blank canvas and filled it in, just as an artist might,” she said.
That love of nature is evidenced by the care that the garden demands and that she is happy to supply. There are moments of strife and despair, she recalls. Imagine waking up one morning and discovering that the lawn has been eaten by worms overnight. When a plant dies, it is like losing a child, the Baroness went on.
“I look for answers as to why it happened, and that is what makes this all a learning experience for me, one comparable to parenting. You learn to care for your plants, she said. It takes time and a great deal of patience,” she said knowingly.
The Baroness enlists the help of two gardeners and an elderly employee who assist her in the monumental task of keeping the gardens clean, manicured and maintained. She explained that the various seasons bring with them different problems. In winter, it is the strong wind and heavy rain that threaten to weaken the plants and trees. In summer, it is the intensity of the heat. Though the plants need sunlight, excessive exposure to the sun and the heat that inevitably accompanies it can be damaging. Even plants are not fond of humidity, she laughed.
In spite of the difficulties the Baroness describes, the gardens are warm and welcoming, thriving beautifully and radiating a sense of vitality that is truly refreshing. The gardens’ splendour even caught the attention of the Grandi Giardini Italiani, a network of the finest, best upheld traditionally-structured gardens in Italy.
Palazzo Parisio was welcomed into that community five years ago, though not technically part of Italy, which the Baroness said was both a surprise and an honour. Inclusion in the prestigious family of gardens allows an exchange with Italy, and gives the Baroness and her daughter Justine, with whom she works closely, the opportunity to attend conferences and meetings for open dialogue to exchange notes and ideas for their gardens, and occasionally to lament their woes and difficulties.
One thing that is particularly remarkable about Palazzo Parisio is that the elegance and luxury that the gardens display go hand in hand with the image of the structure in its entirety.
The Palazzo itself, found at the very heart of Naxxar, is a romantic palace of exceptional magnitude compared to others in Malta and testifies to the aspirations of a prominent Maltese 19th-century family. According to Grandi Giardini Italiani’s entry on Palazzo Parisio, the house was originally the retreat of the Parisio family of Sicilian landowners related to Maltese nobility, who would leave Valletta for hunting and the coolness of the countryside.
In the 19th century, the property was bought by the Marquis Giuseppe Scicluna, a well-known Maltese banker and philanthropist, whose heirs, the Baroness and her daughter, own it today. Once a summer residence, it was then transformed into a luxurious home with the masterful work of Carlo Sada, the Italian designer of Catania’s Teatro Bellini.
Work was done between 1898 and 1906, and the gardens originally included an overhead path about half a mile long lined with old olive trees and a belvedere looking onto the coast and St Paul’s Bay. They were designed complete with an irrigation system comprising a water tank half the size of the gardens along with surrounding wells.
Today, the gardens lay claim to a legacy of care that inspired the Baroness and her daughter to open up their opulent residence for visitors to enjoy, the crème de la crème of Maltese luxury. The Baroness, however, explained that it is an incredibly arduous job to maintain those standards.
Because of the lofty expense of hiring foreign consultants to assist maintenance of the gardens, the Baroness says that she took on a lot of the work herself, because nothing gets done as well as when you learn to do it and do it for yourself. She regularly consults with a botanist friend in Italy and a citrus expert who visits in winter. She said that the Maltese are sometimes stubborn in their way of doing things and have a passive attitude, which the gardens tolerate. High standards are high maintenance, she added.
She does, however, believe that there is a market for luxury here, though she said working to achieve this has made her feel like “a cat climbing a mirror”. She said that a lot of what luxury is, is attention to detail and consistency in delivering high quality experiences, and Malta lacks in consistency, allowing standards to slip at times. It is very easy to fall back, she conceded.
There is clearly a luxury-conscious niche in Malta, she said. It may not be an extremely commercial prospect from the business perspective, but it is about a premium product, and perhaps the reason luxury is not more widely available in the market in the Malta is because culturally, the Maltese have limited exposure to it. You learn luxury by experiencing the whimsical details that create the effect, she said, and standards and service must be strong.
Justine sometimes goes to the visitor restrooms and tucks the corners of the toilet paper in to make the paper roll come to a point, the Baroness laughed. The minutest of details are what really make the difference, she said.
Luxury is a lifestyle, after all, and a strong push for awareness of cultural heritage in Malta could rouse in the Maltese the pride in the luxury that our history affords us, she said.
“You can never give up, you always have to press on regardless. I always say ‘Get on with it, do it now’ and never let go, because you can always do better in life. I never sit down and say to myself, ‘the garden is perfect’, because there is endless room for improvement. I always wish the best for my garden, just as I do for my daughter. You do not do anything without passion, and I am passionate about this garden, which is a privilege,” the Baroness said.
What can a visitor expect to leave Palazzo Parisio with?
“I hope visitors take with them a feeling of beauty, luxury, tranquillity, love, care and the family atmosphere that two ladies – myself and my daughter – are giving the place. We are trying to share the love of nature and grandeur with others who appreciate it,” the Baroness said.
“I love seeing people enjoying themselves here, and hearing a ‘well done’ every now and then. I appreciate constructive criticism where it is merited,” she added.
“But I think what makes the gardens completely unique is the love put into them and the passion our family has for them, which is reflected in their colours and fragrances,” she smiled.
And if that is not reason enough to visit them, then nothing else is.