Great Gardens for a Stroll

From Europe to China and to places in-between, a visit to one of the world's great gardens is always a rewarding experience.
By: James T. Fintel

What is it about a stroll through a garden that is so invigorating to the soul? Perhaps it's the smell of flowers in bloom, or the cool shade of tall trees beside a long path, or even the gurgle of fountains washing stress away. Many gardens are open year-round to the public, and different perspectives from each season of the year make all of them worth repeated visits. From Europe, where centuries of practice combined with a temperate climate make for lavish gardens, to China, and to places in-between, a visit to a garden is always a rewarding experience.

Palace of Versailles, gardens, Paris, France

Palace of Versailles, gardens, Paris, France

Photo by: Veronica Garbutt/Lonely Planet Image/Getty Images

Veronica Garbutt/Lonely Planet Image/Getty Images

Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C.

Designed by noted landscape gardener Beatrice Farrand in 1921, the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks are an American hodgepodge that elements from the English, Italian and French garden styles. Oddly enough, the mixture works quite well, and the result is a unique (and beautiful) American garden. Nestled in the quiet Washington, D.C. neighborhood of Georgetown, the Dumbarton Oaks gardens are a succession of formal terraces and enclosures that glide seamlessly from one style to the next, giving the visitor a good sample of what is best in the world of gardens. A favorite spot is the Rose Garden, with 1,000 plants arranged in geometric beds.

The Butchart Gardens, Brentwood Bay, British Columbia, Canada

On the site of their mansion outside of Victoria, British Columbia, these gardens were the vision of Jenny Butchart, the wife of Canadian cement magnate Robert Butchart. Appropriate to a North American garden, the Butchart Gardens has a more populist feel than European and Asian gardens, with fireworks on Saturday nights in July and August and nighttime illuminations every evening June 15 through September 15. Be sure to see the exquisite Sunken Garden, which was made from the remains of a quarry.

Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania

Longwood Gardens, outside of Wilmington, Delaware, is the American answer to the famous gardens of Europe. With more than 350 acres to explore, Longwood offers something for everyone, from whimsical fountains, topiaries and sunken gardens to a large conservatory, which allows flower-viewing in the coldest months of winter. Visitors with children will want to head to the ivy maze in the East Conservatory, as well as to the collection of insect-eating plants.

Sanssouci, Potsdam, Germany

The castle and park at Potsdam's Sanssouci are the creation of Frederick the Great of Prussia in his effort to live "without a care" (i.e., sans souci). It is apparent, however, that over the last two centuries much care has been given to this garden. Befitting Germany's place at the center of Europe, many exotic influences abound at Sanssouci, such as the spectacular Sicilian Garden, the mysterious Chinese Teahouse, the Nordic Garden, the Roman Baths, and the Friedenskirche, a Byzantine-inspired, 19th-century church.

Garden of the Master of the Nets, Suzhou, Jiang Province, China

Is your tao bothering you? Yin-yang out of whack? Consider a visit to the Garden of the Master of the Nets in Suzhou, China. This garden is markedly different from its European and North American counterparts. Here, the visitor sees clean, simple lines and the harmonious combination of art and landscape. The Garden of the Master of the Nets, like a good cup of herbal tea, induces a feeling of inner well-being with its leaning trees, gray rocks, wooden bridges over still waters, and leafy plants.

Fragrant flowers cover the grounds of this ruined medieval town which was sacked in 1382 for opposing the pope, but was reclaimed by the Caetano family in the 20th century. The Caetanos, taking advantage of the balmy Roman climate and abundant water, made this garden into one of the most beautiful in the world. Behind each crumbling wall the visitor will find new surprises, as climbing hydrangeas, roses, ivy and clematis, among others, compete for space.

Stourhead, Stourton, England

Stourhead epitomizes the 18th-century English garden style, which celebrated nature for itself and faithfully attempted to reproduce it, even in landscape form. The gardens and accompanying buildings are on the edge of a misshapen lake, and walking the lake path in either direction will give the visitor unforgettable views of beautiful forgeries of ruined Roman villas and Chinese pagodas ringed by towering trees. The 18th-century English fascination with decay and decline moved the owner of Stourhead to pepper the property with ersatz Greek and Roman ruins. Don't miss the Grotto, a gloomy stone chamber built over the source of the River Stour.

Chateau de Courances, Courances, France

The quiet beauty of the gardens at Courances, 30 miles to the south of Paris, raises the question of whether God is French and if Courances is His home. Tree-lined canals and placid pools crisscross this 17th-century chateau. The vista leading south from the house narrows in the distance, an optical illusion that makes it appear much longer than it actually is. At the end of the gardens, the thoughtful figure of Hercules keeps a watchful eye on a small, circular pool. The chateau and gardens are open weekends and public holidays April through October and by appointment on weekdays (except Wednesdays) to groups smaller than 20.

Isola Bella, Lago di Maggiore, Italy

The 17th-century Baroque style, marked by elaborate ornamentation and form, finds its highest expression at Isola Bella, the stunning island garden in the middle of Lake Maggiore in alpine Italy. The centerpiece of the display is the Water Theater, a series of five terraces rising more than 100 feet above the surface of the lake. The Theater, topped by a rearing unicorn, contains numerous fountains and entertaining water jets and is ringed by boxwood plants.

Chateau de Versailles, Versailles, France

With a nickname like "the Sun King," one would expect nothing less than splendor and magnificence from the 17th-century gardens of King Louis XIV, and that is exactly what the good king delivered. No other garden in the world can match Versailles for its beauty, with nearly every path leading to lovely sculptures and fountains, not to mention the stunning backdrop of the palace itself. To stroll the gardens at Versailles at any time of the year is doubtless one of the greatest free treats in the world.

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