It was 1867 when Sir Thomas Hanbury happened to pass by the little cape called Mortola between Menton, France and Ventimiglia, Italy near the Côte d'Azur and immediately felt compelled to build an enormous garden on the slopes of it from the winding little road down to the sea.
Liguria is notable for its sunshine and greenhouses. It's a favorite place for the growing of flowers.
Thus, one of Italy's most notable botanical gardens were born. By 1912 5,800 species were represented.
The gardens were destroyed in the second world war, but after passing into the hands of the Italian state, then to the University of Genoa, the gardens were reborn.
A visit to the walk the garden paths, while strenuous, is quite rewarding today.
How to Get to Hanbury Gardens
Hanbury Gardens are reached by traveling down the SS1, called Corso Montecarlo, until you reach number 42 in Mortola Inferiore, where you'll find a little entrance portal with an arch on the left side of the road if you're coming from Ventimiglia. There are no large signs telling you that you've arrived. There are no large parking lots in which to put your car. You might have to get creative in parking. This is Italy. Everyone parks a little funny.
Here's a link to a Google Map of Hanbury Gardens.
What to Expect on Your Garden Visit
Once you find the entrance, you'll pay a fee to visit. Make sure they give you a map. Although it's unlikely you'll get lost, you might have to pick and choose what you see because there's a lot of garden spread out over the broad slope. Suggested itineraries, red for up and blue for down, are marked on the map. All you have to do to find the exit is to go up on any path--you'll see the gate eventually because all the paths lead there.
Walking paths snake through 45 acres of plants, buildings, fountains, statues and eventually down to the Villa. At the bottom near the sea there's a little cafe where you can eat lunch or refresh yourself with a drink. The height difference from top to bottom is 100 meters.
You can't visit inside Hanbury Villa, but you can wander around the outside and see the Japanese bell from 1764 or the mosaic of Marco Polo.
A bit of Roman road running along the coast is also present on the grounds. While it's commonly called the Via Aurelia, it's actually the Via Julia Augusta, a road begun in 13 b.c. by Augustus that ran from Arles to Ventemiglia.
Make no mistake, the climb up isn't for the faint of heart. The official website mentions that those with mobility disabilities can reserve an electric cart (veicolo elettrico idoneo al trasporto).
Botanical Gardens in Europe
Hanbury Gardens wasn't the first botanical garden in Europe. That honor belongs to Padua Botanical Gardens begun in 1545, the oldest in Europe and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Le Jardin exotique, the exotic garden of Eze, France, takes advantage of a similar environment along the Côte d'Azur. It's a short drive across the French border, then a walk up to the ruined castle atop the old town of Eze.
Hanbury Gardens, the Bottom Line
Pick a nice day for strolling like we did and you'll have a great time exploring the gardens. Go early, before the tour buses arrive, and if you have the good fortune to be traveling in the off season, you'll have the gardens practically to yourself.
Don't worry about your tour extending past the lunch hour, the little cafe down by the water serves some good looking sandwiches.
If you're traveling with curious kids who are active and don't mind a bit of a climb, then the gardens should offer them a reasonably interesting experience.