Dating from the dawn of time, Cervara Abbey dominates the picturesque coastline leading to Portofino. Built around 1300, the complex comprises a deconsecrated church, a 16th century cloister, saracen bell tower, the main building and a splendid italian garden. After a decade after being put on sale, in the late 90s, the current owner visited it one dark and gloomy sunday. He discovered a ruin in terrible condition, worn away by the effects of sea salt. But the garden enraptured him, it was love at first sight, and then and there he decided to purchase the property.
After a great deal of restoration work, the various spaces in the abbey have been returned to their former intimate beauty, sharing secrets, scents and sensations with those who visit. The marvellous italian garden (member of the associazione dei grandi giardini italiani and Ligurian gardens), expanding over two levels, brings the whole setting to life. Bringing the garden back to its former glory was a difficult project, and it was managed by a man who knew nothing of gardens before embarking on this adventure.
A difficulty augmented by the complexity of italian gardens – dating back to the renaissance period – which are governed by rules concerning the geometry of the spaces and the arrangement of the plants. At the moment of purchase, it was not clear exactly how the garden would have been laid out in the past as historic furniture and the archive gave conflicting information. There was no doubt that the monks had a very large kitchen garden, though the course of time has made it difficult to understand the original layout. The current owner decided to undertake a journey through history to reconstruct the wonders of this bygone era, under the supervision of the conservator pinin Brambilla Barcilon (who directed the restoration of Leonardo da vinci’s Last supper and the centre for the conservation and restoration of venaria palace).
Nowadays, vases inscribed with the name of the abbey hold colourful citrus plants, from citron and lemon to bergamot and chinotto through to grapefruit and kumquat. The area behind the abbey, facing the mountain, is filled with an array of aromatic herbs. This area is known as the simple garden, a traditional kitchen garden where monks, since medieval times, grew “simple” plants and vegetables for medicinal purposes. The outlook over the sea is a truly unique scene, invoking the senses, the sky blending seamlessly with the hues of the sea. The linear lawns and boxwood hedges lead you into an eden filled with the scents of lilac and majestic wisteria, which garden enthusiasts flock to see. In the past, the century-old original wisteria plants destroyed the pre-existing structures that should have upheld them; to refresh the garden, the current owner kept the roots and intertwined the plants in a new way so that they create a charming floral ceiling. Terraces and gardens flank the main building, while the higher level flaunts jasmine pillars whose bloom envelops the garden in its heady scent each June. As if that weren’t enough, there are also many rare plants, including flinders rose, pepper trees and exceptional blooms of roses, hortensia and camellia.
When a passion for a place or garden takes root, it develops into the purest form of love, where the external world meets the internal.