Alassio, the Hanbury Gardens and the Pelagos Sanctuary


Who has never heard of Alassio? With its quartz and silicon sandy beaches, the renowned chocolate “baci” and the famous Muretto created by Mario Berrino, where the signatures and dedications of many famous characters stand out, it is the Ligurian tourist destination for excellence. English discovered it at the end of the nineteenth century and still today it is possible to see the former Angelican church, the Tennis Club Hanbury and the Park of Villa della Pergola. Today Alassio is chosen as the destination by the lovers of the Riviera but also by many young people who will find here fashionable places where having fun dancing and tasting drinks. At the center of the town, the narrow and characteristic “alley” flows, where shops and restaurants alternate.  The low and sandy beach allows long walks, permitting each summer the organization of the challenge of the most original castle, the Alassio coast is also famous for having been the set of the Vittorio de Sica’s movie “The children is watching us”.


Sea and history are concentrated between the coast and an ancient and precious old town. In Roman times, Albingaunum was known for its agricultural production, which is important still today with several specialties, such as the violet asparagus,  Slow Food product, the artichoke or the tomatoes. Medieval city whose walls are still visible, it boasts an ancient cathedral and the important early-Christian baptistery. The civic Museums are also rich – the civic museum  and the Navale Romano, which preserves, among the other artifacts, the freight of a Roman ship found in the sea in front of the city of the Ligurian father of the underwater archaeology, Nino Lamboglia, who here performed the first recovery in 1950. In front of the coast, Gallinara Island, Regional  Nature Reserve and among the largest nesting colonies of the royal seagull of Italy, destined to become protected marine area. The island, shelter of St. Martin of Tours and the Benedictine dwelling, is today private property, uninhabited but accessible with guided hikes.

Pelagos Sanctuary

Between Liguria, Côte d’Azur, Tuscany, Corsica and Sardinia, a special marine area extends, protected by an agreement drawn up in 2000 between Italy, France and Principality of Monaco. It is thee Pegasos Sanctuary, a Mediterranean area particularly rich in phytoplankton and therefore, the favorite location for the feeding and life  of eight species of cetaceans, marine mammals including the whale, the second largest animal in the world after the Oceanic blue whale, the sperm whale, dolphins,  pilot whales, bottlenose dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, striped dolphins and beaked whales. The establishment of the protected area was proposed by the Tethys Onlus, a research institute that has been monitoring for years the monitoring and protection of the Sanctuary’s cetaceans with cruises to study the behavior and habits of these animals for scientific purposes. At the same time, in the West Liguria, there are several realities that offer the daily tourist whale watching, with exciting and trilling close encounters a few miles away from the coast.

The Gardens of Villa Hanbury

The Hanbury gardens, created by Thomas Hanbury ( a Londoner who made his fortune in Shanghai and fell in love with  this part of the coast and its truly unique climate), sweep across the promontory of Mortola, just a stone throw from the hamlet of Latte di Ventimiglia.

Their wholly  strategic position  is enhanced by the exceptionally varied panoramas set amidst lush green vegetation. Here typically Mediterranean flora intermingles with a host of more exotic species, forming an outstanding collection of some six thousand plants, all of which are grown in the open air.

The result is a piece of heaven on earth, a garden of wonders, the only botanical park on its kind in the world, a place where every single plant, shrub, hedge and flower is catalogued and marked.

The overall layout of the garden (which has been changed several times over the years to take account of new landscaping trends, contemporary tastes and the demands of botanical research) helped preserve the historic Via Julia Augusta, one of the most important roads of its day  (the best-kept part is still inside the garden) and pre-existing main routes; all other paths through the garden was built crossways or lengthways to the originals. Still standing are the ancient retaining walls, esplanades and old brickwork boundary which separates the Villa from the sea. Each level of the garden is linked with steps, ramps and sweeping, flowering staircases. By creating the gardens, the entire Hanbury family (Sir Thomas, his son Cecil and daughter-in-law Dorothy Symons) set out to preserve and encourage spontaneous local vegetation in the wilder, less accessible parts and, where necessary, thicken out the ranks of trees (every possible variety of pines, olives) and shrubs (myrtle, laurel, rosemary, broom).

On the banks of the stream they planted oleanders; in the shadier and higher areas, wisteria and lilac; at the foot of the walls, passion-flowers and roses, ivy and begonias; on the terraces, tumbling geraniums and pelargoniums. The south-facing  part of the garden where the flowerbeds are less ordered was embellished with agaves, aloes, opuntia, cacti, cereus, spurges and yuccas.

The Hanburys also created a palm-grove, Australian forest and color-themed gardens (pink, white, orange) filled with seasonal blooms and bordered with neat hedges. An orchard and citrus plantation where positioned amid beds of anemones, freesias, irises, crocuses, jonquils and squills so that the eye is drawn to them. Each level of the gardens was given an elegant finishing touch with the addition of sculptors, fountains, tubs, colonnades and pillars, amphorae, stone seats and temples.

The palazzo belonging to the Marchesi Orengo di Ventimiglia (the main building on the estate) was also left untouched. To make it more comfortable, the tower was raised to improve the new view even further and new sections were added (the terraces, arched loggia and porch at the front of the house).  Service buildings were positioned for different purposes: casa Bellin below the nurseries for staff; a cottage on the east bank of the stream (the Sorba) to house scientific experiments and the original site for Sir Thomas’s archaeological finds; the gardener’s lodgings, cowshed, casa Natalini, stable, hayloft and custodians house on ground level.

To irrigate the gardens and plants, the family were forced to reshapethe ground and, at ome cost, design  system to collect and distribute water.

In a altruistic gesture, the Hanbury family donated the gardens  to the people of Italy. Upkeep is now the responsibility of the Botanical Institute of the University of Genoa.

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