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The promise of cypresses

How little garden lovers have changed over five centuries. They always enjoy receiving plants, seeds or cuttings from friends and Croatian nobleman Ivan Gucetic Gozze was no exception.

Gozze’s summer residence, on the outskirts of Dubrovnik, was the cultural hub of the city in the 1490s.

Here he entertained merchants, philosophers and seafarers who he asked to bring back plants from their travels.

Life in Dubrovnik at the end of the 15th century revolved very much around the sea and as word spread among mariners, ships returning to the port would first dock at Gozze’s private harbour with plant riches from newly discovered continents.

Two of the world’s tallest Oriental Plane trees (Platanus orientalis) mark the entrance to Trsteno Arboretum.

They were planted by Gozze in the mid-1490s and are among 120 specimens which have survived earthquakes, Croatia’s fierce bora winds, wars and forest fires.

A natural water spring runs between the 40m plane trees and this, combined with warm summers, provides ideal conditions for the trees to flourish. A tree surgeon now maintains these important specimens but families and groups are still allowed to amuse themselves by holding hands to see how many people are needed to completely hug the 12m girth.

From this wooded plateau, Gozze built a 200ft aqueduct on 14 arches through the pine-filled hillside.

It supplied cool water to the villa and fountains, as well as feeding an irrigation system for the gardens. Impressively, the aqueduct is still doing the same job today.

The core of Gozze’s garden was not only in the planting but the design – created before many renowned Italian and French renaissance gardens.

In true Dubrovnik Renaissance-style the villa has a two-way vista symbolising ‘openness to the world’ with views over the sea and ‘the mystery of life’ to the rear, with sparkling water gurgling over rocks through the shady laurel grove.

Fragrant jasmine and wisteria clothe the villa’s walls while yellow Banksii roses chase grapevine swags which hang between the single pergola pillars on both sides of the main path. The perfume trail runs through the orchards where unkempt grapefruit, mandarin, pomegranate and lemon trees exist side by side.

Myrtle, camphor, carob, walnut, fig and almond trees are scattered through the informal, tumbling, shaggy areas of the garden and herbs grow like weeds.

With an abundance of limestone in Croatia, thick walls are a feature of every garden and terrace.

They hold water in summer, warm the earth in winter and retain the rich brown soil. In Trsteno’s formal garden the orthogonal network of walks is edged by low walls. The sloping site does not lend itself to the wide, flat, geometry so highly valued in French and Italian Renaissance gardens but its splendour comes from views over the sparkling Adriatic to the Elaphite Islands of Kococec, Lopud and Sipan.

A pavilion for entertaining on the cliffside is no longer considered safe for visitors but it is easy to stand just outside and imagine the great and good enjoying the very same unspoilt view over the centuries.

Some areas of the 63-acre site are not fully accessible and it is disappointing not to be able to walk down to Gozze’s harbour, next to a cluster of properties now empty but crying out for sympathetic renovation. Nearby hundreds of skyrocket cypresses cover the hillside, planted because Croatian tradition decrees that you must plant at least 100 cypresses to guarantee a happy marriage.

The main villa has been rebuilt twice over the centuries, once after the 1667 earthquake which destroyed most of Dubrovnik, changing it from a renaissance to baroque city.

The villa took another hit during the Croatian War of Independence when the Yugoslav Army launched a series of gunboat and air attacks on the arboretum. Much of it was set alight but, fortunately, the Renaissance garden was only partially damaged. The Mediterranean side suffered more damage but the plants could be replaced.

Forest fires are not uncommon on the hills of Dubrovnik during dry summers. The arboretum lost more than 25 acres of woodland during the drought in 2000. Firefighters now sleep in Trsteno Villa at night to ensure that if such a blaze happens again it will be quickly contained.

Therefore, somewhat amazingly, more than 300 exotic and decorative trees and shrubs can be seen in the arboretum, including a majestic 300-year-old magnolia grandiflora and a centuries-old sago palm which has survived through assistance from Kew Gardens.

St Jerome’s Chapel, next to the villa, is not open to the public because it was looted during the 90s war and its contents have not been returned. However, a mill and olive presses survive intact and echo the early importance of olive oil production on the estate.

Trsteno Aboretum is nothing short of a miracle.

What you need to know

Trsteno Arboretum is managed by the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts and opens seven days a week 7am-7pm from May to October and November to April 8am-4pm.

Address: Potok 20 Trsteno 20235, www.info.hazu.hr/the_trsteno_arboretum

A tour of Trsteno Arboretum is included in Croatia’s Ancient Gardens and Forgotten Gardens holiday. Visit www.travel.saga.co.uk

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