It is always humbling to practice what I describe as reverse travel exploration. Despite best intentions I often visit a landscape with only a cursory understanding of its history. Risking the possibility that I might miss something really important (and indeed I have) this allows me to experience each place I explore through my own lens.
Last summer I revisited Dubrovnik and spent a morning at Arboretum Trsteno located 15 miles west of the city on the littoral coast, a region rich in natural resources and beauty. I didn’t know much about the arboretum except that a really large tree graced its entrance and when I inquired about parks and gardens in Dubrovnik this is where I was encouraged to visit.
The tree in question, an Oriental Plane (Platanus Orientalis), is large indeed, possibly the largest in Europe. It is located at the arboretum’s entrance and, according to the website Monumental Trees, may have been brought to Trsteno by a 16th century diplomat from Constantinople, one of five, planted near a natural spring. According to legend, the tree famously saved the city of Dubrovnik from an attack by Napoleon’s army in 1806 when one of its limbs fell onto the road taking two days to clear and blocking their advance, thus allowing for a negotiated truce.
The Arboretum Trsteno, founded in 1494, is one of the oldest (if not the oldest) arboretum in Europe.
It is also one of the major filming locations for the enormously popular television series Games of Thrones where, as the gardens of King’s Landing, it is a principal setting in which the main protagonists “weave their plots” and exchange secrets, according to the series’ website.
In the scene above, filmed in the arboretum’s pavilion (seen below without staging) Sansa meets with Lady Tyrell. (http://www.kingslandingdubrovnik.com/game-of-thrones-scenes/season-3)
Sited between the road and the sea, Arboretum Trsteno includes approximately 70 acres of land. Its central plateau, lined with terraces, supports the principal structures, gardens and agricultural landscapes while the land leading to the coast is steep and rocky.
Historically, the arboretum and its gardens represent the sole remaining example in Dubrovnik of a “ villeggiatura” a rural or suburban retreat from the city that integrates cultural and agricultural uses. As a cultural landscape it is known for its historical gardens and collection of Mediterranean and exotic species.
Its landscape is a mix of gardens, orchards, meadows, farmlands, olive fields, groves and natural forests of oak, pine and cypress. Eleven structures are integrated within the landscape forming an ambient whole that seamlessly blends the domestic arts with the natural world.
As the summer home of the Gučetić-Gozze family (members of the noble class of citizens of the Dubrovnik Republic which included bishops, poets, artists, mariners and lovers of horticulture and gardening) Arboretum Trsteno developed incrementally with each owner adding structural and horticultural elements. Formal paths lined with hedging integrate individual gardens and cultivated sections of the property.
Arboretum Trsteno’s central axis developed throughout the late Renaissance and Baroque periods providing a cohesive and formal framework for the estate’s early structures, directly connecting the landscape to the sea.
The property contains eleven architectural features, all of which have been preserved in varying states of restoration. These include the summer villa, wheat and olive mills, storage and cooking facilities, a chapel, a Baroque fountain and a 70 meter long stone aqueduct.
Arboretum Trsteno was the only estate in the region with a water supply (thus the aqueduct) allowing for the development of the gardens and supporting agricultural activities.
An elaborate Baroque fountain, the largest in Dubrovnik, was added in in 1736 featuring a cave/grotto, frescoes and a pool presided over by Neptune, the Roman god of the sea.
Arboretum Trsteno is described as a hotspot of biological diversity in Dubrovnik with, according to research carried out between 1995 and 2000, the confirmed presence of more than 400 species of cultivated plants and 528 autochthonous species.
Collected over five centuries from around the world these include flowering cactuses, eucalyptus, palms, Aleppo pines, holm and cork oak, persimmons and laurels. While the collection is richest in Mediterranean and European species reflecting its Renaissance origins. Seventeen percent of the plants are of American origin and twenty-two percent of Asian origin.
In 1948 (20 years after the photograph below was taken) the estate was placed under legal protection as an arboretum and protected by law as monument of garden architecture.
Managed by the Croatian Academy of Science and Arts, the activities of the arboretum focus on the “protection and preservation of cultural, historical and natural monuments, the study and protection of cultural diversity, the development of a live collection in terms of protecting genetic diversity, and on research into the history of garden architecture.”
This relationship of man to nature is a guiding theme of the Arboretum Trsteno and is reflected in a Latin inscription from 1502 sited on a wall in the garden translated as: “I am proud of my neighbors, but I am even more proud of water, the gentle climate and my owners. Visitors, behold the traces of human hands, whose excellent skills have tamed the wildness of nature.”
Additional information about Arboretum Trsteno can be found in the scientific paper, Arboretum Trsteno – the Gardens of a Renaissance Villa by Mladen Obad Šćitaroci and Maja Anastazija Kovačević.
Arboretum Trsteno is open from May to October from 7:00 to 19:00 and November to April from 8:00 to 6:00 with a nominal entrance fee. It is accessible from Dubrovnik by the public bus system.
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