Hanbury Botanical Garden

Hanbury Botanical Garden


Last Tuesday I joined a small group of people (4 including me) from the Photo Club I joined recently. They gather together for a day shooting somewhere. Being a small group is perfect for straightforward organisation, quick decisions are taken and things really happen more easily. As long as you get along with every member of the group, you're fine. And if they get along well with you, they're fine too. Duh! That's exactly what we have now. I couldn't find a better group of people: easy going, respectful, jokers and of course, they have a passion for photography.

Anyways, they have just began these photo excursions and invited me to join in. A list of potential destinations had already been established and I was also very welcome to add anything I thought would be interesting for the group, based on travel time, weather, topic and preferences. This week they proposed Hanbury Botanical Garden in Italy, not very far from France's border.

At first I wasn't super excited by the destination, I'm not a big fan of photographing flowers, plants and insects. I did however welcome their invitation, even considered myself privileged. When you create a very small group like that, you really take your time to select those you value, respect and consider a good fit for the team. Anyways, going back to the topics of flowers, plants and insects.. The fact is I'm always looking for new people to meet, places to visit and things to see. I'm curious by nature and just love discovering new stuff and learn. So, going to Hanbury Botanical Garden was an opportunity for all that. In the end I had a great day, lots of good shots, spent quality time with great people and learned quite a lot on this gorgeous location. Another proof that expectations should always be left home. I'm glad I did.

Between Mountain and Sea

The Hanbury Botanical Garden is located in Ventimiglia (Italy) not very far from Menton (France). The entrance is on Corso Montecarlo, 43 La Mortola from where you start the visit, going down in the garden until it reaches the Mediterranean Sea. The garden represents a total of 18 acres, of which 9 acres can be visited. It was acquired by Thomas Hanbury for building a palace in 1886 in place of the ruins from the noble Lanteri's Family house erected during the 11th century. World War II caused quite a lot of damage in the garden and the palace. The property was acquired by the Italian State in 1960. Under international pressure, the land was entrusted to the Genova University.

The garden is a fantastic collection of plants from around the world and has something to offer all year long. Every month brings something new from almost 3500 species. But not only that. From an historical perspective, the garden contains incredible things like Via Julia Augusta (aka Via Aurelia) a Roman communication road built in 12 B.C., linking Derthona (today Tortona) to Aqua Sextiae (today Aix-en-Provence). That's quite a huge distance. Needless to say it provokes a intense emotion when you pass on the small bridge over it and look down at the road thinking of all the people who travelled on this way for centuries. This is truly amazing and a real treat for people interested in the history of things. I have a passion for these things and photography is the best excuse I have found to explore, discover and learn.

The tools for the job

This blog is all about photography, so I'd like to talk about that aspect while I visited the garden. Because it was a very warm and humid day, I didn't want to bring a lot of gear and suffer the whole day. The days of DSLR and multiple lenses are over for me since 2010. Leica changed my game completely, as you know. But shooting in a garden often means wide angle AND macro. What a dilemma if you want to leave home with a minimal setup. In fact, the Leica M (Typ 240) is my main camera and the Summilux-M 50mm, f1.4 ASPH is my goto lens. I could have brought the Super-Elmar-M 18mm, f3.8 ASPH or the Summilux-M 28mm, f1.2 ASPH, but I thought it would be a better option to have the Sony RX100 for wide angle and its amazing performances for macro. The Sony can zoom very very close to the subject (i.e. flowers and insects) and is extremely portable. In other words, the Sony RX100 was used as my wide and macro lenses in place of another fixed lens and maybe a second body (I also have a Leica M8.2).

For the rest, here is what I had in a small shoulder bag (ShootSac from Jessica Claire). I bought this shoulder bag a couple years ago for my heavy Canon “L” lenses. The bag is made of 6 neoprene pockets where you put lenses. After I switched to Leica and looked for light and unobtrusive alternatives I decided to merge two pockets together (simply removed the seam separating them) where my iPad Air fits perfectly, and using the other 4 pockets for small accessories like spare batteries, glasses, lens cloth, SD cards, mini Moleskine Field Notes, etc.. I have been using this bag since then as my main bag for most shooting and/or photo hikes.

  • Leica M (Typ 240) batteries x 2
  • Sony RX100 batteries x2
  • 64GB Sandisk Extreme Pro SD cards x 3
  • Lens cloth & blower
  • Glasses
  • Water (500mL). I actually had to buy a second bottle. When it's hot and you walk all day, your body needs a lot of water. Oh, I also had a beer with lunch, which helps. :-)
  • Apple iPhone 5
  • Moleskine Field Notes & pencil

Overall, this was a very lightweight setup, barely noticeable. I simply looked like a guy with a camera and little bag. Exactly what I am indeed! I felt free and ready to go and walk for hours. And that's what I did. I never felt I had too much weight or the need to stop for a break and take the bag off my shoulder. I had the bag on my shoulder for about 7 hours. I also never felt I was missing or had forgotten to bring something. Well, maybe an exception: one member of the group fall and scratched her knee on the rocks. Nothing serious, but I thought it would be a good thing to have some tiny first-aid kit in the bag. The only thing I had in my pocket is a humid lemon napkin. I'll shop around for an ultra portable kit for short hikes. Added to OmniFocus. ;-)

So, what do I think of the Hanbury Garden?

Humm.. It is certainly more than what I was expecting. I really went to all areas of the garden, visited the ground level of the palace, went on the terraces, saw plenty of plants, flowers and trees, fountains, and much much more. From a photographic stand-point I'm happy with the shots I produced and I had a great time with my peers. But I realize I haven't done my home works before getting there. I usually do a research on what I'm going to visit or see, I think it's important to get some knowledge of a topic before shooting because you have the whole story and realize how and why it is there, the people involved, the historical events, etc. When you enter the garden they give you a small brochure that contains a lot of valuable informations. My advise would be to read it along during the visit. Take little breaks under the trees and read small chunks of infos until you've read everything. I didn't and it's only when I started to write this post that I had to look for infos in the brochure and realized how rich this site was. The Hanbury Botanical Garden is on of the most important in the world. In fact it is part of UNESCO World Heritage (Ref 336).

So, all that being said, I feel I should go back after reading the brochure entirely and did some research on the web to have a better understanding of what Hanbury's project was all about. I'm pretty sure my perception of this place would be different, as would be my approach for photographing it.

Down to earth comments now:

  • The place is not so obvious to find when you get there on La Mortola, no big signs or indications.
  • Parking can be a bit tricky, even complicated, especially during the high season.
  • While we've been told by a gardener that there was only a bar (no restaurant) at the end of the garden (sea level), there is actually a small snack bar with chips, fresh sandwiches, beverages (water, juices, beers, pops, etc.), The service was very kind and the coffee excellent! ;-)

Clearly, the garden makes a great destination either for tourists or local people. There is enough for a full day visit if you take the time to “see" instead of just "look", read the info, get to know more and understand what it is altogether. The palace exterior shows clear signs of degradation, but I suspect they are focusing (time and money) on the garden itself before the building. I think it's a huge project and bringing everything back to perfect state will require many years. But it's worth every euro they invest in there!

I picked the photo above from the series I made because it represents what I felt when I was in the garden. The Japanese Garden is what I preferred and the lotus flower is a prefect ambassador of such a place. I had to play the acrobat a little bit to get the shot, but I think it turned out pretty good. It's precious. Fresh. Meaningful. Colorful. For me it's a keeper. I hope you enjoy.

Good Light!


© Normand Primeau