On a recent Sunday, Silvia Rezzonico pushed a stroller through the glorious gardens of Villa Belgiojoso, winding past parents chasing their toddlers and families lounging on blankets.
Under a black walnut tree, she paused to look down at the baby boy dozing angelically in the pram.
“He’s not really mine,” she said.
But he was her coveted ticket into the park.
The secret gardens of Villa Belgiojoso, entered through an anonymous little door, are off limits to adults unaccompanied by a minor. A few blocks from Milan’s renowned fashion district and just a 10-minute walk from the frenzied Porta Venezia neighborhood, the gardens look like a scene out of a Milanese “Mary Poppins.” They are limited, free of charge, to visitors under the age of 13 and their guardians.
That’s why Ms. Rezzonico, a 38-year-old speech therapist with no children of her own, had asked a friend if she could latch herself onto his baby.
“I am so lucky to I have a friend with kids,” said Ms. Rezzonico, as three little boys kicked a ball in front of a small waterfall.
But growing pains might be around the corner. A Milan city councilor for culture, Filippo Del Corno, wants to open the park to adults without little plus ones. He believes that grown-ups should have the right to visit the garden, especially because it is connected to a lavish Napoleonic villa that many of them have already paid to get into.
Since July, Mr. Del Corno has made the case to lift the ban, but has run into opposition from protective parents and the concerns of municipal bean counters, who worry that opening up the gardens to more people might raise insurance costs.
The park has melancholic English landscapes, fake ruins, a little lake with an island and an open lawn in front of the villa, which is decorated with Ionic columns, bas-reliefs and marble statues, all designed by Leopold Pollack, a 18th-century Hungarian architect.
Everything in the park is designed to invite visitors to get lost in a game of hide and seek.
The children-only policy dates back to a century ago, when the villa became publicly owned, and was established to create a safe haven for youngsters in the chaotic and rarely child-friendly city center of Milan.
Milan has in the past decade grown to be one of Italy’s top tourist destinations, last year attracting 7.7 million international visitors and drawing $3.6 billion in tourism dollars, according to the city’s chamber of commerce.
And yet the garden has been kept a local secret for years.
“It’s a shame some families don’t know about this place, it’s so precious and protected,” said Sara Taddeo, who comes here with her 8-year-old twin boys. Then the 52-year-old reconsidered. “Well, actually, that might be a good thing.”
But Mr. Del Corno, the councilman, has argued that adults are already paying to get into the villa itself and should get to see the gardens, too.
Mr. Del Corno declined to comment, but his office has confirmed that it is “working on the issue” and “verifying all the technical details,” which could take a long time because of the insurance implications with the monuments. The ban on the adults, they said, has a “50 percent probability of being lifted.”
Admitting ticket-holding, unaccompanied adults “is part of a wider project to boost the villa complex,” said Marco Edoardo Minoja, an official at Milan’s City Hall. He said that the city government, who manages the complex, plans to submit a draft to Italy’s central government in Rome, which owns the site and has a final say, by early 2020.
But it is already facing some internal opposition. “Call me nostalgic, but I like the gardens as they are,” said Basilio Rizzo, a pillar of Milan local politics who has served as an independent city councilor since 1983. Opening them up “will kill the magic.”
Critics of the proposal say the villa should be enough for the adults.
Villa Belgiojoso is an opulent neo-Classical palace favored by Napoleon and Italy’s royal family, which the Milanese sometimes also call “Villa Reale,” or royal villa. It hosts two museums, an extensive 19th-century fine arts collection, including sculptures by Antonio Canova and paintings by Francesco Hayez, for 5 euros (or $5.50), and a smaller pavilion for contemporary art, for 8 euros.
The gardens, they say, need not be included.
“The city should be proud to have a children-only place like this,” said Caterina Matteucci, a 52-year-old casting director who visits the park every weekend with her wife and their 8-year-old daughter.
Since guards are rare, some parents, including Ms. Matteucci’s wife, have taken it upon themselves the task to fend off unauthorized visitors.
Maria Stella Veertz has policed her own family: “Once I ran into my eldest son, who’s 17, with his girlfriend, and kicked them out,” said the 48-year-old charity manager, who brings her younger boys to the garden. “This a place for children.”