The Elevated Garden, New York Style

Another post so soon is rare for me, but I’m off to Sicily in a couple of days and before leaving wanted to take a quick look at the High Line, the elevated garden in New York that was inspired by the Promenade Plantée in Paris that I talked about in my last post (‘A Unique Promenade’).   As I mentioned in that post, both projects were based on the same concept – take an abandoned railway line in a run-down neighbourhood in the heart of a big city and transform it into an elevated walkway lined with plants and trees.

(The appearance of my offspring in the following photo is due to the fact that when I got back from New York and was going over my photos this turned out to be the only one I had taken of the High Line from street level. Merci, les enfants.)

Rather far in the background, the High Line at 23rd and 10th Ave.

As in Paris – maybe even more so in New York – the newly created green space provided a much appreciated oasis of tranquillity and people wanted to not just walk along it, but to live next to it.  New apartment buildings sprang up along the once dilapidated rail line.  And older buildings got rejuvenating – and sometimes unusual facelifts.

On a blank wall, the ‘backside’ of an older building, was a colourful and, at the time, mystifying mural.   The words are from the last line of ‘The New Colossus’, a poem on a plaque inside the Statue of Liberty that the High Line website describes as ‘an ode to the freedoms promised by immigration [that] thousands of new arrivals passed by as they made their first steps in the United States’.  The mural is part of Agora, a group exhibition commissioned by the High Line that will be on view from April 2018 to March 2019.

One of several works of art in Agora, a group exhibition that ‘looks at the role of art in defining, creating, and using public space’. 

But that Friday afternoon I had no idea what I was looking at, and while I would have benefitted from taking one of the tours provided by ‘Friends of the High Line’, April was the only time my (employed in Toronto) son and (student at Columbia) daughter could manage a visit and the tours are held May to September.

Unlike the newer buildings, the windows of the older ones face away from the once ugly rail line.

Through the trees – amazingly, full grown trees survive up here – another mural faces the path. I don’t know if it’s part of the High Line or an independent effort.

There was so much going on – and the crowds got bigger as we made our way south – I almost missed this little church.

Unlike the church along the Promenade Plantée.

The churches weren’t the only difference.  The High Line was unapologetically educational as well as political.  (That’s probably something only a Canadian would say, since apparently we’re always saying sorry.)

All along the line, plaques with fascinating bits of information.

In addition to the Art Tours, there are also Garden Tours and Wildlife Tours (?) and a Honey Harvest later in the season.

The High Line may be half the length of the Promenade Plantée, but the developers are obviously making the most of every bit of it.  One can only hope they don’t overdo it or the plants will be left in shade.

Another big difference here is the number of large areas for gathering. And sitting.  And Thai Chi and meditation and Latin dancing and Stargazing and lunchtime reading sessions.

Like an amphitheatre, row after row of wide benches where you can sit, have lunch or watch the street below.

‘We are 11 million’ is another piece in the Agora commission. As I found out later, it is by Andrea Bowers, described on the High Line website as ‘a Los Angeles-based artist working in video, drawing, and installation, combining art and activism to foreground the struggle for social justice.’  The number, which I also did not understand at the time – I thought it might have something to do with the number of visitors to the park – do American visitors recognize its significance? – represented ‘the DREAMers […] individuals who came to the United States at an early age without documentation, who have assimilated to U.S. culture, and who have been educated in U.S. schools’.

11 Million, the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

Agora, continues the website, is the ancient Greek square – ‘the public gathering area that was the core of commercial, artistic, political, and spiritual life in old city-states like Athens’, an area that artists throughout the centuries have used as ‘theaters and arenas for performances and collective actions [to] mobilize a kind of collective voice of the people’ [and where] ‘by manipulating our expectations of what does and does not belong in these ostensibly collectively owned spaces, artists challenge what public spaces are, how they’re made, and who they’re made for’.

Definitely not the Promenade Plantée.

Even where there is a wide open space along the Promenade Plantée, as at the Jardin Reuilly

…and a children’s playground…

…and sports/fitness area, these spaces are fenced off and clearly separate from the walkway.

What really strikes even the yet-to-be educated visitor to the High Line is the extent to which the garden’s origins have been preserved and incorporated into the design.

In sections like this especially, the plants and design of the ‘beds’ reflect the wild state of the tracks after the line was put out of service.

As at the Promenade Plantée I was sorry to be visiting the High Line while it was still largely dormant. Notwithstanding the ‘Monthly Bloom List’ for April, apart from a few species tulips and narcissus, other plants and trees that would normally have been in bloom – like the Redbud, my favourite spring tree – were just beginning to show a hint of colour.

And one last thought – if there was ever a question as to how much the culture we live in influences what we do and create, I think the answer lies here – in this New York City garden that took an existing concept from Paris and made something so different.

 

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A Unique Promenade in Paris

At the end of my March trip to southern France, I spent a couple of days in Paris, staying in the same hotel my daughter and I had stayed in a few years earlier.  I loved the location, on the Left Bank between the Panthéon and Notre-Dame, two of my favourite buildings in Paris.

The Pantheon of Paris was even more beautiful against a rare spell of clear, blue sky.  The only thing marring its beauty being the unfortunate dedication – Aux Grands Hommes.

Unlike the Pantheon in Rome, another of my favourite buildings, which is dedicated to all the gods, male and female, the French Panthéon is dedicated only to the country’s  ‘Grands Hommes’.  Great Men.

A quiet moment early one morning at the Pantheon in Rome before the crowds arrive.

If the weather had been better, I would have taken the time to visit the interior of the Panthéon – if only to see the shrine where the ashes of one of France’s Grandes Femmes now lie.  (Marie Curie, whose ashes were brought here from a nondescript town in April 1995.)  But on the horizon more of the dark clouds that dogged my days in Paris were starting to form.

The sun momentarily lights up one of the grand rose windows of Notre-Dame.

Dark clouds over the Musée d’Orsay echo the blue-grays of the art gallery’s rooftop.

So instead I headed for a unique, but relatively unknown garden.  And since it was on the way, I decided  to check out another garden, also lesser known – at least to foreign tourists – where, despite the unseasonably cool temperatures, I hoped to see lots of colourful spring flowers.  An enormous bed at the entrance dashed any hopes of that.

The sight of this lone pansy in bloom dashed any hopes of finding bright spring colours.

The garden goes by the rather odd name –  Le Jardin des Plantes.  The Garden of Plants.  Or, sometimes, to avoid confusion with other such gardens, Le Jardin des Plantes de Paris.  Which didn’t strike me as any less odd until I found out it’s a shortened post-French Revolution form of the garden’s original name – le Jardin royal des plantes médicinales.   The Royal Garden of Medicinal Plants.

Close by, not the kind of thing you’d expect to find in a royal garden.

Nowadays, despite the loss of its royal pedigree, the Garden of Plants is the most important botanical garden in France, which means it is enormous – 28 hectares (70 acres) – and is surrounded by a host of grand buildings with grand names – la Galerie de Géologie et de Minéralogie,  la Grande Galerie de l’Évolution  and les Grandes Serres (Greenhouses) all of which, like the garden itself, have been classified as Monuments Historiques.

In the background Les Grandes Serres.  The truly grand greenhouses.

To the casual eye there wasn’t a lot going on, but the gardeners knew better.

There was at least a dozen of them, students I gathered, working under the watchful eye of the fellow with the brown hat.

Large chartreuse clumps provided the main colour. From a distance they reminded me of Alchemilla.

But close up, the flowers of Euphorbia veneta were much sturdier than the Lady’s Mantles we plant in our gardens.

And if you looked hard there were other small splashes of colour.

Little patches of the dainty, but tough Pasque Flower were in bloom. Right on time for Easter. Pâques in French.

With the (slowly) rising temperatures, the gardeners had lifted the roof of the little greenhouse in which a clump of tender Gladioli had overwintered

Next to the mini gladioli greenhouse was a plant label that looked more like something you’d see in a book of fairy tales than a botanical garden.

What does it say about our cultures that in English we see a ‘Lamb’s Ear’, while for the French it’s the  ‘Ear of a Bear’?

A little further on there was another sign. What the veau (calf) is holding is definitely an arum. But where does ‘Calf’s Foot’ come from?

The whimsical panels were part of a special exhibit. If the children found it as much fun as I did, it was going to be a huge success.  Who knew our dandelion came from ‘The Lion’s Tooth’?  Dent-de-lion.

I’ve seen a lot of ferns, but not one has ever made me think of an eagle. The illustration explains all.

In a few weeks these enormous Platanes (Plane aka Sycamore) will be covered in foliage, forming an enormous tunnel.

While I was delighted to discover the ‘Garden of Plants’, it was frustrating to be there just before it really started to come to life. I hoped there would be more going on in the next garden, which was over in the 12th arrondissement where the infamous Bastille once stood.  A bit of a hike, but there was no direct route by Métro and the traffic was so bad it would have taken longer by bus.  If I’d been able to figure out the routes.

It’s called La Promenade Plantée.  The Planted Walkway.

Unlike the Panthéon or Notre-Dame you could walk right by and have no idea what you are looking at.

It is an elevated walkway, lined with plants, built on top of an obsolete railway line.  Like the High Line in New York, only longer and built a couple of decades earlier. I started at the Viaduct Daumesnil.   The entrance is around the side of the renamed  ‘Viaduct of the Arts’.

From a ruin slated for demolition, this section of the track has been transformed into a thriving art centre with 45 studios – arts and crafts, workshops, galleries, and of course a café.

A notice at the entrance sets the tone.

This is a place for walking.  Jogging is permitted as long as it does not bother the walkers.

The walkway, occasionally referred to as la Coulée Verte (Green Belt) is 4.7 k (2.9 miles) long.  Which makes it almost twice the length of the High Line and much too long on top of all the other walking I had been doing.  So I only went as far as the Reuilly garden.

Even going only as far as Reuilly was two and a half k round trip.

The basic concept for both the High Line, which I had visited the previous fall, and the Promenade Plantée is the same.  Take an obsolete railway line in a run-down section in the heart of a major city and create an elevated public park.  But as I walked along the walkway in Paris it was fascinating to see how different the two parks were.

Along one side, elegant apartment buildings in classic Parisian style.

On the other side newer, modern apartments replaced the buildings that had fallen into disrepair in the previously run-down, low rent neighbourhood.

The new buildings had been built so close to the line, it was as if the Promenade was an extension of their balconies, many of which were richly planted.

In some stretches the path was narrow, perfect for intimate tête-à-têtes.

In other places, especially where it crossed over a wide avenue, the path opened wide up.

At the end of one avenue, the Gare de Lyon, the train station you take for Provence.

The difference between the views from one side of the path and the other could be startling.

In a couple of places the newer buildings seemed to grow right out of the path.

Imagine the nightmare getting the permits must have entailed.

Or the engineering and design headaches involved in retrofitting older buildings into the new.

There were a couple of joggers, who were very careful not to bother the promeneurs.

This old jogger stood out for his remarkably minimal walk/jog pace. And also because, as I watched in disbelief, he stopped not far from here and went  into the bushes where, hidden from sight, he stayed for a bit, and then came out and resumed his walk/jog. Only in Paris.

Occasionally there was a natural, almost rustic section.

This ‘natural’ area had a Maison des Insectes. Bug Hotel.

But for the most part it was like a typical jardin à la française, with clipped box and yew, formal beds and elegant columns and arches.  And hundreds of rose bushes just starting to leaf out.  Definitely something to come back to in May or June.

Classic French elegance.  Apart from the bilious garbage bags.

The sun came out as I approached the Viaduct and I was almost tempted to redo the whole walk.  Almost.

Next:  Same Concept, Different Result – New York’s Take on the Elevated Garden

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A Simple Pleasure

When I first started thinking about going away this March, rather than waiting for May as I usually do, I was looking for a break from Canadian winter, a season which, the more I experience, the longer and more miserable they seem to get.  I carefully planned the timing – March 14 to April 1 – so that winter would be over and spring well established by the time I got back.

Did I get it wrong!  Barely two weeks after I got back the storm – which many are calling a HISTORIC WINTER STORM – hit.  Blinding snow.  Freezing rain.  Black ice. Over 500 car crashes.  The OPP (Ontario Provincial Police) pleading with people to stay off the roads. Trees crashing down onto power lines, causing power outages for thousands.   And now, three days later, we’re being warned to keep an eye out for chunks of ice and snow falling from the CN Tower.  And  flooding.  So, instead of the post I thought I would be writing after my return, here is a look at of one of the greatest of life’s simple pleasures – sitting outdoors in the sunshine.  Which, according to the meteorologists, we will eventually see again here.

Colourful Menton is just a couple of kilometres from the French border with Italy. Its mild climate and extraordinary sunshine – more than 300 days per year – have made it a popular winter sojourn for centuries.

The wide, sandy beach was getting a clean-up for the beach goers who would soon arrive.

In the meantime, lunch outdoors in one of the town’s many squares is a pleasure for locals and visitors.

After lunch, a nice long walk – or a lie down – along the pebbly beach on the west side of town.

A lovely place to wait for your bus.

One of my favourite hilltop towns was Bordighera (bor-dee-geh-ruh), a short bus ride east of Ventimiglia, the first town you come to when you cross the border into Italy.   Claude Monet liked it too.  Renoir had brought him to the town and he liked it so much he stayed on, making paintings that now hang in some of the greatest art galleries.

Although much has changed since Monet’s day, the vibrant colours and lush vegetation that he captured in his paintings still make meandering around the town a delight.

Following the Sentiero Monet, a path up into the hills above the town, shedding clothes as I went, was bliss.  BTW – I’ll write  about Bordighera and all the other places I visited more ion this trip later.  A una data da destinarsi.  At a date whose destiny is yet to be determined, as the Vatican Gardens agent replied when I first tried to book a visit. (‘The Popes’ Garden, March 15, 2015)  But that day in March, my favourite part of Bordighera was the promenade.

There were some clouds, but there were also lots of patches of blue sky and for the first time I wished I had my sun glasses with me.

This restaurant along the promenade was one of many fabulous restaurant recommendations I was given by one of the young women who run the B&B in Ventimiglia I stayed in at the beginning of my trip.

I barely looked at the menu. What I wanted was what the young woman sitting at a table nearby was having. I ordered a glass of vino bianco del posto – something from the area – and sat back and watched the waves.

On the menu it is listed as ‘Il nostro crudo di mare secondo gli arrivi.‘ Our raw seafood according to what arrives.  All I can say is that what arrived that day was delizioso!

Sitting at a table on a wooden terrace by the sea, surrounded by blue skies and the sound of the waves.  A (perhaps deceptively) simple pleasure.

One day while I was staying in Villefranche-sur-Mer, a small fishing village about 10 k east of Nice, I took the train to Cagnes-sur-Mer to visit the house where Renoir spent his last years.  I’d been there before and there isn’t really much to see, but it’s one of those places you feel compelled to return to.

Copies of his paintings were set out among the olive trees where he had set up his easel.

Beyond the ancient olive trees, the farmhouse.

It’s important to get off the train at the right ‘Cagnes’ station, because not all of Cagnes-sur-Mer, literally ‘Cagnes on the sea’, is on the sea.  Despite its small size, there are three Cagnes.  An upper Cagnes called ‘Le Haut-de-Cagnes’ – which is so haut there is a free navette , shuttle bus, whose real purpose I suspect is to discourage visitors from driving up to the ancient settlement and clogging its treacherously steep and narrow lanes.  Lower down there is the main town, Cagnes-sur-Mer, and finally, down by the sea is the medieval fishing village of Cros-de-Cagnes.  This of course is all terribly confusing for unsuspecting visitors.  And Cagnes isn’t the only village I visited with name issues.  One day I decided to visit a medieval hamlet in the mountains.  On every site I looked at it was called Roquebrune. I was in Monaco visiting the Japanese Garden, and it took a bit of asking around, but eventually I found the bus stop for Roquebrune.  To make sure, I asked a local who was waiting at the stope.  As luck would have it, he too was going to  Roquebrune, in fact he lived there and would let me know when we arrived.  The bus headed up into the mountains – and then it headed back down to the sea.  To the bus stop in Roquebrune!  I went over to the Tourist Office and explained to the young woman that I was looking for Roquebrune, which according to the many sites I had looked at was a medieval hamlet in the mountains rather than this place by the sea.  She looked at me with sympathy.  I was not crazy.  The hamlet I was looking for did exist and it was in the mountains nearby, but it was called Roquebrune Village.  For the locals of course such details are self-evident.  Anyway, back to the delights of sitting in the sun.

The other reason I’d come to Cagnes-sur-Mer was to see the new, exorbitantly expensive harbour, which is in Cros-de-Cagnes, the part of Cagnes-sur-Mer which is actually by the sea.

In the shelter of the new harbour, there were lots of real, working, fishing boats as well as four that looked like no fish had been anywhere near them.

Along one side was a beautifully wide, walkway where some people were basking in the sun on benches that I assumed were part of the harbour’s lovely renovation – although 30 million euros did seem a bit steep – while others, who had brought their own chairs and table, were playing cards.

More card players, with their chairs and table, arrived as I stood there watching.

On the other side of the harbour there was even more activity. Four boule courts. Here too some people had brought their own chairs, but there were also lots of benches where the players – who included quite a few women, something I’d never seen before – relaxed between throws.

Closer to town, was Cros-de-Cagnes’ Promenade de la Plage. It wasn’t as wide or as long as the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, but it seemed very popular with the locals – there didn’t seem to be any tourists – too early in the season perhaps – who ran, cycled and met up with friends.

Or just sat and watched the boats for a while.

But Nice is where I saw sitting in the sun taken to an entirely different level.

Where there is a sculpture in honour of an outdoor chair, you know you’re in a place where sitting in the sun is taken seriously.

Early in the morning there are lots of empty chairs.

But as the day goes on, they fill up. Even on a cold, windy March day.

The iconic – I know, a vastly over-used word, but it really does seem appropriate here – blue chairs decorate the entrance to a beach-side restaurant.

It’s a long walk from one end of the promenade to the other, so even the plain, white benches that are scattered along the walk are quickly taken up.

I watched in disbelief – is this actually allowed? – as this fellow set up his own personal spot for relaxing in the sun.

For some people the best place for relaxing in the sun is down on the beach. The wall makes for a good back rest and I was surprised at how much stronger the sound of the waves was down here.

I was also surprised at the number of people who were not content just to sit in the sun – although by their tans they spent time doing that as well.

For me the most magical time to sit in the sun was at the end of the day.

Every night of my stay in Nice I sat on the pebbly beach – it’s not too uncomfortable if you wiggle around – and watched as the setting sun lit up the crests of the waves with hints of pink.

Hints of pink that grew darker and darker until the sun disappeared behind the mountains to the west and I went back up to the city for dinner.

 

 

 

 

Posted in France, Liguria, Northern Italy, Provence | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

In Search of a ‘Practical’ Potager

After my last post ((G7 Woes in the Pearl) I wanted to write about something less stormy. Something that wouldn’t lead to popping Advils.  The Aeolian Islands, a volcanic archipelago off Sicily’s north-east coast, seemed like just the thing.  (The volcanoes – apart from Stromboli –  have been inactive for a very long time.)  I had spent a couple of days there on my first trip to Sicily almost 15 years ago.  But as I was going through my old photos and notes, a strange thing happened.  I began to long to visit the islands again.  Given that I’m going to Sicily in May, these weren’t just pie in the sky longings. After a few days of this I took Oscar Wilde’s advice and gave in to temptation and booked a room on one of the islands.  The new itinerary felt great and I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it in the first place. But now I had a problem.  There was no point writing about a place I was soon going to, so what was I going to write about?

On a boat ride around the Aeolian Islands almost 15 years ago.

The answer came in my email Inbox.  A reader was planning to create a potager and wanted to know if I had any suggestions for gardens to visit in the Veneto that might give her some ideas.  She stressed that she was interested in PRACTICAL potagers.  My full reply is in the Comments section of the Welcome page, essentially that I didn’t think she would find much of practical use in that region.  On the upside I thanked her giving me the topic for my next post and with the wind howling and the snow gusting, I went looking for all the potagers I’ve visited over the years. I didn’t expect to find much that was practical for a Canadian gardener, but I felt sure it would be a lovely antidote to what was going on outside my window.

I started with the Veneto, the region the reader was interested in, but as I had expected found nothing there that had anything even remotely connected to a vegetable garden.

Entrance to the gardens of Villa Pisani, along the Brenta Canal, not far from Venice.  No lowly veggies here.

Then I headed west to Italy’s lake district – Lakes Garda, Como and Maggiore.  Lots more gardens there, but again not a single vegetable garden.

The ‘Japanese Garden’ of Giardino Melzi on Lake Como.

I went all the way over to Liguria, Italy’s most westerly region.  Go any further and you’re in France.

La Cervara, Portofino, Liguria.

Then I headed south, to Tuscany, the birthplace of the classic Italian Renaissance garden. While not the first, Villa Gamberaia, on the outskirts of Florence, is considered by many to be the most ‘perfect’.

The ‘Hidden Garden’ of Villa Gamberaia.  On the upper terrace to the left is a lovely lemon parterre.  But no veggies.

I was beginning to despair.  Then I remembered another garden I’d visited in Florence.  I’d forgotten about it – probably because it wasn’t a favourite.  Despite the gardeners’ hard work, the focus here was clearly on the statuary rather than the plants.

Villa Pietra was created not by a gardener or even a plant lover, but by an antiquarian.

But it did have an orto (or-toe).  Although, as you’ll see, despite some very serious vegetables, it is not a very ‘practical’ orto.

The monumental entrance to the vegetable garden of Villa Pietra.

I might be missing something but I don’t see anything here that would be of practical use to a Canadian gardener.

A young woman picks fava beans for a gala dinner in the villa that evening.

Continuing south I came across a few veggie gardens.

The orto of the Abbey of Passignano, Tuscany.

A private veggie garden in the hilltop village of Monticchiello in the south-east corner of Tuscany.

But the pickings were very slim, something I will have to remedy when I go back to Tuscany this fall.

Continuing south things didn’t get any better.

Ninfa, Italy’s most romantic garden, is designed to look as if it is on the verge of collapse. Compelling, but definitely not a place for someone looking for inspiration for a veggie garden.

Italians love vegetables.  And they love growing their own.  Just walk around any part of Toronto where Italians have settled.  When space is small, they even plant vegetables in their front yards.  To the consternation of neighbours who think that sort of thing -especially tomatoes plants with their ungainly stakes – should be relegated to the back yard.  I was flummoxed.  Why did I have so few photos of vegetable gardens in Italy?

I figured the Amalfi Coast, for all its stunning, natural beauty, was hardly the place to look for veggie gardens.

Along the Amalfi Coast, where land is scarce, terraces have been carved over the centuries up the mountainsides.

Still, I found a few.

One of the loveliest potagers I’ve seen in Italy is along the path to Villa Cimbrone in Ravello.

It also has one of the loveliest views.

I looked through thousands of photos from my trips to Italy searching for potagers, even impractical potagers. Then one day, in one of those moments when you don’t think you’re thinking about something, the light bulb or the penny or whatever your personal Eureka moment is, hit me.  Potager is a French word.  Even though I spend less time in France and had probably visited far fewer gardens there than in Italy, I had visited numerous French vegetable gardens.   And I had hundreds of photos of these gardens!  What was going on?  Do the French celebrate their potagers more than the Italians their orti?  I have no idea.  But I will try to find out.

Like many veggie gardens in France, the potager of the Val Joanis winery in Provence is both beautiful and full of practical ideas.  Even for a Canadian gardener.

In the meantime I have to end this post now because I’m leaving for the Rivieras – French and Italian – in a few hours.  This is an experiment.  My first ‘March break’ in many years.  I’m a little worried because I see a lot of rain in the forecasts for both Nice and Ventimiglia.  But at least there is no snow.

Every potager needs a shed. Val Joanis.

 

 

 

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G7 Woes in ‘The Pearl’- Taormina Part II

When Matteo Renzi, the then Prime Minister of Italy, announced that the G7 Summit of 2017 would be held in Taormina, Sicily, it came as a big surprise to the citizens of Florence, where the meeting had originally been scheduled to take place. But Renzi, who would be Italy’s ex-Prime Minister by the time of the summit, was adamant.  A joke had been told by one of the leaders at a previous summit.  Something about Sicily being the land of the mafia.  With Taormina, Renzi aimed to reclaim the island’s honour, to showcase Sicily as a land of great bellezza (beauty), volontariato (volunteering),  innovazione (innovation) and of people like Pietro Bartolo,the doctor whose crusade to rescue migrants arriving by boat on Lampedusa Island was documented in ‘Fuocamare‘ Fire at Sea.

View from the  Greek Theatre.  Revenge for a tasteless joke was a rather petty basis for choosing Taormina, but the location had an important, if unintended consequence  – it physically brought the leaders close to one of most of the most pressing issues of the day – migrants and refugees.

The Florentines weren’t the only ones taken aback by the announcement.  Taormina, as we saw in my previous post, may be the ‘Pearl’ of Sicily but it is a very small pearl that barely manages to cope with the deluge of tourists that invade its narrow streets on a daily basis.  And its location – perched on a promontory 200 metres above sea level – had helped keep the ancient Greeks safe, at least until the Romans came along, but made modern-day access a nightmare at the best of times.  The challenges of holding a G7 summit here were so numerous and so obvious, even Renzi had to concede that some verifiche tecniche – technical verifications (hard to top that one for political ambiguity) – were still required to determine whether it would actually be logistically possible.  But, he insisted, even if it wasn’t, the G7 would still take place in Sicily.

A few, rumour-filled months later, Renzi phoned Eligio Giardina, the mayor of Taormina, to tell him the town had been given the official OK.  Giardina put on a brave face, declaring that ‘La Perla dovrà brillare’.  The Pearl will shine.  The locals were less enthused.  They already had plenty of visitors.  However would they manage with any more? And what, muttered a fellow standing close to the mayor, would they do with all the spazzatura (garbage)?  There was also the threat of terrorism that events of this magnitude increasingly bring.  The ever-optimistic Giardina dismissed such concerns.  The ancient Greeks had chosen the site well. It was a natural roccaforte, a ‘strong rock’ invincible even to modern terrorists.  (In the end almost 10,000 police, army and security forces – essentially one for each citizen of Taormina – would be brought in.)

Monte Tauro, the mountain the town was named for, has protected Taormina since ancient times.  On its crest, the ruins of a Saracen Castle and the ancient Greek acropolis.

The first notice I got about Taormina hosting the 2017  G7 was as upsetting as the source was unlikely.  On February 7, 2017, a month after I had made a reservation for a special treat – a one-night stay at Casa Cuseni, the villa whose gardens I had visited on an earlier trip (see previous post), I received an email from Booking.com.  They were ‘spiacenti di informarLa…’ it began.  Spiacenti is not a word you want to see in an email from a booking agency.  Piacere and all its derivatives have to do with pleasure.  Tack an ‘s’ on the front of any of them and you have a bunch of unpleasant opposites.  They were sorry to inform me that on the day of my reservation, the G7 would be taking place.  More specifically, the G7 would take place on May 26 and 27 and the historic centre of Taormina would be completamente blindato in order to host the delegations of the countries involved’.  I had heard of una macchina blindata (an armoured car), but not an armoured historic centre.  Besides, my reservation was for May 25.  But the email continued.  ‘In order to guarantee the safety of the parties involved, the centre would be chiuso dal 22 al 28 Maggio.’  Closed from the 22nd to the 28th of May.   To be sure there were no misunderstandings, they added the word ‘compreso’. Inclusive.

View of the historic centre and Greek Theatre from the Via Crucis, the pathway up Monte Tauro.  Breath-taking in more than one sense.

I picked up the phone.  A mellifluous voice from Georgia soon had me calmed down.  Yes, it was true.  All the hotels in Taormina – as well as in many surrounding towns – had been requisitioned for the G7 leaders, their delegations, journalists etc. Booking.com had cancelled all the reservations made on their site for the duration and were scrambling to help customers find new accommodations far from the turmoil, some in  Catania, others as far south as Siracusa, 120 k down the coast.

There was still one thing that concerned me.  Casa Cuseni was well beyond my normal budget.  To secure the room, I had taken the less expensive, no cancellations allowed option.  The payment had already been withdrawn from my bank account.  Not to worry.  Booking.com had this eventuality covered as well.  Even in cases involving un pagamento anticipato, the money would be refunded.  And finally, in the event I didn’t receive the refund within 15 business days of the date of the cancellation email, I was invited to contact the Team di Assistenza Clienti.

A narrow alley off the town’s main road, Corso Umberto, leads to the Villa Comunale.

Disappointed, but resigned, I started looking for a place to stay in Siracusa. I’d been there  before.  Its historic centre, Ortigia, the island where the ancient Greeks first landed, was a charming labyrinth of narrow alleys perfect for meandering. It would be perfect for a one night visit. It didn’t take me long to find a nice B&B overlooking the harbour.   I booked a room – free cancellation within three months of arrival – and reprinted my itinerary.

The following day, still fuming over the way these meetings, which often don’t seem to accomplish much, cause so much inconvenience to others and involve a enormous outlay of taxpayer dollars,  I did something I would come to regret.  I wrote an email to Francesco explaining how much I had been looking forward to staying at Casa Cuseni and how disappointed I was to miss the experience and also how sorry I was for all the other tourists whose plans were being scombussolati (scom-boos-soh-lah-tee), all messed up, as well as for the inevitable disruption for the locals.

The  ‘Villa Comunale‘ is Taormina’s public garden.

It was created by Lady Florence Trevelyan, who, like many English visitors in the 19th century, had stayed on.  Unlike her compatriots, Miss Trevelyan  married a local, Salvatore Cacciola.

Francesco got back to me right away. I expected something along the lines of yes, it was a disappointment, too bad, perhaps another time.  But to my surprise he was on the attack, didn’t understand how booking.com could taken it upon itself to cancel a reservation in his hotel; it was an arbitrary decision, and even though the city would be blindatissima con reali disagi per i nostri ospiti be the hotel was still open and booking.com had no right to cancel the reservation.’  I didn’t know what to make of the bit about the city being not just blindata, but blindatissima.  Extremely armoured?  And what did he mean by ‘real inconveniences for our guests’?  I called Booking.com again.  Again they confirmed that my cancellation, along with those of countless other would-be visitors, was unavoidable. All of the hotels had been taken over by the G7.  What still didn’t make sense was how Booking.com could possibly have a better idea of what was going on than a long-standing hotel owner right in Taormina?  Not knowing who to believe, I stewed. And I watched my account for the refund which, by Feb. 21 was yet to arrive.  But what did arrive was a second email from Francesco. Things had escalated.

Like so many English, Florence was an avid gardener and after she moved into her new husband’s palazzo, she began to buy up parcels of land on the slopes of the Greek Theatre and transform them into a lush garden.  She was especially fond of trees that towered.

‘Dear Madam, he began, I am obliged to inform you, in my role as Vice president of the B&B Association of Taormina, that unbeknownst to us, Booking.com cancelled your reservation, without us knowing anything, inventing a problem with the G7 causing limitations of the fruibilità of the city of Taormina.’  Fruibilità is a tricky word, it could mean enjoyment or access.  In any case it was not good.  He went on to list a slew of government and local organizations, none of whom were aware of any restrictions pertaining to hotels or any other commercial activities in Taormina and also did not understand on what basis Booking.com made the cancellations.  He ranted on and on, culminating in the threat that if he was not contacted by the reservation office (no time limit given), deniunceremo Booking.com.  Denunciare is not a word I’ve personally ever had to deal with so I double checked to be absolutely sure and yes, it means ‘to file charges against’.  Now I really didn’t know what to think.  Apart from the obviously misdirected vitriol – he seemed to have forgotten that I was a hapless bystander in all this – there was the fact that the refund Booking.com had promised had yet to come through.  And why weren’t they answering his calls? Muddying the waters even further, in his closing remarks he suggested that in the meantime I might wish to make a reservation directly with the hotel, in which case they would refund the amount I had already paid.

My favourite of the towering beauties, Magnolia grandiflora.  The circumstances leading to Lady Trevelyan’s arrival in Taormina would make a great movie.  She was the 7th Duchess and a close relative of Queen Victoria, who took her in when she was orphaned  at a young age,

Having used Booking.com for years, my understanding was that payments go directly to the hotels.  But I’d met Francesco, spent time with him; he was there, on the ground, surely he would have a better idea of the situation than a faceless, international booking agency located who knows where and, probably what fatefully tipped the scales, I was really keen on experiencing life at Casa Cuseni.  After a great deal of mulling things over I wrote back – this was Feb. 22 – asking him to reinstate my reservation.

One of the many giants Florence introduced, transforming the town’s landscape, Grevillea Robusta, aka Australian Silver Oak.  In time Florence’s relations with one member of the Queen’s family – her son, the future King Edward VII – became too close and at age 27, she was exiled from the royal house.

Francesco replied immediately, confirming the reservation. He also made a comment about the disagio (dee-za-joe) that Booking.com was creating in their city.  Agio means ease or comfort, so diasagio can mean discomfort.  Or inconvenience.  Or disturbance.  By now I had the feeling Francesco had a bee in his bonnet and couldn’t help himself, so I just rolled my eyes and continued reading.  ‘It is true that the G7 will limit the fruizione – (that word again!) – of the historic centre of our city.’  What?! Now the bee was buzzing around in my bonnet.

I started digging.  You wouldn’t think you’d have to dig on the Internet, but those algorithms can be a real pain in the neck when you’re looking for something they don’t think you should be interested in.  I started focusing on Italian language websites only and finally, Eureka!  In ‘100NOVE’, a weekly newspaper published in Messina, there was an article about the G7.  Italo Mennella, president of the Association of Hoteliers of Taormina had announced that ‘le strutture ricettive «di qualsiasi tipologia (accommodations of all classes) not just in Taormina, but also in Giardini Naxos, Sant’Alessio Siculo, Letojanni, and other cities would be reserved for G7 participants.  All hotels, Bed & Breakfasts, Holiday Homes would therefore be  ‘off-limits per turisti e visitatori‘ for the duration of the meetings and presumably for a period of days in advance.’  The article was dated Nov. 6, 2016, two and a half months earlier.  Now there wasn’t a bee in my bonnet, it was a whole hornets’ nest.

Close-up it’s possible to see the resemblance between the flower of the Grevillea Tree and the Grevillea plant.  Undaunted, the independent and upbeat young Duchess explored the world for a number of years before finally settling down in Taormina.

I forwarded the article to Francesco, in light of which I asked him to please precisare the limitations I would find in Taormina, including how exactly I was to reach Casa Cuseni and where to park the car.  His reply was much toned down. Almost conciliatory.  And totally lacking in anything that could remotely be considered preciso, or an answer to my questions.

‘They had reinstated my reservation, but I was of course free to choose another destination given that Taormina would be interamente blindata …. ‘ (What!?)  ‘However, despite the limitations – no access to the town’s monuments and historic centre, and restricted travel on the surrounding roads – Taormina and the hinterland would still be beautiful. It was up to me if I chose to come at another time in order to enjoy the town nel modo giusto.  In the right way.’  In a final, flabbergasting flourish he added that he had taken it upon himself to inform Booking.com  of the limitazione monumentale della fruibilità  – monumental limitation of access or enjoyment or whatever that word means – that would be imposed.  It was beginning to sound like a bad rewrite of  ‘Gaslight’, an old black and white movie I’d seen years ago, about a husband who slowly tricks his wife into believing she was going insane by fiddling with the settings on the gas lights.  I wrote back the same day to request that the original cancellation made by Booking.com be reinstated.

Like many of her compatriots of the era, Florence was crazy about follies, but the bizarre structures scattered throughout the garden did nothing for me. They looked so out of place. And almost tacky.

It took a long time and many emails and phone calls between me and Booking.com, and the Booking.com agent in Taormina and the hotel, before I got my refund, which, in the end, I received from Booking.com in what they characterized as an ‘Incorrect Charge Case’ and which is why, although I rarely do endorsements, I strongly recommend Booking.com for anyone who books independently as I do.

The towers weren’t just whimsical follies. Lady Florence was an avid ornithologist.  From the top of the towers she had a birds’ eye view of her passion.

But my G7 woes paled in comparison to what the locals endured.  All of the four and five star hotels that were located in what became known as the ‘red zone’ were prohibited from accepting any reservations from May 22 to May 28, and to remain exclusively for the use of the G7 delegates who would be present May 27 and 28.  And the other three days of the prohibition?  The hotels – all 23 of them – were to be vacant in order to facilitate security clearances.

View from the balustrade. In 1923 Lady Florence’s garden was expropriated and turned into a public garden, much-loved by locals and tourists to this day.

There were also a few ‘kerfuffles’ caused by one of the delegations.  (Take a guess.)  Despite all the ultra luxury hotels that had been requisitioned for the G7, and unlike the six other G7 leaders, President Trump would not be staying in Taormina.  American security agents had taken a look around Taormina and they did not like what they’d seen. (Back to Thoreau again!)  The president would stay at the American Naval Air Base in Sigonella and be flown in every day by helicopter.

Apart from bruised feelings on the part of the locals, there were some problems with this plan.  Sigonella is 70 k south-west of Taormina.  En route to Taormina the helicopter bearing the American president would pass by a volcano, the largest and most active in Europe.  It took a while, but eventually the American security agents agreed that Sigonella would not work.  The particles that Etna routinely spewed out could easily damage the helicopter motors.  Trump would have to stay in Taormina.

But the American security agents were not done.  They also did not like the charming, medieval streets that attracted millions of visitors from all over the world every year.  They were too narrow and had too many tight curves for the presidential car.  By this point even the ever upbeat mayor Giardina was beginning to lose it.  The Americans were driving them pazzi (pats-see).  Corso Umberto was only 900 metres long, not much longer than the motorcade the Americans proposed to drive through the town centre.  ‘There will be no room for them to move!’  The goccia (drop) that finally made the mayor’s vaso (pitcher) traboccare (overflow) came when the Americans requested that the road from the newly built heliport to the Hotel San Domenico where the meetings were to be held, be widened, which would of course have involved the ‘removal’ of some of the ancient building that lined the street. The mayor put his foot down.  No roads, not even the road to the G7 venue, were to be widened. But he did agree to have the road, which was too bumpy for the Americans’ taste, resurfaced.

Marzipan fruits in a shop along Corso Umberto. So life-like, people apparently can’t resist touching.

If Taormina is your first, or only stop in Sicily, you might spend a lot of time in the shops along Corso Umberto.  Especially the ones specializing in Sicily’s fabulous ceramica.

A few days after the summit,  I decided to check out the Alcantara Gorge (gorgeous and so unexpected) and then go to Taormina for lunch.  It was only 20 k and I figured the dust would have settled by then.

Is that a chicken or an owl on the right? It obviously required a great deal of skill and time, but do people really buy such things?

The G7 leaders and the thousands associated with the meetings had left, but it soon became clear that the dust hadn’t quite settled.  When I asked the waiter if he had stayed open during the meetings, he gave me a look – almost of annoyance – and then he simply said, ‘Preferiamo scordarcelo‘.  We prefer to forget about it.  The fellow chatting with the attendant in the parking lot was more forthcoming.  He was a chef, had been to Montreal for an international food festival, thought the food at the market was very good quality – probably because I was with the Italians, he said.  Hanno l’occhio.  They have an eye.  What was not so good was people wanting everything all year long.  (I thought of the strawberries I can never resist in winter.)  I stood in the parking lot talking with him for a while about this and that, and then I asked him about the G7.  His face darkened.  His nonno (grandfather) had fought in two world wars and his father in one so they would not live in a police state, and despite their efforts and the hardships they had endured, for the week of the G7 they had lived in what was essentially a police state.  He couldn’t even go out – on foot – beyond a VERY restricted area.  Some locals had closed down their businesses and gone on a ‘holiday’.

Here’s a souvenir that fits more easily in a suitcase. Tiles of the professions.  Alphabetical order makes them easier to find, but creates some strange companions, like the enologo (wine maker) next to the estetista (hair stylist) and the gelataio (ice cream maker) next to the geometra (surveyor).

Taormina is where I first saw the ‘Moor Heads’. (‘Postscript from Palermo’, Dec.5, 2017)  I still wouldn’t want one in my garden.

I loved the look of this place and, unusually for Taormina, the only language to be heard was Italian. A huge table was taken up by the crew working at the Greek Theatre.

Fritto misto. According to the anziano sitting at the staff table next to mine, the little fish – I forget what he called them – are the best in Sicily. The old fellow probably assumed I knew that unlike the similarly small acciuga (anchovy), the bone of this fish is inedible. I had to spit the first one out.

Gelato a tre gusti. I don’t usually have dessert, but I was glad I make an exception here. This photo does not begin to capture the intense flavours and creamy textures.

Another thing the American security agents had insisted on was that there would be no moving their president around except by armoured vehicles.  As for walking – out of the question!  Too dangerous! So when it came time for one of the group photos, six world leaders, risking all, went a piedi (a pyay-dee) – on foot from the Greek Theatre to Piazza IX Aprile – a distance of 650 meters, where they then had to stand around, waiting for the American president to arrive.  Not by armoured car, as his security agents had originally insisted, but in a golf cart.

A short walk from the Greek Theatre, Corso Umberto opens onto the enormous Piazza IX Aprile.

The Church of St. Joseph and Mt. Tauro formed the backdrop for the ‘Family’ photo.

It seems highly doubtful the American president made it to Piazza Duomo, a two-minute walk further along Corso Umberto.

From Piazza IX Aprile, views of Sicily’s east coast all the way down to Catania and beyond. And closer at hand, tiny Isola Bella.

Locating the entrance to the funivia (cable car) down to sea level is a bit of a challenge. It’s at the north end of town, not far from the pink building on the right.

There is a road down, but even if you have a car, you do not want to drive.

Before going over to Isola Bella I thought it would be fun to go for a boat ride.  But when I inquired at one of the little huts, things didn’t look promising.  I waited around, while Sebastiano walked up and down the beach looking for other takers, but he came back and shook his head.  Mi displace.  I’m sorry, no-one wants to go out now and if you don’t go soon, the sun won’t be at the right angle to see the grottoes.  I started to head over to Isola Bella when he called me back.  He’d just spotted two people about to get into someone else’s boat.  I rushed over to join them, amazed once again at the casual generosity.

Most of the G7 press, close to 4,000 of them, were lodged in neighbouring centres like Mazzarò, where the vibe was very different, more like a typical Italian seaside resort.

From the sea it was easy to see why the ancient Greeks had chosen this site.

How do plants do it?

Our driver guided the boat – carefully – into one of the caves.

He wanted to show us what was left of the coral. Harvesting it had been banned years ago. None of the stuff in the stores up in Taormina, he warned us, was from around here.

While working on this post I was alarmed to learn that in 2018 the G7 summit will be held in La Malbaie, Quebec, Canada.  Let’s hope things go more smoothly for the Malbaisiens than they did for the Taorminesi. The two communities have a great deal in common.  Like Taormina, La Malbaie is a small town (population 9,000 compared to Taormina’s 11,000) and is located – this may come as a surprise to my fellow Canadians – in an earthquake-prone area, in fact the most active seismic zone in eastern Canada.  And although La Malbaie is not perched on a cliff, access is in many ways just as challenging.  It is 150 k north-east of Quebec City, the nearest urban centre and international airport, three times the distance from Catania to Taormina.   Access is via a two-lane road, a tourist train or the St. Lawrence River, which has led a security expert to describe it as a ‘beautiful nightmare’.

Lots of lovely little coves and caves for a private lunch and leisurely swim.

One challenge that didn’t come up in Taormina was language. Of the Sicilians I have encountered, many of whom speak siciliano as their mother tongue, almost all  effortlessly – and graciously – switch to italiano or English when dealing with outsiders.  It will be interesting to see how Quebec’s ‘Language Police’, of recent ‘Pastagate’ notoriety, handle things.  If you haven’t heard of ‘Pastagate’, it’s the name given to an incident in which inspectors from the Office québécoise de la langue française (Quebec Office of the French Language) fined the owner of an Italian restaurant in Montreal for including the word pasta on his menu. (For more on this, check out an article by Sandy White in the Toronto newspaper, The Globe and Mail  – “‘Pastagate’ reveals the hypocrisy of Quebec’s French hardliners”,  published Feb. 26, 2013, updated March 26, 2017)

Isola Bella was Lady Trevelyan’s second, and perhaps, favourite garden in Taormina. She had a small villa built facing the sea and covered the island with exotic, sun-loving plants.  A  narrow strip – more like a thread – of beach joins it to the mainland.  At low tide.

The beach area is small – part of its charm – but it does get crowded and besides, after the 160 steps down, you won’t be in a hurry to go back up, so best to come early.

On my first trip to Sicily so many years ago, I knew nothing about Isola Bella and didn’t have time to explore it, something I will definitely do on my next trip.

Isola Bella, one more reason to return to Sicily.

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Looking But Not Seeing – Taormina Part I

After the wreath ceremony (previous post), I left Cefalù’s crowded beach and walked over to the village’s quieter, rocky side where I’d had a lovely lunch at a simple trattoria years before and was hoping to do a repeat, right down to the waterside table.

From here it was hard to imagine the pandemonium on the other side of the tower.

The trattoria was still there and there was a free table by the water.  I ordered the same thing I’d had on my earlier trip –  pasta con cozze e vongole (mussels and clams).

Did the view have something to do with how good the simple vino bianco locale tasted?

As I sat waiting for the pasta to arrive, two sailboats added a magical touch to the idyllic view.  Or at least that’s how I, a committed landlubber, saw them.  But as the boats sat there, motionless, it occurred to me that something else might also be at play.   As Thoreau had so masterfully put it, ‘The question is not what you look at, but what you see.’  (If that wording seems a bit off to you, not to worry – this is one of Thoreau’s most often misquoted gems.  You may know it as ‘It is not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see’, which of course does not mean the same thing at all, but has gained a lot of traction because that is how Thoreau’s biographer, Richard D. Richardson Jr., put it in Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind.)  In any event, it occurred to me that if I were an ardent sailing enthusiast – say, someone who looks forward to getting out of the office and on the water all week long – I might see something entirely different.  Something to do with dashed hopes, and frustration and a ruined holiday afternoon. A few days later, in Taormina, I would be reminded of Thoreau’s words.

What do you see?

Taormina (tah-or-mee-nuh), spectacularly perched mid-way up a mountain on the north-east coast of Sicily, is the island’s go-to destination if you’re looking for glitz.  The wealthy elites of Ancient Rome were the first to discover the delights of ‘La Perla’ (pearl) and many centuries later, a new, less violent invader arrived.  Tourists.  It was the German author, Goethe, who first alerted the wealthy elites of Europe to the seductive beauty and lavish lifestyle that awaited them in Taormina with the publication of ‘Italian Journey’, the memoir of his almost two-year long journey in 1787 through Italy, three months of which he spent in Sicily.   Taormina was quickly added to the list of must-see sites on the ‘Grand Tour’ and artists, writers, philosophers, royalty and aspiring royalty – Nicholas 1 of Russia, Wagner, Nietzsche and on and on, and years later, Churchill, Capote, Orson Welles, Bertrand Russell and a host of Hollywood stars – Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Greta Garbo – all came to see its ancient splendours.  And to enjoy its lavish, modern offerings.

From the Greek Theatre, 3rd century BCE, perched at the edge of the promontory, a spectacular view down the east coast of Sicily.

Looking west from the theatre, in the foreground the tower of San Domenico, a former Benedictine monastery, now one of the town’s many exclusive hotels, and in the distance, dominating the landscape, Mt. Etna.

As well as the wealthy elites, Taormina is also a magnet for the rest of us, of which an astonishing number are disgorged every day from enormous cruise ships.

The ships’ passengers are dropped off at the north end of the historic centre.  Foreign tourists are forbidden from driving into this area.  This prohibition is only annoying until you see what is involved.

While the tourists make their way to Porta Messina, the ancient northern entrance to Taormina, there is nothing for a poor wretch at the wheel to do but wait.

From Porta Messina, waves of tour groups inundate the town’s narrow main road, Corso Umberto.

The groups, all of which were obviously intent on seeing as much of the town as they could cram into their no doubt limited shore leave, made leisurely meandering a challenge.  But I tried not to let the jostling get to me.  At least not too much.  I knew I would be able to return later when the groups were back on their ships.  Besides, I was pressed for time too. In a half hour I was to be at the entrance to a rare and private garden, open to the public only by appointment which, after a great deal of juggling with my itinerary, I had finally managed to arrange.  The best way to fill the time, I decided, was to ignore what was going on at street level and focus on the balconies overhead where there was an astonishing amount of gardening going on.

Lack of a ‘real’ garden obviously didn’t deter this plant enthusiast.

The blue and white lobelias made a lovely contrast to the hot pinks. Do they get straggly here, like back home and have to be cut back? My guess is this gardener wouldn’t be happy with any bare spots.

Growing roses in the searing heat of a Sicilian summer must take serious gardening know-how. And on a balcony!

Even on a small, corner balcony room is made for pots of brightly coloured flowers.

Some of the façades were so beautiful the flowers and plants were almost (!) superfluous.

While other façades were in such a bad state of repair, if it hadn’t been for the obviously carefully attended plants, you might wonder if they were lived in.

Do they ever pick the oranges or are they simply for show?

After a short stroll it was time to head to the garden.  I followed the detailed directions I had been given, but when I arrived at the address where it should have been, instead of Casa Cuseni, the name I knew the garden by, I found two imposing columns joined by a tightly closed gate and a plaque bearing one word – Museo.

Museo (moo-zay-oh) as I’m sure you’ve guessed means ‘museum’. In 2015 Casa Cuseni was designated a National Monument. Hence, the plaque bearing the prestigious (but not very helpful) word Museo.

At the far end of the wall was a much more humble, but more welcoming, open gate.  No-one was around and I couldn’t see any bell, so I went in and headed over to the ‘casa‘ (kah-zuh),  technically ‘house’, looking for a sign to the reception office.  There wasn’t a sign, it was not that kind of place, but after wandering around for a while I came upon a somewhat office-like room in which, to my great relief, a signora was seated at an enormous, antique desk.  ‘Buon giorno‘, I said, ‘sono la Signora Fenice’, adding that I was here for the 3 pm garden tour.  ‘Ah, buon giorno, La stavamo aspettando,’ replied the signora smiling.  ‘We have been expecting you. It is still quite early’, she smiled again, ‘but not to worry, mentre aspettiamo che il resto del gruppo arrivi …  while we wait for the others to arrive…’   ‘But’, I spluttered, interrupting her, ‘there are no others.  It’s just me.’  To which the signora, no longer smiling, replied,  ‘We don’t do tours for one individual, only group tours.’

Now I am well aware that as a humble member of the hoi poloi and not some august figure from the BBC it is not reasonable to expect to be given private tours of private gardens such as Casa Cuseni.   Which is why, as I’ve mentioned before, in such cases, I try to piggyback on a pre-existing group booking.  And why, in the hopes that it might improve my chances, I always ask a local, someone from the place I’m staying at, to call to make the arrangements.  I stood there for a second, gathering up the shredded remnants of my sense of equanimity, and then began to explain in my best Tuscan Italian how when Valentina from the agriturismo nearby had spoken with the signora two days earlier, she had made it very clear that ‘si trattava di una persona’.  It was a matter of one person.

One thing I’ve learned on my travels around Italy is that Italians love hearing a foreigner speak their language.  And sure enough, as I went on and on in a shamelessly lengthy account of what Valentina had said, I began to see signs that the signora was warming up to my plight and when I finished, she simply remarked that there had obviously been some kind of malinteso (mal-in-tay-zoh) – misunderstanding – and she would be delighted to give me a tour.  She led me out to the garden in front of the villa.

While Kitson left many of the existing olive and almond trees and planted classic Sicilian citrus trees, the garden has a distinctively English feel.

The villa and gardens were created by Sir Robert Kitson, a British artist who moved to Taormina at the beginning of the 20th century in a kind of self-imposed exile.  It all started with a collection of photos that were featured in the 1893 edition of ‘The Studio’, the world’s pre-eminent art magazine of the time.  The photos, by the German exile, Baron Von Gloeden, were all variations on one theme –  provocatively posed Sicilian youths.  To be absolutely clear, nude, male youths.  The edition circulated widely in aristocratic and artistic circles throughout Europe.  The message was powerful and clear.  At a time when even a person of the renown of Oscar Wilde languished in jail in England, there was a place where men like him were free to be themselves.

An unusually shaped lemon, one of the many citrus fruits introduced to the island by the Arabs.

Five years later, while travelling with his parents along Sicily’s east coast, Kitson, who had been aware from an early age of his homosexual tendencies, managed to slip away from his parents and secretly visit Van Gloeden’s studio.  Seeing first-hand that it was possible to live a fuller, if not completely open life, in a spectacularly beautiful setting was a life-changing experience for the young man.  He returned to England, and when his father died a few years later, made his move.  He sold his grandfather’s locomotive company, the largest in the world at the time, and 100 days later returned to Taormina where he was greeted like royalty – even without Twitter and Instagram the locals had quickly got wind of his enormous wealth, some say more than Onassis and Rockefeller combined – and set about building a home for himself and a haven for artists and writers who, like him, were threatened in their home countries to the north.

He also imported tropicals and subtropicals from all over the world.  Grevillea, a native of Australia, with its yellow and red flowers, the colours of the Sicilian flag, looks very much at home here.

Kitson took his time selecting the site for his new home, eventually, to the astonishment of the locals, choosing a property that was on the market for a pittance, a reflection of what  the locals thought of it.  It was outside the medieval fortifications, an outlandish 15 minute walk from the town centre, on a steep hillside where nothing but a few almond and olive trees managed to survive, and perhaps most importantly of all,  apart from a couple of ancient Greek wells, had no source of water.  But the ‘mad’ Englishman, an artist by inclination, and engineer by training, wasn’t worried about having to bring fresh water up for drinking and building.  There were plenty of donkeys for that.  And the wells would provide enough water for irrigating the gardens, which he began work on even before the house was finished.

Hollyhocks, on the other hand, seemed totally bizarre here.

A combo that captures the quintessence of an English garden in Sicily – nasturtiums and oranges.

By this point the signora‘s husband had taken over my tour.  Initially I was disappointed.  She and I had been having a lovely time, but it soon became clear that Francesco, who pointed out that he was in charge of tours, was extremely knowledgeable and I had a hard time keeping up.

Kitson had some help in the design of his home as well as the gardens from a former teacher and once intimate friend, Sir Frank Brangywn.  One disadvantage of all the attention you get on a private tour is there is no hiding one’s deficiencies.  I had never heard of Brangywn before.  Fine art aficionados, especially on this side of the Atlantic, may know him as the artist who introduced Art Nouveau to Tiffany’s and created the murals for the Rockefeller Centre.  In England, where I suspect he is better known, he was prolific and much celebrated – in fact the first English artist to have a retrospective mounted during his lifetime.

Behind the giant mask and fountain designed by Brangwyn is one of the storage tanks Kitson built to collect rain water for the front garden.

The steep hillside is divided into seven terraces, each with a fountain designed by Brangwyn.

The largest piscina (pool) was designed so that each full moon would be perfectly reflected in its centre.  And when Etna was erupting, it too would be reflected in the pool.

Every detail of the garden was infused with meaning, including the decoration of the pathways made in the traditional ciottolato technique, named for ciottolo – ‘choh-toe-low’ –  a small pebble.

The property continues further up the hillside but the tour ended at this ‘Moorish’ fountain.

On the way down Francesco told me there was one more thing – not normally included in a garden tour – he wanted to show me.  Or rather, one more thing he felt I needed to see.  My head was already reeling, but I didn’t want to look ungracious, especially after the way things had started, so I thanked him and asked what it was.

As he had told me earlier, Brangwyn was a prolific, extremely busy artist, so for many years it was a mystery why, despite his hectic schedule and even accounting for Taormina’s indisputable beauty and Brangwyn’s involvement in the design of the garden, he visited Taormina so many times – seven in all – in an era when travel was so much more time-consuming.  The mystery was eventually revealed.  During his many visits, in addition to the garden, Brangwyn had also been working on a series of frescos in the villa dining room, the subject matter of which was considered so controversial and so dangerous, even in Taormina, that the room was kept locked and only a trusted few allowed in to see them.  Guiding me through the villa to the dining room, Francesco explained that the room was still kept shut and dark, but nowadays it was to protect the colours of the frescos.

As I looked around the room, Francesco watched me carefully.  After a while, in what struck me as a vaguely familiar echo of Thoreau’s observation about looking and seeing, he declared, ‘Lei guarda, ma non capisce.’   Now we all have our triggers, and one of mine is having people tell me they know better than I what is in my head.  I hadn’t merely been informed that I didn’t ‘see’ what I was looking at, but, adding insult to injury, that I didn’t understand it.  Fortunately, before I could get really riled up and say something unhelpful,  Francesco started to tell me what the frescos were about.  He was of course right.  I didn’t have a clue what I was looking at.

The tall blond on the left holds a bowl of fruit which represents the life enjoyed by homosexuals in Taormina. The small figure in black cowering behind him represents the life Kitson would have led if he had stayed in England.

The healthy, vibrant figure in white represents Kitson in Taormina. The wizened figure in black represents Kitson as he would have been in England.

The male lovers are dressed in the colours of Taormina – the white snow of Etna, and the clear, blue sky over the town.

The Family, fleeing to an unknown and distant place.

After the intense emotions of the dining room, it was a relief to sit for a moment on the terrace…

… and look out onto the views that had captivated the young, Englishman so many years ago.

After Kitson died, his niece, Daphne Phelps, who had never been to Sicily and didn’t speak a word of Italian, let alone siciliano, was charged with selling Casa Cuseni.  She didn’t.  And in her fascinating memoir, ‘A House in Sicily’, she tells the story of what happened.

Daphne died in 2005 and the villa was taken over by my tour guides, Francesco Spadaro and his wife, Mimma, whose parents had played a critical role in Daphne’s ability to hold on to Casa Cuseni and to continue in her uncle’s footsteps as benefactor not only to foreign artists, but also to needy locals.  Nowadays, as well as guiding groups around the gardens and hosting cultural events befitting the villa’s status as a National Monument, the Spadaros also operate the villa as a B&B.  In memory of its history and some of its illustrious guests, they named the five bedrooms – Don Roberto, Greta Garbo, Pablo Picasso, Daphne and Henry Faulkner.

How marvellous to stay overnight – perhaps when the moon was full and reflected in the main pool – and the next morning step out onto your balcony …

… to the sight of Etna puffing away in the distance.

 

 

 

 

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A Farm Stay and Italy’s National Holiday

Cefalù’s glorious sunsets and evening strolls along its narrow, medieval lanes after the hordes had left held a lot of appeal.  But not enough to make me want to stay in the village on my next trip.  It would take a few more years before I’d feel up to driving into that dedalo (day-dah-low) again.

Metonymy is one of those figures of speech that have terribly erudite sounding definitions – ‘the substitution of the name of an attribute or adjunct for that of the thing meant’ – but if you can make your way through to the examples, turn out to be very ordinary, everyday expressions.  Like ‘suits’ for business men and ‘counting heads’ when you’re not talking about the French Revolution.

Dedalo – Daedalus in English – was the brilliant architect and inventor to King Minos of Crete.  In addition to the spectacular Palace of Knossos, he also designed the labyrinth which unlike the very real palace was probably mythical, in which the Minotaur was held captive.  In case your memory of this particular myth is a bit hazy, the Minotaur was a ferocious monster with the body of a man and head of a bull that had resulted from the coupling between the king’s wife and a white bull sent to the king by Poseidon.  Said coupling, by the way, had been orchestrated by Poseidon as punishment – of the king!  – for having disobeyed the god’s order to sacrifice the bull.   In any event, to avoid driving into Cefalù I booked a room in what was described on one website as a ‘farm stay’, in the hills a short distance inland.

The courtyard of the Relais Sant’Anastasia, a most unfarm-like farm stay.

I suppose ‘Relais’ should have tipped me off, but it was only slightly more expensive than the B&B in Cefalu.  And there was loads of parking!  On the drive up I’d been thinking of indulging in a pisolino (pee-zoh-lee-no) but as usual, as soon as I saw the place, all desire to waste time napping vanished.

Like many repurposed buildings in Italy it had originally been a Benedictine monastery. And like so many others,  had a subtle and charming elegance about it.

I decided to save the ‘Vista panoramica‘ for sunset.

The piscina (pee-she-nuh) was a beautiful and unaccustomed luxury.

The view from the pool terrace was exquisite, especially the pond which was surrounded with Eucalyptus, one of my favourite trees.  When I asked at the front desk, the signorina said of course guests were free to walk around it.  There was a gate which might need a bit of a tug, but it wasn’t locked.

The planting along the road was so thick I hadn’t even noticed the pond when I’d driven up.

I was so busy admiring the oleanders and the broom and the occasional glimpses of the pond I almost missed what was down at foot level.

Even though it was obviously dead – and had been so for a while – I couldn’t bring myself to come any closer. This is the best I could do with my limited zoom. The iridescent spots on the right are flies.

To say the snake put a damper on my idyllic pond walk is as much a misnomer as describing the relais as a ‘farm stay’, an understandable, but ultimately awkward attempt to render agriturismo in English.  In any event, from my city dweller’s perspective the snake looked absolutely venomous.  But if there were  venomous snakes around, wouldn’t the nice young woman at the desk have warned me?   They say trust your gut.  Well, what my gut was telling me – screaming at me – was that a walk around the pond was not the best thing for a signora to be doing on her own, especially one in sandals and bare legs.

The essence of peace. Who could resist such a view?

Over the years I’v accumulated quite a few succulents in the same blue/green hue of the Eucalyptus leaf.  Set against Sicily’s clear, blue sky it looked even more gorgeous.

For a plant that likes well-drained soil and tolerates drought, the banks of a pond seemed an unlikely place for an Australian bottlebrush (Calliestemon), but somehow it didn’t look out of place.

On the other side of the pond, enormous clumps of Pampas grass were a natural fit.

I made it around the laghetto without any further sightings of reptilian nature, although I jumped at pretty well every little rustle along the leaf-covered path.   Passing by the reception desk on my way to my room I stopped to tell them about the snake.  Oh, that would have been a besce, the young man replied nonchalantly.  But it had a triangular head! I insisted.  Non si preoccupi signora.  There was no need to worry.  Black-coloured snakes, even ones with triangular shaped heads, are not velenose (vay-lay-no-zay).  It’s only the light brown ones you have to watch out for.  It was only much later that it occurred to me that implicit in his reassuring words was the possibility that instead of the innocuous besce, I might have come across a vipera (vee-peh-rah).  A light brown and highly poisonous viper!

As beautiful as it was, the idea of lounging by a pool when there was all of Sicily to explore did not appeal to me at all.  On the other hand, an evening dip followed by an aperitivo on the terrace and then dinner, was to my mind highly appealing.  Sadly one of the (prominently displayed) rules regarding the use of the pool was that after 19,00 it was chiusa (kyu-zuh). Closed.

The pool looked especially inviting in the golden glow of the advancing sunset.

So instead of a dip I went up the deceptively long flight of steps to the Vista Panoramica.

Despite the lovely grounds, the relais was a serious agricultural enterprise with vineyards and olive groves that stretched all the way to the distant mountains

No fertile land was left unused. Terraces – some just wide enough for a single row of vines – had been carved into the low hills.

Even though I had already been converted to the ‘Golden hour’ (previous post), watching the terraced hills which I had found so compelling in normal daylight slowly transform into shimmering drifts of gold was as unexpected as it was beautiful.

As the shadows lengthened, the haze dissipated somewhat and to the north, not only Alicudi, the Aeolian island I had seen on my previous trip to Cefalù, but also its closest neighbour, Filicudi Island, became visible.

As the haze slowly dissipated, it was as if Aeolus himself, the ancient Greek God of the winds, had blown the two small islands into view.

From up here the narrow, country road I had driven to the relais was also visible.  At least stretches of it, as it wound its way through the valley and under the bridge to the sea and Cefalù.  In a few days I would be heading west on that bridge, part of the highway between Messina and Palermo, but for now, Cefalù – a whole 13 k away – was as far as I was going.

The only thing that marred my Punta Panoramica experience was that, unlike the two couples who had climbed up the staircase shortly after me, carrying wine glasses and a bottle, I had not thought to bring along an aperitivo.  I wished them ‘Salute‘ and went down to see if it was  pos-see-bee-lay, despite its being closed, to have a glass of wine by the pool.

Sunset drinks up on the Punta Panoramica would have been lovely, but a glass of wine by the pool was not only possible, but also mica male. (me-kuh mah-lay) Not bad.

After a leisurely day spent exploring a quiet inland village and taking it easy on the ‘farm’, I felt up to driving into Cefalù.  This was not part of the ‘official’ itinerary but I think some part of me always knew I wouldn’t be able to resist spending at least a few hours in what was after all one of my favourite Sicilian seaside villages.  But the following day was June 2.  Festa della Repubblica.  The Italian equivalent – more or less – of the Canadian national holiday, Canada Day, which is celebrated on July 1.  ‘More or less’ because there are a few surprising differences between the two.  First of all, Italy’s National Day is a fairly recent affair, dating back to only 1946, while Canada’s was first celebrated in 1867.  Secondly – and much more significantly – the reasons for the two nations’ holidays are vastly different.  The Canadian holiday commemorates the amalgamation of three independent colonies, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and ‘Canada’ (the present-day provinces of Ontario and Quebec) into a self-governing ‘Dominion’ of Great Britain.  The rest of what we know as Canada would come along in a dragged out, piecemeal fashion, from Manitoba in 1870 to Newfoundland in 1949.  Italy, however was already a fully formed, if not always united country in 1946.  Rather than the nation’s birth, which had taken place well over half a century earlier (1861), the Festa della Repubblica commemorates the date of the referendum in which, by a slim margin, the Italian people – ALL of them – even the women, a first for Italy – voted in favour of a republic, and the male descendants of the House of Savoy which had ruled the country since its inception were sent into exile.

While the survival of the Repubblica has often been in doubt since then, what was not in doubt was that Italians throughout the land would be off celebrating.  Which meant that there would be even more movimento in Cefalù than usual.  I wasn’t encouraged when the receptionist told me a Dutch couple had driven down the day before but after being stuck in a traffic jam for over an hour they’d turned around and come right back to the relais.

I decided to take my chances.

I didn’t get as early a start as I probably should have.  But rushing la prima colazione on the terrace seemed a travesty.  It was 10 o’clock when I reached the road into the village. The confusione (con-foo-zeeoh-nay) was overwhelming.  But I got lucky.  Or rather, for once my long-ingrained habit of obeying traffic signs paid off.  Instead of following the cars who continued past the ‘traffico limitato‘ sign, I followed the temporary signs that directed me – infuriatingly! – away from the sea and down a couple of streets that of course had no traffic on them to a narrow gate with a big ‘P’ sign.  It was the back entrance to an enormous field that had been set aside for parking.  I paid the attendant 8€ – which I knew was a bargain – and walked out the seaside entrance and past an enormous line of cars, all of which would have driven past the traffico limitato sign.  I told myself I would stay for a few hours, have a nice lunch and leave before the hordes.  I just hoped my car wouldn’t be blocked in when I got back.

With those freshly manicured nails I doubted these two would be doing any swimming.  Besides, if they moved, it looked like they were at risk of a serious wardrobe malfunction.

Italian beaches tend to be very democratic. There are the private sections where you have to rent umbrellas and then there are the public sections where people create their own, often well-equipped oases.

I sat in the shade of the ancient gate and watched the goings on. I noticed a woman giving a massage to a young woman.  I was close enough I could hear the happy groaning of her client.  When she was finished she approached the group on the right under the umbrellas, holding out a laminated sheet. She didn’t speak Italian!  Was she a refugee? She got a lot of takers in the short time I sat there. I hope she charged a decent amount.

Festa for some meant a good work day for others.

In the midst of the day trippers the fishermen continued mending their nets as they always did. What an ‘unorganized’, inclusive scene.

After a while I went for a stroll through the village. To my surprise, not everyone was at the beach.

Maybe the cyclists had come down through the mountains and would have lunch here.

Why anyone would even think of driving through the village on such a day was beyond me, but these two were having a great time enjoying all the attention.

As I got closer to the main piazza the noise level increased exponentially.

The speeches had been given and the processione was about to get going.

Above the entrance to the city hall, three brand new flags had been mounted – the EU, Italy and Sicily. And next to the flags the emblem of Cefalù – three fishes around a loaf of bread.

There was a bit more confusione as they struggled to manoeuvre the flag into the narrow alley…

…and then the band followed the flag…

…down the lane to…

… the ancient port.

The crowds were so thick, and the lanes so narrow, I wasn’t able to keep up with the parade.  After some speeches and a short serenade by a bugler, during which half-naked beach goers intermingled with fully dressed military men and women, the parade people marched to the end of the pier and then came back.

It is easy to object to this scene. But perhaps when we object, we forget the importance of ‘live and let live’.

The flag bearers and band made their way back to city hall and the beach goers, most of whom had stood at attention during the ceremonies,  continued doing their beach thing.

 

The crowds gone, I was finally able to make my way to the end of the pier.

Floating in the sea was the corona, the laurel wreath, in memory of all the soldiers lost at sea.

 

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