I woke up early Sunday morning with a sense of dread. The day had finally arrived when I had to pick up the rental car. It seems ridiculous even to me. I always rent a car when I visit Italy. I’ve driven all over the country, from the northern Lake District to Puglia and Sicily in the far south. I really enjoy driving in Italy. Of course, as in all things, there are a few exceptions – places like the Amalfi Coast and Palermo. Driving in Palermo I was actually terrified – despite having been forewarned by the extremely hospitable and well-meaning Sicilians I had met as I travelled around the island. When they heard I would be going to Palermo at the end of my trip, they would look at me with dismay and say things like: “Dopo aver guidato a Palermo, non si è più lo stesso!” (“After driving in Palermo you’re never the same.”)
Along many stretches of the Amalfi Coast road there is no centre line. There is no point. The road is not wide enough, even by Italian standards, for two-way traffic. Not to worry. An ear-splitting blaring will warn you whenever a bus is about to come round curves like the one above. Depending on how close to the curve you happen to be, this is the signal for you to stop or, as sometimes happens, start backing up.
Still, driving is part of the experience, part of the avventura. I can’t imagine visiting Italy and not toodling around in a car. But every time, that first day, I’m a bundle of nerves. Ridiculous.
In fairness, driving in Italian cities is not for the faint of heart. All those roundabouts with precedenza a destra (Cars entering the circle have the right of way. Crazy!). Designated public transit lanes that seem to appear out of nowhere. Cars meandering all over the road, encouraged no doubt by the lack of painted lines to mark the lanes. And on top of all this, in Florence there is the added hazard posed by the ZTL – Zona a Traffico Limitato. If, by accident, you are so busy keeping an eye on the driver two inches off your rear bumper that you miss one of the signs and stray into a ZTL, a camera, which of course you also did not see, will record your licence number and you’ll get a hefty fine.
In any event, after a few shaky minutes behind the wheel I saw the first sign for the A1, the highway that would take me to Lucca. Not yet time to relax – I still had to manoeuvre my way onto the A1 towards Bologna, get off at the Firenze Nord exit and merge onto the A11. Then I could start to relax.
Lucca is a lovely Tuscan town all on its own, but the reason I’m here is to visit the gardens of the Palazzi Lucchesi, a collection of villa/palaces in the countryside surrounding Lucca. Two of them are especially renowned for their gardens – Villa Reale di Marlia and Villa Torrigiani. Like many of Italy’s major museums and tourist sites – including the Uffizi Galleries – they are closed Mondays. Given my early departure and the detailed directions I had printed out before leaving, my plan to visit both of them – one in the morning, one in the afternoon – seemed totally reasonable.
I was especially looking forward to Villa Reale di Marlia – Villa Reale for short. According to an article in the newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore, it was here that “the protagonists of Italy’s history had, throughout the centuries, walked”. The villa’s website waxed no less enthusiastically about the gardens, which were described as splendido and meraviglioso. As far as the “protagonists” went, this was no mere PR fluff. One of them was none other than Elisa Bonaparte, sister of …. Napoleon. Generous brother that he was, and no doubt wishing to solidify his control over the region, he had showered her with titles – Duchess of Lucca, Princess of Piombino and Grand Duchess of Tuscany. The Medici must have been rolling over in their graves.
As monarch of these Tuscan territories Elisa of course required a suitably royal residence. Una villa reale. And yes, as you’ve probably already guessed, reale, in this case means ‘royal’. She started with the purchase of the 15th century villa known as Villa Marlia. But, in true Bonaparte style, she soon decided it was not large enough and ‘convinced’ the owners of the neighbouring Villa del Vescovo (Bishop’s Palace) to sell. She then set about transforming the villa and gardens, using Versailles as her model. Fountains, statues, enormous pools, parterres of ornately trimmed boxwood, grottos, a lake, a green ‘theatre’ and hundreds of exotic plants from the English Garden of the Reggia di Caserta, the Royal Palace near Naples.
The only problem was, in spite of my detailed directions, I couldn’t find it. I had followed several signs – brown panels with white lettering, like the ones to the Medici villas around Florence – and just as infuriatingly small. Then there were no more signs. I was, presumably, there. But where was it? Finally I decided to ask the only person I had seen in a while. I had passed by her a couple of times. She was sitting at the entrance to Villa Oliva. I knew this because there was a sign to that effect. I had been driving back and forth along the same road, not because I had lost my mind (although it was beginning to feel like I had) but because according to the map, Villa Oliva was on the same road as Villa Reale, just a kilometer or two to the west.
The signora looked at me. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it’s a look I have seen quite a few times in my travels around Italy. A peculiar mix of politeness straining to mask incredulity. I actually find it very charming – the effort to be polite I mean. She very politely informed me that there was just one road to the villa I was now at and it passed proprio di fronte (right in front of) Villa Reale.
Italy never ceases to amaze me. That scruffy, abandoned-looking building I had driven past – how many times? – was the entrance to Villa Reale?! Since it was still early, there hadn’t even been any cars in the miserable little courtyard that serves as parking lot to give me a heads-up.
I drove back down the wretched road, parked and walked over to the ‘abandoned’ building. Sure enough, next to a small door – the paint was pealing – was a faded sign – Biglietteria – Suonare (Ticket Office – Ring). I rang. To my utter amazement, within a couple of seconds I heard movement inside and an anziano (old man, a very old man) opened the door. We exchanged “Buon giorno’s”. Then, feeling like a total idiot, because there was NO WAY this place was Villa Reale, but not knowing what else to do, I said, “Vorrei visitare la Villa Reale.” (I would like to visit … ) “Certo”, he replied without blinking an eye. He handed me a guide, and motioned for me to follow him, “Prego. Venga. Le apro il cancello.” (Please. Follow me. I’ll open the gate for you.)
Following the percorso (route) in the guide he’d given me I walked along a wide path bordered by dense trees. Even though for what seemed like the first time since I’d arrived in Italy it wasn’t raining, I was in a terrible funk. After all this, if I had wanted to go for a walk through a forest I could have saved the airfare and stayed in Canada.
After about 10 minutes the path opened onto a broad, flat expanse of lawn that sloped slightly down to a pond. This was the much-vaunted prato (meadow) designed in the gusto romantico del giardino all’inglese (romantic style of the English garden). In the forest behind the laghetto (little lake) merino sheep (for Elisa’s favourite wool), goats and deer had once roamed.
The next stop on the percorso was the Grotta del Pan (Pan’s Grotto).
Very creepy stuff going on here. The whole Renaissance grotto thing was starting to get to me. Just because all the Who’s Who of ancient Rome had them in their gardens was seeming less and less a good reason to insist on them in 17th and 18th century gardens.
Maybe the “Spanish” garden, which was meant to recall the great gardens of Islam, would be more appealing.
I tried to like it. I really did. I walked around and around trying to get the sense of it.
River gods in the garden were meant to be seen as a token of friendship, real or desired, between two cities. These ones represent the Arno in Florence and the Serchio near Lucca. Lucca was probably trying to curry favour with Florence. Fish for the villa table were once stocked in the pond the river gods keep watch over.
The next part of the garden promised to be more interesting. Il Teatro di Verdura (Green Theatre). Paganini, on Elisa’s invitation, had performed there many times.
In the centre, between the orchestra pit and the stage are the conductor’s podium and prompter’s box. Spherically trimmed box along the front edge of the stage represent the footlights.
Enormous yew hedges form the stage backdrop and, in the wings, stock characters of the commedia dell’arte wait.
At the back of the villa there was a fountain decorated – and I use the word advisedly – with a number of statues.
After Napoleon’s defeat, Elisa, nine months pregnant, was forced to flee, pursued by the British troops under Lord William Bentick who told her nudo e crudo (naked and raw – what a phrase!) that as far as the Brits were concerned she was no longer sovereign of anything. She gave birth in a humble locanda and made her way to Vienna where she was promptly thrown into jail. She died in Trieste, forgotten, at age 42.
The property is currently for sale. Asking price – 45 million euros.
In “Outliers” Malcolm Gladwell proposes that one of the three things necessary for work to be meaningful is some kind of relationship between effort and reward. While exploring gardens is not something I would ever consider as work, the idea that all that trudging around should led to some kind of benefit that would at least compensate for the inevitable sore feet and tired legs struck a chord.
Maybe it was all the aggravation of trying to find it. Maybe it was that over-hyped effect I wrote about on my way to Villa Gamberaia. In any event, by the time I reached the villa, I was wondering whether I should even bother checking out the next garden – Villa Torrigiani. Why not just call it quits and head straight for Lucca?
In the end – maybe more out of a certain testa dura (literally ‘hard head’) than anything else – it was on the itinerary and I was darn well going to go see it! – I decided to go have a look. At the very least, cross it off the list. As it turned out, and here I’m sure any of you who have ever been accused of being pig-headed will be happy to know, I’m glad I did. It was wonderful!