Back in Tuscany

It’s been two whole days without even the slightest hint of a snowflake, so I think it’s safe to leave Southern Italy – for now – and head back north to continue exploring the gardens of Tuscany.

The enchantingly beautiful landscapes that have put “Renting a villa in Tuscany” on so many bucket lists begin just outside the south walls of Florence. View from the Boboli Gardens

From Florence it’s just a short drive south to the Chianti region.  We all know what that region is famous for.  What many people may not know is how many beautiful and interesting gardens there are in the area – all of which we’ll be visiting.  But before the wine lovers among you despair, not to worry, we’ll visit a few vineyards along the way.  In fact, some of the best wineries have the most beautiful gardens.  And some of the vineyards are so beautiful, they’re almost gardens all on their own.

the vintner’s canary in the mine; roses are susceptible to many of the same diseases that attack vitis vinifera, so first sign of disease in roses alerts the vintner to take necessary steps to protect the vines

The rose is the vintner’s canary in the mine. It is susceptible to many of the same diseases that attack the grape vine.
The first sign of disease in the rose alerts the vintner that something is amiss in the vineyard.

Vineyards and olive groves near Panzano.

The Chianti. A beautiful region no matter what time of year. Vineyards and olive groves near Panzano. Late May.

Vineyards near San Gusmè in late fall.

Vineyards near San Gusmè. October.

But before we head out, a few words about the nitty gritty of getting to all these gardens and wineries.  Unless you’re on a tour or have hired a private driver, someone you know – maybe you – is going to have to get behind the wheel.  In Italian – al volante – ‘at the flying thing’.

Driving In some places is more about pazienza than flying.

Sometimes of course, driving is more about pazienza than flying. Sirmione, Lake Garda.

First of all, there’s the issue of the GPS.  To take or not to take.  My advice.  Don’t.

When I tell people that I never use a GPS when travelling around Italy, the polite ones at least make an effort at curiosity.  “Wouldn’t it make life a lot easier? – more relaxing?”  I don’t know whether they actually listen to me or not, but I tell them about some or all of the following in an effort to throw some light on my seemingly Luddite position.

I once came across a group of young Americans in Montepulciano.  Like all the charming hilltop villages in Tuscany, the centro storico (historic centre) is on the small side. Yet, despite being armed with several computers and a GPS, they had still managed to get themselves totally lost.


In the centro storico of Montepulciano

Another evening, after a hard day of touring the Tuscan countryside, I was relaxing in the lounge of Villa Marsili in Cortona – the village Francis Mayes made famous with her memoir, “Under the Tuscan Sun” – enjoying a glass of the grappa-based punch from the aperitivo table that the hotel sets out each evening.  After a while a couple from Canada joined me.  (In case you’re wondering, unless I’m speaking with hotel staff, I drop my “no-English rule” in hotels.)

It may look like a pitcher of OJ ...

It’s not OJ in that innocent-looking pitcher.

As we were exchanging stories about the sites we’d seen that day, this being Italy, the challenges of navigating the roads to these places inevitably came up.  When I mentioned my decision to travel GPS-free, they confessed that on the way to the hotel – which, by the way, is not actually in the town, but just outside – their GPS had taken them along the narrow cobblestone alleys of the town right into the centro storico, a feat which, in addition to being illegal and could have netted them a huge fine, they had found not at all relaxing.

A street in Cortona.

Give yourself a break. Don’t even think of driving in Cortona. No matter what your GPS tells you to do.

One of my favourite agriturismi  (Bed & Breakfast) in Tuscany is Guardastelle (Watching the Stars).  At breakfast an exasperated American couple described problems they were having with “Emily”.  Emily was the guide on the GPS that came with the car they had picked up a few days earlier at the airport.  The problem was that Emily refused to speak English to them and they spoke no German.   Eventually they solved the problem.  They turned off the volume.

At Guardastelle you can stay in the main villa or your own little cottage.

At Guardastelle you can stay in the main villa or your own little cottage.

And then there was the Italian couple, who, having set out for a lovely holiday on the island of Capri, had ended up in northern Italy in what is described on Wikipedia as “a busy centre for industrial activities and commercial exchanges”.  They had entered Carpi in their GPS and somehow never thought to ask themselves why the landscape they were driving through was getting more and more industrialized.  I wonder if they decided to keep on going.  Venice was close by.

Capri, where the only industries are limoncello and sandals.

Capri, where the only industries are limoncello and sandals.

But maybe even more important than any of the above is the “use it or lose it” factor. People who put their fate into the hands of their GPS remind me of people who work out in the gym and then take the elevator to the second floor.   Travel gives you so many chances to give your brain a real workout. Forget about crosswords and Sudoko puzzles. If you want to keep your brain in shape, ward off dementia, how about trying to find your way to that charming hotel in the centro storico with only a map and your wits to guide you?  Go ahead.  Use your brain.  At the very worst you’ll get hopelessly lost and then what a great story you’ll have to tell when you get back home.

Now that I’ve said my bit about the GPS, a few comments about the signs you’ll come across.


Strada dissestata – deformed road

At the risk of having my driver’s licence flagged next time I go to renew it, I confess that whenever I’m driving back home and come across a sign warning of some kind of hazard on the road ahead, I am more inclined to annoyance than vigilance.  It’s not just the ugly shade of orange they use for these things or the tax dollars involved.

How many times can one be expected to be go into high alert mode when the promised hazards keep failing to materialize?  How many times have I slowed down after coming across  “Bump ahead” and miles later have yet to encounter anything that remotely qualifies as a bump?  Or stopped at a “Road Closed” sign and sat there pondering my next move as the guy behind me drove right through?

Beginning of sterrato (literally "no earth") stretch.

Beginning of sterrato (literally “no earth”) stretch.

But in Italy it’s a whole different kettle of fish or, as Italians might put it, tutt’altra pasta (a whole different kind of pasta).  Here I’m often left wishing they’d put a few more signs out there. “Dangerous Curve Ahead” would be a good start.

I have no idea what this sign means.

I have no idea what this sign means. Of course I know what it means theoretically. The driver with the red arrow (me) is supposed to pull over/yield to the driver with the black arrow. But where exactly am I supposed to pull over to?

Maybe they’ve already thought of that and given up.  There are just too many curve pericolose.  And it’s not just the obvious ones.  You can be driving along a nice, peaceful country lane when all of a sudden  around a curve…


I slammed on the brakes.  The driver started yelling at me “Avanti signora! Vada!”  He did use the formal, polite form of you, but there was no way I was going to “avanti” anything.


The standoff

Finally, totally exasperated with me, he gave up and got back in his van…


… and like little Bo Peep…


When you come across a sign warning you to Procedere con la massima cautela, I highly recommend you take the advice and “proceed with the maximum caution”.  In fact, it might be a good idea even where there is no sign.

One more thing.  Did you notice the colour of the last road?  It’s bianco (white), like the roads you’ll eventually wind up driving along, especially if you want to taste some of that vino where it’s made.   I haven’t visited a vineyard yet which didn’t involve driving along a stretch of these dusty roads.

The strada bianca that leads to the Dievole vineyard.

The strada bianca into the Dievole vineyard.

mom's scans0011

Helpfully, they’re even called strade bianche and are coloured white on maps.

One thing is certain.  No matter what colour car you started with, after a day spent touring the wineries, you’ll be driving back to your hotel in a macchina bianca.

No matter colour your car is, by the end of a day visiting vineyards, it will be una macchina bianca.

Now that we’ve got the ins and outs of being ‘at the flying thing’ out of the way, let’s go visit some gardens and vineyards.



Staying Put

Back in January when, already fed up with winter, I decided to take this blog south for a while, I assumed that by spring I’d be ready to go back up north and continue exploring the gardens of Tuscany.  But March 20 has come and gone and the weather people are still going on about snow flurries and freezing rain and wind chill factors.  So, until the spirit of spring makes a solid appearance – and by that I mean no more dustings of snow overnight, no more ugly gray piles of frozen mush and grit blocking the roads – you can add your own favourite winter uglies to the list – until then, I’m staying put.

Sicily 045

Piles of white stuff of a different sort.  Salt flats near Trapani off the north-west coast of Sicily.

In the meantime, since we’ve already visited all the gardens I had planned to look at during this winter getaway, this might be a good time to explore one of the most controversial issues in photography these days.  I was completely put off balance when it came up during the Q&A following one of my talks.  One of the members of the audience observed that there were no gardeners in any of the photos I had just shown them and he wondered how the gardens were maintained.  I stood there, not knowing what to say – or think.


Since then, I’ve stopped waiting until people like this gardener at Villa Lante
are ‘out of the way’ before I take my photos.

He was right, of course.  In fact I had worked very hard to get as few people as possible in those photos. I forget what I came up with by way of reply, but it got me rethinking the whole to shoot (we’re talking ‘photo-talk’ here!) or not to shoot people thing.  It’s caused a lot of unpleasant encounters locally.  One that really stuck in my mind was the father who was strolling around Dundas Square, a rare open area in downtown Toronto, with his young son.  He was taking a few photos when one of the people in the square rushed at him, gave him a good punch and smashed his camera.

You may recognize this photo from the post on the gardens of Villa Pietra in Florence.

It all seems to boil down to two diametrically opposed, and seemingly irreconcilable points of view.  On the one hand are those who take the position that if you’re in a public space, you can ‘shoot’ whatever and whomever you want.  On the other are those who say you cannot take any photos whatsoever of children under a certain age, or of older people without their consent, which of course eliminates most of the population since children and the elderly are usually in the company of the people you might be allowed to photograph.


This is a tricky one. Obviously taking photos of this artist’s paintings would be totally inappropriate.
But taking a photo of him at work…?

Fortunately, so far my experience has been without incident.  In fact – and this may have something to do with the fact that I take a lot more photos when travelling around Italy than when I’m home – not only do the people I’m photographing not mind, they seem to enjoy the interest.  I know this because I don’t have any fancy telephoto lenses – just the standard ‘kit’ lens that the camera came with – so when it comes to people, I have to get pretty close – so close they know what I’m up to.  And whenever I can, I ask for permission, as I did one day in Trani.


The sheltered harbour of Trani, along the northern coast of Puglia


As you continue along the quay, the pleasure boats give way to fishing boats.

I was lucky.  The fishing boats had just returned and the far side of the quay was lined with stalls.   There weren’t a lot of customers – just a few anziani (elderly people). I strolled around, watching, listening to the orders being placed.


Everything you need to make a fish stew.

I loved the colours of the fish against the turquoise bin, so got a bit closer to take a photo.  As I fiddled with my camera’s settings, one of the anziani sidled up to me – he was standing very close, even by Italian standards – and started talking to me.  I had a hard time making out what he was saying.  It wasn’t just the missing teeth or that he was using a lot of dialect.  He struck me as a bit ‘off’.  From the bits I could make out, it sounded like he was inviting me to his place.  Then one of the other customers told him to shush – “Lasciala tranquilla!” (Leave her alone. ) She smiled at me and shrugged, confirming what I had sensed.  I took a photo of the fish. But not of the old man.


At a stall close by things were different.  Here was a much bigger selection and while he waited for customers to arrive, the vendor passed the time visiting with a couple of pals.


Ghost Busters?


When I asked ‘Posso?’ (May I?), pointing at my camera, he struck this surprisingly serious pose, but I figured he got to choose how he was going to be portrayed.  His pals made a few comments that I didn’t catch (I speak ‘standard’ Italian – can barely understand anything whenever anyone switches over to dialect – even less when the comments involve certain parts of the body…) It was astonishing to see how quickly he changed gears – coming up with all sorts of more ‘interesting’ shots whose significance was totally lost on me.



All of which was leading up to a demonstration of how to slurp a long, wormy-looking thing he pulled out of one of the fish – don’t ask me – I spent my Italian formative years in Tuscany – I know nothing about the fish in Puglia.  This of course produced the desired effect and they all burst out laughing when I gasped in disgust, as they knew I would.


Probably the photo that has touched me the most is one I took many years ago in Umbria.  I had taken my travelling companions to Deruta, which is where most of the ceramica (pottery) made in Italy actually comes from, in spite of what is painted on the bottom of items you see in stores all over the country (more on that later…).  Since I’d been before, it didn’t take me long to find a few pieces I’d so far managed to resist.  While my companions looked around, the owner and I chatted – about life in Italy, the struggling economy, all the seemingly insurmountable problems facing the younger generation and then, probably eager for a break from the daily doom and gloom, he asked about my travel plans.  I told him about the local markets, vineyards, cooking classes, hilltop villages that we were going to visit.  When I mentioned that our next destination was Assisi, he suggested – actually he insisted – I go to Collepino, just a short drive east of Assisi.


When you wish you’d brought a bigger suitcase.


Collepino is the quintessential medieval hamlet.  In less than five minutes you can walk from one end to the other.  There is one piazza.  And whatever you think of those blue chairs and table, you have to admit, they do go well with the plumbago growing up the wall next to them.


On the other side of the piazza were four people.  How many afternoons, how many years had they spent together in the tiny piazza?  I had taken up photography only a short while before and was even more shy than I am now about taking photos of people – don’t want to intrude/offend etc. – but there was something about them that pushed me to ask,  “Dispiace se faccio la foto?”  (Would you mind if I took your photo?)  The fellow on the left jumped right up and said he would get out of view to make the photo “più bello” (more beautiful) and the one with the cane went to take his hat off.  “No,no, no” I said, “è bello così!”  (it’s beautiful just the way you are!)


I like the way the two men are looking straight into the camera and you can just make out the hint of a smile on the woman knitting in the back, her feet resting on her slippers.  After, I went over to to show them the photo, thinking they might like to see how bello it had turned out.  They all leaned over to have a look at the lens viewer – all except the woman wearing the dark glasses.  To my chagrin, I realized she was blind.

There is however, one situation where I rarely have any qualms about taking photos of people.  Weddings.  They are already such public affairs in Italy where couples are married first at City Hall and from there proceed, usually on foot, (and how the women manage on those stilettos is beyond me) to the church nearby, where they are married again.

Sicily 048

Who knew? – salt flats as the setting for your wedding photos.

I arrived just in time to tour the biggest of the windmills before it was closed to the public.  This was where the reception was being held.  As the sun started to set, it was easy to see why they had chosen this location.

Sicily 050

One time when I was staying along the Amalfi Coast I took a side trip to Paestum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with the largest and best preserved collection of Greek temples outside Greece.


In 600 BC Greek settlers founded a colony they called Poseidonia after Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea.  The settlement flourished for centuries until 273 BC when the Romans arrived and, in their customary fashion, proceeded to take over, starting with renaming  the colony Paestum.  Plagued by wars and then malaria, the settlement was eventually abandoned.


Temple of Ceres, circa 500 B.C.


Temple of Neptune, circa 450 BC

Temple of Hera, circa 530 BC

Temple of Hera, circa 530 BC


The temples were so mesmerizing I almost missed the wedding party.


For some reason this couple struck me as Sicilian. Maybe it was the black silk suits all the men were wearing?

Sometimes when I’m taking pictures, I get so involved with what is going on in my viewfinder I lose sight (terrible pun!) of the possibility that others might be watching me – as if I’m hidden under some magic cloak of invisibility.

I was on my way to the centro storico of Lecce, the capital of Puglia, aka ‘The  Florence of the South’, when I happened upon this scene.   The bridal party seemed to be wandering all over the intersection and miraculously no-one honked or tried to whiz past them.  This was definitely not Rome.


Look at the heels on the bridesmaid!


Since I was headed in the same direction, I slowed down a bit, thinking to take a few more photos – hidden as always under my cloak of invisibility.


But I was caught out.


For a moment the tables were turned and I was the object of attention – and a well-deserved laugh.

The forecast was bleak when I set out the next day for La Cutura, a fabulous botanical garden about an hour’s drive south of Lecce.  Dark clouds threatened all morning, but I managed to tour most of the gardens before it started to pour. The rain continued during lunch and the drive back.  Since I was only going to be in Lecce for a couple of days, I began to worry that I wasn’t going to get any more photos of the historic centre.   But after a couple of hours it finally let up.  I wasn’t the only one who had been hoping the rain would end.


Apparently the train has to be spread out in all its glory. Puddles or no puddles.

A few final adjustments.

A few last adjustments…

… and finally she entered the church, dragging that gorgeous, soggy train behind her.
If there is any truth to the old saying – Sposa bagnata, moglie fortunata. (Wet bride, lucky wife),
she was about to embark on a very long, happy marriage.

Of all the wedding scenes I’ve come across, this one, in the centre of Sorrento, is probably my favourite.


Such a sweet, tender moment.

I’m still torn on the whole business.  Many people have told me they like the photos with people in them, and sometimes even encourage me to put in a few more.  Is it because those photos make it easier for them to imagine being in the place?  Or provide a sense of scale they can relate to?  Or create a greater sense of connection?

I just hope the people in my photos see it this way too.

Ignore the Experts at the Risk of… a Pleasant Surprise

After Villa Cimbrone my plan was to take the ancient path from Ravello down to the sea.  According to the pamphlet I had picked up at the local I.T., the path was well-signed and would take about 20 minutes.  I wasn’t sure about the 20 minute part, but it was all downhill and as long as I kept heading for the sea I figured there wasn’t (much) chance of getting lost.

But first a quick lunch in the village piazza.  A panino – prosciutto and gorgeously fresh mozzarella di bufala, a nice glass of cool, white wine to wash it down and I’d be on my way.


There is another garden besides Villa Cimbrone in Ravello.  It was right in front of me. Those towers mark the entrance.  But I hadn’t planned on going.   As much as I would love to see all the gardens in all the regions I visit, over time I have learned that visiting a garden just because it’s ‘there’ usually leaves me with nothing but tired feet and di cattivo umore (and noumore – oo-moh-ray – has nothing to do with amore).   So when I’m not sure, I like to check around, see what the garden establishment types have to say.  The verdict on Villa Rufolo was overwhelmingly negative.  The most positive comment was that it was ‘a pleasant backdrop’ for the art shows, concerts and music festivals held here during the summer.    The fact that it had been the inspiration for the enchanted Klingsor Garden scene (Parsifal, Act II) by Wagner – I’m not a fan –  made it even less appealing.


But then – was it before or after the second glass of wine? – I decided to ignore the experts.   For the sake of probably 10 euros and a half hour of my time, why not just have a look? Get it out of my system.  Even if the garden was disappointing, the villa itself seemed promising.  It had started off as a medieval fortress to protect the locals from the Saracens, who had gotten into the habit of attacking the villages along the coast.  By the mid 1800’s it lay in ruins and then, like Villa Cimbrone, had been rescued by an Englishman on the Grand Tour.

When I entered the first courtyard and saw the horse with a head in its rump, I immediately regretted my decision.


But there was no going back so I trudged on.  My spirits lifted a bit when I came to the Moorish cloister.


And when I rounded the corner of the cloister and saw the view below, I didn’t care what the experts thought.


Palm trees and pansies in the clouds – who knew such a thing existed?



The much-maligned ‘Kaleidoscope’ terrace.

I am not normally a fan of ‘Carpet Beds’ and was totally prepared to hate it.  But this was was a place where the gardeners had truly consulted the ‘genius loci’.  It was perfect for its place.


I had a feeling I would never look at gazanias again without thinking of this garden.



I just wished I had a ticket for the evening concert. Something for another visit.

Taking the ancient path down to the sea level was the perfect way to make the adjustment between the two worlds.  And unlike the local peasants who in centuries past had travelled this path bearing heavy loads, I could take my time and enjoy the spectacular scenery.


In some places the old stone walls lining the path are worn down, offering glimpses of the sea far below.




AS they had been several years before the first time I took this path, the vases at this private shrine held fresh flowers.

A private shrine.

There was no-one around - at least that I was aware of - so I was startled when this labourer appeared, as if out of nowhere.

There was no-one around, at least that I was aware of,
so I was startled when this labourer appeared, as if out of nowhere.

Bringing up concrete to repair the wall?

Bringing up concrete to repair the wall?

Una lucertola

Una lucertola (loo-chair-toe-lah).  They are so fast, usually they’re gone before I can even get my lens cap off.



Around a bend nearby I saw a group of labourers.  As soon as they saw me they stopped working.  As a solo female traveller of ‘une certain âge’ I am careful where I go – and when.  This – and maybe a bit of luck – has served me well and I usually feel very comfortable travelling around on my own.  But there are times, like this one, when the so-called ‘primitive’ brain takes over.  For once, I would have preferred to be surrounded by a big, noisy tour group.  But the primitive brain doesn’t always know what it’s doing, and when I got closer, come al solito (as always), they disarmed me with their friendly  Buon giorno’s and the suggestion that I enhance my landscape shots with a photo of them.


Even in late May black netting protects the lemon trees from cool breezes.



Almost back down at sea level.

The path down took a lot longer than 20 minutes, but like the gardens of Villa Rufolo, it truly vale la pena.  Vah-lay lah pay-nuh.  (Is worth doing.)

In the Garden of Amateurs

If you have ever looked out on your garden and wondered if maybe you shouldn’t give one of those experts a call, you may be reassured to learn that one of the most beautiful gardens in Italy was designed by a couple of amateurs.  It is called Villa Cimbrone.

But first a word about how to get to the garden.  It’s in Ravello, a village perched on the mountains a few kilometres inland from Amalfi village.

On a rare bit of flat land at the base of Amalfi village, the terminal for the blue buses that

The terminal for the ubiquitous blue buses that ply the coastline is near the ferry landing in Amalfi.

The road up to Ravello starts from Amalfi, the village the coast is named after.  No matter where you’re staying along the Amalfi Coast, take the ferry to Amalfi.


From the vantage point of the ferry you will be able to judge for yourself the views that have made the coastline famous.  But there is another point in favour of the ferry.


Driving the coastal road is much more terrifying than any guide book will lead you to believe – whether you’re behind the wheel or wearing a hole in the floorboard on the passenger’s side.

No high walls block your view along the SS163.

A glimpse of the coastal road.

Plunging into unlit tunnels adds an extra frisson to the driving experience.

In some places the road is so narrow, niches have been carved out of the cliffs to make room for the garbage cans.

In Positano, if you miss your destination, you'll have to drive through the entire village again.  And if you end up behind a funeral procession...

If you miss your destination along Positano’s one-way road, you’ll have to drive through the entire village again.
And if you end up behind a funeral procession…

If you still are not convinced, you might want to consider that the road from Amalfi up to Ravello is even narrower than the coastal road – which is why you have to transfer to a smaller local bus at Amalfi.


One of my all-time favourite signs is on this road – AUTOBUS IN MANOVRA.  Easy enough to figure out even if you don’t speak Italian, but it wasn’t until the first time I saw a bus being ‘manoeuvred’  that I realized what was involved.

The tornante (hairpin turns) are so tight even the expert local drivers can’t make it in one go.  You know you’re coming up to one of these turns because you’ll be startled out of your wits by a sudden horn blaring.  On the ride up one time I made a point of sitting at the front of the bus to see how the drivers manage to turn the enormous steering wheel and lean on the horn at the same time.  They don’t.  There is a tiny lever attached to the lower left of the driver’s wheel.  Just a flick of the pinky sets the horn blaring.

A local bus on a rare straight stretch of the road up to Ravello.

A local bus on a rare straight stretch of the road up to Ravello.

The purpose of the horn of course isn’t to shatter your already frayed nerves – even being a passenger on the bus is not for the faint of heart. It is to warn oncoming traffic that a bus is approaching.   Any cars that fail to give the driver enough room – and ‘room’ here is a relative term – we’re talking about inches – have to back up, an excruciatingly slow process, and then wait while the bus driver does a three,  four, or sometimes even 5 point manovra.

Partway up a view of Amalfi

Partway up, a view of Amalfi village.

Also to keep in mind is that, even if you do manage to drive up to Ravello with your nerves and relationship more or less intact, you’re not out of the woods yet.  You still have to count on the amazing good fortune of finding an empty spot in the tiny ‘P’ lot on the edge of the village. All of which is guaranteed to put you more in the mood for a glass – or two – of wine than looking at gardens.

Fearless motorcyclists straddle the middle of the narrow road, even as they approach blind curves.

A fearless motorcyclist straddles the middle of the road as he approaches one of numerous blind curves.

And finally, whatever you do, do not walk up.  You can always walk down, as I did one time. I came across several young couples – fit-looking, regular gym workout types.  I wondered whose idea it had been.  From their grim expressions – especially the two young women – they might as well have been on treadmills back home for all the enjoyment they were getting out of the spectacular scenery.

The approach to Villa Cimbrone is along a narrow path on the edge of the village.

The approach to Villa Cimbrone is along a narrow path on the edge of the village.

On to the garden.  One of the amateurs behind its creation was a London politician, Ernest Beckett, later Lord Grimthorpe.  In 1904 he paid 100 lire – makes you want to cry – for a piece of land in Ravello.  The property was known locally as Cimbronium, Latin for ‘rocky outcrop’.  In addition to the rocks, for his 100 lire Lord Grimthorpe got a ruined farmhouse, a bit of forest, and a neglected vineyard.

Try not to get too distracted by the view from the path or you'll be here all day.

Yet another distracting view along the path.

And the other amateur?  Nicola Mansi.  Grimthorpe’s tailor.  A native of Ravello.  The Oxford Dictionary defines coincidence as ‘a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection’.  Whether you believe they are “God’s way of remaining anonymous” (Einstein) or simply signs that we’re “on the right path” (author Simon Van Booy), their chance encounter was a remarkable coincidence.  One can’t help wondering if Grimthorpe would have created the garden had it not been for Mansi.  Or whether Mansi would have ever returned to his village of origin had it not been for Grimthorpe.

A small courtyard is next to the biglietteria (ticket office).  I'd always wondered how they kept those palm trees so trim and tidy.

A small courtyard next to the biglietteria (ticket office).
I’d always wondered how they kept those palm trees so trim and tidy.

Eccentric Englishman that he was, Grimthorpe hadn’t just engaged in a bit of senile foolishness.  He had already seen the property several years earlier while on the ‘Grand Tour’.  In those days Ravello was very popular among European aristocrats and artists as a place for ‘rediscovering one’s soul’.   His friends had talked him into making the climb up in the hopes that it would help shake him out of the deep depression he had fallen into after the death of his young wife.


Once he got going, Grimthorpe didn’t want to just restore the abandoned farm – he wanted to turn it into a work of art.  If you’re having a hard time identifying the architectural style in this cloister, not to worry.  It’s a jumble of Arabian, Sicilian and Norman design elements – absolutely gorgeous if, like me, you’re no purist in these things – and it sets the tone for the garden.


One of Grimthorpe’s ideas was to replicate an ancient Roman garden.  He also wanted exotic botanical elements.  Unfettered by any concepts of traditional garden design or horticultural history, he went ahead and placed ‘Roman’ statues amidst exotic plants discovered long after the fall of the Roman Empire.


Yucca rostrata, a native of Texas and Mexico.

On one visit in May the peonies were just starting to bloom.

The peonies were just starting to bloom in mid-May.

The Avenue of Immensity

Avenue of Immensity

Parallel to the peony borders is the grandly named Viale dell’Immenso.  The wisteria covering the pergola overhead has already finished flowering.  If you look closely you can make out the seed pods (the long thin, light green things hanging from the trellis).  There is always an element of frustration to visiting gardens.  Come too early, you miss the roses.  Too late, you miss the wisteria.


Ceres, Goddess of the Harvest, stands watch at the end of the Viale dell’Immenso.

The Viale dell’Immenso is, of course, beautiful.  But even more beautiful is the view it leads to.  Before my first visit I had read a few articles about this view.  In each, the writer used what struck me as rather an excessive number of superlatives – words like spectacular, breath-taking.


But as I got closer, I began to sense what all the fuss was about.  It’s called Il Terrazzo dell’Infinito.


The view east from Infinity Terrace.

Many have declared it the most spectacular view in the world.  There are a lot of great views I’ve yet to see so I’ll just say it’s spettacolare – or maybe mozzafiato – mots-suh-fee-ah-toe (cuts off your breath)or meraviglioso or…


On my way up on this return visit I had been wondering if the effect would be as strong as the first time.  I think it must be like wondering about falling in love for the second time.


Even if you’re not afraid of heights, it is rather unnerving to approach the surprisingly low stone balustrade.


It is even more unnerving to stand by the sections where an open wrought iron fence
is all that separates us from the Gulf of Salerno 300 metres below.

At the western edge of the Terrazzo dell'Infinito.

View from the western edge of the Terrazzo dell’Infinito.  Positano lies beyond one of those ridges.

Eventually, and only because I really wanted to see what else Grimthorpe and his tailor had come up with, I dragged myself away from the terrace.


Just a few steps away a staircase led down to a shady, wooded area.  The contrast was almost unsettling.  A path lined with some rather straggly lavender – I couldn’t help wondering how much bloom there would there be down here – led to a temple-like structure.


The Temple of Bacchus.

In his will – he died in 1917 just after the garden was completed – Lord Grimthorpe stipulated that his ashes were to be buried, not next to those of his wife, but at the foot of this satyr carrying Bacchus, the raucous god of wine and debauchery.


Hermes bis.
What was it about this Greek god and this pose?

Close by was a familiar statue.  You don’t have to be an expert in sculpture – I’m certainly not – to see that it’s essentially a duplicate – minus a hand – of the one at Villa San Michele.  When Munthe found out about the copycat statue – southern Italy was a small world even then – would he have been flattered or annoyed?  Since they’re both copies – the original is in the National Museum in Naples – he couldn’t have put up much of a fuss.


I almost missed the inscription on the stone wall next to Hermes.

Enough of this shady grove.  Time to head back up to the sun.  As I wandered around looking for the way up, I came across a beautifully winding path lined with boxwood.



A Neapolitan sculptor’s replica of Verrochio’s ‘David’ in Florence.

At one of the curves was a statue – an unmistakably Renaissance statue.  Even after all the jumbling of styles so far, this was a surprise.  The Renaissance was really only a northern phenomenon – barely registering on the psyche of southern Italy.  Spend enough time down here and you begin to feel as if it took place in another country – which is exactly the point of view shared by many Italians north of Rome.

Still looking for the way up.

Still looking for the way up.


Brick-faced columns like those in the gardens of ancient Rome line the “Hydrangea Path”.




Roses in the sun-drenched upper terrace.


On the far left is one of the columns of the ‘Tea House’ – Grimthorpe’s favourite spot for his afternoon ‘cuppa’.


From here he could look out over the rose garden planted with ancient English and French varieties.



Even in May it’s obvious that growing roses here is a challenge.  I couldn’t even begin to imagine what the gardeners would have to do to keep them going over the sweltering heat of the long summer ahead. But it was easy to see why the Englishman would want to give them a try.


Time to head for the exit.

The path to the exit.


Above a stone bench near the exit, a verse from ‘The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’.

The rather maudlin inscriptions scattered around the garden puzzled me. They seemed so at odds with the spectacularly beautiful garden. A sign of Grimthorpe’s struggle to reconcile his soul with the paradoxes of human existence?

Returning to the Mainland

“The journey not the arrival matters”, T.S. Eliot had famously written.  Wise words no doubt.  But for a few tense hours on the day I was scheduled to leave Capri, it looked like there was going to be neither journey, nor arrival.

Ferries arriving and departing from Capri.

Ferries arriving and departing from Capri.

A few days earlier I had been surprised to learn that even in May there was only one ferry per day between Ischia and Capri.  And even then there had been a tense half hour at the landing when it wasn’t clear that ferry would depart.  A storm had come up overnight. Eventually we were given the go-ahead.

On the way over to Capri, a little unsettled by the almost non-departure, I decided, for my own peace of mine, to buy the ticket for the ferry to Amalfi – the village of Amalfi – definitely something going on with the naming thing down here – as soon as I landed.  I knew there was a direct ferry service between Capri and Amalfi because I’d checked it out before booking a room in a hotel in Amalfi.


Amalfi, the village the coastline is named for.

As if to confirm what a good idea this was, the biglietteria (bill-yet-teh-ree-uh) – again, however much you mangle it, just don’t pronounce that ‘g’ – for the ferry was right next to the wicket for the funivia.  But when I asked for un biglietto – andata solo – per il traghetto delle 15:30 per Amalfi (a one-way ticket for the 3:30 p.m. ferry to Amalfi), the ticket agent shook her head.  It was not possibile (poss-sea-be-lay).  I insisted.  We were talking about two days hence, not planning for the century.  I learned later why she wouldn’t let me buy that ticket.  And once again, thanked my guardian angel for holding me back from expressing my views on possibile and impossibile customer service.


Like many of Italy’s IT’s, these things are not exactly easy to find.
Look for the small, lower case “i” on a yellow background near the base of the tower.

The IT – Informazioni Turistiche – is next to the funivia station in La Piazzetta.  Here, in addition to Tourist Information – but no money – you can also get tickets for the ferry.

On the day of my scheduled departure from Capri, I was there waiting when the signora in charge of the IT opened the shutters.  I greeted her and then made my very reasonable request:  “Vorrei comprare un biglietto ad Amalfi.” (I would like to buy a ticket to Amalfi.)  She looked at me and said, “Mi dispiace, ma per ora non Le posso fare il biglietto.” (I’m sorry but I can’t sell you a ticket for the time being.) I looked at her in disbelief. “Come?”(co-may) – Pardon?  “Mi dispiace,” she repeated, “ma non sappiamo ancora se oggi ci sarà servizio ad Amalfi.”  (I’m sorry, but we don’t know yet whether there will be ferry service to Amalfi today.)  “Come?”  I stupidly asked again.


At this point la signora did not insult me by switching to English.   Instead she patiently explained that they had no control at the IT over the comings and goings of the state-operated ferry system.  They wouldn’t know until later in the morning whether the ferry to Amalfi would be operating.  “C’è mare mosso.”  Literally – “There is moved sea.”   This of course means “Rough waters.” But “moved sea”?! What kind of expression is that?  What does the sea do if not “move”?  She advised me to come back around 11, by which time she would know whether or not there would be a ferry to Amalfi that day.  And how would she know?  By walking over to the terrace behind the clock tower and having a look at the Marina Grande, where the ferry would either be moored or not, having just come over from Amalfi.

There were still parts of the island I hadn’t explored and while it was a bit windy, it wasn’t raining.  I decided to have a look at another of Tiberius’ villas.


A pathway along the edge of the cliff leads to the entrance.

Villa Damecuta

Villa Damecuta, Tiberius’ ‘summer’ residence.

At 11 sharp I was back at the IT.  The beleaguered signora apologized.  “Mi dispiace. Non è venuto. Oggi non c’è servizio ad Amalfi.”  (I’m sorry.  It didn’t come.  There is no service to Amalfi today.) I stood there – speechless. In all my planning – all that dotting the “i’s” and crossing the “t’s”, the possibility that brutto tempo might put a spanner in my plans had never once – not even remotely – crossed my mind. Everyone knows there is no ‘ugly’ weather along the Amalfi Coast in May.  It’s all sole and cielo azzurro (sun and blue skies).  I had checked out of my hotel on Capri; I was on the hook for the hotel in Amalfi.  From the mists of an impending panic attack I heard the signora add, “Ma il traghetto a Positano è sempre in servizio.  Parte alle 15:00.”  (But the ferry to Positano is still running.  It leaves at 3 p.m.)

On the lower left, the ferry landing in Positano.

On the lower left, the ferry landing in Positano.

It turned out that while the sea was too “mosso” for the state-run ferry, it was not for the private service that runs between Capri and Positano.  I bought a ticket for the 15:00 ferry to Positano.  Even if the boats weren’t running, the buses along the coastline would be.  It was only a few kilometres from Positano to Amalfi.


As if to say sorry for all the fuss, Mother Nature sent a lovely arcobaleno just before the ferry arrived.

From the shelter of Marina Grande the sea hadn’t looked all that mosso, but the dock in Positano’s small harbour is a fairly primitive affair.  It took a while for all the passengers to disembark.  Every time a big swell came along, the captain had to back away from the dock.


After all the passengers were all on dry land, it was time for our luggage.  Even when it wasn’t mine, I couldn’t help holding my breath each time a suitcase was tossed into the air.  How the crew managed not to slip on the smooth, wet rock was beyond me. Workers on the right loaded it all onto carts.


Eventually the boat was emptied of all its human and material cargo.  Then it was total pandemonium.  People pushed and shoved to grab their stuff.  Travelling around I’ve come across more people than I’d like who may well be polite, decent individuals In their “real” life, but when I’ve seen them in tourist mode, they are just plain ugly.  As if they think that since they can’t talk to the locals – or fellow travellers – showing them any manners would just be a waste.


Approaching Positano when the sea is calmo.

Finally I was reunited with my suitcase.  I stood there on the dock pondering my next move. Positano is so picture postcard perfect because it’s built up the side of a mountain.  I’m a light packer, but I’d been travelling for several weeks, gathering brochures and books from the gardens I’d visited and a few – very few souvenirs along the way.  No ceramica, no vino, no olio di oliva.  But there was still no way I could lug my suitcase up that hill.  Mostly it was the books.  Paper is unbelievably heavy.

One of the locals who had helped offload the luggage approached me and offered to take my suitcase up to the bus stop.  Did he think I was crazy?!  An easy mark – a woman travelling on her own?  Asking me if I “desidera”  to hand over what, for the time being, were all my earthly belongings to a random stranger that I might well never see again!   But I didn’t see any other options.


Of course the Positanesi have seen all this before and what looks like utter chaos to an outsider’s eye is actually a finely organized system.  I walked up to the bus stop and a few minutes later my luggage was presented to me.  The view from the bus stop – looking east towards Amalfi – is lovely.  But this photo is misleading.  Not that I photoshopped it or anything like that.  I don’t have the programs or desire to mess around with that stuff.  It’s what I left out that makes it  ‘dishonest’.

I wasn’t the only one now trying to get to Amalfi.  A huge crowd of tourists was waiting for the bus from Sorrento.  45 minutes later it arrived.  Already jam packed.  What with all the ferries cancelled, there was only one way to travel along the coast.


The most picturesque – and relaxing – way to travel along the coast is by ferry.
When, of course, the ferries are ‘in servizio‘.

What happened next revealed, once again, how thin that thin veneer of civilization really is.  The line morphed into a crushing, angry, amorphous blob.   And amidst all the jostling and shoving an American couple I’d been chatting with – they were going to visit the gardens of Villa Cimbrone too – we bumped into each other there the next day –  anyway, they and I watched, incredulous at first, then in disgust, as a guy from way back in the line grabbed his suitcase, ran around the back of the bus and pushed his way into the front of the line.  We managed to get on the next bus.


18 kilometers separated me from my destination.
At the time it was hard to appreciate the irony of a Canadian being stumped by a few measly kilometers.


By the time I got to the hotel the sun was setting.  As promised,  it really was “a room with a view”. And the mare was no longer mosso.  A glass of wine on my little balcony, my newly purchased copy of ‘The Story of San Michele’ and dinner ‘fra poco‘ (in a short while).  All was well again.


When I woke the next morning, dark clouds blocked the sun.  I was glad my island hopping days were over – at least for this trip.