If you were around in the 1950’s – or if you’re a fan of Michael Bublé – you’ve probably heard the song, Dimmi quando, quando, quando.’ (Tell me when… ) Of course what the singer wants to know is when the target of his affections will be his.
Whenever I’m asked Quando, it’s not about unrequited love, but about the best time to visit the gardens of Italy. I always say ‘Late spring. Mid-May to mid-June when the gardens are in full bloom.’ My thinking is that if you go any earlier, you risk cold, rainy days, trudging through monochrome gardens full of plants covered with buds that, like you, are longing for warmth and sunshine. Especially these last few years. Many Italians I’ve spoken to describe the recent pattern of late springs and unusually summer-like conditions lingering well into October – as spostate (spoh-stah-tay). ‘Posto‘ means place. Putting ‘s’ in front turns it into ‘without place’. As if the seasons have lost their normal place.
Sometimes I’m asked about the other ‘shoulder season’ – September, October – when the crowds are (mostly) gone and it’s not as hot. So on this trip, in addition to getting my Italian ‘fix’, I also wanted to see how much it really mattered. What would the most spectacular gardens of the Amalfi Coast, Villa Cimbrone and Villa Rufolo, look like in October? (In my March 9, 2014 post, ‘In the Garden of Amateurs’, I described my spring visit to Villa Cimbrone. The following week, March 16, in ‘Ignore the Experts’, I wrote abut my experience in the gardens of Villa Rufolo.)
To find out, I booked a room in an agriturismo not far from Ravello, where both these gardens are located.
I stayed here four nights and loved it. The views from the lemon-covered terrace were spectacular. But I did have some doubts on the ride up the first time.
The other garden I wanted to revisit was Villa San Michele on Capri (‘Yearning for Light’, Feb. 23, 2014). My concerns about Villa Maria were somewhat alleviated when I saw the words of Axel Munthe, the creator of San Michele, at the entrance. And when lunch arrived, any lingering doubts vanished.
After he had proudly told me, as I would hear him tell all new arrivals over the next few days, that I had arrived in paradiso, Vincenzo also informed me that 90% of the food I would be served at Villa Maria came from his land.
One thing to keep in mind when you’re trying to decide whether to travel in the spring or fall is the much shorter period of daylight in the fall – a significant issue if you’re going to be walking along unlit paths or driving along narrow, country roads.
That evening, while I sat on the terrace in front of my room waiting for the single church bell that would mark the half hour – supper was served at 19:30 – I read, had more of the Don Vincient Bianco as aperitivo, but mostly watched the shadows from the mountain Villa Cimbrone was perched on as they gradually lengthened over Minori below.
The next morning over breakfast, which, like lunch and supper the day before, was served outside on the terrace, I mentioned to Vincenzo that I planned to visit the two gardens in Ravello. I was wondering what time the pullmancino, the little white bus that took people up and down the mountain, came by. I planned on taking it down to Minori. From there I would take the coastal bus to Amalfi and then transfer to the smaller bus that goes up to Ravello.
Another thing to keep in mind if you’ve got your heart set on visiting this part of Italy, no matter what time of year, is that you have to reset your thoughts about distances. It is 17 kilometres from Positano to Sorrento, but it takes almost an hour. It’s not that the bus drivers drive slowly. Actually at the smallest straightaways – and even around some of the wider curves – they go like crazy. But 2,500 curves will slow down even the most aggressive driver. I learned this little nugget during a conversation with one of the drivers one day – in spite of the notice posted prominently at the front of the bus – NON PARLARE AL CONDUCENTE – (DO NOT TALK TO THE DRIVER) – which nobody ever pays any attention to. It was a little unnerving every time he glanced my way, so I stopped asking questions whenever I saw a curve coming up. It didn’t help that the signora sitting next to me, a local, crossed herself every time we approached one of those curves.
However, it’s not just the curves and the backing up and shuffling that happens when the buses meet at one of those curves. At the bus stop in Positano one day a young German couple was about to get on when the driver stood up, held up his hand and very loudly and very firmly shouted, ‘Wait!’ (the default language is English) They looked at him, startled, upset. What was the problem? ‘Put something on the baby!’, he ordered, ‘the bus is air-conditioned.’ It was probably about 80 degrees and the baby actually looked very happy, but the driver stood blocking the door, as the young mother rummaged around in a backpack for something suitable – while everyone on the bus watched. Only when she had put a little shirt on the baby did he let them on the bus and we continued on our way.
The schedule for the pullmancino sounded pretty loosey-goosey. According to Vincenzo, from my breakfast table I would be able to see the bus coming up along a bend in the road below. Since the end of the route was not far beyond Villa Maria, if I left as the bus passed by below I could easily make it to the stop in time for the return trip to Minori. But, added Vincenzo, why not just walk?
Amalfi is 3.9 km west of Minori. The bus ride from Amalfi to Ravello is 6.8 km, most of which involves heading back east towards Minori. There was the matter of the incline, but from Villa Maria I was already partway up the mountain. Besides, Vincenzo was standing there telling me how he had done it lots of times. I decided to walk to Ravello.
As I made my way down to the main road from Villa Maria I heard a clattering, but had no idea what it could be.
At dinner the night before, one of the men at the table next to me – a foursome from Denmark – had asked Vincenzo about something on the hillside across from Villa Maria. He struggled to explain. Usually I let people work things out on their own. I figure it’s part of their adventure. Vincenzo’s English was very good, but after a bit of mutual incomprehension, he turned to me for help. They were both speaking a second language, maybe a native speaker would have more luck. It turned out that the Dane was an engineer and was wondering if the rocky bits between Villa Maria and Ravello – something I had spent quite a bit of time looking at and had assumed was yet more terracing – were the foundation for a cable car. Yes, they were, but la funivia non è mai partita. Like many projects in southern Italy, it never got off the ground. This one literally.
They also asked him about a new building they’d seen – and obviously not liked – in Ravello that day. How did it ever get approved? Where did the money come from? Did people like it? Vincenzo was equally scathing. As I continued climbing, I kept an eye out for something that might be the cause of so much controversy.
According to the plaque it was co-financed by the European Union. The words in the bottom right corner are presumably the slogan – ‘Your Campania (the name of this region) grows in Europe’.
I never know what to make of modern structures like this. I know what my immediate gut feeling is, but that always seems so unenlightened. I have a nagging feeling that if only I tried a little harder I would come to a higher level of understanding. Something slightly more refined than a knee-jerk dislike.
In his recently published book, ‘Art is Therapy’, Alain de Boton writes about our tendency to ‘dismiss as ugly (a work) that forces on us moods or motifs that we feel either threatened or already overwhelmed by.’ Maybe life in the heart of a big, modern city full of skyscrapers and cranes building even more skyscrapers, had something to do with my dislike for the sleek, modern style of Niemeyer’s auditorium.
What I did appreciate, without reservation, was the location – just on the outskirts of Ravello. Almost there.
By the time I arrived at Piazza Duomo I was out of breath and sweating – it was hard to believe we were well into October. Time for a cappuccino and a look at what was going on in the piazza. It occurred to me as I sat there, that in all my trips to Ravello I had never gone inside the Duomo. I could also see the entrance to Villa Rufolo, but first I wanted to check out the gardens of Villa Cimbrone.
At the entrance was a plaque I hadn’t noticed on previous visits.
I wondered if the obviously proud citizens of Ravello were aware that Grimthorpe had squandered his inheritance and that his brothers had taken the extreme step of firing him from the family bank because of his debts and extravagant tastes? Which included commissioning a bust by none other than Rodin, in spite of knowing he had no way of paying for it. Or that he had been forced to sell various family properties to repay his debts? I doubt they had any knowledge of a recent biography in which Michael Holroy describes Grimthorpe as ‘a dilettante, philanderer, gambler and opportunist (who) changed his name, his career, his interests and his mistresses quite regularly’.
I left cenacolo in my translation simply because I don’t know what to make of it in this context. I’ve only ever seen it in reference to ‘The Last Supper’.
The views from the terrace to the east were as beautiful as they had been in spring.
But the perennial border had long finished blooming. Perhaps that is why I noticed an enormous tree covered with pink, lily-like blooms.
It was a Floss Silk Tree. They can grow up to 50 feet high and this one had obviously been around for a while (how had I missed it before?). I took a few photos of the flowers, all of which were inconveniently at the top of the tree. The light was all off and I couldn’t get anything decent. But I came across another Silk Floss Tree a few days later in Positano – perhaps the most vertical village in the world – where I managed to get almost at eye level to a few flowers.
The views from the Terrazza dell’Infinito were as stunning as ever. The one-armed Hermes was still resting in the shade. The satyr was still cavorting with Bacchus under the little temple and along the boxwood hedge David was still standing triumphantly over Goliath’s head. I had been hoping the Hydrangeas planted under the Roman columns would be in bloom, but there were just a few, rather straggly ones left.
And the tea roses in the parterre in front of the Tea House were a sad shadow of what I had seen in the spring.
So when do I think is the best time to visit Villa Cimbrone? It was still beautiful and fascinating this fall day, and I was very happy to see the Floss Silk Tree in bloom, but to see at its very best, I am sticking to my original preference for late spring.
By now I was starving. It was a little early – just past twelve – but I had decided to treat myself – after all, I’d saved at least 4 euros in bus fare by walking up the mountain. I was going to have lunch on the most beautiful terrace in Ravello and I wanted a front row table.
The only problem is you have to drag your eyes away from the view to look at the menu.