The Queen’s Garden

Still here, at the end of King Ferdinand’s garden.  Pondering.  It’s a 3 kilometre walk back to the Reggia.  Did I really want to trudge who knows how many more kilometres exploring another garden?

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But, as I’ve said before, you spend 8 hours breathing recycled air, jockeying for ‘your’ share of the arm rest, eating what is put in front of you and being glad of the diversion, then holding ‘it’ until you’re going to burst, because the two passengers between you and the aisle have fallen asleep  (if you’re lucky enough to get a window seat – only one arm rest to worry about) – all that just to cross the Atlantic, and now you’re thinking about not visiting a garden that you’re standing right in front of?!

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There was no map posted at the beginning of King Ferdinand’s garden.  Who needs a map when the beginning to the end is a straight line?  Here instead, is not only a map, but a rather detailed map.  Of an area interlaced with curves.  Barely a straight line in sight.

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And beyond the map and the entrance gate is a sight that makes all the extra trudging worth while.

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No matter which path you take – with all those curves and meandering paths, it’s easy to get lost – there is an amazing variety of fascinating and unusual – at least to this Canadian’s eye – plants and trees.

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This one I recognized from Villa Cimbrone in Ravello.

While this garden was created on Italian soil, or at least what was then the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, which would eventually become Italian, it was called  Il Giardino Inglese (jar-dee-no in-glay-zay).  The English Garden.

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That’s because Queen Maria Carolina wanted a garden in the new style that was all the rage in Italy at the time – the so-called ‘Romantic English Garden’.  In contrast to the classic Renaissance Garden, which was designed to be an unequivocal demonstration of mankind’s domination over nature – and implicitly, one particular man’s domination over his subjects – the goal of the new style was to create a ‘naturalistic haven’.  But, given that the individuals who commissioned these gardens were, like their 15th century predecessors, powerful, wealthy people, not surprisingly, in amongst all that ‘Nature’, there was a still a great deal of hubris and artifice.

The Queen’s garden was no exception and the first thing that may strike you, if you are of a ‘Horticultural Purist’ bent, is that, plant-wise, there is very little of the ‘natural’ in this garden.  Native species, being common and therefore unimpressive, were shunned in favour of exotic plants and trees.  The Magnolia Grandiflora was one of my favourites.

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The grandest Magnolia Grandiflora I’ve ever seen.

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‘Old Beauty’ takes on new meaning when you’re talking about a tree dating back 20 million years.

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But 20 million years ago the bee had yet to make an appearance.  How then were the flowers pollinated?

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Those gorgeous, thick petals aren’t just for our visual pleasure. They evolved to support the weight of the beetle, which preceded the bee.  As the beetles crawled over the petals in search of nectar, they inadvertently pollinated the flower.

The making of this garden was of course a delightful way for the queen to pass the time while the king was off killing animals and creating his own version of Versailles.  But the queen also had another, much less enlightened reason for wanting to create this garden. Sibling rivalry.

Over at Versailles her sister, Marie Antoinette, had created the extraordinary Petit Trianon.  (‘The Garden Gardeners Love to Hate, June 29, 2014.)  Queen Carolina was determined to create a garden at least as grand.  Maybe even grander.

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“Ruins’ of a Doric Temple.

In addition to ‘unnatural’ plant material, fake ponds and lakes were hugely popular.  And when the buried city of Pompeii was discovered, ruins also became fashionable.  All the best gardens had to have one – the more ruined-looking, nicely ruined that is, the better.

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Even when you know it’s all fake – even the lake is man-made – it’s hard to resist.

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Flowing through the garden are delightful streams, along which all sorts of lush, tropical ferns and arums grow.  Naturally.

If you come here looking for flowers, you’re probably going to be disappointed.  But I think you’d have to be pretty curmudgeonly not to be taken with the beauty, however ‘natural’, of Queen Carolina’s garden.  And, for the sake of argument, if you do insist on maintaining a curmudgeonly stance, what about the remarkable difference between this garden and the one right next to it?  The king and queen’s gardens were subject to the same climate, same growing conditions, same amount of land, same soil, same access to water and same financial resources.  Yet their gardens are vastly different.

It reminded me of neighbourhood gardens back home and how different they can be.  All you have to do is drive through a neighbourhood to see that, inevitably, we end up revealing something of ourselves in our gardens.  I am always amazed at how this happens.  We buy our plants at the same stores, endure the same vagaries of climate, battle with the same pests, etc. and yet, when we have, on occasion, stepped back and compared the results of our efforts with those of our neighbours, how many times have we shaken our heads in wonder at how we could have ended up with spaces that are so different?  All of which, of course, makes the annual ‘Garden Tour’ one of the biggest fundraisers of our local garden societies.  And that’s something not even a curmudgeon can take issue with.

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If the designer was really skilled, he might even manage a waterfall.

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One path leads to an ‘ancient’ Roman cryptoporticus.

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The covered gallery opens on to a pond lined with tropical plants and trees.

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On the far side of the pond, away from prying eyes, Venus bathing.

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But there is a tunnel that leads to the other side of the pond…

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… and another view of the bathing goddess.

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Was the crack part of the artifice or was it real?

On my way back through the gallery I happened to look up and saw a very large crack in the ceiling.  It may have been a very clever bit of mischief on the part of the designer, but I had no desire to linger in there.

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It really is a wonderful garden, but in the end I didn’t explore the whole thing. Call it a case of ‘the mind is strong, but the body weak’ if you like, but frankly, 63 acres is nothing to sneeze at.  Besides, in the back of my mind was the thought that every step I took in this garden added to that 3 kilometre walk back to the castle.

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Someone was going to have to get that ball.

While I had been meandering around the English Garden, the locals had arrived.  There were VIETATO – (PROHIBITED)- ‘No entry’ signs at the base of the waterfall, but not one black-uniformed, whistle-blowing guard like those I’d seen all over the gardens of Versailles.

The view from the top was, I was sure, spectacular so, like the locals, I squeezed through the hole in the fence and started clambering up the rocks.  For a while I ignored the odd looks I was getting from the young, extremely athletic youths all around me.  But then those looks and the fear of ending up sprawled on the ground, combined with the unpleasant awareness that I had at least four decades on all of them, gave me pause. Perhaps this was one experience I might legitimately forego.

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There  were lots of people – of all ages – in the garden now.

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Hanging out by the fountains. And not just touching – something that would get you a sharp whistle from the guards at Versailles – but sitting on the low walls.

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And picnicking and playing ball on the grassy areas. It may be called ‘Italy’s Mini Versailles’, but this is definitely not Versailles.

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