Il Limoneto is an agriturismo an hour’s drive south of Fontanarossa – ‘Red Fountain’ – the airport halfway down Sicily’s east coast, which was presumably named in honour of, or perhaps in a feeble attempt to placate Etna nearby. I could have stayed at ‘The Lemon Grove’ at the end of my trip, but I knew that jet-lag, getting used to the rental car and local driving habits would make even this fairly straightforward drive, for which I had printed off detailed directions before leaving home, enough of a challenge. As it turned out, shifting gears came back surprisingly quickly, but after almost three weeks, I still hadn’t got used to being passed on blind curves, drivers coming to a ‘stop’ when they were already half-way through the intersection, or having to back up narrow, twisting, mountain roads to make room for tour buses.
Of course I hadn’t counted on a fire in Fiumicino’s Terminal 3 a few days before my departure. It was still wreaking havoc when my flight arrived, causing massive flight delays, including my connecting flight to Catania. Nor had I counted on overgrown oleanders covering the road signs. By the time I arrived at Il Limoneto I was exhausted, maybe past exhausted. I rang the bell and Dora came out to meet me. Previous guests have written extensively about the warm welcome and solicitous care of the hosts at Il Limoneto. Their reviews were not exaggerated and during my stay I became very attached to Dora and her family. After she had shown me to my room, she offered to take me around the property – dinner would be served at 8 pm, not for another hour. This was the perfect antidote to lying down ‘just for a few minutes’, which would inevitably lead to my falling sound asleep and then I’d miss supper, wake up in the middle of the night starving, which would make me irritable and on top of everything else, I wouldn’t have made any progress adjusting to the local time. I grabbed my camera and off we went.
As we walked through the lemon grove, Dora told the story of how Il Limoneto came to be. Her grandfather had had four sons, three of which had followed the usual, parent-pleasing career paths – one was a doctor, the other an engineer and I forget now what the third one did. But the fourth did poorly at school, and, as time went by, showed no interest in applying himself to anything. Finally, one day Dora’s grandfather had had enough. He told the errant son he would give him a piece of property. He was free to do whatever he liked with the land, as long as he found a way to guadagnarsi (gwah-dun-yar-see) la vita . Earn his living. The son decided to grow lemons.
Another guest, an American who had joined us, had been taking lots of photos, while my camera dangled idly around my neck. I wasn’t worried. It always takes me a while to get adjusted, into the spirit of a place. When I feel the urge to take the first photo, I know a trip has really begun. This time, it happened when we came to the olive trees at the edge of the lemon grove.
On the way back, Dora pointed out something she knew we hadn’t noticed. One of the lemon trees had long thorns on some of its branches.
The next morning, before breakfast, I retraced the route we had taken the evening before.
In one area, each tree had its own sprinkler, whirling around half-way up the trunk. Dora had told us they called them baffi (moustaches).
Along the east side of the property was a remarkable, mortarless stone wall. So beautiful to look at, walls like this have become a source of concern to their owners, as the craftsmen who built and maintained them die off, with no young people interested in replacing them. On the other side of the wall was an enormous field of artichokes. I thought the dark, purplish heads lit by the early morning sun were stunning.
After breakfast I packed up all my things and followed Dora in my car to another agriturismo a kilometre down the road where I would be staying that night.
When you are trying to book a room, one of the many words you hope to see in the reply to your query is lieta (lee-ay-tuh). Happy, pleased. As in “We are pleased to inform you that…” Of the many words you do not want to see are purtroppo (poor-trope-poe), always a harbinger of bad news and al completo. In Dora’s reply to my first email, in which I had requested a room for four nights, data d’arrivo il 13 maggio, she had used all three. First of all she was lieta to learn I was interested in staying at the Limoneto. Purtroppo, she continued, the night of the 14, they were al completo. Full. Perhaps I could change my dates.
In the flurry of emails that followed, it was clear that I had my mind set on spending time at Il Limoneto and Dora was equally determined to find a solution. Which she did, talking the owner of Case Damma into accepting a guest, in caso eccezionale, for just one night.
After Dora left, it was still early, so I decided to check out the Giardino Storico before setting out for the day’s adventures.
That evening, I had just settled down on the terrace with a glass of white wine, when Carmelo, the owner, came up to me. Having learned that I was interested in gardens – one notion I’ve been disabused of over the years is that no-one is watching as I wander around the places I stay at – he insisted on giving me a private visita guidata of the giardino storico. I thanked him – it was ‘molto gentile‘ (jen-tee-lay), but I knew it was a busy time of day at an agriturismo and besides, I had already visited the garden that morning. He insisted. There were things I hadn’t seen. There was no point getting in a huff; besides, in Italian it sounded a lot more like a lovely invitation than a put-down of my observational skills. I left my wine to bake in the sun and followed him.
Of course he was right. The first thing he pointed out was the carruba. It was such an enormous specimen I hadn’t even noticed all the seed pods dangling high above me. In ancient times, tribes of the Middle East had discovered that the seeds of the Ceratonia, from the Greek keratin, had a remarkable, and useful characteristic – uniform weight – and for centuries had used the carats to weigh gemstones and precious metals. Knowing the story of those seeds helped me save face. Somewhat. Wondering what else I had missed, I followed him.
He pointed out several other plants of interest, various citrus trees and a lovely melograno that I had managed to notice on my own.
He led me over to the centuries-old olive trees I had admired, and taken so many photos of that morning and showed me where, during World War II, the locals had hidden their guns in a hollow of the ancient tree. Then – I could sense we had reached the highlight of the tour – he pointed out something else.
Cascading around the trunk of one of the olive trees were the branches of what was obviously a fig tree. So where, he asked, not quite gloating, was the fig tree? This was obviously a trick question, but he had been such a wonderful and knowledgeable guide so far, it seemed only fair on my part to at least make a show of looking around, until he would tell me what was up. Well, what was up, was that somehow, who knows when, a fig tree had taken root in centre of the olive tree. Sadly, as the fig grew, it started to split the trunk of its host, which would, inevitably, die.
I thanked Carmelo for the tour and went back to my no longer cool wine on the terrace.
The next morning, as lovely as my short stay at Case Damma had been, I was glad to drive back to Il Limoneto and get settled again in ‘my’ room.
A few days later, when I had to leave Il Limoneto for good, I was wishing I had booked a longer stay. Perhaps Dora was feeling something similar. I was on my way to the car after Arrivederci‘s and kisses to her and her family, when I heard her call out to me, ‘La Feijoa ha fiorito!’ I had first seen this unusual flower in the Giardino Ravino on the island of Ischia (Leaving Room for a Little Whimsy, Jan. 19, 2014) and had only learned its name a few days earlier at Case Damma. After showing me around the garden, Carmelo had handed me an enormous binder of all the plants in the garden, including la Feijoa.
I retraced my steps to where Dora was standing and sure enough, the strange flower was blooming. I took a few photos and then again we wished each other Arrivederci!
Next – The Garden Where Once There Was Nothing.