Where Fooling the Eye is a Community Endeavour


Early morning in the harbour of Santa Margherita Ligure.

This week’s post is a bit later than usual because I got side-tracked by one of those questions that it’s best not to ask oneself while trying to get on the subway during rush hour.  ‘What makes us human?’  You can spend a lot of time meandering around the Internet on this one.  Some have suggested it’s language, but the more we learn about how animals communicate – chimpanzees and gorillas in particular – the less satisfying this theory becomes.  Maybe it’s our curiosity.  After all, as John Lloyd points out, we are “the only species on earth that is concerned about things that don’t directly concern our survival or that of our offspring (…) Porcupines do not look up at the night sky and wonder what all the sparkly bits are.” (Newstatesman, Cultural Capital, Aug. 1, 2014).

And then there is our innate and equally ‘useless’ sense of humour.  What other creature laughs the way we do?  Or has the capacity – some more than others – to take pleasure in being fooled? What got me going on all this was a painting technique that fascinates and entertains us – precisely because we know it is fooling us.  I’m talking about trompe l’oeil.


Fresco in the Hall of Perspectives, Villa Farnesina, Rome. Only the cordon in front of the pillars is real.

Artists have been ‘fooling our eye’ since antiquity.  In the 5th century B.C. – or so the story goes – there was a great rivalry between two painters – Zeuxis, who lived in southern Italy and Parrhasius in Athens.  Eventually they decided to hold a competition.  I have never understood how this can possibly be a meaningful way to determine the relative merits of a work of art, but in any event the two painters got to work.  When Zeuxis, who finished first, unveiled his painting of a bunch of grapes, it was so life-like a couple of birds flew down and started pecking at it.  A few days later Parrhasius invited Zeuxis over to look at his painting which was behind a tattered curtain at the back of his study.  Unlike us, Zeuxis had never watched Looney Tunes, so he had no idea what was coming.  He went over to the painting and reached to pull back the curtain, but of course he couldn’t because it was part of the painting.  Pliny the Elder, who recorded the story, doesn’t mention whether Zeuxis laughed or not, but I think it’s fair to say that only someone who had a pretty good sense of humour would have been able to accept the defeat as graciously as Zeuxis.  While he had deceived only the birds, Zeuxis remarked, Parrhasius had deceived him.


The ceiling of a room in Villa Farnese, Caprarola, is held up by trompe l’oeil columns.  The figures next to the columns seem on the verge of stepping out of the frames.

In more recent times there is the ‘climbing up the wall’ scene in the 1950’s musical, ‘Singin’ in the Rain’.  And on a less high-brow note, generations of little children – and some big ones still – have laughed themselves silly watching Looney Tunes villain, Wile E. Coyote, get foiled time and again by trompe l’oeil of his own making.  Remember the one where Road Runner races through the tunnel the coyote has painted on a mountain wall?  How did we know, even when we were only 4 or 5, that when the coyote chased after the bird he would instead crash into the ‘tunnel’?

And what does all this have to do with my last day in Santa Margherita di Ligure?  Well, I was off to visit a place where trompe l’oeil was not just for the private interiors of a wealthy few.  In Camogli the locals had covered the façades of their homes with the ‘fool your eye’ technique.   Windows were their specialty.  There were also some in SML.


Nostra Signora della Rosa (Our Lady of the Rose), SML’s baroque cathedral.  No trompe l’oeil here.


The shadow of the cathedral moves across the façades – part real, part trompe l’oeil –  encircling Piazza Caprera.


Next to the cathedral, not just windows, but balustrades and cornices and mouldings have been painted up one side of a building.


Little clothing lines strung below the windows are a dead give-away. Pillows too.

My favourite was along Via Palestro, the pedestrian zone off Piazza Caprera.  The balconies are real and so are (most of) the windows.


The mouldings and cornices and statues are all painted, but beyond that it’s not always easy to tell what’s real and what’s an illusion.

The window with the woman looking out from behind the half-closed shutter is obviously trompe l’oeil, as are the two below it.  But what about the window to the right of the woman?

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Or the window on the fake bit of wall at the top?  Or the one to the right below it?

Camogli is 9 km from SML. Four minutes by train, 26 minutes by bus.  Since there was no way I was getting back into my car until I absolutely had to,  I decided to splurge on the bus, which at 1,80€ was almost double the price of the train.  But for the extra 80 centesimi (about $1.20 Cdn) I’d get to see the countryside, something that can be a bit hit and miss (bad metaphor there) when I’m behind the wheel.  I decided to take the 10:15 bus.  This would give me just enough time to check out the gardens of Villa Durazzo, a short walk from my hotel.


No trompe l’oeil windows at the Hotel Mediterraneo.


Try saying that one quickly a couple of times.  ‘Zdrewch-choh-lay-voh-lee’.

According to the guide visitors are given the interior is elaborately decorated with works from the 17th and 18th century Genoese School – Genova is only 30 km west of here – Murano chandeliers, frescoes and lots of trompe l’oeil. But although a few gardeners were already at work, the villa didn’t look open.  Besides I didn’t want to miss my bus.


Villa Durazzo, 17th century. I’m pretty sure all those windows are real.


Beyond the fountain, the 18th century Villa San Giacomo. Like la Cervara, it makes for a rather lovely setting for wedding receptions.


Why do turtles do this?


The Tropics meet Italian Renaissance. You don’t often see Cycads and palm trees bordered by boxwood hedges.

After a quick look around – it wasn’t as large as I had expected, especially given the Grandi Giardini Italiani designation – I headed for the bus stop.  On the way down I passed by the Chiesa di Sant’Erasmo.  In the little piazza in front of the church was one of the mosaics made of black and white ciottoli (choht-toe-lee) that decorate church squares and the gardens of private villas throughout Liguria.   They’re called risseu, a word in Genovese dialect.  If you think of the French word for ‘blue’ – bleu – and then exchange the ‘bl’ for ‘rees’ you’ll be pretty close to how it’s pronounced.  That mix of French and Italian is what makes scholars believe it is derived from the French ruisseau, meaning stream, which is where many of the pebbles for the mosaics are gathered.


A fitting subject for a risseu at the entrance to a church dedicated to the patron saint of sailors. The original inspiration for the mosaics may have been the Greek and Roman mosaics the merchants of Genoa would have seen as they travelled around the Mediterranean.

At the bottom of the hill was a sombre reminder of less happy times.


From now on only the wing of my dream will beat.

The 1,80€ I paid for the bus ride was money well spent.  I got a seat up front with a great view of the countryside and of the stretch of the SS1 I would have to take to get to the highway.  The ride also cleared up something that had been stewing in the back of my mind.  Instead of pointing north towards Rapallo, which is the direction I’d come from when I arrived, all the signs I’d seen for the route out of SML pointed west towards Camogli.  I had a bad feeling about those signs.   I’d already been taken in by a few ‘How to travel the most kilometres possible to get to your destination’  signs and had not enjoyed the experience.  The best route back up to the Lake District was obviously to retrace my steps.  Go back the way I’d come.  But I hadn’t taken into account the mountains.  Because of them, the on-ramp for travellers heading west had to be located quite a few kilometres  west of the off-ramp I’d taken into SML.

The other unexpected benefit of taking the bus was the chance to observe the locals.  Especially what happened when two anziane – quintessentially sweet, little old lady types – boarded the bus.   One of them, with her bright blue outfit, cheery, red lipstick and short, curly hair, looked especially sweet and delicate.  They both carried rather large shopping bags, which made getting up onto the bus a bit of a struggle. By the time the driver set off again the first one was comfortably sitting down – after having first ‘validated’ her ticket.   Italian bus drivers are not involved in the payment process.  Presumably they already have enough to do just driving on Italy’s roads.  Typically you buy your ticket at a Tabaccheria (!?) or a news stand and then it is your responsibility to insert your ticket into a little machine which date-stamps it, thus rendering you legally entitled to ride the bus.  It is so different from our system that I have occasionally realized to my horror – usually on a train because there you have to validate your ticket BEFORE you board the train – that I have forgotten to do the validating thing, which, if a ‘Controllore‘ happens to come by, can result in a huge fine.  In any event, we were already lurching our way down the mountain – they had boarded the bus on the outskirts of Camogli, just before the road starts its long, winding descent to sea level – when the second anziana, the delicate one, reached the date-stamping machine.  Struggling to hold on to her bag and a pole for support, she dutifully inserted her ticket into the machine.  Nothing happened.  As we careened around another curve she tried a couple more times.  Still nothing.  Clearly exasperated, she muttered ‘Uffa’ (which sounds a lot like OOFA, the acronym for the Official Old Farts Alliance) and looked around as if seeking some kind of divine intervention. Since none was forthcoming she inserted her ticket again. This time, when nothing happened, instead of removing her ticket she smacked the machine, which still remained stubbornly silent.  Then I watched in disbelief as the sweet little old lady hauled off and gave it a good whack.  A quiet, whirring sound followed.  She sat down next to her friend and the two of them chatted amiably for the rest of the trip.


First glimpse of Camogli. The only clue that this is September and not July or August is the relatively small number of people on the beach.

I can never get used to the way a short plane ride or a couple hour drive can transport us from a cold, rainy – or snowy – place to a hot, sun-filled one.  It was such a pleasure after all the rain on Lake Maggiore to walk along the beach, the sun on my back and the sound of the gentle waves.  Most of the beach-goers were at the far end, close to Camogli’s Basilicata della Santa Maria Assunta, which had started off as a small chapel for the medieval Drogonara Castle it is next to.


A seaside basilica.


What friends are for. It would have been hard work to push that wheelchair over the rocky beach.

In addition to the trompe l’oeil, I also wanted to have a look at the Benedictine abbey that, thanks to its strong ties to the powerful Doria family, had played an important role in the downfall of La Cervara, the Benedictine abbey we looked at in last week’s post.  L’Abbazia di San Fruttuoso is a short ferry ride from Camogli.  The last time I had been here, the seas were so rough none of the boats were leaving the shelter of the harbour.  There wasn’t a dark cloud in the sky and just a gentle warm breeze, but I wasn’t taking any chances.  I headed for the harbour to check the ferry schedule.  As luck would have it, one of the ferries was just about to set out.


Camogli’s tiny, crowded harbour.


From the sea it looks as if the castle and the basilica are melded into the rock.


The western coast of the promontory is less built up, but just as beautiful.

I have visited quite a few Benedictine abbeys over the years, in Italy and in France.  They are easily recognized for their simple, elegant beauty and the quiet, serene atmosphere that surrounds them.  But as we rounded the point, I saw not serenity but, as if they were oozing out of the abbey’s lower arcades, hordes of beach-goers.


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I didn’t remember having read anything about a beach scene. The Benedictine monks must be rolling in their graves.


I went for a little walk around the other side of the bay…


…and then went back to the landing to wait for the next ferry back to Camogli.

Back in Camogli I climbed one of the staircases that lead to the town’s main road.  Via XX Settembre runs parallel to the shore from the harbour to the east end of town, which means it will take you about ten minutes to walk its entire length.  That is, if you don’t stop to gawk at the façades which are covered with some of the town’s most elaborate trompe l’oeil.


Occasional glimpses of the sea might slow you down too.


On one building the Cardinal Virtues. From the Latin cardo meaning hinge, these are the virtues on which all others turn. Are the statues meant to inspire moral rectitude in the otherwise wayward townsfolk?


Placing Columbus right up there with Zeus was a nice gesture, but the native of Genova had to go to Spain to find support for his venture to the New World.


Do the owners of different floors get together to discuss the designs for their building?


This was a tricky one. The balustrades are real, as are the shutters. The only thing that gives away the mouldings are the rust lines from the windows above.


A six-storey story?


A gigantic ‘Where’s Waldo’.

All this ‘eye fooling’ was surprisingly engaging.  But after a while there was no fooling around about the noises my stomach was making.  I headed down to the beach to a lovely little trattoria I had seen earlier.


Lunch. Fritto misto e un po’ di vino bianco 


… with a view.

Next:  Heading back up to the Lake District



From One Horticultural Extreme to the Other

How far are you willing to go to visit a garden?  It’s a question that comes up whenever I’m planning a trip.  After Lake Maggiore the obvious next place to visit was Lake Como, a fairly short drive to the east.  Instead, I was going to Santa Margherita Ligure, 250 km to the south.


Approaching the landing in Santa Margherita Ligure.

For many tourists SML is an attractive base for exploring the Cinque Terre.  It has a much larger selection of hotels and restaurants than the ‘5 Lands’ and is only an hour’s journey by boat or by train away.  But since this trip was (ostensibly) all about Italy’s lake district, apart from indulging a longing for the Mediterranean, what was I doing here?

A few kilometres down the road from SML was a garden – un giardino monumentale – the only one of its kind in all of Liguria.  Somehow, despite its monumental nature and despite having been to the region several times, even on one occasion passing within shouting distance of the garden, I had never heard of it before.


Continue along the road that passes by the garden and you’ll reach Portofino. Gorgeous, even on a stormy day.

The garden is on the site of what was originally a Benedictine abbey – l’Abbazia di San Girolamo – confusingly also known as l’Abbazia della Cervara.   San Girolamo was easy – Saint Jermone, the saint the abbey must have been dedicated to, but Cervara meant nothing to me.  That’s because if I ever knew any medieval Latin, it’s long faded into the abyss.  During the Middle Ages the hills around Portofino and the abbey were covered in thick forests – silvas in Latin – and the area was called Silvaria. Later as Latin faded, Silvaria was replaced by the Italian Cervara from cervo, the deer that used to roam those forests.

In 2012 the garden was awarded first prize by the Grandi Giardini Italiani (Great Italian Gardens) in recognition of  il più alto livello di manutenzione, buon governo e cura di un giardino visitabile.  (the highest level of maintenance, good management and care of a visitabile garden  – ie. one that is open to the public).


A plaque at the entrance celebrates the abbey’s first prize win in 2012.  If you’d like to know more about GGI, check out their website or my post ‘Interesting but is it a Garden? ( June 8/14)

As I inched my way up the road to the abbey I wondered if this might be the most stressful bit of road I had ever driven along.  Although short, it was neither waterproof nor indifferent, which to my knowledge are still the accepted meanings for ‘impervious’.  Al contrario, it was, as described in the original Italian version, impervio – impossibile o difficile da transitare. (impossible or difficult to cross).   The infelicitous translation is in the introduction to the book which, after a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing, I purchased before leaving the abbey.


Sometimes, even when they haven’t been photoshopped, photos lie.  This one for example, which I took on the ferry to Portofino, gives a totally false impression of what is involved in getting up to the abbey. Take my advice.  Don’t even think of driving up there!

A closer read of the expensive – and heavy – book later on only added to my misgivings about buying it. For when I finally arrived at the abbey gate, nerves in tatters,  I had been greeted not with the amore e piacere described in the intro, but by a young man sternly telling me it was not permesso to park up there.  My car was in the middle of the road blocking anyone from going in or out.  Normally I would have pulled over, but since there was only a foot, maybe a foot and a half, on either side of me, I didn’t see the point.  I yanked up the emergency brake, turned off the car and got out. Then, showing what I thought was remarkable self-restraint, instead of telling the young man about the 250 km drive I had just endured, the sole purpose of which was to visit the garden behind the gate, I limited myself to advising him – perhaps rather forcefully – that a certain Signora Betty Saccaro had sent me an email in which she had confirmed that a prenotazione had been made in my name for a garden tour AND THAT I WOULD BE ARRIVING IN MACCHINA  (by car).   Dunque (accordingly), since, as he was well aware, there was not a single parking spot between the abbey and Santa Margherita Ligure, 3 km away, it was clear where my car was going to be parked.

Somewhat taken aback, but not convinced, he gestured for me to follow him to the reception desk.  Five minutes later, feeling absurdly triumphant, I drove my car through the open gate.

The tour started in the cloister.


Classic Benedictine.  Simple, elegant and – after the guide asked us to keep our voices down in keeping with the (previous) nature of the building – quiet.


In the centre of the cloister, a well, the life blood of all medieval abbeys.

From the cloister, instead of taking us out in the garden, the guide led us into the abbey – after advising us that because it was private property, photos of the interior were proibito.  Even senza flash (without flash.)  I found this prohibition especially annoying when we were in the chapel. I would have loved to take a photo of the columns.  They were made of brick.  No fancy marble for the Benedictines.   But then, notwithstanding vows of poverty and simplicity, the monks had covered the brick columns with plaster and painted them to look like marble.  Another great shot would have been the empty space above the altar where a 16th century polyptych once hung.  One of the casualties of the abbey’s tumultuous history, it was disassembled long ago and the panels scattered around the world – albeit in some rather prestigious locales – four in the Musei di Strada Nuova in Genoa, one in the Louvre and two in the ‘Met’.

On the website, the focus is on the garden.  The tour is 50 minutes long.  I had assumed we would be spending those 50 minutes touring the garden.  I was wrong.   The tour was fascinating and the guide’s comments were a lovely blend of historical events and intriguing anecdotes.  Illustrious guests have included Petrarca, St. Catherine of Siena, Pope Gregory XI, François I – although the French king was actually a prisoner not a guest – and more recently, Guglielmo Marconi and Rod Stewart who was married here.

But when we hit the 30-minute mark and we were still in the Great Hall, non stavo più nella pelle.  I couldn’t stay in my skin.  Finally, with less than 15 minutes left, we entered the garden.


A lovely place to linger. If only…

I’m not much of a shopper, but I’ve heard stories about what happens when stores put on really big sales, which leads me to suspect that when I was finally unleashed into the garden I had a lot in common with the frenzied shoppers who hit those sales.  It didn’t help that the guide kept telling us to stick together – who wants a bunch of photos full of people’s backsides and other body parts? – and that we had to be out of the garden by ten to the hour so she could start the next tour.  Hopefully my frenzied state of mind as I rushed around the garden is not reflected in the photos.


A Renaissance garden fra terra e mare. Between land and the sea.

Evan as I rushed around I couldn’t help noticing that the garden followed all the ‘rules’ Leon Battista Alberti had set out in his 15th century treatise on garden design – elevated location, formal boxwood hedges, walkways, pergolas, views.  (The First Renaissance Garden – Part II – Villa Petraia, Sept. 22, 2013)


Along the south side of the garden was a lovely terrace…


…with even lovelier views. In the distance the promontory of Portofino.

What didn’t occur to me until later was that this formal Renaissance style garden and the Baroque extravaganza I’d just seen on Isola Bella had a rather important point in common.  The layout.  Both gardens were in the shape of a prow.  Because of the way the coastline curved at Cervara, the terraces were surrounded by water on three sides.


South side of the ‘prow’.


Rare, pink capers grow along one of the terrace walls.



Perennial borders have been planted for year-round colour.


Geometrically clipped boxwood hedges surround a Baroque fountain.

The tour ended in the Wisteria Courtyard, named for a centuries-old wisteria.


Spectacular, when planted in the right place.


Anyone who has ever had a garage or shed pulled down by a wisteria can relate to this.

In September of course there wasn’t a flower to be seen, so to give visitors an idea of what it was like in full bloom or – depending on your mood, what we were missing – or maybe to entice us to purchase it – the guide book and been left open at a gorgeous, double-page photo.


Despite the plexiglass and poor light, the wisteria was obviously a spectacular sight when in bloom.


A few wisteria seed pods still cling to the enormous vine.  The mountains across the bay are part of the the Cinque Terre chain.

As I was paying for the guide book at the end of the tour,  I mentioned to the receptionist how difficile I had found the drive up to the abbey.  Yes, she agreed, even though she went  up and down it everyday – on a motorino – she still found it extremely stressante.  Surprised that they didn’t do anything about a road that even the locals found stressful, I asked how visitors usually got there.  She looked at me for a moment – oh no,  I thought, I have just asked  another ‘guard dog’ question.  It turns out that most visitors don’t drive 250 km straight to the garden.  They first get nicely settled into their hotel in  SML and from there they set out for the garden a piedi.  On foot.

One foot on the clutch, and the other on the brake, I slithered down the road and eventually – after an equally hair-raising drive into SML – it was a Sunday, the only day tours were offered at the abbey – and the narrow, coast road was clogged with pedestrians and cyclists – I eventually drove into the remarkably small area that passed for the parking lot of my hotel.  The manager wasn’t too happy with where I had left my car – essentially blocking anyone who was daft enough to want to get out that day.  Once he understood that I was either incapable of seeing or unwilling to drive into the obvious remaining spot he came out and gave me a hand.  Every time I passed my car on my way in and out of the hotel I breathed a sign of relief that I didn’t have to get behind the wheel again. Not yet.


View of coast from Portofino.  On my previous visit the weather had been molto brutto.

I had left Stresa so early that I had arrived in time to join the 11 am tour of the abbey, which gave me enough time to have a lovely lunch before boarding the ferry to Portofino.


Some places are meant to be seen when the weather is bello.


Amidst the luxury yachts these two simple boats seemed lost.

Having blown the day’s budget on the abbey’s book and not willing to blow the next day’s budget on a drink, no matter how charming the setting, I walked past the high-end caffès and restaurants that line the tiny harbour and headed for a garden that I had known about before, but had decided not to visit.


Perhaps my views on gardens have changed over the years.  I certainly try very hard nowadays to keep an open mind.  Suspend judgment.  Keep those eyebrows steady, no matter how outlandish the sight in front of me.


I still couldn’t help shaking my head when I arrived at Portofino’s Museo del Parco and saw those pink creatures again. But this time I was determined to have a look.


Perhaps I should have known what to expect. After all, the Monumental Sculptures do get top billing.

The ‘garden’ was probably about the same size as the gardens of la Cervara.  It was difficult to tell with all the paths meandering up the hillside.  Not to mention the sculture monumentali along the way.


There was one sculpture I could at least understand.  That is, after I’d read the story on the plaque next to it.


The man who planted trees.


The artist was inspired by Jean Giono’s autobiography ‘L’Homme qui plantait des arbres’, the story of the author’s encounter with Elzérard Bouffier, a hermit who spent the second half of his life planting trees in the Alps of Provence in southern France.  In the first three years alone he planted 100,000 trees, which would in time bring back to life a region that had become desert-like and inhospitable because of deforestation centuries earlier.  “If we meet a man whose life work is driven solely by generosity and who has managed to leave evidence of his efforts, we are, without a shadow of a doubt, in the presence of an unforgettable human being.”


Definitely not your ‘garden variety’ garden.

Eyebrows twitching all over the place, I was determined to let my thoughts settle a bit before I came to any definitive position.  They say a good walk is great for sorting out our mental muddles.  A climb up the hill next to the garden would be just the thing.


Portofino’s promontory reminded me of Tuscany.


The long, steep climb got my heart pumping and the views were great.  There was even a wedding in the little chapel on top.


Newlyweds’ limo, Portofino style.


As for what to make of the ‘garden’, I still haven’t made up my mind.


Next – one more day on the coast before heading back up to the lake district


One Man’s Dream Garden

‘A garden doesn’t need to be big, but it should be the realization of one’s dream.’  So said the man who created the gardens of Villa Taranto on Lake Maggiore. My plan was to visit that garden the day after touring Isola Bella and Isola Madre.  Maybe someone else would have found a way to squeeze all three into one day, but taking a cue from ‘Slow Food’ and all the other slow movements out there nowadays, I like to take my time when I visit a garden, and given the shorter opening hours and limited fall ferry schedule, I felt it would be better to leave Villa Taranto for the following day.  And it might have been better – if it hadn’t rained and if I hadn’t changed my original plans because of a big, glossy pamphlet at the ferry landing in Stresa.


The ‘Lago Maggiore Express’ promised an unforgettable, round-trip journey of the lake by train and by boat.   Highlights included a ride on the narrow gauge railway through the scenic Centovalli, a stop-over in Locarno, Switzerland and enchanting views of the lake on the return trip by ferry.  The owner of the B&B I was staying in said lots of his guests had taken the trip and loved it. It was an all-day excursion, departing from the train station in Stresa at  9:38 a.m. and returning to the ferry landing at 7:15 p.m.   I only had one more day in the area.  What would be the best way to spend that day?  Go back to a garden I had already visited, the easy, safe choice – or  take a chance on an excursion to an area I had never been to before, an excursion that would take me through the countryside west of Lake Maggiore and  into the Italian part of Switzerland and past the picturesque villages along the northern shores of  of Lake Maggiore.  Even for someone who loves gardens, it wasn’t much of a choice.


And there was one more thing.  From Stresa it was a 40-minute ride on the Ferrovia Statale, the modern, state-run railway, (love the name – ferro means ‘iron’ and via means ‘road’) to the mountain village where we would transfer to the narrow gauge train that would take us to Locarno.  I was delighted to see that we had over an hour before the ancient train departed.  This meant I would have time for a much-needed, mid-morning cappuccino (a real one, not the watery stuff they served on the train) and to explore the village.  I’m always up for meandering along the cobblestone alleyways of Italy’s charming, medieval centres, but that wasn’t why I was  keen on exploring this particular village.  It was its name.


Beyond the flags at the train station in Locarno, the mountains of the Centovalli (Hundred Valleys).

I have never quite got over my aversion to talking on the phone in Italy.  In addition to the fact that, as everyone knows, Italians speak molto rapidamente and you don’t have any visual clues to help fill in what you miss, there is another hurdle, totally unrelated to your  proficiency – or not – in Italian.  You’re going to have to learn the names of all the major, and some minor, Italian cities.

Unlike us English speakers, who sensibly use Alpha, Bravo, Charlie etc. when spelling out names over the phone, Italians use the names of their cities – Ancona, Bologna, Como.  Some of them are easy – ‘R’ for Roma,  ‘N’ for Napoli, ‘M’ for Milano and ‘F’ for Florence where I lived.  But not all the letters have a well-known city for this spelling system, so you end up with obscure towns like ‘E’ for Empoli and ‘I’ for Imola.   To complicate things even further, strong, regional loyalties lead to disagreements about which city represents which letter.  For Sicilians there is no question that ‘P’ is for Palermo, but in the north, you may hear Padova or Pisa. This geographical spelling system obviously takes a bit of work, but once you get used to it, it’s actually kind of fun.   My favourite city letter of all was ‘D’ for Domodossola (doh-moh-dos-soh-lah), the name of the mountain village we would be stopping in.


Locarno’s Piazza Grande.

As it turned out, due to engine problems, the train crawled its way to Domodossola, leaving us barely enough time to make our connection.  (Making the excrutiatingly slow ride even worse was the fact that while the delay was periodically announced – in Italian, English and German – the exact nature of those engine problems was never disclosed.)  In addition to missing out on my favourite ‘spelling village’, the much-lauded journey through the Centovalli was, if anything, even worse than the train ride to Domodossola.  The narrow, hard seats were so tightly jammed together it was impossible not to be constantly bumping knees and the views – at least what you could see of the views through the filthy windows – were, frankly, boring.  No photos of that two-hour ordeal.  On the positive side, the little old train huffed and puffed its way through the mountains, at some point crossing the border into Switzerland – we had been given multiple warnings about bringing our passports, but never needed them – and arrived right on schedule in Locarno where the sun was still shining and as luck would have it, the second day of a food and wine festival was in progress.   Wonderful!  I was starving.


There was just one problem.  It had somehow slipped my mind that unlike all the countries around it – France, Germany, Austria and of course Italy – Switzerland had stubbornly (perversely?) held on to its own currency, the Swiss Franc.  All I had were euros.  Feeling foolish and annoyed and in no mood to join the long line of people at the currency booth by the station I headed for the Tourist Office.  At the very least I wouldn’t spend my time in Locarno hungry and lost.

While I waited for the young woman at the counter to finish helping the visitor ahead of me, I pondered not what I would say to her, but in what language. She and the visitor were both rattling away in German.   When I first took up Italian years ago, that was the end of German for me. (Although I was surprised, as I travelled around northern Italy, which was full of German tourists this fall, by how much I could still understand.  No wonder we start to have problems remembering things at a certain age – there’s too much stuff in there.)  In the end, I decided I would start off in Italian.  Even though so many Europeans have an annoying ability to speak perfect English, it still makes me feel lazy.   So when it was my turn, I very politely asked what turned out to be a very stupid question – ‘Buon giorno.  Parla italiano?’   Locarno is the capital of the canton of Ticino.  Italian is the official language of Ticino.  She smiled – very generously it seemed to me, given the ignorance of her country my question had revealed.  I’m not sure I would have been so magnanimous if confronted with one of those tourists who come to Toronto in July and want to know where the snow is.  When I got over my embarrassment I asked her for a piantina, a map of the city.  I wanted to explore Locarno, but I didn’t want to get lost and I certainly didn’t want to miss the 16.15 ferry back to Stresa.  She was so simpatica despite my initial blunder I decided to also confess to her my money dilemma.  She smiled again.  Apparently I wasn’t the first.  No problem.  All I had to do was have a coffee at the restaurant which was conveniently attached to the Tourist Office and pay for it with a big euro note.  I would get my change in Swiss francs.  By this point I was more in the mood for a glass of wine than a coffee so I ordered ‘un bicchiere di vino bianco, per favore’, although it still felt weird speaking Italian in what I’d always thought was a mostly German-speaking country.   When it came time to pay, I gave the waiter a 20 euro note (the wine was 5 CHF).  Barely skipping a beat he handed me back 15 CHF.  Since I didn’t have a clue what the exchange rate was, I had no way of knowing if I had just been ripped off or not, but I didn’t think so.  Out of curiosity, when I got home I looked up the exchange rate and the good feeling I’d had about the place was confirmed.  The rate was 1 CHF to .93 €.


Waiting to be served at the station of Il Ristorante La Cittadella.

I headed over to the Manifestazione gastronomica to see what I could get with my 15 francs.  There were a couple of options.  Ten restaurants were participating in the festival. For 44 francs you could indulge in all ten stations.  Too much food – and wine – for me.  Or you  could buy single tickets.  I thought three would be nice – two ‘mains’ and one dessert – but the single tickets were 8 CHF and I only had 15.  I explained my predicament.  Again, no problem.  If I gave the ticket seller all my Swiss francs and an additional 10 euros he would give me three tickets.  In light of the limited time I had and the convenience of this banking operation, it struck me as a deal worth doing.

I went up and down the alleys looking at the various stations.  Finally I chose one that offered what I considered typical Swiss fare – meat, potatoes and another vegetable and a terrific red wine.  It was delicious, but even better for my tastes, was what the chef of the Ristorante Cittadella had prepared for his station – which, by the way, the people at the first station, showing what struck me as great camaraderie, had encouraged me to try.


Fried calamari, smoked salmon and a fish salad. And a glass of the local white wine. Absolutely delicious.

I took my plate and glass of wine and sat down on the church steps opposite the Cittadella station. While I sat there enjoying the food and watching the goings-on I overheard one of the station attendants muttering something about ‘Peggio di Genova.’  (Worse than Genova.)  Genova was hundreds of miles to the south.  In Italy.  What was this Swiss fellow talking about?  Abandoning my usual Canadian reserve – something that  is astonishingly easy to do in Italian – I stopped him as he went by me carrying a tray full of dirty dishes.  Scusi… He gave me a startled look – admittedly it was not the kind of question one would usually expect from a tourist – and then burst out laughing.  The turnout and the amount of money people were spending, he explained, had not been as good as they had hoped and the genovesi had a reputation for being notorious tight-wads.  Maybe the ties to Italy in this part of Switzerland weren’t just linguistic.


I used my third ticket at the Pasticceria Marnin, Locarno’s award-winning pastry shop.  I was given a tray on which a trio of decadent mousses and a glass of Prosecco in a real, long-stemmed glass were elegantly, but precariously balanced.

The extraordinary lunch more than made up for the disappointing train ride.  Now I was looking forward to the boat ride back to Stresa.  The views were sure to be at least as enchanting as those I’d seen on the short ferry rides between Isola Bella and Isola Madre.  And they probably are.  If you can see them.


Looking north from the landing in Locarno. The last of the clear blue skies and fluffy white clouds.

It started to drizzle as we boarded the boat.  I took a few photos, but when it started to pour I put my camera away and joined the rest of the downcast passengers inside the cabin.  I thought about all the hard-working, energetic people hosting the festival.  They were probably feeling pretty downcast too.



A moment of sunshine and a faint double rainbow.

By the time we reached Verbania, the last stop before Stresa the rain had stopped. But the rough waters made getting off the boat treacherous, especially for some of the older passengers.


As we passed by Isola Bella, only the unicorn and a few statues on the ‘prow’ were still visible in the fading light.


Although I didn’t get to see Villa Taranto on this trip, I thought it might be worthwhile to give you an idea of what the gardens are like.  Così (coh-zee), which is a kind of drawn-out ‘So-o-o’ – with some reservations – here are the few photos I have, all taken on an old camera and before I really got into visiting gardens.  Just keep in mind that there is a lot more to the garden. And one more thing – if you want to see more and decide to have a look at the website, don’t be put off by the English page, where the world-wide ‘notoriety’ of the plants is extolled and ‘hasty’ visitors are not ‘exonerated’ from spending less than a couple of years exploring the gardens.  It really is a lovely garden.


On the way to the landing at Villa Taranto, glimpses of enchanting villas along the shore. 

In 1931  a Scotsman, Capt. Neil McEacharn, was on the train heading home from his annual sojourn in Venice – he was obviously a rather wealthy Scotsman –  saw an ad in the real estate section of The Times.  A villa on Lake Maggiore was for sale.   I doubt few of us haven’t whiled away an hour or so drooling over real estate ads for villas in exotic places and dreamed of the life we would lead in such places.  Unlike us, the Captain didn’t waste dreaming of such a life.  He just jumped off the train at Pallanza, the nearest station to the villa, put in an offer and began to create his dream garden.  When completed in 1940 – shortly before Italy entered World War II – it was not only beautiful, but at 16 hectares, also enormous. (1 hectare = approx. 2.5 acres)


His praise of the small garden notwithstanding, there was nothing small about what McEacharn intended to do.  Not unlike the designers of the 16th Renaissance gardens, he proceeded to transform the landscape.  Who knows what the labourers he hired – all local – thought as he had some of them build terraces, while others dug out a valley and still others put down kilometres and kilometres of irrigation tubing?  Or when he had over 2000 trees cut down?  No way he would get away with that nowadays.  And then the plants started arriving.  Thousands of them, many never before seen, let alone grown in Italy.  And as often as he could, McEacharn, who was glowingly described by his colleagues as that rare breed – ‘a gardener among botanists and a botanist among gardeners’ – would join the expeditions to far-flung places in search of more rare, exotic beauties.

My favourite plant was in the greenhouse – Victoria cruziana.  Ironically these gigantic water lilies, native to the Amazon, were grown from seeds that came to Villa Taranto via the Botanical Gardens of Stockholm.


The leaves of the Victoria cruziana can reach 2 metres in diameter and support 10 kilos – the weight of a baby.  Not something I would like to try.


I found a leaf discarded on the sidewalk next to the greenhouse. This might have been my first ‘shoe shot’.  Those shoes wore out a long time ago.

The property had always been known as La Crocetta (Little Cross), but McEacharn changed the name to Villa Taranto in honour of one of his ancestors who had been proclaimed Duke of Taranto by Napoleon.  This might seem to smack of cultural arrogance or at least insensitivity, but the Scotsman so won over the hearts of the locals, they didn’t object to his tampering with their cultural heritage.

Like many people,  McEacharn didn’t care for the classic Italian gardens – all green, no colour.  (a notion that recent studies of Renaissance gardens near Florence have shown to be historically incorrect, but that’s another story.)  In any event, apart from a nod here and there to Italy’s Renaissance gardens, he made sure there was lots of colour in the rest of his garden.


The classic , formal symmetry of the Italian Renaissance garden.

If you come in spring over 80,000 tulips, rhodos, magnolias and azaleas will be in bloom.  In fall it’s the Dahlias’ turn – over 1700 of them – 300 different types – planted beguilingly along meandering paths.


The Dahlia Maze.

Unlike some of Italy’s boxwood mazes, you won’t really get lost in the Dahlia maze, but you might lose track of the time. Just when you think you’ve seen the most beautiful one of all, you’ll catch a glimpse of another one around the bend up ahead and you’ll just have to have a closer look.


I was pretty upset at having ‘wasted’ a morning of sunshine on the train instead of going back to Villa Taranto.  On the other hand, as the congenial owner of the little hotel I stayed in one year on Capri remarked when I didn’t have time for a sunset dinner at the island’s lighthouse restaurant, the missed visit provided ‘Un ottimo motive per ritornare’.  An excellent reason to return.  In spring perhaps, when the tulips and rhododendrons and azaleas and maybe even the astonishing ‘Handerchief Tree’ are in bloom.


Isola Bella‘s grand galleon at night.

Next –  Italy’s dreamy Ligurian coast

The Mother Island

It’s a short ferry ride from Isola Bella to Isola Madre.  It hasn’t always been called the Mother Island.  Neither for that matter has Isola Bella (last week’s post) always been called the ‘Beautiful Island’ .  Before the count with his lovely wife Isabella came along, it was known as Isola Inferiore, a name which is even more bizarre when you consider that the tiny fishermen’s island next to it was called, at the time, as it is now, Isola Superiore dei Pescatori.  The only thing I can think of is that the early settlers must have believed the tiny island lay a bit to the north of the other – much like the way Lake Superior, which although, as all Canadians who have made it through Grade 4 know (or at least at one time knew) is the largest body of fresh water in the world, wasn’t named for its size, but rather for its location. (If you don’t like the etymology, blame the French – they were the ones who christened it lac supérieur, the ‘upper’ lake.)


Approaching the landing on Isola Madre.

As we got closer to the landing, I heaved a sigh of relief.  My eyes weren’t going.  Those really were palm trees and a Eucalyptus.  Isola Madre is at 46° N.  That’s two whole latitude degrees north of Toronto, where there is going to have to be a lot more global warming before we’ll be able to plant any of these trees in our gardens.


Like the ancient Romans, at the beginning of the 16th century, the first of a long line of Borromeo’s was drawn to the island’s mild climate.  They immediately recognized the potential for transforming the island into  a luxurious, private refuge.  But there was one problem.   On the island, which was then known as Isola di San Vittore, there was a chapel dedicated to the saint, and the byzantine church laws of the time didn’t allow for both a chapel and a pleasure palace to co-exist on the island.  Lancellotto Borromeo must have been very persuasive, because it wasn’t long before the Curia gave the go-ahead for the chapel to be disassembled and rebuilt on Isola Bella (where presumably it wouldn’t be a hindrance to future Borromeo ambitions.)


With only time for a quick glance as you make your way along the narrow plank, it looks as if this Agave has gone wild and started sending out rogue Bougainvillea shoots

From the landing a walkway leads to the right along the Viale Africa, the hottest part of the island.  Right away my plant ID skills were challenged.


This looked like something I might have drawn in my crayon days.

I took a photo of a plaque near the base of the tree.  I’d look it up when I got home.


But when I eventually looked it up, something was wrong. I had seen quite a few carob trees in my travels around Italy – including an especially gorgeous one just a few months earlier in Sicily.  Its distinctive seed pods make it easy to identify.


In May the seed pods on this tree near Siracusa in south-eastern Sicily were a light green. As they ripen they will turn dark brown.

I didn’t recall seeing a single seed pod on the tree on Isola Madre.  I checked my photos again.  Whew! Memory still good.  Not a seed pod in sight.  The planting around the base of the tree was pretty thick.  Maybe the label was for another plant.  Maybe it was a Redbud, the only tree I know that has flowery things growing out of the bark.  But I couldn’t find any images of Redbud showing anything even vaguely similar.  Of course!  Apart from spring, when it looks spectacular, it isn’t really much to look at.  I decided to have a closer look at my photo, only this time I’d try to ignore the intriguing bits coming out of the bark and concentrate on the leaves.  And then, well aware that the definition of stupidity is to do the same thing again and expect different results,  I decided to have another look at the images of the Carob tree.  And guess what!  It was a carob.  There were no seed pods because it turns out that while a few carob trees are hermaphrodites, most of them are dioecious – had to look that one up too – either male or female.


A pod-free, male Carob tree.

By the time you reach the Viale delle Camelie, it’s clear that what is going on here is worlds apart – horticulturally speaking – from the Baroque extravaganza nearby.


Eucalyptus, Lantana, Brugmansia. As if we’ve been transported to an island in the tropics.

For some reason, even though the Borromeos were obviously big fans of the Baroque style in all its (brash) splendour, and even though they took great pleasure and pride, no doubt, in throwing lavish parties on Isola Bella for their many illustrious and powerful guests, they never seemed to have had any interest in what modern day developers would consider an obvious, not to-be missed opportunity to turn Isola Madre into an Isola Bella II.  Instead, they left Isola Madre in a bit of a time warp, as a place where the restrained elegance of the Renaissance endured.  A place where the glories of nature – rare and exotic plants, brought back by friends and horticultural explorers from all over the world – replaced those of man.   A kind of 17th century detox retreat where they would go to restore themselves after all the festivities were over.


Even though they had long finished blooming, these plants had a strange beauty. The dead petals hanging from the flower stalk made a kind of cobweb-like fountain. What were they?

Part of Isola Madre‘s extraordinarily mild climate – it is even warmer than Isola Bella – is due to a quirk of geography.  By mid-afternoon in winter the mountains along the lake’s south shore begin to cast their long shadows over Isola Bella, while Isola Madre basks in full sunshine all day throughout the year.


A week later I saw the plant again, in full bloom, in a wonderful garden close to the Austrian border.  It’s Kahili Ginger.


Why do we bother with big, expensive pots when obviously all Arum needs is an oversized saucer?

Once the chapel was gone, the island’s old name obviously had to go too.  One of the counts, Renato Borromeo, wanted to call it Isola Renata.  Maybe he wasn’t very popular.  Maybe naming an island after your wife was OK, but before the era of vanity plates and people naming towers after themselves, naming an island after yourself was pushing the self-glorification just a bit too much.  In any event Isola Renata didn’t take and by the early 1700’s people started calling it Isola Madre.  Some say it was in honour of the historical importance of the island – the first to be settled.  Others prefer to think it was in honour of the count’s mother who, perhaps unlike her son, was of a benevola disposizione and loved by all.


From the north shore of Isola Madre, a view of the town of Pallanza on the mainland. Around the tip of the peninsula, lies the third garden on Lake Maggiore – Villa Taranto.


In a grassy area on the west side of the island tree roots create a spooky effect.


On my previous trip a peacock had been poking around the bamboo. Was the mesh to protect tender shoots?

This time there were no peacocks in sight and I was fiddling with my camera, trying to capture a clump of black bamboo without overexposing the ‘normal’ green bamboo in full sunlight further along the path, when I was distracted by a commotion behind me.


Phyllostachys nigra. Black bamboo and an (over-exposed) clump of the more common, green variety.


The bamboo was no competition for this flashy creature and since I couldn’t very well smash my way through the thick hedge it disappeared under, I rushed along the walkway until I reached a cross-path which opened onto the Piazzale dei Pappagalli.


There were two of them!

It’s called the Piazzale of the Parrots, but there was a full menagerie of plumed creatures, some wandering around in complete freedom and others in cages.


I watched, incredulous, as this Chinese Golden Pheasant – I had to look it up of course – displayed its remarkable ‘cape’.


Nearby, the peacock, as if disdainful of the swollen-headed antics of the pheasants, gazed haughtily off into the distance.


But when one of the pheasants proceeded to walk through the crowd of adoring fans, it was apparently too much for the peacock…


.. who decided to do a little showing off of its own.

It was well past lunch time, but there was still more of the island to see.  I dragged myself away from the birds and headed towards the villa.

You don’t have to be a gardener to know that Nature can be cruel.  On June 30, 2006, at 2 a.m. a violent tromba d’aria (trumpet of air) ripped through Isola Madre, essentially destroying the western part of the island.  But the most devastating loss of all occurred just metres from the villa, which apart from a few broken windows, was left intact.  Which brings to mind a word Italian weather forecasters sometimes use when they get tired of the same old words for storms – burrasca, temporale, tempesta.  Instead they refer to brutto tempo as il fortunale.   Derived from fortuna, it seems an odd word for ‘ugly’ weather, but then again, perhaps it, more than all the other words, captures the capricious nature of these storms.

Prior to the tornado, the well-loved symbol of Isola Madre had been a Kashmir Cypress which towered over the loggia next to the villa.  Planted from a packet of seeds brought back from the Himalayas in the 1880’s, it had grown into the largest and oldest Kashmir Cypress in Europe.  Despite its enormous size – the trunk is over 25 feet in diameter – the violent winds lifted the tree, roots and all, into the air and then let it crash to the ground.  Garden experts from all Italy and from abroad rushed to the site and with the aid of helicopters and other heavy machinery did the impossibile to save the tree.

A quick scan through my photos was all it took to find the one I had taken of the cypress on my last trip.  Even in thumbnail format, the bedraggled tree was easy to spot. But when I enlarged it, I saw something I didn’t expect to see and didn’t remember seeing at the time.  Crocus – fall crocus – at the base of the tree.  Now it just so happens that while I’ve been working on this post, among the pile of books I have been reading is one with the eyebrow-raising title, ‘How to Fly a Horse’.  Not the kind of title that would normally lead me to even pick up a book, but I had turned on the radio one day mid-way into one of those fabulous CBC author interviews.  A fellow  was talking about how we create things.  How we really create things and what he was saying had a lot to do with hard, painstaking work and very little with flashes of genius bestowed upon a chosen few.  I borrowed a copy from the library and then liked it so much I bought it.  And what does all this have to do with the crocus blooming around the base of the Kashmir Cypress?  Cognitive dissonance, which, according to Kevin Ashton, is a big hurdle to creativity. It comes up whenever ‘what we know contradicts what we believe’.  This, unfortunately, occurs quite frequently and when it does, thanks to our very flexible and very resourceful brains, we apparently go one of two ways.  We either change our beliefs to fit the facts, or, more often, we yield to a primitive and surprisingly strong urge for self-preservation and change the facts to fit our beliefs.  Until I saw those crocuses, I was convinced the last trip I had taken to northern Italy had been in the spring.  Now I was faced with either accepting the reality of those fall blooms, which meant also accepting the unpleasant fact that I had somehow forgotten an entire trip, or I could change the reality to suit my beliefs and not worry about incipient cognitive decline.  Maybe they weren’t crocus.  Maybe they were…


The Kashmir Cypress, September, 2010. Looking a bit bedraggled and held upright by guy wires, but just four years after the tornado, with all that new, lush foliage, its future looked promising.

(While the book of course has nothing to do with flying horses, it does have a lot to do with man learning to fly something else, the clue to which is conveniently provided on the cover of the book just below the title.  But if you’re like me, you’re going to be well into the book before you figure that out.)

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A plaque describes what happened that terrible night.

As I climbed the stairs to the Loggia del Cashmir I got my first look at the tree.  There was a bare area on one side, but there was also a lot of very healthy-looking foliage.


And as I continued around the base of the tree it became clear that all the rescuers’ hard work had paid off.



September 2015. View from the first floor of the villa, the same spot I had taken a photo five years earlier.  There was no longer any doubt that Isola Madre‘s Kashmir Cypress was going to make it.

A staircase off the east side of the villa (which is private, so no photos allowed), overlooks  the Piazzale della Cappella (chapel).


As I explained in some of my earliest posts, the Renaissance was all about emulating the ancient Romans.  And since all the best gardens of ancient Rome had a nymphaeum aka grotto, no Renaissance garden of any repute was without its own ‘playground of the nymphs’.


Two cherubs stand watch over the small, but charming grotto hidden below the ivy-covered staircase.


The chapel is a fairly recent addition as things in Italy go.  It was commissioned in the mid 19th century by the then residing Borromeo Count, who decided it would be nice to have a family chapel on the island.  Save them the trip to Isola Bella.  He wanted something that evoked ‘il linguaggio Bramantesco o anche Bizantino’.  Given the limited space and the linguaggio – which usually refers to ‘language’ but in this context refers to style – of everything else on the island, fortunately the architect managed to tone down the count’s original aspirations.


The Family chapel.  A toned-down amalgam of Bramante and Byzantine influences.


View from the grotto to Stresa on the far shore.


On the way back to the landing. Just imagine what this path will look like next spring when the wisteria is in bloom!


The peacock strolling along the Viale delle Palme fits right in with the colourful border along the south wall of the villa.


On the ferry to Isola dei Pescatori, the ‘snow’ has finally lifted from the mountains.


Finalmente.  Approaching Isola dei Pescatori – and lunch.


One of the benefits of arriving really late for lunch – a water-side table vacated by previous diners on a tighter schedule than mine.


Antipasto Misto, Fisherman’s Style. Delizioso!

Next – One Man’s Dream Garden