‘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.
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.
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 €.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Next – Italy’s dreamy Ligurian coast