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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
The tour ended in the Wisteria Courtyard, named for a centuries-old wisteria.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The long, steep climb got my heart pumping and the views were great. There was even a wedding in the little chapel on top.
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