The Rewards of Suspending Judgment


Sometimes extraordinary can be over-rated.  Take a visit to the doctor.  The last thing any of us wants to hear is that something out of the ordinary is going on with some part or other of our body.    No thank you.  Ordinary is just fine at the doctor’s.   Ditto the dentist.  And on and on.  After the Vittoriale, while I wasn’t exactly hoping for something ordinary, I was looking forward to a garden that was a little less extraordinary.

According to the banner at the entrance, the Giardino Botanico Fondazione André Heller was, depending on your language of choice,  ‘a great gift’, ‘a sumptuous garden of Eden’ or ‘an incomparably inspiring park’.  All of which sounded ominously un-ordinary.


Interesting order of languages.

After the crowds at Il Vittoriale, which was only a 10- minute walk away, it was unexpectedly – extraordinarily? – quiet.   Maybe most of them weren’t staying on the other side of the lake and had decided one garden visit was all they could handle in one day.  Maybe the idea of a garden made by a dentist put them off.


First view of the garden is a bit of an eyebrow-raiser.

Maybe it’s hard to imagine the person who spends his days drilling teeth and doing root canals also capable of creating a garden that you’d like to visit.  I hoped not. In my experience there are lots of gardens worth visiting that are the work of so-called ‘amateurs’, which unlike extraordinary is a vastly under-rated term.   San Michele on the island of Capri was created by a physician/psychiatrist.  (‘Yearning for Light’, Feb. 23, 2014)   And Villa Cimbrone, one of the most beautiful gardens on the Amalfi Coast, is the work of a banker and his tailor.  (‘In the Garden of Amateurs’, March 9, 2014)

Which is not to say that I don’t have to work hard to keep an open mind when I visit some gardens.  Twitchy eyebrows and eyes that have a tendency to roll of their own accord are a constant challenge.  The trick is to suspend judgment just long enough to get into the spirit of the place. Curiously, the more gardens I visit, the easier it seems to get.  Could it be the horticultural version of the 10,000 hour thing?

At Heller, they give you a map, but all those paths looked terribly confusing and the explanations for the numbers and letters were on the reverse side.  Am I the only one who finds it aggravating to have to flip back and forth to figure out where you are?


I decided to take the meandering approach in my search for the spirit of the place.


Sometimes, as it appeared to be in this case, finding that spirit can take a while.


Not far from the Tibetan corner a crane was about to take flight over a forest of Japanese Maples.


Further along the path was a Chinese, or perhaps Japanese Torii, the gate marking the transition from the profane to the sacred..


Walk through this Torii into a misty bamboo grove.

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In case you don’t recognize this statue, you can seek enlightenment by checking the symbol on the rock.


What were these strange creatures, trapped in the sphere?  Looking out at the lush, life-giving vegetation forever beyond reach.

One of the paths brought me to an area with oddly undulating shapes on one side. I was so busy adjusting my camera’s settings to the deep shade after the glaring sun, it wasn’t until I had taken a couple of shots before I realized what was going on.


What a clever way to disguise a garden’s border.

Another path led back into the sun.


To identify the plants the gardeners had wisely eschewed the usual metal labels which have a tendency to ‘disappear’. This one had me puzzled.  The last plant on the list was #75 – Brahea Armata, from Mexico.   Then I realized it wasn’t #77, it was #11 – Colocasia Esculenta from south-east Asia.


Confusingly for North Americans, Europeans cross their ‘7’s’.  This is what a European ’11’ looks like.


Palm trees and and anemones emerge from a lush carpet of fall cyclamen.


There was so much going on at ground level it was easy to miss treasures higher up.

Like the crowds over at Il Vittoriale I too almost didn’t come to this garden.  There were quite a few negative comments on Trip Advisor.  I began to wonder how much the people who had posted those comments had understood as they walked through the garden.  Take this tree for example.  It’s only ‘wacky’ if you don’t know about epiphytes – plants like the orchids and bromeliads (the plant with the rose-coloured foliage just off centre) and mosses that have been attached to the tree.   Heller is after all a botanical garden and what a clever, not to mention attractive, way to demonstrate how these plants settle themselves into the notches and crevices of trees, with no inconvenience to their hosts, since they derive everything they need – moisture and nutrients – from the air.


Epiphytes, unlike some guests, do no damage to their hosts.


The Muse.

By now, it was clear that when you walk through the gate you are embarking on a voyage to distant lands, most of which, if you try hard enough, you will recognize.  But the mountain-like structure overlooking the Muse’s pond had me stumped.   Finally I got out the map.  Le tre cime di Lavaredo  (the Three Peaks of Lavaredo) didn’t mean anything to me. Neither did the Zinnen.  And English ‘Picks’ was equally baffling.


I followed the path to get a closer look.  I also took a closer look at the map and made one of those discoveries that in retrospect are (annoyingly) self-evident.  But in fairness, while I have no illusions about my map reading skills, after wandering around those paths as long as I had, I doubt I’m the only one who has ever got disoriented.


On the right side of the Muse’s lake was an area identified as ‘Dolomitic Rocky Area’.  And above it, Cima Ferdinando and still higher up the Paesaggio Dolomitico (Dolomitic Landscape).  Those ‘picks’ were ‘peaks’.  I’d visited the Dolomites years before and while I hadn’t been to the Lavaredo Peaks I’d seen some that were similar.


There is no shortage of ‘peaks’ in the Dolomites.


Italian soldiers on a training exercise in late June.

Barely visible under the profusion of flowers and ornamental grasses, a path leads visitors under a slender, but sturdy Corazon at the base of the Lavaredo Peaks.


I was glad I had got out the map when I did because I’m sure I would have missed the jewel in the crown of the entire garden.  I had been puzzled by the warning about monitored and alarmed amethysts.  But I hadn’t really paid much attention.  There were already enough bizarre things in the garden to take in.  Which meant that when I took the photo below I had no idea what I was looking at.


At the time I thought it was simply one more lovely scene – the red roses in the foreground, the tiny figure on the left, the lone cypress in the centre and beyond it Lake Garda.  There was that odd, purplish, pear-shaped object on the right, but I attributed it to the gardener’s obvious fondness for whimsy.

Although the amethyst is my birth stone, I’ve never been keen on it – the sapphire is more to my liking – but I was intrigued.  There were no gardeners in sight so it wasn’t until long after I’d left the garden that I learned what I had been looking at, but had not ‘seen’.

The roses and the carefully positioned bench – I did think it odd at the time that you couldn’t actually get around to sit on the bench – partially hide a wire fence – which is hooked up to the system that monitors the area surrounding, not a purple pear, but a priceless, million year old, four-ton geode.  Actually there are two of them, brought here from Uruguay at enormous expense and the involvement of HeliSwiss, the only company in Europe with a helicopter capable of transporting cargo of such enormous dimensions.  Apart from the risk of the geodes chipping as they were being lowered into position was the danger that the turbulence created by the helicopter might take off the roofs of villas nearby.   A stunning video captures the process –  No Italian needed to get a sense of how daring and remarkable a feat it was.


From the top of the ‘mountain’ a view of the Muse’s pond and…


… Lake Garda which, after wandering around the garden, now seemed a strange and distant place.

I was glad I had come and grateful to André Heller, who took over from Arthuro Hruska, the Austrian dentist to the Tsars and House of Savoy who first created the garden, for allowing strangers to wander freely through what is, as the banner at the entrance so rightly proclaims – a great gift, sumptuous garden of Eden and an incomparably inspiring park.  Extraordinary.  In a good way.

As for the Loch Ness-like creature at the beginning of the post?  Genius Loci.  The Spirit of the Place.






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