It was my last day on Lake Garda. At the north end of the lake is a village with the usual array of delightful lakeside restaurants and narrow, cobblestone alleys lined with tempting shops. Less usual are the lemon trees – we’re almost three latitude degrees north of Toronto – and the extraordinary longevity of the locals. It’s called Limone sul Garda. Limone for short. And yes, limone means lemon.
Having driven through it on my way to Gardone Riviera the day before (previous post) and discovered that I did not share the locals’ enthusiasm for the SR249, the strada rurale that winds around the perimeter of the lake, I had decided to go by ferry. The closest landing was in Malcesine (mal-chay-zee-nay), a few kilometres up the road from my hotel. With its charming medieval centre, obligatory Scaligero Castle, attractive harbour lined with trattorie, as well as its location – midway up the lake, making it an easy weekend getaway for tourists from Austria and Germany – Malcesine is a popular tourist site.
But I was surprised to find the parking lot almost completo (comb-play-toe) when I arrived this October morning. I should have known. Tourists and travel agencies may talk of the ‘shoulder season’ but throughout Italy the locals pay no mind. When the hordes from far away have departed, they have plenty of other things to keep their medieval centres full of movimento. On my way to the harbour vendors were setting up their stalls for a weekend-long celebration of Prosecco. If only I had known that torrential downpours a few days later would nix my plans to visit the vineyards where Italy’s thoroughly delightful – and relatively inexpensive – bubbly is produced.
Down by the harbour it was clear that even more movimento was planned. Having seen what happens when vintage car rallies descend on villages in Italy and France, I was glad I had come on Saturday.
There was no ticket office, just some rather casual fellows standing next to the ferry. I watched them for a few minutes before giving one of them €9 for which I was given a very unofficial looking biglietto. I asked a couple if I could join them on a bench close by so I could keep an eye on things as departure time neared. We chatted and watched as an ancient mariner type worked on the boat tied up next to the ferry. It looked like something out of a pirate movie. For a short period in the 1920’s there were over 100 of them, carrying people, olive oil, wine and livestock up and down the lake. But with the construction of the SR249 in 1930 they gradually fell out of use until the final death knell – World War II. By 2001 the Veronica, one of only two of the original fleet left, was a pitiful sight, its hull malridotto (badly reduced) and rust everywhere. But following a restoration, carried out with immenso entusiasmo e passione, the newly christened Siora (Signora in local dialect) Veronica began life anew, no longer a utilitarian barge, but a pleasure boat offering a wide range of cruises – weddings, family celebrations, romantic evenings, even a short Sunday afternoon outing. A quick glance at the website reveals a great deal of pride – the masts are genuine materia vegetale and all manoeuvres are executed rigorosamente by hand once the boat leaves the harbour. Of course, as is carefully pointed out, there is no knowing the exact route any cruise will take. That is up to the winds.
Fortunately the views from the decidedly less charming ferry were as lovely as those from the schooner.
As we approached the landing in Limone the stone pillars that had fascinated D.H. Lawrence came into view.
Limone sul Garda is the most northerly place in the world where lemons have been grown on a commercial basis. The strange pillars are what is left of one of the limonaie (lee-moh-nigh-yay) – lemon greenhouses. Partway up the mountain behind the town the Limonaia del Castel (Castle) has been restored and is now open to visitors.
Helpfully, the Limonaia del Castel is on Via Castello.
But somehow I still got lost in the maze of narrow alleyways and ended up on Via Rovina.
Growing out of a crack in one of the walls was an astonishingly luxuriant caper plant. As I fiddled with my camera settings an elderly man came by. He stopped to have a look and commented on all the capers that were sciupati (shoe-paw-tee). (Once the flower bud opens they’re no good.) As we chatted there was something vaguely familiar about his accent. After a minute or so I did something I rarely do anymore – especially in Canada where it’s almost become politically incorrect – I asked him where he was from.
After an initial momento di confusione – it wasn’t the type of question one expects from someone who is obviously a tourist and a foreign tourist at that – he told me he lived in Germany, but was originally from Sicily. Had left at 17 and never returned. I told him about my trips to Sicily and how I found it una storia complicata (a complicated story) but the people were extraordinarily hospitable. He confessed that after living in Germany so many years he now felt German, although some part of him was still Sicilian. He and his German wife often came to Lake Garda on holidays, and when they did, he hastened to add, ‘Mi comporto da italiano – non prima da siciliano‘. (I behave as an Italian, not first as a Sicilian.) I had no idea what this meant and he must have sensed my puzzlement because he proceeded to explain. ‘La gente di Torino, quando va a Lampedusa si comporta male.‘ (The people from Torino, when they go to Lampedusa, they behave badly.) He had such an old-fashioned, gentlemanly air about him I didn’t ask for details, but he repeated the bit about the bad behaviour, so I’m assuming he was referring to the type of tourist that leaves behind the thin veneer of civilization when they travel. I’d seen plenty of that, but by true stranieri, foreigners from beyond Italy’s borders, not by Italians from different regions.
Eventually his wife arrived and he continued on his way – after he made sure I was headed in the right direction.
In spite of all the lemons that have been grown here over the centuries, the name of the town has nothing to do with il limone or fruit of any kind, but is derived from the Celtic ‘limo‘ meaning elm tree. It wasn’t until the 13th century, long after the original settlement had been named, that the lemon began to play a role in the town’s history. A group of monks from the convent of San Francesco in Gargagno about 20 k to the south was sent up to Limone to teach the locals, who survived (barely) by fishing and farming, how to grow lemons in the hope that this would supplement their subsistence economy.
By the 17th century lemon growing had become such an important part of the local economy they started to build the limonaie to protect the plants and fruit from the occasional colder than usual winter. In November planks and glass panes were placed on top of the tall columns, creating a cool, dim atmosphere inside which caused the lemons to go dormant and thus resistant to frost. Each piece of the temporary roof was numbered so that when the temperatures started warming up again in spring, the whole thing could be easily disassembled and carefully stored for the following winter.
Under this system the trees often lived for more than 100 years, bearing up to 600 fruit per season. The varieties were carefully chosen for their thick glossy rind, intense flavour and durability. This last feature became especially important in the first half of the 19th century, the height of Limone’s citrusy industry, when crate loads of lemons, individually wrapped in tissue, were ferried down to Desenzano at the south end of the lake and then transported by rail to royal courts as far away as London and St. Petersburg.
The first of many calamities which led to the eventual demise of the industry occurred in the mid 1850’s when, like the blight that would destroy vineyards across France and Europe a few years later, a type of gommosis, probably Phytophthora Gummosis started attacking the lemon trees. Like all outbreaks of disease it was heart-breaking. In the early stages sap started oozing from small cracks in the bark. Later, lesions spread around the circumference of the trunk, slowly girdling the tree. Not unlike the girdles of a thankfully bygone era that used to cut off the supply of oxygen to the lungs of the women who wore them, girdling blocks the transportation of sugars from the leaves to the roots, leading to the death of all growth above the stripped area. A couple of decades later, with the Unification of Italy, competition from the more efficient Sicilian lemon industry dealt an equally serious blow. During World War I the wooden planks used to protect the trees during winter were requisitioned to build trenches and then came the final blow – the discovery of synthetic citric acid.
Given all the good things we know about lemons – they’re loaded with vitamin C and essential minerals, flush out toxins, purify the blood, aid digestion, promote weight loss and might even make your skin glow – it’s not surprising that the Limonesi tend to be in good health and live a long life. What is surprising is the degree of longevity they enjoy. Back in the 1970’s it was discovered that more than a dozen of Limone’s citizens were over 100 years old. An astonishing statistic, given that the population at that time was barely 1,000. Intrigued, a pharmacist from Milan, Cesare Sirtori, came to see if he could figure out what was going on. Apart from a healthy diet and gentle climate, he discovered that the vast majority of the locals shared a unique, mutated protein, which he called Apo A-1 Milano. Unlike most mutations – cancer cells, the recent outbreak of the Zika virus – this mutation was a force for good, producing HDL, the high density, good cholesterol. As described in Corriere della Sera, 5 dic. 2013, it acted like a kind of spazzino (spats-see-no) – street sweeper or garage collector – that prevented the thickening and hardening of the walls of the arteries that typically lead to arteriosclerosis and stroke in old age. The unusually high percentage of locals with the mutated protein was attributed to centuries of relative isolation, which also made it easier to trace its origins back to a couple who lived here in the mid 17th century.
As I was walking around the terraces I overheard an Italian visitor on her cell phone. As everywhere nowadays it’s virtually impossible to NOT overhear these conversations. She was telling her presumably envious friend back home about the wonderful time she and her companion were having in Limone. ‘Stiamo limonando nella limonaia.’ (We are limonando in the lemon greenhouse.) Apparently the friend did not get the speaker’s witty bon mot so she had to explain. I didn’t get it either and had to look it up. No wonder I hadn’t come across it before. It was one of those seemingly innumerable colloquial expressions that never seem to come up in the invariably lovely conversations I have with the locals. Limonare means ‘ to make out’.
I made my way down to the shore and wandered around a bit checking out the restaurants. But they were all terribly crowded and struck me as even more ‘touristy’ – a loaded word I know – than usual, so I decided to take the next ferry and have lunch in Malcesine.
As we approached the harbour in Malcesine there was no sign of the schooner. I looked around and there it was, along with a few windsurfers, close to the opposite shore.
Next – an improbable garden in the far north of Italy