On the day I left Lake Garda I got an early start. Apart from the odd school bus I had the road to myself.
The east side of the lake was still in darkness, but as the sun rose, now and then it burst through the clouds to light up the mountains along the west shore.
I took my time. I was still of mixed minds about taking this long detour north to visit a garden. It had won the prestigious ‘Parco più bello d’Italia‘ award in 2005, but the idea of spending one of my precious few days – no matter how long the trip, it’s never long enough – walking around a park held no interest for me. We have lots of very nice parks in Canada. But more than that, it was the location of the garden/park that concerned me. It was in the mountains, not far from Cortina d’Ampezzo, ‘Italy’s premier mountain resort’ (Panorama Skipass Tourism). People came here to ski – alpine, Nordic, freeride, mountaineering – I don’t even know what the last two are – not to visit gardens. Also, as I had learned on a previous visit, this was a region where the language du jour was not Italian, a major drawback for someone for whom speaking with the locals in their language is one of the great pleasures of travelling. Or rather, to be precise, although they spoke Italian, for most of them it wasn’t their lingua madre and when given the choice, they spoke tedesco (tay-dace-koh). Deutsch (doych). German.
I was wrong. Not about the locals’ linguistic preferences. Everywhere I went I heard much more German than Italian, which made for some rather odd encounters. I have a thing about not speaking English when I’m in Italy and I wasn’t about to sprechen Deutsch which I had dropped decades ago when I started studying Italian. This meant that when I walked up to people, at the reception desk in the hotel for example, who were chatting away in German, I would start talking to them in italiano and they would immediately switch over, as if it were the most natural thing in the world and they hadn’t just accomplished a feat of linguistic genius that we seem largely incapable of back home despite the millions of dollars that we spend trying to teach ourselves French.
What I was wrong about was the garden. In case you’re wondering why I bothered in the first place to go to all the trouble to visit a garden I had so many misgivings about, it was quite simple. A friend at the Toronto Botanical Garden who knew about my trips to Italy and its gardens had introduced me via email – my first ‘e-introduction’ – to Dr. Heike Platter, Director of Marketing and Corporate Strategy of the garden.
Heike’s assistant had reserved a room in a hotel that was described as being a five-minute walk from the garden. Given past experiences, I highly doubted this. On top of which, there was no sign of the garden from the hotel and I had got so disoriented on my first visit (I ended up delaying my departure to visit the garden again the following morning – it was that good!) I had no idea where I was. After getting off the highway I had spent an extremely stressful half hour driving around Merano looking for the garden. For a small northern town, there was an astonishing number of people. They were everywhere, on bikes and on foot, blithely meandering across the roads. I had arrived on market day. In desperation I pulled over and asked an anziano – poor fellow – he got terribly upset trying to explain how to get to the garden. It was so complicato he was sure I would never find it. The best thing would be to park my car at the train station and take the bus. But all the parking lots were full. Italian market days are wonderful. You just don’t want to arrive on one of them. My reluctant guide had said I needed to head to something called Maia Alta, an area to the south of Merano. Somehow I ended up on a road on which occasionally – very occasionally – there was a sign for the garden. I decided to try to find the hotel later.
The hotel was carino as Heike’s assistant had said – Grazie di nuovo, Alessandra – and it really was a five-minute walk to the garden.
The parking lot was enormous and almost full – the first sign that this garden was no small thing. You cross a flower-bedecked bridge to the entrance.
The visitors’ centre is a huge, beautifully done affair. But by now I was really curious about this garden. Off to the left was the ticket booth. Wonderful! First a quick stop by the Info desk to leave a note of thanks for the hotel arrangements and I would be on my way. But I only got as far as ‘Buon giorno, sono la Signora Fenice...’ when the young woman exclaimed ‘Ah, buon giorno, signora! La stavamo aspettando.’ (We were waiting for you.) Over my protestations that I didn’t want to disturbare she picked up the phone and a few minutes later I was up in the Admin offices and Alessandra was introducing me to Heike.
Heike gave me a quick tour around the admin offices, introducing me to her team. Then she started gathering up her things. She had cleared her agenda for the day to take me around the gardens. My jaw dropped. Delight turned to dismay. Had she somehow got the idea I was some big shot journalist? It was a blessing we were speaking Italian. I have no idea what I would have blurted out in English, I just knew that even though I had written nothing in my emails to give her this idea, I couldn’t go on under what was obviously a misunderstanding. But she just waved away my efforts to ‘clarify’ the situation. It was her grande piacere to be my guide. It had been a while since she had visited the entire garden and she was looking forward to seeing it from new eyes. And the name of the garden? Trauttmansdorff Castle.
As we walked around, Heike told me about the history of the region, of the garden, and how she came to be part of the team. Her path to Trauttmansdorff was fascinating, but (thankfully) a lot easier to follow than the history of the region – a convoluted and tragic trail of war, forced migrations and families torn apart by conflicting national and linguistic allegiances. It sounded so depressingly similar to what is going on in so many parts of the world today, it was a relief to be able to leave behind, at least temporarily, the dark side of humanity, and focus on the good and the beautiful we are capable of creating. And that, it turns out, is one of the three guiding principles underlying every aspect of the garden – to provide an escape from the stresses of everyday life, an oasis of meditation and relaxation, and thirdly, ‘soft’ education. There was so much to see and absorb and think about. If I hadn’t been so worried about the long drive back south to Vicenza, my next stop, I would have lingered even longer in the garden the following day. (Good thing I didn’t know at the time I would end up arriving in Vicenza, a city I didn’t know, in the dark, because I got lost in the mountains, having decided at the last minute that rather than taking the highway – boring! – it would be interesting to visit the village of Asiago en route.) As it was, I was still able to see quite a lot.
Heike had started her career as a wine exporting agent, eventually moving to New York City where she had set up a successful wine importing agency. Then one day she got a call from her father. This was no ordinary call from a solicitous father worried about his daughter so far away. Klaus Platter was the original Director of Trauttmansdorff. He had watched the painstaking process of assembling the property, as one by one, 15 separate parcels of land were purchased, all in various states of ruin that would necessitate an enormous infusion of money and labour. It had been a bureaucratic nightmare, even by Italian standards, that led him ragionevolmente (quite reasonably), as he put it, to wonder about the feasibility of such an undertaking. It’s not hard to imagine his reaction when he learned that on top of everything else, as of opening day, he would be expected to cover day-to-day operating costs with revenue from visitors.
But problems with operating costs had nothing to do with why Klaus Platter had called his daughter that day. In fact by 2002, only one year after the garden was opened, the seemingly impossible task of covering those costs was achieved. The problem he was calling about was of an entirely different nature. Three employees in the marketing department had gotten pregnant at the same time. (Maybe there really is something to that theory about women’s periods syncing up.) He wondered if she knew of someone to take over the department. She didn’t. Neither did he, but, he added, he had been thinking of her. It took her a moment to say yes – and a lot longer to wind up her business.
Close to the Dahlia Garden was an odd-looking area with an assortment of boulders of varying sizes and colours. The Geological Mosaic is one of many ‘sensory stations’ designed to promote the ‘soft’ education Heike had mentioned. The various types of rocks that form the topography of the region are located on a map made out of thousands of mosaic tiles.
Surprisingly, despite melt water from the mountains that would have been covered in snow in winter, fresh water had been a scarce resource in the past. To prevent the kind of pilfering that went on in the Renaissance gardens of Tuscany, a system involving bells and a simple hydraulic wheel ensured that each farmer received his quota of water.
Many of the soft-ed stations are more abstract, like the bed of spring flowering bulbs. Campanelli (cam-pan-nel-lee) – tiny bells at the top of the colourful stems ring as the stems sway in the slightest breeze – or at the touch of a child’s hand. Parents can watch their children run amok through the flower bed – something not usually encouraged – from benches thoughtfully placed around the perimeter.
There are over 80 paesaggi, miniature recreations of landscapes from around the world, which makes a visit to Trauttmansdorff a kind of ‘Around the World in One Day’ experience.
My favourite of these miniature landscapes combined my two greatest loves – the olive groves and sunflowers of Tuscany and the lavender fields of Provence. My guess is that these two are popular with a lot of people besides me because the Sun Garden had been given centre stage, on the slope right in front of the castle.
Given the mature trees and the lush, well-established plantings, who would guess that the first colpo di vanga (strike of the spade) had taken place just over 20 years earlier (1994)? Although it increased costs significantly and required special equipment – industrial cranes and even helicopters for the higher sites were brought in to transfer trees up to 12 metres in height – everyone involved in the garden’s creation agreed that from day one they wanted visitors to have the kind of experience only an established garden could provide.
As in all botanical gardens – I had to keep reminding myself that this was, strictly speaking, a botanical garden – there is a strong mandate to promote diversity and to preserve endangered and rare species. To the right of the castle is the largest collection of sage open to the public in Italy.
One of the greatest treasures of the garden was an ancient olive tree, that was thought to be originally from Sardegna.
It was time to start heading up the mountain, to the area that had caused the greatest headaches during construction of the garden.
In the past this part of the ridge had been a quarry, the clay used to make bricks in a factory nearby. In the fall of 2000, just months before the scheduled opening of the garden, prolonged, torrential rains caused massive mudslides, revealing the extreme fragility of the slope. Making a virtue out of necessity, as the landscape architect put it, the entire slope was remade as a muro armato (reinforced wall) and planted with flowers.
Heike stopped to talk to one of the gardeners working on the wall.
44 plants per square metre are nestled into the pockets. All by hand.
If the mere sight of platforms like this makes you queasy, you can always sit back and take it easy on the Spiaggia delle Palme.
The views down by the beach were pretty good too.
When I returned the following morning I realized how lucky I had been. With the arrival of cooler temperatures the time had come to dismantle the beach.
From the beach area the path was lined with tropicals. I’d seen many of them in the gardens on Lakes Como and Maggiore, only here they were in pots. Like the palm trees, they would soon be transported to the winter greenhouses.
There was only one part of the garden Heike wasn’t, she regretted, able to take me through – the Giardino degli Innamorati (The Lovers’ Garden). New features are constantly being introduced to the gardens of Trauttmansdorff and this was the latest. It would be open the following spring. Beyond the arches was a series of pavilions dedicated to abandon, promise and eternity. Heavy stuff.
There was one more surprise. Access to the highest lookout – and the most unnerving, even if you don’t suffer from vertigo – is via an enormous Voliera (vole-yeh-ruh). Aviary.
A double set of doors both into and out of the aviary ensured the birds remained safe inside.
Some visitors had to be coaxed. Others clung nervously to the railings. But almost all ventured at least partway onto the platform. It was a view that almost commanded you to conquer your fears.
There was so much more to see – a Bamboo Forest, Valley of Ferns, Forbidden Garden, Tea Plantation, Garden of the Senses, terraced rice paddies and I hadn’t even checked out the Italian or the English or the Japanese Gardens. But I didn’t dare delay my departure any longer. And who knows, maybe it was arrivederci and not goodbye. In the meantime, Grazie di nuovo, Heike, per una bellissima giornata.