As much as I craved the sea, there were a couple of things that now and then lured me away from Puglia’s spectacular coastline.
The chance to visit a garden was one of those things. Especially in a place like Puglia, where almost all the land that isn’t covered in rock has been planted with olive trees and vineyards since the days of the ancient Greeks. So when I stumbled across a garden/nursery close to Monopoli – there really is such a place – it’s midway between Polignano and Ostuni, my next base – I was intrigued. It was called Lama degli Ulivi. Up until now, apart from the animal (only one ‘l’ in Italian), which had yet to come up in everyday conversation, the only meaning I knew for lama had to do with a coltello (knife) or una lama a doppio taglio. A blade that cuts two ways. A garden called ‘Blade of the Olive Trees’ was definitely something worth checking out.
To make sure the garden wasn’t just a ruse to attract customers to the nursery’s cassa (cash register), I roamed around the Internet a bit. What I found was not encouraging. Ma dov’è??? (But where is it???) wrote Domenico from Rome. OK, I thought, maybe it’s some northern, city guy out of his element. But then there was a fellow from Taranto, one of Puglia’s bigger cities, who lamented, Difficile da trovare, il navigatore impazzisce. (Difficult to find. The ‘Navigator’ – as Italians call the GPS – goes crazy.) Given that Taranto is only 65 k from the garden, this was a little unsettling. But it was a reviewer from Salerno, a city on the east end of the Amalfi Coast, that really had me wondering if I shouldn’t just skip the garden and check out more of the coast. Non esiste! he started off. (It doesn’t exist!) Non c’è modo di trovarlo, he continued. (There’s no way to find it). And instead of going crazy, the navigatore in his car had taken him altrove (a wonderfully evocative word that brings up visions of vast, unknown places). Adding insult to injury, nessuno in zona lo conosce (no-one in the area knows about it) and after driving around for three hours he’d come up with a big, fat nulla. On a slightly less agitated note he added that, in compenso, the whole area was full of ulivi secolari bellissimi.
The nice thing about having ‘planted one’s cabbages’ as the French say, is that you can go on longer trips. I was going to be in Puglia for almost three weeks. If I wasted a half-day on a wild, goose chase – pazienza.
Since I am a Luddite and never use a navigatore, I looked up the directions on the garden’s website. Given the experiences of Domenico and company, Come raggiungerci (how to reach us) looked suspiciously straightforward. Take the SS16, the four-lane highway between Bari and Brindisi, get off at the Monopoli – San Francesco da Paola exit and follow the signs for Vivai Capitanio Stefano.
I was a bit nervous as I whizzed by the various exits for Monopoli and then I saw the sign for San Francesco da Paola. I took my time on the narrow off-ramp and when I reached the inevitable, multi-directional cross-road, I was relieved to see a sign for Vivai Capitanio Stefano. With a helpful arrow pointing the way. In case you’re thinking ‘helpful’ is redundant, you probably have not done a lot of driving in Italy. Despite years of driving there, every trip there are always a couple of arrows that mess me up. Soon I was on a narrow, country road surrounded by the ulivi secolari bellissimi the Salento reviewer had written about.
One of the (many) times I stopped to take photos of the olive trees, I heard bleating nearby. I couldn’t see any sheep, but a bit further along the road I saw the pastore (pass-toh-ray).
The shepherd saw me too and since I had been taking photos of his sheep it seemed rude not to say hello. Unlike the stereotypical image of a lone wolf – bad image – try again – solitary figure who shuns social intercourse, this shepherd was eager to chat and was clearly very proud of his pecore (pay-coh-ray). He owned 100 hectares, which struck me as an impressive chunk of land (1 hectare = 2.47 acres), but then I live in a city where semis on 25 foot wide lots are going for a million dollars and more. It had cost him 100 million euros. This seemed rather a lot of money for a shepherd to put together, but my twitch-prone eyebrows must have stayed in place for once because without skipping a beat he added that in addition to la terra propria (his own land), he had another 100 hectares in affitto. Rented.
I followed the sheep as they moved from mound to mound of clipped branches. And the shepherd followed me. Or was he following his sheep? In any event, my self-appointed guide continued to tell me about life in the region, which was, like so many places in Europe nowadays, molto difficile (deef-fee-chee-lay). You could faticare the whole day long for 60 or 70 euros and then the government would take half. (This I knew to be accurate because the owner of one of the B&B’s I stayed in showed me his receipt book.) The shepherd sighed. Italy was going through un periodo molto brutto. A very difficult time. Coming from someone who was clearly old enough to have lived through the horrors and deprivations of World War II, this was indeed a grim reflection.
We waxed philosophically about the state of the world for a few more minutes and then I told him I had to be going. I was on my way to the ‘Blade Garden’. He knew it – it was just a few kilometres further along the road – and despite the brutto periodo, we wished each other una buona giornata.
Maybe the owners had seen the reviews and put up new signs because there were lots of them – and they weren’t the pathetic little brown and white ones the government uses for Heritage Sites all over Italy – these were big, colourful affairs. I turned into the driveway and you would have thought half of Puglia was there. This being a Sunday, the other half was presumably al mare. At the sea. A young gardener turned parking lot attendant for the day directed me to an opening – I would not call it a spot – next to a stone wall. ‘Eh, no! I protested, Sono dal Canada. There is no way I can park there’. What I really meant was there was no way I’d be able to get out of there. He laughed, had a chat with his colleague and waved me over to an off-limits area close by.
I parked in a nice, big, isolated spot and looked around for the biglietteria (bill-yet-teh-ree-uh). Ticket Office. The entrance fee was €7, not an unreasonable amount, as long as the garden was worth seeing. A big crowd was gathered by the entrance. The ticket line-up? But when I got closer I could see they were just milling around chatting. By this time it was 10:15, fifteen minutes past opening time. What was going on? There were two young girls at a table nearby. Were they selling tickets? No, signora. Oggi l’ingresso è gratis! (Today the entrance is free.) It was June 5, the last day of the sixth edition of Il Colore in Giardino (Colour in the Garden), a celebration of plants, flowers and fragrances with tastings, workshops and activities for the young and young at heart. I had expected it would be a bit crowded on Sunday, but I was surprised at how many people there were. What I hadn’t counted on was that the organizers would choose the LAST day of the festival to hold the Opening Ceremonies. I had arrived just in time for the festivities. Two adorable ragazzini, all dressed up, cut a bright orange ribbon to great applause and then there were speeches from local dignitaries and the owner of the garden, followed by more applause. Then we made our way under a leafy archway into the garden.
The reason I hadn’t been able to see the garden from the entrance was because it’s in a lama, which, I discovered when I looked it up, is una formazione carsica. Then of course I had to look up carsica, which led me to one of those vicious, circular definitions. (And for the record, even though I would love to take credit for it, ‘vicious’ is not me ranting, it’s the official term.) Carsica means Karst. Una formazione carsica is ‘a Karst formation’.
So far my experience with geology had been limited to looking for just the right shape and texture of rocks for my garden. However, mindful of the barrage of warnings about the importance of learning new things if we want to ward off the onset of any number of ways our brains can succumb to neurogenerative decline, I googled formazione carsica. From what I could make out it had to do with rainwater dissolving rocks, which was obviously wrong, so I tried ‘Karst formation’. Same talk about the dissolution of rock by water and the same off-putting chemical formulas. CO2 + H2O + CaCO3 = Ca(HCO3)2. It was comforting to know my Italian wasn’t the problem, but not so comforting to think of what the source of the problem might be. I decided to take a breather and check out the images on the Italian websites. And almost right away I came to a photo that looked familiar. Sure enough. It was the beach in Polignano a Mare. The charming little cove I’d visited was a lama. A Karst/carsica formation! I went back to the geology websites which suddenly didn’t seem quite so intimidating and here’s my take on how a lama – which is where all this started – is formed.
As rain falls it collects carbon dioxide (CO2). If it’s not one of the violent cloudbursts we’ve been experiencing lately, rather than running uselessly off to gardeners’ and our farmers’ despair, the rain hits the ground and seeps through the soil picking up a bit more CO2 along the way. Eventually the rainwater turns into a (very weak) carbonic acid, which, given enough time, can dissolve bedrock – IF that bedrock is composed of carbonate material aka calcium carbonate aka limestone. Puglia is covered in limestone. Over thousands of years the cracks and crevices that the CO2 laden rain drops had landed in dissolved, creating fissures and eventually underground caves and grottoes and charming, cozy inlets like the one in Polignano. This unlikely process – or maybe that is the nature of all geological processes – explained why there were so many caves in Puglia. On a previous trip I’d been to one of the most spectacular (and safest for tourists to visit) – Castellana Grotte – and was hoping to take a boat ride or two to visit some of the grottoes along the coastline. The garden of the Lama degli Ulivi had been created in the shelter of one of those ancient, geological formations.
The fallen blossoms looked almost as lovely against the red soil so I took a couple of photos. Then I saw the Iris.
So that I could ID the flower later, I took a photo of the label in front of the clump. Dietes Iridioides looked like some kind of iris to me and sure enough, the ‘common’ English name is African Lily. Also Fortnight Flower, which seemed odd, but like all of these common names, has a logical explanation. The individual flowers last only one day, but the plant blooms in bursts that occur at two week intervals.
What I found on the first website for Pistacia Terebinthus didn’t seem right, so I checked a few others. The sites varied a little in their emphasis but they were all in agreement as to its principal use. Turpentine.
The path led down to the lower level of the lama, where the exhibitors and vendors had set up their wares.
The most surprising sight of all was off to the side.
There were also two chiese rupestri (cave churches) but these were by guided tour only and with all the activities and demos and vendors, I couldn’t see any tours being given. I didn’t mind, as I knew I would be seeing some later in my trip. Besides, by now I was starving. One last look at the Jacaranda and I headed back to the coast.
Next: The White City