Lemoning in Limone

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.

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Malcesine, mid-June. Urban density at its most charming. A harbour, castle and a medieval centre all within a 10-minute walk.

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.

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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.

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This far north, signs are often in Italian, German and then, in third place, English.

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.

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Siora (Lady) Veronica.

Fortunately the views from the decidedly less charming ferry were as lovely as those from the schooner.

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Leaving the harbour in Malcesine.

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Behind Castello Scaligero, the faint outline of the chairlift up to the top of Monte Baldo.

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The olive-covered terraces looked just like those I’d seen over 800 km. south along the Amalfi Coast.

As we approached the landing in Limone the stone pillars that had fascinated D.H. Lawrence came into view.

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The stone pillars on the edge of town rise ‘like ruins of temples…as if they remained from some great race that had once worshipped here.’ (D.H. Lawrence)

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.

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Helpfully, the Limonaia del Castel is on Via Castello.

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But somehow I still got lost in the maze of narrow alleyways and ended up on Via Rovina.

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I can’t help thinking that living on the Road of Ruin cannot be good for one’s psyche. And what about real estate values?

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Space between the shore and the mountain is tight, but room has been made for a soccer field.

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.

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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.

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Some of the unopened buds – the part we eat – were enormous.

Eventually his wife arrived and he continued on his way – after he made sure I was headed in the right direction.

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What would it be like to live with this mountain looming over you all the time? It did not look very comforting to my unaccustomed eye.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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View from the uppermost terrace of the Limonaia del Castel.

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’.

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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.

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The ferry approaches Limone’s harbour.

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.

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A cruise on an ancient schooner. Maybe next time.

Next – an improbable garden in the far north of Italy

 

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The Rewards of Suspending Judgment

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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.

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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.

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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?

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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

Another path led back into the sun.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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 – video.corriere.it/ametiste-giganti-giardino-botanico.  No Italian needed to get a sense of how daring and remarkable a feat it was.

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

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… 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.

 

 

 

 

A Dive into Lucid Folly

Il Vittoriale degli Italiani (Shrine to Italy’s Victories) might well win the dubious prize for the site that generates the most controversy in all Italy.  Eccentric, bizarre, over the top weird but interesting, barmy (had to look that one up – it’s British for crazy), a Fascist Luna Park, megalomaniacal, a lakeside fantasy fit for a libertine and the idiosyncratic creation of a supreme solipsist are typical reactions to a visit.  One Italian described it as un tuffo nella lucida follia (a dive into lucid folly), which is what my journey to get there felt like.

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Early morning along the east shore of Lake Garda.

I was staying in Lake Garda because there were two gardens I wanted to visit that were conveniently located within walking distance of each other.  Less convenient was that they were in Gardone Riviera on the west side of the lake, which made my decision to stay on the east side something of a head-shaker until you took into account that after Lake Garda I was going to a garden in Merano which is almost in Austria – in more ways than just geography.  It was a fairly long drive and the shortest and fastest route was from the east side of Lake Garda.

My original plan had been to take the ferry that goes back and forth from Torri on the east side to Maderno almost straight across on the west side.  From Maderno it was a short bus ride to Gardone.  But when I mentioned this plan to the hotel owner he got a worried look on his face.  It turned out the local buses were not a reliable option.  Much better if I took the autotraghetto (car ferry) and drove down to Gardone.  For some reason I found this option unappealing.  Why bother fussing with the car and ferry schedule for a couple of kilometres?  Three to be exact.  So instead I decided to drive.

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In the distance the north end of Lake Garda.

Blame it on a sense of distance forged by Canada’s vast expanses.  And ignorance.  Who knew it would take over two hours to drive 66 km?  Or that part of the route along the west side had been considered perilous enough to be used for the race scenes in ‘Quantum of Solace’?

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The Via Gardesana wraps around and into the mountains along the west shore of Lake Garda.

The Via Gardesana is punctuated with warning signs – Rocce Sporgenti (Hanging out Rocks) showing smashed-up cars, and long, narrow tunnels – some several kilometres and many so narrow and the roof so low they are essentially sense unico (one way).   I got lucky.  Two cars ahead of me was a tour bus.  One of those enormous things that are no longer allowed on the Amalfi Coast.  The driver had obviously done the route before.  In some tunnels he would go over as far to the right as he could.  We’re talking inches from the rough cut walls.  Others were so narrow he started leaning on his horn as soon as he approached the entrance.  This was to warn oncoming traffic there was only room for one vehicle and it was the one he was driving.  If he slowed down at the entrance I didn’t notice it.  I just tried to keep up as he barrelled down the middle, horn blaring and ricocheting off the walls the whole time.   When we got to the end of these tunnels,  I was amazed to see a line of cars waiting patiently by the side of the road.  How did they know?

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A tour bus approaches a tunnel.  The only source of light comes from openings cut into the rock.

By the time I arrived in Gardone,  I was more than a little the worse for wear.  And hungry.  At the entrance to the Vittoriale was a bust of the man behind all the controversy – Gabriele D’Annunzio.  Depending on how you look at things, he was one of Italy’s most illustrious writers, a brilliant military hero and propagandist, a remorseless seducer and predator of women, a self-serving narcissist, debtor, Fascist and/or all-round degenerate.

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Sculptors of D’ANNUNZIO, Spirit and Substance.

Close by were a couple of plaques, extolling the delights that awaited visitors.

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The park is not only what you see.. but an overall sensory experience of the eye and ear…

To fortify myself for what lay ahead, I decided to have a bite to eat – maybe a bit of wine – beforehand.  The trattoria/pizzeria on the other side of the piazza was doing a brisk business and I heard a lot of Italian being spoken as I got closer.  Just the place.

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The property is 9 hectares.  22 acres.  And, as many visitors have, not too happily, written  there is a lot of climbing involved. I still had one more garden to visit in Gardone and didn’t want to waste any time – or energy – retracing my steps.  It took a lot of flipping back and forth to figure out the visitors’ guide I was given at the ticket office, which unlike the plaque below was unhelpfully on two sides – with the explanation of what the letters stood for – the various sculptures in the Galleria d’Arte – on the map side and the numbers which represented the permanent elements of the property on the other.

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Finally I came up with a plan.  Instead of continuing along the main path directly to the Prioria (Priory), which is what D’Annunzio, in typical grandiose fashion, called his home, I followed a smaller path sloping down to the right which would take me to the Parlaggio, the open air theatre meant to recall the wonders of Ancient Rome.   But first…

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…an enormous blue horse and Ugo Riva’s ‘Angeli‘.

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Il Cavallo by Mimmo Paladino. Even if you have a hard time ‘understanding’ modern art, the blue horse makes a striking effect against the blues of the lake and the far shore.

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The inaugural performance of the amphitheatre, which can hold 1500 spectators, was performed by no less than the Orchestra of the Scala Theatre. Overlooking the amphitheatre, d’Annunzio’s villa.

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The footprint of the villa is a square, medieval symbol of the underlying order of a divinely created universe. Visitors pass under the arch into a universe created by the decidedly undivine D’Annunzio.

Having seen the interior of D’Annunzio’s home years ago, I had no desire to wait around for the guided tour.  Apart from an overall sense of morbid, macabre self-indulgence bordering on insanity, and thousands of objects that one visitor described as ranging from high art to il  trash più assoluto, I have no idea how anybody can remember more than an iota of what they’ve seen.  Unless they manage to sneak in some kind of tiny recording device, which is highly unlikely because you have to surrender all your possessions to the no-nonsense people at the guardoroba – purses, cameras – and don’t think you can sneak something in kangaroo-style.  Even the smallest marsupio (fanny pack) has to be handed over.  One detail did stick for me – D’Annunzio’s bedroom, a dark, unsettling space, is three steps up from the room next to it.  But the lintel above the door is not raised accordingly, which means that all but the youngest visitors have to bend over, in effect bow, when they enter the room.  The effect was not lost on Mussolini, who already had a lot of issues with D’Annunzio.

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The otherwise lovely 18th century façade is littered with coats of arms and sundry heraldic emblems – the Venetian lion, Medici balls, the Florentine Iris.

While Mussolini admired D’Annunzio’s bravery and intellect, he also saw him as a serious potential rival and one that he would have liked to get rid of.  But Mussolini’s hands were tied.  D’Annunzio was a national hero. His fearlessness – recklessness, some might say – during World War I had done wonders for the Italian morale, even though from a strictly military point of view his two most legendary excursions were, as one military man put it, sterile.

In the first, which became known as la beffa di Buccari, (the Bakar prank) he captained one of three motor boats that in February of 1918 managed to enter the Austrian- controlled Bay of Bakar along the Croatian Adriatic Coast and set off six torpedoes, one of which actually exploded, before beating a hasty retreat, all under the incredulous eyes of the Austrians who didn’t attack because they didn’t believe enemy boats could have possibly come so close.  No material damage was sustained by the Austrians, but non importa! The stunt was as great a morale booster for the Italian troops as it was devastating for the Austrians.  If it hadn’t taken place in the context of war it could have been made into a comedy sketch.   Later that year D’Annunzio came up with another beffa that was equally ludicrous.

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As if the weather gods were trying to make up for all the low temperatures on Lake Como, it felt like the height of summer. To the right of the villa was a path that promised some shade.

As well as an able seaman D’Annunzio was also an experienced pilot, who despite having lost an eye on a previous mission, proposed a 1,000 km flight, 800 of which would be over enemy territory.  Despite D’Annunzio’s reputation, the comando supremo initially nixed the plan.  They didn’t have any motors that could carry a plane that far.   But the ever resourceful D’Annunzio had already taken care of that glitch, having hired an up and coming young technician, Ugo Zagato, (who would later go on to work with Alfa Romeo as well as design his own vehicles), to tinker with the plane’s motor.  Somehow, war rations and all, D’Annunzio managed to get a plane and fuel for a trial flight and the commander gave what must be one of the most bizarre go-aheads in war history.   The operation was to be of a strictly political and demonstrative nature; there was to be no damage whatsoever to the enemy.  So, one might wonder, they were going to fly 800 km into enemy territory to do … what?  To drop leaflets on the city of Vienna, exhorting the locals to come to their senses and acknowledge the predestined Italian victory.  D’Annunzio of course felt he should author the leaflets, but what he came up with was so florid and convoluted no-one could understand it, let alone translate it into German.  This of course created a sticky situation but eventually another, more prosaic author was found and 350,000 leaflets – and not a single bomb – were dropped on the city, whereupon the Italians turned around and flew back home.  With no counter attack by the Austrians. Two Austrian fighter planes had seen the little formation approaching and had raced back to warn HQ, but again, no-one believed it could be done.

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The path led to a terrace – ostensibly a rose garden…

Eventually Mussolini came up with a solution.  ‘D’Annunzio is like a bad tooth,’ he explained. ‘Either you pull it or cover it with gold’.  He decided to cover D’Annunzio with gold, showering him with titles – Prince of Montenevoso, Duke of Gallese – as well as all sorts of three lettered honours – OMS (Military Order of Savoy), CMG (War Merit Cross), MVM (Gold Medal of Military Valour). And, perhaps even more astutely, he provided him with more or less unlimited funds to do whatever he wanted at the Gardone property, and plenty of drugs, including cocaine, all of which was designed to keep him occupied and, like Cardinal Ippolito d’Este who had been sent by a worried pope off to govern Tivoli centuries earlier, far from Rome and the seat of real power.

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… but In late September the roses were struggling. Instead, what really caught your eye were the sculptures

From the rose terrace it was all uphill and the path got fairly uneven in places.

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In a country where women totter along cobblestone alleys on calf-destroying stilettos, this sign was a first.

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Laghetto delle Danze. The Little Lake where concerts and dances were held for the pleasure of D’Annunzio and his guests.

On the other side of the laghetto was a flat grassy area, the setting for another art installation.  Whatever were they?

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I’ll let the artist explain.

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Allons enfants. (Let’s go children). Il Tuono di Pan (Pan’s Thunder) fra Arte e Natura.

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From the turtle meadow it was a lot longer and steeper uphill climb that it had looked like from the entrance.  Good thing there were lots of great views to stop and take in along the way.

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When I finally reached the top I was speechless.  And it had nothing to do with being out of breath.

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On top of the Fascist-style mausoleum in which D’Annunzio and the soldiers who served under him were buried, the soldier-poet’s beloved dogs stand – or lounge – watch.

Just when you think you’ve seen it all, on the way down, among the olives and cypresses, is what looks remarkably like a ship’s mast.  Impossibile, you say.

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Comparisons of il Vittoriale to a journey through Alice in Wonderland territory are not totally exaggerated.

 

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I know we’re supposed to keep an open mind, but this was way, way too over the top for me.  A naval ship anchored half-way up a hillside!?

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A plaque along the path ‘explained’.   Nave Puglia – the Ship of Puglia – was donated by the Italian Navy in 1925.  The Commander had it ‘mounted’ on the promontory with the bow facing the Adriatic, ready to set sail and liberate the Croatian Coast…

Not surprisingly, I suppose, a fountain nearby was getting significantly less attention.  It is called the Fontana del Delfino and is meant to recall the Oval Fountain at Villa d’Este in Tivoli.  (A Cure for Road Rage and Other Ailments, March 1, 2015)  An Italian visitor turned to her friend and muttered,  Mah.  Senz’ acqua non è un gran che.  (Humph.  Without any water it isn’t much.)  Even with water I still didn’t think it would be un gran che.

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Water-free Fountain of the Dolphin.

As I continued down the hill,  the sense of disconnect between the Vittoriale and the natural beauty and serenity that surrounded it became stronger and stronger.  In ‘History’s People’ Margaret Macmillan examines how the personal attributes of powerful individuals have, for better or for worse, shaped our world.  What if the life goal of the obviously brilliant D’Annunzio had been something other than self-glorification and glory?  What if il Poeta, who for all his failings, was adamantly opposed to Hitler, had been Il Duce instead of Mussolini in the years leading up to World War II?

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If you’d like to know more about D’Annunzio, check out ‘Nine Ways of Looking at D’Annunzio’, a fascinating article by Luciano Mangiafico – love the name – ‘Fig Eater’ –  in  Open Letters Monthly, an Arts and Literature Review.  And if that leaves you wanting more,  try ‘The Pike: Gabriele D’Annunzio – Poet, Seducer & Preacher of War’ by Lucy Hughes-Hallett.  In the words of one reviewer, Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio might have been a repellent human being, but he’s perfect for a page-turning biography. (Ian Birrell, Feb. 4, 2013, The Observer)

Next – a Botanical Garden that doesn’t feel like a Botanical Garden

 

 

 

 

 

 

A New Year and a New Lake

Felice Anno Nuovo!  What better way to start the New Year off than exploring a new lake. And what a lake!  Poets have been ‘liking’ it for centuries –  from Catullus in the 1st century B.C. to Dante in the 13th century,  Goethe in the 19th and more recently the likes of D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce and Tennyson.  So have wind surfers.  OK, maybe not for quite so long, but with all the regattas and surfing schools they’re catching up, numbers-wise, on those artistic types.  And there is lots for the wine lovers too.  This is Bardolino, Valpolicella territory.  Wine tours – con degustazione of course – galore.  And olive groves.  And over forty kilometres of beach.

Nowadays it’s called Lake Garda, but for centuries it was known as Lacus Benacus.  Long before the Romans arrived it was occupied by the Celts and benacus comes from a Celtic word meaning ‘horned’.  The Celtic name lingers on in place names like Torri del Benaco, for me the loveliest – and calmest – picture postcard perfect village on the lake.  And where I would be spending the night.

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The south end Lake Garda.  So near but so unlike Lake Como .

Personally I think the alphabet soup metaphor gives a better idea of Lake Garda’s shape. If Lake Como is an inverted ‘Y’, Lake Garda is more like a ‘b’.  A spidery, crooked ‘b’.   In the museum at the entrance to the Grotte di Catullo (which is not a grotto but the remains of the Roman villa where Catullus may, or may not have stayed) is an illustration of how this ‘b’ came to be.

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View of the glacier during the Riss Ice Age (circa 250,000 years ago).

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Because Lake Garda is so big – it’s Italy’s biggest lake and at 370 sq. km. over twice the size of Lake Como.  A mere puddle of course compared to the Great Lakes back home – Lake Superior is over 82,000 sq. km. and even the bathtub we call Lake Ontario is almost 19,000, but being in Italy does strange things to one’s sense of distance. In ogni modo – because it’s so big, I had decided to visit a picture perfect village complete with medieval castle and narrow cobblestone alleys on the way to my hotel in Torri del Benaco.  It made perfect sense.  Even the weather was on board.  Brilliant blue skies and the hottest temperatures I’d seen in days. What I had not counted on was that with the sudden return of bel tempo, all of northern Italy seemed to have the same idea. Sirmione is by far the most visited site on the whole lake.  By Italian as well as foreign tourists.  It’s at the south end of the lake, close to the A4, which means that you can have a nice breakfast in Milan – or Venice (Milan is 10 km closer) – and arrive in Sirmione in time for an even nicer lunch.

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Sirmione and the so-called Grotte di Catullo, the most northerly villa of ancient Rome.

On the glacier illustration Sirmione is at the north end of the black line that juts up, mid-point, from the south end of the lake.  Having visited Sirmione years ago I knew how narrow that black line was in real life.  I also knew there was a road that followed the  shore from Desenzano, a few kilometres to the south west, to Sirmione, so when I saw signs warning of code lunghissime (koh-day loong-ghee-see-may) at Peschiera, the exit to Sirmione, I decided to skip the ‘very long tails’ and get off in Desenzano.  Ingorgo is the Italian word for ‘a rapidly rotating mass of water in a river or sea into which objects may be drawn, typically caused by the meeting of conflicting currents’.  A whirlpool.  It is also the word Italians use for what I knew would be transpiring as cars streamed off the highway at the Peschiera exit.  Even though things slowed down to a crawl once I was on the peninsula, I was still feeling quite delighted with the way I had avoided most of the traffic.  It was just a few hundred metres to the lot at the entrance to Sirmione where I was going to park my car, just as I had done on my previous trip. Then I saw the barricade.   As I continued to crawl forward, I watched in disbelief – the parking lot is HUGE – Sirmione is essentially a pedestrian zone – virtually everyone who visits the town has to park in it – as a couple of rather frazzled-looking vigili urbani waved the cars ahead of me to the left.  Back towards Desenzano.

I found a parking spot in a lot about 2 kilometres away.  I know it was 2 km because I had asked the vigile urbano who refused to let me though where I was supposed to park.  You can get all judgey on me if you like, but unless you’re a saint, you too might have found yourself asking similarly inane questions.  I took off a few layers.  And the shoes I was thoroughly sick of by this time – they hadn’t ever really dried out while I was on Lake Como.  I thought for a minute or two about just skipping the whole thing and coming back another day.  But as with the other two lakes, all that gorgeous scenery – the mountains, the bays – makes getting from one place to another on the narrow, single lane roads a challenge.  It would take at least an hour to cover the 44 km between Sirmione and Torri.  There were other places I wanted to visit on the lake – including two gardens that would take up a whole day for sure.  If I didn’t go to Sirmione now, that was it.  I fooled around for a minute or two with the idea of driving all the way to Desenzano – I was already halfway there – and taking the ferry from there to Sirmione, but then I looked around at all the other rerouted visitors, almost all of them Italians, many with strollers and toddlers, as they set out on the long walk and I joined them.

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In this photo, taken on a previous trip, the ferry from Desenzano approaches Sirmione.  Behind the landing the Castello Scaligero with the arch – in the whitish bit  – through which visitors have been entering the town since the 13th century.

On my previous trip I hadn’t experienced any problems parking because I had stayed in the centro storico of Sirmione.  Hotel guests and vehicles providing essential services are given special passes to enter the town.  But what first-time visitors don’t know is that they have traded the fry pan for the fire.

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In the 13th century one of the best ways to defend a strategically located outpost was to build an enormous castle surrounded by a natural moat.

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When the castle was built, the fortified walls provided a formidable defence against attack.  In the early 1400’s, when the Venetians seized control of Sirmione, they added further fortifications to the outer walls and widened the harbour, rendering it virtually impregnable.

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Since, unlike other visitors, I didn’t have a drone handy, the highest shot I could get was from the top rampart.

What with all the hotels and stores and restaurants, not to mention the tempting gelaterie for us tourists, there isn’t much room left for vehicles on the narrow peninsula.   The streets – or what passes for streets – are not just senso unico (one way).  In places they are senso unico in alternating directions.

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The red light means this one way stretch is, for the moment, one way in favour of the oncoming traffic.

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No running a red light here.

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There may not be much room for cars but in Italy room is always made for a garden.

In all the places in Italy and France I’ve visited there are a few plants that really stand out. One of them isn’t even in a garden.  It’s a Bougainvillea that sprawls across a building in the centre of Sirmione.

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July 2006.  Whatever is it growing in?

What would it look like almost 10 years later?  Would it have even survived?

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September 2015. Not only has it survived, it is absolutely thriving.  It even looks as if it’s being trained over to the balcony on the right.  And on this hot, sunny day the only indication that it is fall are the brown areas – dead flowers yet to be blown off.

By now I was starving.  Fortunately, unlike parking spots, there was no shortage of places to eat.  I found a lovely outdoor terrace and ordered an antipasto.  Don’t be fooled by the appearance of those lumps at the corners. They’re a Venetian specialty – Baccalà mantecato alla veneziana – a creamy, garlicky mixture made with cod, olive oil and garlic.  When I finished the crostini, I started mopping it up with bread and then I just used my fingers.

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Mushed cod, the Venetian way. Delizioso!

After lunch I headed to the tip of the peninsula.

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The flat stretches of limestone make great spots for picnics or just lying out in the sun.

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Almost at the northern tip of the peninsula. Here at its widest point – almost 18 km – it’s hard to imagine this same body of water narrowing to only 3 km at its north end.

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The so-called Grotte di Catullo where Catullus is said to have spent his summers.

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The site is enormous. Not the type of thing poets nowadays can usually afford.

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The aquamarines and light blues would be commonplace in the Mediterranean, but this far north, along the shores of a lake, they come as a complete surprise.

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View to the west shore and the site of two amazing gardens I would be visiting dopodomani (after tomorrow).

I would have loved to linger, but apart from lunch I had been walking for hours and I still had that 2k walk back to the car.  And then the drive around the ‘horn’ and up the east shore to my hotel, which I realized when I checked my directions again was actually not in Torri del Benaco, but a couple of kilometres further up the lake.  How had I missed that? Definitely time to get back on the road.   Hopefully before the hordes.  By the time I reached Torri the sun had already begun to take on a soft evening glow.  Beautiful but unnerving given that I didn’t know where my hotel was.

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Torri del Benaco’s Scaliger Castle.  In the foreground a smaller version of the lemon grove I would be visiting at the north end of the lake.

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Amongst the lemon trees, pomegranates loaded with ripe fruit. Maybe they have so many they leave some for the birds.

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Side wall of the castle. Suddenly, here on the east shore of Lake Garda, Venice seems much closer.

Having already had the experience, I had no desire to end up looking for my hotel in the dark, but it was such a beautiful day and Torri’s promenade had been one of my favourite places on the lake.  I figured I had just enough time for a bit of a stroll. Maybe even a glass of something local.

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A few day trippers wait for the ferry.

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Close to the ferry landing tables covered in white linen were set out along the shore.  There had been a wedding.

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Apart from the dried Eucalyptus and the oak leaves, the rest of the bouquet is made of live flowers. Presumably there is a container of water hidden in there somewhere.

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On the other side, a site that is becoming increasingly common all over Italy – fathers holding their offspring. On the far right a surprising number of wedding guests were still sitting at the tables.

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As the sun sets, a few more photos of the beaming bride.

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Restaurants and caffès line the promenade. This was my favourite last trip. This time too.

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I had a glass of bianco frizzante della casa. House bubbly. And watched a sailboat catch the last bit of wind.

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I stayed until the sun dipped below the clouds.  My hotel was only a few kilometres up the road.  It was twilight, but not dark when I turned into the hotel parking lot. By the time I checked into my room and got freshened up it was dark and dinner was being served on the terrace.  I put on a sweater and sat down at a table right next to the lake.  When I asked the waiter, he recommended the house specialty, lavarello alla griglia.  I’ve given up on trying to learn the names of all the fish, but I have learned to trust waiters – especially when the fish is local.  I ordered verdure grigliate -an assortment of grilled vegetables – to go with it and a bottle of wine.  I would be staying here for three nights and they would keep the bottle for me.

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Lavarello and grilled vegetables accompanied by the sound of gentle waves lapping at the shore.  Delizioso!

Next – two gardens that break the mould.