Island Fever

In keeping with the ‘outdoors, by the sea’ theme of our Mother-Daughter trip, islands played a big role in our itinerary.  We visited three – well-known Capri, lesser known Ischia and the even lesser known island of Procida.  Along the way a funny thing happened.  The more time I spent on the islands, the longer I wanted to stay.


On the ferry to Procida.

Like all true Canadians – which excludes Snowbirds and anyone living in the Banana Belt of southern Vancouver Island –  I know all about Cabin Fever – a seasonal malady that strikes anyone who is stuck indoors in confined quarters for an extended period because of an aversion to one or all of – freezing rain, clothes soaked by slush from the spray of passing cars, slipping on black ice, clearing snow off the front and rear windshields – and don’t forget the roof!, digging her car out of the packed ice/snow mound left by a snow plough.  I could go on, but that’s the gist of it.  I wondered if there was such a thing as ‘Island Fever’, which instead of the dreary cabin syndrome would be the blissful state of longing I was experiencing?  I decided to take a meander around the web to see if anything came up.  Up popped pages of sites.  Who knew?  It’s a real thing.  One site described it as ‘a psychological illness involving feelings of  claustrophobia and a sense of disconnection from the world’. It sounded a lot like Cabin Fever, except that instead of being shut in by snow and ice, the feelings of claustrophobia came from the closeness of the shoreline, which presumably the afflicted were walking along.  In bare feet.  Under blue skies.  The fact that so many of the discussions focused on Hawaii didn’t help.


Earlier, on the ferry from Sorrento to Ischia we had passed by an enchanting little island complete with pastel-tinted buildings hugging the shore. I hoped it was Procida.

I dropped ‘island’ and googled ‘fever’ to see if something more helpful came up.   While it would be a stretch to call what I found relevant, I did come across enough bits and pieces to make my fever-focused, virtual peregrination well worth the time spent.  Naysayers of random web-surfing take note.  You just have to exercise a little discipline.  No lingering on the Mayo Clinic site, that venerable source of infinite maladies, or you’ll soon be convinced you’ve got some terrible disease you’d never even heard of.  Although – even they conceded that a fever might not be all doom and gloom, but rather ‘a sign that something out of the ordinary is going on in your body.’  The Mayo clinic somehow led to ‘Roman Fever’, Edith Wharton’s short story of two American women reminiscing by the Colosseum in Rome with a brilliant twist at the end.  And then, in the byzantine ways our minds work, ‘Roman Fever’ reminded me of ‘The Painted Door’ by Sinclair Ross, another short story with a heart-stopping ending.  Worried that things might be getting out of hand I shut down Google.

During our stay on Ischia, rather than dragging my daughter around the gardens, which I had already visited (‘Leaving Room for a Little Whimsy’, Jan 19, 2014; ‘Are Gardeners All a Little Crazy?’ – La Mortella, Part I, Jan. 26 and A Sense of Place – La Mortella Part II, Feb. 2, 2014) we took a ferry to Procida a few kilometres north of Ischia.  I was curious to see the island where much of Il Postino was filmed.  Not Kevin Costner’s post-apocalyptic ‘Postman’;  I’m talking about the 1994 movie by Michael Radford which portrays the fictional relationship between a postman and the exiled Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda.

Procida’s main harbour is on the north-east end of the island.  It took me a while to get used to that.  Its being on the north side, I mean.  My inner compass had impazzito (im-pats-zee-toe).  Gone crazy.  Again.  It had already happened on previous trips to Sorrento.  Sorrento is on the south shore of the Bay of Naples, which means that when you’re standing at the railing next to the Villa Comunale waiting for the perfect sunset shot of Vesuvius across the bay you’re facing NORTH.   But it always feels as if I’m facing south and the sun is setting where it should be rising.  In this ‘Post-truth’ era we’re apparently now living in, it’s an unsettling feeling.


Approaching the ferry harbour of Procida. On the NORTH shore of the island.

I’m beginning to wondering if my inner GPS’ bias for the south whenever I’m this side of Rome has anything to do with having grown up inundated with visions of the ‘Great White North’.  As if in this sun-drenched part of the world, the ‘True North’, as we northerners know it, does not exist.   Luckily Procida is small – barely four  –  so it doesn’t matter.  No matter which way you head, you’ll come to the sea before you even know you’re going the wrong way.


The façades of the buildings along the harbour were still in the shade, but given the laundry hanging from the balconies, not for long.


A carousel lends an earthy touch to  Santa Maria della Pietà.

Close to the church a narrow road leads up to Terra Murata (Walled Village), the highest point of the island, where the ancient settlers were somewhat protected from a seemingly endless line of would-be conquerors.


The road got steeper the higher we climbed. I’m sure of it.


Doesn’t papyrus have to grow in water?


From the ferry it was obvious why the early settlers had chosen this part of the island for their walled village.  From a distance it hadn’t looked as if the climb would be that arduous.


Luckily there were lots of places that required a stop to take a photo or two.  Or to catch your breath.

When we finally reached the top, 91 meters above sea level, we had a quick look inside the Abbey of St. Michael.



It was fascinating – and I’ll come back to it on my next visit, which I’ve already booked – the best antidote to the post-trip blues being to book the next trip – but for now we were in the mood for blue skies and the sea air.  We started down the hill to Corricella, the village of pastel-tinted homes I had wondered about on our way to Ischia.


Corricella is as far as we got.  Who knew 4 sq.k. could be so big?


To the left of this photo, at the end of Procida, a pedestrian bridge leads to the even smaller island of Vivara, a protected nature reserve.


I tried not to think about the fact that the only way to the ferry was back up these same stairs.  I did not want anything to spoil my enjoyment of the wine I was going to have with lunch.

We walked along the harbour checking out places to eat.  Apparently, when she was younger, this used to drive my daughter crazy.  Now she enjoys the search as much as I do.  At least I think she does.



Definitely not Capri.  In fact I don’t recall ever having seen a real fishing boat anywhere in Capri.


How do they ever keep those nets in order? Next visit I’ll try to be at the harbour in time to watch the boats come in.


It was the view from the terrace of La Lampara, the white building with blue trim at the far end of the harbour, that made us choose it for lunch.


The cozze grigliate – grilled mussels – a first for both of us – washed down with local white wine were as lovely as the view.

While we waited for our order to arrive I used up a lot of space on my camera’s chip taking shots of the harbour. The reflections reminded me of Burano, the island of lace-makers and fishermen north-east of Venice.  Does the water here ever get as still as it does along the canals?  I can’t wait to come back and see.


Next – A different side of Capri






Back to Reality

We left the Four Seasons palace in Florence and returned to the reality of Mom’s budget.  We took the train – seconda classe – to Sorrento where it was pouring.  There are a lot of Italian phrases to describe how I felt about this, but I discovered when I was teaching that unlike the finer points of grammar and articulated prepositions, all I had to do was utter una parolaccia (pah-roh-latch-chuh) once and it was seared in my students’ minds forever – so let’s just say I was irritata.


My favourite place in Sorrento.  The bizarrely-named, tiny Marina Grande.

To get an idea of the Sorrento I had hoped to show my daughter, have a look at ‘Buon Giorno! First day back in Italy’ (Oct. 19, 2014)


My daughter’s purpose in posing for this photo was to show me why I should not wear this hat, no matter how hard it rained.

The B&B I had booked in Sorrento overlooked Marina Grande, the ancient fishing harbour and my favourite part of the city.  It’s an easy and fascinating, 15-minute walk downhill through the historic centre.  But not when it’s raining a catinelle.  Buckets.  The only cab driver in sight said it would be 20€, an exorbitant sum, as we both knew.  And, he warned me, he could not take us the whole way.  The charge was esagerato, but I knew he was not putting me on about how far he could go. I’d already stayed at this B&B and knew the last part was too narrow for even the smallest vehicle.  But you’ll go as far as you can, I pleaded.  He did.


The laneway to the B&B is not easy to find and definitely not for any kind of vehicle.

We had a fabulous fritto misto at a table set back from the harbour and then went for a stroll but our hearts were not in it.  Some places are meant to be experienced under sunny skies.


Hidden behind those dark clouds is Vesuvius. No spectacular sunsets this trip.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I woke up the next morning.


Blue skies. And a rainbow!

We had a quick breakfast and hurried down to the large, commercial harbour which confusingly, is called Marina Piccola (Small Harbour), to catch the 9:40 am  ferry – the one and only daily ferry – to Ischia.


The ancient harbour as it’s meant to be seen. Our B&B, Casa a Mare, is the low, gray building just to the left of the colourful palazzi.

It was bittersweet to leave on such a beautiful day, but I was anxious to see our next lodgings.  On my previous visit to Ischia I had visited the Castello Aragonese off the north-east tip of the island.  (‘Una Passeggiata ad Ischia’, Feb. 9, 2014)


Castello Aragonese, May 2012

This time I had booked a room in the castle.


The graphics are compliments of my daughter. I have no idea how she added them.  (I probably didn’t need to point that out.)


In keeping with its origins as a monastery, the room, while not ascetic, was very simple.  But with views like this it could have been  austere and we would have loved it.

We gorged on photos and then finally dragged ourselves off to have lunch.


It was my daughter’s idea to open the windows just wide enough to catch the reflections.


On our first foray into town I discovered there was one downside to my daughter’s enthusiasm for our castle hotel.  She was enchanted with the cobblestone tunnel that was the only way up to the castle before elevators were invented.  (For the record, the castle is 113 meters a.s.l.)


Some of the best views of the castle are from the wharf at the end of the causeway. When I’m not bending over backwards, it appears I spend a fair bit of time on my knees.

As we walked along the main street I overheard scraps of conversation and was, as always, surprised to hear something that sounded a lot like napoletano, the dialect of Naples.  The  same thing happens in Capri. No matter how many ferries I’ve taken between the islands and the mainland – full of locals going to work or to doctors’ appointments or to do some shopping – I still have a hard time digesting how closely Capri and Ischia are tied to Naples.  To my visitor’s eye, they seem worlds apart from that sprawling, gritty city.


Forza Napoli‘ (left side of taxi) shows which soccer team this cab driver cheers for.

We walked all the way to the harbour we’d arrived at a few hours earlier and I was thrilled to see the restaurant I’d eaten at years before was open.  Luckily the water level wasn’t quite as high as the last time.


The mozzarella for this Insalata caprese had been brought over from Naples that morning.


Fritto misto. We thought the one we’d shared in Sorrento would be hard to beat. Now we weren’t sure.

One evening we went for a walk along the shore.  I was hoping there would be a good sunset to make up for the one we had missed in Sorrento.



We saw a bar up ahead that looked open.  A good place to have an aperitivo and watch the sunset.  As we got closer I became a little uneasy.  It was even more rustic than I’m used to and there didn’t seem to be anybody around.  When I finally tracked down someone to take our order, the young man initially struck me as dodgy.   I began to feel uncomfortable again about ten minutes later when he still hadn’t returned with our order, which was pretty straightforward – an Aperol for my daughter and un bicchiere di bianco for me.   I hadn’t counted on him preparing a special tray for his foreign lady guests. In retrospect he was probably just shy.


They say the sunsets over Forio on the west coast of the island are the best…


…but I doubt the storm clouds over Forio were putting on a more dramatic show than these ones.

Next – On the Postman’s Island




Una Passeggiata ad Ischia

After an idyllic morning in the gardens of La Mortella it was time to return to the real world.  I took the bus to Ischia Porto, where, ironically, I ended up spending most of my time while on the island.  Actually grew quite fond of the little village.  The restaurants that line the harbour may have had something to do with that.


Every day they try to lure passersby with fantastical Natura Morta (Dead Nature), an expression that has always struck me as only marginally less bizarre than our English “Still Life”.


A sign of global warming or was the island sinking?

While I strolled along the quay checking out the restaurants, I noticed the alarmingly high water level, but it wasn’t until I got back home and had a look at this photo on my computer screen that I noticed the sign.

Frutti di mare misti. Delizioso!

After lunch I headed for the rocky outcrop hanging off the north-east tip of Ischia.


Castello Aragonese

Being an island in the Bay of Naples is, of course, a large part of Ischia’s present-day allure.  But in the past, being stuck out in the middle of the sea meant one thing only – vulnerability.   Over the centuries Ischia was attacked by Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, Normans – it’s probably easier to list who didn’t attack it.  And, as if marauding invaders didn’t give the islanders enough to contend with, there were the island’s volcanic origins that made themselves felt now and then.  When Mt. Epomeo erupted at the beginning of the 14th century and destroyed their homes, they decided enough was enough.  They abandoned the “mainland” and fled to the shelter of the nearby islet.

Over the centuries various invaders added bits and pieces to the original fortress which had been built by Greek settlers around the 5th century B.C.  In the 15th century, Alphonso of Aragon did a major rebuild and joined the islet to the mainland.  From then on, the former island was known as Castello Aragonese.  It’s hard to imagine a thousand families, a convent, an abbey, a dozen or so small churches and a garrison all huddled together on this small hunk of magma.


Alphonso’s causeway.

By this time I had figured out, more or less, how the local naming thing went.  The isola (island) is called Ischia.  You know this already, but pazienza (patience)!  On the north shore of Ischia Island is a comune (municipality).  It is also called Ischia.  This Ischia is divided into two sub-Ischias:  Ischia Porto and Ischia PontePorto means “harbour”, so Ischia Porto was obviously the area where the ferry landing and my favourite restaurants were located.   Ponte means “bridge”,  so I had assumed Ischia Ponte was the name of the causeway.  But that would be putting two and two together.  Ischia Ponte is the name of the town.  I never did figure out where Ischia Porto ended and  Ischia Ponte began.  In any event it was a lovely 10-minute walk from the town to the former islet.


And yes, it was from the castle that I took that first shot of Ischia Porto.


Another bellissima giornata and, even though it was only May, surprisingly hot.

Wild Mesembryanthemum.  Is it really just growing out of the stone?

Wild Mesembryanthemum. Is it really just growing out of the stone?


Lantana (the tree-like plant on the left with the orange and yellow flowers) and bougainvillea flank the entrance to the Casa del Sole (House of Sun).  Look at what they’re growing out of.   I’ve seen “Magic Soil” for sale at nursery stores back home, but “Magic Rock”?


There isn’t much left of the Cattedrale dell’Assunta.


A plaque on one of the side walls explains what happened.

“The ruins of the cathedral.  Dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption, it was built in 1301 by the local inhabitants from the ruins of the destroyed city of Gerone. On December 27, 1509 the wedding ceremony of Princess Vittoria Colonna and the Marquis of Pescara Ferrante d’Avalos was celebrated.  The style is Romanesque, with 18th century Baroque enhancements.  It  collapsed under the British cannon attack of 1809.”

Part of the ceiling had been removed to show the original.

Part of the ceiling had been removed to show the original structure.

There was a young woman standing nearby in a uniformish-looking outfit.  Some Italian uniforms are so elegant it can be hard to tell.  Was she was a guide or a security guard? She was definitely keeping a close eye on us visitors.  From her comments about the ruinous state of the church, I got the feeling that those English cannonballs still touched a raw nerve with the locals.


The stone cupola behind the Casa del Sole is La Chiesa dell’Immacolata.  Attached to it and down a few steps is the Convento delle Clarisse.  Most of the Clarisse nuns were of noble ancestry.  For them, life on the islet was not a sanctuary. They had not chosen the cloistered life, but had been brought here by their families.  Usually when they were mere babies.

There is no primogeniture in Italy.  Who would have guessed?  In a society riddled with centuries-old traditions of male dominance.  I first came across this cultural anomaly while doing some research after visiting a garden in Tuscany.  (I’ll write more about it when we return to Tuscany – which, given the way this Canadian winter is going, won’t be any time soon.)  However, even without a custom that aristocrats – male aristocrats – throughout Europe have found very handy throughout the centuries, Italy’s aristocrats never worried much about their estates being fractured.  Whenever their procreational activities had the unfortunate result of producing female offspring – creatures that might one day grow up to be potential heiresses – they had a handy remedy.  To paraphrase Hamlet, they would send them to the nunnery.


Even though I like it hot, the cooler temperature inside the thick walls was a welcome relief from the glaring sun.  That would  soon change.

I wandered around the underground rooms until I came to what I took for the WC.  Carved into the rock were two structures where presumably one could do one’s business. In Pompeii and Ostia Antica I had seen communal toilets – as well as a few other things that showed surprisingly little concern for privacy.  Even today – obviously not when we’re talking about WC practices – there is no Italian word for privacy.  When the concept comes up, Italians just say ‘pree-vuh-see’.


A reasonable assumption, wouldn’t you think?   Usable space was obviously at a premium.  Every inch of it had to be carved out of the rock by hand.

Then I saw the plaque.


“Convent cemetery.  After death, instead of being buried, the nuns were placed on seats carved out of the rock wall.”   Oh.   “The flesh decomposed slowly and the living nuns would come here every day to pray and meditate on death.  Eventually the bones were piled up in the ossuary.”

Absent from the remarkably dry explanation was any mention of maggots or stench, let alone what must have been a terrifying sight as the decaying bodies slithered into the holes.  Or whether the rotting bodies ever fell forward, splattering maggot-ridden bits and pieces onto the nuns kneeling in prayer in front of them.  Or whether the close daily proximity to disease and infection from the rotting corpses hastened the turn of the living to sit on the  “throne”.


I got out of there as fast as I could.   A path follows the perimeter of the island.  The sea breezes and views are probably wonderful just on their own, but in comparison to the macabre place I had just been in, they struck me as absolutely spectacular.

No, it's not a giant asparagus.

A giant wild asparagus.


It’s enough to break a Canadian gardener’s heart. Enormous Acanthus growing willy nilly out of the rock.
As for the enormous plant in the previous photo?
Of course, it’s not an asparagus.  It’s an Agave.  But you already knew that.


Space might have been in short supply, but a flat area was created to grow the essentials, which in this part of the world meant an orto (vegetable garden), olive grove and, naturalmente, a vineyard.  A few vines on the other side of a bougainvillea-laden fence give today’s visitors an idea of what it would have looked like.


And even if it meant chiselling it out of the rock by hand, the settlement had to have a wine cellar.

After I had done the full circle, I headed back to town, where I hoped to find a centuries-old ritual in progress.


Walking back along the shore I was surprised by the way the town seemed to turn its back to the sea.  But maybe, given all those centuries, when the sea was more likely to bring sorrow than happiness, it wasn’t so surprising after all.


One last glimpse of Castello Aragonese before I turned down one of the narrow alleys leading away from the sea.


As I’d hoped, la passeggiata was in full progress.   This is one of Italy’s most enduring and charming traditions.  Every evening, rain or shine, in villages and towns, and even a few cities throughout Italy, the locals take to the streets.  Here in Ischia Ponte, the most charming and most low-tech road barriers I’ve seen – simple terracotta planters filled with hot red and pink geraniums – are rolled out and presto! the main street is transformed into a pedestrian-only zone.  I joined the friends and families who would spend the next hour or so strolling up and down the road, catching up on the latest gossip, talking about what they had for supper last night or what they bought at the market for supper tonight – a lot of Italian conversation revolves around food – doing a little window shopping, or just enjoying each other’s company.


As far as window shopping goes, the ceramica stores are my favourites.
It was fun to imagine which one would look best back home. This red one? Such a vibrant, cheery colour.


Maybe this green beauty.

Almost 7 pm.  Time for an aperitivo. I take a seat at the local bar and watch life unfold.

Almost 7 pm. Time for an aperitivo. I took a seat at the local bar and watched life unfold.

Definitely not Toronto.

Definitely not ‘Toronto’s finest’.

After a while, since it was my last night on Ischia,  I took the bus back to Forio and headed for the best location to watch Forio’s famous sunset.


La Chiesa del Soccorso.


IMG_7396While I waited for the sun to set, I had a quick look inside.   In addition to the usual assortment of angels there was a strong nautical theme I hadn’t seen in a church before.  I imagined lots of prayers had been said for sea-faring loved ones.



Il tramonto – trah-mon-toe.

And domani?  Capri.

A Sense of Place – La Mortella – Part II

 Coppia piangente.

I continued along the path beyond William’s Rock.  What were these graceful creatures?Since none of the friends or experts I’ve sent photos to have any idea either, until further notice I’m going to call them ‘la Coppia piangente‘ ( lah cope-yuh pyan-jen-tay). The Weeping Couple.


Close-up of the flower of the ‘Weeping Couple’.

Lately though, I’ve begun to suspect they might be agaves.  I’d seen lots of them growing wild around the island.

But then again, the lower part doesn't look much like an agave.

But then again, the lower part doesn’t look much like an agave.

Australian Silver Oak - Grevilleas.  My lack of interest in names notwithstanding, this flower had such a remarkable, almost Sputnick-like shape, I had to find out what it was.

Grevilleas, aka Australian Silver Oak . My lack of interest in names notwithstanding,
this flower had such a remarkable shape, I just had to find out what it was.

This fountain was a bit too minimalist for my tastes.  But Lady Walton was very fond of it.  She loved the way the sky was reflected in the stainless steel base.

Her memorial nearby was a bit of an eyebrow raiser too.  But I was intrigued by the reference to Genius loci.


Aphrodite lounges under an ancient inscription – Genius loci.

I’d seen genius loci portrayed in a Lararium –  shrine to the household gods – in Pompeii.


The genius loci, guardian spirit of the house, in the Lararium of the House of the Vettii, Pompeii.

But what did these guardian spirits of the Ancient Romans have to do with a 20th century garden?

We have to fast forward to the 18th century for the answer.  Alexander Pope, concerned that the latest craze in garden design – the formal, highly geometric French garden – threatened to take over the English countryside, wrote a letter – actually, being the poet that he was, he wrote a poem – ‘Epistle IV to Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington’ – in which he reinterpreted genius loci as ‘sense of place’.  In it he encouraged the Earl, and with him, presumably all English gardeners, to ‘consult the genius of the place’ when designing their gardens.

Consult the genius of the place in all;
That tells the waters or to rise, or fall;
Or helps th’ ambitious hill the heav’ns to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale;
Calls in the country, catches opening glades,
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,
Now breaks, or now directs, th’ intending lines;
Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs.

Leaving aside some of the statues, I thought Lady Walton had done a brilliant job of capturing the genius loci of what was once a desolate, rocky hillside

Close by was a huge clump of Proteus.  I only know that it’s a Proteus because a friend from South Africa eventually ID’d it for me.  There are so many variations of this plant. No wonder Linnaeus named it after the original Proteus, the Greek god who could change his form at will.


It was as if the entire cycle of life was played out in that clump.



By the time you get to the ‘Crocodile Pond’ you’re almost at the top of the mountain. Whew!


There are of course no real crocodiles – although many visitors have climbed the hill expecting to see some.

The only living wildlife was this very loud frog.

The only living wildlife I could find was this very loud frog.


I was amazed that hordes of artists hadn’t set up their easels around the pond.


This section reminded me of Giverny.


The Lake

At the top of the mountain is a ‘lake’ made of blue glass pebbles.  It was a gift from an American landscape architect, Andy Cao.  I wasn’t so sure about the lake and the creatures in it, but I loved the planting around its shores.

It was time to head back down the mountain.

Another crocodile.

Another crocodile.

This trio of Mediterranean Fan Palms were so gnome-like.

This trio of Mediterranean Fan Palms were so gnome-like.


Further down the hillside, a few much-needed chairs and behind, the plant which,
in my opinion, has the all-time best common name.

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.  The flowers start off deep purple, fading to mauve and finally while.  Unusually, all three colours are on display at the same time.

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. The flowers start off deep purple, fading to mauve and finally white.
Unusually, all three colours are on display at the same time.


On the path to the Thai Pavilion, a birdhouse replica next to an Australian Bottlebrush in full bloom.




Like so many of the tropicals in this garden, to my Canadian gardener’s eyes
the flowers had such a fantastical air about them.


Lotus fills the pond in front of the life-size Thai Pavilion.

I made my way slowly to the exit.


One last glimpse of a garden where the genius loci had been truly consulted.

Are Gardeners All A Little Crazy? La Mortella – Part I

Italian gardeners have it so easy in so many ways.  All that sunshine.  A mostly temperate climate.  No late spring frosts to kill off newly planted seedlings.  No heart-breaking ice storms to bring down beloved trees.  And as far as struggling with the names of the plants they put in their gardens, what’s to learn when all those Latin names that plague us English-speaking gardeners are almost identical to the Italian?  Take the caper bush.   The Latin name is ‘Myrtus communis’.  And the Italian name?  Mirto commune.

Ostuni, la Città Bianca (White City)

Ostuni, la Città Bianca (White City)

I had first seen caper bushes growing wild in Puglia, the ‘heel’ of Italy’s boot.  I was on my way to the centro storico of Ostuni one day in early May.  Vine-like bushes spilled over the low wall by the side of the road.   They were covered with dozens, maybe hundreds, of utterly charming little flowers.


Myrtus communis

Myrtus communis

Further down the road I noticed a vecchietto (old man).  He was muttering unhappily to himself as he rummaged around in the bushes, putting whatever he found in a plastic shopping bag.  A local, one-man clean-up operation? While I was still fiddling with the photos he caught up with me.  We exchanged ‘Buon giorno’s’ and he gave a nod of approval at my camera.  “Una bella pianta”, he declared.  (A beautiful plant.)  Then he showed me what was in his bag.  Hundreds of unopened buds.  A shadow of disapproval must have crossed my face, but instead of dismissing me as yet another straniera (foreigner), ignorant of local customs, he left off his rummaging for a moment to explain.

Capers, those tiny, part salty, part vinegary things we put on pizzas and pasta, are the unopened buds of the flowers I had been admiring.  His unhappy muttering was because of all the buds that had opened, making them, in his opinion, sciupato – shoe-pa-toh (ruined).


Here’s a new Latin name – Myrtus sciupatus.

The surprises didn’t end there.  Since the time of the ancient Romans mirto has been revered as la Pianta dell’amore.     (Even if you don’t speak Italian, you know what that means.)  At the summer solstice young lovers would exchange branches of mirto as a symbol of their mutual fidelity.  On their wedding day, brides were crowned with a wreath of mirto, symbolizing long-lasting conjugal happiness.  During the Middle Ages, those anxious to preserve love – and beauty – relied on Acqua degli Angeli (Water of the Angels), a liquid distilled with the flower.

The other garden I had come to Ischia to visit – La Mortella – was named after the simple, yet beautiful plant.  What, you might reasonably be wondering, does that have to do with mirto?  It took me a while to figure that one out.  Although, as soon as I landed on the island and heard the locals speaking, I should have guessed.  They all spoke napoletano, the incomprehensible – at least to me – Neapolitan dialect.  I don’t know why this came as a surprise.  Ischia is less than 50 km from Naples.  And the Neapolitan word for Mirto is… Mortella.


From Ischia Island, views of the Bay of Naples

The story of how La Mortella came to be is una storia d’amore as magical and improbable as the legends surrounding its name.  I later wondered if the name was chosen because of the plant’s ability to survive the inhospitable landscape or because of the legends…

Unlike upscale, commercial Capri nearby, the island of Ischia has long been the preferred choice of the artistically inclined.  After World War II a renowned British composer and his young Argentinian wife also decided to make the island their home.  Here he continued to compose music and she set about creating a garden.  Luckily for us, in 1991 her garden was opened to the public.

It all started at a press conference in Buenos Aires for Sir William Walton, considered by many to be one of greatest English composers of the 20th century.  There, ‘across the crowded room’, as if in a real-life enactment of “Some Enchanted Evening” (you have to be ‘of a certain age’ to know this one – it’s from the musical ‘South Pacific’) he caught sight of Susana, the 22 year-old Argentinian employee of the British Consulate who had organized the press conference.  A few hours later he proposed.  And she accepted.   Two months later they married and left for Europe.  But after just a short time in England they set off for southern Italy, where they lived for the rest of their lives.  Initially I assumed the damp, dreary climate was too much for the Argentinian newlywed, but the move was Sir William’s idea.  He had been captivated by the blue skies and warmth of southern Italy ever since a summer spent on the Amalfi Coast while he was still an undergrad.


Fontana Bassa

From the entrance a path leads to the ‘Valley Garden’.  It’s a shady, humid place.  Another world.  As we make our way to the Fontana Bassa (Lower Fountain), it is difficult to keep in mind that this was once a desolate, craggy landscape.  ‘A quarry’ was how Laurence Olivier, one of Sir William’s friends, described it on an early visit.

It took seven years of back-breaking labour just to prepare the site.   Enormous boulders – remnants of previous volcanic eruptions – had to be moved.  Walled terraces had to be built up the mountainside.  And, most important of all, the severe shortage of fresh water on the island had to be dealt with.


Maybe you have to be a little crazy to be a gardener. When the Walton’s purchased the property,
it probably looked a lot like the landscape around Sant’Angelo at the south-west tip of Ischia.

When the Walton’s bought the property, fresh water was still brought over to the island by ferry and then transported around the island by truck.  But the truck drivers refused to deliver water to La Mortella during the daytime, fearing the locals would be angry if they saw good water ‘wasted on flowers.’  For years Susanna had to stay up all night to oversee the filling of her water tanks.  It wasn’t until the late 50’s, when an underwater pipeline was built from the mainland, that one of the most important elements of the garden – the fountains – could be added.


The lack of water wasn’t the only challenge.  Convincing Russell Page, at the time already a celebrated landscape architect, to come down and design the garden tested even Lady Walton’s determination.  He eventually agreed to make the trip, probably more because of his great admiration for William’s music, than out of any desire to design a garden on the island.  “You have to remember”, Lady Walton observed years later, “that Ischia was very ‘south’ in those days.”


While there is an astonishing array of colourful flowers, Page believed that too much colour could take away from the tranquillity of a garden, so he also included many ‘architectural’ plants, for their shape and foliage.

After the garden was completed – as far as a garden is ever ‘completed’ – Lady Walton was asked about her decision to turn the craggy hillside into a lush, tropical oasis.  “I must have been totally, totally mad,” she laughed.



The so-called “rooting fern” from the Canary Islands sends out long arched branches.  Where they touch the ground,
roots grow and a new plant sets off.  In this way the fern has managed to hop its way throughout the valley.


When he finally did arrive in 1956, Page apparently refused to climb the hill that was to form the backbone of the garden.  “It’s so rough and wild, darling”, he objected, “just leave it like that.”


Don’t forget to look up!  The enormous trunks of trees like the Tulipifera
are home to a wide range of epiphytes. This white orchid was one of my favourites.


Staghorn fern

In places it's hard to tell what is trunk and what is root.

In places it’s hard to tell what is trunk and what is root.


Elephant Ears remind us to listen – a reference to Walton’s music.

There are so many paths it was easy to get lost.  Pleasantly lost of course.  The first time round I took the path to the left.  According to the garden map, at the top of the steps there was a small greenhouse.  I was curious.  Why would they go to all the trouble of building a greenhouse in such a warm climate?


Spilling over the steps – Geranium maderense, from Madeira. Unusually, it has no real stem, but is held upright by lower leaves curving downward ‘like flying buttresses’. Over the years it has spread its seeds all over the garden.


There was a bench by the fountain.  Very tempting. I’m sure it would have been absolutely delightful to sit there a while, but to the left of the fountain is…


… the Victoria House

This alone was worth the trip to the island.  I read later that a scale reproduction had been mounted at the Chelsea Flower Show of 2000.

For many the star of the little greenhouse is the Victoria amazonica, the giant water lily native to the shallow waters of the Amazon.  I’d only seen it once before – ironically in a garden on Lake Maggiore in the far north of Italy.  It can grow up to 2.5 – some say 3 metres in diameter.  But, for me, its most extraordinary feature isn’t how big it can grow.   It’s what its flower does.

The white female flower, which, on top of everything else, is extremely fragrant, starts rising from the surface of the lily pad – up to a foot above the water.  At dusk it opens and stays open until late the next morning.  Then it closes.  When it reopens late that afternoon it is reddish-purple and has become male.  It stays that way until it eventually sinks into the water and disappears.  Sadly, there were no flowers the day I visited.


But there were lots of other delights.  On the left side of the pond, a profusion of orchids and other epiphytes.


La Bocca (mouth) recalls the mask on the curtain used for performances of Façade,
a composition created by Walton to accompany Edith Sitwell’s poems.


To the right a panoply of colourful tropicals.


It’s absolutely stunning of course, but it’s things like this that make me lose all interest in learning plant names.


The Latin name is ‘Thunbergia mysorensis’.  A mouthful, but manageable.  But it’s also known as ‘Indian Clock Vine’ – and ‘Brick & Butter Vine’ – and ‘Lady’s Slipper Vine’ – and ‘Dolls’ Shoes’ – and, and, and…

The only reason I was eventually able to drag myself away was because I could tell from the map that there was a lot more garden to explore.


La Fontana Grande, at the base of the Walton’s house, was the first fountain to be built.

Papyrus and water lilies fill the pond surrounding the 'Big Fountain'. And beyond the pond, giant  Australian Tree Ferns

Papyrus and water lilies fill the pond surrounding the ‘Big Fountain’.
And beyond the pond, giant Australian Tree Ferns


After they bought the land, for five years the Walton’s lived in a converted wine cellar they rented from a local peasant (we can only imagine what the locals thought of the young couple!) while their house was built.  Russell Page described the finished structure as a Minoan palace.  We do know what the locals thought of the house – they called it ‘la caserma’ (the barracks).  Over time, of course, the plants softened the edges of the caserma.   Somewhat.

To the right of the main building is the music room, where Walton worked on his music while Susana worked on the garden.  I could hear strains of piano.  It was probably visiting students rehearsing for one of the evening concerts held in the open air theatre further up the hillside.

I started the long climb up the mountain behind the Walton's home.

I started the long climb up.  I learned later that there was another way to reach the top.  By car.  There is a parking lot right next to a second upper entrance.  But I didn’t have a car and after three days touring the island by bus – three days in which I’d had plenty of time to  observe the locals drive – I was glad I didn’t.


The Upper Garden, in contrast to the shady Valley Garden, is a sunny, wild place.

It was such a small thing, but I just loved the whimsical faucets scattered around the gardens.

It was such a small thing, but I just loved the whimsical faucets scattered around the gardens.
Or maybe this regal looking cat?

And then there was this frog.  Or is it a toad?

It's a pretty steep climb, but there is so much to stop and look at along the way

Mercifully, there were lots of excuses to stop and catch your breath on the way up.


It was impossible to imagine the effort that had gone into it all.


The arches frame ‘William’s Rock’.

The day they bought the property Sir William had declared the natural stone pyramid, an ancient boundary marker, to be “his rock”.  According to his wishes, his ashes were buried inside. 


From William’s Rock, views of the bay of Forio in the distance.


Leaving Room for a Little Whimsy

Wandering around other people’s gardens, in Italy as well as back home in Toronto, I’ve come across a fair bit of cheesy, tasteless and tacky things.  There’s no place like a garden to appreciate how slippery the slope from the delightful, cheerful and amusing can be, but lately I’ve come to the view that it is possible for a garden to be a serious, beautiful and intelligent creation – and still contain a touch of whimsy – something that makes us smile, that tells us that although the creator of this garden takes garden-making very seriously, he or she hasn’t fallen into the trap of taking him or herself too seriously.

This whimsical frog  - next to a gorgeous - and horticulturally-speaking - very serious Incarvillea (Hardy Gloxinia) was in one of the gardens on the 2012 Leaside Garden Club tour in Toronto.

This self-satisfied frog, the quintessence of whimsy, next to a gorgeous, and horticulturally-speaking, very serious Incarvillea (Hardy Gloxinia) was in one of the gardens on the 2012 Leaside Garden Club tour in Toronto.

This disgruntled cherub, in one of the gardens of the Toronto Botanical Garden's annual fundraiser 'Through the Garden Gate', is one of my favourites.

A disgruntled cherub in a Toronto garden.

And during those long winter months, these light-hearted touches can acts as reminders of the beauty – and the fun – that awaits us next spring in our gardens.  In my entrance hall I have a photo of this garden angel.  For some reason, as I pass by her on my way in and out, she always makes me smile.  Maybe it’s that sense of  “Hmmph! So here I am – now what?”


Whatever we think of these creatures, that pink is definitely a perfect match for the oleander hedge below.

Of course it is a fine line and I still don’t know what to make of these bright pink statues – are they even ‘statues’? – in the Orto Botanico (Botanical Garden) in Portofino on the Ligurian Coast of Italy.


There were two gardens I wanted to visit on Ischia.  One of them was just a couple of bus stops south of my hotel.  In fact, had I known how close it was, I wouldn’t have bothered with the bus.  I Giardini Ravino is an internationally renowned botanical garden specializing in succulents and cacti.  It has won many awards and been featured on RAI TV (the closest thing Italy has to the BBC).  It attracts visitors, professionals and amateurs, from around the world.

Whenever possible I try to visit gardens as soon as they open.   The plants seem fresher. The sun isn’t as harsh.  And sometimes, if you are lucky, for a short, precious bit of time, you have the garden all to yourself.  Since I had set out so early and since the garden was so close, it was still closed when I arrived.  I was looking around for somewhere to sit while I waited for it to open when a young man called out to me,  “Buon giorno!  Vuole visitare il giardino?”  (Good morning. Do you want to visit the garden?)  When I answered yes, he invited me to come in.  I thanked him and said it was OK, I didn’t want to disturb. I’d wait until opening time.  He insisted on letting me in.


Near the entrance, the first clue that room had been made for whimsy in this garden.



And close by things seemed to be growing out of this giarra, an ancient amphora for storing wine and olive oil.


Paths meandered in all directions.


‘Organic’ takes on a whole new meaning when the rocks themselves seem to be sprouting wild, amorphous specimens.

Unlike most Italian gardens I’ve visited, many of the plants are labelled.
In the foreground a lucertola (loo-chair-toe-luh) scuttles by.

Maybe this one was a snake in a previous life.

Were they all snakes in a previous life?




Doesn’t this remind you of a family you know?

They are all just so …improbable.

They are all just so …improbable.


It was such a treat to have the garden all to myself and I was so engrossed in the plants I didn’t notice a rather distinguished man approach me.  Now even though I was in a garden, and even though it was not your typical Italian garden – nothing Renaissance or Baroque here – I was still very aware that I was in Italy.  The Italian word – or rather one of the Italian words – for getting ‘hit on’ is abbordare.  To go aboard.  It doesn’t happen that often any more – there have to be some advantages of being of a ‘certain age’ – and usually I see it coming.  “Venga!  Venga Signora!”  (Come!  Come, Signora!)  He motioned urgently for me to follow him to a section I’d already walked by.  I hadn’t seen anything of interest.  Startled, I just stood there, looking at him.  I had no desire to ‘venga‘ with him – Non ero mica nata ieri (I wasn’t born yesterday) – and how did he know I spoke Italian?  He was insistent.  “Lo so che non l’ha vista.”  (I know you didn’t see it.)  It was broad daylight.  I was in a garden for heaven’s sake.  I followed him.


I couldn’t see anything that would warrant this stranger’s interruption of what had, until his arrival, been a totally delightful experience.  I started to turn away, but he urged me to take a closer look.  And then I saw it – or rather her.  It was una pavone femmina – a female peacock.

And my guide?  Giuseppe d’Ambra, the owner and creator of the garden.  Over the years his passion for cacti, which by the way, are not native to Ischia, or anywhere east of the Atlantic for that matter – they are indigenous to North and South America.  (When the continents divided, the plants that ended up on the east side of the Atlantic took an entirely different route, botanically speaking) – had resulted in a very large collection. So large in fact that it was beginning to threaten conjugal bliss.  Eventually, with the help of a promising, young local landscape gardener, he started transforming an abandoned property on the west side of Ischia.  Soil was brought in.  The old dry stone walls – parracine – were restored and in 2003 his collection was replanted in its new home and the garden opened to the public.

Peppino, as he likes to be called, told me all about the peacock and her consort.  There had been lots of baby peacocks over the years.  A few had graced his dinner table. Delicious meat.   I’m a committed omnivore, but the thought of eating a peacock was unsettling.  To change the direction of the conversation I asked him where the male was.  “Vedrà.  Arriverà fra un po’.”  (You’ll see.  He’ll be here soon.) In the meantime he suggested I continue my explorations.



Talk about splitting a seam!



Reminds me of those days when you just don’t know which way to turn.

This one seems to have got its act together.

This group seems to have got its act together.


Roses and cacti. Who would have thought?


I was just about to enter the “valley of the damigiani”  when the most awful screeching – like a really big crow having a really bad day – shattered the tranquillity.  

IL maschio (the male peacock) had arrived.

Il maschio had arrived.


I had never been so close to a peacock wandering around in complete freedom.  The garden was going to have to be put on hold for a bit. Besides, with its tail fully spread, it totally blocked the path.


So incredibly gorgeous – and so nasty!


Then it turned its back on us. Don’t worry about your eyesight going – the ‘spokes’ look out of focus because he was rattling them so fiercely.  It sounded like bamboo poles being bashed against each other. Very intimidating.


Then the reason for all the ruckus sauntered into view…


… and nonchalantly began to peck away at the ground.  All the while her protector kept up the fierce rattling.


Eventually she found a spot to her liking on higher ground…


…and settled down.  The male stopped his racket and we could all get back to exploring the garden.

On the way back to the valley of the damigiani I saw Peppino again.  He was clearly giving a small group a tour of the garden.

When the young man who had let me in told me there were no guided visits scheduled for that morning I had been a little disappointed.  I thought I had booked one at Ravino, but I was visiting so many gardens on this trip I figured I must have got the gardens mixed up.   Luckily it was a garden that readily lent itself to self-discovery and I had quickly gotten over my initial disappointment.


Anomalie (anomalies) was the botanical term Peppino used to describe the unusual colour variations.

But when I saw Peppino with the group I thought maybe I had booked a tour after all.  I walked over and asked if I could join them – something I am sure I would never have done back home in Canada – and which I most definitely would not have done had I known that the members of the group  were all professionals – nursery owners from Sicily – who had booked a private tour.  Peppino hesitated for just a moment, glanced at the group – I couldn’t tell if they were amused or intrigued – and said “Certo!  Perchè no?”  (Of course!  Why not?)


Even the pros did a double take when we came to this one. No, it’s not another anomolia.
Peppino’s son had decorated this golden barrel cactus with a discarded opuntia ‘paddle’.


Talk about a thorn in your side! The giant Kapok tree – it can grow to 200 feet – was revered by the Mayans,
who believed that the dead could climb its thorny trunk to heaven.


Golden Barrel Cacti, aka the Compass Plant, because of its tendency to lean to the south as it grows
and a baby Cycad – which appears to be growing out of a hunk of lava. All set off beautifully, in my opinion, by one of my favourite annuals – Verbena bonariensis (that’s the purple flower on top of those improbably thin stems).


It was, even for Italy, quite an experience.  And not just because of the extraordinary variety of plants.  Afterwards, Peppino went to great lengths to ensure I understood that the tour was  del tutto particolare and in no way representative of typical tours at Ravino.  I was relieved to learn this.  He and the Sicilians had spent a fair bit of the tour arguing – rather vehemently.  Disease control struck me as the most contentious issue.   I had also been a little surprised by Peppino’s descriptions of what the various insects got up to in the garden.


I was beginning to think that perhaps here Peppino had begun to slide down that slippery slope.


As if he had read my thoughts Peppino stopped in front of this magnificent opuntia to explain that if they did not cut out the centres, the fierce winter winds that raged over this part of Ischia would topple the plants.

At one point, towards the end of the tour, he did hesitate.  He was well into what was obviously going to be a particularly juicy explanation about what a particular bug did when it got to the tree we were standing in front of.  Then he looked at me and asked, “Ma Lei, quanto è che capisce?”  (How much do you understand anyway?)   The Sicilians – all male of course – turned their attention from the tree and watched me.  Cross-culture humour is always a challenge – a challenge made even greater when you add another language to the mix, but I couldn’t resist.  Hoping they would ‘get it’, I replied,  “Probabilmente molto di più di quanto non pensi.” (Probably a lot more than you think.)  There was a second of silence and then they all burst out laughing.  They all took gardening seriously – it was their livelihood – but they could still laugh – at themselves – at me – at that bug.


Just when you think there couldn’t possibly be any more surprises.  Shades of the Mad Hatter?


Amidst all the weird and wonderful plants,
it seemed almost strange to come across something so familiar as this poppy.


On our way to one of Peppino’s most prized plants, we had to keep any eye out for things overhead too.


Wollemia Pine

Peppino led us to a remote corner of the garden.  I was surprised that he would have placed what was obviously his pride and joy, in such an out of the way location.  Then he explained.

Until 1944, when it was discovered in a remote gorge of Australia’s Wollemi National Park, scientists only knew of the existence of the Wollemia Pine through fossil records dating back 200 million years.  Given that several ancient plants,  having managed to survive for millions of years, are now endangered and facing extinction, not because of pollution or any other of the usual environmental suspects, but because of illegal poaching, the location was not disclosed to the public.  Despite this precaution, in 2005 it was discovered that some of the trees were infected by mould – probably introduced by unauthorized visitors.   In one botanical garden, the gardeners had resorted to putting their Wollemia Pine behind bars – in a steel cage – to protect it from theft.  Peppino hoped the remote location would be sufficient protection.

I thanked the group for letting me intrude on their tour and left them to continue arguing while I went off to take a few more photos.  To my surprise, a couple of minutes, later one of them – had the poor fellow drawn the short straw? – came running over to me.   “Signora, mi scusi.  Ma Lei non si è presentata.  Chi è?”  (Signora, excuse me.  But you never introduced yourself.  Who are you?)

It had never occurred to me that they might be interested in knowing anything about the straniera (foreigner) who had ‘crashed’ their private tour and once I realized what was going on, I had tried to be as unobtrusive as possible.  They hadn’t seemed at all upset.  If fact, they had showed the utmost respect and courtesy towards me throughout the tour – insisting that I go first, making sure I saw everything, glancing my way after Peppino told one of his many jokes to see if I had understood.  And I, in return for their courtesy, had violated one of their basic rules of cortesia. I hadn’t introduced myself.  I was mortified.  I sputtered something about gathering material for talks I hoped to give back home.  The ‘scout’ declared it a wonderful idea and wished me “tante belle cose” (tan-tay bell-lay koh-zay) – “all the best” – before he went back to report to the group.  When Peppino approached me later to explain about it having been una visita particolare, he also, very charmingly and with just the slightest hint of admonishment, asked me to ‘present’ myself.

As a fluent speaker of Italian, one of the things that makes travelling around Italy so wonderful is the genuine interest in the ‘other’ that I regularly encounter.  It was something that I had, perhaps because I had been so focused on the garden? – a universal place – momentarily forgotten.  I would do my best not to forget it again.


By now my feet were killing me, but happily it was once again – you guessed – l’ora di mangiare.
Antipasto misto accompanied by a botanical smorgasbord.   Buon appetito!