Simples, a Controversial Cactus and a Black Swan in a Quarry Garden

It’s time for a garden visit.  Even the most passionate gardener needs a break from poring over all those seed catalogues.  Admittedly Puglia, with its long, dry summers and all that limestone is not the first place that comes to mind when you think of gardens, but after a bit of digging around I found one that rivals anything I’ve seen in Tuscany or Italy’s northern Lake District.

I was a little worried about finding it. The hotel staff in Lecce, only 30 k to the north, didn’t seem to know anything about it and the website directions were not encouraging.  The on ramp to the SS16, the most direct route, was closed. PER CAUSE “SCONOSCIUTE”.  The quotations marks around ‘unknown’ struck me as vaguely ominous.


The garden is still something of an undiscovered treasure. As I drove along the isolated country roads I began to wonder.

It’s called La Cutura, from cute (coo-tay), local dialect for pietra (pyay-truh).  Stone.  The first time I saw the name, I did that misreading thing where we unconsciously ‘correct’ typos.  ‘Why do we make mistakes?  Blame your brain, the original autocorrector’ is a wonderfully entertaining rant/explanation by Yuka Igarashi about how our brains fool us into seeing things that aren’t there and unseeing things that are, all in an effort to help us comprehend the world around us (The Guardian, Aug. 9, 2013).   In case you think you’re immune, try ‘reading’ the following:  I cdn’uolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg: the phaonmneel pweor of the hmuan mind.   Surprised?  I was.  And also unnerved.  Although I was glad to learn I’m not the only one who yells at her computer.  Who wants to think they have anything in common with the generation that used to yell at their TV?  In fairness, those TV’s didn’t have Autocorrect, which, after much yelling and jabbing the keys, seems to have finally resigned itself to the fact that Igarashi’s first name is not Luka. There was also something perversely reassuring about Igarashi’s contention that ‘Anyone whose job it is to catch these mistakes – editors, copyeditors, subeditors, proofreaders – has to be an abnormal and malfunctioning human’.  Something to keep in mind the next time, after I’ve gone over and over a post, I still find a couple of typos lingering around.

In any event, on my first read, I – or rather my brain – had added an ‘l’ and I had ‘seen’ La Cultura.  Culture.   As things turned out, my mistake was of the felicitous kind.


The austere entrance – the courtyard of an 18th century masseria (fortified farmhouse) – gives little hint of the garden beyond.

I was somewhat sceptical of the website’s description of the garden.  Such things tend to be on the florid side in Italian, but this one was especially so.   La Cutura is not just a garden, but a museum of life that stimulates the visitor’s most hidden senses, awakening a profound desire to learn not felt since childhood. A place born in stone where the visitor is overwhelmed by the marvel of existence and the perfect harmony of nature and pleasure.

I decided to take things easy and start with the Giardino dei Semplici.  Garden of the Simples.


The cows and their calves who once grazed within the walls have long been replaced by a variety of ‘simples’.  Plants like sage, artemisia, lavender and mint, all the herbs and medicinal plants of the medieval convent garden.


Hidden amongst the roses and other showy perennials apparently there are some herbs.

Comparisons are odious, I know, but as I walked around the walled garden – which frankly looked more like a rose garden than an herb garden – I couldn’t help thinking of another garden of ‘simples’ I’d visited.  The Jardin des Simples at the Château de Villandry in the Loire.  (‘Of Cabbages and Kings, Aug. 17, 2014) With its extravagant topiary and geometrically clipped borders, it was hard to see how the French garden had anything in common with the one I was in right now.


Those medieval monks must have used a lot of rose water in their tinctures. Or maybe they made a lot of rose hip tea.

Here the plants were allowed to grow freely, to all appearances untouched by human hands.  If the herb garden was any indication, this was not like any botanical garden I’d ever visited. I headed to the Giardino Roccioso. The Rock Garden.


Was it the ancient walls that added to the sense you really were on a voyage of discovery?

If I hadn’t been following the guide I would never have guessed I was in a rock garden. The first thing that hits you is the Opuntia.  50 varieties of it and all absolutely gorgeous.


In May the Opuntia, aka Prickly Pear, looks like it’s covered in roses.

I’d always associated rock gardens with pristine, somewhat austere, alpine settings.  Or minimalist scree-type creations.


It’s hard to see the rocks for the Opuntia. Which is more amazing – the blooms or the thorns?

I tore myself away from the Opuntia to an area that looked more like a traditional rock garden.  Although even here the rocks were overshadowed by a fabulous collection of artfully half-buried amphoras.


Looking for some more atmosphere in your garden? Try a cleverly half-buried amphora or two.

The Rock Garden was designed to recreate the landscapes of South America where many of these plants originate. In addition to the Opuntia, there are 80 varieties of Agave and ‘numerous’ varieties of cacti.


As this Agave unfolds, the spikes leave a fascinating pattern.

It was the botanical equivalent of being a kid in a candy jar.


And when you remembered to look up, there were more of nature’s diversità affascinanti.


With so much going on a ground level it’s easy to miss the plants towering above.


Peppino, the owner of Giardino Il Ravino on Ischia had called these colour variations ‘anomalies’.

There are 11 gardens in all, so you have to push on if you want to see the whole thing.  Next to the so-called Rock Garden is La  Serra  (sair-ruh) di Piante Grasse e Tropicali.  The Greenhouse of  Succulents and Tropical Plants.  Note the double ‘r’ in serra.  You don’t want to be caught wishing someone a pleasant greenhouse.   (Buona sera – Good Evening – has only one ‘r’.  Bwoh-nuh seh-ruh)

In any event the outdoor gardens were so captivating I wasn’t keen on ‘wasting’ time in the greenhouse.  That would have been a BIG mistake.  Luckily, on one of my visits I managed to join a guided visit led by Dr. Salvatore Cezzi, the creator of La Cutura.


The greenhouse is enormous.  It has to be to contain the 2,000 or so succulents and tropical plants that Dr. Cezzi had collected over the previous four decades.


Despite his reputation as a world-renowned expert in the genre, Dr. Cezzi was a surprisingly low-key guide. Maybe he knew the plants would speak for themselves.


In all the confusion and amidst all those thorns it’s a wonder this plant managed to pull off even one bloom. Yet look at all those buds.


The essence of ‘higgledy-piggledy’.


I wonder if fashion designers visit places like this for inspiration.


Good thing they move so fast. I was so focused on the plants I might have stepped on one of them.


Most of the flowers were red, but there were a few pink ones.


A shoe shot. In case you thought the pink flower was one of those little gems.

Some of the plants were just plain unbelievable.


Looks so soft and furry.


They say seeing is believing, but even as I stood staring at it and even as I look back on my own (unadulterated) photo I have a hard time believing this is for real.

And then there were the monsters and the crests.  Those are actually the accepted botanical terms for what we were looking at.  The bizarre shapes are a result of a disruption in the normal function of the apical meristem, which, for the initiated like me, is the plant’s growth centre.  Its HQ.  In a nutshell, this is how it goes.  In the normal course of events the apical meristem produces new cells from a single point and the new cells push the older cells outward in a more or less symmetrical pattern.  Which is why stems and branches are roundish.  But now and then something comes along – a change in light intensity, bacteria, hail, an insect infestation, some well-meaning person over-waters the plant – and the cells start growing along a line instead of from a single point.  Now, instead of expanding outward in all directions, the plant starts to flatten, resulting in fans and crest-like protuberances.  Not surprisingly – remember the striped aberrations that went for astronomical prices during the 17th century Tulip mania? – the mutations have become coveted collectors’ items.


A modern – or is it post-modern? – sculpture by Mother Nature. Myrtilocactus geometrizan crestato.

Personally, I’m not into mutants.  As much as I love the striped tulips – especially the pale green, pink and white ones – there is something creepy about beauty caused by a virus or a bacterial infection.  A bit further on was a gorgeous, more or less normal clump – I’m not sure if the upright bits are part of the snaking thing at its base – that had sprouted flowers in my favourite colour.


With all the strange and wonderful things grabbing our attention, the group started to splinter.  Some of us fell behind while others went on ahead.  Dr. Cezzi didn’t seem at all fazed by this until, all of a sudden he got molto agitato and in a tone that was markedly at odds with the laid-back approach we’d seen so far, called us over to where he was standing.  Next to a plant we had barely glanced at.


There is more to this plant than meets the eye.

The unassuming-looking little plant is called Hoodia gordonii and Dr. Cezzi was so agitated because it is at the centre of one of the most egregious cases of biopiracy in recent times.  Nomadic Bushmen, who have long known of its ability to suppress appetite, eat the stems to stave off hunger during long hunting trips to the deserts of South Africa and Namibia, its natural habitat.  But when agents from the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research learned of its appetite suppressing qualities, they saw not a plant that helps humans survive extremely harsh conditions, but a plant that in the multi-million dollar weight-loss industry would make them a lot of money.  They lost no time patenting the plant and then sold the rights to Unilever, one of the largest packaged-food firms in the world, who began a world-wide campaign marketing hoodia products as an all-natural, easy way to lose weight.   Even the BBC (in 2003) and 60 Minutes (Nov. 21, 2004) aired shows on the miracle plant.  Many of the Bushmen had their land confiscated and taken over by outsiders eager to cash in on the craze.  As collectors and growers poached the plant in its natural habitat, the Bushmen found fewer and fewer on their hunting trips and it ended up on the (ever-growing) list of endangered plants.  Despite numerous lawsuits and controversies as to its effectiveness and safety as a weight loss tool, hoodia products are still being sold.

Chastened, we followed Dr. Cezzi outside.  There was no gradual transition.  We went straight from the desert to a lush, tropical pond.


The lily pad pond is topped up with water from a cistern that stores rain water.

Nearby was Il Bosco.  It was like we were on a mini tour of the world through its trees.  A couple of spiky ones really caught my attention.


The spiky trunk of the Silk Floss Tree from the tropical and subtropical forests of South America.

Unlike the Silk Floss Tree, which while impressive didn’t pose any real danger – unless I suppose you tripped and fell onto its trunk, a tree close by was another matter.  As we approached it, Dr. Cezzi warned us not to get too close.  The thorns coming out of the trunk of this tree were more like miniature lances.  Get impaled on one of these and you’d be in serious trouble.  Its official name is Acacia erioloba, but it’s more commonly known as the Giraffe Thorn Tree.


This native to the drier parts of southern Africa can grow up to 17 meters tall.  Perfect for a giraffe.


Somehow giraffes, who go crazy for the leaves, manage to get their tongues around the long thorns without getting stabbed.

As I learned more about La Cutura, it began to have a surprisingly familiar ring.  La Cutura was created on the site of a former limestone quarry.  There is a garden on Canada’s west coast that was also created on the site of a former limestone quarry.  Dr. Cezzi, who had created La Cutura, was an ex-banker.  The woman who was largely responsible for creating the garden in Canada was the wife of a retired cement mogul.  Close enough.  If they’d lived in the same country, they would undoubtedly have travelled in the same social circles.   And, a final serendipitous touch, the Canadians called their haven Benvenuto,  Italian for ‘Welcome’.  Although nowadays – many of you will already have guessed – the world knows it as Butchart Gardens.

At the far edge of the property was the newest addition to the gardens – the Roseto (roh-zay-toe).  Rose Garden.


Il Roseto, ‘born’ in 2010.  Dr. Cezzi was not happy. There had been a heavy rain the night before and the roses were sciupate (shoe-pah-tay). Ruined.


I thought they looked lovely.

Often, as I walk through the gardens of Italy – and France – I’ve noticed that after a while I begin to lose that sense of being in a foreign country.  In any country really.  Even if the plants and design are quite different from those back home. Even if the people around me are not all speaking English. Maybe it has something to do with some universal quality of gardens.  Or maybe with the daily exposure to languages from all over the world that are part of living in a cosmopolitan city like Toronto.  In any event, the view beyond the garden fence – the vegetables, poppies, grape vines and the huge olive trees – left no doubt as to where I was.


A classic farmer’s field in Puglia.

What did seem strange – out of place almost – was the Giardino all’Italiana.


The clipped boxwood and yew and the formal geometry of the (so-called) classic Italian garden.

It had the strangest effect on me.  As if I’d been transported back to Tuscany. The only other time this had happened was in the Giardini Giusti in Verona, where a homesick exile from Tuscany had created a garden to remind of his homeland. (In the City of Star-Crossed Lovers, Apr. 5, 2016)  The Pugliesi are very proud of their region.  Somehow I got the feeling this garden was less about a longing for somewhere else, than a desire to show that the (oft-maligned) ‘heel’ of Italy could produce a garden that rivalled those of the much more famous – and much more visited region in the north.


Way off to one side was an enormous fenced off area.  Signs reminded visitors to ensure the gates were firmly closed behind them.  This was the realm of the fauna – over 100 animali da cortile e ornamentali.  I recognized the screeching of one of the ornamental animals long before I reached the gate.


The peacock is a well-loved symbol of immortality throughout southern Italy. And it seems to know it.


I had to wait quite a while before it deigned to turn around.

There were all sorts of ‘courtyard’ animals too.


There have to be a couple of eyes in there somewhere. Love the foot covers.


Having a bad hair day?

Off to one side was a fenced area with a large pond.  Sitting on the island in the middle of the pond was the symbol of all things that cannot be, that should not be.  But, now and then are.  A black swan.  The creature that up until the end of the 17th century, when Dutch explorers ‘discovered’ them in western Australian, was believed to be as real as the unicorn. Not long before this trip I had read a fascinating book about black swans.  Only the swans in this book were of a featherless nature. They were the highly improbable, highly impactful events or circumstances that according to the author, Nassim Taleb, have been responsible for almost all major scientific discoveries, historical events, and artistic accomplishments in the history of mankind and the world.  And will continue to do so.

It’s pretty heady stuff, but it’s not as heavy going as you might think.  Taleb, clearly seeking to attract as wide a readership as possible, writes in a surprisingly un-expert style and breaks concepts down into easily digestible bits like ‘How to Learn from the Turkey’, ‘Remembrance of Things Not Quite Past’, ‘To Be Wrong with Infinite Precision’ and one of my favourites – ‘Learning from Mother Nature, the Oldest and the Wisest.’  The book is called “The Black Swan:  The Impact of the HIGHLY IMPROBABLE.”  Irresistible.


Enterprising explorers brought back black swans – the feathered variety – to England where private collectors paid handsome prices for the ‘exotics’, but over the years many of them escaped and headed to more natural habitats, where they now pose a serious threat – they are extremely aggressive, even apparently to humans – to the white natives.


When the black swan got up and headed for the water, I thought, Uh oh!,  but he and his two white companions seem to have reached some sort of détente.  Not a feather was ruffled.

It was a long walk back to the entrance, which gave me lots of time to notice things I’d missed earlier and to think about what a wonderful experience it had been.  And one I had just stumbled on by chance.  Why wasn’t La Cutura better known?  Why wasn’t it more crowded? (Not that I didn’t mind having so much of it to myself.)  In comparison, close to a million visitors go to Canada’s Butchart Gardens, every year.  Granted, and I feel safe I’m not being swayed by national pride when I say this, the gardens at Butchart are on a grander scale.  But still.  Perhaps La Cutura shares the same fate as many of Italy’s wonderful gardens. Even those in Tuscany.  There are just too many other, must-see sites vying for the tourist’s limited time.  Maybe, as more of us Slow Travellers hit the roads, there will be more visitors to lesser known treasures like La Cutura.


Posted in Puglia, Southern Italy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Back in the ‘Heel’

As the city skyline outside my window disappears in a swirl of big, fat snowflakes, memories of another view keep coming to mind.  Although unbidden, they are most welcome.  And, as  neuroscientists discover more and more ways our brains undermine our best efforts, it is reassuring to know that all those unconscious synaptic interactions can also – sometimes – have positive effects.  The memories are of a small, fishing village in northern Puglia.


The ancient port of Trani, the ‘Pearl of Puglia’.

It’s not that I’d like to be there now.  I’ve checked the meteo.  The 15-day forecast is for daily lows of 6 (centigrade) and occasionally as high as 13 in the afternoon.  As for the sky, instead of the glorious blue I saw the first time I visited in May, it’s predicted to go from variabile to nuvoloso to coperto.  Variable to cloudy to ‘covered’. (so much more vivid than ‘overcast’).  Granted, there may be a few aperture locali – local openings – but the brief pleasure these bring will no doubt be more than offset by all the piogge deboli. (pyojjay day-boh-lay) Weak rains.


When I returned a few years later – again in May – the sky was nuvoloso.


Luckily a brisk wind broke up the clouds now and then.

Although I doubt I would be drawn to them, I can imagine that some places would be enhanced by dark, brooding clouds.  Trani is not one of them.


On a sunny day the reflections of the boats and palazzi lining the harbour add an extra layer of colour.


Continuing along the harbour, the pleasure yachts give way to rugged, fishing boats.



The fishermen’s piles of ropes always look like impossible tangles to me.

Along the far side of the harbour fishermen replenished their stalls with bins they hauled off the boats tied up behind them.


Taking an order from a local restaurant?

There weren’t a lot of customers – just a few anziani (an-tsee-ah-nee).  Elderly people. I strolled around, watching, listening to the orders being placed.


In one bin, everything you need to make ciambotto, a local fish stew.

One of the vendors had a much bigger selection. While he waited for customers – or maybe a phone call from a local trattoria –  he passed the time joking around with a couple of pals. When I approached and asked “Posso?” (May I?), pointing at my camera, he struck the following pose.


As I continued to take photos of his fish, he and his pals chatted away – in pugliese, the local dialect – which, as they knew, I did not understood.


I had no idea what any of these things were. In Italian or English. Let alone pugliese.


Ghost busters.


Then, encouraged by his friends I later thought, he started coming up with more ‘interesting’ shots for me.


Finally, he pulled a long, wormy-thing out of something that had an unsettling resemblance to a part of the male anatomy.  I took the photo – or rather the bait.


I didn’t quite shriek, but the plan had worked and they burst out laughing.

Beyond the fish stalls,  towering over the harbour is the cathedral. I’m not sure why, but it struck me as an odd sight.  It wasn’t just its size, which was totally out of proportion to today’s village and would have been even more so when it was built.  It was also the location. In other places I’ve visited, whenever the locals of bygone eras built anything by the sea it was always a fortress.


Trani’s magnificent ‘Cathedral by the Sea’.

I haven’t yet found out why it was built in such an obviously vulnerable location, but I have discovered why it was built.

Trani wasn’t always a lovely, but somewhat sleepy, fishing village. In the early Middle Ages it was a prosperous, thriving metropolis with one of the most important ports along the shores of the Adriatic Sea.  Its residents included many of the great families from the Maritime Republics of Amalfi, Pisa, Ragusa and Venice, attracted by the lucrative trade with merchants to the east.  Ironically, Trani’s prosperity was also due to the Crusaders, who launched their ships from its strategically located port. Ironically, because the Crusaders were setting off to destroy the very ‘infidels’ who, only a century earlier, had destroyed the city of Canosa di Puglia, which led to Trani being chosen to replace it as the new ‘Episcopal See’.


The light hues of the local limestone, intensified by the sun reflected off the water, give the bell tower an ethereal feel.

I’d always wondered about the ‘Holy See’.  What was an ‘Episcopal See’?  It obviously had something to do with power.  Why not ‘sea’, especially in a time and region where wealth and power – and destruction – often came from the seas.  It seemed unlikely that a misspelling would have been allowed to endure for so long.  It wasn’t.  These ‘sees’ come from the Latin sedes, meaning seat or chair, symbol of the authority of the church.


At the front entrance to the church built for the new ‘see’,  the usual signs of a wedding ceremony.


The floral decorations were some of the loveliest I’d seen. Or maybe it was the backdrop.


Gargoyles and Hydrangeas by the front door.


Such a delicate touch over the arch. I wonder if there are any regulations as to what you can and cannot do by way of decoration on these ancient churches.

I stepped inside for a quick peek.  The bare walls were a big surprise.   This interior had more of the austerity of the Benedictine Abbeys of northern Italy – Sant’Antimo in Tuscany came to mind – than the typically (over the top) ornate interiors of cathedrals in the south.


The modern feel of the interior is the result of a careful restoration.

The cathedral is dedicated to San Nicola  – not the St. Nicholas of Bari (‘In the Blue-Painted Blue’, July 1, 2016) or the St. Nicholas that comes down chimneys with presents, but a Greek pilgrim, who spent his days wandering around Puglia and was viewed by all who came upon him as a simpleton.  But shortly after he died – in Trani – at the tender age of 19, several miracles occurred which, in the mysterious ways of such things, became attributed to the erstwhile simpleton, who was declared a saint.


Friends and family wait at the entrance  – five metres above ground level – while the newlyweds sign the papers.

Below the cathedral is a crypt, part of an older church dedicated to Santa Maria della Scala.  Saint Mary of the Staircase.  I overheard the custodian tell the leader of a tour group that the crypt would be closing in a few minutes, so I followed them down the stairs.  Normally this would have meant we were going underground, which is where crypts are typically located.  But in Trani the description of a new cathedral built on top of an older one is literal.  The ‘ground’ floor of the new church is 5 metres above the ground.


The walls of the crypt are decorated in Byzantine frescoes. Here the Madonna lifts a veil to reveal the Baby Jesus to the saints beside her.

The custodian took closing hours very seriously so we only had a few minutes in the crypt.  On the upside, if I’d stayed longer I would have missed the newlyweds come out onto the staircase.


The wedding party assembled on the staircase which seemed purpose-built for those all-important photos. Except for one little guy who was having none of it.


As I travelled around the region it became clear that Puglia has had nothing to do with Italy’s exceedingly low birth rate. And it was reassuring to see young fathers so involved with their children. At least in public.

By now I was starving.  I went up and down the quay checking out the eateries.  For such a small village some were surprisingly elegant.  With prices to match.  I was looking for something more in keeping with the overall feel of the harbour.  I walked by one place a couple of times.  The orange fence and the hoarding were a real put-off, but the menu was appealing and as I stood there reading it I heard a lot of Italian coming from the tables.  Always a good sign.


‘Street appeal’ – zero. Food – 10.

I’m not a fan of raw meat or fish and never order it back home, but having seen the fish come right off the boats just a few feet away and looking around at what others were eating, I decided this was the place to go for it.  I ordered Carpaccio di tonno con olio d’oliva e rucola.


Tuna carpaccio with olive oil and arugula.

It was one of the most memorable meals of my trip.  And I had a lot of memorable meals.  My only regret was that my daughter wasn’t there to share with me.


An assortment of local cheeses. Salted ricotta, bocconcini di mozzarella and creamy burrata. I almost managed to eat it all.

No matter how good the food, eating alone can be a challenge.  The trick is to get a table with a view.  Sometimes that means asking for the table in the far corner, but in a place like Trani the best table for the sole diner is next to the road.  As I slowly made my way through the tuna and cheeses – put that way it sounds like a terrible meal! – I watched the fishermen working on their boats, locals buying fish for lunch, tourists strolling up and down the quay, some of them stopping to check the menu at ‘my’ restaurant – I fought the urge to lean over and say, ‘Yes!  Eat at this one. You won’t be disappointed!’

When I had eaten as much as I could – maybe more – I set off for a long, leisurely stroll back along the harbour and over to the Public Garden.  It was May, the season of long days and there were still many hours of daylight before I had to drive back to my hotel.


At one of the bars along the quay I caught sight of another bride! The cathedral is obviously a busy place this time of year.

Many tourists do not go to Trani.  It has few ‘must-see’ sites and it is off the beaten track. A bit north.  But if you have the time and would like to enjoy a few hours away from the crowds – of tourists like yourself, it must be admitted – it is a wonderful place to spend a half day.  Or more.


The surprisingly large public garden stretches along the coast south of the harbour.


Fragrant Star of Jasmine climbs up a statue that elsewhere might be a tad kitschy.


The little girl’s nonno tells her maybe domani (tomorrow) she can go swimming. In the distance, the cathedral.


A stroll with fresh, sea air and a view. There’s nothing like it.





Posted in Puglia, Southern Italy | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Path (Best) Not Taken

It all started when someone told me – or maybe it was something I read – that the best place to watch the sunset on Capri was from the Faro – not the Faraglioni, the rocky outcrops off the south-east end of of Capri – but the real lighthouse at Punta Carena.  It made sense. Punta Carena is the most south-westerly tip of the island.   I had also read that there was a path from Monte Solaro down to the lighthouse.  After our morning boat ride around the island, it sounded like the perfect outing for the afternoon.


On the left, the lighthouse at Punta Carena. In the distance on the right the Faraglioni.

On a previous trip I had taken the chair lift from Anacapri up to Monte Solaro and then walked down along the Via Crucis, which was pretty rough in parts, but for a path also known as ‘The Way of the Cross’ and ‘The Way of Suffering’ it was totally doable and the views were great. (Yearning for Light, Feb. 23, 2014)

Looking back I realize I was offered not one, but two opportunities to reconsider my plan. But as a sign I once drove past on a treacherous mountain road warned, you have to give your guardian angel a chance.


As we drove along the south shore that morning I was somehow oblivious to the fact that the path I planned to take was somewhere up there in those craggy peaks.

When we got to the ticket counter at the chair lift and I asked for ‘Due biglietti, solo andata‘  the clerk looked at me, and clearly hoping to save me from myself, asked ‘Andata solo?’ (One way only?)


Most visitors (wisely) take the chairlift down.

We wandered around the top of the mountain for a while, enjoying the views, taking photos of each other, and of other visitors who then took photos of us.  It was beautiful. But after a while I began to feel the first twinges.  We had pretty much covered the top of the mountain and I had seen no sign of the path.  Also, after a lovely, leisurely lunch, then the bus up to Anacapri and then the chair lift, by the time we reached the top of Monte Solaro it was late afternoon. This was September.  The shoulder with the short days.


On a clear day the view from Monte Solaro stretches east all the way along the Amalfi Coast.

Finally I went back to the chair lift and asked one of the attendants.  Oh yes, signora, there is a sentiero.   One of them led us to a small gate below the station.  Eccolo!  Here it is, he said as he opened it and waved us on our way.  What was soon revealed as remarkable about this brief interchange was that in a region where dramatic expressions and grand gestures are part of everyday communication, at no point did he give any indication whatsoever that the path might not be suitable. At the very least not for one of us.


As we set out the sun began what seemed like a precipitous fall and peaks to the west began to cast their long shadows on the path.

There had been many mornings when, in the interests of maintaining a blissfully companionable relationship with my now adult daughter, I had worked very hard to keep my mouth shut tight when I saw her footwear choice for the day.


How had she known to trade the flip flops for running shoes on this particular day?

I on the other hand was wearing sandals. Not stylish, delicate sandals, but the comfortable, thick-soled, sturdy sandals I always wear and which I had worn on the Via Crucis.  But they were no match for the loose rocks and pebbles of what was more a mulattiera (moo-lat-tyeh-rah) than a sentiero.   A less travelled mule track.


I’m coming.

On the few – all too few – flat stretches when I wasn’t consumed with trying not to sprain an ankle or smash my camera on the rocks, I had some very nasty thoughts about a poem that up until then I had always thought was quite lovely.  Especially the last lines – “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— /I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.

If you are of a certain age you probably recognize the lines from the poem by Robert Frost, a poem you may also have learned by heart as school children once did.  Of course that was in a bygone era when memorizing poems was viewed as an effective way to develop our memory skills, rather than a stifling impediment to our individuality and creativity.  In any event, like most readers and many professional critics, I had always viewed the poem as an ode to those courageous enough to set out on the lonely, less travelled path.  And like many of them – search engine data backs this up –  I was also under the MISTAKEN impression that the Frost had called his poem ‘The Road Less Traveled’.   Mistaken not because there is only one ‘l’ – he was American – but because he had in fact called it ‘The Road Not Taken’.


Even carrying my bag my daughter made much speedier progress than I.

And, as it turned out, the difference between the mule track I was struggling along and the path I had expected was just about as big as the difference between Frost’s road not taken and his road less travelled.  Except that, as I learned in a fascinating article by the Academy of American Poets, the poem was meant to be a joke.   A gentle tease of his walking companion, Edward Thomas, who no matter how lovely the path they took, always lamented the path not taken.  Apparently all this ‘crying over what might have been’ got on Frost’s nerves, so eventually he sent Thomas a draft of a poem entitled ‘Two Roads’.  The fact that the ‘I’ in the poem was meant to be him went right over Thomas’ head.  A series of letters followed in which Thomas dug himself deeper and deeper into his mistaken interpretation and Frost got more and more exasperated at his friend’s obtuseness until Frost finally wrote a letter in which he berated his friend for missing the mock nature of the sigh in the line ‘I shall be telling this with a sigh’.  Thomas, his feelings obviously hurt, shot back ‘I doubt if you can get anyone to see the fun of the thing without showing them’.

About an hour into what for my daughter was clearly a thoroughly enjoyable outing, the ‘path’ led to a pine forest barely penetrated by the feeble rays of the rapidly setting sun.  At times we weren’t even sure we were on the path. Unbidden and unwelcome, an Italian poem about a road now came to mind.  Only this one wasn’t a joke.  It was a very serious oeuvre about losing one’s way in a dark forest.  « Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita/ mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,/ché la diritta via era smarrita. »  Literally (more or less) – ‘In the middle of the path of my life I found myself in a dark forest, for the right way was lost’.  With these words Dante begins his descent into Inferno (Hell) in his epic poem, La Commedia Divina.

By the time we made it out of our selva oscura my only hope was that we would reach the restaurant where the owner of our hotel had made a dinner reservation for us before it was pitch black.


This is the closest we got to the lighthouse that night.

Luckily the restaurant was on the west side of the island where it was still light.  The pool bar – I hadn’t realized the restaurant was part of a hotel complex – was closing when we arrived, but the young man in charge told me we could get drinks from the bar inside the restaurant.   And then we sat down by the pool, wished each other ‘Salute!’ and watched a sunset that was made even more spectacular because of the path we had taken to get there.








Posted in Capri, Southern Italy | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Traffic Snarl at Sea and a Patriotic Salad

September is one of my favourite shoulders. The travel season kind of shoulders that is. The only downside, compared to May, the other shoulder, are the shorter days. By the time my daughter and I got back to Capri the sun was already beginning to set.   Happily, the fewer hours of daylight are compensated by an earlier aperitivo hour.  But before settling down in the Piazzetta, the social hub and only real piazza in the village, to what quickly became our evening drinks of choice – Aperol for my daughter and a glass of white wine, sometimes Prosecco for me –  there were two things I wanted to show her.  There was a good view of both of them from the Garden of Augustus, a 10-minute walk.  We made it just before the gates closed.

Off the south-east coast of the island are three rocks.  Iconic is a much abused word I generally avoid, but these rocks really are icons.  They’re the official symbol of Capri and decorate the tickets for the island’s public transit.


This ticket is good for the funivia and the buses around the island. You’ll probably go through quite a few of them as you explore the island.

The rocks are called Faraglioni.  Faro means lighthouse.  The other letters turn them into big lighthouses.  (By the way, this is another one of those ‘DO NOT PRONOUNCE THE G’ words.  It’s fah-ral-yoh-nee.)


The Faraglione di Mezzo and the Faraglione di Fuori in the last moments before they are swallowed up in the long shadows of Capri’s cliffs.

By the railing at the far end of the garden is an overhead and, for some of us at least, butterflies-inducing view of the Via Krupp.  (By the way if some of this post sounds familiar you may have read the post from my previous visit – A Piece of the Continent – Part I, Jan. 4, 2015.  Hopefully the revisit is as fresh for you as it is for me.)


The next morning we set off for un giro (gee-roh) in barca.  A boat ride around the island.


Setting off from Capri’s Marina Grande. Big Harbour.

As we headed west along the north shore a stretch of the road up to Anacapri came into sight.  Locals affectionately – or maybe not – call it the ‘Mamma mia!’ road.  On our way up later that day the young woman in front of us crossed herself every time we made it past one of the heart-stopping, hairpin turns.


A stretch of the ‘Mamma mia!’ road is visible halfway up the mountain on the right.

I was surprised when we started heading west, since on the previous two boat trips I’d taken we had headed east from the harbour, but the reason for the change in direction soon became apparent.  Unbeknownst to me – the manager at the B&B we were staying in had made the arrangements for us – this giro in barca included a visit inside another of Capri’s icons – la Grotta Azzurra.  The Blue Grotto.  As my daughter and I knew from a trip to Capri years ago, the otherwise rhapsodic website is totally accurate about the ‘few magical moments’ visitors will enjoy inside the cave. And since the sea was calm, I knew there was no chance the grotto would be closed. (The opening to the cave is less than a metre high, making entering extremely dangerous when the sea is at all mosso – literally, moved.)   As we rounded the bay and the grotto came into sight my heart sank.  Despite the early hour, there was already a long line-up of boats, as well as people (who would have come by bus) on the staircase waiting for their turn in the little row boats.


As our captain inched our boat closer to the grotto entrance, things looked even worse.  My hope (delusion?) that none of the people on our boat would want to go into the grotto was short-lived.   When the captain asked if anyone was interested, at least half the passengers raised their hands.  I wasn’t at all happy about the thought of wasting some of our precious time on the island, twiddling our thumbs while all those people had their few magical moments.


However, I have to admit, that with all the antics, the time – we ended up sitting there for well over an hour – passed surprisingly quickly. Apart from watching how close the boats could get without hitting each other, there were other distractions, like Mr. Numero 1, the cool dude who pulled his ultra luxury craft next to ours and proceeded to ogle my daughter.  (She and I were the only ones at the back of the boat and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t leering at me.)


As the name of the boat says, Grotta Azzurra Numero Uno.


While my daughter undoubtedly enjoyed the attention, she studiously ignored him. Brava!  Eventually he backed up.


If I’d known that in addition to ignoring the dude she had been busy taking photos like this one I would have been even prouder of her.

After a while I noticed something.  One of the fellows rowed his boat around a lot, but he never seemed to pick up any passengers.  I pointed him out to my daughter and we started to watch him more closely.


Eventually we figured it out.  He was the Vigile!  Vee-gee-lay. The traffic cop.


He lacked the elegant uniforms and whistles of Italy’s city traffic controllers, but he was definitely in charge of the boat activity in front of the cave.

It was one of those times I wished I had a better camera and could have taken a video.  I don’t understand napoletano, the local dialect here as on Ischia, but the gestures were pretty self-explanatory.  He got really agitated when one fellow with a huge barge of a boat tried to cut in.


In the interests of maintaining a level of decorum, some gestures are better left untranslated.


Don’t even think of it!  The fellow on the right is not happy either, but I think it’s best to leave his gesture untranslated as well.


Finally the capo had everything under control again. For the moment.

Finally everyone was back on board and we set out again.  A few minutes later we rounded the north-west tip of the island, Punta Carena, where a real faro has been guiding  the way since the late 1860’s.  Every three seconds it sends out a white flash with a range of 25 nautical miles, which is why, although it is clearly on terra firma, in the mysterious ways of seafarers, it is considered an ‘offshore’ lighthouse.


I had hoped to walk to the lighthouse later on, but as things turned out this was as close as we got.


The traffic jam at the next grotto was much smaller, but with no capo to keep things on the up and up, the captains showed how aggressive they could be.


One small boat went right through the opening, but for the rest of us, it was unnerving and satisfying enough to come this far into the grotto.

In 29 B.C., while returning from a trip to the Far East, Cesare Ottaviano disembarked on Capri. The future Emperor Augustus was so enchanted with the island, which had been under the rule of Naples for three centuries, that he swapped it for the larger and more fertile island of island of Ischia.


One of the island’s main attractions for the future emperor was its inaccessibility.


The Pompeii red villa built for Curzio Malaparte, one of Italy’s leading authors, is considered by many to be one of the finest works of modern architecture. Most locals hate it.


Grecian white is the colour of choice on Capri. Just one question – how do they get groceries up there?


It blends so well into the landscape that you have to look hard to spot the path of the Via Krupp up to the Garden of Augustus.

There are three ‘lighthouses’  –  Stella (Star), the highest at over 100 metres and the only one still attached to the island, il Faraglione di Mezzo (Middle Lighthouse), perhaps the best-loved, and Il Faraglione di Fuori, (The Outside Lighthouse) which, despite its prosaic name, is the only place in the world where the spectacular lucertola azzurra – blue lizard (‘Podarcis sicula coerula’ for the initiated) – is found.


The same wave action that has eroded the rock, cutting the ‘stacks’ as geologists call them, off from the island, has also created a tunnel at the base of the Faraglione di Mezzo.  When the sea is calm, astute captains, perhaps looking to increase tips, drive their boats through the Galleria dell’Amore.


Kiss your loved one as the boat passes through the tunnel and you will enjoy lifelong bliss. Getting the timing right and a selfie – in focus – to prove it can be tricky.

By the time we got back to the marina we were famished.  We made our way to a simple trattoria I had discovered on a previous trip. Since we were on the island it came from, I suggested we start with an insalata caprese. My daughter is a bit of a foodie so I was surprised to learn she didn’t know that caprese meant ‘of Capri’.  One of the blindspots, I’ve discovered, of learning another language is that you sometimes lose sight of what you didn’t used to know.

Like so many of Italy’s sites and dishes, the origins of the humble salad are surrounded with legends and urban lore.  The most likely theory is set in the secondo dopoguerra, the period of hardship and extreme poverty following the second World War, and involves one of the island’s stone masons.  Extremely patriotic, he took the colours of the Italian flag and made a simple sandwich of them –  tomatoes for the red, mozzarella (preferably mozzarella di bufala from the region) for the white and fresh basil leaves for the green.


Capri’s patriotic salad. Ripe tomatoes, fresh mozzarella di bufala, basil leaves, and a sprinkling of oregano and olive oil.  Deliziosa!

Next – when going down is a lot harder than going up






Posted in Capri, Southern Italy | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Christmas Under Glass

‘Twas in the mid 19th century when a wise and generous man – an unmarried man with no children or relatives to share his wealth with – decided to give five acres of his property to the Toronto Horticultural Society.  His only condition was that the land be used for the benefit and enjoyment of all the citizens for ever after.


Allan Gardens.  An oasis of tranquillity and tropical beauty in the heart of downtown Toronto, surrounded by towering condo and office buildings – and cranes for more.

The wishes of George Allan have been honoured to this day.  All are welcome to visit – free of charge – every day of the year.


On the other side of the fogged up windows, a lush, tropical oasis.

The gardeners spend months preparing four fabulous, seasonal displays.  It’s hard to pick a favourite. Maybe spring.  After months of dull, gray skies and slush and bare, lifeless-looking trees and bushes, the bright, sunny colours of the spring ephemerals are a sight for sore eyes and a balm for a sun-and-blue-sky starved soul.  OK, maybe a touch of melodrama there, but for those of us ‘real’ Canadians who do not migrate, it’s not far off the mark.   The summer display is nice too – although it can get hot, really hot, inside – and the spectacular Chrysanthemums in the fall display will make you rethink the ‘Mum’. But if you can only make it once, the Christmas show is the one to see.


Snow-covered cabbages and faded mums by the back entrance.

The greenhouses are in the shape of a horseshoe so there is no ‘right’ way to organize your visit, but I like to start at the top of the horseshoe, in the Palm Room.


Thousands of Poinsettias – 3,200 to be exact – form a living tapestry.

Each year the Palm Room is the setting for a different theme – ‘A Victorian Christmas’,  ‘Celebrate Winter’, and for 2016, ‘The March of the Penguins’.


At the piano the leader of the band is about to begin the March of the Penguins.


For now the squirrel who likes to perch on the pianist’s nose is up to mischief somewhere else.


Facing the pianist, the rest of the band. There is a lot going on here, but if you start with the saxophonist on the right, you’ll soon make out the other players.

From the Palm Room I headed north to one of two tropical greenhouses and the Desert Room, which I was especially keen to reach before the crowds arrived.  There was a gorgeous, ripe Dragon Fruit I wanted to get a photo of.


As you walk down the ramp you are engulfed in the hot, humid air of the tropics.


Opposite the Papyrus Pond the ‘Blushing Bride’ Hibiscus adds to the show with a rare bloom that, for once, faces visitors, rather than as usual, the windows behind.


A reindeer grazes in the Poinsettia patch. Being magical he is of course immune to the plant’s highly poisonous sap.


At the far end of the greenhouse, an Earth Goddess keeps watch over the Cycad, a marvellous tree that having survived from the Jurassic Era is now endangered. Because of poaching.


A Canada Goose keeps her company.


Kalanchoe at the entrance to the Desert Greenhouse. It’s hard to believe the colourful, small plants in the foreground are botanical cousins of the contorted behemoths behind them.


A succulent wreath from a couple of Christmases before is still in fine shape.


Hanging baskets of Christmas cactus provide big splashes of colour.


Even the Jade plant has got into the spirit of things with its star-shaped flowers.

But what had happened to the Dragon Fruit?  Just a few days earlier when I was here to give a tour – and so did not have my camera with me – there were five of them.  Now there were only two and they weren’t the easiest to photograph.


The gardener had painstakingly hand-pollinated twenty-one blooms of the Dragon Fruit, aka Night Blooming Cereus, five of which had set fruit. But now there were only two.

On my way back to the Palm Room I saw one of the gardeners and asked her about the missing Dragon Fruit (Fruits?).  She got a worried look.  If it was a squirrel I would have seen traces of the fruit on the ground.  More likely it was a visitor who often takes things.  How do you know? I asked.  He shows them to us, she sighed.  In any event she said she’d go ask the gardener who took care of that greenhouse.  Maybe he knew something.


As I passed through the Palm Room a ray of sunshine momentarily lit up the Poinsettias. Notice how these ones have flowers all along their stems.

On the south side of the Palm Room is the Temperate Greenhouse.  The temperature drops noticeably as you enter.  The plants in here like to take a break from the non-stop blooming of the tropicals.  Hence the cooler temperature. But nothing below freezing point!  It will take a lot more global warming before any of them will survive a Canadian winter outdoors.


A window box of Amaryllis, Cyclamen and Kalanchoe at the entrance to the Temperate Greenhouse. How do they get them all to bloom at just the right time?

From one year to the next it’s fun to see where the props will reappear.  One year the  train chugged around a Christmas tree made of succulents in the Palm Room.  But it was just too much of a temptation for little visitors and was frequently derailed.  (The Poinsettias around the track were a little worse for wear too.)  The next year it circled around a white tree on the ‘island’ in the Temperate Greenhouse.  But that too proved irresistible.  This year the gardeners weren’t fooling around. I laughed when I saw it chugging around around an elaborate trestle.  At the back of the pond.


This year the train is well beyond the reach of little hands, although setting up the trestle in the pond was apparently a challenge.

On the other side of the path is evidence of another of the challenges the gardeners face. Frustrated with the squirrels taking off with the fruit of one of her recent purchases, a Tomarillo aka Tomato Tree from Ecuador, the gardener started to cover the newly set fruit in glass. So far so good.


These Tomarillos are already a good size. When fully ripe they will be a dark red. Fingers crossed.

From here you have a choice of paths around the island that leads to the pond at the south end of the greenhouse.


White azaleas form a carpet of ‘snow’ for Santa and his sled. From here you can just see a bit of his red coat beyond the beribboned Kashmir Cypress.


Pardon me if I appear small-minded, but doesn’t that look more like a plough horse than a reindeer? In any event, a lush blanket of white cyclamen and azaleas keeps Santa and his presents safely beyond the reach of little hands.


A prickly project.

I was fiddling with my camera settings at the edge of the pond when the gardener in charge of the Desert Room came up to me.  He was carrying one of those large buckets gardeners use to gather clippings and other detritus.  ‘It was me, he said,  I took the Dragonfruit’.  I waited for him to explain.  ‘My colleague and I ate it.’


A troupe of Koi – including a very large white one – swim around Leda and her pond.

Squirrels and a mentally fragile visitor are one thing.  But the gardeners taking off with the Dragon fruit – and EATING them!  That was – unexpected.  I stared at him.  ‘We were worried.  They were ripe, the squirrels would have got them – or they would have rotted and fallen and made a mess.  And we were curious to know what they tasted like.’  What did they taste like? I asked in as even a tone as I could muster.  (The other gardener had said something about a cross between a kiwi and a strawberry.)  ‘Like a really sweet watermelon’, he replied.  He showed me what was in his bucket.  There on the bottom were the remains of the missing fruit.


The inside skin of the Dragon fruit is the same gorgeous pink as the outside, but the edible part – now missing – is a creamy white which gives rise to another name it goes by – the Ice Cream Fruit.

I thanked him for showing me the fruits – or rather the remains of his fruity crime – and walked through the doors into the last greenhouse.   And was immediately engulfed, for a second time, in the warm, humid air of the tropics.  Bliss!


A tropical Christmas tree decorated with brightly wrapped presents out of which Amaryllis, like so many Jack-in-a Boxes, have sprung.


All these Amaryllis are double-stemmed. Some even look as if they might send up a third stem. As they say, splurge for bigger bulbs. You won’t be sorry.


Beyond the Amaryllis Jack-in-a-Boxes, the bright orange of the Firecracker Vine and the water wheel.


On the rocks by the water wheel and along the front of the shed turtles look for a bit of sun.  The gardener, who feeds the turtles as well as looks after the plants, tells me there are now 23 of them – mostly Painted Turtles and a few Painted Ear Sliders.


On the shed door the skates that had dangled from Leda’s neck in the past. I was wondering where they had got to this year.


This Cattleya and the stuff on the ground outside the greenhouses are probably neighbours on the colour spectrum. A strange congruence.

Each year there is some kind of ‘chandelier’ in this greenhouse.  They are always spectacular.  But when I first saw what the gardener was making this year, I had my doubts.  She had wired Amaryllis bulbs – bare Amaryllis bulbs – to a large metal ring so they were hanging upside down.  It reminded me of those gut-wrenching photos of chickens hung on conveyor belts.  Hmmm.   But when I came back a week later to do another tour, there was no sign of the metal ring. No hint at what was supporting the whole thing.  And as the gardener had known, the Amaryllis – the upside-down, bare bulbs – had not only flowered but were starting to curve graciously upwards.  She had done her magic again.


The Amaryllis bulb is a self-contained miracle. It will flower even if you don’t plant it in soil. Even if you don’t water it. Even if you hang it upside down!

On the back wall, close to the exit a wreath decorated in the bright, light colours of the tropics was surrounded by giant, candy-striped Amaryllis.


The best of both worlds. The bright colours of the tropics and the candy cane stripes of our winter Amaryllis.

I went out the exit and returned to reality.  But the colours and the feel of the garden stayed with me.   Here’s hoping you can visit some day.  In the meantime – Best Wishes for a lovely Holiday Season and a very Happy and Healthy New Year!



Posted in Toronto | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Ritorno a Capri

After Ischia we were going on to its much more famous and glitzier neighbour, Capri.  Wonderful!  So why weren’t we bursting with excitement as we gathered up our things the morning of our departure? After a great deal of not very organized thought and a lot of useless rummaging through my books for one that I vaguely recall sheds some light on this, the only thing I can come up with is that there is something wrong with the currently popular maxim that the only source of true happiness is to live in the moment.  Do these people not go to the dentist? Or shovel snow on a bitterly cold night? What about laundry and dirty dishes?  The thing is, we had grown very fond of our castle home and in the moment did not want to leave.  (This is the type of ‘champagne problems’ you’re up against when you travel.)  In any event our spirits lifted when we saw the taxi the hotel had arranged to take us to the ferry.


La Bambola.  Which means doll and also, beautiful and shapely, young girl or woman.

The driver – and obviously proud owner – needed little encouragement to tell us all about La Bambola, who at 45 years old, was the last of its kind on the island. They had stopped making them 30 years ago.  ‘Come la mantiene?‘  How do you keep her in working condition? I asked, taking care to use the female pronoun as he did.  ‘Con grande cura‘, he replied.  And regular visits ‘dal meccanico‘ (to the mechanic’s).  I know nothing about what goes on under the hood so cannot comment on the inner workings of the Bambola, but it was clear that like all Grandes Dames a great deal of attention had been lavished on the face she showed the world.  The interior was in perfect condition.  Ah, he said, it was also important to keep up appearances.  After all, when she wasn’t taking visitors to the harbour, she was engaged for weddings and other momentous occasions.

He also told us about driving mules and donkeys laden with wine-filled barrels or wood in the winter when the mountains roads were impassible.  He was the only one on the island who still did this kind of work, which he went on to explain, not as if it were a hardship, but a simple statement of fact, required una grande passione.  There is a lot of talk these days about how we need – as in NEED – to pursue our passion.  As if it were a moral duty.  But here was someone who had fallen into more than pursued his passion.  He had grown up driving mule carts.  It was what his family had done for generations.  And during the short Ischia tourist season he occasionally drove another kind of cart, which although motorized and much more comfortable than a mule-driven cart would have been, struck us as just as fanciful.


Thank goodness my daughter had the presence of mind to take these photos.  I was so taken aback with the whole thing I didn’t even think of getting out my camera.

When we got to the harbour he pulled out an envelope full of old photos.  There he was! A Greek hero astride a noble steed in a procession.  And there again, atop an elegant carriage all dressed up in the livery of an 18th century carriage driver.  He had been in two movies so far.  I was dying to ask if I could take photos of his photos.  But something held me back.  Instead I asked him how he got the roles.  ‘Per lei‘, he said, gently patting the steering wheel.  Because of her.

My daughter told me later she felt as if she were in a movie.   It wasn’t just the whimsical Bambola.  There was something about the driver.  In spite of the many hardships he undoubtedly encountered, and from what I could tell, without any of the standard trappings of wealth, (it was a 15 euro ride), power or fame (ok, there was a bit of that, but I certainly had ever seen, let alone heard of the movies he appeared in) he had an aura about him of a truly happy person.


On the ferry to Capri we passed by the disarmingly peaceful looking peaks of Vesuvius.


Approaching Capri’s Marina Grande. Do the locals ever tire of this view?

Things were as chaotic as always along the narrow quay and the tour groups disgorged from the ferry quickly created a bottleneck at the entrance to the funivia, the little train that would take us up the mountainside to Capri village where our hotel was.  (The other village on the island is called Anacapri.  It is all very confusing.  I wrote about it in Una Passeggiata a Capri, Feb. 16, 2014).  In any event, in no time at all we were climbing the stairs at the funivia exit in Capri – the village – and within a half hour of landing on Capri – the island – we were on the path to Villa Jovis.


With all the Bougainvillea and other lush blooms along the path it felt like a mid-summer day.


But in the minuscule vineyards along the path the grapes were ripe and the leaves had  started to turn.


Ripe grapes and fall-coloured leaves seemed out of sync with the lush summer blooms.

And then we came to a bizarre, but unmistakable sign of fall.


No idea what is going on here.

By the time we came to the patch of Amaryllis, which as I’d seen on previous trips to the region, is a fall bloomer in this part of the world, there could be no doubt.  Close by we passed a woman with an armload of the pink beauties.  ‘Belladonna‘, she said, when she saw us admiring them.  I was puzzled.  The only ‘Belladonna’ I knew was ‘Deadly Nightshade’, a rather plain, shrubby plant with a dull mauve flower, whose only remarkable feature is that all parts are highly toxic.   Something the ancient Romans obviously knew all about, if we believe the rumours about how the wives of at least two emperors (Augustus and Claudius) used it to get rid of unwanted family members.

As usual a bit of meandering around the Internet solved the puzzle.  In the largely unfathomable hierarchy that botanists have organized the plant world, what we had here was Amaryllis belladonna. Amaryllis being the genus and belladonna (beautiful woman) the species. However, as I read on, I discovered a weirdly pleasant twist.  I had correctly  identified the plant but how I got there was all wrong.  Apart from the fact that they were growing more or less wild and blooming in the fall, the plants in the garden on Capri  looked exactly like the Amaryllis that start appearing in stores back home, often as boxed bulbs that we pot up in November in hopes they will bloom in time for Christmas. Same stem, same flower shape. But, as it turns out the indoor, winter blooming plants are not, botanically speaking, Amaryllis.  They are  a cultivar of the genus Hippeastrum.  So why do we all call them Amaryllis? It turns out that for a long time the botanists themselves weren’t sure and while they spent years arguing over what exactly it was, the rest of us continued along our merry, botanically incorrect way and called it Amaryllis.


The confusingly, but aptly named Amaryllis belladonna. 

It was a long, steep climb up to Villa Jovis, one of twelve sumptuous villas Tiberius built for his personal enjoyment on the island.


View from Villa Jovis. On the left side of the land mass is Sorrento, on the right is the Amalfi Coast where we would be going in a day or two. Hopefully minus the dark clouds.


From the edge of the cliff on which the villa was built, Tiberius may – or may not – have thrown those who no longer pleased him.

Going down was easier.  Marginally.  Who knew the muscles we use for going up aren’t the same ones we use going down?  Mercifully by now it was l’ora di pranzo. On my last trip to Villa Jovis I had eaten at a lovely, simple trattoria.  You could eat inside or along the path on a narrow terrace opposite the main building.  There was no question where we were going to eat. The food was delicious and the procession of people along the path endlessly fascinating. Locals on their way home for the midday meal – school children, the younger ones still accompanied by their parents, signore with their shopping bags full; big, muscled delivery men squished into the impossibly small vans that are the only means of transporting goods in many parts of the island – and tourists on their way up to Villa Jovis.  I for one was glad it was all downhill for us from here on.


One of the many delights of travelling with a companion. Sharing. Antipasto misto and…


una pizza prosciutto e arugula. Deliziosa!

Next – You call this a path?!









Posted in Capri, Southern Italy | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

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





Posted in Ischia, Southern Italy | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments