G7 Woes in ‘The Pearl’- Taormina Part II

When Matteo Renzi, the then Prime Minister of Italy, announced that the G7 Summit of 2017 would be held in Taormina, Sicily, it came as a big surprise to the citizens of Florence, where the meeting had originally been scheduled to take place. But Renzi, who would be Italy’s ex-Prime Minister by the time of the summit, was adamant.  A joke had been told by one of the leaders at a previous summit.  Something about Sicily being the land of the mafia.  With Taormina, Renzi aimed to reclaim the island’s honour, to showcase Sicily as a land of great bellezza (beauty), volontariato (volunteering),  innovazione (innovation) and of people like Pietro Bartolo,the doctor whose crusade to rescue migrants arriving by boat on Lampedusa Island was documented in ‘Fuocamare‘ Fire at Sea.

View from the  Greek Theatre.  Revenge for a tasteless joke was a rather petty basis for choosing Taormina, but the location had an important, if unintended consequence  – it physically brought the leaders close to one of most of the most pressing issues of the day – migrants and refugees.

The Florentines weren’t the only ones taken aback by the announcement.  Taormina, as we saw in my previous post, may be the ‘Pearl’ of Sicily but it is a very small pearl that barely manages to cope with the deluge of tourists that invade its narrow streets on a daily basis.  And its location – perched on a promontory 200 metres above sea level – had helped keep the ancient Greeks safe, at least until the Romans came along, but made modern-day access a nightmare at the best of times.  The challenges of holding a G7 summit here were so numerous and so obvious, even Renzi had to concede that some verifiche tecniche – technical verifications (hard to top that one for political ambiguity) – were still required to determine whether it would actually be logistically possible.  But, he insisted, even if it wasn’t, the G7 would still take place in Sicily.

A few, rumour-filled months later, Renzi phoned Eligio Giardina, the mayor of Taormina, to tell him the town had been given the official OK.  Giardina put on a brave face, declaring that ‘La Perla dovrà brillare’.  The Pearl will shine.  The locals were less enthused.  They already had plenty of visitors.  However would they manage with any more? And what, muttered a fellow standing close to the mayor, would they do with all the spazzatura (garbage)?  There was also the threat of terrorism that events of this magnitude increasingly bring.  The ever-optimistic Giardina dismissed such concerns.  The ancient Greeks had chosen the site well. It was a natural roccaforte, a ‘strong rock’ invincible even to modern terrorists.  (In the end almost 10,000 police, army and security forces – essentially one for each citizen of Taormina – would be brought in.)

Monte Tauro, the mountain the town was named for, has protected Taormina since ancient times.  On its crest, the ruins of a Saracen Castle and the ancient Greek acropolis.

The first notice I got about Taormina hosting the 2017  G7 was as upsetting as the source was unlikely.  On February 7, 2017, a month after I had made a reservation for a special treat – a one-night stay at Casa Cuseni, the villa whose gardens I had visited on an earlier trip (see previous post), I received an email from Booking.com.  They were ‘spiacenti di informarLa…’ it began.  Spiacenti is not a word you want to see in an email from a booking agency.  Piacere and all its derivatives have to do with pleasure.  Tack an ‘s’ on the front of any of them and you have a bunch of unpleasant opposites.  They were sorry to inform me that on the day of my reservation, the G7 would be taking place.  More specifically, the G7 would take place on May 26 and 27 and the historic centre of Taormina would be completamente blindato in order to host the delegations of the countries involved’.  I had heard of una macchina blindata (an armoured car), but not an armoured historic centre.  Besides, my reservation was for May 25.  But the email continued.  ‘In order to guarantee the safety of the parties involved, the centre would be chiuso dal 22 al 28 Maggio.’  Closed from the 22nd to the 28th of May.   To be sure there were no misunderstandings, they added the word ‘compreso’. Inclusive.

View of the historic centre and Greek Theatre from the Via Crucis, the pathway up Monte Tauro.  Breath-taking in more than one sense.

I picked up the phone.  A mellifluous voice from Georgia soon had me calmed down.  Yes, it was true.  All the hotels in Taormina – as well as in many surrounding towns – had been requisitioned for the G7 leaders, their delegations, journalists etc. Booking.com had cancelled all the reservations made on their site for the duration and were scrambling to help customers find new accommodations far from the turmoil, some in  Catania, others as far south as Siracusa, 120 k down the coast.

There was still one thing that concerned me.  Casa Cuseni was well beyond my normal budget.  To secure the room, I had taken the less expensive, no cancellations allowed option.  The payment had already been withdrawn from my bank account.  Not to worry.  Booking.com had this eventuality covered as well.  Even in cases involving un pagamento anticipato, the money would be refunded.  And finally, in the event I didn’t receive the refund within 15 business days of the date of the cancellation email, I was invited to contact the Team di Assistenza Clienti.

A narrow alley off the town’s main road, Corso Umberto, leads to the Villa Comunale.

Disappointed, but resigned, I started looking for a place to stay in Siracusa. I’d been there  before.  Its historic centre, Ortigia, the island where the ancient Greeks first landed, was a charming labyrinth of narrow alleys perfect for meandering. It would be perfect for a one night visit. It didn’t take me long to find a nice B&B overlooking the harbour.   I booked a room – free cancellation within three months of arrival – and reprinted my itinerary.

The following day, still fuming over the way these meetings, which often don’t seem to accomplish much, cause so much inconvenience to others and involve a enormous outlay of taxpayer dollars,  I did something I would come to regret.  I wrote an email to Francesco explaining how much I had been looking forward to staying at Casa Cuseni and how disappointed I was to miss the experience and also how sorry I was for all the other tourists whose plans were being scombussolati (scom-boos-soh-lah-tee), all messed up, as well as for the inevitable disruption for the locals.

The  ‘Villa Comunale‘ is Taormina’s public garden.

It was created by Lady Florence Trevelyan, who, like many English visitors in the 19th century, had stayed on.  Unlike her compatriots, Miss Trevelyan  married a local, Salvatore Cacciola.

Francesco got back to me right away. I expected something along the lines of yes, it was a disappointment, too bad, perhaps another time.  But to my surprise he was on the attack, didn’t understand how booking.com could taken it upon itself to cancel a reservation in his hotel; it was an arbitrary decision, and even though the city would be blindatissima con reali disagi per i nostri ospiti be the hotel was still open and booking.com had no right to cancel the reservation.’  I didn’t know what to make of the bit about the city being not just blindata, but blindatissima.  Extremely armoured?  And what did he mean by ‘real inconveniences for our guests’?  I called Booking.com again.  Again they confirmed that my cancellation, along with those of countless other would-be visitors, was unavoidable. All of the hotels had been taken over by the G7.  What still didn’t make sense was how Booking.com could possibly have a better idea of what was going on than a long-standing hotel owner right in Taormina?  Not knowing who to believe, I stewed. And I watched my account for the refund which, by Feb. 21 was yet to arrive.  But what did arrive was a second email from Francesco. Things had escalated.

Like so many English, Florence was an avid gardener and after she moved into her new husband’s palazzo, she began to buy up parcels of land on the slopes of the Greek Theatre and transform them into a lush garden.  She was especially fond of trees that towered.

‘Dear Madam, he began, I am obliged to inform you, in my role as Vice president of the B&B Association of Taormina, that unbeknownst to us, Booking.com cancelled your reservation, without us knowing anything, inventing a problem with the G7 causing limitations of the fruibilità of the city of Taormina.’  Fruibilità is a tricky word, it could mean enjoyment or access.  In any case it was not good.  He went on to list a slew of government and local organizations, none of whom were aware of any restrictions pertaining to hotels or any other commercial activities in Taormina and also did not understand on what basis Booking.com made the cancellations.  He ranted on and on, culminating in the threat that if he was not contacted by the reservation office (no time limit given), deniunceremo Booking.com.  Denunciare is not a word I’ve personally ever had to deal with so I double checked to be absolutely sure and yes, it means ‘to file charges against’.  Now I really didn’t know what to think.  Apart from the obviously misdirected vitriol – he seemed to have forgotten that I was a hapless bystander in all this – there was the fact that the refund Booking.com had promised had yet to come through.  And why weren’t they answering his calls? Muddying the waters even further, in his closing remarks he suggested that in the meantime I might wish to make a reservation directly with the hotel, in which case they would refund the amount I had already paid.

My favourite of the towering beauties, Magnolia grandiflora.  The circumstances leading to Lady Trevelyan’s arrival in Taormina would make a great movie.  She was the 7th Duchess and a close relative of Queen Victoria, who took her in when she was orphaned  at a young age,

Having used Booking.com for years, my understanding was that payments go directly to the hotels.  But I’d met Francesco, spent time with him; he was there, on the ground, surely he would have a better idea of the situation than a faceless, international booking agency located who knows where and, probably what fatefully tipped the scales, I was really keen on experiencing life at Casa Cuseni.  After a great deal of mulling things over I wrote back – this was Feb. 22 – asking him to reinstate my reservation.

One of the many giants Florence introduced, transforming the town’s landscape, Grevillea Robusta, aka Australian Silver Oak.  In time Florence’s relations with one member of the Queen’s family – her son, the future King Edward VII – became too close and at age 27, she was exiled from the royal house.

Francesco replied immediately, confirming the reservation. He also made a comment about the disagio (dee-za-joe) that Booking.com was creating in their city.  Agio means ease or comfort, so diasagio can mean discomfort.  Or inconvenience.  Or disturbance.  By now I had the feeling Francesco had a bee in his bonnet and couldn’t help himself, so I just rolled my eyes and continued reading.  ‘It is true that the G7 will limit the fruizione – (that word again!) – of the historic centre of our city.’  What?! Now the bee was buzzing around in my bonnet.

I started digging.  You wouldn’t think you’d have to dig on the Internet, but those algorithms can be a real pain in the neck when you’re looking for something they don’t think you should be interested in.  I started focusing on Italian language websites only and finally, Eureka!  In ‘100NOVE’, a weekly newspaper published in Messina, there was an article about the G7.  Italo Mennella, president of the Association of Hoteliers of Taormina had announced that ‘le strutture ricettive «di qualsiasi tipologia (accommodations of all classes) not just in Taormina, but also in Giardini Naxos, Sant’Alessio Siculo, Letojanni, and other cities would be reserved for G7 participants.  All hotels, Bed & Breakfasts, Holiday Homes would therefore be  ‘off-limits per turisti e visitatori‘ for the duration of the meetings and presumably for a period of days in advance.’  The article was dated Nov. 6, 2016, two and a half months earlier.  Now there wasn’t a bee in my bonnet, it was a whole hornets’ nest.

Close-up it’s possible to see the resemblance between the flower of the Grevillea Tree and the Grevillea plant.  Undaunted, the independent and upbeat young Duchess explored the world for a number of years before finally settling down in Taormina.

I forwarded the article to Francesco, in light of which I asked him to please precisare the limitations I would find in Taormina, including how exactly I was to reach Casa Cuseni and where to park the car.  His reply was much toned down. Almost conciliatory.  And totally lacking in anything that could remotely be considered preciso, or an answer to my questions.

‘They had reinstated my reservation, but I was of course free to choose another destination given that Taormina would be interamente blindata …. ‘ (What!?)  ‘However, despite the limitations – no access to the town’s monuments and historic centre, and restricted travel on the surrounding roads – Taormina and the hinterland would still be beautiful. It was up to me if I chose to come at another time in order to enjoy the town nel modo giusto.  In the right way.’  In a final, flabbergasting flourish he added that he had taken it upon himself to inform Booking.com  of the limitazione monumentale della fruibilità  – monumental limitation of access or enjoyment or whatever that word means – that would be imposed.  It was beginning to sound like a bad rewrite of  ‘Gaslight’, an old black and white movie I’d seen years ago, about a husband who slowly tricks his wife into believing she was going insane by fiddling with the settings on the gas lights.  I wrote back the same day to request that the original cancellation made by Booking.com be reinstated.

Like many of her compatriots of the era, Florence was crazy about follies, but the bizarre structures scattered throughout the garden did nothing for me. They looked so out of place. And almost tacky.

It took a long time and many emails and phone calls between me and Booking.com, and the Booking.com agent in Taormina and the hotel, before I got my refund, which, in the end, I received from Booking.com in what they characterized as an ‘Incorrect Charge Case’ and which is why, although I rarely do endorsements, I strongly recommend Booking.com for anyone who books independently as I do.

The towers weren’t just whimsical follies. Lady Florence was an avid ornithologist.  From the top of the towers she had a birds’ eye view of her passion.

But my G7 woes paled in comparison to what the locals endured.  All of the four and five star hotels that were located in what became known as the ‘red zone’ were prohibited from accepting any reservations from May 22 to May 28, and to remain exclusively for the use of the G7 delegates who would be present May 27 and 28.  And the other three days of the prohibition?  The hotels – all 23 of them – were to be vacant in order to facilitate security clearances.

View from the balustrade. In 1923 Lady Florence’s garden was expropriated and turned into a public garden, much-loved by locals and tourists to this day.

There were also a few ‘kerfuffles’ caused by one of the delegations.  (Take a guess.)  Despite all the ultra luxury hotels that had been requisitioned for the G7, and unlike the six other G7 leaders, President Trump would not be staying in Taormina.  American security agents had taken a look around Taormina and they did not like what they’d seen. (Back to Thoreau again!)  The president would stay at the American Naval Air Base in Sigonella and be flown in every day by helicopter.

Apart from bruised feelings on the part of the locals, there were some problems with this plan.  Sigonella is 70 k south-west of Taormina.  En route to Taormina the helicopter bearing the American president would pass by a volcano, the largest and most active in Europe.  It took a while, but eventually the American security agents agreed that Sigonella would not work.  The particles that Etna routinely spewed out could easily damage the helicopter motors.  Trump would have to stay in Taormina.

But the American security agents were not done.  They also did not like the charming, medieval streets that attracted millions of visitors from all over the world every year.  They were too narrow and had too many tight curves for the presidential car.  By this point even the ever upbeat mayor Giardina was beginning to lose it.  The Americans were driving them pazzi (pats-see).  Corso Umberto was only 900 metres long, not much longer than the motorcade the Americans proposed to drive through the town centre.  ‘There will be no room for them to move!’  The goccia (drop) that finally made the mayor’s vaso (pitcher) traboccare (overflow) came when the Americans requested that the road from the newly built heliport to the Hotel San Domenico where the meetings were to be held, be widened, which would of course have involved the ‘removal’ of some of the ancient building that lined the street. The mayor put his foot down.  No roads, not even the road to the G7 venue, were to be widened. But he did agree to have the road, which was too bumpy for the Americans’ taste, resurfaced.

Marzipan fruits in a shop along Corso Umberto. So life-like, people apparently can’t resist touching.

If Taormina is your first, or only stop in Sicily, you might spend a lot of time in the shops along Corso Umberto.  Especially the ones specializing in Sicily’s fabulous ceramica.

A few days after the summit,  I decided to check out the Alcantara Gorge (gorgeous and so unexpected) and then go to Taormina for lunch.  It was only 20 k and I figured the dust would have settled by then.

Is that a chicken or an owl on the right? It obviously required a great deal of skill and time, but do people really buy such things?

The G7 leaders and the thousands associated with the meetings had left, but it soon became clear that the dust hadn’t quite settled.  When I asked the waiter if he had stayed open during the meetings, he gave me a look – almost of annoyance – and then he simply said, ‘Preferiamo scordarcelo‘.  We prefer to forget about it.  The fellow chatting with the attendant in the parking lot was more forthcoming.  He was a chef, had been to Montreal for an international food festival, thought the food at the market was very good quality – probably because I was with the Italians, he said.  Hanno l’occhio.  They have an eye.  What was not so good was people wanting everything all year long.  (I thought of the strawberries I can never resist in winter.)  I stood in the parking lot talking with him for a while about this and that, and then I asked him about the G7.  His face darkened.  His nonno (grandfather) had fought in two world wars and his father in one so they would not live in a police state, and despite their efforts and the hardships they had endured, for the week of the G7 they had lived in what was essentially a police state.  He couldn’t even go out – on foot – beyond a VERY restricted area.  Some locals had closed down their businesses and gone on a ‘holiday’.

Here’s a souvenir that fits more easily in a suitcase. Tiles of the professions.  Alphabetical order makes them easier to find, but creates some strange companions, like the enologo (wine maker) next to the estetista (hair stylist) and the gelataio (ice cream maker) next to the geometra (surveyor).

Taormina is where I first saw the ‘Moor Heads’. (‘Postscript from Palermo’, Dec.5, 2017)  I still wouldn’t want one in my garden.

I loved the look of this place and, unusually for Taormina, the only language to be heard was Italian. A huge table was taken up by the crew working at the Greek Theatre.

Fritto misto. According to the anziano sitting at the staff table next to mine, the little fish – I forget what he called them – are the best in Sicily. The old fellow probably assumed I knew that unlike the similarly small acciuga (anchovy), the bone of this fish is inedible. I had to spit the first one out.

Gelato a tre gusti. I don’t usually have dessert, but I was glad I make an exception here. This photo does not begin to capture the intense flavours and creamy textures.

Another thing the American security agents had insisted on was that there would be no moving their president around except by armoured vehicles.  As for walking – out of the question!  Too dangerous! So when it came time for one of the group photos, six world leaders, risking all, went a piedi (a pyay-dee) – on foot from the Greek Theatre to Piazza IX Aprile – a distance of 650 meters, where they then had to stand around, waiting for the American president to arrive.  Not by armoured car, as his security agents had originally insisted, but in a golf cart.

A short walk from the Greek Theatre, Corso Umberto opens onto the enormous Piazza IX Aprile.

The Church of St. Joseph and Mt. Tauro formed the backdrop for the ‘Family’ photo.

It seems highly doubtful the American president made it to Piazza Duomo, a two-minute walk further along Corso Umberto.

From Piazza IX Aprile, views of Sicily’s east coast all the way down to Catania and beyond. And closer at hand, tiny Isola Bella.

Locating the entrance to the funivia (cable car) down to sea level is a bit of a challenge. It’s at the north end of town, not far from the pink building on the right.

There is a road down, but even if you have a car, you do not want to drive.

Before going over to Isola Bella I thought it would be fun to go for a boat ride.  But when I inquired at one of the little huts, things didn’t look promising.  I waited around, while Sebastiano walked up and down the beach looking for other takers, but he came back and shook his head.  Mi displace.  I’m sorry, no-one wants to go out now and if you don’t go soon, the sun won’t be at the right angle to see the grottoes.  I started to head over to Isola Bella when he called me back.  He’d just spotted two people about to get into someone else’s boat.  I rushed over to join them, amazed once again at the casual generosity.

Most of the G7 press, close to 4,000 of them, were lodged in neighbouring centres like Mazzarò, where the vibe was very different, more like a typical Italian seaside resort.

From the sea it was easy to see why the ancient Greeks had chosen this site.

How do plants do it?

Our driver guided the boat – carefully – into one of the caves.

He wanted to show us what was left of the coral. Harvesting it had been banned years ago. None of the stuff in the stores up in Taormina, he warned us, was from around here.

While working on this post I was alarmed to learn that in 2018 the G7 summit will be held in La Malbaie, Quebec, Canada.  Let’s hope things go more smoothly for the Malbaisiens than they did for the Taorminesi. The two communities have a great deal in common.  Like Taormina, La Malbaie is a small town (population 9,000 compared to Taormina’s 11,000) and is located – this may come as a surprise to my fellow Canadians – in an earthquake-prone area, in fact the most active seismic zone in eastern Canada.  And although La Malbaie is not perched on a cliff, access is in many ways just as challenging.  It is 150 k north-east of Quebec City, the nearest urban centre and international airport, three times the distance from Catania to Taormina.   Access is via a two-lane road, a tourist train or the St. Lawrence River, which has led a security expert to describe it as a ‘beautiful nightmare’.

Lots of lovely little coves and caves for a private lunch and leisurely swim.

One challenge that didn’t come up in Taormina was language. Of the Sicilians I have encountered, many of whom speak siciliano as their mother tongue, almost all  effortlessly – and graciously – switch to italiano or English when dealing with outsiders.  It will be interesting to see how Quebec’s ‘Language Police’, of recent ‘Pastagate’ notoriety, handle things.  If you haven’t heard of ‘Pastagate’, it’s the name given to an incident in which inspectors from the Office québécoise de la langue française (Quebec Office of the French Language) fined the owner of an Italian restaurant in Montreal for including the word pasta on his menu. (For more on this, check out an article by Sandy White in the Toronto newspaper, The Globe and Mail  – “‘Pastagate’ reveals the hypocrisy of Quebec’s French hardliners”,  published Feb. 26, 2013, updated March 26, 2017)

Isola Bella was Lady Trevelyan’s second, and perhaps, favourite garden in Taormina. She had a small villa built facing the sea and covered the island with exotic, sun-loving plants.  A  narrow strip – more like a thread – of beach joins it to the mainland.  At low tide.

The beach area is small – part of its charm – but it does get crowded and besides, after the 160 steps down, you won’t be in a hurry to go back up, so best to come early.

On my first trip to Sicily so many years ago, I knew nothing about Isola Bella and didn’t have time to explore it, something I will definitely do on my next trip.

Isola Bella, one more reason to return to Sicily.

Advertisements

Looking But Not Seeing – Taormina Part I

After the wreath ceremony (previous post), I left Cefalù’s crowded beach and walked over to the village’s quieter, rocky side where I’d had a lovely lunch at a simple trattoria years before and was hoping to do a repeat, right down to the waterside table.

From here it was hard to imagine the pandemonium on the other side of the tower.

The trattoria was still there and there was a free table by the water.  I ordered the same thing I’d had on my earlier trip –  pasta con cozze e vongole (mussels and clams).

Did the view have something to do with how good the simple vino bianco locale tasted?

As I sat waiting for the pasta to arrive, two sailboats added a magical touch to the idyllic view.  Or at least that’s how I, a committed landlubber, saw them.  But as the boats sat there, motionless, it occurred to me that something else might also be at play.   As Thoreau had so masterfully put it, ‘The question is not what you look at, but what you see.’  (If that wording seems a bit off to you, not to worry – this is one of Thoreau’s most often misquoted gems.  You may know it as ‘It is not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see’, which of course does not mean the same thing at all, but has gained a lot of traction because that is how Thoreau’s biographer, Richard D. Richardson Jr., put it in Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind.)  In any event, it occurred to me that if I were an ardent sailing enthusiast – say, someone who looks forward to getting out of the office and on the water all week long – I might see something entirely different.  Something to do with dashed hopes, and frustration and a ruined holiday afternoon. A few days later, in Taormina, I would be reminded of Thoreau’s words.

What do you see?

Taormina (tah-or-mee-nuh), spectacularly perched mid-way up a mountain on the north-east coast of Sicily, is the island’s go-to destination if you’re looking for glitz.  The wealthy elites of Ancient Rome were the first to discover the delights of ‘La Perla’ (pearl) and many centuries later, a new, less violent invader arrived.  Tourists.  It was the German author, Goethe, who first alerted the wealthy elites of Europe to the seductive beauty and lavish lifestyle that awaited them in Taormina with the publication of ‘Italian Journey’, the memoir of his almost two-year long journey in 1787 through Italy, three months of which he spent in Sicily.   Taormina was quickly added to the list of must-see sites on the ‘Grand Tour’ and artists, writers, philosophers, royalty and aspiring royalty – Nicholas 1 of Russia, Wagner, Nietzsche and on and on, and years later, Churchill, Capote, Orson Welles, Bertrand Russell and a host of Hollywood stars – Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Greta Garbo – all came to see its ancient splendours.  And to enjoy its lavish, modern offerings.

From the Greek Theatre, 3rd century BCE, perched at the edge of the promontory, a spectacular view down the east coast of Sicily.

Looking west from the theatre, in the foreground the tower of San Domenico, a former Benedictine monastery, now one of the town’s many exclusive hotels, and in the distance, dominating the landscape, Mt. Etna.

As well as the wealthy elites, Taormina is also a magnet for the rest of us, of which an astonishing number are disgorged every day from enormous cruise ships.

The ships’ passengers are dropped off at the north end of the historic centre.  Foreign tourists are forbidden from driving into this area.  This prohibition is only annoying until you see what is involved.

While the tourists make their way to Porta Messina, the ancient northern entrance to Taormina, there is nothing for a poor wretch at the wheel to do but wait.

From Porta Messina, waves of tour groups inundate the town’s narrow main road, Corso Umberto.

The groups, all of which were obviously intent on seeing as much of the town as they could cram into their no doubt limited shore leave, made leisurely meandering a challenge.  But I tried not to let the jostling get to me.  At least not too much.  I knew I would be able to return later when the groups were back on their ships.  Besides, I was pressed for time too. In a half hour I was to be at the entrance to a rare and private garden, open to the public only by appointment which, after a great deal of juggling with my itinerary, I had finally managed to arrange.  The best way to fill the time, I decided, was to ignore what was going on at street level and focus on the balconies overhead where there was an astonishing amount of gardening going on.

Lack of a ‘real’ garden obviously didn’t deter this plant enthusiast.

The blue and white lobelias made a lovely contrast to the hot pinks. Do they get straggly here, like back home and have to be cut back? My guess is this gardener wouldn’t be happy with any bare spots.

Growing roses in the searing heat of a Sicilian summer must take serious gardening know-how. And on a balcony!

Even on a small, corner balcony room is made for pots of brightly coloured flowers.

Some of the façades were so beautiful the flowers and plants were almost (!) superfluous.

While other façades were in such a bad state of repair, if it hadn’t been for the obviously carefully attended plants, you might wonder if they were lived in.

Do they ever pick the oranges or are they simply for show?

After a short stroll it was time to head to the garden.  I followed the detailed directions I had been given, but when I arrived at the address where it should have been, instead of Casa Cuseni, the name I knew the garden by, I found two imposing columns joined by a tightly closed gate and a plaque bearing one word – Museo.

Museo (moo-zay-oh) as I’m sure you’ve guessed means ‘museum’. In 2015 Casa Cuseni was designated a National Monument. Hence, the plaque bearing the prestigious (but not very helpful) word Museo.

At the far end of the wall was a much more humble, but more welcoming, open gate.  No-one was around and I couldn’t see any bell, so I went in and headed over to the ‘casa‘ (kah-zuh),  technically ‘house’, looking for a sign to the reception office.  There wasn’t a sign, it was not that kind of place, but after wandering around for a while I came upon a somewhat office-like room in which, to my great relief, a signora was seated at an enormous, antique desk.  ‘Buon giorno‘, I said, ‘sono la Signora Fenice’, adding that I was here for the 3 pm garden tour.  ‘Ah, buon giorno, La stavamo aspettando,’ replied the signora smiling.  ‘We have been expecting you. It is still quite early’, she smiled again, ‘but not to worry, mentre aspettiamo che il resto del gruppo arrivi …  while we wait for the others to arrive…’   ‘But’, I spluttered, interrupting her, ‘there are no others.  It’s just me.’  To which the signora, no longer smiling, replied,  ‘We don’t do tours for one individual, only group tours.’

Now I am well aware that as a humble member of the hoi poloi and not some august figure from the BBC it is not reasonable to expect to be given private tours of private gardens such as Casa Cuseni.   Which is why, as I’ve mentioned before, in such cases, I try to piggyback on a pre-existing group booking.  And why, in the hopes that it might improve my chances, I always ask a local, someone from the place I’m staying at, to call to make the arrangements.  I stood there for a second, gathering up the shredded remnants of my sense of equanimity, and then began to explain in my best Tuscan Italian how when Valentina from the agriturismo nearby had spoken with the signora two days earlier, she had made it very clear that ‘si trattava di una persona’.  It was a matter of one person.

One thing I’ve learned on my travels around Italy is that Italians love hearing a foreigner speak their language.  And sure enough, as I went on and on in a shamelessly lengthy account of what Valentina had said, I began to see signs that the signora was warming up to my plight and when I finished, she simply remarked that there had obviously been some kind of malinteso (mal-in-tay-zoh) – misunderstanding – and she would be delighted to give me a tour.  She led me out to the garden in front of the villa.

While Kitson left many of the existing olive and almond trees and planted classic Sicilian citrus trees, the garden has a distinctively English feel.

The villa and gardens were created by Sir Robert Kitson, a British artist who moved to Taormina at the beginning of the 20th century in a kind of self-imposed exile.  It all started with a collection of photos that were featured in the 1893 edition of ‘The Studio’, the world’s pre-eminent art magazine of the time.  The photos, by the German exile, Baron Von Gloeden, were all variations on one theme –  provocatively posed Sicilian youths.  To be absolutely clear, nude, male youths.  The edition circulated widely in aristocratic and artistic circles throughout Europe.  The message was powerful and clear.  At a time when even a person of the renown of Oscar Wilde languished in jail in England, there was a place where men like him were free to be themselves.

An unusually shaped lemon, one of the many citrus fruits introduced to the island by the Arabs.

Five years later, while travelling with his parents along Sicily’s east coast, Kitson, who had been aware from an early age of his homosexual tendencies, managed to slip away from his parents and secretly visit Van Gloeden’s studio.  Seeing first-hand that it was possible to live a fuller, if not completely open life, in a spectacularly beautiful setting was a life-changing experience for the young man.  He returned to England, and when his father died a few years later, made his move.  He sold his grandfather’s locomotive company, the largest in the world at the time, and 100 days later returned to Taormina where he was greeted like royalty – even without Twitter and Instagram the locals had quickly got wind of his enormous wealth, some say more than Onassis and Rockefeller combined – and set about building a home for himself and a haven for artists and writers who, like him, were threatened in their home countries to the north.

He also imported tropicals and subtropicals from all over the world.  Grevillea, a native of Australia, with its yellow and red flowers, the colours of the Sicilian flag, looks very much at home here.

Kitson took his time selecting the site for his new home, eventually, to the astonishment of the locals, choosing a property that was on the market for a pittance, a reflection of what  the locals thought of it.  It was outside the medieval fortifications, an outlandish 15 minute walk from the town centre, on a steep hillside where nothing but a few almond and olive trees managed to survive, and perhaps most importantly of all,  apart from a couple of ancient Greek wells, had no source of water.  But the ‘mad’ Englishman, an artist by inclination, and engineer by training, wasn’t worried about having to bring fresh water up for drinking and building.  There were plenty of donkeys for that.  And the wells would provide enough water for irrigating the gardens, which he began work on even before the house was finished.

Hollyhocks, on the other hand, seemed totally bizarre here.

A combo that captures the quintessence of an English garden in Sicily – nasturtiums and oranges.

By this point the signora‘s husband had taken over my tour.  Initially I was disappointed.  She and I had been having a lovely time, but it soon became clear that Francesco, who pointed out that he was in charge of tours, was extremely knowledgeable and I had a hard time keeping up.

Kitson had some help in the design of his home as well as the gardens from a former teacher and once intimate friend, Sir Frank Brangywn.  One disadvantage of all the attention you get on a private tour is there is no hiding one’s deficiencies.  I had never heard of Brangywn before.  Fine art aficionados, especially on this side of the Atlantic, may know him as the artist who introduced Art Nouveau to Tiffany’s and created the murals for the Rockefeller Centre.  In England, where I suspect he is better known, he was prolific and much celebrated – in fact the first English artist to have a retrospective mounted during his lifetime.

Behind the giant mask and fountain designed by Brangwyn is one of the storage tanks Kitson built to collect rain water for the front garden.

The steep hillside is divided into seven terraces, each with a fountain designed by Brangwyn.

The largest piscina (pool) was designed so that each full moon would be perfectly reflected in its centre.  And when Etna was erupting, it too would be reflected in the pool.

Every detail of the garden was infused with meaning, including the decoration of the pathways made in the traditional ciottolato technique, named for ciottolo – ‘choh-toe-low’ –  a small pebble.

The property continues further up the hillside but the tour ended at this ‘Moorish’ fountain.

On the way down Francesco told me there was one more thing – not normally included in a garden tour – he wanted to show me.  Or rather, one more thing he felt I needed to see.  My head was already reeling, but I didn’t want to look ungracious, especially after the way things had started, so I thanked him and asked what it was.

As he had told me earlier, Brangwyn was a prolific, extremely busy artist, so for many years it was a mystery why, despite his hectic schedule and even accounting for Taormina’s indisputable beauty and Brangwyn’s involvement in the design of the garden, he visited Taormina so many times – seven in all – in an era when travel was so much more time-consuming.  The mystery was eventually revealed.  During his many visits, in addition to the garden, Brangwyn had also been working on a series of frescos in the villa dining room, the subject matter of which was considered so controversial and so dangerous, even in Taormina, that the room was kept locked and only a trusted few allowed in to see them.  Guiding me through the villa to the dining room, Francesco explained that the room was still kept shut and dark, but nowadays it was to protect the colours of the frescos.

As I looked around the room, Francesco watched me carefully.  After a while, in what struck me as a vaguely familiar echo of Thoreau’s observation about looking and seeing, he declared, ‘Lei guarda, ma non capisce.’   Now we all have our triggers, and one of mine is having people tell me they know better than I what is in my head.  I hadn’t merely been informed that I didn’t ‘see’ what I was looking at, but, adding insult to injury, that I didn’t understand it.  Fortunately, before I could get really riled up and say something unhelpful,  Francesco started to tell me what the frescos were about.  He was of course right.  I didn’t have a clue what I was looking at.

The tall blond on the left holds a bowl of fruit which represents the life enjoyed by homosexuals in Taormina. The small figure in black cowering behind him represents the life Kitson would have led if he had stayed in England.

The healthy, vibrant figure in white represents Kitson in Taormina. The wizened figure in black represents Kitson as he would have been in England.

The male lovers are dressed in the colours of Taormina – the white snow of Etna, and the clear, blue sky over the town.

The Family, fleeing to an unknown and distant place.

After the intense emotions of the dining room, it was a relief to sit for a moment on the terrace…

… and look out onto the views that had captivated the young, Englishman so many years ago.

After Kitson died, his niece, Daphne Phelps, who had never been to Sicily and didn’t speak a word of Italian, let alone siciliano, was charged with selling Casa Cuseni.  She didn’t.  And in her fascinating memoir, ‘A House in Sicily’, she tells the story of what happened.

Daphne died in 2005 and the villa was taken over by my tour guides, Francesco Spadaro and his wife, Mimma, whose parents had played a critical role in Daphne’s ability to hold on to Casa Cuseni and to continue in her uncle’s footsteps as benefactor not only to foreign artists, but also to needy locals.  Nowadays, as well as guiding groups around the gardens and hosting cultural events befitting the villa’s status as a National Monument, the Spadaros also operate the villa as a B&B.  In memory of its history and some of its illustrious guests, they named the five bedrooms – Don Roberto, Greta Garbo, Pablo Picasso, Daphne and Henry Faulkner.

How marvellous to stay overnight – perhaps when the moon was full and reflected in the main pool – and the next morning step out onto your balcony …

… to the sight of Etna puffing away in the distance.

 

 

 

 

A Garden That Takes You Above and Beyond

In 2000, a momentous year on many accounts, a woman living in Catania ‘nel mezzo del cammin‘* of her life had not lost her way in a dark wood, but she had experienced a great many of life’s pleasures as well as its tragedies and felt compelled to create something that would not only reflect her experiences, but would also allargare l’anima (enlarge the soul).  She decided to transform the ancient citrus grove around the family villa into a garden.

*’Nel mezzo del cammin’ di nostra vita, mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, ché la diritta via era smarrita‘. (In the middle of the journey of my life I found myself in a dark wood for I had lost my/ the right way) 1st canto, Hell, The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

The 19th century family villa.

Rossella Pezzino de Geronimo hadn’t created a garden on this scale before – 7 hectares (17 acres) – but she was well equipped for the undertaking.  Already an accomplished artist and photographer – the day after my visit was the opening gala in Catania for an exhibit of her latest book and photographs – she had the eye and the imagination to design a great garden.  She was also  adventurous and would travel extensively to collect the plants she wanted, including to Burma which involved being granted a special permit.

She called her garden Le Stanze in Fiore di Canalicchio.    Canalicchio is a comune, a village or town, sort of like our municipality, on the outskirts of Catania.  Fiore means ‘flower’ and le stanze means ‘the rooms’.  The Rooms in Bloom of Canalicchio?  The Flowering Rooms of Canalicchio?  I once had a professor offer to write a letter of support for the Masters program in translation at the University of Ottawa.  I don’t remember what I said, but I have a bad feeling it was not very gracious.  The idea appalled me.

My garden tour – visits are by guided tour only, advance reservations required – began close to the villa, in the ‘Tropical Garden’.

We followed Rossella down a narrow path into a world of lush, dense tropical plants.

We had no sense of where we were heading.  There was no focal point, no central axis, no symmetry and not a clipped boxwood in sight.  Nothing remotely connected to what we often think of as a Giardino all’italiana.   Rossella’s goal was to create not the utopia of the formal Renaissance Garden, but instead a heteropia, one of those places that is embedded in aspects and stages of our life, that mirrors as well as distorts and unsettles other spaces.

In case you’re wondering if I was sampling the tropical plants as we went along, that last bit is from one of the websites on the garden.  Utopia I was familiar with – the concept that is, sadly not the experience – as well as dystopia which, equally sadly, seems to be less and less a mere concept lately, but I had never seen the word eteropia. I assumed it was one of those esoteric words Italian is full of that have an utterly mundane English equivalent, but no, when I googled it, up popped ‘heteropia’.  And the name of a French philosopher I also had never heard of – Michel Foucault, who in his 1966 book ‘Les mots et les choses‘ (Words and Things) introduced heteropia as a way to discuss places that – in a nutshell –  while physically connected to the surrounding environment are separate from it; places used by society to regulate our behaviour, control our movements and, in some situations, to reduce our autonomy and even sense of identity.  From prisons to schools to your local tennis club.

Catania was just outside the high stone walls, but in this lush, tropical space it seemed worlds away.

Fortunately Rossella did not talk about any of this as we walked along.  Instead she talked about the garden as un percorso dell’anima.  A journey of the soul.  And just as there is no single, preordained mortal journey for any of us, at least none that is readily apparent, there is no one ‘proper’ way to visit Rossella’s garden.  The stanze are all interconnected, like a web, so that depending on where you start and the route you take, your experience of the garden and the emotions it aroused might vary from one visit to another.

Our journey started in the Tropical Garden, the least structured, wildest ‘room’ so that we would quickly feel lost, disoriented, off balance.   In real life of course, despite the barrage of slogans exhorting us to get out of our comfort zone, feeling lost and disoriented is not a sensation most of us willingly seek out, let alone enjoy.   Especially when we’re driving around a foreign island on our own. But this wasn’t real life, and blindly following Rossella was incantevole, from incanto meaning ‘spell, enchantment’.

An ancient trough made of pietra volcanica, the prevalent building material in the shadow of Etna.

After we’d spent a bit of time wandering around the tropical forest, getting acclimatized to the spirit of the garden, we came to an open area close to the villa.

Contemporary sculptures – many of them gifts – add to the sense of dépaysement.  Of being away from your pays.  Your country.

Beyond the pillar and the gigantic twin palms was a wide open space.

Next to the pillar was one of many extraordinary plants in the garden.  I vaguely remember Rossella telling me what it was, but there was so much going on it slipped my mind before I could jot it down.

Repeating rows of ancient ploughs are a reminder of the back-breaking work that first transformed the once hostile land into a citrus orchard.

In late evening the play of light and shadow, symbol of the alternating joyful and dark stages of a life fully lived, was even more accentuated.

A rather lovely greenhouse.

Amidst the palm fronds reflected in the pond, clumps of water hyacinths. The balloon-like base keeps the plants afloat.

Water flowing and falling from one stanza to the next is the garden’s filo conduttore.  Leading thread.

If you remember to look up, the fantastical flowers of the White Crane or Giant Bird of Paradise.

Close by was a Ficus macrophylla aka Moreton Bay Fig or Australian Banyan Tree.  I’d seen many of these lumbering giants in my travels across Sicily – the most amazing and one of the largest in Palermo’s Botanical Garden (post to come) – but none with such an odd base.  When Rossella saw me looking at  it there was that glimmer of recognition that occasionally passes between gardeners.  The garden, as she had explained at the outset of the tour, was a reflection of different stages in her life.  The distorted trunk was a reminder of a dark period in Rossella’s life.  It was also a reminder of the inner strength she had found to endure that dark period and eventually to embrace joy again.  I was reminded of  the grieving mother I once read about, whose only source of comfort from the pain of losing her child came from digging up her front lawn and putting in a garden.

Misshapen, but still thriving.

This sculpture might be Ophelia, but the group had gone ahead and the artist, Gunther Stilling, has created other sculptures that to my eye look very similar, but are of African Kings.

Roses and palm trees always make such an incredibly exotic combination.

One plant brought back memories of a tour I had led a while ago at Allan Gardens in downtown Toronto.  In one of the tropical greenhouses a plant which I had never noticed before, despite having led many tours, was putting on a fabulous show.  It was the tour guide’s nightmare.   Sure enough, one of the people in the group asked what it was.   I confessed that I didn’t have a clue, but would ask the head gardener.  When we caught up with him, I asked about the little purple flower that looked like a butterfly, he laughed.  ‘Oh that, we just call it the Butterfly Flower!’

It may have a fancy Latin name, but for me it will always be the  ‘Butterfly Flower’.

Bauhinia aculeata. White Orchid Tree. Chinese symbol of renewal. The flowers look as if they’ve been attached to the branches. A kind of arboreal hand-tied bouquet.

This might be Fuchsia arborescens.  Fuchsia Tree.  Definitely tailor-made for a hummingbird.

Angel’s Trumpet, a toxic beauty.

Just about to open, the flowers of the Cockspur Coral Tree which, in the wonderful world of plants, is a not too distant relative of the pea and the bean.

Cycads. A species that has survived millennia only now becoming endangered – because of poaching. The plant’s unusual shape have made it a must-have item for unscrupulous plant collectors.

Close by a gigantic clump of shrimp plants. The odd name comes from its shape. If you stand back a bit and squint, the flowers resemble the shape of a shrimp. The proper squinting technique helps.

If this had been the end of the tour, I would have been well satisfied.  But Rossella urged me on.  The sun was starting to set and we hadn’t yet been to the Giardino dell’altrove e della rinascita.  The Garden of the Beyond and Rebirth.

It is not easy to reach the beyond. You have to make your way along a stream, stepping VERY carefully from one rock to the next.  The stream is set in an expanse of pebbles, white on one side, black on the other.  The Yin and Yang of life.

The stepping stones are made of rough volcanic rock and you really do have to pay attention as you step from one to the next.

Rossella saw me eyeing the daisy on the far side of the stream.  She pointed to the butterfly that had lit on its petals and then to the sculpture on the ground close to where we were standing.

The butterfly. Symbol of transformation.

Once we were safely across the stream, we passed through a dense forest into a wide open grassy area.  This was not your usual lawn.  It had all sorts of humps and troughs and on top of the humps, white flowers had been planted willy nilly. I hope I didn’t disappoint our guide but my imagination was nowhere near up to this vision.

What would you think?

This is the sea we must also cross on our journey to the Garden of the Beyond.  The white flowers – Alyssum – represent the sea spray on the crest of the waves.  The entrance to our destination is next to two bronze, crescent moons.

On the right shore of the sea, one of the ancient Arab saie (sigh-yay), troughs that carry water throughout the gardens.

Why two moons? my unimaginative self asked. ‘Because we’re going to a new world’, replied Rossella.

A short path through a tiny dense forest brought us to Rossella’s vision of the primordial landscape, untouched by human artifice.

A great deal of human artifice would have gone into creating such a convincing primordial landscape.

Any gardener who has tried to create a wild garden knows how difficult it is to achieve a ‘natural’ look.  This area reminded me of the Garden of Ninfa in Central Italy  where the gardeners’ major task is to make it look as if there were no gardeners.  (‘Gardening in the Ruins of a Medieval Village’, Feb. 15, 2015)

A rotten tree trunk has fallen just so onto the forest floor, and in its crotches bromeliads have taken root.  All on their own.

We walked through a later stage of the new world and started up a slope that led to the gardens of le terre lontane.  Far off places.

In a later stage, the chaos of the primordial forest has been tamed by the unmistakable hand of man. Or, as in this case, of a woman.

It was only when we had climbed up the slope that now and then we caught glimpses of Catania and the real world beyond the garden walls.

Instead of the ocean, the humpy allée up here symbolized a dragon.

For the plants for this part of the garden, Rossella had travelled extensively in the East, including to Burma, now Myanmar, which required a special permit.

We were speechless and would have loved to linger, but it was getting late and Rossella still had lots to do in preparation for the gala opening the following evening.

This would have been an extraordinary sight anywhere, but here, on the outskirts of Catania, in the shadow of Mt.Etna, it was truly altrove. Beyond.

A garden as un’opera d’arte viva. A living work of art, in continual evolution and transformation.

Next – An Unexpected Delight

 

 

A Tyrant’s Garden

I woke up with the peacocks the next morning.  A slightly less screechy wake-up call would have been nice, but I didn’t really mind.  Today I was going to visit Kolymbetra, the garden of the ancient Greeks, and the temples those Greeks built on the ridge overlooking the garden.

IMG_8497

From my window the screeching peacock was nowhere to be seen, but in the distance there was one of the temples.

When I told the young woman who brought me breakfast about walking over to Kolymbetra the evening before, her eyes opened wide.  If one of the custode had caught me without a entrance ticket…

IMG_8495

My idea of breakfast. Freshly-squeezed juice, croissant just out of the oven, cappuccino and a fabulous view.

Still, it was tempting.  The walk through the olive grove had been such a pleasant experience and it was so much closer by foot than by car and I really did not want to drive along that narrow lane any more times than absolutely necessary.  But I also didn’t want to run into an unfriendly custode before I reached the ticket office.

My plan was to tour the garden first and then the temples, so I parked in the lot at the south end of the ‘valley’, close to the temple that overlooked the garden.  With my ticket, proof that I had not entered illegally, and map in hand, I set out for the temple.  According to the map it was called the Temple of Castor and Pollux.

IMG_8531

From almost any part of the garden, you can catch a glimpse of the Temple of Castor and Pollux.

There is something about the number ‘3’.  Photography has the ‘rule of thirds’; in our gardens we’re urged to plant ‘in threes’.  E così via.  And on and on.  ‘Three’ is symmetry, beauty and harmony.  So maybe the Temple of Castor and Pollux would be even more compelling if it only had three columns.  But, you might object, it’s a ruin.  You can’t fault a ruin for not following the principles of design.  Fine – except that this ‘ruin’ is a made-up 19th century pasticcio.

In the early 1800’s Domenico Antonio Lo Faso Pietrasanta Duca di Serradifalco, who mercifully usually went by the name of Serradifalco, was put in charge of the excavation and restoration of Sicily’s major archeological sites, including Agrigento.  He suspected that a treasure trove of ruins lay under the rubble and earth that had accumulated over the centuries and set his workers to digging.  When they hit – probably literally – some columns, he had three of them mounted on bits and pieces from various temples and called the newly minted ruin the Temple of Castor and Pollux.

And the fourth column?  It was added much later, a few years before his death.  Was it his decision?  Or maybe a younger colleague, eager for his bit of glory.  And which of the columns now standing was the later addition?  No idea.  And why, after all the bother they’d gone to, hadn’t they done something about the unsightly, white splotches?  In any event, notwithstanding the supernumerary column, the new ruin was a great success, and before long was adopted as the official symbol of the Valley of the Temples.

IMG_8503

‘Ruins’ of the Temple of Castor and Pollux, official symbol of the Valley of the Temples.

I found out later that the ‘unsightly splotches’ are what’s left of a stucco coating that protected the sandstone and that also just happened to create a marble-like effect similar to the real thing on temples back in Greece.

Concidentally, while I was putting this post together, TVO rebroadcast ‘Lone Twin’, a beautifully moving documentary in which writer/director Anna Van Der Wee, seeks the answer to a question that has haunted her since the death of her twin brother in a tragic accident when he – and she – were twenty:   When a twin dies, is the surviving twin still a twin?  In the intro she talks about twins throughout history, including Castor and Pollux, twin brothers from Greek mythology.

Like most Greek myths, especially ones involving Zeus, the story line is terribly complicated, but in a nutshell, after Zeus seduces the swan, Leda, she gives birth to the twin brothers, Castor and Pollux, who are, according to some versions, both half-immortal (whatever that means).  In other versions, Pollux gets all the immortality gene and Castor is left mortal.  Inevitably, the one who ends up wounded in battle is Castor.  Overcome with grief after Castor’s death, Pollux begs Zeus to reunite him with his brother.  For a character who spent so much time getting up to no good, the king of the gods came up with a surprisingly brilliant solution –  he transformed them into Gemini, the constellation of the twins.  None of which explains why the temple was named for the twins.

I was making slow progress.  A good thing the entrance to the garden was nearby.

IMG_8500

Plaque at the official entrance to Kolymbetra.

In ‘The End of Your Life Book Club’ Will Schwalbe describes how his mother, the other member of this very exclusive book club, would read the end of a book first.  While I have always felt some kind of moral obligation to start where the author intended (although I have, at times, guiltily raced through many pages to get to the end), I can relate to her strategy.  When confronted with plaques like the one at the entrance to Kolymbetra – no matter how interesting or how well written – I start losing focus after the first line or two.  I can’t wait to get to the end – the garden.  So I take a photo and read the material after I’ve visited the garden.  Preferably sitting somewhere with a nice view and a glass of wine.

IMG_8502

From here it was easy to see the path (on the left) I had taken into the garden the day before. Doesn’t it seem rather wide for an illegal entrance?  In the distance, the modern city of Agrigento.

But the people in charge were on to visitors like me.  Throughout the garden were more plaques, each with a very palatable bocconcino of info.  The canny people who had put up these plaques work with FAI,  Fondo Ambiente Italiano (Foundation of the Italian Environment), a national non-profit organization with a mandate similar to that of the British National Trust – the promotion and protection of green spaces, historical buildings and all the other elements of Italy’s rich heritage that are ‘fundamental to our roots and our identity’.

IMG_8504

In the top left corner of each plaque, the symbol of FAI, the Italian equivalent of the British National Trust.

Towards the end of the 20th century, the whole area had fallen into such a serious state of neglect – the peasants having abandoned the hardships and subsistence existence of farm work for an easier life in the city – the local authorities decided the only way to save it would be to hand it over to FAI.  FAI’s restoration efforts have been so rapid and so successful that Kolymbetra has already been among the top 10 finalists of the annual ‘Most Beautiful Parks in Italy’.

IMG_8534

Even in full daylight it was hard to tell where the tree ended and the rock began.

For those of you who have left reading the plaque for later, the ground I was standing on was once the site of an enormous Kolymbetra –  ancient Greek for ‘swimming pool’.     The pool had been the idea of the Greek ‘tyrant’, as the leaders of the Greek settlements in Magna Grecia were called, Terone.   Some of the tyrants lived up to the name – Phalaris was a particularly unsavoury brute, who took delight in roasting his victims in a iron bull.  Although as ambitious as his predecessor, Terone seems to have been of a more humane temperament.  A less tyrannical tyrant.  Rather than roast his enemies, he preferred to use them as slave labour.

After defeating the Carthaginians in the 480 B.C. Battle of Himera (not to be confused with other Battles of Himera between the Greeks and the Carthaginians – 409 B.C., 405 B.C. and 310 B.C. – how do people keep these things straight?) in addition to the other spoils of battle, Terone found himself with an enormous supply of slave labour (all those captured Carthaginians).   Perfect for the urban renewal and beautification projects he had in mind.  He started with the temples.  But in addition, aware that absolute power can only get you so far if the citizens you rule don’t have the basic necessities, he took advantage of his new work force to build a system that would provide the city with a reliable and sufficient supply of water.

IMG_8530

Some of the captives were set to work digging a series of ipogei, (tunnels) in the hillside.  Water droplets that transpired from the porous tufa, flowed along the channels to holding tanks.  The water in the tanks was used to replenish the water in the great vasca, an enormous pool ‘seven stadiums large and 20 braccia (arms) deep’ that had been dug out by others of their wretched compatriots, and to water the lush garden, full of marvellous fauna and flora, that surrounded the pool.  When finished, it was a luxurious holiday resort that even the most ambitious of tyrants would have been happy to call his own. But Terone was no ordinary tyrant.  His bit of paradise was open to all – the local women would come here to do their laundry and gossip and all were free to refresh themselves in the cool, limpid waters.

IMG_8533

A few minutes later, a group of Grade 1 students from a local school arrived at the ipogeo. One of their teachers told me Kolymbetra was the perfect outing.  A bit of culture and then the students would be back in time for their parents to pick them up for lunch.

A century later Terone’s great vasca was filled in and the area planted with vegetables and fruit trees.  Enough water still flowed through the ipogei to irrigate the entire garden, even in the dry season. As it does to this day.

In 1100, around the beginning of the Dark Ages – an expression that seems oddly out of place in this sun-filled locale – the area was transformed again, this time into a cannetto and the vegetables and fruit trees were replaced with sugar cane.

IMG_8515

These workers, who were struggling to remove the plants which were threatening to take over the garden, may have had an opinion or two about the idea of planting sugar cane in the hot, sheltered valley.

IMG_8516

What if Disney had been Italian instead of American? Would some of the talking trees in his movies have been olives?

Five centuries later, the property was taken over by an abbey and planted with vegetables and herbs. And in the 17th century, when vast tracts of Sicily were being planted with fruit trees, a citrus grove was added.

IMG_8523

Carved into the hillside, beyond the citrus grove, the cave church I had seen the day before.

As I meandered through the citrus trees, I thought about how these fruits, which we have grown so used to and see everyday in our grocery store, originally came to us courtesy of the Arabs, whose civilization was, for so many centuries, far advanced of any in Europe.  A thought which, if anything, made the current situation in the Middle East seem even more tragic.

IMG_8544

The diminutive femminello (little female) seems a peculiar choice of name for a lemon – or anything for that matter – known for its ‘extraordinary’ fertility.

IMG_8522

A serendipitous succession of yellows and greens.

I’d always been confused about the word ‘cedro‘ (chay-droe).  I knew it was a lemon, so why not limone (lee-moh-nay)?   And I had never heard of a Citron Tree before. I’d always thought of ‘citron’ as see-tro(n) – French for lemon.  Or maybe a paint colour.  Things would have been a lot less confusing if Pliny had just left the names of these things alone.

IMG_8548

The pomegranate is not one of my favourite fruits – so much work for such a tiny bit of juice.  Persephone would certainly have fared a lot better if she hadn’t eaten any – but aesthetically, it has a lot going for it.  A few nice, big, red pomegranates look great in fall and winter planters and I even like its bright orange (not a colour you’ll find in my garden) flowers.

IMG_8519

The Pomegranate.  Depending on when and where you lived, a symbol of friendship and democracy or fruit of the dead.

Given the disaster that followed Persephone’s eating just a few seeds, I was surprised to learn that in modern times the pomegranate has been given a new, more positive spin.  In Greece it’s now considered a symbol of abundance, fertility, and good luck, often given as a house-warming gift.

IMG_8520

Even when you know the life cycle, it’s hard to imagine this will one day be a large, round, gorgeous-looking fruit.

At the far end of the garden was one of the ancient channels used to irrigate the garden.

IMG_8547

Nearby, a few unnaturally square chunks of rock jutted precariously out of the hillside.  This was the site of a latomia – a type of cave from which the Greeks extracted the building blocks for their temples.

IMG_8549

At this rate I was never going to get to the temples and this was my last day in the area.  I slowly made my way up the ridge and out of the ancient garden.

IMG_8527

Next – The Temples.

 

Keeping Everybody Happy

If you’ve ever felt a tad guilty about dragging a history-loving companion through yet another garden, Sicily is a great place to reset the balance.  Of the 1031 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, 51 of them are in Italy.  More than any other country in the world.  And even those numbers can be somewhat misleading. Florence, which has more treasures than it can handle, counts as just one site.  Same with Rome.  And one of the designated sites in Sicily, which I was surprised to learn, has the same number as Tuscany (seven), consists of eight towns.  The first of those towns I visited was Noto, as famous for its Infiorata as for its Baroque architecture.  (Flowery, but not Florid, Street Art; July 12, 2015)  On the way to the Valley of the Temples, another World Heritage Site, were two more of the ‘Val di Noto‘ towns.  Modica is about 40 k west of Noto.  (A word of warning – it will take you a good hour to cover those 40 k.)

Modica..It may be a UNESCO  World Heritage Site, but all I could see the makings of a nightmare.

Modica. It may be a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but there’s no way I was going to drive into that.

This was the closest to the centro I dared drive.

This was the closest to the centro storico I dared drive.

The second town, Ragusa (rah-goo-zuh), about 14 k north of Modica, looked somewhat more manageable.

Sicily 251

There are two Ragusa’s.   If you get lost, as I did, you can always stop for gas and ask.  Be careful though.  The first person I approached, an elderly gentleman in his Sunday best, pointed uphill to the left.  But that didn’t fit the sense of the place I’d gotten as I drove up to it.  Another fellow, who must have been awfully hot under his motorcyclist’s black leather, pointed downhill to the right.

IMG_8347

Ragus Ibla, the peninsula-like half on the right, is a history buff’s dream.  18 UNESCO monuments and only one garden.

Even though it was much smaller than Modica, and even though I knew I was in the ‘right’ Ragusa, I was still worried about finding my way back to the car, so after I parked I looked around for a landmark.  I found two I thought would work.  One was a blue-domed cupola right on the border of the two Ragusa’s.

IMG_8397

IMG_8396

Even against the jumble of buildings of modern Ragusa on the opposite hill, I could still see the blue dome.

My other landmark, close to the parking lot, was a building painted in a deep red.

My other landmark, almost next to the parking, was a building painted in deep red.  It stuck out -beautifully for my purposes - from all the others, but I wondered what the locals thought of it.

The red palazzo stuck out beautifully for my purposes, but I wondered what the locals thought of it.

It was Sunday, but thinking that maybe, given that it was such an important tourist site, just maybe the tourist office would be open.  It wasn’t.  I stopped at a bar near the blue dome and asked how to get to the centro storico.  I got the ‘guard dog’ look.  It was ‘là su‘. Up there. I couldn’t miss it.

The thing about towns that ancient settlers wisely built on top of hills, there is no ‘as the crow flies’ way to get to the centre.  And since you’re climbing upwards, you often can’t see where you’re going.

IN these ancient hilltop towns, you can see where you've come from, but not  where you're going.

In these ancient hilltop towns, you can see where you’ve come from, but not always where you’re going.

Even though I cow

Below this window was one of several narrow alleys that lead to the social centre of Ragusa.

Even though I ‘couldn’t miss it’, I was quite pleased when I finally came to an arch I remembered from my previous visit.  At the end of the narrow alley underneath it I could see Ragusa’s wide pedestrian avenue, Corso XXV Aprile, which, like so many streets throughout Italy, was renamed in honour of the official end of World War II in Italy.

IMG_8356

Sunday morning after mass the locals gather to chat before heading off to lunch.

IMG_8357

It had been a hot day in August when I first saw Ragusa's cathedral.

It had been a hot day in August when I first saw Ragusa’s cathedral.  Classic Sicilian Baroque.

I had a quick look inside the Duomo.  There was still all the ruby red fabric – unusual for a church I thought – and San Giorgio, Ragusa’s patron saint, still held a place – actually a couple of places – of honour.

IMG_8351

IMG_8350

IMG_8352

I meandered along the alleys behind the church and then headed for the public garden at the far end of the corso.

View from behind the Duomo of old Ragusa and the Iblea Mountains beyond.

View of old Ragusa and the Iblea Mountains beyond.

IMG_8363

It’s 2015! Where are the women? And why am I not sure these guys went to mass?

Before entering the garden, I stopped to have a look at the one bit of ancient Ragusa that survived the devastating earthquake of 1693.

The Portale of San Giorgio, the only part of Ragusa's original Gothic Duomo to have survived the 17th century earthquake.

The Portale of San Giorgio, the only part of Ragusa’s original Gothic Duomo to have survived the 17th century earthquake.

The garden winds around the Chiesa di San Giuseppe, which, like all the churches in Ragusa, was built after the earthquake. In this case, the new church was built on the site of the original Chiesa di San Tommaso, which leaves one wondering why St. Thomas was usurped by St. Joseph?

IMG_8367

The bell tower of the ‘new’ Church of St. Joseph.

IMG_8365

WELCOME but…

I’m always fascinated by the rules posted at the entrances to Italy’s public gardens.  In this one there was no playing soccer; no riding a bike after your 10th birthday; dogs had to be on a leash no longer than 1.5 metres and the accompagnatore of said dogs must be equipped with a bag for the collection of any eventual excrement.  Man’s best friend must have been wearing out his welcome in the past, because there was a second rule regarding dogs – they were tassativamente prohibited from going into the children’s play area and on the grass.  I had to look up tassativamente.  It was pretty strong language for a walk in the park. ‘Che non ammette eccezioni o discussioni.’  That which does not allow exceptions or discussions. 

IMG_8369

Apart from the rules – and the fines of up to 500 euros for any infractions – it was lovely.

IMG_8370

Lots of benches to sit and have a chat.

IMG_8371

At this time of year – late May – the roses were especially beautiful.

IMG_8372

IMG_8373

IMG_8375

There was even a grotto at the far end, presided over by a rather weary-looking Poseidon.

IMG_8376

People of all ages and evidently a wide range of reasons for going to the garden were wandering around.

IMG_8377

This fellow was obviously a regular.  During the time I watched him, he didn’t look up once, even to get his bearings.

By now it was time for lunch.  Il pranzo della domenica (Sunday lunch) is still the biggest – and by that I mean most important socially, and most abundant food-wise – meal of the week.  Earlier, I had stopped by a simple trattoria just to the left of the arch.  I’d had a nice, simple lunch there on my previous visit and was looking forward to having another one.  There wasn’t a customer in sight, but to be on the safe side – it had got quite busy even on my last week-day visit – I asked one of the waitresses if I needed a reservation if I wanted to eat around 1 pm.  I did.  When I came back, a few minutes before le 13, they were turning people away.

IMG_8388

Sharing a plate of pasta.

I felt badly taking up a whole table, so I told the waitress it was OK with me if the two women waiting on the other side of the courtyard joined me at ‘my’ table.  They were British.  I had overheard them earlier asking about a table and they seemed very pleasant. The waitress thanked me, but not to worry.  ‘Siccome avevo visto che è una persona molto tranquilla’ (Since I saw you are a very ‘tranquilla‘ person), she had told the two women they could have the table at 2 pm.

Unlike the Italians, who were out for a leisurely Sunday lunch, I still had a long drive ahead of me to the B&B in Agrigento, which was the subject of a alarmingly high number of comments regarding the difficulty of finding it, so I ordered a lovely, but simple antipasto misto.  As my waitress had known, an hour gave me plenty of time to enjoy my meal.  But I’m still not exactly sure what she meant by tranquilla.

IMG_8385

Un pranzo leggero   A very un-Italian Sunday lunch.

Next –  In The Valley of the Temples

The Garden That Once Upon a Time Wasn’t There

All Italian fairy tales start with C’era una volta…  (Once upon a time…).  Il Giardino Che Non C’era is the memoir of the garden a young woman and her husband created in what was once a wasteland.  As I read Miki Borghese’s book, I began to wonder if the title was a play on those magical words.  One thing I knew for certain – it was almost ‘The Garden I Didn’t Get to Visit’.

Trying to get into Italy’s gardens can be a very un-dolce vita experience.  (Not sure if I’ve gone on about this before, but I figure if I’ve forgotten, you probably have too.)  Access to the public, or state-owned gardens is generally not too difficult, despite some rather peculiar opening hours.  But if you limit yourself to those, you will miss some of Italy’s most beautiful and most interesting gardens.   Ninfa (Gardening in the Ruins of a Medieval Village, Feb. 15, 2015) comes to mind. Unlike the financially straightened English nobility, the owners of Italy’s private gardens have traditionally been reluctant to open their gates to the public and even though an English woman, Judith Wade, has been working hard to change that (Interesting.  But is it a Garden?  June 8, 2014) they are still extremely difficult to get into, often open by appointment only, for groups of 15 or even more.   Of the eight gardens in Sicily, I wanted to visit, five were private.  Even a group of ‘Me, Myself and I’ wouldn’t get me up to 15.  What to do?

IMG_8191

Unlike the big tour bus, my tiny rental car easily passed through the entrance gates. I parked it next to this fabulous trio.

I might be mistaken, but I’ve always felt that having someone local make arrangements gives me a leg up, so I ask the owner of wherever I am staying to call and see if there is a group I can join.   One of the private gardens I hoped to visit was an hour’s drive north of Il Limoneto.  As soon as I had checked in, I asked Dora if she would call.  She gave me a strange look. (mercifully, not the ‘Guard Dog’ look) Even in my jet-lagged state, it was clear that I spoke Italian more than well enough to make the call myself.  I had barely begun to explain when she nodded her head in agreement, yes that was una buona idea. I told her I’d be perfectly fine with a tour in Italian or French, but not German, which I had last studied decades ago.  The Principessa answered the call.  Yes, there was a tour scheduled for May 15, two days hence, at 3 pm.  Dora relayed all this to me and was in the middle of telling the Principessa how delighted I would be to join the tour when suddenly her face fell.  The tour – the only one booked during my four-day stay at Il Limoneto – would be in German.

IMG_8148

I left in plenty of time, but by 2:45 I was still driving along a deserted, country road surrounded by a blighted, occasionally foul-smelling landscape.  Those aren’t my words.  ‘Un territorio degradato e spesso maleodorante‘ is how Miki Borghese describes the road to Le Case del Biviere.   “Where are they taking me?”  she suggests, asks the perplexed traveller.  I, who had no ‘they’ taking me anywhere, was so stressata I barely had any mental room left over for perplexity.  I was going to be late, miss the tour, which on top of everything else might reflect badly on Dora.  And then, five minutes before 3, around a curve I saw the enormous cancello verde scuro (dark green gate).  I rang the bell, gave my name and the gates opened.  I drove through.  There was no sign of the group.  I had arrived on time – although barely – while the group, with their professional driver had not.  Mixed up in my relief at having made it was there a tiny note of smugness?   This ignoble sentiment was only aggravated when, as the gate closed behind me, I saw a tour bus coming around the curve.

IMG_8149

While the driver manoeuvred the enormous bus to the side of the very narrow road – the drivers of these buses must have nerves of steel – and the group slowly made their way through the gate to the entrance courtyard, I took advantage of my time alone in the garden to take some photos.

IMG_8153

Imagine getting up in the morning and stepping out on the little balconcino.

IMG_8154

Cephalocereus polylopus, aka…?

Like all real gardeners, Miki knows all the plants in her garden, each with its own posto (place) and spazio (space), and in her memoir tells the stories of some of those plants. The Cephalocereus polylopus next to the staircase was one of her earliest purchases.  (Before you start wondering if I’ve decided to go all hoity-toity and Latiny on plant names, I googled Cephalocereus polylopus, hoping to find a common name, but apart from a reference to ‘Old Man of the Andes’, the only other bit of information that came up was that it was an ‘unresolved’ name.  No idea what that means.)   She bought it from a nursery on the south-west coast of Sicily and planted it in a terracotta pot near its current location.  Years later, when it had outgrown the pot, she set it out in the terrace and for the first time it bloomed.  Every year since, in July and August, it sends up a ruby red flower di grande effetto.

IMG_8151

The Dasylirion longissimum, aka Mexican Grass Tree, is said to bloom only once every 10 years. This one first sent up its extraordinary inflorescence in the spring of 2001.  Had it flowered again between then and now (May 2015)?  There was so much to see in the hour-long tour, I got distracted and forgot to ask.

When they were all assembled, the Principessa greeted them – in German – and began to talk about the garden.  She spoke quite slowly and very clearly.  By standing next to her and paying very close attention, I was surprised to find I could understand most of what she said.  (Who knows what long-forgotten bits of knowledge lurk in the depths of our crowded brains, just waiting for an opportunity to burst forth and astonish us?)

IMG_8155

La Principessa Borghese greets her German visitors.

After a few introductory comments she invited us to follow her into the chapel where we could all sit comfortably, out of the glaring sun, while she continued with the story of how the garden came to be.  I sat in the front row, where I hoped I would be able to at least get the gist of things.  She had barely started, when she turned to the group’s guide and said – switching to Italian – that since her German wasn’t what it once was, and since the guide could translate, and since there was ‘la signora (looking at me) che solo capisce l’italiano,’ (who only understands Italian) she proposed continuing in Italian and the guide could translate for the group.   I felt a bit badly for the guide, who probably had been looking forward to a relaxing visit and now found herself on the hot seat.  I wondered how she felt about the interloper getting the original, firsthand version of the tour, while her group had to wait for her translation.  I sat there, trying very hard not to look like the cat that swallowed the mouse.

IMG_8152

Cappella di Sant’Andrea.  A cool place to hear the story of the garden.

Like so many places in Italy, the story of Le Case del Biviere begins with a legend. Hercules, a prominent figure in Italy’s gardens, starts things off here too.  The first of his Twelve Labours was to kill the Nemean lion, which had been wreaking havoc from its lair near the village of … Nemea.  In one version, the lion, as devious as it was ferocious, would disguise itself as a damsel in distress; a series of brave and noble warriors, passing by the cave would hear the cries of the ‘damsel’ and rush into the cave; as soon as the doomed wretch was close, the damsel would turn back into a lion, and we all know what happened next.  Even in versions that lack the damsel in distress, the lion was a nuisance, and none before Hercules had been able to kill it.  Their mortal weapons could not penetrate its golden fur.  When Hercules gets to the cave there is the usual epic battle, with Hercules of course coming out the winner.  Some time later, Hercules decided to give Ceres, Goddess of the Harvest, a gift.  What better gift for the life-giving goddess than the skin of the once-dreaded lion?  When he got close to the city in southern Sicily where the goddess lived, perhaps feeling a bit frisky, he also decided to create a lake nearby.  In time the city became known as Leontio, from leone, in memory of Hercules’ gift.  Le Case del Biviere is not far from the present-day town which is now called Lentini.

IMG_8166

The entrance to Le Case del Biviere is still through the ancient portale, but the bay where fishermen once tied up their boats is now a garden.  The buildings in the background are now in ruins.

So why is it called ‘Le Case (The Houses) of the Biviere‘?  Some time after Hercules, the Arabs arrived and renamed the lake Beveré, from the Arab vevere, meaning ‘watering hole’ or ‘fish hatchery’.  The link is much easier to follow in Italian – abbeveratoio is the modern-day word for ‘drinking trough’.  But when the Borghese family arrived in 1968 there was no lake, not even a water hole for the few, mangy sheep.  It was a desert – un posto desolato, contornato solo da pietre e polvere (a desolate place, surrounded on all sides by rocks and dust).   As part of a campaign to rid Sicily of malaria, the lake had been drained in the 1930’s.  So what prompted them to come to this desolate, barren region?

Seeing and trying hard to believe.  Beyond the low stone walls there was once a lake.  Incredibile -inn-cray-dee-bee-lay.  Unbelievable. even after seeing the photos.

Beyond the low stone walls there was once a lake. Incredibile (in-cray-dee-bee-lay). Unbelievable. Even after seeing the old photos.

Lemons. In her memoir Miki Borghese focuses on the garden, but she gives the reader glimpses of the events that led to the creation of the garden and bound her to Sicily.  For Miki is not a native of the island.  She had been living, quite happily, in Rome when, in the late 1950’s, she and her husband moved to Palermo, where her husband could more easily attend to his properties and business affairs.  After about ten years in Palermo, years in which she had given birth to four children and created a new life for herself, her husband came home one night and – from what I can gather – announced that they would be leaving Palermo and starting a new life on one of his properties in the south-eastern part of the island.  There, on a property that had no water, no vegetation, they would plant citrus trees and grano duro, the wheat used to make pasta.

IMG_8159

The last chapter is devoted to letters from various visitors, including one from Clarence House.  The renown of the garden grew so quickly and so widely that in 1988, only 20 years after the Borghese’s arrival, the Queen Mother wrote asking if she might visit.  There is also, translated into Italian, a glowing article which Robin Lane Fox wrote for The Financial Times, in which he declares (I’m translating back into English – couldn’t find the original version) that after a single glance at the property and the future that lay in store for her, a lesser woman would have high-tailed it off to Portofino.

IMG_8169

But Miki Borghese was made of a different cloth.  At one point she muses that it might have been her Sardinian background.  When she arrived in 1967, she was 37 years old. She had never had the opportunity nor inclination to create a garden, and her knowledge of things botanical was scarsissima and approssimativa. Extremely scarce and vague.  And, since they didn’t have the means to hire a professional designer, they would have to rely on her fantasia.  The only thing to do was not to let oneself get depressed, to consider oneself a pioneer, to roll up one’s sleeves and try to render liveable a place that was in no way liveable.  But where to begin?

IMG_8177

In the bottom right of the above photo, Australian Bottlebrush…

Everywhere she looked there was nothing but dust and rocks.  It was as if the water, offended at having its natural course redirected, had abandoned forever this place that for centuries had been famous for the richness of the fauna and flora.

IMG_8171

…and a ‘close-up’ of the pink flowering tree in the top left corner.  Now and then I wish I’d given in to all the people who tell me I really ‘should’ get a better lens. More zoom might have made it easier to ID this gorgeous tree.

I have no delusions about ever learning the names of all the plants in the gardens I visit – especially the tropicals in the gardens of southern Italy.  But now and then, there is one that is so unusual or so beautiful I just have to know.  Close to the house was a map of the garden with the names of all the plants.  The Latin names.  Since I couldn’t remember exactly where I’d taken the photo of the tree with the pink flowers, I gave up trying to locate it from the photo of the map and instead decided to google the names in the plant list at the end of the book until I came up with the right picture.   The list was seven pages long, single-spaced.  The first page wasn’t too bad.  Five acacias, 3 aeoniums and the rest of the page was taken up with agaves – 20 of them.  The first half of page 2 consisted of aloes – 20 of them too – followed by one annona – no luck there and then 2 araucarias.  When I googled ‘araucaria’ the last thing in the world I expected to see (if I’d been thinking of what the last thing in the world I expected to see might be) was ‘Crossword Puzzle Setter’.

IMG_8163

It was the obituary of of John Graham, one of England’s best-loved crossword setters.  For over forty years he had created crosswords for a devout following – he received piles of fan letters – under the nom de plume, Araucaria.  Araucaria is the Latin name of a tree that I had always liked and, until now, had known as the Monkey Puzzle Tree.  ‘Puzzle’ is no puzzle and, as for many of us, ‘monkey’ was a term of endearment in Graham’s family.  But – and this gives you an idea of how Graham’s mind worked, as well as the level of complexity of the puzzles he created – the Monkey Puzzle Tree is also known as the ‘Chile Pine’, which is an anagram for ‘Cinephile’.  (He loved movies.)  As for the types of clues, this excerpt from the obit sums it up quite nicely:  ‘The first clue in his first puzzle for the Manchester Guardian set the standard for what was to follow: “Establishment cut to the bone. ”

While all this crossword puzzle business was quite fascinating, not only was I no closer to solving my original puzzle, (the name of the tree with the pink flowers), now I had a new puzzle.  Where was the Araucaria in Miki Borghese’s garden?  I went back over all my photos.  It took me a while, but finally I found it.  Right next to the tree with the pink flowers.

IMG_8174

Maybe when the Tabebuia/Bignonia/…? is finished blooming, the Araucaria will stand out more.  And the answer to the human Araucaria’s first clue?  Skeleton staff.

By now I had the proverbial bee in my bonnet.  After following more unhelpful threads the photo I was hoping to find came up.  ‘Pink Trumpet Tree.’  But then I foolishly cross-checked the Latin name.  The photo was fine, but the script was a can of worms.  It turns out that the tree I was interested in, Tabebuia rosea, was a genus in the family Bignoniaceae.  So far so good.  Bignonia (been-yoan-yah) sounded familiar.  But then there was a comment to the effect that in addition to the Tabebuia, a host of other trees are also called Trumpet trees, which has, not surprisingly, led to confusion and misidentification. Playing ‘Angry Birds’ may have been a more useful way to spend my time, but I was so far in I couldn’t give up.  The least implausible explanation I ended up finding was this:  “About thirty species of trees previously placed in the genus Tabebuia, including both trumpet trees, were renamed Handroanthus in 2007, upon discovery that they were more closely related to genera other than Tabebuia. Pink trumpet tree, for instance, is more closely related to the calabash tree (Crescentia cujete) than it is to other species of Tabebuia, such as rosy trumpet tree (T. rosea). Subsequently, our common trumpet trees, Tabebuia chrysotricha and T. impetiginosa, became Handroanthus chrysotrichus and H. impetiginosus.”

If you enjoy driving yourself crazy with this stuff, check out Pacific Horticulture, April 2011.  As for me, I’m going to call it a Bignonia.  Or maybe a Tabebuia.

IMG_8176

Elephant Foot Tree, toes and all.

IMG_8167

Many of the trees, like this Kapok, were so big, ti was hard to believe they had not been planted that long ago.

IMG_8187

A great combo and unlike the tree, this vine with the pink flowers has a name everyone agrees on – Pink Trumpet Vine.

IMG_8180

Exotic in all the senses of the word.  (OK, maybe not the dancing.)

A rare, yellow-flowering aloe.

A rare, yellow-flowering aloe.

IMG_8184

A prickly sea.

The plant list shows 13 different types of opuntias. I had a feeling that since the book was published more might have made their way into the garden.  The flowers don’t last long, Miki observes, ‘but when we garden we have to learn to enjoy the momenti magici, however brief they may be, that Nature gives us.’

IMG_8185

This one, which maybe was 8 inches high, looked like it would topple over any minute from the weight of all those flowers.

The hour was up all too soon and we reluctantly followed the Principessa back to the  entrance courtyard.

IMG_8175

The group thanked her and headed back to their bus waiting outside the gate.  The Principessa and I headed in the other direction – she to her house and I to my car.  On the way I told her how much I had enjoyed her garden – something she had doubtless heard hundreds, if not thousands of times before.   Still, she very graciously thanked me for my comments.  Then, a bit hesitantly, I added that, as beautiful as the garden is, the real magic for me lay in the fact that it had been created out of nothing.  I had nothing to worry about.  She smiled at me and said,  ‘Si, quella si è la vera magia.’ Yes, that is the real magic.

 

 

 

 

The Lemon Grove – A Good Place to Start

Il Limoneto is an agriturismo an hour’s drive south of  Fontanarossa – ‘Red Fountain’ – the airport halfway down Sicily’s east coast, which was presumably named in honour of, or perhaps in a feeble attempt to placate Etna nearby. I could have stayed at ‘The Lemon Grove’ at the end of my trip, but I knew that jet-lag, getting used to the rental car and local driving habits would make even this fairly straightforward drive, for which I had printed off detailed directions before leaving home, enough of a challenge.  As it turned out, shifting gears came back surprisingly quickly, but after almost three weeks, I still hadn’t got used to being passed on blind curves, drivers coming to a ‘stop’ when they were already half-way through the intersection, or having to back up narrow, twisting, mountain roads to make room for tour buses.

Entrance courtyard of Il Limoneto.

Entrance courtyard of Il Limoneto.

Of course I hadn’t counted on a fire in Fiumicino’s Terminal 3 a few days before my departure.  It was still wreaking havoc when my flight arrived, causing massive flight delays, including my  connecting flight to Catania.  Nor had I counted on overgrown oleanders covering the road signs.  By the time I arrived at Il Limoneto I was exhausted, maybe past exhausted.  I rang the bell and Dora came out to meet me.  Previous guests have written extensively about the warm welcome and solicitous care of the hosts at Il Limoneto.  Their reviews were not exaggerated and during my stay I became very attached to Dora and her family. After she had shown me to my room, she offered to take me around the property – dinner would be served at 8 pm, not for another hour.  This was the perfect antidote to lying down ‘just for a few minutes’, which would inevitably lead to my falling sound asleep and then I’d miss supper, wake up in the middle of the night starving, which would make me irritable and on top of everything else, I wouldn’t have made any progress adjusting to the local time. I grabbed my camera and off we went.

As we walked through the lemon grove, Dora told the story of how Il Limoneto came to be. Her grandfather had had four sons, three of which had followed the usual, parent-pleasing career paths – one was a doctor, the other an engineer and I forget now what the third one did.  But the fourth did poorly at school, and, as time went by, showed no interest in applying himself to anything.  Finally, one day Dora’s grandfather had had enough.  He told the errant son he would give him a piece of property.  He was free to do whatever he liked with the land, as long as he found a way to guadagnarsi (gwah-dun-yar-see) la vita .  Earn his living.  The son decided to grow lemons.

Another guest, an American who had joined us, had been taking lots of photos, while my camera dangled idly around my neck. I wasn’t worried.  It always takes me a while to get adjusted, into the spirit of a place.  When I feel the urge to take the first photo, I know a trip has really begun.  This time, it happened when we came to the olive trees at the edge of the lemon grove.

IMG_8023

The first photo of the trip.  An ancient olive tree at sunset.

On the way back, Dora pointed out something she knew we hadn’t noticed.  One of the lemon trees had long thorns on some of its branches.

IMG_8025

A wild offshoot.

IMG_8026

Obviously, also a wonderful teacher, she showed us the difference in the leaves – the leaf on the left is from the wild lemon.

The next morning, before breakfast, I retraced the route we had taken the evening before.

IMG_8031

Dora had told us that citrus trees don’t produce fruit all year round, as many visitors arrive believing. (I’m not sure what I thought.) However, as if not to disappoint us, the different trees – they also grow a wide variety of oranges, mandarins etc.- have a wonderfully staggered fruiting season.

IMG_8051

In a citrusy survival of the fittest race, which of these tiny buds would push and shove their way to maturity?

In one area, each tree had its own sprinkler, whirling around half-way up the trunk.  Dora had told us they called them baffi (moustaches).

IMG_8338

A whirling moustache.

IMG_8032

Some disease had been attacking the Nespoli. The ghoulish blue-green reminded me of the bizarre installations at Chaumont-sur-Loire. (Gardens of the Seven Deadly Sins, July 20, 2014)

Along the east side of the property was a remarkable, mortarless stone wall.  So beautiful to look at, walls like this have become a source of concern to their owners, as the craftsmen who built and maintained them die off, with no young people interested in replacing them.  On the other side of the wall was an enormous field of artichokes.  I thought the dark, purplish heads lit by the early morning sun were stunning.

IMG_8040

Dora was much less impressed with the neighbour’s artichoke field. The farmer had let them grow too big; they were worthless.

After breakfast I packed up all my things and followed Dora in my car to another agriturismo a kilometre down the road where I would be staying that night.

IMG_8053

Entrance courtyard. Case Damma.

When you are trying to book a room, one of the many words you hope to see in the reply to your query is lieta (lee-ay-tuh).  Happy, pleased.  As in “We are pleased to inform you that…”  Of the many words you do not want to see are purtroppo (poor-trope-poe), always a harbinger of bad news and al completo.  In Dora’s reply to my first email, in which I had requested a room for four nights, data d’arrivo il 13 maggio, she had used all three. First of all she was lieta to learn I was interested in staying at the Limoneto.  Purtroppo, she continued, the night of the 14, they were al completo.  Full.  Perhaps I could change my dates.

IMG_8057

Given the scarcity of roses in the gardens of the Amalfi Coast, I hadn’t expected to see any in the even hotter, drier Sicily.

A bouquet on a stem.

A bouquet on a stem.

In the flurry of emails that followed, it was clear that I had my mind set on spending time at Il Limoneto and Dora was equally determined to find a solution.  Which she did, talking the owner of Case Damma into accepting a guest, in caso eccezionale, for just one night.

IMG_8062

My room was just around the corner from this rose bush. It was really quite lovely, but after the roses in the courtyard, I’m afraid I barely gave this one a glance whenever I passed it on the way to my room

IMG_8056

After Dora left, it was still early, so I decided to check out the Giardino Storico before setting out for the day’s adventures.

IMG_8054

Yet another of Nature’s mysteries.  This Nespolo, barely a kilometre down the road from Il Limoneto, hadn’t needed spraying and was covered in fruit.

IMG_8114

Move just a foot or two, and a different apparition emerges out of this ancient olive tree.

IMG_8106

Here the space between the lemon trees was allowed to grow wild.

IMG_8065

Beyond the garden, poppies and lemon trees alternated with olive trees as far as the eye could see.

That evening, I had just settled down on the terrace with a glass of white wine, when Carmelo, the owner, came up to me.  Having learned that I was interested in gardens – one notion I’ve been disabused of over the years is that no-one is watching as I wander around the places I stay at – he insisted on giving me a private visita guidata of the giardino storico.   I thanked him – it was ‘molto gentile‘ (jen-tee-lay), but I knew it was a busy time of day at an agriturismo and besides, I had already visited the garden that morning.  He insisted.  There were things I hadn’t seen.  There was no point getting in a huff; besides, in Italian it sounded a lot more like a lovely invitation than a put-down of my observational skills.  I left my wine to bake in the sun and followed him.

Of course he was right.  The first thing he pointed out was the carruba.  It was such an enormous specimen I hadn’t even noticed all the seed pods dangling high above me.  In ancient times, tribes of the Middle East had discovered that the seeds of the Ceratonia, from the Greek keratin, had a remarkable, and useful characteristic – uniform weight – and for centuries had used the carats to weigh gemstones and precious metals.  Knowing the story of those seeds helped me save face. Somewhat.  Wondering what else I had missed, I followed him.

IMG_8112

Inside the carob pods, the original ‘carat’.

He pointed out several other plants of interest, various citrus trees and a lovely melograno that I had managed to notice on my own.

IMG_8121

In  fall when the pomegranates are a bright orange, they are easy to see, but in spring the newly set fruit is easy to miss.

He led me over to the centuries-old olive trees I had admired, and taken so many photos of that morning and showed me where, during World War II, the locals had hidden their guns in a hollow of the ancient tree.  Then – I could sense we had reached the highlight of the tour – he pointed out something else.

IMG_8116

Cascading around the trunk of one of the olive trees were the branches of what was obviously a fig tree.  So where, he asked, not quite gloating, was the fig tree?  This was obviously a trick question, but he had been such a wonderful and knowledgeable guide so far, it seemed only fair on my part to at least make a show of looking around, until he would tell me what was up.  Well, what was up, was that somehow, who knows when, a fig tree had taken root in centre of the olive tree.  Sadly, as the fig grew, it started to split the trunk of its host, which would, inevitably, die.

IMG_8118

In the centre of the olive tree, the smoother bark of the fig tree which will eventually kill its host.

I thanked Carmelo for the tour and went back to my no longer cool wine on the terrace.

The next morning, as lovely as my short stay at Case Damma had been, I was glad to drive back to Il Limoneto and get settled again in ‘my’ room.

IMG_8030

During my stay at Il Limoneto, I passed by this ancient olive tree many times on the way to my car. There was always something new to see.

A few days later, when I had to leave Il Limoneto for good, I was wishing I had booked a longer stay.  Perhaps Dora was feeling something similar.  I was on my way to the car after Arrivederci‘s and kisses to her and her family, when I heard her call out to me,  ‘La Feijoa ha fiorito!’  I had first seen this unusual flower in the Giardino Ravino on the island of Ischia (Leaving Room for a Little Whimsy, Jan. 19, 2014) and had only learned its name a few days earlier at Case Damma.  After showing me around the garden, Carmelo had handed me an enormous binder of all the plants in the garden, including la Feijoa.

I retraced my steps to where Dora was standing and sure enough, the strange flower was blooming.  I took a few photos and then again we wished each other Arrivederci!

IMG_8345

Feijoa, aka Pineapple Guave.

Next – The Garden Where Once There Was Nothing.