The Garden in the Mountains

On the day I left Lake Garda I got an early start.  Apart from the odd school bus I had the road to myself.

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The east side of the lake was still in darkness, but as the sun rose, now and then it burst through the clouds to light up the mountains along the west shore.

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I took my time.  I was still of mixed minds about taking this long detour north to visit a garden.  It had won the prestigious ‘Parco più bello d’Italia‘ award in 2005, but the idea of spending one of my precious few days – no matter how long the trip, it’s never long enough – walking around a park held no interest for me.  We have lots of very nice parks in Canada.  But more than that, it was the location of the garden/park that concerned me. It was in the mountains, not far from Cortina d’Ampezzo,  ‘Italy’s premier mountain resort’ (Panorama Skipass Tourism).  People came here to ski – alpine, Nordic, freeride, mountaineering – I don’t even know what the last two are – not to visit gardens.  Also, as I had learned on a previous visit, this was a region where the language du jour was not Italian, a major drawback for someone for whom speaking with the locals in their language is one of the great pleasures of travelling.  Or rather, to be precise, although they spoke Italian, for most of them it wasn’t their lingua madre and when given the choice, they spoke tedesco (tay-dace-koh)Deutsch (doych). German.

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Making my way, very slowly, up to the north end of Lake Garda.

I was wrong.  Not about the locals’ linguistic preferences.  Everywhere I went I heard much more German than Italian, which made for some rather odd encounters.  I have a thing about not speaking English when I’m in Italy and I wasn’t about to sprechen Deutsch which I had dropped decades ago when I started studying Italian.  This meant that when I walked up to people, at the reception desk in the hotel for example, who were chatting away in German, I would start talking to them in italiano and they would immediately switch over, as if it were the most natural thing in the world and they hadn’t just accomplished a feat of linguistic genius that we seem largely incapable of back home despite the millions of dollars that we spend trying to teach ourselves French.

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One last look before the road veered away from the lake.

What I was wrong about was the garden. In case you’re wondering why I bothered in the first place to go to all the trouble to visit a garden I had so many misgivings about, it was quite simple.  A friend at the Toronto Botanical Garden who knew about my trips to Italy and its gardens had introduced me via email – my first ‘e-introduction’ – to Dr. Heike Platter, Director of Marketing and Corporate Strategy of the garden.

Heike’s assistant had reserved a room in a hotel that was described as being a five-minute walk from the garden.  Given past experiences, I highly doubted this.  On top of which, there was no sign of the garden from the hotel and I had got so disoriented on my first visit (I ended up delaying my departure to visit the garden again the following morning – it was that good!) I had no idea where I was.  After getting off the highway I had spent an extremely stressful half hour driving around Merano looking for the garden.  For a small northern town, there was an astonishing number of people. They were everywhere, on bikes and on foot, blithely meandering across the roads.  I had arrived on market day. In desperation I pulled over and asked an anziano – poor fellow – he got terribly upset trying to explain how to get to the garden.  It was so complicato he was sure I would never find it. The best thing would be to park my car at the train station and take the bus.  But all the parking lots were full.  Italian market days are wonderful. You just don’t want to arrive on one of them.  My reluctant guide had said I needed to head to something called Maia Alta, an area to the south of Merano. Somehow I ended up on a road on which occasionally – very occasionally – there was a sign for the garden. I decided to try to find the hotel later.

The hotel was carino as Heike’s assistant had said – Grazie di nuovo, Alessandra – and it really was a five-minute walk to the garden.

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One of the loveliest 5-minute walks I’ve ever taken.

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A statue in a field along the path points the way.

The parking lot was enormous and almost full – the first sign that this garden was no small thing.  You cross a flower-bedecked bridge to the entrance.

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I’d always wondered about those cypresses.

The visitors’ centre is a huge, beautifully done affair.  But by now I was really curious about this garden.  Off to the left was the ticket booth.  Wonderful!  First a quick stop by the Info desk to leave a note of thanks for the hotel arrangements and I would be on my way.  But I only got as far as ‘Buon giorno, sono la Signora Fenice...’ when the young woman exclaimed ‘Ah, buon giorno, signora! La stavamo aspettando.’  (We were waiting for you.)  Over my protestations that I didn’t want to disturbare she picked up the phone and a few minutes later I was up in the Admin offices and Alessandra was introducing me to Heike. 

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View from the Admin offices.

Heike gave me a quick tour around the admin offices, introducing me to her team.  Then she started gathering up her things.  She had cleared her agenda for the day to take me around the gardens.  My jaw dropped.  Delight turned to dismay. Had she somehow got the idea I was some big shot journalist?  It was a blessing we were speaking Italian.  I have no idea what I would have blurted out in English, I just knew that even though I had written nothing in my emails to give her this idea, I couldn’t go on under what was obviously a misunderstanding.  But she just waved away my efforts to ‘clarify’ the situation.  It was her grande piacere to be my guide.  It had been a while since she had visited the entire garden and she was looking forward to seeing it from new eyes.  And the name of the garden?   Trauttmansdorff Castle.

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View of Trauttmansdorff Castle from the Laghetto delle Ninfee (Water Lily Pond).

As we walked around, Heike told me about the history of the region, of the garden, and how she came to be part of the team. Her path to Trauttmansdorff was fascinating, but (thankfully) a lot easier to follow than the history of the region – a convoluted and tragic trail of war, forced migrations and families torn apart by conflicting national and linguistic allegiances.  It sounded so depressingly similar to what is going on in so many parts of the world today, it was a relief to be able to leave behind, at least temporarily, the dark side of humanity, and focus on the good and the beautiful we are capable of creating. And that, it turns out, is one of the three guiding principles underlying every aspect of the garden – to provide an escape from the stresses of everyday life, an oasis of meditation and relaxation, and thirdly, ‘soft’ education.  There was so much to see and absorb and think about.  If I hadn’t been so worried about the long drive back south to Vicenza, my next stop, I would have lingered even longer in the garden the following day. (Good thing I didn’t know at the time I would end up arriving in Vicenza, a city I didn’t know, in the dark, because I got lost in the mountains, having decided at the last minute that rather than taking the highway  – boring! – it would be interesting to visit the village of Asiago en route.)  As it was, I was still able to see quite a lot.

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With those volcanic-like mountains beyond the Palm Grove, it was hard to remember you were in the Alps, not on some Caribbean island.

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There is a huge patch of lotus in the Water Lily Pond. In October, amongst the distinctive seed heads there were still a few blooms.

Heike had started her career as a wine exporting agent, eventually moving to New York City where she had set up a successful wine importing agency.  Then one day she got a call from her father.  This was no ordinary call from a solicitous father worried about his daughter so far away.   Klaus Platter was the original Director of Trauttmansdorff.  He had watched the painstaking process of assembling the property, as one by one, 15 separate parcels of land were purchased, all in various states of ruin that would necessitate an enormous infusion of money and labour.  It had been a bureaucratic nightmare, even by Italian standards, that led him ragionevolmente (quite reasonably), as he put it, to wonder about the feasibility of such an undertaking.  It’s not hard to imagine his reaction when he learned that on top of everything else, as of opening day, he would be expected to cover day-to-day operating costs with revenue from visitors.

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Close to the Palm Grove was an extensive citrus grove.  Unlike the limonaia in Limone sul Garda, here the supports were made of steel.

But problems with operating costs had nothing to do with why Klaus Platter had called his daughter that day.  In fact by 2002, only one year after the garden was opened, the seemingly impossible task of covering those costs was achieved.  The problem he was calling about was of an entirely different nature.  Three employees in the marketing department had gotten pregnant at the same time.  (Maybe there really is something to that theory about women’s periods syncing up.)  He wondered if she knew of someone to take over the department.  She didn’t.  Neither did he, but, he added, he had been thinking of her.  It took her a moment to say yes – and a lot longer to wind up her business.

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Like gardens back home, fall was for the Dahlias.

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In the early morning a bee slowly starts to wake up.

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If you weren’t careful, it was easy to lose track of the time wandering around the Dahlias.

Close to the Dahlia Garden was an odd-looking area with an assortment of boulders of varying sizes and colours.  The Geological Mosaic is one of many ‘sensory stations’ designed to promote the ‘soft’ education Heike had mentioned.  The various types of rocks that form the topography of the region are located on a map made out of thousands of mosaic tiles.

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A rock collection struck me as an odd exhibit to include in a garden, even a botanical garden, but it garnered a lot of interest.

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At over 275 million years old, Quartz porphyry, is one of the oldest in the collection.

Surprisingly, despite melt water from the mountains that would have been covered in snow in winter, fresh water had been a scarce resource in the past.  To prevent the kind of pilfering that went on in the Renaissance gardens of Tuscany, a system involving bells and a simple hydraulic wheel ensured that each farmer received his quota of water.

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Depending on which way you turn the wheel, the water flows into a channel to the right or to the left. A bell attached to the water wheel on the receiving end rings, giving the alert as to where the water is being directed.

Many of the soft-ed stations are more abstract, like the bed of spring flowering bulbs. Campanelli (cam-pan-nel-lee) – tiny bells at the top of the colourful stems ring as the stems sway in the slightest breeze – or at the touch of a child’s hand.  Parents can watch their children run amok through the flower bed – something not usually encouraged – from benches thoughtfully placed around the perimeter.

A spring garden children are encouraged to run through.

A spring garden children are encouraged to run through.

There are over 80 paesaggi, miniature recreations of landscapes from around the world, which makes a visit to Trauttmansdorff a kind of ‘Around the World in One Day’ experience.

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In the foreground, a vineyard planted with ancient, indigenous vines. Further up the slope the frames of the Succulent greenhouses.

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Cacti, native to the western hemisphere, in all their improbable shapes.

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How many plants – especially cacti – have been named for the much-maligned Mother-in-law.

My favourite of these miniature landscapes combined my two greatest loves – the olive groves and sunflowers of Tuscany and the lavender fields of Provence.  My guess is that these two are popular with a lot of people besides me because the Sun Garden had been given centre stage, on the slope right in front of the castle.

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Provence and Tuscany, in one glimpse.

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The sunflowers were still putting on a remarkably good show this late in the season.

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There’s always one in the crowd.

Given the mature trees and the lush, well-established plantings, who would guess that the first colpo di vanga (strike of the spade) had taken place just over 20 years earlier (1994)?   Although it increased costs significantly and required special equipment – industrial cranes and even helicopters for the higher sites were brought in to transfer trees up to 12 metres in height – everyone involved in the garden’s creation agreed that from day one they wanted visitors to have the kind of experience only an established garden could provide.

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Early stages. some of the terraces have already been built and a few palm trees planted, but the Water Lily Pond is still a dream.

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Like the spires of a Gothic cathedral the cypresses reach to the sky, only the latter are the work of a couple of decades, not centuries.

As in all botanical gardens – I had to keep reminding myself that this was, strictly speaking, a botanical garden – there is a strong mandate to promote diversity and to preserve endangered and rare species.   To the right of the castle is the largest collection of sage open to the public in Italy.

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This Hummingbird Hawk Moth (had to look that one up) obviously preferred the Siesta sage…

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…but my favourite was ‘Mulberry Jam’.

One of the greatest treasures of the garden was an ancient olive tree, that was thought to be originally from Sardegna.

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Over 700 years old, this rare specimen is treated with special care, which includes a winter covering to protect it from any unusually cold spells.

It was time to start heading up the mountain, to the area that had caused the greatest headaches during construction of the garden.

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The soil and flowers for the beds at the top are brought in by helicopter.

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Partway up the slope, a gardener tends the plants from a ladder.

In the past this part of the ridge had been a quarry, the clay used to make bricks in a factory nearby. In the fall of 2000, just months before the scheduled opening of the garden, prolonged, torrential rains caused massive mudslides, revealing the extreme fragility of the slope.  Making a virtue out of necessity, as the landscape architect put it,  the entire slope was remade as a muro armato (reinforced wall) and planted with flowers.

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The world’s largest flowering wall.

Heike stopped to talk to one of the gardeners working on the wall.

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44 plants per square metre are nestled into the pockets. All by hand.

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Visitors stop to look at the racks of plants waiting to be set out in the garden and up the wall.

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View from above.

IMG_1738It’s a long way up, but like the tornanti (switchbacks) in the mountains throughout the Alto Adige, the paths, wide enough for strollers and wheelchairs, zigzag their way gently to the top.

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In some places the slope eases off and the gardeners don’t have to gear up like rock climbers.

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If the mere sight of platforms like this makes you queasy, you can always sit back and take it easy on the Spiaggia delle Palme.

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Palm Beach.

The views down by the beach were pretty good too.

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Vineyards have been cultivated in the protected valleys for over 3,000 years.

When I returned the following morning I realized how lucky I had been.  With the arrival of cooler temperatures the time had come to dismantle the beach.

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The palm trees are dug up – the soil carefully separated from the sand – and then transported, one at a time, down to a greenhouse behind the castle.

From the beach area the path was lined with tropicals.  I’d seen many of them in the gardens on Lakes Como and Maggiore, only here they were in pots.  Like the palm trees, they would soon be transported to the winter greenhouses.

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There was only one part of the garden Heike wasn’t, she regretted, able to take me through – the Giardino degli Innamorati (The Lovers’ Garden).  New features are constantly being introduced to the gardens of Trauttmansdorff and this was the latest.  It would be open the following spring.  Beyond the arches was a series of pavilions dedicated to abandon, promise and eternity.  Heavy stuff.

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Entrance to the Lovers’ Garden.  What if you’re not innamorato?  Are you still allowed in?

There was one more surprise.  Access to the highest lookout – and the most unnerving,  even if you don’t suffer from vertigo – is via an enormous Voliera (vole-yeh-ruh).  Aviary.

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A double set of doors both into and out of the aviary ensured the birds remained safe inside.

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Some visitors had to be coaxed.  Others clung nervously to the railings.  But almost all ventured at least partway onto the platform.   It was a view that almost commanded you to conquer your fears.

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There was so much more to see – a Bamboo Forest, Valley of Ferns, Forbidden Garden, Tea Plantation, Garden of the Senses, terraced rice paddies and I hadn’t even checked out the Italian or the English or the Japanese Gardens.  But I didn’t dare delay my departure any longer.  And who knows, maybe it was arrivederci and not goodbye.  In the meantime, Grazie di nuovo, Heike, per una bellissima giornata.

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Lemoning in Limone

It was my last day on Lake Garda.   At the north end of the lake is a village with the usual array of delightful lakeside restaurants and narrow, cobblestone alleys lined with tempting shops.  Less usual are the lemon trees – we’re almost three latitude degrees north of Toronto – and the extraordinary longevity of the locals. It’s called Limone sul Garda.  Limone for short.  And yes, limone means lemon.

Having driven through it on my way to Gardone Riviera the day before (previous post) and discovered that I did not share the locals’ enthusiasm for the SR249, the strada rurale that winds around the perimeter of the lake, I had decided to go by ferry.   The closest landing was in Malcesine (mal-chay-zee-nay), a few kilometres up the road from my hotel. With its charming medieval centre, obligatory Scaligero Castle, attractive harbour lined with trattorie, as well as its location – midway up the lake, making it an easy weekend getaway for tourists from Austria and Germany – Malcesine is a popular tourist site.

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

But I was surprised to find the parking lot almost completo (comb-play-toe) when I arrived this October morning.  I should have known.  Tourists and travel agencies may talk of the ‘shoulder season’ but throughout Italy the locals pay no mind.  When the hordes from far away have departed, they have plenty of other things to keep their medieval centres full of movimento.  On my way to the harbour vendors were setting up their stalls for a weekend-long celebration of Prosecco.  If only I had known that torrential downpours a few days later would nix my plans to visit the vineyards where Italy’s thoroughly delightful – and relatively inexpensive – bubbly is produced.

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Down by the harbour it was clear that even more movimento was planned.    Having seen what happens when vintage car rallies descend on villages in Italy and France, I was glad I had come on Saturday.

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

There was no ticket office, just some rather casual fellows standing next to the ferry.  I watched them for a few minutes before giving one of them €9 for which I was given a very unofficial looking biglietto.  I asked a couple if I could join them on a bench close by so I could keep an eye on things as departure time neared.   We chatted and watched as an ancient mariner type worked on the boat tied up next to the ferry.  It looked like something out of a pirate movie.  For a short period in the 1920’s there were over 100 of them, carrying people, olive oil, wine and livestock up and down the lake.  But with the construction of the SR249 in 1930 they gradually fell out of use until the final death knell – World War II.  By 2001 the Veronica, one of only two of the original fleet left, was a pitiful sight, its hull malridotto (badly reduced) and rust everywhere. But following a restoration, carried out with immenso entusiasmo e passione, the newly christened Siora  (Signora in local dialect) Veronica began life anew, no longer a utilitarian barge, but a pleasure boat offering a wide range of cruises –  weddings, family celebrations, romantic evenings, even a short Sunday afternoon outing.  A quick glance at the website reveals a great deal of pride – the masts are genuine materia vegetale and all manoeuvres are executed rigorosamente by hand once the boat leaves the harbour. Of course, as is carefully pointed out, there is no knowing the exact route any cruise will take.  That is up to the winds.

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Siora (Lady) Veronica.

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

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Leaving the harbour in Malcesine.

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

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

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

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

Limone sul Garda is the most northerly place in the world where lemons have been grown on a commercial basis. The strange pillars are what is left of one of the limonaie (lee-moh-nigh-yay) – lemon greenhouses.   Partway up the mountain behind the town the Limonaia del Castel (Castle) has been restored and is now open to visitors.

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Helpfully, the Limonaia del Castel is on Via Castello.

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

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

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

Growing out of a crack in one of the walls was an astonishingly luxuriant caper plant. As I fiddled with my camera settings an elderly man came by.  He stopped to have a look and commented on all the capers that were sciupati (shoe-paw-tee).  (Once the flower bud opens they’re no good.)  As we chatted there was something vaguely familiar about his accent.  After a minute or so I did something I rarely do anymore – especially in Canada where it’s almost become politically incorrect – I asked him where he was from.

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After an initial momento di confusione – it wasn’t the type of question one expects from someone who is obviously a tourist and a foreign tourist at that – he told me he lived in Germany, but was originally from Sicily.  Had left at 17 and never returned.  I told him about my trips to Sicily and how I found it una storia complicata (a complicated story) but the people were extraordinarily hospitable.  He confessed that after living in Germany so many years he now felt German, although some part of him was still Sicilian.  He and his German wife often came to Lake Garda on holidays, and when they did, he hastened to add, ‘Mi comporto da italiano – non prima da siciliano‘. (I behave as an Italian, not first as a Sicilian.)  I had no idea what this meant and he must have sensed my puzzlement because he proceeded to explain.  ‘La gente di Torino, quando va a Lampedusa si comporta male.‘  (The people from Torino, when they go to Lampedusa, they behave badly.)  He had such an old-fashioned, gentlemanly air about him I didn’t ask for details, but he repeated the bit about the bad behaviour, so I’m assuming he was referring to the type of tourist that leaves behind the thin veneer of civilization when they travel.  I’d seen plenty of that, but by true stranieri, foreigners from beyond Italy’s borders, not by Italians from different regions.

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

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

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

In spite of all the lemons that have been grown here over the centuries, the name of the town has nothing to do with il limone or fruit of any kind, but is derived from the Celtic ‘limo‘ meaning elm tree.  It wasn’t until the 13th century, long after the original settlement had been named, that the lemon began to play a role in the town’s history.  A group of monks from the convent of San Francesco in Gargagno about 20 k to the south was sent up to Limone to teach the locals, who survived (barely) by fishing and farming, how to grow lemons in the hope that this would supplement their subsistence economy.

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By the 17th century lemon growing had become such an important part of the local economy they started to build the limonaie to protect the plants and fruit from the occasional colder than usual winter. In November planks and glass panes were placed on top of the tall columns, creating a cool, dim atmosphere inside which caused the lemons to go  dormant and thus resistant to frost.  Each piece of the temporary roof was numbered so that when the temperatures started warming up again in spring, the whole thing could be easily disassembled and carefully stored for the following winter.

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Under this system the trees often lived for more than 100 years, bearing up to 600 fruit per season.  The varieties were carefully chosen for their thick glossy rind, intense flavour and durability.  This last feature became especially important in the first half of the 19th century, the height of Limone’s  citrusy industry, when crate loads of lemons, individually wrapped in tissue, were ferried down to Desenzano at the south end of the lake and then transported by rail to royal courts as far away as London and St. Petersburg.

The first of many calamities which led to the eventual demise of the industry occurred in the mid 1850’s when, like the blight that would destroy vineyards across France and Europe a few years later, a type of gommosis, probably Phytophthora Gummosis started attacking the lemon trees.  Like all outbreaks of disease it was heart-breaking.  In the early stages sap started oozing from small cracks in the bark.  Later, lesions spread around the circumference of the trunk, slowly girdling the tree.  Not unlike the girdles of a thankfully bygone era that used to cut off the supply of oxygen to the lungs of the women who wore them, girdling blocks the transportation of sugars from the leaves to the roots, leading to the death of all growth above the stripped area.  A couple of decades later, with the Unification of Italy, competition from the more efficient Sicilian lemon industry dealt an equally serious blow. During World War I the wooden planks used to protect the trees during winter were requisitioned to build trenches and then came the final blow – the discovery of synthetic citric acid.

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Given all the good things we know about lemons – they’re loaded with vitamin C and essential minerals, flush out toxins, purify the blood, aid digestion, promote weight loss and might even make your skin glow – it’s not surprising that the Limonesi tend to be in good health and live a long life.  What is surprising is the degree of longevity they enjoy.  Back in the 1970’s it was discovered that more than a dozen of Limone’s citizens were over 100 years old.  An astonishing statistic, given that the population at that time was barely 1,000.  Intrigued, a pharmacist from Milan, Cesare Sirtori, came to see if he could figure out what was going on. Apart from a healthy diet and gentle climate, he discovered that the vast majority of the locals shared a unique, mutated protein, which he called Apo A-1 Milano.  Unlike most mutations – cancer cells, the recent outbreak of the Zika virus – this mutation was a force for good, producing HDL, the high density, good cholesterol. As described in Corriere della Sera, 5 dic. 2013, it acted like a kind of spazzino (spats-see-no) – street sweeper or garage collector – that prevented the thickening and hardening of the walls of the arteries that typically lead to arteriosclerosis and stroke in old age. The unusually high percentage of locals with the mutated protein was attributed to centuries of relative isolation, which also made it easier to trace its origins back to a couple who lived here in the mid 17th century.

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View from the uppermost terrace of the Limonaia del Castel.

As I was walking around the terraces I overheard an Italian visitor on her cell phone.  As everywhere nowadays it’s virtually impossible to NOT overhear these conversations.  She was telling her presumably envious friend back home about the wonderful time she and her companion were having in Limone.  ‘Stiamo limonando nella limonaia.’   (We are limonando in the lemon greenhouse.) Apparently the friend did not get the speaker’s witty bon mot so she had to explain.  I didn’t get it either and had to look it up.  No wonder I hadn’t come across it before.  It was one of those seemingly innumerable colloquial expressions that never seem to come up in the invariably lovely conversations I have with the locals.  Limonare means ‘ to make out’.

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I made my way down to the shore and wandered around a bit checking out the restaurants.  But they were all terribly crowded and struck me as even more ‘touristy’ – a loaded word I know – than usual, so I decided to take the next ferry and have lunch in Malcesine.

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The ferry approaches Limone’s harbour.

As we approached the harbour in Malcesine there was no sign of the schooner.  I looked around and there it was, along with a few windsurfers, close to the opposite shore.

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A cruise on an ancient schooner. Maybe next time.

Next – an improbable garden in the far north of Italy

 

A Dive into Lucid Folly

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

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Early morning along the east shore of Lake Garda.

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

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

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In the distance the north end of Lake Garda.

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

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

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

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

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

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Sculptors of D’ANNUNZIO, Spirit and Substance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I’ll let the artist explain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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Water-free Fountain of the Dolphin.

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

A New Year and a New Lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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No running a red light here.

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

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

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July 2006.  Whatever is it growing in?

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

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

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

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Mushed cod, the Venetian way. Delizioso!

After lunch I headed to the tip of the peninsula.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A few day trippers wait for the ferry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next – two gardens that break the mould.

An Elusive Garden and an ‘Undemocratic’ Restaurant

After Villa Carlotta the next stop on a well-planned garden tour would be the gardens of Villa del Balbianello, one ferry stop down the lake.  Facilissimo!  Not quite.  First of all, Mondays and Wednesdays the garden is closed.  Then there’s the question of how to get there. You can take a water taxi, but if you’re not too steady on your feet, this may not be an option.   A lot of people decide not to try it once they see what is involved in boarding the small motor boats.  And unlike the ferries that seem to run no matter how brutto the tempo, when the lake is roiling with white caps, the small boats stayed tied up in the harbour.

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The closest I got to Villa Balbianello this fall was on the ferry to Bellagio.

That leaves one more option.  Not far from the water taxi stand is the entrance to a pathway across the promontory.   A sign at the gate advises visitors the walk involves un tratto in salita  (an uphill stretch) and takes 25 minutes.  CIRCA.  And one more thing.  In addition to Mondays and Wednesdays when the entire garden is closed, the pedestrian access is also closed Thursdays and Fridays.

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From the ferry landing it’s a 20 minute walk along Lenno’s lungolago to the water taxi stand and the pedestrian entrance.

I knew nothing of any of this on my first visit to Lake Como.  I just got lucky.  The following photos are old and taken on a hand-me-down camera, but I think they’ll give you the gist of the place.

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Villa Balbianello, a place where the views of are as enchanting as the views from.

Whenever you come across an Italian garden with restricted access it usually means one of two things – it’s either a private garden, like the Giardini del Biviere in Sicily (The Garden That Once Upon a Time Wasn’t There, July 26, 2015) or it was once private property and to ensure its survival the last owners set up a foundation, as the Caetani family did for the Gardens of Ninfa (Gardening in the Ruins of a Medieval Village, Feb. 15, 2015) or bequeathed the property to an existing foundation.  Guido Monzino, the last owner of Villa Balbianello, chose to bequeath his property to FAI.  The letters stand for Fondo per l’Ambiente Italiano.  Ambiente is one of those ‘coat of many colours’ words.  As one Italian commentator pointed out, it has so many meanings and is used in so many contexts, many Italians feel the need to tack on a qualifier, as in ambiente naturale, ambiente fisico, ambiente sociale, ambiente studentesco, ambiente rivoluzionario and così via (koh-zee vee-uh) And on and on.  Given all the confusion it creates for native speakersimagine the problems it causes translators.  On the back page of the booklet I (begrudgingly) bought when I found out photos of the interior of Villa Balbianello are VIETATO, the FAI people themselves translate it as ‘Italian Fund for the Environment’ in one place and ‘the National Trust for Italy’ in another.  In any event, its mission is ‘to save, protect and care for the artistic and natural heritage of Italy.’  One of the ways it suggests we can help it is to visit the properties in its care.  This can be a challenge, but in my experience is always worth it.  In the end.

Back to Monzino, whose will included a generous fund for the upkeep of the property he wished to donate.  As well as a couple of conditions.  In front of the villa – the building on the left in the photo above – is a large, mushroom-shaped tree.  It’s a Leccio (Holm Oak).  The window in the middle of the villa, just above the Holm Oak is in Monzino’s library. Because the tree was carefully trimmed, by hand, once a year, from his desk Monzino had a clear view of Bellagio, which despite a life spent travelling around the world remained his favourite view.  He led the 1st Italian expedition to climb Mt. Everest and filled his home with priceless artifacts (hence the NO PHOTOS  rule) collected on his journeys, including one room which for me was one of the most unexpected and weirdest experiences of that trip – I felt as if I’d been suddenly been transported back to Canada – it was stuffed with Canadiana – canoes, trappers’ outfits and tools, flags, furs from the far north.  In any event, in spite of all the wondrous sites he’d seen, Monzino’s favourite view remained the one from his library window.   So in his will he stipulated that the leccio continue to be trimmed by hand as it had been during his lifetime. This takes days of course and if you’re lucky enough to visit during its annual trim, you’ll be treated to the incongruous sight of the gardeners’ heads popping up willy nilly from inside the tree.

The second condition had to do with his burial place.  Sommariva and Melzi were long dead by this time, and lay buried, as they had stipulated in their respective wills, facing each other from opposite sides of the lake.  When his turn came (1988), Monzino wanted to be buried along the shore as well – but instead of facing any rivals he might have had – bad karma anyway I would think – he had something more serene in mind.  The view which had given him so much pleasure in life.

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Monzino is buried in the stone wall below the lower terrace. Facing his beloved Bellagio.

When you come around the point of the promontory you see for the first time just how narrow it is – and why the early closing time in fall is a good, if inconvenient idea.  The magic of the garden comes from the narrow terracing up the slope and the deliberately restricted palette of greens – bay laurel, box, ilex ivy – elaborately pruned, which combine to create the illusion of a much bigger space.

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Approaching the 17th century porticciolo.

Despite its relatively small size, Villa Balbianello has been a popular destination among Europe’s aristocratic and artistic elites ever since it was ‘discovered’ by travellers on the Grand Tour.  More recently it has become a favourite with movie directors.   “A Month by the Lake” with Vanessa Redgrave,  “Casino Royale” (remember the sanatorium where Daniel Craig as Bond recovers?) and many scenes from ‘Episode II, Attack of the Clones’ were filmed here.  By the way, if you’re a fan of the Star Wars series and none of these scenes looks familiar, not to worry.  The director, George Lucas, was not happy with the background scenery and had it replaced using a computer generated special effects program called CGI.  There really is no accounting for taste.

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A view you won’t see in any of the Star Wars movies.  To the south is the city the lake was named for – Como.  A 100 year old ficus repens (climbing fig) has been elaborately trimmed up the arches.

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Along the balustrade, an usual family emblem.  Maybe not.

When I was checking which movies had been filmed here, I discovered that many tourists are attracted to the site not because of the gardens, but as part of a kind of scavenger hunt. The idea is to take selfies of yourself in the exact location of scenes from favourite movies. Notwithstanding Lucas’ altering of the background scenery, Balbianello seems to be especially popular with fans of the Star Wars series.   Google ‘Villa Balbianello/Star Wars’ and you’ll see they have a lot of fun with this.   Some people are crazy about gardens.  Others about …well, to each his own.

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It’s easy to see why this terrace with its 19th century balustrade is a popular location for weddings and evening concerts.

The time had come to get back behind the wheel and continue my journey through northern Italy,  But first, a few words about the restaurant where I had supper every night of my stay on Lake Como.  Not something I usually do.  But this was not a usual restaurant.  This was the Cucina della Marianna, a restaurant with a self-described “cucina ‘NON DEMOCRATICA”.

Over at the Ristorante Il Caminetto (last week’s post) on the other side of the lake, Chef Moreno had found our English use of words like ‘seasons’ and ‘seasonings’ confusing, but Italian gives the English speaker lots to trip up on too.  Cucina, for example, can mean the place where food is prepared or the food itself.  I’m not sure if I mentioned earlier that in the interests of maintaining marital bliss, the couple who owned the Alberghetto della Marianna had divided the business into two separate fiefdoms.  Paola ran the hotel side of things and her husband, Ty, ran the restaurant.  One morning, instead of getting bagnata fradicia (ban-yah-tuh frah-dee-chah) which is so wet there is an entire photo website dedicated to it, I spent a couple of hours in the cucina of the Cucina della Marianna watching Ty prepare one of his undemocratic dinners.

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Ty was a naturally generous talker.  His mother had been a great cook, but like Chef Moreno, Ty had grown up in an era when the kitchen was off-limits to males.   So when he left home and got his first job – not in a restaurant – he didn’t know the first thing about cooking.  In the vast majority of jobs this wouldn’t have been a problem, but Ty followed a less travelled path.  He worked in an experimental program set up in the early 1970’s.  Instead of jail, a group of young miscreants was sent to live in a pseudo family situation under the care of a few, altruistic young men who acted in loco parentis.  Since this had never been done – at least not in the area – there were a few initial glitches, the most pressing of which was that none of the ‘parents’ knew how to cook.  Ty took up the challenge – after all, it wasn’t as if any of them – employees or their wards – had any other options – and discovered that he loved it.  In time he became a bona fide chef with his own cucina and although he can make all the classic dishes, he prefers to experiment.  Take fusion cuisine.  Normally, he explained, fusion means you take ingredients from all over the world and combine them into something new.  He instead takes ideas from all over the world and uses local ingredients to come up with new dishes.

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My first meal at the Cucina della Marianna started with Carpaccio di Trota Salmonata.

Ty estimates the clientele for his restaurant is about 5% of the general tourist population.  A rather low figure, even taking into account the location – a bit removed from the centre of Cadenabbia.  Too far, apparently, for the vast majority of tourists.  Also, he continued, the people who enjoy eating his food have to meet four criteria.  I suddenly felt uncomfortable.  I like food, but I am no foodie.  Would I pass muster?  Oblivious to my discomfort – he was busy chopping vegetables at this point – he listed the four criteria.  1. you eat good food at home (no problem there and I have the grocery bills to prove it); 2. you know how to cook (ditto); 3.  you are educated about food (hmmm…’educated’ is a big word, not sure about that one) and 4. you are curious about food.  OK – 3/4 wasn’t bad. I felt up to giving it a go.

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Girelle di Zucchine & Tofu

There was one more thing.  When unsuspecting, first-time visitors arrive at the door and ask if there is a table available, Ty answers, ‘Dipende da voi.‘  (It depends on you.)  The would-be clients of course exchange more or less startled looks, which become even more or less startled as the unorthodox restaurant greeter goes on to explain that his is a cucina non-democratica.  Ty likens the effect this has to the proverbial parting of the waters. Some immediately beat a hasty retreat.  Others, intrigued, stay to find out more.  And invariably to eat.

So what does Ty mean by an ‘undemocratic’ restaurant?  Each month he creates a new weekly menu and – here comes the undemocratic part – there is only one offering for each day and he alone decides what the theme for that meal will be.   The week I was there, the theme for Tuesday (Monday is the weekly giorno di chiusura) was ‘Il Peperoncino in Cucina (every dish contained chilli peppers – even the dessert – a delicious chocolate and pear pudding’);  Wednesday was ‘Il Menù della Nonna (Grandma’s Menu);  Thursday was ‘Il Menù dell’Orto’ (this was inspired by local vegan friends of his – it wasn’t my favourite, but it was interesting – and I could barely eat anything anyway after the feast at Il Caminetto) and Friday was ‘Il Menu di Lago‘. I for one was relieved to see that Ty had foregone  the ‘Lake Menu’ theme when it came to the dessert – a delicious hazelnut mousse.

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From the ‘Lake Menu’, Missultin Warm Salad.

When I woke up the next morning, the day I had to leave Lake Como, il tempo si era rimesso.  The weather had put itself back together.  With mixed feelings I took one last look.

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Leaving Lake Como in the early morning.

Next – Lake Garda

A Cooking Class, a Castle and a Garden

When I saw the forecast for Thursday, I tried to switch the cooking class to Wednesday. Inside a warm, cheery kitchen would have been the perfect way to spend another miserable day.

Just in case you think I'm exaggerating how miserable it was.

Just in case you think I’m exaggerating about the weather.

But mercoledì (mare-coh-lay-dee) was the restaurant’s weekly giorno di chiusura (day of closure).  So on a sunny Thursday morning I boarded the ferry for Varenna.

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Approaching Varenna’s dock on a gorgeous Thursday morning.

Ristorante Il Caminetto is up in the mountains, 12 tornanti (hairpin turns) from the ferry landing in Varenna.  Detailed directions are provided on the restaurant website if you want to drive.  Or you can use their shuttle service.  The landing for the autotraghetto (car ferry) was just a couple of kilometres up the lake from my hotel, but like the rest of the group, I opted for the shuttle.  I think it’s fair to say I have one of those love-hate relationships with driving – and not just in Italy.  The car allows me to go to places I couldn’t otherwise manage.  Places where public transit is so limited, it just takes too long to get there.  Besides, the few times I’d been driven around by locals in the past had been fascinating, if unnerving experiences.

A white van pulled up near the dock and a middle-aged woman – typical, respectable type, with a decidedly no-nonsense demeanour – got out.  Our driver. One of the few who were on their own, I ended up sitting shot-gun which gave me a wide open view of how that non-nonsense demeanour played out when she was behind the wheel.  Every time she muttered in exasperation at how slowly the driver in front of her was taking the hairpin turns, I couldn’t help thinking how much bluer the air in the van would be if I’d been the one cramping her style.

I hated to go inside on such a gorgeous day, but Chef Moreno’s warm welcome and the offer of caffè or cappuccino before he started the lesson were encouraging.  And as we milled around the espresso machine, a young woman set big jugs of wine along the tables where we would sit while we watched him work.  A good start.

Once we were seated he did the the ‘go around the table, introduce yourself thing’, an apparently obligatory practice nowadays that always makes me cringe, even while I can’t help being curious about where the others in these randomly formed groups are from.  Not surprisingly, most of today’s group were American.   Because it was so close to Thanksgiving – even closer for me, the lone Canadian – he had chosen a boneless roast turkey for our secondo (the meat course).  But first, the pasta for the primo had to be made.  Despite having seen the process countless times before, it was as fascinating as ever to watch him work the eggs into the flour.  As the doughy mound began to form, he explained the difference between pasta asciutta (ah-shoot-tah) and pasta fresca. ‘Dry’ pasta, the type sold in boxes, originated in southern Italy and is made with durum wheat and water.  No eggs.  Fresh pasta or pasta all’uovo (al-woe-voh) was, until the advent of home refrigerators, only made in the north, where even on hot summer days, cellars remained cool enough to store the egg-based pasta.

While the pasta ‘rested’, he prepared the secondo which, following the finely tuned choreography of today’s lesson, would cook while he continued with the primo.

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Boneless stuffed roast tacchino (tack-key-no).

As he worked he told us about his life.  The restaurant is in one of a dozen frazioni (hamlets) that make up the comune of Perledo.  When he was 14, along with all the other 14 year-olds from the various hamlets, he was taken on a school trip to the big urban centre down the lake – Bellagio.  The goal of the outing was to help the young students choose a career.  In Moreno’s case it worked.  As soon as he walked into the cucina of the Bellagio Cooking School he knew what he wanted to do.  His mamma  cried when he told her.  She, like many mammas of the era, had wanted him to pursue a more respectable, prestigious career – become an avvocato (which looks like a vegetable, but means lawyer) or a dottore.   Moreno shrugged, it was 40 years ago.  Who would have thought that chefs would one day be celebrities and cooking shows would be all the rage on TV?

Once the turkey was in the oven, he started on the sauce for the primo.  Like so many of Italy’s best dishes, the recipe was short and simple – olive oil, garlic (which he smashed with the blade of a ceramic knife held horizontally over the cloves – fascinating to watch), coarsely chopped cherry tomatoes, whole cherry tomatoes (the computer gnomes keep correcting ‘cherry’, obviously preferring ‘cheery’ which is indeed how they looked – these were Italy’s finest – from Pacchino in south-eastern Sicily) and finally, pomodoro passato  (tomato purée).

As he was stirring the sauce one of the students asked about the seasoning.  Moreno, whose English was very good, started talking about the crazy weather and global warming. No-one said a thing.  Not even the woman who had asked the question.  Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer.  I didn’t care if it annoyed the others.  I interrupted him, ‘No, no sta parlando delle stagioni, sta parlando delle spezie che ha messo nel sugo!’   He looked at me and asked, condimenti? (another word for seasoning).  I nodded. He shrugged and smiled.  ‘You English, you have so many words and yet you use words that sound so similar for things that are so different.’ He then said some ridiculously flattering words about my Italian and some equally self-deprecatory words about his English, and told her what seasonINGS he had used.

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Moreno came around to give us a closer look at the sauce.  Cheery, cherry tomatoes.

Moreno’s overall philosophy was first you feed the soul, then the stomach, and always both with passion.  A message that was repeated in the recipe booklet we were given.

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Given the red foliage in the foreground, it is clearly a day in late fall. So why aren’t the mountains  covered in snow as they are this September day?

After the pasta had rested sufficiently – the way to tell is to press the dough with your knuckles; if it doesn’t spring back it’s ready – Moreno brought out his roller.  While he was rolling the dough, the church bell rang.  For him it was a sad sound.  It probably meant someone had died.  The population of Perledo was 81.  Maybe now one less. He continued rolling until he could see the stripes on the board below, a sign that the dough was just the right thickness.  He cut the dough into squares – remarkably equal-sized squares – and then started piping a cheese herb mixture into the middle of each.

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Chef Moreno begins to pipe…

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… and pipes and pipes. Forget about cut off fingers, what about a chef’s back?

Then he showed us how to turn the squares into cappelliti (little hats).  Fold the square diagonally to make a triangle with the point towards you.  Thumbs touching, hold the outer points of the triangle between your index fingers and thumbs, then spread your elbows wide and the ‘wings’ will come together and overlap.  Press to remove air – otherwise your little hats will explode in the boiling water.

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After Moreno had made a few, we all had a go at making the little hats. It wasn’t as easy as it looked.

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Cappelliti al pomodoro. Deliziosi.

It was absolutely delightful sitting there watching and listening to Chef Moreno.  It was easy to see why his demos get such consistently high ratings and the food he prepared for us was even more delicious than it looked.  On top of an already wonderful day, when we staggered out of the restaurant around 3 pm, the sun was still shining.  The no-nonsense lady driver was waiting to take us back down to the ferry landing.   Those of us who wanted to visit Castello Vezio nearby could get a ride with Moreno.  The views from the castle were spettacolari and there was an ancient path that would bring us to Varenna.  The thought of a great view and a chance to walk off lunch on this glorious afternoon was exactly what I wanted.  Also, the path would take me to the south end of Varenna, close to the entrance to the garden I wanted to visit.  The others, it turned out, were in a hurry to get back to wherever they’d come from – especially one of the Americans, the other lone attendee.  We ending up sitting next to each other and he told me his story.  Unlike me, who was really travelling solo, he had a wife who was back in Bellagio recovering from food poisoning – not from anything she’d eaten in Italy!   They were on a once-in-a-lifetime, 25th anniversary trip that his wife had been planning for years.  They figured it was something she’d eaten on the ferry from Greece.  He carefully taped the whole lesson for her.  When Moreno found out, he put together a generous take-away meal for the hopefully now recovered wife.

I felt badly when I learned I was the only one who was interested in the castle option and offered to go with the others, but Moreno would have none of it, so I was treated to the second ride in one day with a local and additionally, now that he could speak freely in his native language, to a lively commentary on the state of Italian cuisine (very promising), TV (terrible), the status of women (complicated) and how much simpler life had been when he was growing up.

With all those twisting mountain roads, getting to Vezio was not exactly an ‘as the crow flies’ ride and it took a lot longer than I had anticipated.  I thanked Moreno profusely for going out of his way for one person. He smiled and said it was his pleasure, ‘Lo sa come siamo noi italiani per le donne…’   You know how we Italian men are for women…

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As promised, the views were spectacular. In the space of a few hours the mountain peaks to the north had become noticeably less white.

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Is it just me or is this a statue of a fellow doing what I think he’s doing?

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There was presumably a meaning to all these statues.

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A beautiful, but squinty-eyes view to the south. After all that rummaging around in my suitcase looking for warm clothes, my sunglasses were probably somewhere near the bottom.

It was a long, solitary walk down from the castle.  Moreno had said it took about a quarter of an hour, maybe a bit more, but one of the fellows in the cooking class had said it had taken him over an hour. After a while I began to wonder if I had taken a wrong turn somewhere – there were a lot more upward parts than I would have liked.  Had I ended up on one of those Club Alpino paths?  To my great relief eventually I saw a sign for the Albergo Eremo Gaudio.  The Hotel of Gaudio, the Hermit.  Disconcertingly, the message on the sign was as unwelcoming as you’d expect from a hermit.  It seemed I was not the first to have lost their way coming down the mountain.  Passersby were advised that the hotel was private property, for registered guests only; access to all others was strictly proibito.  But even more disconcerting was the possibility I might end up lost on this mountain.  I walked up to the young woman behind the bar and in a tone I hoped was more confident than how I felt, pulled out a well-worn phrase, ‘Mi dispiace disturbarLa, ma sto cercando la strada per Villa Monastero.’  (Sorry to bother you but I’m looking for the way to Villa Monastero.)  Rather than the scowl I was expecting, she smiled and came out from behind the bar on to the terrace overlooking the lake to show me the way.

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Photo of Villa Monastero from a previous trip.  At the time I hadn’t even noticed the hermit’s hotel half-way up the mountain behind it where I was now seeking help.

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Almost there.

I’m always a bit leery when I see a garden described as eclectic.  Eclectic can so easily be a polite way of saying hodgepodge.   Add to that a Greek-style temple, a Renaissance loggia, Moorish pavilion, granite columns lying (ostensibly) where they were found and a grotto and I’m tempted to head for the nearest bar and order a nice glass of something local. Fortunately I don’t always follow my hunches. The garden at the end of the path down from Castello Vezio is in fact eclectic, but it’s also enchanting.  So is its history.

Built in the 13th century for an order of Cistercian nuns, which was shut down in the mid 16th century, whereupon the six remaining nuns were transferred – somewhere – the property passed through the hands of a succession of private individuals who transformed it into what eventually became known as the Villa Monastero. Between the two World Wars it was donated to the public by its then owners, a Milanese family of Swiss origins, and in the ensuing tumultuous decades fell under the control of a series of government agencies until 1980, when, in an extraordinary demonstration of community spirit, the citizens of Varenna got together and purchased the property.  For the benefit of the public.

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The Greek Tempietto, complete with Corinthian columns, surrounded by a eclectic mix of palm and cypress trees.

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A Renaissance fountain, loggia, grotto, palm trees and columns of unknown style. All in one glance. If that isn’t the quintessence of eclectic, I don’t know what is.

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Looking south towards Bellagio.

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Close to another pair of twisted pillars was the entrance to a small museum, but I had no desire on this glorious afternoon to spend even a second indoors.

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So where exactly do you hold on, if you should need to knock on this door?

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Something to think about when you would like to, but cannot, tell someone to go stuff himself.

In addition to the statues and architectural bits, there is also a serious collection of plants.

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The same plant that over a week ago had already finished blooming in the gardens of Isola Madre.

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It was ridiculous but I couldn’t help walking more quickly as I passed under that second palm tree.

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The ‘Great Desert Spoons’ had been propped up near the base, but each and every one of them had eventually started growing at an absurd angle.  The way they were meant to?

This curly thing was my favourite.

This curly-topped palm was my favourite.

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View of Varenna from the south end of the garden.

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It was still sunny, but I had seen how quickly dusk arrived on the lake.  Time to head back to the landing.

Next – the elusive Villa Balbianello and an ‘undemocratic’ restaurant

Behind the Jewel

Lake Como is an upside down ‘Y’.  Bellagio is close to the point where the three lines meet. Behind the village is a forested hillside and on the other side of that hillside is the less glitzy, but equally scenic arm of the ‘Y’ known as Lago di Lecco.  The sprawling villa at the northern tip of Bellagio is the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, a 5-star luxury hotel.  (Why are places like this always described in the promo material as ‘5-star luxury‘?  Is there such a thing as 5-star non-luxury?)   In any event the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni features frescoed ceilings, impressive staircases, Murano chandeliers, a starred Michelin restaurant, a spa etc., etc., all of which you can enjoy for an average price of $1500 per night.  Oh, and they throw in free parking.

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To the left of the bell tower, the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni.

The only reason I know any of this is because I had gone on the hotel website to check out the tour of the hotel garden which, for a fee even my budget could manage – 9 euros – was offered twice daily to the public,   EXCEPT on Monday, which is why I hadn’t managed to visit it on previous trips AND in caso di mal tempo, (which always strikes me as edgier than brutto tempo which is just ‘ugly’ instead of ‘evil’), which is why the booking I had so carefully arranged months before had been cancelled.

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On a previous trip I’d caught a glimpse of the garden over the top of the high stone walls that surround the hotel grounds.

As the ferry approached the landing this fall day in 2015 an unlikely sight formed to the left.

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On this cold day, it was the palm trees more than the snow-capped mountains that looked out of place.

The meeting place for the tour was at the base of a medieval tower in the piazza next to the bell tower.   From here our guide shepherded us through a large gate on to the grounds of Villa Serbelloni and then we started climbing.

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Soon we were almost at the top of the bell tower of the Chiesa di San Giacomo.

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Along the left, the Avenue of Plane Trees in the gardens of Villa Melzi. The hump in the centre is the elusive Villa Balbianello and the lone, white building on the right shore is Villa Carlotta.

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As we climbed higher, Bellagio started to disappear until we couldn’t see it at all.

We were about two thirds of the way up the hillside when our guide stopped and told us to take all the photos we wanted.  Since most of us had been stopping to take photos all the way up, this seemed an odd suggestion.  Even more puzzling, she then told us we weren’t allowed to take any more photos for the next part of the tour.

We had come to the area occupied by the Bellagio Center of the Rockefeller Foundation. The mission of the foundation is ‘to promote the well-being of humanity’.  The no-photos policy is to protect the privacy of the select group of artists, scholars, policymakers and scientists who are invited to the centre each year for the purpose of ‘exchanging ideas across disciplines and geographies, engaging in focused, small group interactions, and pushing creative and innovative thinking to address global challenges’.

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The last photo until we passed the area where the foundation’s guests live and work.

Guests go through a ‘rigorous residency application process’ which is designed to ensure those accepted reflect ‘the greatest possible diversity to drive uncalculated, creative, collaborative thinking’.  One of those guests, whose talents were as extraordinary as they were diverse, was Maya Angelou.  She dedicated ‘Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas’ (The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou, 2004 Modern Library Edition, Random House) to the centre and in a short piece you can find at rockefellerfoundation.org/app/uploads/Bellagio-Center-Voices-and-Visions she gives us a glimpse of what it was like to be a black, female author in Italy at the time.

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As we approached the top of the promontory the tiny fishing village of Pescallo and the east branch of the  ‘Y’ came into view.

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The next day I would be taking the ferry to Varenna, on the right, for a cooking class and to visit another garden.

While on the Grand Tour in the early 1800’s Stendhal had famously collapsed after being overwhelmed by the extraordinary abundance of art on view at every corner of Florence. (I wrote about this in one of my earliest posts – ‘Taking a Break – Una Passeggiata a Firenze Part I’, Oct. 20, 2013)   While he did not faint when he reached the top of the promontory, he declared ‘the luxuriant beauty of the west arm and the austere beauty of the east arm a sublime and enchanting spectacle that the most famous place in the world, the Bay of Naples, equalled but did not surpass’.  While the most famous place in the world may no longer be the Bay of Naples – what is the most famous place in the world nowadays anyway? – as far as the relative beauty of the two views goes, I’m with Stendhal.

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The tip of the promontory is called Spartivento.  Divide the Wind.

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I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who would have liked to linger up here, but access to the hotel grounds is tightly controlled and our guide gently but firmly urged us on.

Scattered around the hillside are small buildings – studios for the visiting artists and scientists.  Our guide stopped in front of one of them, a perfect, tiny villa complete with red-tiled roof, dark green shutters and light yellow stucco walls.  When Alessandro Serbelloni inherited the property in the late 1700’s, he spent a fortune improving and beautifying the garden.  He built the roads and paths we had been walking along so that his son, who was unable to walk, could enjoy the promontory and the views. He was also committed to helping the impoverished community, hired only locals, and even in the face of rapidly depleting funds, managed to provide his workers with a hearty lunch of the northern specialty, polenta.   In memory of that much-appreciated gesture, this studio was called ‘la Polenta‘.

La Polenta.

La Polenta.  An artist’s studio and a reminder of a past benefactor.

The tour had started at 11 am.  By the time we got back to the gate it was, happily, once again, l’ora di mangiare.  I headed to the fishing village on the other arm of the ‘Y’.

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From the piazza where our tour ended it was a short walk, mercifully all downhill, to Pescallo.

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From this angle the ‘hump’ looks almost squattish. Don’t be fooled. It’s not mountain climbing, but it’s still a good walk up.

The water took on more blue or more green tones as I moved around the restaurant terrace.

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Even knowing colour is a function of our perception, it was hard to believe those colours weren’t ‘real’.

The food was forgettable and overpriced – including a 3 euro cover charge. When I told Paola later I’d been disappointed by the restaurant she sighed – many of her guests had said the same thing.  It’s just one of those places – Piazza Navona in Rome comes to mind – where you go for the view.  If I’m lucky enough to come back, I’ll just have an aperitivo.   A nice, local white perhaps.

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I suppose 2 out of 3 isn’t bad – great view, nice wine and forgettable food.

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If it weren’t for the photos, I might have wondered if I was starting to lose it.  There is no way this calm lake could have been roiling with white caps the day before.

Instead of retracing my steps back to Bellagio, I continued along the path parallel to this less visited arm of the ‘Y’.

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An olive grove.  Such a strange site this far north.

Our guide had told us about Villa Giulia and what its owners had done years ago to the local landscape.

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The villa is on the east side of the promontory.  The logical thing would have been to build it facing rather than turning its back on Lake Lecco, but instead it was built facing west to the more upscale Lake Como.  There was however, a problem.  While there was a great view of the Lecco arm of the lake from the rear of the villa, the view of the more prestigious Como arm was blocked by a slight elevation in terrain and the farmhouses of the peasants who lived there.

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BEWARE. DOGS TRAINED TO DEFEND THE TERRITORY. DO NOT APPROACH.

To my mind the sign put up by the current owners captures brilliantly, if unwittingly, the mindset that must have driven the actions of the previous owners.  They had no view.  They wanted a view.  So what does a powerful, wealthy owner do?  They expropriate the offending properties, raze the terrain and voilà! now they have a view.

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Il Vialone di Villa Giulia.  A tainted view.

Even though it had happened long ago, I was so incensed by the unbridled, raw arrogance of it all, the crass, entitled view it revealed, I had no desire to take the path along the right side, which is now ‘generously’ open to the public.  It was a poisoned short-cut. Instead I continued along the road.

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Even though I had read about them, I was still taken aback when I saw the nurseries.

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Who would have thought that behind the ‘Jewel’ all this was going on?  Next to tourism the nursery business is the most important activity in Bellagio’s economy

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Over thirty family nurseries stretch out on both sides of the wretched Villa Giulia Avenue.

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Mostly for outdoor use, the plants grown here are shipped all over Italy and Europe.

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At the western end of the grassy corridor, a long staircase leads down to Via Melzi.  Close, but not quite to the lake.

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It wasn’t what I would call a garden, but I’d always wondered about the solitary villa half-way up the hill behind Bellagio. Now I knew.

Next – a cooking class, a castle and one more garden before leaving Lake Como