Una Passeggiata a Lucca

By the time I got back to Lucca it was, happily, l’ora di pranzo (lunch time).  The most delicious thing I’d eaten on my last visit to the city was pasta con funghi (mushrooms).   I wanted to try and find the restaurant again.

Given that many of its streets are laid out on a rectangular grid, legacy of its Roman origins (180 BC), and given its fairly small size – the ramparts we saw earlier are only 4 km long – you would think it would be fairly easy to find your way around the centro storico.  I have no idea why I had such a hard time.  Per fortuna (luckily), the place I was looking for is along the alley that encircles the Roman Amphitheatre, so all I had to do was make my way to the amphitheatre and then walk around it until I came to the restaurant.

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As you walk through the dark tunnels that lead to the amphitheatre – there are four of them – it is not too hard to imagine the gladiators and beasts – I don’t know which were more wretched – that once took the same route to their death or a temporary victory.

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But once inside, it is hard to imagine it as anything but the cheery gathering place it is today.

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From one window, hangs a flag bearing the word PACE (pa-chay) – peace.
From another a woman tends to her plants.

The restaurants in the arena were tempting, but I suspected the food might not be all that good.  On the touristy side.  Now you may be thinking, “Well what does she think she is?”  And you’d be right.  Of course I’m a turista here.   There are even times when I  feel like a tourist in my own home town,  but that’s another matter.   And sometimes I do eat in the “touristy” places.  I know the food is going to be mediocre and over-priced at best in a place like Piazza Navona in Rome, but I eat there anyway because I love the feel of the piazza.

But in this case, even though they say you should “never go back”, I know the food will be better and there’s the sheer fun of trying to find a place you’ve been to a long time ago.   One of the many things I love about Italy is that, unlike where I come from, a place where age is most often measured in decades and demolition routinely trumps restoration, your chances of the place you’re looking for still being there, even years later, are pretty good.

By the time I found the restaurant, it was late and there were no free tables left inside.  But there was una tavola libera outside.  I took it.

Maltagliati (badly cut) con funghi

Maltagliati (badly cut) con funghi.  Delizioso!

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Tree-topped Torre Guinigi

Torre Guinigi is close by, but it was way too soon after eating to even think of climbing the 227 stairs to the top, so instead I set out along Via Fillungo towards Piazza San Michele.  There was sure to be a good table for people watching in one of the bars that surround the piazza.  The perfect place to have an espresso and let things digest a bit.

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It must be a bumpy ride on those cobblestones, but everyone seems to get around by “bici” (bee-chee).

Via Fillungo is Lucca’s main shopping street. It also strikes me as the city’s main social meeting place.  When the Sunday evening passeggiata is in full swing, you can barely make your way through the crowds.  Even on a normal day it must take ages to get all the shopping done when there are so many friends to stop and chat with along the way.

If you can't find the colour you're looking for here...

If you can’t find the colour you’re looking for here…

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The Gelateria on the edge of Piazza San Michele.  The perfect spot for watching life unfold in the piazza.

No helmets in sight for the bike riders.  But lots of casual chic attire.   Did you notice the shoes?

No helmets in sight for the bike riders. But lots of casual chic attire. Did you notice the shoes?

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May, 2013.  It’s easy to tell the locals from the tourists. The locals are the ones wearing leather jackets and scarves.
The tourists – like me – are the ones shivering under layers of light spring clothes packed for a normal Tuscan spring.

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The wings of Archangel Michael are attached by wires. Normally they don’t move. Except on one occasion,
centuries ago, when a couple of priests, perhaps thinking a miracle would spur on the masses to greater devotion,
climbed unseen up the back of the façade and started flapping the wings.

There was one more place I wanted to visit besides the tree-topped tower – Lucca’s Orto Botanico (Botanical Garden).  Both are at the other end of the city, so I headed back again along Via Fillungo towards the amphitheatre.

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It’s not as high as the Campanile in Florence, but it’s still a long way up.

A good place to check out the view - and catch my breath.

Partway up a place to check out the view – and catch my breath.

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You can even make out the contours of the amphitheatre from up here.

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As well as many of Lucca’s hidden terraces

I wasn’t sure about the opening hours at the Orto Botanico and I had learned a long time ago not to take posted schedules at face value, so after a while I reluctantly dragged myself away from the stunning views.

One of the “problems” a traveller in Italy has to come to terms with is the sheer volume of things on offer.  If you want to stay sane, enjoy yourself and get something out of your trip, let alone remember any of it by the time you get back home, you just have to reconcile yourself to making some hard choices.   A kind of tourist’s triage.  You make a list of the things you absolutely want to see and the rest goes on your “If time permits” list.  This takes a lot of discipline, since you’ll have a nagging suspicion that anything that goes on that second list is going to have to wait for a return trip.  But really, alla fine (in the end) what’s so bad about that?

And so it was that on the way to the garden, I passed by Lucca’s magnificent cathedral and the museum dedicated to Lucca’s native born prodigal, Giacomo Puccini.

Posters along the way advertise a festival featuring Puccini

Casa natale di Giacomo Puccini. Il Maestro torna a casa.
(Home of Giacomo Puccini. The Master returns home.)

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The cities and villages of Tuscany are filled with intriguing doorways.
As you pass by, you cannot help wondering what lies beyond.

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Cedar of Lebanon at the entrance to Lucca’s Botanical Garden.

For me, of all the trees, the Magnolia has the most beautiful shape.   After that it’s a toss-up between the Dawn Redwood and the Cedar of Lebanon.

Dawn Redwood, Edwards Gardens, Toronto

Dawn Redwood, Edwards Gardens, Toronto

Enormous base of a European Beech.

Another ‘shoe shot’.  Base of a European Beech.

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Detail of a cycad. Fossilized parts of the tree have been found next to dinosaur bones dating from the Jurassic Period.
After surviving millions of years it is now on the endangered list. The cause?  Poaching.

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In May the Rhododendrons along the wall by the ramparts were spectacular, but my favourite part of the garden was the pond nearby.

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I love water lilies. They are so – improbable.  Such elegance and beauty emerging from the murky depths.  And I love the Italian name – Ninfea, for the ninfa (nymphs), the elusive creatures who inhabited the ponds and grottoes of Greek mythology.

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It’s not so much what we look at. It’s what we see.

You probably spotted them right away, but I was so focused on getting the flowers in focus I must have gone around the pond at least three times before I first ‘saw’ one.

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And then I started seeing them everywhere.

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“Ninfea e tartaruga”.  Sounds like a painting – or maybe a play.

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I walked back to my hotel along the ramparts.  It was easier to figure out where I was and with all the wonderful views of the places I’d visited, the kilometres seemed to melt away. Maybe that’s the thing.  It’s a lot easier to go for that daily walk the fitness people are always haranguing us about if we have something interesting – or beautiful – to occupy our mind along the way.

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And before I knew it, it was l’ora di cena (chain-uh).   Time to eat again.  Another wonderful day.

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Not Your Everyday Beer Garden

When you visit places that are centuries old,  you generally expect to find bits and pieces of ramparts.  What is unusual about Lucca is that its defensive walls have remained intact. Four kilometres long, they enclose the entire historic centre.

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When they were no longer needed for defence, rather than tearing them down to make room for urban expansion, the whole thing was transformed into an elevated public park. Reminds me of the High Line in New York City.

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Near the Botanical Garden.

The walls are 30 metres wide.  Plenty of room for pedestrians and cyclists of all ages.

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I couldn’t help thinking this was a regular meeting place for these anziani.
What a wonderful place to chat with friends and play a game or two of cards.

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Visitors can rent bicycles.

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Like I did on my first visit to Lucca.

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I was intrigued by the palace and garden below the ramparts, but had no idea what I was looking at.  Definitely not a beer garden.  If it looks familiar, quite a few movies have been filmed here.   Maybe you’ve seen Jane Campion’s 1996 adaptation of  ‘The Portrait of a Lady”.   Several scenes show the American heiress, Isabel Archer, strolling around the garden and lingering in the hallways of the palace.

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Access to the garden is through the palace.

Not surprisingly it didn’t start off as a beer garden.   In the mid 1600’s one of Lucca’s wealthy merchants commissioned it as his residence in the newly fashionable Baroque style, which had just begun to replace the restrained elegance of the Renaissance.

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Through the gate

Hops didn’t enter the picture until 1835 when the Duke of Lucca, perhaps fed up with second-rate suds, decided that the city needed a master brewer.  He had wanted a German to oversee Lucca’s beer-making, but in the end an Austrian – Pfanner – won the contest.

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Among the many statues, Winter, looking appropriately disconsolate

When he first arrived, Pfanner could barely cover the rent for the lower floors of the villa where he and his family lived.

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In May the roses and potted lemons are at their peak.

The fumes from the beer vats he installed in the cellar must have been awful, but maybe the constant smell reassured his family that better times lay ahead.

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An invitation to shenanigans by the bamboo grove?

Pfanner wasn’t just a master brewer.  He knew that sales would be even stronger if customers were provided with a setting conducive to the leisurely imbibing of his golden brew.

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He set about creating one of the first beer gardens in Italy.  It was a great success and before long Pfanner was the proud owner of the entire villa.

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You can enjoy your beer under an arbour of red roses…

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…or an arbour of pink roses. I’d go for the pink.

Perseverance Rewarded

My favourite quote on perseverance comes from H.W.Beecher:  “The difference between perseverance and obstinacy is that one comes from a strong will and the other from a strong won’t.”  I’m not sure which of the two was at play in my decision to keep going and have a look at Villa Torrigiani.  After my experience at Villa Reale, the idea of just heading straight to Lucca was very tempting.

The slanting curves at the top of the sign mean "Narrow road ahead". No kidding!

You know you’re in for trouble when you see that sign with the slanting curves. “Narrow road ahead”. No kidding!

I’m glad I persevered.  It was relatively easy to find.  The roads weren’t any narrower than the ones I’d gone back and forth along trying to find Villa Reale.  The sun was shining and…

Villa Torrigiani

Villa Torrigiani

… the garden had the two qualities that make a garden visit worthwhile.  It was beautiful.   And it was intriguing.

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In 1636 Lucca’s ambassador to the court of Louis XIV in Versailles bought a rather plain villa and proceeded to transform it into a flamboyant baroque showpiece.

Roses along the side wall of the villa.  I sometimes wonder if they paint the walls to match the roses or the other way around.  Or is it just serendipity?

Roses along the side wall of the villa. Do they paint the walls to match the roses
or the other way around.  Or is it just serendipity?

The villa was once surrounded by a garden à la française, based on a sketch by one of France’s most famous garden designers, Le Nôtre.   Unfortunately, like many of Italy’s older gardens, much of that French garden was later destroyed in what Edith Wharton denounced as the “fury of modern horticulture”.  (I’ll write more about that when we visit the gardens of Lake Como in Italy’s northern Lake District.)

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Red and white salvia fill the box-edged garden beds.
Perhaps an allusion to the Italian flag?

Fortunately, a few elements escaped the “renovations”.  Like the the sunken Garden of Flora.  Red and white salvia have replaced the aromatic herbs that once filled the areas edged with boxwood.  Peccato (a pity).  Salvia – not the herb, but the flower – may be my least favourite annual.  Especially red salvia.

At one end of the sunken garden is the Grotto of the Winds.

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A goddess of the winds?

At the other end is a balustraded double staircase.  The entire area – the sunken garden, grotto and staircase – was a kind of 17th century water park.  Hidden water spigots were everywhere.   Once the giochi d’acqua (water jokes) got going there was no escape.  If you tried to get away by climbing the staircase, jets from the balustrades and the stairs would soak you.  If you ran down the path, more jets were activated.  Taking refuge in the grotto was useless.  A curtain of water would come splashing down, blocking your exit.  More water would pour out of jets in the floor and the mouths of the statues.  And from the ceiling a positive torrent.  As we’ve seen before (The First Renaissance Garden, Part III – Villa Castello), people loved them.

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I walked through an archway on the right side.

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Very weird stuff going on in here.  Is that a serpent on the right having a conversation with a turtle in the bottom left?  I wonder if people a century or two from now (assuming the planet is still more or less intact and there are people still around to ponder such things) will find the objects we put in our gardens just as weird.

It was rough going in the grotto.  The lighting was almost non-existent (that’s why these photos are so grainy.  I had to use my flash even with the ISO set as high as it would go.) and the uneven floor was covered in a thin slippery layer of slime.

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Fake stalactites.  I may know nothing about geology, but I do know these hanging hunks of spugna are supposed to be stalactites – not stalagmites – because of an interview I heard a few years ago.  A science teacher had come up with what I thought was the perfect mnemonic  – stalacTites on Top.  Brilliant.  They reminded me of a statue I’d seen in the gardens of Villa d’Este in Tivoli.

Diana of Ephesus, the multi-breasted Goddess of Abundance.

Diana of Ephesus, the multi-breasted Goddess of Abundance.

When I reached the archway on the other end of the long grotto I saw a sign leaning against the wall.  I hadn’t noticed it before.

VIETATO L'ACCESSO. SCALE PERICOLOSE. (Access prohibited. Dangerous stairs.)

VIETATO L’ACCESSO. SCALE PERICOLOSE.
(Access prohibited. Dangerous stairs.)

No mention of una grotta pericolosa!   That’s another thing that never ceases to amaze me about Italy – the notion of danger.  I couldn’t believe it the first time I climbed up  Pisa’s famous tower.  It was many years ago, before they straightened it up a bit.  The way up was along a marble path, worn smooth, and terrifyingly slippery over the centuries – on the outside of the tower.  There wasn’t even a rope to stop you from falling off when you were on the “down” side.

And then you come across a couple of stairs and they are pericolose!?

I went up the stairs.

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As at Villa Reale, river gods keep watch over a large pool once stocked with fish.

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Instead of Leda, here we have another Baroque favourite, the siren.

Like Leda at Villa Reale she has a nice view.

Like Leda at Villa Reale she has a nice view.

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I know a lot was lost when the old Italian gardens were remade in the English “Landscape” style, but there is such a serenity and beauty to this part of the garden that maybe even Edith Wharton would have approved.

A ‘Real’ Garden

I woke up early Sunday morning with a sense of dread.   The day had finally arrived when I had to pick up the rental car.  It seems ridiculous even to me.  I always rent a car when I visit Italy.  I’ve driven all over the country, from the northern Lake District to Puglia and Sicily in the far south.   I really enjoy driving in Italy.  Of course, as in all things, there are a few exceptions – places like the Amalfi Coast and Palermo.  Driving in Palermo I was actually terrified – despite having been forewarned by the extremely hospitable and well-meaning Sicilians I had met as I travelled around the island.  When they heard I would be going to Palermo at the end of my trip, they would look at me with dismay and say things like: “Dopo aver guidato a Palermo, non si è più lo stesso!” (“After driving in Palermo you’re never the same.”)

Just east of the village of Amalfi, an elevated stretch of the coastal road as it passes by Atrani.

Along many stretches of the Amalfi Coast road there is no centre line. There is no point. The road is not wide enough, even by Italian standards, for two-way traffic.  Not to worry.  An ear-splitting blaring will warn you whenever a bus is about to come round curves like the one above.  Depending on how close to the curve you happen to be, this is the signal for you to stop or, as sometimes happens, start backing up.

Still, driving is part of the experience, part of the avventura.  I can’t imagine visiting Italy and not toodling around in a car.  But every time, that first day, I’m a bundle of nerves.   Ridiculous.

In fairness, driving in Italian cities is not for the faint of heart.  All those roundabouts with precedenza a destra (Cars entering the circle have the right of way.  Crazy!). Designated public transit lanes that seem to appear out of nowhere.  Cars meandering all over the road, encouraged no doubt by the lack of painted lines to mark the lanes.  And on top of all this, in Florence there is the added hazard posed by the ZTL – Zona a Traffico Limitato.  If, by accident, you are so busy keeping an eye on the driver two inches off your rear bumper that you miss one of the signs and stray into a ZTL, a camera, which of course you also did not see, will record your licence number and you’ll get a hefty fine.

In any event, after a few shaky minutes behind the wheel I saw the first sign for the A1, the highway that would take me to Lucca.  Not yet time to relax – I still had to manoeuvre my way onto the  A1 towards Bologna, get off at the Firenze Nord exit and merge onto the A11.  Then I could start to relax.  

Lucca

Lucca

Lucca is a lovely Tuscan town all on its own, but the reason I’m here is to visit the gardens of the Palazzi Lucchesi, a collection of villa/palaces in the countryside surrounding Lucca.  Two of them are especially renowned for their gardens – Villa Reale di Marlia and Villa Torrigiani.  Like many of Italy’s major museums and tourist sites – including the Uffizi Galleries – they are closed Mondays.  Given my early departure and the detailed directions I had printed out before leaving, my plan to visit both of them – one in the morning, one in the afternoon – seemed totally reasonable.

Villa Reale di Marlia.  Elisa Bonaparte's pleasure palace.

Villa Reale di Marlia. Elisa Bonaparte’s royal palace.

I was especially looking forward to Villa Reale di Marlia – Villa Reale for short. According to an article in the newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore,  it was here thatthe protagonists of Italy’s history had, throughout the centuries, walked”.   The villa’s website waxed no less enthusiastically about the gardens, which were described as splendido and meraviglioso.  As far as the “protagonists” went, this was no mere PR fluff.  One of them was none other than Elisa Bonaparte, sister of …. Napoleon.  Generous brother that he was, and no doubt wishing to solidify his control over the region, he had showered her with titles – Duchess of Lucca, Princess of Piombino and Grand Duchess of Tuscany.  The Medici must have been rolling over in their graves.

As monarch of these Tuscan territories Elisa of course required a suitably royal residence.  Una villa reale.   And yes, as you’ve probably already guessed, reale, in this case means ‘royal’.  She started with the purchase of the 15th century villa known as Villa Marlia.  But, in true Bonaparte style, she soon decided it was not large enough and ‘convinced’ the owners of the neighbouring Villa del Vescovo (Bishop’s Palace) to sell.  She then set about transforming the villa and gardens, using Versailles as her model.  Fountains, statues, enormous pools, parterres of ornately trimmed boxwood, grottos, a lake, a green ‘theatre’ and hundreds of exotic plants from the English Garden of the Reggia di Caserta, the Royal Palace near Naples.

Entrance to the 'English Garden' of Reggia Caserta, Naples

Entrance to the English Garden of Reggia Caserta

The only problem was, in spite of my detailed directions, I couldn’t find it.  I had followed several signs – brown panels with white lettering, like the ones to the Medici villas around Florence – and just as infuriatingly small.  Then there were no more signs.  I was, presumably,  there.  But where was it?  Finally I decided to ask the only person I had seen in a while.  I had passed by her a couple of times.  She was sitting at the entrance to Villa Oliva.  I knew this because there was a sign to that effect.  I had been driving back and forth along the same road, not because I had lost my mind (although it was beginning to feel like I had) but because according to the map, Villa Oliva was on the same road as Villa Reale, just a kilometer or two to the west.

The signora looked at me.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, it’s a look I have seen quite a few times in my travels around Italy.  A peculiar mix of politeness straining to mask incredulity. I actually find it very charming – the effort to be polite I mean.  She very politely informed me that there was just one road to the villa I was now at and it passed proprio di fronte (right in front of) Villa Reale.

Italy never ceases to amaze me.  That scruffy, abandoned-looking building I had driven past – how many times? – was the entrance to Villa Reale?!  Since it was still early, there hadn’t even been any cars in the miserable little courtyard that serves as parking lot to give me a heads-up.

I drove back down the wretched road, parked and walked over to the ‘abandoned’ building.  Sure enough, next to a small door – the paint was pealing – was a  faded sign –  Biglietteria –  Suonare  (Ticket Office – Ring).  I rang.  To my utter amazement, within a couple of seconds I heard movement inside and an anziano (old man, a very old man) opened the door.  We exchanged “Buon giorno’s”.  Then, feeling like a total idiot, because there was NO WAY this place was Villa Reale, but not knowing what else to do, I said, “Vorrei visitare la Villa Reale.” (I would like to visit …  )  “Certo”, he replied without blinking an eye. He handed me a guide, and motioned for me to follow him, “Prego. Venga. Le apro il cancello.” (Please.  Follow me.  I’ll open the gate for you.)

Il Laghetto

Il Laghetto

Following the percorso (route) in the guide he’d given me I walked along a wide path bordered by dense trees.  Even though for what seemed like the first time since I’d arrived in Italy it wasn’t raining, I was in a terrible funk.  After all this, if I had wanted to go for a walk through a forest I could have saved the airfare and stayed in Canada.

After about 10 minutes the path opened onto a broad, flat expanse of lawn that sloped slightly down to a pond.  This was the much-vaunted prato (meadow) designed in the gusto romantico del giardino all’inglese (romantic style of the English garden).  In the forest behind the laghetto (little lake) merino sheep (for Elisa’s favourite wool), goats and deer had once roamed.

The next stop on the percorso was the Grotta del Pan (Pan’s Grotto).

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Very creepy stuff going on here.  The whole Renaissance grotto thing was starting to get to me.  Just because all the Who’s Who of ancient Rome had them in their gardens was seeming less and less a good reason to insist on them in 17th and 18th century gardens.

Maybe the “Spanish” garden, which was meant to recall the great gardens of Islam, would be more appealing.

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I tried to like it.  I really did.  I walked around and around trying to get the sense of it.

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The box balls were meant to represent the fountains of the Alhambra.

The Lemon Garden

The Lemon Garden

River gods in the garden were meant to be seen as a token of friendship, real or desired, between two cities.  These ones represent the Arno in Florence and the Serchio near Lucca.  Lucca was probably trying to curry favour with Florence.  Fish for the villa table were once stocked in the pond the river gods keep watch over.

Apart from a couple of "Guard (?) Fish, Leda and the swan have the niche at the end of the garden to themselves

Apart from a couple of “Guard (?) Fish”, Leda and the swan have the niche at the end of the garden to themselves

She has a nice view.

She has a nice view.

The next part of the garden promised to be more interesting.  Il Teatro di Verdura (Green Theatre).  Paganini, on Elisa’s invitation, had performed there many times.

In the centre, between the orchestra pit and the stage are the conductor’s podium and prompter’s box. Spherically trimmed box along the front edge of the stage represent the footlights.

The "Orchestra"

The “Orchestra”

Enormous yew hedges form the stage backdrop and, in the wings, stock characters of the commedia dell’arte wait.

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Columbine, Harlequin’s mistress, one of the stock characters of the immensely popular Commedia dell’Arte

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Some spectators had seats in the boxes. Who knows what they got up to, hidden behind those thick yew hedges?

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At the back of the villa there was a fountain decorated – and I use the word advisedly – with a number of statues.

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This one looked like your standard Baroque fare…

...until you walked by it.

…until you walked by it.

After Napoleon’s defeat, Elisa, nine months pregnant, was forced to flee, pursued by the British troops under Lord William Bentick who told her nudo e crudo (naked and raw – what a phrase!) that as far as the Brits were concerned she was no longer sovereign of anything.  She gave birth in a humble locanda and made her way to Vienna where she was promptly thrown into jail.  She died in Trieste, forgotten, at age 42.

The property is currently for sale.  Asking price – 45 million euros.

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In “Outliers” Malcolm Gladwell proposes that one of the three things necessary for work to be meaningful is some kind of relationship between effort and reward.  While exploring gardens is not something I would ever consider as work, the idea that all that trudging around should led to some kind of benefit that would at least compensate for the inevitable sore feet and tired legs struck a chord.

Maybe it was all the aggravation of trying to find it.  Maybe it was that over-hyped effect I wrote about on my way to Villa Gamberaia.  In any event, by the time I reached the villa, I was wondering whether I should even bother checking out the next garden – Villa Torrigiani.  Why not just call it quits and head straight for Lucca?

In the end – maybe more out of a certain testa dura (literally ‘hard head’) than anything else – it was on the itinerary and I was darn well going to go see it! – I decided to go have a look.  At the very least, cross it off the list.  As it turned out, and here I’m sure any of you who have ever been accused of being pig-headed will be happy to know, I’m glad I did.   It was wonderful!