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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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


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


The essence of ‘higgledy-piggledy’.


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


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


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


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

Some of the plants were just plain unbelievable.


Looks so soft and furry.


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

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


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

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


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


There is more to this plant than meets the eye.

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

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


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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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


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


I thought they looked lovely.

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


A classic farmer’s field in Puglia.

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


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

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


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


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


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

There were all sorts of ‘courtyard’ animals too.


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


Having a bad hair day?

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

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


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


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

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



Fairy Tales, Love Potions and a Forest that Runs

I wasn’t sure about this next garden.  I’m not a fan of mixing genres.  In anything. ‘Historical Fiction’ drives me crazy.  How can you tell the real parts from the made-up bits?  From what I’d seen on the website for the Château du Rivau, notwithstanding the Jardin Remarkable designation, it looked more like an amusement park, admittedly a rather lovely one, than a garden.

And what about Chaumont-sur-Loire, you might well be asking?  Well, remember the old adage about the exception proving the rule?…

View from the parking lot.

View from the parking lot.

It had started to rain, again, on the way over, so I had plenty of time to ponder my alternate plan – visiting a couple of vineyards – as I sat in Rivau’s parking lot.   I gave it 15 minutes, and if the rain hadn’t stopped by then, I was going to hightail it to the nearest vignoble – avec dégustation, of course – and tant pis (too bad) for the garden. Fortunately le temps s’est remis (the weather reset itself) before the allotted time was up, because it turned out to be a truly wonderful garden.


The Castle of Rivau and its gardens of fairy tales.

After paying the entrance fee – which, to give some perspective to the issue of how much the owners of these private gardens charge, was 10 €; i.e. more than the fee some visitors objected to paying at La Chatonnière (see previous post) – you are given a Parcours de visite.  In addition to a very useful map of the gardens – there is a lot going on here and I got disoriented a couple of times – it also has a ‘Charte du visiteur‘.  A code of conduct for the visitor.   I’d seen one before in a rather unusual garden in Tuscany (post coming soon).  This one begins with “Lors de votre visite, nous vous confions notre jardin.”  (During your visit we are entrusting our garden to you.) Visitors are asked to treat the garden with the greatest care and respect.  And not to pick the flowers or fruit.

It was a pity the owners had found it necessary to include that last bit.  But sadly, they aren’t the only garden that has to deal with filching by the public.   Just a couple of weeks after I returned from France, I was going through the Toronto Botanical Gardens in preparation for leading a tour and watched in disbelief as adult – not a child, this character would have been in his forties – looked furtively around and then proceeded to snap off flowers – entire flowering branches – in one of the borders and then pick them up.  I let him ‘have it’ and he skulked away.  I took the flowers to the TBG gift shop and, still in a lather, told the volunteer at the cash register what had happened.  She put them in a vase and told me that it was not the first time.




The first garden you come to at Rivau is the potager.  There is none of the ornamental extravaganza we saw at Villandry.  Instead, this appears to be a very impressive, but strictly utilitarian vegetable garden…

It is a taupe (mole).

…except for the creature rising out of the vegetables.

Plaques throughout the gardens provide much-needed enlightenment.

Plaques throughout the gardens provide much-needed and often whimsical enlightenment.

It is a taupe (mole), just popped up for a breath of fresh air, after getting lost in the labyrinth of tunnels between the castles of Rivau and Chinon.  It symbolizes the short-sightedness of our efforts to destroy a creature that helps not only to aerate the soil, but also to control the insect population in our gardens.

Another of the rules was directed to visitors with young children.  The former were asked to faire attention that their young charges did not throw cailloux (stones) at the ducks or Oeuvres d’Art.  Really?! What is with people these days?

In a pond nearby the ducks were enjoying a blissful moment, free of any stone-throwing little visitors.

In a pond nearby the ducks were enjoying a blissful moment, free of any stone-throwing little visitors.

Glorious roses hedges along the walls of the old moat made it hard to follow the parcours de visite.



Rivau, which has over 450 varieties of roses – all of them fragrant – has been declared a Conservatoire de la Rose Parfumée.

But I didn’t want to miss out on any of the gardens, so I headed back to the giant marronnier (chestnut tree), which marked the entrance to the Fairy Tale gardens.


Raindrops on the iris from the recent downpour.

Raindrops that had already landed on the flowers were one thing.  Not so delightful was the stress of trying to shield my camera from the ones that kept falling from the branches overhead.


Who knew there were so many gorgeous orange flowers?

Gigantic Eremurus aka Foxtail Lilies – the perfect plant for le Chemin du Petit Poucet (Tom Thumb’s Lane).  This was going to be fun.   Somebody obviously had a great sense of humour, as well as botanical expertise.


Maybe it was time to rethink my aversion to the colour.


I must have missed this fairy tale.


Did you notice that these are two left feet?

It was the photo of these boots on Rivau’s website that had made me hesitate.  In case you’re wondering, the greyish splotches on some of these photos are from those leftover raindrops.  I just hoped the real thing would hold off until I’d seen all of the gardens.  Luckily, it did.


Once your thoughts started wandering, the list of mismatched pairs and solitary halves kept growing –  one lonely mitten, socks that go into the laundry as pairs and come out orphans, single earrings kept in the hope the matching earring will show up …

Entrance to the labyrinth of Alice in Wonderland/Rivau.

Entrance to  Alice in Wonder/Rivau-land.


Lots of places for little visitors to ‘hide’ from the grownups.

Despite the menacing Queen of Hearts at the main entrance, the labyrinth has lots of entrances and exits and the design is simple enough that even very small children might feel brave enough to enter on their own.

Nearby, strange creatures guard the forest.

Nearby, strange creatures guard the forest…

...or maybe the Famille Pot de fleurs (Flower Pot Family).

… and the Famille Pot de fleurs (Flower Pot Family).

And no Enchanted Forest is complete without an ogre or two.

And no Enchanted Forest is complete without an ogre or two.

La Forêt qui Court (Forest that Runs).

La Forêt qui Court (Forest that Runs).


At the edge of the Running Forest, a wide, grassy path – le chemin des fées (Fairies’ Path) leads back towards the castle.  Here, perhaps more than in any other part of the garden, it is clear that while there may be lots of pixie dust floating around, there is nothing insubstantial about the plant material.

Le Chemin des Fées (Path of the Fairies).

A serious collection of perennials grows along the Fairies’ Path.

How strange that a group of plants with such gorgeous flowers is also the source of so much misery worldwide.

A ‘good’ poppy.

I love poppy flowers.  How strange that Nature would create a group of plants with flowers that are so beautiful and yet the source of so much misery.  I didn’t get far into this sombre line of thought because just then, out of the corner of my eye I caught a slight movement.

The last time I'd seen a peacock wondering around in complete freedom was at the Giardini Ravino on the island of Ischia.

The last time I’d seen a peacock wondering around in complete freedom was at the Giardini Ravino on Ischia.

And as at Ravino, there was no concentrating on the garden while this gorgeous creature was strutting by.

And, as at Ravino, there was no concentrating on the garden while this gorgeous creature was strutting around.

After sauntering through the vegetable patch it set out along the Fairies' Path.  Towards the giant red pot.

After pecking its way through the vegetable patch, it set out along the Fairies’ Path toward a giant red pot.

While I was pondering the Pot Rouge, the peacock, now joined by another, headed for the other end of the path – and one of their favourite things.


Humans aren’t the only ones fascinated by their image.


The peacocks happily spend long periods of time gazing at the Miroir des paons.

Hunters used to lure unsuspecting birds with miroirs aux alouettes.  The mirrors of those unscrupulous hunters have long since disappeared, but the expression stuck.  Nowadays it is used to describe some under-handed, devious strategy – smoke and mirrors.  It appears regularly in articles dealing with politicians and government policies.

Now and then, even a peacock gets tired of admiring itself.

Now and then, even a peacock gets tired of admiring itself.

Besides, there's

Besides, there’s a lot of upkeep involved to being such a gorgeous creature.


Upkeep which involves some rather unusual contortions. Sounds eerily familiar.


Peacocks are also extremely curious about their environment and observe any changes closely.  This one kept his eye on me as I continued on to le Jardin des Philtres d’Amour nearby.


In the Garden of Love Potions.

In the ‘Garden of Love Potions’ plants endowed with magical powers to promote or derail affairs of the heart fill two large beds in the shape of intertwined hearts.  Curly Tansy to nurture love and protect against the devil’s interference.  Dictamnus alba, the ‘Gas Plant’ we saw at la Chatonnière, to ease tormented minds.  Verbena officinalis if your love life needs a bit of help from a spell.  And my favourite, in the centre, rue, to calm the ardour in men and fan it into flames in women.


I’m afraid I may not have done justice to this garden.  It was hard to focus on the plants, no matter how wondrous, once the peacock really started strutting its stuff.


From all angles.



I had been so taken with the roses earlier that I hadn’t even noticed Rapunzle’s Hair hanging from the tower.

Unlike the dead tree with the hanging pots, this was a fairy tale I had read many times as a child.  What I didn’t know then was why such a beautiful damsel would have such an ugly-sounding name.  I certainly would never have guessed that it had anything to do with cravings brought on by pregnancy.

I’m sure you all know the story of the poor couple, who after many long, sad years ‘get pregnant’, as people often – very weirdly in my opinion – say these days.   One night the husband, driven to despair by his wife’s insatiable craving – not for ice cream or pickles, but for a plant – sneaks into the walled garden of their neighbour and steals some leaves of Campanula ranunculus, aka ‘Rapunzel Plant’.

Like most fairy tales, there is a nugget of reality in this story.  During the Middle Ages the cravings of pregnant women were taken very seriously and family members would do whatever it took to relieve their half-crazed partners.  A craving for the spinach-like leaves of a plant like Campanula ranunculus might have come from a deficiency in iron, common in pregancy.  And all might have gone well and the poor man might have just asked his neighbour for a bit of the plant, but of course, this being a fairy tale, the neighbour is a witch.  And we all know what happens when the baby is born…

By now I was famished.  Time for le déjeuner.  I headed back to the entrance where there was a small café which featured products from Rivau’s potager and vignobles.  On the way I had a quick look at the castle interior.


After the gardens, it was a bit of a jolt to the senses.


Balthazar’s Feast.

Things just got more and more bizarre.



I went back outside to where things might be fantastical, but at least they weren’t bizarre.

Lunch.  Délicieux and not at all bizarre.

L’Assiette des fées. (Fairies’ Plate). Délicieux and not at all bizarre.

Routes Barrées and Other Inconvénients

Right after fermé (closed), next on the list of French words you don’t want to come across are route barrée and déviation.  It was early in the morning and I was on my way to Chédigny, (The Village That Tore Up Its Sidewalks). Since there was clearly a car beyond the pylons, and since I had no desire to join the ranks of foolish tourists taken in by such ruses, I continued tout droit (straight ahead).



Beyond the construction, a sign tauntingly showed the way to Chédigny (via Bléré).

The French word for ‘challenge’ is défi – as in ‘The forces defy you to get to your destination’.  (For you language purists, I know that is technically an incorrect use of the word, but you get what I mean.) After yet another of what were becoming increasingly ugly multi-point turns – this one thankfully under the bemused watch of only one local – I drove back to the corner and obediently followed the Déviation.

Twenty minutes later, still looking for the follow-up sign, I found myself en pleine campagne.


Among the uncharitable thoughts going through my mind at this point was the conviction that there was no way the locals would put up with such a long detour, no matter how beautiful.  I turned around and took the first road to the right.  When I got back to Deviation Village, I went into the épicerie (grocery store), the only sign of life at that early hour, to ask for directions.  And, in clear violation of one of the cardinal rules of the Good Tourist, I confess to giving in to the urge to vent.  Just a bit.  Rather than getting offended, the young man was actually very apologetic.  I was not the first traveller to be led astray. It turned out ‘someone’ had neglected to put up the rest of the signs.

Apart from roadblocks, another challenge to visiting gardens is an annoying obsession the people in charge of these places have with maintenance.  Of course this doesn’t apply just to gardens.   The Pantheon is my favourite building in Rome and I was looking forward to seeing its sister building in Paris during my May 2014 visit.


Photos around the base of the Panthéon let visitors know what they were missing.

To wind down after Villandry I was going to visit a private garden that is open to the public.    Since it’s only a few kilometres from Azay-le-Rideau, one of three villages I stayed in while travelling around the Loire, I decided to have a quick look at Azay’s castle – a five-minute walk from the little bistro where I had lunch – and then drive over to the garden.


An all-too familiar sight for visitors from Toronto.

Anyone who is forced to engage in daily battle with the construction sites that have taken over Toronto lately is sure to have more than a few words to describe how I felt after I’d  paid the entrance fee and upon exiting the gift shop/ticket office was met by this scene.


Instead of approaching the castle along the elegant drawbridge, we were directed to a temporary access off to the side.


Surprisingly, I overheard several visitors wondering what this painting was about.


‘Nutrisco et extinguo’ was the motto of François I and his emblem was the salamander, shown here nourishing (good) and extinguishing (evil).


For the time being, the view from the rear gave the best sense of the castle’s Renaissance elegance.

Back at the hotel the receptionist assured me that getting to the garden was “très simple“.  I hate it when people say that.   Mozart is NOT simple!   Anyway I wrote down the ‘simple’ directions and set out for La Chatonnière.    The official website lured visitors with promises of ‘enchanting terraced gardens, hidden in a secluded valley with sweeping views across the forest of Chinon and the Indre River’.  There was also a comment about it being ‘a carefully guarded secret’, which at the time I took to be just more lyrical fluff.

I found it easily, but as I got closer to the gate, which was at the end of a long, rough dirt road, I could see that it was fermé.   I parked the car and went up to a dejected looking young couple standing by the gate.  They were French and just as puzzled as I was.  Like me, they had checked the opening hours on the website, which declared that the garden was  “Ouvert tous les jours de 10h à 20h (dernier accès à 19h) sans interruption, du 1er mars au 15 novembre.”  (Open non-stop every day from 10 am to 8 pm (last entrance at 7 pm) from March 1 to November 15.)  We peered through the wrought iron gate for a bit and then, more than a little miffed – at least I was – the French couple seemed rather sanguine about it all – maybe they were used to such things – we got back into our cars and left.

Back at the hotel I talked the receptionist into calling the garden to see what was going on. She need a bit of coaxing – I couldn’t tell if it was because of some local tiff or, more likely, that deep-rooted French aversion to being faced with things that weren’t quite comme il faut (the way they should be).   And in case you’re wondering why I didn’t just make the call myself, since I speak French, I have found that it’s always a good idea to involve the locals in any situation that has a potential to go south.  I do it all the time in Italy and my Italian is a lot better than my French.

After a bit of back and forthing the receptionist passed the phone to me.  The person on the other end of the line wished to speak with me.  To verify I was a bonafide candidate worthy of being allowed past that locked gate?

It turned out that, notwithstanding what was on the official website, the garden was no longer open to the public at the stated hours.  Instead, and also not withstanding all the signs welcoming visitors along the long, rough road into the property, it could, as of some unstated date, only be visited by groups – minimum 10 – by prior arrangement.   Look up ‘la Chatonnière’ on Trip Advisor, and you’ll see how this played out with other would-be visitors.


At least I didn’t get yelled at, as one hapless tourist did when he went along a clearly public path beyond the parking lot to have a look at this field of poppies, which were, presumably, part of the ‘sweeping views’ lauded in the website.

Well, I hadn’t crossed the Atlantic to give up at the first défi.  In the end it was agreed that I would return to La Chatonnière the next day at 4 pm, at which time I would be greeted by no less than the Duke himself.  I learned this by asking at the end of our conversation to whom it was that I had been speaking.   He hesitated and then replied, “Mais je suis le Duc.”  (But I am the Duke.)  Oh.


Garden of the Senses (2003).

When I arrived, promptly at 4 pm, I was surprised to see another couple already at the gate.  And instead of the duke, there was a young man struggling to communicate with the couple.  I recognized them from the hotel I was staying at.  Normally I would have gone up to them and chatted, but from the little I had seen of them, it was apparent they were a very disagreeable pair, so I took off on my own to explore the first garden that visitors see and one of the first created – the Jardin des Sens (Garden of the Senses).


I’d seen red Crocosimia before, but never this gorgeous shade of magenta.

Once he had sent the couple on their way, he hurried over to where I was.  It turned out he was an apprentice gardener from Spain who was nearing the end of a six month internship.  We chatted a bit about the state of horticulture and garden design in Spain – there didn’t seem to be a lot of money for such things – quelle surprise, given the state of the economy – and then he began what was obviously a well-rehearsed script about the garden.  I was quite happy to bumble around on my own, but he insisted I follow the ‘route’.  In order to get a proper sense of the gardens.


To the left of the stone wall was a path.  The ‘proper’ place to start the garden visit.


Jardin des Romances. (2002)

The path leads up the slope to the Garden of Romances – note the plural – a collier vivant (living necklace) of woven willow covered with climbing roses.   It overlooks a labyrinth – that Renaissance playground.



The not so simple Garden of Botanical Sciences. (2003)

Next to Romance was a garden of medicinal and culinary herbs. I liked that they called it Le Jardin des Sciences Botaniques instead of the usual Jardin des Simples.  80 squares of alternating grass and medical plants fill the area.


The original ‘Burning Bush’?

Pink and white Dictamnus were the stars when I visited.  It struck me as rather elegant, so I was surprised to learn that it’s also known as the ‘gas plant’.   It turns out that it produces a methane-like gas which is extremely combustible at high temperatures.  Entire plants can be momentarily engulfed in a flash flame.  My indispensable travelling tool is a corkscrew, not a lighter, so I couldn’t check this out, but there is a hilarious YouTube in which a gardener ‘fires up’ his plants.


A long wisteria covered allée like those of the Renaissance gardens looks onto poppy fields on the left and the sheltered Garden of Abundance on the right.


There were still a few blooms on the wisteria, one of my favourites.


“Amateurish, totally pretentious and full of weeds” as one Trip Advisor contributor squawked, or simply an indication of the back-breaking work and time needed to create and maintain a garden?

I don’t usually include photos of the ‘scraggly bits’.  It seems mean-spirited – like catching someone on film in a fleeting, unflattering moment. But so many negative comments have been written on Trip Advisor about la Chatonnière, including newer parts that are clearly ‘works in progress’, that I decided to include this photo, so you could decide for yourself.

Some of the most scathing comments have to do with the new policy regarding access, and while I do agree that, if you are going to have a website on which you invite the public to visit, common courtesy demands that you keep the conditions under which said public can visit up to date, I do not think the lack of notice warrants the kind of nasty ranting that some contributors apparently feel entitled to.  Therefore, I have decided to add my two cents’ worth.

First of all, if you’re looking for perfection, what are you doing in a garden?  Stick to the art galleries.  They’re full of perfection.  Even perfect ‘Still Lifes’.  Although, as I’ve said before, the Italian Natura Morta (Dead Nature) strikes me as a much more accurate expression.

Even at Villandry, with its virtual army of gardeners, there were some scraggly bits.  A bit of dead boxwood, a few bug-bitten lettuce leaves in the potager, which you have to be a total horticultural misanthrope not to declare spectacular.  For the final photo in my post on Villandry (Of Cabbages and Kings), I toyed with the idea of using the photo below, instead of the ‘perfect’ red and white rose I eventually settled on.  Maybe I should have gone with the more ‘real’ image.


Nature, still fabulous, in all her imperfections.

Secondly, when it comes to private gardens, shouldn’t we just be grateful that the people who own them allow us to traipse through their bits of Eden?  I have a post in the wings (which I’ll publish when we get back to Tuscany.  Almost there.) in which I talk about the fact that in Italy, the opening up of private gardens to the public is a very recent and still fragile development.

Thirdly, there is the issue of price.  Some Trip Advisor contributors object, vehemently, to the 8 € entrance fee charged at la Chatonnière, especially in light of the 6.5 € fee to visit Villandry.  Even at an exchange rate of 1.5 euros to the Canadian dollar (why is the Canadian dollar so weak against the euro anyway?), the difference amounts to $2.25.   Is it really worth ranting on a website that attracts millions of viewers about an amount that won’t even get you a cup of coffee at your local Starbucks?

Le Potager de l'Abondance (Veggie Garden of Abundance).

Le Potager de l’Abondance (Veggie Garden of Abundance). 2000

Admittedly this vegetable garden is on a much smaller scale than the potager at Villandry, but comparisons are odious, even those that don’t involve our children.  And the lettuces are just as gorgeous.


I also loved the Californian poppies - the only orange flower I like -  growing along the wall.

I also loved the Californian poppies – the only orange flower I like – growing along the wall.


At the end of the grass walkway you turn right and enter the Allée de la Chance (2005) which leads back to the castle.

In between the climbing roses I caught glimpses of the potager below.  And then it began to dawn on me what I was seeing.


I bring as few notes as possible when travelling (and not one IT gizmo) and had totally forgotten why I had decided to visit this garden.


This was the garden with the ‘leaf’!


Narrow paths form the veins of the ‘leaf’.

To paraphrase the old saying that one of the hidden benefits of disorder is that you are constantly making new discoveries, this was an example of one of the hidden benefits of a terrible memory.  The delight of ‘discovering’ the whimsical design for myself.


400 David Austin roses line the path.


The surrounding field was called le Jardin de la France.  The plan was to have sweeping areas of daisies, poppies and cornflowers, the colours of the French flag.  But as anyone who has ever tried knows, creating a meadow garden is a lot harder than you’d think.


Mother Nature clearly preferred the Californian Poppies.


Just imagine what this will be like in a few more years.

It's always fun to have a peek at the greenhouse.

It’s always fun to have a peek at the greenhouse.

In the Garden of Senses next to the greenhouse, they had had more luck with the Tricolore.

In the Garden of Senses next to the greenhouse, they had had more luck with the Tricolore.

There was one more area I wanted to have a look at – the Vallon de l’Elégance (Vale of Elegance).  OK, maybe they had gone a bit overboard with the naming thing, but just think of some of the names people give to their cottages in the lake district north of Toronto.


I know some people are fans, but formal gardens like this just leave me cold. Or itching to put in a bunch of colourful plants.


They’re so austere. So restrained. So at odds with nature.


Like all the best Renaissance gardens, a path led to a wild bosco (forest).

I wandered around rather disconsolately and then headed back to what really made my gardener's heart sing - the Garden of the Senses.

I wandered dutifully around for a bit and then headed back to what really made my gardener’s heart sing.

At the entrance peonies get a little help from the boxwood.

At the entrance, peonies got a little help from the boxwood.

And on top of the wall, a descendant of the chaton the castle was named for?

And on top of the wall, a descendant of the chaton the castle was named for?


As dark clouds gathered, I lingered as Iong as I dared in my favourite part, the Jardin des Sens.



Elsie’s Garden

After Chaumont-sur-Loire I was looking forward to something on a smaller scale.  Something I wouldn’t just gawk at, but could actually relate to.  I had arranged a visit to le Jardin d’Elsie, a private garden in Chinon.


Chinon. The castle and the town. Then and now.

The garden is on the edge of town to the left of the castle.  Easy to find if you know what to look for.  Not so easy if you’re a first time visitor and you’re navigating solo.  I spotted the sign on my third drive-by.  This meant that I had to keep on going until I could get turned around at the next rond pont. (round bridge).

I have a love-hate relationship with these things.  The big city ones are enough to fray even the steeliest of nerves, but the little ones are wonderful. Like those bright yellow suns we used to draw.  With all the little sunbeams bursting from the centre. You just keep going round and round until you figure out which ‘sunbeam’ you’re supposed to take.


Rond pont. Deceptively simple. (The modern tower-like structure in the background – slightly right of centre) contains an elevator to the castle on the ridge overlooking Chinon.

From my window table at Café de la Paix one day I watched traffic make its way around the tiny circle.  The traffic in both directions has to CEDEZ LE PASSAGE.  This creates some interesting encounters.


During the time it took me to eat lunch, not one driver cut across the tiny brick circle.  Amazing!

I followed the narrow side road to another sign.  It pointed to a high gate in a gorgeous shade of smoky green.  I looked around.  There was no bell.  No button to press to speak with someone inside.  Feeling like an intruder – and hoping there were no dogs – I lifted the latch and tentatively pushed the gate open a bit.  There was one car parked in a small gravelled area.  I opened the gate as wide as it would go, hurried back to my car, which I had reluctantly left blocking half of the very narrow road, did a truly ugly 5 or 6 point turn to get myself lined up at right angles to the gate – hoping all the while that no local would decide to come down the road at that moment – and gingerly drove through.  No problem.  There were at least two inches on either side of the car to spare.


First view. When Elsie first began to make her garden, did she and guests sit here and look over what was and what was to be?

There was still no-one in sight, so I closed the gate and went through a small opening in the dense foliage surrounding the little parking area.


Still feeling like an intruder, I continued towards the villa.  Just after I took the photo below, Elsie came out.


We exchanged ‘Bonjour’s’ and then she asked if I wanted her to take me through the garden or if I preferred to tour it on my own, after which she would make us coffee and I could ask any questions I had.   When I said I preferred to découvrir (discover) a garden on my own, she smiled.  “Vous êtes des vrais alors.”  (“You’re one of the real ones then.”) She handed me a map of the garden and then looked down at my shoes.  They were going to get wet, she warned me.  It wouldn’t be the first time, I replied.  She laughed.  A good start.


Map of the garden which Elsie had wisely laminated.

I love exploring gardens on my own.  I also enjoy guiding visitors through gardens back home.  One more instance of Homo sapiens parodoxalis?


I was tempted to check out the view from this solitary chair, but couldn’t find a path.  As Elsie had warned, my shoes were already soaked.  It had poured – again – during the night.


The property had once been a vineyard, but when Elsie bought it, there was nothing.  In the early days she would often eat dinner in the courtyard – a totally pleasant experience – apart from the staring eyes of her neighbour on the other side of the D751.  “Il pouvait même voir ce qu’il y avait sur mon assiette”.  (He could even see what was on my plate).

Later, after I’d toured the whole garden Elsie brought out coffee as promised.  I had a few questions, but Elsie didn’t need much prompting.  I sat there entranced for the next hour as she told me about the garden, roses and her life.


Born in Antwerp, Elsie De Raedt studied to be a translator.  With French, German and Néerlandais (not Hollandais, which I had previously thought was the word for ‘Dutch’) she quickly built up a successful practice in Brussels, which in addition to producing chocolates and beer, is also the main operating base for the European Union and the Headquarters for NATO.  But as she approached the treacherous middle age crisis years, she realized that translating was not what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.


She made the transition gradually.  She attended weekend workshops on landscape and garden design.  Antwerp wasn’t just the right place to be born if you wanted to be a translator.  It was also the home town of Jacques Vert (I think I’ve got the name right), the pre-eminent garden designer of the time.  Elsie continued to gagner sa vie as a translator, while she started to accept commissions to design gardens.

On fait bien ce qu’est la passion.  On arrive au top“, she observed.  (You do well what your passion is.  You arrive at the …)  Then she hesitated.  She explained that she was puzzled, even a bit uncomfortable, at the thought of someone who was touring all the grand castle gardens looking at her garden which was, she cautioned me, “pas parfait” (not perfect).  I assured her that even though most people can’t resist the over-the-top extravaganzas, we also appreciate ‘real’ gardens like hers just as much, maybe even more.


With time she became an expert en roses anciennes.  She was invited to give lectures not just in Belgium, but throughout the Loire Valley, the rose capital of France.  She spent less and less time translating until eventually she became a full-time paysagiste.

She received many invitations to the Loire castles. The old gardeners were dying off and with them their intimate knowledge of the ancient roses in their care.  The current owners often had no idea what roses were growing in their gardens, let alone how to take care of what they knew was a priceless horticultural patrimoine (heritage).


After a few years of designing gardens for others, Elsie decided she wanted to create a garden of her own.  She started looking for a suitable property in Antwerp.  But the properties for sale were either too small or exorbitantly expensive.  Then one day, she asked herself,  Why Belgium?  Why not le pays du Loire, where she was already spending so much time giving lectures and consulting?


Un coin chaumonisé. (a touch of Chaumont)

One of the questions I had for Elsie had to do with a circle of tree trunks painted in bright red.  She laughed,  “Je voulais chaumonisé un peu mon jardin.” (I wanted to chaumonize my garden a bit.)  She hastened to clarify that this was not a real word.  From a design point of view she liked the way the reds complemented each other, but it was also a bit of a set-up.  She wanted to make sure visitors had at least one question to ask her.


Rose parterre.

I had loved the garden festival at Chaumont.  I wondered what a professional like her would think of it.  It turned out that even though she thought some of the installations were complètement sottes (totally idiotic), she loved it too.  Went every year.  She hadn’t been this year yet.  Was waiting for her sister to join her.  Thought it was more fun visiting with a friend.  I agreed.  As much as I enjoy visiting gardens on my own, I could see that Chaumont would be even more enjoyable in the company of someone to ‘ooh and aah’ with.


In addition to the boxwood rose, Elsie had urged me to have a look at the colombière.


 A votre santé!

She hadn’t mentioned anything about all the wine bottles.

The area around the castle of Chinon is riddled with ancient tunnels. Escape routes.  This may have been the exit to one of them. It is also where modern day plumbers had installed some very unattractive piping. Since she was in wine country, Elsie decided to close up the unsightly hole with empty wine bottles.


Mistletoe.  A surprisingly benign squatter.

When I asked about the nest-like clumps in the trees, she gave me an odd look.  “C’est du guy”.   (ghee.)  I still had no idea.  She had obviously over-estimated either my French or my plant ID skills.  Probably both.  Seeing that I was totally mystified, for the first and only time, she slipped into English.  “Mistletoe.”

The only mistletoe balls I’d seen before were the ones people hung over doorways around Christmas. The ones you were supposed to kiss under.  I didn’t know it actually grew as a ball.  I was skeptical.  But she assured me it was indeed mistletoe.   Thinking of the ivies that strangle to death hapless trees back home, I asked if it killed the host tree.  That’s what most people think, she replied, but in reality, rather than harming the host tree, if anything, the mistletoe prolongs its life.  Since I had already revealed myself to be one of ‘those’ people, she went on to explain.   The mistletoe seed needs a nice, thick bark to take root in.  The kind of bark that is found only on older trees.  Trees that have maybe ten more years to live.  For nourishment the seed absorbs a bit of the sèvre (sap).  This causes the sap to s’activer en plus – shakes it out of its arboreal doldrums – which re-energizes the tree, thus prolonging its life.


While we were having coffee, a woman came up to the table and started talking with Elsie.  She was holding three roses in her hand.  Roses she had obviously picked from Elsie’s garden.   Elsie seemed totally unperturbed.  Instead she asked where the woman had found them.  Near the greenhouse perhaps?   They examined the colour and fragrance. Elsie was confident one of them was Bouquet Parfait.  But she wasn’t sure about the others. Wasn’t one of them usually a bit lighter in colour?   I felt rather odd, sitting there as they continued their rather lengthy discussion.  But I had a feeling that this too was part of what was turning out to be a most enjoyable and unique garden visit.

After the woman left, Elsie turned to me and explained.  It was her femme de ménage (cleaning lady).  Un trésor who had been with her since she arrived.  When she’s finished for the day, she goes through the garden, sees if there are any roses she wants – or doesn’t already have – and places her order.  Over the years she has accumulated quite a collection.  Vous êtes sure que vous avez encore de la place?, Elsie had teased her. (You’re sure you still have room left?)  Later on Elsie will go out into the garden and make sure she has correctly identified the roses her cleaning lady wants.  On her next trip to Belgium, where her rose propagating business is located, she will ensure that this morning’s order is taken care of.

On my way out, I thought about what she had said – “On fait bien ce qu’est la passion.


The Queen of Flowers

Although it has been famously proclaimed that “a rose is a rose is a rose”, things are a bit more complicated when it comes to the Italian rosa.

There is the rosa dei venti.  

No matter how gifted a translator is – there is no way ‘compass’ captures the same feeling as ‘rose of the winds’. Map of the gardens of La Foce in south-eastern Tuscany.

This rosa is a lot less common than you might expect.  I had to go through dozens of photos of maps before I came across these two.  Perhaps there doesn’t seem to be much point in knowing which way is north when you’re trying to find your way in the medieval centres of Tuscany’s hilltop towns.

Historic centre of Montepulciano

Historic centre of Montepulciano

Then there are the ‘big’ roses – the rosoni on the façades of so many Italian churches.  As I explained in the post on Boboli Gardens, to express the idea of ‘bigness’ you can add ‘one’ (oh-nay) onto the end of a word.  What I didn’t mention then, because the word in question – il viottolo – was masculine to start with, was that adding one to the end of a feminine word engenders (couldn’t resist!) a sex change. And so a small, delicate rosa becomes a big, masculine rosone.

Il Duomo, Florence

Rosone on the façade of the Duomo in Florence

Santa Chiara, Cortona

Santa Chiara, Cortona

Lecce, Puglia

An extravagant, baroque rosone in Lecce, Puglia

A simple rosone in Taormina, Sicily

A simple rosone in Taormina, Sicily

And then of course there is the “woody perennial of the genus Rosa” that I was off to see one afternoon.  Over 6500 of them.  In the Roseto Fineschi, the biggest private collection of roses in Italy, possibly in the world.

Damigiani at the entrance to Roseto Fineschi. Only in Italy would you find a display of oversized wine jugs at the entrance to a garden.

Damigiani. Where else in the world would you find a row of oversized wine jugs at the entrance to a garden?

It was founded in 1967 as a non-profit organization by Gianfranco Fineschi, a professor in the Faculty of Medicine at the Cattolico University in Rome.  His goal was to “preserve a scientific collection of living material”.

IMG_1868 - Version 2


First time visitors are urged to consult the blue signs for general information about the rose garden and the history of the rose, purple for the history of the earliest hybrids, green for botanical roses, antique roses and modern roses, and red for information about modern hybridizers.

It was all so nicely laid out and so compelling was the deep affection for the rose, described as “unique in the world for its beauty, richness and variety”  (although the thought crossed my mind that specialists of other flowers – orchid enthusiasts, for example – might have a thing or two to say about that).  I felt almost guilty as I  wandered, very unscientifically, through the garden.



Gardeners at the end of the day.


I’ve seen roses climbing up all sorts of things – but olive trees?!



For a while I was just mesmerized by the overall effect.  Then I started zoning in on individual flowers.




Even though these close-ups give away my preference for the “rosey” hues, there were quite a few beauties that didn’t fall into neat colour categories.  They got me thinking about how we see colours.

I have a purse I am very fond of.  With time, I have come to really appreciate its brilliant design.  But the reason I bought it was because of its colour – a beautiful shade of periwinkle.   Yet over the years, I don’t know how many people, perfect strangers, on the elevator, in the line-up at the grocery store, have commented on my beautiful ‘purple’ bag.   I didn’t get the sense these people were colour blind.  More that they didn’t organize the colour spectrum the same way I did.


Beautiful. But what colour is it?

The most striking example of differing perceptions I ever encountered was during a session with a  student in the literacy program run by the Toronto Public Library.  I apologized to my student – he was probably in his forties – for the childish content of the exercise book we had been given to work with.  Blame it on insufficient funding.  In any event, learning to read as an adult – even admitting that you can’t read – is of course very stressful.  And as long as a student is feeling stressed and self-conscious, there isn’t going to be a lot of learning going on.  Humour – even corny humour – helps ease the stress. 

So we decided to take a ‘jaundiced’ (that wasn’t one of the words) approach.  Sentences like “The cat is black” were boring, but got a pass.    Others, like “The dog is blue”,  got what was coming to them.  And then we came to “The sun is yellow.”  My learner guffawed.  I looked at him.  “What’s so funny about that one?”  He laughed some more.  “A yellow sun – that’s ridiculous!”  I didn’t know what to make of this.  We had been meeting for some time.  He struck me as intelligent, alert and well-spoken.  I looked at him some more.  He looked at me.  Then he said, because it was clear to him that even though I knew how to read, I obviously didn’t have a clue about the colour of the sun, “It’s not yellow – it’s white!”  I looked at him in disbelief. 

It took me a while, but eventually I got it.  Apart from sunrise and sunset, the sun IS white.  So why is it – remember all those cheery suns we drew in elementary school – that we always coloured it yellow?

The sun setting over the Bay of Naples is definitely white.

Even as the sun starts to set over the Bay of Naples, it is still more white than yellow.

This got me wondering how much the culture and language we’re brought up in might affect the way we perceive colours.  Did the fact that my student was from Sierra Leon have something to do with his white sun?  Then I started thinking about colours in Italian.  Un giallo (yellow) is a murder mystery.  Maybe yellow wasn’t the best place to start.  What about blue?


Along the coastline of Puglia, the “heel” of Italy.

If a survey were done to determine Italians’ favourite colour, I wouldn’t be surprised if blue came out on top. “Volare!”, one of the most famous Italian pop songs in North America (and one of the most disliked Italian pop songs in Italy…) begins with “Nel blu dipinto in blu” (“In the blue painted in blue” – some things just don’t translate.)  It’s a love affair that comes in many shades – blu chiaro (light blue), blu scuro (dark blue),  azzurro – also the name of Italy’s national soccer team, celeste (celestial?)  You cannot “have the blues” in Italian, but you can be giù – joo (down).

Blu scuro.  From this angle the waters surrounding the Aeolian Islands, off the north-east coast of Sicily appear dark blue.

Blu scuro. From this angle the waters surrounding the Aeolian Islands, off the north-east coast of Sicily appear dark blue.

Verde smeraldo.  From a different angle the waters are emerald green.

Verde smeraldo. From a different angle the waters are emerald green.

Arancione o rosso?  Our captain dives down bring us one of the many sea creatures.  Only for a quick look.(And is careful to to show us (red or orange?

Arancione o rosso? (Orange or red?) Our captain dove into the water and came back up with a starfish.
We were allowed a quick look before he returned it safely to the water.

For a long time I used this as my desk top background.

For a long time I used this as my desk-top background.

Then, of course, there is the issue we looked at a couple of posts ago about vino rosso being made from uve nere (black grapes).

Poster in the Donnafugata Winery in Marsala, Sicily.

Poster in the Donnafugata Winery in Marsala, Sicily.  I wonder what sixth generation Ferdinando thinks of this.

There was lots more to see and lots more to think about, but if I didn’t leave soon, I wouldn’t make it to the next garden before closing time.

Has that cat been keeping an eye on me all this time?






Flourishing, Flowering Florence


Does the title strike you as a little over-the-top, even for the birthplace of the Renaissance?  It might not if you take into account that all that alliteration is actually, in a nutshell, the story of how the city got its name.  In fact, two versions of that story.

The Italian name is Firenze (fee-ren-zay), from Fiorenza as it was called during the Middle Ages, which in turn comes from the name of the Roman settlement founded here in the spring of 59 AD.  Every year the Romans celebrated the arrival of spring with festivities in honour of the Goddess Flora, so they decided to call their new city Florentia.

That’s one theory.  But when it comes to events that occurred so long ago, there is often no shortage of theories and the origin of Florence’s name is no exception.

Another theory has to do with the Etruscans, who had settled in Fiesole, one of the hills overlooking Florence, somewhere around 550 B.C.  At the port they built on the Arno River, the Etruscans carried on a lively commerce with the pilgrims – many of them Roman – who passed through the area.   The Etruscans picked up some of the language spoken by those pilgrims.  Latin phrases like pianura florents, which is what the Romans called the flourishing (florents) plains along the banks of the Arno.  Not knowing that other Romans would come along later and destroy their city, the Etruscans picked up on the Roman name and called the encampment Florentia.

Flowering or flourishing.  Take your pick.


Most people just call it il Duomo, but the official name of the cathedral that looms over Florence is Santa Maria del Fiore (Saint Mary of the Flower).  The flower is il giglio, the white iris that once grew wild within the walls of the city and for centuries was the symbol of Florence.

The iris is here somewhere

The iris is here somewhere.

For a city we now associate with the arts, Florence has had a remarkably bellicose history.  The 13th century was no exception.   In addition to the typical woes of medieval life, the citizens of Florence had to deal with the mayhem caused by two warring factions – the Guelphs and the Ghibellines – each intent on seizing power, one on behalf of the Pope, the other for the Holy Roman Emperor.  I could never remember who was on whose side until I came up with the following – primitive, but fool-proof:  Guelphs and the Pope – one syllable each; same with Ghibellines and the Emperor – three each.  I said it was primitive.

Here it is.

Here it is.

The Florentine iris is sometimes mistaken for a lily.  What there is no confusion about however, is the colour of the iris on the façade of the Duomo.  Most definitely not white. One day it must have occurred to the Guelphs that it was bad optics to have the same coat of arms as their arch rivals, so they reversed the colours – changing their symbol to a red iris on a white background.  After a few more decades of warring, the Guelphs were finally victorious and had their version of the iris adopted as the city’s official symbol.

DSCF2691 The Guelphs’ red iris is everywhere – even on this sign at the entrance to the San Lorenzo market.  “IT IS FORBIDDEN TO BUY FALSE AND “COUNTERFEIT” MERCHANDISE FROM ABUSIVE VENDORS”.  I have no idea why “contraffatta” is in quotation marks.

The logo of my favourite vendor of gold leaf trays also features the Florentine iris.

The logo of my favourite vendor of gold leaf trays also features the Florentine iris.

Surprisingly, the Guelphs apparently never got around to removing the white iris of their arch rival from the façade of one of the most important buildings at the time - Palazzo Vecchio.

Surprisingly, the Guelphs apparently never got around to removing the white iris of their arch rival from the façade of one of the most important buildings at the time – Palazzo Vecchio.

DSCF2675 Given the role the iris has played in the city’s history, it seems fitting to start our tour of the gardens of Florence with a visit to the Giardino dell’Iris – an iris garden on the hillside leading up to Piazzale Michelangelo.

Piazzale Michelangelo, a popular place for wedding photos.

Piazzale Michelangelo, a popular place for wedding photos.

Many Italian gardens are surprisingly difficult to find  – even some of the biggies.  As if you have to pass some kind of rite of passage.  But I didn’t expect the Giardino dell’Iris to be one of them.  From the research I had done before leaving home, I got the impression it was just a short walk down the hillside to the right.  But, just to be sure (visiting gardens requires a LOT of walking – I didn’t want to do any more than necessary) I decided to check with the manager of the hotel I was staying in before setting out.  A Florentine native, he had never heard of a Giardino dell’Iris, but he did know of a Roseto (Rose Garden).  It was on the hillside to the LEFT of Piazzale Michelangelo.  Perhaps the Iris Garden was part of the Roseto.  In my travels around Italy I have come across enough anomalies – mistakes on maps, misleading signs – to find this totally reasonable.  So off to the Rose Garden I went.  Standing on the left side of the piazzale, just below the railing, where yet another couple was having their wedding photos taken, there it was.


At the entrance.  No Greek gods and Roman heroes in this garden.

At the entrance. No Greek gods or Roman heroes in this garden.

Finally.  Mystery solved. I’d seen this “suitcase shot” in tourist brochures, but had no idea where it had been taken.  It’s called “Le Départ”.

Finally. Mystery solved. I’d seen this “suitcase shot” in tourist brochures, but had no idea where it had been taken.
It’s called “Le Départ”.

I especially liked this statue - L’Envol (Take-off)

I especially liked this statue – L’Envol (Take-off)

IMG_0729 It was delightful. The roses were lovely, the setting a dream.  But not an iris in sight.


Finally I caught sight of what I took to be a gardener entering a garden-shed type building near the entrance.  On the door he closed behind him was a very big sign – PRIVATO.  I knocked and my gardener, looking decidedly grumpy, opened the door.

This is the kind of situation that calls for a strategy I have often resorted to over the years.  It is, for me, totally out of character, but desperate times…  The trick is to blurt out, as quickly as possible, my much-practiced opening line –  “Scusi. Mi dispiace disturbarLa, ma…”  (Excuse me.  Sorry to bother you, but…)  It works like a charm.  While the accosted is still digesting the fact that a foreigner is actually not butchering their language, I can usually manage to explain my plight.

The iris garden was “Sulla destra” – on the RIGHT side of the piazzale.


The irises are planted in drifts under ancient olive trees -“rustic like a simple Tuscan plot”.

The irises are planted in drifts under ancient olive trees -“rustic like a simple Tuscan plot”.



The iris in the bottom right corner looks like a serious contender for a special prize
awarded to the iris that comes closest to the colour of the city’s symbol.

In fairness to the hotel manager, this is a private garden, open to the public only a few weeks of the year, when iris growers from all over the world converge on the hillside for the International Iris Competition.  If you’re thinking of going, keep in mind that the opening dates vary somewhat from year to year as they are set to coincide with the peak blooming period, which in Florence is generally late April to mid May.

IMG_0736 Italians often use the English “iris”, but the flower does have an Italian name – two, if you count dialect.  Standard Italian is giglio (geel-yo).  Tuscan dialect is a bit more of a challenge:  giaggiolo (ja-joe-low) which sounds a lot like another tongue-twister – ghiacciolo (ghyatch-oh-low).  If you’re beginning to wonder where this is going… when the iris rhizome is washed clean of all dirt, it is white and, with its strange lumpy shape, looks a bit like a ghiacciolo  (icicle). It is also an ancient remedy for burns and other ailments.  Mothers would cut off bits of the rhizome and give it to soothe their teething infants.

So hard to pick a favourite.  Maybe this one.

So hard to pick a favourite. Maybe this one.

IMG_0745 No blue skies.  No dappled sunlight. This was the coldest and rainiest spring locals well into their seventies could remember. And yet, even if the iris is not one of your favourites, the overall effect was enchanting.