The Lemon Grove – A Good Place to Start

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

Entrance courtyard of Il Limoneto.

Entrance courtyard of Il Limoneto.

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

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

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


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

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


A wild offshoot.


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

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


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


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

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


A whirling moustache.


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

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


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

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


Entrance courtyard. Case Damma.

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


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

A bouquet on a stem.

A bouquet on a stem.

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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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


Inside the carob pods, the original ‘carat’.

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


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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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


Feijoa, aka Pineapple Guave.

Next – The Garden Where Once There Was Nothing.




Roses, Resolutions and Treasure

Montrésor is the name of the village I’m visiting today.  When I first heard the name I thought it meant ‘My Treasure’.  It wasn’t on my original itinerary.  I only learned about it at breakfast.  The couple at the table next to me had been there the day before and were raving about it.

This being the Loire, even though it was little more than a hamlet, it had the requisite castle.

This being the Loire, even though it was little more than a hamlet, it had the requisite castle.

What it also seemed to have in its favour was a complete absence of gardens.  There is only so much beauty you can take in at once and by this point I’d definitely OD’ed on gardens.    And roses!  I had no idea there were so many roses in the Loire Valley.  I’d always thought Grasse, in southern Provence, was where the roses were.

Banners celebrate the 2014 edition of the annual Festival des Roses in Grasse.

Banners celebrate the 2011 edition of the annual Festival des Roses in Grasse.

But after only a few days in the Loire I’d used up most of a chip just on shots of roses.   As if by taking all these photos I could somehow capture their ephemeral beauty. After having a few chats with myself over the futility of this, I finally made a resolution – no more photos of roses.  Not a one.

Apparently close to 50% of Americans – and probably the same percentage of Canadians – make resolutions every year, most of them at New Year’s.  And how many achieve their goal?   Take a guess.  Make it a wild one, because the rate is astoundingly low*.  All sorts of psychologists and neuroscientists are studying the phenomenon.  One of the explanations they propose has to do with the ‘false hope syndrome’.  (As opposed to ‘true’ hopes?!) According to this theory, we set ourselves up for failure by setting unrealistic goals that are ‘out of alignment with our internal view of ourselves.’

To avoid falling into the ‘false hope’ trap we need a realignment.  I did not find this a very attractive solution, having just forked over a bundle to have one done on my car.  In any event, what we need to do is set small, attainable goals.  Fine.  How hard could it be to eliminate just one species from my viewfinder?  There were hundreds, if not thousands of others to choose from.  Oh.  And the other thing we need to do to increase our odds of success? Exercise a little more willpower, which, according to the experts, is not a fixed asset, but is ‘malleable’.  No more rationalizing; no more begging off with ‘my genes made me (not) do it’. (*8%)

I set off under a gorgeous, clear blue sky.  There were lots of signs along the way, so without any of the usual ‘side trips’, I soon reached the village.  As usual, when visiting historical villages and towns in France and Italy, the first order of business was to park the car.  That is where the trouble began.  Finding the parking lot was easy.  And at this early hour there were lots of parking spots.  The problem was, the entire lot had been planted with…


There was no escape.  They were everywhere, all as beautiful as the one I eventually parked in front of.


Encouragingly, one researcher offered this piece of advice when faced with imminent failure:  instead of giving up altogether, try tweaking your goal.   OK.  Maybe I could take a few, just a few, more photos of the irresistible species.   I willed myself away from the parking lot and set off for the castle.


As a ‘city girl’, I don’t think I could actually live in one of these villages, but I find them absolutely enchanting to visit.


Entrance to the original medieval fortress, built by the count of Anjou, founder of the Plantagenêt dynasty.

As with most of the fortress castles built during the Middle Ages throughout France and Italy, during the Renaissance, Montrésor’s castle was transformed into a luxurious residence.

In the mid 1800’s the property was purchased by the Polish count, Xavier Branicki,  a close friend and financial advisor to Napoleon III.  Branicki restored the castle and gardens and then set about filling it with priceless works of art.


Fortunately, given how things were going with my resolution, Branicki focused his efforts on the interior.  Although there were a few hot spots in the garden.


Was it the rose that Anais Nin was thinking of when she wrote her memorable words? “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom”.

There are the usual roped off areas, but other than that, visitors are free to wander at will.


Nice floral arrangement on the table, but what about the wolf hanging from its back paws?

I’m always fascinated by the things one can and cannot do in other countries.  Something we take for granted in Canada – like walking on the grass – is a serious transgression in both France and Italy.  But nobody seems to be concerned about the damage from hordes of visitors clomping up this delicate spiral staircase – or – and here my North American roots come out – the potential for liability.


The way to the second floor is via this beautiful escalier à vis.

At the top of the spiral staircase is the Boudoir italien.  I felt as if I had been transported back to Italy – to Florence even.  The walls were covered with paintings – all by students of the great Italian masters – Fra Angelico, Botticelli, Bronzino, Verrocchio…


It felt odd to see  a painting like this one labelled as ‘Madone à la chaise.’ As if it only had an Italian name.


One of Xavier’s sisters, portrayed à la Turque, all the rage at the time.  Only, unlike Modigliani’s Odalisques, fully clothed.

On the other side of the door was another take on the Turkish theme – one of Xavier’s cousins, the Countess Potocka, with her hair done up in a turban.


The Countess was clearly a great beauty – a mixed blessing in those days (and perhaps nowadays too).  The Tsar, bewitched by her beauty, fell madly in love and had her poor husband locked up in a tower for four years.


Le Grand Salon

There is a lot going on in the Grand Salon, but for me one of the most interesting objects was the piano.  A memento of heady days in Paris when Poland’s great composer, Chopin, in love with Xavier’s sister-in-law had composed a waltz for her, perhaps on this very piano.

The other object of note is a saddle, just to the left of the piano.  It’s hard to see – this was as close as I could get.  The only reason I even noticed it among all the other furnishings was because of an entry in the binder visitors are loaned for the duration of their visit.

Knowing I would  remember little of what was written in the binder by the time I got back home, I took photos of the the contents of the binder under the shade of a tree next to the castle.

Knowing I would remember little of the contents of the binder by the time I got back to my hotel and could make notes – let alone when I got back home – I took photos under the shade of a tree.

The last entry reads:  Next to the piano, a saddle, encrusted with semi-precious stones, taken from the Turks at the battle of Vienna.  It belonged to Kara Mustapha, grand vizier of the Sultan.  It is green, the sacred colour of Islam.  Only a descendant of the prophet Mahomet could sit on this saddle.

There was something unsettling about the presence in this elegant room in this peaceful little village of an object – obviously sacred – that had been plundered in war.  I knew nothing of the Battle of Vienna, so I had a look on Google.

September 11 (!), 1683 was the second time in less than one hundred years that the leaders of the Ottoman Empire attempted to take control of Vienna.  This time the gateway city was rescued by the King of Poland, who against enormous odds, had managed to cobble together an alliance of Christian troops.   For an extensive and, I believe, well-researched account of the battle and forces involved, check out “gates of” by Baron Bodissey.  One of the most disturbing things I found in Bodissey’s post, especially in light of ongoing developments in the Middle East, was the fact that the successes of the earlier Muslims troops were largely due to their willingness to overcome regional differences and loyalties to present a united front against their Christian/Western enemies.

Time for a breath of fresh air and a walk around the old village.  According to the map I had been given at the Office de Tourisme, which, to my surprise, was actually open, if I followed the alley below the castle I would discover the real meaning of Montrésor and how the village got that name.


I needed to follow signs for le lavoir (wash house).


There were lots of signs, but with all the roses, they weren’t always easy to read. Presumably this is Rue Branicki.


I resolutely walked right by the rose growing up the wall of the medieval market.


I knew I was on the right road and saw lots of ‘you know what’ but no signs for the lavoir.


Oh. There it is. In plain sight.


You know you’ve stepped back in time when the local cat takes a nap in the middle of the road.

Proof that kitsch knows no borders.

Proof that kitsch knows no borders.



On the opposite bank of the river, the lavoir.

19th century laundromat.  Guaranteed to dispel any nostalgia for the 'good old days'.

19th century laundromat. Guaranteed to dispel any nostalgia for the ‘good old days’.

Whenever I begin to wonder if perhaps progress is overrated – this tends to happen on days when I’ve seen more than a few people texting while driving, or heard of one more person who’s dropped their cell phone in the toilet – really! how does that happen?! or read yet another article about driver-less cars – are these people crazy!  what happens if there is a ‘glitch’ in the motor?  – anyway, any longings for a simpler era are quickly dispelled whenever I come across the reality of what life was really like then for the vast majority of people.


The lizard that led the way to Montrésor.

In the courtyard of the lavoir is an enormous lizard.  A plaque on the wall tells the story of how the village got its name.


“One day King Gontran and his faithful squire were riding through a vast forest when, exhausted and thirsty, they stopped and rested at the base of a rocher (large rock).  The young squire was soon fast asleep, dreaming of a young princess of Aquitaine who alas was too wealthy for him, when he suddenly woke up and saw a small lizard on Gontan’s face.  “By Notre-Dame!”, exclaimed the king, “Who is pulling on my ear?”  “This wretched creature”, replied the squire, holding up the lizard.  “I’ll cut its throat, your Majesty.”   “May St. George hold back your hand”, said the Prince.  “Look!  This creature, with its emerald eyes, is inviting us to follow it.”  Whereupon the lizard disappeared through an opening in the rock. When it reappeared, it was shimmering in gold.  The prince and his squire widened the opening and discovered a cave in which lay hidden a fabulous treasure.  With this treasure, Gontran built a castle on top of the rocher, which, as happens in legends, had been transformed into a mountain, which evermore was known as ‘le mont au trésor (which, as you may already have guessed, does not mean ‘My Treasure’, as I had thought, but ‘Treasure Mountain’) – Montrésor!  And this is also how the squire’s dream came true, for he became governor of the fortress and married his beautiful princess.”

I headed back to my car, a walk that, for such a tiny village, took me an awfully long time.


The Loire is known for its excellent wines. Maybe the gardeners feed their roses with compost from the vineyards.


The Village That Tore Up Its Sidewalks

My visit with Elsie had got me in the mood for roses.  Before leaving home, I had spent a fair bit of time meandering around the internet, looking for interesting, but less famous gardens.  One day I stumbled across an intriguing entry.  No grand castle, no extensive grounds, no private ‘folie’.  It was a Village Jardin (Garden Village) called Chédigny, which in 2013 was the first village in France to be awarded the coveted designation, Jardin Remarkable.  And it is full of roses.


I thought I was in the right place. But the only sign I could find was this half-hidden one for a couple of villages nearby.

In the late 1990’s, the mayor of Chédigny, who has a self-confessed grande passion pour les roses, decided that to further beautify the village – they had just finished ‘under-grounding’ all the networks – they could plant roses and train them up the façades of the houses.


I had never come across this sign before. ‘Semi pedestrian street’. Could this be it?

The villagers loved it and two years later decided to aller plus loin (go further).  In the words of the mayor, the goal was to “redonner la rue aux habitants” (give the road back to the villagers).


Whenever there is talk of giving back the streets to the people in big cities like Toronto, increasing sidewalk space always comes up.  But in Chédigny, instead of expanding the sidewalks, they tore them all up, leaving just the curbs.  Then they started planting.   Ancient roses.  Modern roses.  Climbing roses.  Repeat roses – roses remontantes.  In French they don’t just repeat, they ‘rise again’.  There were soon more roses than villagers.  (latest count – 700 to 150)


Even a village that got rid of its sidewalks still needs somewhere to put the garbage bins.

The population soared 20% in just eight years.  (Do the math – there may now be a couple dozen more Chédignois.)  Word spread, and with the inauguration of the annual Festival des Roses in 2006, more and more visitors came to have a look at what was going on in the tiny village.


Of course, “Où il y a des roses, il y a des épines,” admitted the mayor.  (Where there are roses, there are thorns.)  The new interest in the village has led to a doubling of real estate prices, making life in Chédigny beyond the reach of many young people.


And with the rise in tourism comes the risk that Chédigny will become ‘un jardin musée’ (a garden museum) like those of the castles, in the words of a man who obviously does not mince his words.  Instead the goal is to create ‘un lieu de vie, de parfum’; un jardin vivant’  (a place of life, of fragrance; a living garden).  From what I saw early that morning in May, there was no need to worry.


Presumably there is another entrance.



Chédigny’s gardening team – one Head Gardener (in the yellow jacket) and her assistants.

Another épine has to do with the ‘slight’, additional cost to maintain all the plants, the responsibility for which rests on the shoulders of one Head Gardener, and a couple of assistants.


Chédigny’s gardeners try to do as much as possible à la main (by hand), with minimal use of pesticides.

When asked what it’s like to take care of a whole village, the young woman put it this way:  “Il faut avoir une petite connaissance botanique et une grande passion.”  (You need a bit of botanical knowledge and a lot of passion.)   As far as passion goes, it was clear that there was plenty of that.


I think she was being far too modest as to her expertise on the botanical front.  Sometimes it was hard to see them for all the roses, but there were lots of other plants too.



Apart from the gardeners, the only other sign of life during my early morning visit was this villager chatting with the postman.


Strolling along the quiet lanes, it was difficult to imagine the pandemonium tomorrow – opening day of the 9th annual edition of the Festival des Roses.  I wondered, if I had known about it, would I have changed my itinerary? The line-up for the two-day event looked wonderful.  Although visiting the booths of the rose growers and nursery owners would probably have been just an exercise in frustration (too many tempting things I of course could not take with me), there were all sorts of events and activities that would have been worth all the jostling with the crowds –  street musicians, photography and painting exhibits, an olfactory workshop seductively called ‘Parfum de roses, plaisir du nez’ (perfume of roses, pleasure of the nose).



Pink roses and blue shutters were my favourites.


It was love at first sight with this rose.

During a segment for France 3 television (you can see it on Youtube – “Chédigny, village de roses”), one of the villagers explains that her involvement in gardening developed progressivement.   From a bit of puttering around, it has now reached the point where “ça me demande beaucoup d’ attention et presque… “(it requires a great deal of my attention and almost…).  She hesitated, struggling to find the right word – “Ce n’est pas de l’inquiétude…” (It’s not worry…)   Finally she hit upon an image that satisfied her:   Je suis aussi attentive à mes rosiers que je suis à mon petit chat.” (I pay as much attention to my roses as I do to my little cat.)  And you can bet that’s a lot of attention.



Chédigny, the village where roses have replaced sidewalks.



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?