I would like to say I am fresh back from the south of Italy, but fresh might be slightly overstating the case. Safely back perhaps. I have never been to this southern area before. We didn’t find anybody who spoke English in Palermo (Sicily), either local or traveller. No English at all and no understanding of any English which gave some impetus to learning a few basic words and phrases in Italian from the back of Lonely Planet Guide.
On a previous visit, Mark and I tripped around the lakes district in the north and saw grand established gardens in the Italian tradition. I had been anticipating similar evidence of great wealth in pockets of the south at least, but if they are there, we did not find them. Sicily, it must be said, has a much hotter and drier climate, more akin to its close neighbours in North Africa, which makes gardening difficult and it remains an area of considerable poverty.
I photocopied the relevant pages from renowned garden writer Charles Quest Ritson’s weighty tome, Gardens of Europe, and following his advice, we sought out Orto Botanico di Palermo (the Bot Gardens). I had thought to find a little more than we did in terms of style and presentation. They hold a notable collection of cacti and succulents which was displayed with all the panache of a working nursery. All plants were in matched terracotta pots serried along wire shelves. If you have a passion for cacti and succulents, there may have been much of interest but I find them distinctly less than riveting.
The glasshouses were sparsely furnished with more plants on wire shelves. There were some fine trees growing amongst the dry dust outside but most looked a little hard done by. A recent planting of cycads in the tough kikuya grass was just getting established, although there were more mature specimens of both palms and cycads. A most remarkable plant was a fig tree (ficus macrophylla). Now over 160 years old, it was of enormous proportions and clearly working on a bid for total domination. It puts roots out from on high (known as aerial roots) and when they reach the ground, they bed in giving a multi stemmed effect on a rather intimidating scale.
The avenue of false kapok trees (Chorisia speciosa) was attractive but overall I was a little underwhelmed by Palermo’s Orto Botanico.
On the mainland, we sought out Villa Cimbrone in Ravello on the Amalfi Coast. It was a slight mission to get there. The public transport is frequent and cheap, but not for those of a nervous disposition. In this area, the roads are extremely narrow, bordered on one side by an unprotected drop of hundreds of metres to the sea, extremely winding with corners so tight that at times the buses have to reverse up and make more than one attempt to get around, all the while being challenged by speeding Vespas, Fiats and Smart Cars driven by fearless locals.
Villa Cimbrone was actually landscaped by an Englishman at the turn of the twentieth century on the site of a neglected Roman estate and is still hailed as a significant garden in the English-Italian style. Now a hotel, I can only say that it must have been grander in its early days. The Avenue of Immensity formed the central axis and it was certainly impressive. It was an extremely long and wide sweep which led us down under festoons of wisteria, flanked by pinus pinea and platanus orientalis, statuary and terracotta pots. It culminated in an open Doric temple leading to the Terrace of Infinity. This was a large belvedere balcony adorned by eighteenth century marble busts, with an astounding view of the Amalfi Coast and the hugely charming villages and citrus groves which tumble down the near vertical hills.
But that was as good as it got. The brochure claimed “an infinite variety of exotic flowers and plants” beside the Avenue of Immensity – but these were mostly agapanthus, with, from memory, some cleomes. The Seat Of Mercury, a large bronze statue of the gods’ messenger at rest, was set in a dirt bowl. The rose terrace was so poor it was ludicrous. Even allowing for the fact that it was only late spring, I could not believe that the roses were ever going to impress and row upon row of pink and red bedding begonias are too municipal altogether.
The gothic crypt (now a functions centre) was magic. I do like the gothic style. The cloister was attractive – a Norman-Sicilian-Arabian courtyard. The traditional Italian statuary fitted right in to the whole environment and gave me cause yet again to reflect that it is no wonder that it looks so out of place in New Zealand gardens where we lack the history and the tradition which anchors this ornamentation in context. But it is the architecture and the setting which are the redeeming features of this garden, certainly not current gardening practice.
In terms of gardening, the most charming sight I saw was a simple scene of wildflowers at the Palatine in Rome and that was clearly serendipity.
I did feel a little vindicated on another score. A month or two ago, I wrote a column debunking the myth of Marlborough’s vineyards being romantic and evocative of rural Italy, an opinion which caused a colleague to take umbrage. The vineyards, olive and citrus groves I saw in Italy bore no resemblance at all the sterile mono culture of Marlborough with its rows of tanalised posts and wires and not a single stray plant allowed to creep into the environment. Italy does not appear to have our obsession with Round Up so there is a profusion of growth and the vineyards and orchards are small, mixed and cheek by jowl. Instead of milled, tanalised timber, supports were crafted from branches which looked similar to our native manuka. While I may not have been impressed by the formal gardening efforts I saw on this visit, the agriculture and rural landscape were impossibly romantic and about as far from New Zealand practice as you can get. Given that Italy has been that way for a very long time, I suspect that their approach is considerably more sustainable than the green desert technique we favour in our own countryside.