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Here is my response to WordPress’ weekly photo challenge: “(Extra)ordinary.”

I thought for a while about what I might have seen this year that was extraordinary. I was reminded of my trip back in May when I took my Mum to Rome.  She had a desire to see the Trevi Foundation whilst I was determined we would go to the Pantheon and see its amazing brick-built dome; the largest unsupported dome in the world.  My mother was rather blank about this place I kept mentioning. Luckily it wasn’t that far from the Trevi Fountain and with lots of eateries in the small roads around it an ideal lunch destination.

I have been to the Pantheon once before; some 9 years ago the day after my 40th birthday.  I was in Rome on a mad work trip which lasted little more than 24 hours.  Our hosts were so determined that I should see the sights that we did a tour of Rome at midnight which was quite magical but the Pantheon was the one place we couldn’t look inside at that time of night.

I am so glad that I insisted we went to the Pantheon.  It was the highlight of the trip for me.  I found the vastness of the interior awesome especially when you think it was built around 125 AD in the reign of Hadrian, he of the long wall. The opening at the top of the roof is 8.8m in diameter that’s 28.87 ft ; the total diameter is 43.2m (141.73ft). Added to this is its religious significance. I’m not a religious person but whatever your faith or lack of faith you cannot help but be moved by the religious imagery throughout the building.

The Pantheon – a truly extraordinary place.


Weekly Photo Challenge: Scale



This week’s Photo Challenge theme is scale – having something in a photo to show an extreme of scale.  As I quite like to do these posts on a Friday evening I tend to use photographs I already have rather than going out to take a photograph especially; it also gives me a good opportunity to look back through photos.

I thought about large and small things and remembered this statue that we saw on holiday last summer at Lake Maggiore.  It is a statue a local saint,  San Carlo Borrome, or Big St Charles to the locals. The Borrome family are one of the powerful families in Italy and own Isola Bella in Lake Maggiore and as well as many other properties and land. The statue is 23.40m tall on top of a 11.7m pedestal and is one of the largest in the world.  One of its claims is that it is one of the largest statues that you can climb up inside.  The statue was built, in the 17th century,  around a masonry chimney with the body constructed of copper sheeting on a wooden framework and the head and hands are made of bronze.

The temperatures were high this day which explains the heat haze around the statue but I think the inclusion of my fellow travellers in the photo demonstrates the scale well. And no we didn’t climb to the top as it we only stopped quickly on the way back from a tour to Lake Orta.



Isole Madre – an Italian Botanical Delight


Now some of my readers have kindly described my garden as lush when they saw my EOMV photos but I don’t see it this way.  For me the photo above shows a lush garden.  The garden in question is Isola Madre, the garden I discovered on holiday in Italy which was the highlight of our trip for me.


2014_07220405Isola Madre is the third island in the Borromea Bay and a sister island to Isola Bella.  Whilst Isola Bella is a personal wedding cake of a garden, Isola Madre is now a botanical garden and a partner RHS garden – so I got to use my RHS card twice on holiday.

As with Isola Bella I found the vistas and glimpses through trees and down paths quite captivating.


2014_07220265The standard of horticulture is exceptional not surprising as the curator, Gianfranco Giustina, was awarded a Veitch medal by the RHS in 2014.  I knew I was in for a good garden visit when I saw the coleus, which I’m not that keen on, looking so good amongst ferns.  In fact there were many ferns, including various tree ferns, so I was very happy.  Not only were the plants generally labelled but the guide book also gave lots of details about key plants.

As with the Isola Bella the garden paths lead you up to the high part of the island.  The garden has a wealth of magnolias, rhododendrons and camellias but sadly we were a little late in the season to see these in flower.



The ferns and the bamboos do well due to the climate of the region as despite the temperatures being in the high 20s/low 30s there was rain many days and so the plants were thriving.


The highlight of the garden is the oldest Cypress of Cashmir in Europe. If you look closely 2014_07220410at some of the photos you will see lots of wires leading to this tree and there is an amazing story behind this.  In 2006 the tree was toppled by a tornado.  Whilst many would be sad and think that was the end of a tree which had been grown from seed collected from the Himalayas in 1846, the staff on Isola Madre had other ideas.  With the help of helicopters and three huge cranes they righted the tree.  Then they covered the root ball with constantly damp sheeting and the leaves were sprayed with anti-transpirants. The result is that the tree has re-established and is growing well – what an achievement.


2014_07220346Having explored the shady end of the lower island you find yourself up by the house and the Chapel Square and the Nymphaeas pond.  The planting is more colourful around the house with the use of quite a bit of bedding and annuals. Whilst I wasn’t that keen on the garish colours on Isola Bella I did like the same plants on Isola Madre.  I think this is because the permanent planting tones them down.  The bright colours work very well against the cool colour of the walls and I think the blue/grey of the woodwork is a good foil.  The borders are quite narrow and it was impressive how many plants had been shoe-horned into the space.  No doubt they are watered and fed a lot.


We did spot the odd gardener but they were generally working in the areas which weren’t open or having a break for lunch.  Many of the annuals were kept in check by the white peacocks who strutted around and seemed to have quite a thing about the Cleome which were growing along the bottom of the house walls.









One of the things that made me smile when visiting this garden was the range of plants growing there and planted permanently outside.  The cactus growing on the cliff side of the island particularly amused me as it seemed so incongruous to see a huge cactus hanging over a large inland lake.


It was views like this which add to the magic for me and will stay in my mind for some time to come.


Three go to North Italy – Isola Bella

Isola Bella

One of the places I was really looking forward to visiting on our holiday was Isola Bella; one of three islands in the Borromean Bay.  I had seen the garden on Monty Don’s Italian Garden series and was really pleased to discover it was just a short ferry ride from our hotel.

The palace on the island was originally intended to also have a casino, small villa or palace, higher up on the island when it was started by Carlo III Borromeo in 1630. However, it was his sons,Vitaliano VI Borromeo and Cardinal Giberto III Borromeo who dropped the casino idea and concentrated on the introduction of a garden to compliment the palace with the notion that the island should appear to be a ship sailing across the lake.  As you can imagine the Borromeo were, and are, a very wealthy family so why not think grand.


You arrive on the island and enter via the palace.  I was so distracted by visiting the garden, which as a partner RHS garden I got to use my RHS membership card to enter, that I hadn’t really considered what the palace would be like.  As with many Italian palaces and villas particularly in this area the furniture is predominantly dark wood and quite heavy and there is lots of marble which isn’t surprising as there are two large quarry mines on the shores of Lake Maggiore.


But entering this large state-room which was the height of the palace took your breath away.  Not only the size and height but the coolness of the pale blue and white after the darkness of the other rooms.


The ground floor or I suppose basement is taken over by a huge grotto.  The walls and floor are covered in mosaic patterns made up of pebbles of different colours.  It is quite bizarre and I found it a little oppressive.  The palace is still in the Borromeo family’s ownership and they visit in September – bit like royalty. But to the garden.  Having been directed around the palace you exit into a very classical italianesque space.


Up some stairs and then up and round another set with a tightly clipped hedge running on both sides.


Sadly I had missed the flowering of the Agapanthus in these pots but they must look stunning.  Then you are confronted with the extravagance that is the garden of Isola Bella.


It’s like a mad wedding cake on steroids with all the bells and whistles.


As you can see the walls have the same pebble mosaic as the palace grotto and was no doubt completed around the same time.  Unsurprisingly I was more drawn to the ferns at the bottom of the walls than the in your face bedding.


The edifice, I can think of no other word for it, sits at the highest point of the garden and 2014_07220186is surrounded by terraces which accommodate the slope.  Some are quite narrow (as above) and some are large.  This gives a good variety of spaces and atmospheres.  Moving away from the bedazzling centrepiece you find quiet areas of ferns and other shade lovers, huge bamboos and wonderful magnolias.  2014_072202032014_07220205There are also white peacock, of course, which strut around demanding food from visitors.

2014_07220170You cannot fault the horticultural standards of the garden, it is immaculate.  On the day we visited there had been high temperatures, for some days, but also winds and then when we were there downpours but there was hardly a leaf on the ground, unlike on the main land, and all the plants looked incredibly healthy.  Whilst this style of garden really isn’t my thing I found it interesting to note how they had used the different aspects of each of the four sides of the edifice to accommodate different plant needs.  So one side was a rose garden, another had citrus fruit, another rubeckias and yet another flowering shrubs.

But all the time you are distracted by the beautiful views across the lake to the mainland and its villages with their picturesque terracotta roofs and the alps in the background.  It was almost as though the planting had to be over the top to keep the attention of the visitor. The planting and statues certainly shout for your attention and personally on a bright sunny day I found it a little too much – even one of my son’s commented that he was surprised I had wanted to visit as he didn’t think it was my sort of garden.


Would I recommend a visit? Absolutely if you are in the area. It is a wonderful and exuberant confection of all things horticulture and brings a smile to your face even on the hottest and humid of days.









Three go to Northern Italy – Lake Orta

Lake Maggiore - the Borromean Bay
Lake Maggiore – the Borromean Bay

My sons and I have just returned from a wonderful week on Lake Maggiore which is located in the shadow of the Alps in the Piedmont area of Northern Italy.  I am constantly amazed that my sons still want to come on holiday with me and every year suspect it will be the last family holiday as they are both in their early 20s.  However, I think the reason is that we get on very well and it is more like 3 adults going on holiday together than a mother and two sons; and before you suggesting it is because they get a free holiday I should say one pays his own way and the other makes a sizeable contribution.   I did think I would cover our holiday in one post but having loaded up the first photos I think I will have to bore you over a series of posts as there are just so many views and images to share.

So to start with we were based in Baveno on the shores of Lake Maggiore which is less touristy than its sister lakes Como and Garda.  However on our first day we decided to visit Lake Orta which is the least well known lake and often referred to as the Cinderella of the lakes.

Isola di San Guilio, Lake Orta
Isola di San Guilio, Lake Orta

Lake Orta is  about 45 minutes to an hour from Baveno, west of Lake Maggiore.  I first visited the village of Orta San Giulio probably 10 years ago when I went to a friend’s wedding there and was completely captivated by the area’s romance and old worldly charm.  You get a real feel for Italy here as the tourist industry hasn’t got its claws in and you have to be able to translate the menus etc from Italian rather than been spoon-fed an English version.  There are lots of small villages/hamlets along the shore as well as grand villas presumably owned by the rich of Milan and campsites; so a real mix of scenery as you travel along.  The lake has been popular with many writers over the centuries including Lord Byron, Friedrich Nietzsche, Samuel Butler, Honoré de Balzac and Robert Browning and there is still a British run poetry festival in September.


However the highlight of the lake is the island just off the shore of Orta San Giulio which shares the village’s name.  The primary building is a Benedictine monastery with a Romanesque basilica which groans with frescos and sculptures and a pulpit dating back to the 12th century.  Work has been under way for some years uncovering the layers of frescos. We learnt that back in the 13th/14th century there were a serious of plagues and as a result mass had to be held outside in the open air to avoid people being in close contact. To try to prevent the disease-spreading the walls of the basilica were painted over probably with lime wash, or something similar, and the art work started again. Now the restorers have to task of deciding which frescos to keep and which to remove to see what is underneath.

Orta San Giulio
Orta San Giulio

A quick 10 minute hop across to the main land brings you to the village of Orta San Giulio.  The village is tucked in by the lake side and surrounded by the lower hills of the Alps.  As with many old Italian villages, and our Cornish villages, the roads are narrow and so cars 2014_07220057have been banned to a car park just outside the town. This has helped the village to retain its charm and character.  However, it was interesting to note the changes from my first visit.  There were definitely more restaurants and bars than before, I am sure we only had 3 or 4 to choose from and there was an increase in the number of small boats trying to attract business from visiting tourists.

We have a good wander around so I could find the tiny hotel I stayed in, the registry office and other places I had remembered.  Despite being a blistering hot day the streets and side roads were cool due to their narrowness and with the addition of the first of many ice creams last week we managed to keep cool before boarding the boat again to cross the lake back to our transportation.

Lake Orta
Lake Orta

Book Review: The Gardens of Venice and the Veneto

Gardens of Venice and Veneto

As a bit of an Italophile I was more than happy to receive a review copy of The Gardens of Venice and the Veneto by Jenny Condie.  However, I did wonder if this book would have a limited market being about gardens in such a small specific area.

The book, on first glance, is your archetypal coffee table book.  Large, relatively heavy and full of sumptuous photographs by Alex Ramsay.  Unsurprisingly, given the location of the gardens the images groan with parterres, clipped hedges, citrus plants, statutes and the lovely pale coloured Italian villas.  However, and it is a very significant however, the text that accompanies the photographs takes this book away from your average illustrated book of nice garden views.

Hardly surprising given that not only has the author, Jenny Condie, lived in the area for 10 years but she is also an art historian and has worked as an editor and translator on many books on Italian art and architecture. This knowledge and background is apparent throughout.  Each of the twenty-one gardens is presented with a well researched and in-depth history and Condie’s writing style draws you in from the first paragraph of each essay, for example the opening lines for Villa Allegri Arvedi A Cuzzano

“The impression of extraordinary fertility is something not easily forgotten.  It leaves a pulse in the memory, a sensation as of sharply indrawn breath.  Villa Allegri Arvedi is above all a working farm – all tractors and revving engines, sprayers and muck-spreaders, and there is the box parterre to prune as well.”

Unlike the descriptions of gardens we have become used to in the glossy magazines and many a ‘gardens to visit’ book which in my view are often superficial and either dominated by the designer or the design style this book carefully considers the garden’s history and creation and its context in the history of the area.  The introduction to the book sets out a potted history of the area and it is interesting to learn how powerful Venice was in the 15th and 16th century, even now there seems to be some tension between the city and its surroundings. If like me you like history, politics and intrigue then you will find this book fascinating.  The gardens in the book cover a huge range of Italian history from the early 16th century and we are reminded that the creation of Italy only happened in the 19th century; before then there were smaller states and principalities.

There are wonderful stories and characters throughout such as Margaret Symonds, the niece of the botanical illustrator Marianne North who visited Villa Pisani Bolognesi Scalabrin in 1888 and became a lifelong friend of the owner Evelina van Millingen who had grown up in Constantinople before marrying Almoro III and moving to the villa where she created the beautiful garden shown in the book.  Condie presents the women as charismatic characters who are just as interesting as Leopolodo Cicognara a scholar and art historian who restored the Palazzo Cappello Malipiero Barnabo in Venice in the late 18th century.

Condie and Ramsay’s approach to the book is to present gardens that were accessible to all of us, “others have explored the fascinating subject of hidden or private gardens, our leading criterion has been present accessibility – born from the conviction that no picture or story can possibly equate with experiencing these gardens for one self.” Refreshingly an appendix has been included giving basic information on the opening hours and contact information for each of the gardens.

This is not a book that explains the principles of design nor is it a book that lists the plants used in the garden.  It is however a book about the people who created the gardens over a period of time and the influences both architectural, political and cultural which impacted on the creation of the gardens. Not all the gardens are along the lines of the typical Italian villa we are used to seeing, Villa Emo although having a number of the expected historical elements is a plantsperson’s garden having been restored in the 1960s and now owned by the Countess Marina Emo who has added a wildflower meadow, a wetland area and regularly conducts trials of primroses and cyclamen.

The Gardens of Venice and the Veneto is a book that deserves to be read and not just placed on the coffee table for guests to peruse.  It is intelligently written throughout and once you start reading the book the photographs that drew you initially quickly become the supporting cast.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in gardens and history.



A Cultural Interlude – 3 go to Herculaneum

Being in the shadow of Vesuvius during our holiday we thought we ought to try to make an effort to engage with the historical aspect of the region surrounding Naples.  Our enthusiasm for walking up Vesuvius diminished with the increasing heat and having been to Pompeii some years back I decided that Herculaneum was the best bet for our  cultural injection. Interestingly when I visited the region 20 odd years back Herculaneum wasn’t mentioned as some where to visit at all.  I had first heard of it via the BBC during its series on Vesuvius and my curiosity had been piqued. Our guide told us that it was only in recent years that the site had started to attract tourists.

Herculaneum is said to have been founded by Hercules, hence its name.  It’s interesting how immersed the whole area is in mythology.  There are stories about how Capri was created and Ischia and even Vesuvius – they all seem to have originally been Gods or maids coveted by Gods!! The city was built on a volcanic plateau above a sheer cliff on the sea front at the foot of Vesuvius.  Compared to Pompeii Herculaneum is quite modest in size and it is estimated that the area within the city walls was around 20 hectares with a population of about 4000.  Today only 4.5 hectares are accessible with the rest buried deep under the suburbs of Naples.  The picture above shows how close the archeological site is to the inhabited houses.  The row of buildings at the top of the photo with the green doors are ‘modern’ homes whilst everything in front is the archaeological site.

When Vesuvius erupted in 79AD Herculaneum was not initially affected.  It was two days later that the population who hadn’t already escaped where killed by the extreme heat surge.  The city was then engulfed covering the site in  approximately 22 metres deep of ash and mud and therefore preserving a lot of the site. The preservation is completely different to that at Pompeii and has caused many organic artifacts to be discovered including: fabrics, furniture, plants, and wooden parts of the building structures.  What really struck me was that in some cases the upper storeys of the buildings were also preserved including sliding wooden doors – this level of detail was not something I remember from Pompeii.

The excavation of the site commenced in 1738 but through the use of tunnels which was completely unsuccessful and meant that little progress was made for many years.  In 1828 a British archaeologist recommended open air digs and this work continued until 1875.  Work commenced again in 1927 with the most recent work concentrating on the shoreline site of the site (top picture).

The quality of the preservation can be seen in the photo above which is of one of the shops – all these wine amphorae and the wooden structure are original.

The quality of the mosaics was stunning, as is the preservation of some of the wall paintings.  What really surprised me was that there was no attempt to restrict us from walking on the mosaics.  I even queried this with the guide, telling her that in Britain, mosaics of this quality would  be protected and only viewable from afar.  Her response, typically Italian, a smile and a shrug.  To me it would be best to restrict the footfall on these areas to help preserve the mosaics but maybe because Herculaneum is not that popular amongst tourists at the moment this isn’t a problem the curators have considered.  It really was noticeable how few people there were at the site.  I think there were probably 3 or 4 groups going round and a few individuals; when you compare this to the hordes that visit Pompeii it really is quite remarkable.

We saw a number of these shops – our guide likened them to Roman style fast food places.  Again it is remarkable how well-preserved everything is.  You can almost imagine the citizens going about their business, not something I could do in Pompeii.

The garden above is the garden of the building with the pointy roof you can just see in the top picture, it is called the House of the Deers due to the decoration..  If you look closely you  can see a three-legged table in the middle which is an original piece.  A lot of the gardens have been replanted with plants whose remains were identified during the archeological excavations.  It really is atmospheric and quite beautiful.

There is so much more but the site is one of those places were you could just spend hours taking photo after photo.  I was completely bowled over and interestingly so were both my teenage sons, the youngest said that the site made sense of all the  endless Roman history he had done at school over the years.  Because the site is fairly small you can easily take it all in during a couple of hours and get a real feel for the make up of the original city. I would really recommend that anyone visiting the Bay of Naples go to Herculaneum, be different go against the trend for Pompeii and you will be rewarded.

Three explore Campania

Back roads of Sorrento - full of small shops
Back roads of Sorrento - full of small shops

I thought I would show you some pics from my recent holiday in Italy.  The boys and I went Sorrento in the Campania region of Italy.  This was the boys’ first overseas holiday and my first for 20 years so it was a bit of a big thing for us.  I had been to the region before about 22 years ago on my honeymoon so had some idea of what to expect.  Needless to say it has got a little more built up over the last 20 years but not, I  think, as much as some of the other tourist areas in the Mediterranean.  It’s interesting that when you tell people you are going to Sorrento some of them look a little blank or they  comment that Italy is very expensive.  Our experience is that this was not the case, the restaurants were no more expensive than in the UK if you look around and avoid the ones targeting tourists.  Our hotel was 15-20 minutes walk from the centre of Sorrento and as we had gone for a bed and breakfast option we had to walk into town every  evening for dinner.  At first this seemed onerous and I wished I had chosen somewhere that did half board but it turned out to be a really good option since we  got to feel like we were in Italy instead of staying in a hotel that could have been anywhere.


What really struck me about the area was the huge amount of citrus fruit trees.  Sorrento is known for its lemons.  Its lemon this and lemon that.  A lot of the  dishes in the  restaurants featured lemons including a particularly nice escalope with a thick  lemon sauce and a pudding which was a sort of lemon sponge with a soft meringue over it.  However, the biggest lemon product in the region is Lemoncello.  Now this is where I admit to being a complete wally.  I hadn’t realised that Lemoncello was a liqueur, naively  I  thought it was a soft drink.  So you can imagine the waiter’s face when we ordered 3 Lemoncellos at 10:30 in the morning!!!  It also turns out that the Italians, well certainly in this region,  seem to make liqueurs out of anything: walnuts, melons and in Ischia rocket!  After my mid morning encounter I avoided this delight for the rest of the week.  The other thing that was noticeable was the size of the citrus fruit – they were huge.  The photo above is of some grapefruits which were just by the hotel pool; I took some convincing that they were grapefruit as they were just so big.


Whilst the location of the hotel pool was glorious, surrounded with citrus trees and looking towards the mountains which include Versuivus, we couldn’t travel all that way without seeing some of the local sites.  As the temperatures were up in the 30s we unanimously agreed that trekking up Versuivus was not high up our list of things to do.  Our first trip was a cruise along the coast to Amalfi.  The  trip included going  across to the island of Capri where we could jump from the boat into the deep water which was very welcome to cool off.  Then back along the coast; the Amalfi coast is famous especially what they call the Amalfi drive which is the road which takes you along the coast.  The views are breathtaking both from the road and from the sea; lots of small villages clinging onto the steep cliff faces.  We looked at Postinano but decided to continue on to Amalfi since Positano is a well-known haunt of the rich meaning it is full of expensive designer shops etc, not something my two teenage boys would be interested in.  Amalfi was much as I remember it from 20 odd years ago although busier.  We had a mooch around the shops and bought food stuffs that will probably lurk in my cupboards for some time.

Amalfi Cathedral
Amalfi Cathedral

We  enjoyed the cruise although we all experienced a strange swaying motion for some time after we got back to dry land.  For our next trip we decided to be cultural and visit Herculaneum.  We considered Pompeii but I hadn’t really enjoyed my visit there previously and I had wanted to see Herculaneum every since I had  seen it on a BBC programme.  But you will have to wait until the next post for the culture!