I’ve mentioned in previous posts the migratory habits which regulate our lives since we retired: when it begins to get cold in the late autumn we migrate south to Italy, when it begins to get hot in the early summer we migrate north to Austria.
It’s me, really, that’s imposed this pattern on our lives. I have a great dislike of intense cold, so I prefer to abandon Austria to its fate in the winter. But equally, I have a great dislike of intense heat, so I hasten to vacate Italy when the mercury begins to climb vertiginously. I suppose it’s my Anglo-Saxon genes that dictate this behaviour: the breeding of generations have led them to feel most at home in places with mild, not too sunny weather.
I was thinking of this as my wife and I hiked this last week in the Hohe Tauern region of Austria, high up along the edges of the Salzach valley. The weather was cool, cloudy, with patches of sun, but also a little rain now and then, ideal weather for hiking. I throw in a couple of photos which we took.
Yes, I was glad to be out of the furnace that is Italy at this time of the year. Even the lure of the Mediterranean Sea in Liguria, our favourite site for hiking, cannot overcome my dislike of Italy’s summer heat.
That being said, there is one thing I do miss from our hikes in Liguria: the scent of fig trees. It’s actually one tree in particular which I miss. It borders the path leading from behind our apartment up to the village of Pieve Alta.
I cannot even begin to describe the cloud of scent that will suddenly envelop us as we pass that fig tree in late May, early June. It is a scent which for me evokes a dollop of fig jam dissolved in coconut milk, with a pinch of vanilla added, along – perhaps – with a sprinkling of cinnamon. It is like someone passing under my nose a plateful of very ripe figs, all cut open.
I used to think that it was the fruit giving off this scent, but after reading up on fig trees I now think it is more likely to be the tree’s beautiful, deeply lobed leaves that are emitting the scent.
Wherever the scent is coming from, and for whatever reason the tree is giving it off (surely not to attract me), I thank the Good Lord that I can get such pleasure from passing a fig tree. Sometimes, as I stride across high Alpine pastures or thread my way through dark stands of tall fir trees, I feel a point of nostalgia for that humble fig tree growing along the path between our apartment and Pieve Alta.
During this year’s week-long hike in the Dolomites (which I also mentioned in passing in my previous post), I managed to squeeze in a visit to the parish church of Sesto (or Sexten, to give its German name; we are in Sud Tirol, after all). Let me repeat here a message I have tried to pass in previous posts: always visit every church you come across in Europe, no matter how small it is, because there is a good chance that you will discover an artistic gem (or two). The church in Sesto / Sexten was no exception.
The church itself was OK – it had some interesting frescoes on the ceiling.
But what really made the visit worth while was the cemetery. My wife will tell you that I have a morbid streak, and indeed I don’t deny having a certain preoccupation with death – a preoccupation which, naturally enough I think, is growing with age. But cemeteries do also often contain wonderful art, as people try to lessen the pain caused by the departure of loved ones and reduce the fear of death itself through art. Things started with a bang at the entrance to the cemetery, which took the form of a small circular pavilion reached by a covered staircase from the road.
The ceiling of the pavilion was adorned with a Totentanz, or Dance of Death (danza macabra in Italian). This type of artistic depiction flourished in Europe during the 15th and 16th Centuries, probably in response to the Black Death and the lesser outbreaks of the plague which continued to periodically sweep through the continent. They were a form of memento mori, a reminder to us that we must all die sooner or later: “Remember, man, that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return”. I came across a typical example of the form several years ago, in a church in Milan.
The phrase on the left says “I was what you are”, while the one on the right says “You will be what I am” (I emailed the photo to a dear friend of mine as an attachment to a lighthearted note; he died a year later – death catches us all, some of us sooner than later).
Dances of Death were different because they stressed that Death was the Great Leveller: whatever your social position, however powerful you were, you could not hide from Death. I suppose this idea was thrown into sharp relief by the Plague: here was a disease which made no distinctions, remorselessly scything down rich and poor, powerful and powerless, old and young, sick and healthy. And so Dances of Death would depict men and women – and children – from all ranks of society and all walks of life dancing with, being embraced by, skeletons. Here are typical examples of the genre.
In the earlier versions, each person would be accompanied by a short poem, often written in an ironic tone, commenting on him or her and their incipient death. And the skeletons would be quite jolly, not only dancing but frolicking about.
Even though the example on the ceiling of that pavilion in the cemetery of Sesto / Sexten was quite modern – it was painted soon after the First World War – its author, Rudolf Stolz, followed the traditional iconography quite faithfully. Thus, we have a ruler.
He is accompanied by a rhyming couplet in German, which states (in my rather free translation)
“The sands have run out,
Lay aside your scepter.”
The skeleton is holding an hourglass, so we can interpret these couplets as something the skeletons are saying to their charges.
Then we have a mature woman, a “matron” as they used to be called.
Her skeleton is saying to her
“Woman, your devotions are over
Idly burns your candle”
To make the point, it pinches the candle’s wick. Like many a matron in a village like Sesto, she must have been a regular churchgoer.
Next we have a mature man, no doubt a local farmer, dressed the way locals would have dressed until quite recently.
With a scythe slung over its shoulder, his skeleton is intoning
“Your virility, your creativity
Cut like grass by a stroke of my scythe”
He is followed by the most poignant of the depictions, that of a baby.
The skeleton is crooning to the baby
“Sleep, my angel, sleep sweetly
You’ll awake in paradise”
At a time when the death of babies and children was still quite common, I can only hope that this painting was of some comfort to grieving mothers on their way to tend the graves of their children.
On goes the dance! We move on to a young man.
His friendly skeleton, bony arm wrapped around his shoulder, is telling him
“Not so sad, young blood
Go homewards with cheerful heart”
Presumably “homewards” in this context means home to the kingdom of God.
Which brings us to a young woman.
Her skeleton is telling her
“Fair maiden with the myrtle wreath
Follow me to the wedding dance”
And indeed the skeleton seems to be about to start the kind of square dance that was common in these parts. But no doubt it is referring to a wedding with Death.
And so we come to the final character, a bishop.
His skeleton is telling him
“Bishop with the shepherd’s crook
Set aside your heavy burden”
and is helpfully taking away his crosier (his crook), no doubt as a first step in divesting him of his other accoutrements.
When I saw this Dance of Death, I was immediately reminded of another Dance of Death which recently went under the hammer at the Dorotheum auction house in Vienna, a version of Albin Egger-Lienz’s “Totentanz 1809”.
The affinity between these paintings is no surprise. As his name indicates, Egger-Lienz was born just down the road from Sesto / Sexten, in Lienz, now in Austria. Most of the themes of his paintings were Tyrolese. Rudolf Stolz was a great fan of his.
Suitably reminded of my own approaching demise, I passed into the cemetery itself. Tyrolese cemeteries are a joy to visit. Each grave is a little garden, carefully tended by relatives. This one was particularly well kept, and the view on the Dolomites of Sesto was magnificent.
In addition, the crosses over the graves are often masterpieces of ironwork. I throw in a few examples I came across.
I have to assume that all those flowery curlicues are to remind the Christian viewer that the wooden cross is the bearer of (eternal) life, rather like a stick which – when stuck in the ground – sprouts leaves.
Behind the first cross you can see an example of the frescoes that are painted on some of the cemetery’s family tombs. Rudolf and his two brothers Albert and Ignaz painted a good number of these (Albert also painted the frescoes on the ceiling of the church). I rather like this fresco by Ignaz Stolz, a nice take on the story of the Sermon on the Mount.
In the end, though, I rather preferred the sculptures in wood – another great art form in the Tirol; not surprising, given the wealth of wood here – that adorned some of the family tombs.
I’m not sure I would want a sculpture on my family tomb strongly suggesting that I would be burning in Hell …
The story of the women coming to the grave of Jesus to prepare him, only to find an angel sitting at the mouth of the tomb.
Yes, if I am finally laid to rest in a cemetery – which is not a given; cremation is a strong possibility – I think a Tyrolese grave, surrounded by mountain flowers, will do me very well. And I want a brass band to see me off! Once, many years ago, when I was convalescing at home after a knee operation, my wife took me for a spin through the countryside around Vienna. Quite by chance, we came across a funeral procession that had just reached the village cemetery. We stopped to watch. Suddenly, the sombre silence was broken by a duet between trumpet and trombone. What a way to go, to the sound of brass!
I have often told my wife of this desire, but I suspect she has been dismissing it as an emanation of the Monty-Pythonesque side of me, not to be taken seriously. But really, what better way to say that that final goodbye than through the booming notes of a brass band? Since she and I like jazz so much, maybe she could fly in one of those New Orleans funeral bands. Now that would be something!
My wife and I, together with our daughter this year, have just finished our annual week-long hike in the Dolomites. We went back to the valley where we had started our hike last year, the Val Fiscalina in Alto Adige (or Sud Tirol).
I will hopefully post my usual photo-essay of the hikes we did, once our daughter sends us the photos – as she repeatedly reminded us, the camera in her iPhone is way better than ours, so she took most of the photos. But here I want to talk about something that happened during an easy hike we took on one of our five days of hiking, to give our muscles a rest. It was along the side of the valley between Sesto and Dobbiaco. Along the way, we crossed this panel.
It was announcing that we were crossing the sources of the Drava River. The Drava River! … I knew this river as a tributary of the Danube, somewhere in the Balkans. Yet here was its source, some 500 km away as the crow flies. To memorialize the moment, I took this picture, just when a young boy happened to be messing around with the stream of water.
I immediately recognized that pastime from my own childhood, damming and undamming streams; I still enjoy undamming the rivulets that trickle down the side of tracks we hike along, poking away at the amassed debris with my walking sticks. I would also float sticks on streams and watch them disappear around the nearest bend. Where would those sticks end up, I wondered.
Once, when I was a bit older, I spent hours poring over maps of England, trying to figure out how I might be able to kayak down the stream which ran along the bottom of the valley in front of my school, all the way to London. Ah, the foolishness of youth! I’m not sure a kayak would have even fitted in that stream.
A few years later again – I was in my mid teens by then – I was consumed with envy when I discovered that my two cousins had spent a couple of weeks tubing down some river in France. Just the thing I had wanted to do with my kayak!
That evening, I was once again studying maps, to see where the Drava river went. And suddenly, I found myself dreaming up an imaginary tubing journey down the Drava with my wife, all the way to its mouth on the Danube. This picture gives my readers an idea of what I’m talking about, although this particular tubing expedition is taking place in Tuscany.
I decide that we will start our imaginary tubing journey in San Candido. At its very beginning, the Drava is really a miserable little stream, there’s no way we could float two tubes in it – plus a third one carrying our stuff. But at San Candido, it receives the waters of the much bigger Sextner Bach.
So off we go, down the Drava!
After some 8 kilometers of going east the Drava stream will carry us out of Italy at Prato alla Drava and into the province of East Tyrol in Austria.
30 kilometers later, the stream will bring us to the town of Lienz. Here, the Drava meets the much more powerful Isel River, which bulks it up.
After Lienz, the Drava, a river now, although still a small river, will carry us into the upper Drava valley. We’ll first pass through the Kärntner Tor, or Carinthian Gate, which is a narrowing in the Drava Valley and the entry point into the province of Carinthia.
The river runs between the Kreuzeck range of the High Tauern in the north and the Gailtal Alps in the south. After carrying us past various picturesque villages like the village of Greifenburg
the river will turn sharp left and squeeze through the Sachsenburger Narrows.
We’ll be traveling faster on the more rapid currents and we’ll burst out of the narrows, spinning perhaps in our tubes, to find ourselves floating past Sachsenburg itself.
We will have travelled some 50 km by now since we plonked our tubes down in the stream at San Candido.
Just after Sachsenburg, the river receives the Möll river, swelling it still further.
Maybe a few flecks of gold will cling to our tubes at this point! The Möll, but also the Isel earlier and other streams coming out of the High Tauern Mountains, carry alluvial gold out of these mountains. For several thousand years, pan handlers have earned a modest but honest living along the Drava River downstream of the High Tauern Mountains, panning the river’s detritus for gold, all the way down into Croatia. Even today, some hardy souls try their luck.
We will now be floating by Spittal an der Drau.
Soon after, Villach, the biggest town we’ll have seen so far, will hove into view.
After Villach, the Drava River becomes more of a lowland river, running slower and beginning to twist and turn across the landscape. Our tubes will follow it in these twists and turns, eventually entering the Rosental valley and running along the northern side of the Karawanken mountain ranges. Here, the river, and my wife and I, will end our travels in Austria. We will float gently by Völkermarkt
before following the river south as it slips through a gap in the mountains and enters Slovenia. In total, we will have travelled 255 kilometres in Austria.
Onwards into Slovenia! We will soon reach our first Slovenian town, Dravograd.
The river, and us, will now turn eastward, and after running through a sparsely populated area we will arrive to Maribor.
After admiring the quays of Maribor as we slip by, we will let the river take us southward to Ptuj.
Shortly thereafter, after traveling some 120 kilometres in Slovenia, the river will carry us across the border into Croatia.
Croatia, here we come!
We cruise by Varaždin, which we don’t really see, it being set back from the river. Quite soon after, the Drava is joined by the Mur River.
For 130 kilometers or so, the river now becomes the border between Croatia and Hungary. It has become a very slow-moving river, meandering its way across the landscape, which has become a pleasant forest- and marsh-filled environment.
We will patiently follow the meanders, moving sluggishly past the Hungarian border town of Barcs.
From now on, we’ll have to be careful not to be run over by the ships which begin to ply the Drava for trade. Further on, we will glide past the small Croatian town of Donji Miholjac.
The river now stops being the border with Hungary. On it goes, looping and relooping as it crosses the region of Slavonia.
It will eventually bring us to Osijek.
I think I’ll stop our imaginary journey here. We’ve already travelled some 160 kilometres through Croatia, and some 7 kilometres beyond Osijek the Drava finally flows into, and loses itself in, the Danube.
I don’t think there would be anywhere for us to get off the river there, and I don’t feel like continuing all the way down the Danube to the Black Sea.
Well, that was a nice dream! Alas, I suspect that doing a trip like this in real life wouldn’t be possible. For one thing, the river has been dammed to within an inch of its life, for hydropower. There are no less than 22 hydroelectric stations along the river. Assuming one is even allowed onto the lakes behind the dams, at some point we would somehow have to schlepp our tubes around the dams and down onto the river again – assuming that there would be enough water downstream of the dams to plonk our tubes into. For another, I rather suspect that having one’s bum in the water all day, for something like two weeks (my guess as to how long this little trip would take), might not be too good for the skin of the bum. For a third, the waters of the Drava up to at least the Möll River are all from glacial or snow melt and so would be pretty damned cold. But hey! What would life be like without dreams?
I read, however, that they are constructing a bike path all the way down the river. Maybe it would be more sensible for my wife and me to simply bike down the Drava …
It’s not often that I write about technologies, they are mostly workhorses of some sort without much else to commend them. But from time to time I come across a technology that catches my eye. Sometimes it’s because the technology in question is genuinely lovely to look at – solar power towers come to mind – but sometimes it’s simply because it’s quirky and fun and brings a smile to my world-weary, seen-it-all-before, been-there-done-that face. Funiculars fall into the latter category.
My wife and I have been taking funiculars quite often this last month or so. Actually, we’ve been taking one specific funicular quite often, the one between Como and Brunate, the village perched high above Como, on the steep hills – cliffs, almost – that plunge into the lake. It is the jump-off point for a number of our hikes.
Wikipedia informs me that the line was inaugurated in 1894, and certainly the style of the station in Como fits with that date.
We pile into one of those weird carriages that all funiculars have.
They are the only thing I’ve ever come across in the real world which look just like those parallelograms we used to draw in geometry classes at primary school.
Entering a funicular carriage is like entering a world where everything leans to one side. Luckily for us, as readers can see from the picture of the carriage its’ designers have rigged up the inside into a series of flat platforms connected by steps, so we can sit in a normal position and not like those astronauts who are about to take off from Cape Canaveral.
At departure time, a bell rings sonorously, the doors slide shut, and the steel cable starts dragging us up this impossibly steep hillside.
Halfway up the climb, the down-going carriage hoves to on the horizon.
It’s on the same track as ours, and coming straight at us.
But just before the inevitable head-on crash, the two carriages veer sideways – one to the left, one to the right – they slide past each other
and continue on their way. Soon after, we ease slowly into the upper station at Brunate, the doors open, and we stride off to yet another hike, after briefly stopping to admire the view.
It’s not just their quirkiness that makes me like funiculars. They are also clever pieces of design. The key design principle behind them is to have two carriages attached to the same cable. I personally haven’t dragged anything up a very steep hill, but I would imagine that it’s pretty hard work, requiring the outlay of a lot of energy – and an overseer to whip the bejeezus out of me to make me pull harder. A picture from Asterix and Cleopatra shows what I mean.
Attaching another carriage to the cable means that at least the weight of the carriage being dragged up the hill is now counterbalanced by the weight of the carriage sliding down it, so the only energy you need to add to the system is the energy required to drag the people sitting in the carriage up the hill. And if you can get people into the carriage going down the hill, they can pretty much balance the people coming up, reducing even more the energy required to get the upcoming carriage to the top of the hill.
I can’t find any claim on the internet to an inventor for this key idea. I suspect it’s an old idea, with the inventor lost in the mists of time. The most immediate precursor comes from the golden age of canals, where similar systems were used to drag boats up from a lower canal to a higher one, counterbalanced by boats being let down from the higher canal to the lower one. My wife and I have walked down the slope of one such system, the Keage Incline, in Kyoto. It used to connect the canal from Lake Biwa to the canal 36 meters lower which ran through Kyoto.
It was taken out of use in 1948. Now only tourists like us use it, especially during the Spring when the cherry trees, which have been planted along it, are in bloom.
This clever idea of the counterbalancing act was taken one step further in a few funiculars, where a water tank was attached to the carriages. An operator at the top of the funicular would fill the tank of the downward-going carriage with enough water to make it just a bit heavier than the upward-coming carriage, so that the downward-moving carriage could pull the upward-coming carriage up the hill without the need for any extra energy input. At the bottom, the tank was emptied out, and the whole cycle started over. Unfortunately, this alternative to the funiculars’ basic balancing act was never very common, because it needs a good (cheap) source of water at the top of the hill, whereas most sources of water are at the bottom of hills. I also suspect these types of funiculars were more complicated to manage. Over the years, a good number have been switched to more conventional hauling engines, but a few still exist, for instance the Bom Jesus funicular in Braga, Portugal (the water tank is below the carriage)
and the Neuveville-St-Pierre funicular in Fribourg, Switzerland.
The Fribourg funicular has reached a maximum of cleverness. It uses the treated wastewater from a treatment plant located on the top of the hill to fill the tanks. At a minimum, that makes it a win-win-win solution, and I think there must be another “win” in there somewhere.
The next important invention in the funicular story does have a name and a face attached to it. Originally, cables were made of hemp or other natural fibres. As readers can imagine, they were not that strong. If the weight being pulled was too great they would snap. In practice, this meant that the hills up which things were dragged could not be too steep or the loads too heavy. This limitation was overcome when the German Wilhelm Albert figured out how to make stranded steel cables, with the first steel cable being put into use in 1834.
Initially, the steel cables were stranded by hand, which obviously limited output, but in 1837 an Austrian by the name of Wurm developed a machine to strand cables. The German rope-makers Felten & Guillaume then got into the game and by the 1840s were churning out more, and cheaper, steel cables. We see here their factory in Cologne in the 1860s.
This greatly expanded the scope of where funiculars – and anything else being dragged up inclines – could be used.
The final important invention had to do with track layout. In the first funiculars, each carriage had its own set of tracks. This funicular in Hastings in the UK, which was actually built quite late in the day – 1902 – shows the principle.
Two tracks laid side by side, plus four platforms – each track had to have its own top and bottom platforms – took up a lot of space, space which was often carved out of the living rock. If only one track could be used (and only two platforms), the construction costs could be lowered considerably. But how to get the two carriages past each other when they met at the midpoint? This knotty problem was solved by a Swiss engineer by the name of Carl Roman Abt.
He came up with this set-up for the tracks.
As the diagram shows, to make it work the wheels on the left of one carriage are flanged on both sides, while it’s the other way around on the other carriage. Like that, when the carriages come to the passing point, the carriage flanged on the left always veers left, the carriage flanged on the right always veers right. The inner wheels aren’t flanged at all. Quite simple, really – although I’m sure the execution in real life is more complex than that two-sentence description.
Abt first used this system in 1886 on the funicular in Lugano which connects the old town to the railway station. Which is great, because it allows me to throw in a picture of one of the funiculars which my wife and I have used in our lives. Readers can see that the cars are thoroughly modern, fruit of a makeover in 2016.
While I’m at it, I can throw in pictures of the two other funiculars we have travelled on:
The Angel’s Flight in Los Angeles (which uses a 3-rail track layout)
The Eizan Cable Car, to the north-east of Kyoto
I’m racking my brains to think of other funiculars we’ve travelled on but I think that’s it: four in total, counting the one in Como. Not a huge number given that there are some 300 funiculars around the world. We really have to do better. I shall review with my wife Wikipedia’s list of funiculars around the world, to see which ones we should try to ride (this could be an excuse to visit places we haven’t been to yet, like Rio de Janeiro or Santiago in Chile). And then, when (if) COVID-19 is brought under control, we can be on our way!
On the hikes which my wife and I have been doing around Lake Como, we frequently come across irises blooming in people’s gardens. They are very nice, of course, but what I really admire are those irises which we spy on the side of the path, normally growing out of a small mound of garden waste. Clearly, someone in the vicinity did some clearing in their gardens, which included pulling up some iris rhizomes (their tuber-like roots), and then they just chucked the waste by the side of the path. But these irises are tough. In the face of adversity, they’ve just kept going, rooting into their new environment and continuing to bloom, to the delight of passersby. Unfortunately, the photos which I took at the time of these feral irises have disappeared into the Photo Black Hole in my iPhone, so I throw in this stock photo instead.
I really admire the irises’ toughness. They remind me rather of a similarly tough plant with lovely flowers which I’ve written about earlier, common chicory.
Irises also reach back deep into my subconscious. My mother had planted irises in her garden in the house of my early childhood in Eritrea – or maybe she inherited them from previous renters of the house; that will to survive which I was just mentioning – and small child though I was (I could not have been more than six years’ old), I was awestruck by these lovely, bright, complex-looking flowers, with their sword-like leaves. My memory may be playing tricks with me but I remember them being yellow irises.
Yet another encounter during a walk last week around Lake Como with irises growing out of waste piles has finally persuaded me to take up my electronic pen and write about them.
Not that there’s a huge amount to write about, unless you’re fixated about irises (and a good number of people do seem to be fixated by them). I was rather astonished to discover that taxonomists recognize something like 280 species of iris (there are also thousands of hybrids – the iris is a flower which enthusiasts have loved to fiddle with – but I won’t bother with them; it’s the Real Thing that interests me). Their natural distribution spans much of northern Eurasia, although there are also a number of species which are native to North America. I throw in some photos of irises in their natural habitat, not imprisoned in someone’s garden: as I’ve remarked in an earlier post about tulips, it’s so much nicer to see flowers in their natural state.
A field of irises in North America:
Iris sibirica in Central Europe
Iris haynei in the Middle East
The Nazareth iris, also from the Middle East
Iris lortetii, also from the Middle East
With 280 species to choose from, I suppose I could have added a good deal more photos of wild irises. But I think that will do. I’m struck by the colours I chose; I rather suspect that I wanted to get away from the typical purple and yellow irises one sees in gardens.
Talking of natural states, it seems to me that iris is a bit of a fancy name for a flower, at least in English. Something like mugwort or yellow flag (actually an alternative name for one of the irises) seems more English. In fact, it appears that we owe the flower’s name to the French. Someone there, some time in the 13th Century, noticing that the flower’s petals had iridescent reflections gave the flower the Greek name for rainbow. Perhaps the deep violet colour of many of the species, resembling the violet and indigo bands of the rainbow, also played a part in this naming exercise.
I’m not completely convinced by this explanation of the name; my inspections of the flower don’t show any obvious iridescence; maybe it was the flowers’ way of shading from colour to colour that inspired the French to name it iris.
In any event, I find that this explanation makes more sense to me than the other explanation bouncing around the Internet, namely that the flower was called iris because it comes in all the shades of the rainbow; this clearly is not the case.
Whatever the right explanation, a connection has been made with a Greek goddess, which has given me an excuse to explore this member of the Greek pantheon. She is, I must admit, a very minor member. Her sole role in life was to carry messages from the gods to other gods or mortals. But she did this very prettily, by laying down a rainbow and walking along it to whoever she was delivering a message to. Apparently, there are no ancient statues of her bar one; one of the statues on the frieze of the Parthenon now in the British Museum – I will skate over the passionate arguments that this relocation to London has generated.
Yes, well, I mutter under my breath, how can anyone know who this very bashed up piece of stone is meant to represent? Nevertheless, I bow to the Experts and accept their attribution.
We seem to be on firmer ground when it comes to paintings on Greek pottery. Here we have a picture of Iris on this vase from the 5th Century BC.
Iris was also depicted by those European artists of the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries who went in for classical themes – not my cup of tea, but hey! it takes all sorts to make a world. This particular painting from 1811, by Pierre Narcisse Guerin, falls into this category.
I have to say, it seems to me that the painting is verging on soft porn. In any event, it claims to be portraying a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where Juno sends Iris to give a message to Somnus, the god of sleep – the message is, “send a dream to Alcyone that her husband Ceyx is dead” (any reader who wants to know the backstory is welcome to read the Metamorphoses). Iris throws down a rainbow and walks along it (or slides down it?) into the underworld, where Somnus sleeps away his days and nights. She can barely rouse him from his slumbers but finally manages and delivers the message. She then gets the hell out of there as she feels she is about to fall asleep, and clambers back up her rainbow. I should explain at this point that Somnus has one thousand sons, whose job it is to deliver dreams to us mortals. He summons his son Morpheus, the best deliverer of dreams, instructs him to pass on Juno’s message, and promptly falls back to sleep. Guerin got the story wrong by depicting Iris delivering the message directly to Morpheus. But Somnus was presumably middle-aged while Morpheus was a strapping young fellow, so no doubt Guerin took some artistic license so as to be able to paint a nakedly handsome young man as a worthy companion to the nakedly pretty young woman.
The French not only gave the flower its modern name, they also brought the flower’s heraldic representation, the fleur-de-lys, to great prominence, through the adoption by the French kings of the fleur-de-lys as their heraldic emblem. I have to admit to have been really surprised to discover this connection. Why are fleur-de-lys not called fleur-de-iris, then? The best explanation I’ve come across is that the French kings were descended from a line of Frankish chiefs who had lived originally around the river Lies in Belgium before they invaded France. These Frankish chiefs took as their heraldic symbol the yellow Iris pseudacorus, which grows in abundance along the edges of the River Lies, and which is known in Frankish – their original tongue – as Lieschbloem, the bloom of the Lies. It’s easy to see how that could have been frenchified to fleur-de-lys. Here, we have the Lieschbloem in its natural riverine habitat.
And here we have a comparison of a Lieschbloem in close-up and a fleur-de-lys.
I think one can appreciate that the fleur-de-lys could well be a stylized Lieschbloem. As a clincher, readers should note that the background of the French kings’ armorials was blue (“azure” in heraldic lingo) – a representation of the River Lies? Here are the arms of King Louis XVI.
The kings changed their the number of fleur-de-lys on their arms quite frequently, and I chose him because everyone has probably heard of him – the one who got his head cut off during the French Revolution.
Talking of fleur-de-lys, it was also – still is, actually – the centrepiece of the arms of Florence. But there’s an interesting story to the colour scheme. Originally – we’re talking before 1251 – the colours were a white fleur-de-lys on a red background.
The white Iris florentina grew wild in the area around Florence.
It even grew, it is said, on the city’s walls – this is no longer the case, alas, for the few stretches of the walls still left around Florence.
So I suppose it was quite reasonable for the City Fathers to choose a white iris as the city’s heraldic symbol (why they placed it on a red background I don’t know).
In 1251, the government of the city was in the hands of the Ghibelline faction. I hope my readers are at least vaguely familiar with the fighting between Guelphs and the Ghibellines that roiled pretty much all of the city-states in northern and central Italy in the 12th and 13th Centuries. Here, for instance, we have Guelphs and Ghibellines duking it out in Bologna.
Formally, the Guelphs supported the Popes and the Ghibellines the Holy Roman Emperors in the never-ending feud of these two about who controlled who. But in many cities this was just an excuse to cover local quarrels. In Florence, for instance, it was more about the patricians (Ghibellines) versus the plebs (Guelphs). In 1251, the Guelph faction wrested control of the city from the Ghibellines, and to signal that there had been a definitive political change, the Guelphs switched the colours around on the city’s armorial bearings. I suppose they were in power for long enough for the switch to become definitive, because still today we have a red fleur-de-lys on a white background.
One side-effect of this colour switch was people trying to breed a truly red bearded iris (the group of irises to which Iris florentina belongs) and failing dismally. The judgement of Those Who Know is that there is no truly red iris, bearded or otherwise. Well of course the experts know, but the copper iris from North America looks pretty red to me.
But, once again, I bow to the Experts.
It would seem that the Florentines discovered another interesting thing about their Iris florentina, namely that if you take the plant’s rhizome and dry it for a very long time – 3 to 5 years – reactions slowly take place in the rhizome which eventually lead to the production of chemicals with the fragrance of violets. This fragrance is liberated by crushing the now rock-hard rhizomes to a powder. Catherine de’ Medici brought this alchemist-like knowledge to the French court when she married Henry II of France in 1533. Mixed with rice powder, it eventually became a popular way for Europe’s upper crust to perfume their faces, clothes, and eventually wigs when these later came into fashion. Nowadays, perfumers plant huge fields of a light purple cousin of Irisflorentina, Iris pallida.
They dig up the rhizomes, dry them, and then steam distill them to obtain a thick, buttery oil known as orris oil. Eyewateringly expensive stuff – like €100,000 a kilo – it’s used by perfumers to give a base note to their creations.
After all of this, though, I’m sure my readers will agree with me when I say, let’s just forget all the metaphorical, allegorical, or representational bla-bla with which irises have been enveloped, and let’s just enjoy the flowers as they are. So let me close with a couple of paintings of irises by Vincent Van Gogh.
In an earlier post, I confessed that the amount of wine my wife and I consumed during the two lockdowns which we have endured over the past year was considerable. In that same post, I said that we focused much of our wine drinking on red wines from the south of Italy – Sicily, Sardinia, Puglia, some Calabria, some Basilicata. I always prefer red wines – white wines give me stomach burns. My wife is quite happy to follow me in my choices, although from time to time she’ll splash out and get herself a bottle of white wine.
I chose to buy wines from southern Italy because I didn’t know them very well, which fed into my general tendency to support the underdog and be contrarian. After sampling a few bottles, I also felt that the red wines of southern Italy had more oomph to them than wines from northern and central Italy – I beg readers not to ask me to translate that into the flowery language of the wine connoisseur because I can’t. As I once confessed in an earlier post, my general method of assessing wines is “mmh! that’s a nice wine!” or “mm … not a good wine”.
Also – and this was important with the tightening of household budgets under lockdown – they were generally cheaper than other Italian wines.
I also felt virtuous in supporting local grape varieties. Not for me the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Syrah, Grenache Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and the few others which dominate wine-making worldwide! No sirree, I was going to support the more than 1,500 grape varieties (yes, I kid you not, 1,500) which exist in Italy.
So from Sardinia I was buying wines made with Cannonau grapes (or to be more precise, where the Cannonau made up the largest share; the great majority of Italian wines are blends).
From Sicily, it was wines made with Nero d’Avola grapes.
From Puglia, it was wines made with Primitivo grapes.
From time to time, though, we branched out into wines made with Nero di Troia grapes.
From Basilicata, it was wines made with Aglianico grapes.
From Calabria, it was wines made with Gaglioppo grapes.
(For reasons which are now not clear to me through the haze of history, I chose few if any wines from Campania – a lapse to be rectified in any future lockdowns!)
At some point, though, through the wine fumes, I began to wonder how many of these grape varieties really were local. One can make the case that actually no domesticated grape varieties are really autochthonous. Archaeologists tell us that domestication and the related discovery of wine-making took place somewhere in the region between the Black Sea and Iran, between the seventh and the fourth millennia BC. The earliest evidence of domestication has been found in Georgia (the country, not the US state) and of wine production in Iran in the northern Zagros Mountains.
Subsequently, domesticated vines and wine-making knowledge spread to other civilizations in the region, first Egypt and Lower Mesopotamia, and then to the Assyrians, Phoenicians and Greeks (at a later period vine and wine-making moved along the Silk Road to China and Japan, but that is a story for another day). The Greeks and the Phoenicians, continues this story, transferred the domesticated grape vine and wine-making technologies further west, to Italy, Spain, and the south of France. The Romans then carried the vine and wine-making further north in Europe to what are more-or-less its northernmost borders today. And then when Europe colonized the rest of the world, the Europeans took their vine and wine-making knowledge with them. So in this view of history, no domesticated grape vines are really autochthonous.
But that’s one Creation Story. Another Creation Story points to the fact that the vine species which was domesticated for wine-making (called, appropriately enough, Vitis vinifera) grows wild from Georgia to Portugal.
So why could wine-making not have been independently discovered in several places?
A third Creation Story, and the one – for what it’s worth – that I feel is most credible, is that wine-making did indeed start in Iran or thereabouts, and cuttings of the domesticated vines were indeed carried westwards. But in their new homes, these vines could well have crossed spontaneously with local wild forms of the vine (or have been made to cross with them by the local viticulturists), thus shaking up their DNA a little and possibly affecting berry size, ripening time, sweetness, and whatever other characteristics viticulturists prized at the time. In this view of history, each locality can have vines which are hybrids of immigrant vines and local ones, which makes them pretty local. And anyway, even if a vine was brought in from somewhere else, if it’s been around in one locality for a long time surely it’s become local? (a bit like all Americans of immigrant stock nevertheless considering themselves locals) And anyway, the grape vine’s DNA is subject to spontaneous mutations (like American immigrants), which over time will distinguish it from its neighbors. All excellent reasons, I think, for declaring that grape vines which have been grown in one locality long enough can be considered autochthonous.
Of course, one could argue that all these Creation Stories are irrelevant because of the American pest phylloxera which devastated vineyards planted with Vitis vinifera in the late 19th Century (we have here a cartoon of the time, whose caption was “The phylloxera, a true gourmet, finds out the best vineyards and attaches itself to the best wines”)
Ever since then, pretty much all commercial vineyards are Frankensteins, with Vitis vinifera grafted onto a root stock of one of the American members of the grape vine family which are resistant to the pest. Under the circumstances, I can hear some people ask, can one really call any commercial vine autochthonous?
I reject this latter argument because first, if I did accept it I wouldn’t have a story to tell, and second, because even with an American rootstock the grapes still express only the DNA of the grafted Vitis vinifera. Just as a person who has had their heart replaced is still expressing their old DNA.
So with all that out of the way, we can now focus on those wines which my wife and I (and not infrequently our son) were imbibing during lockdown, and ask ourselves the question: are the grapes that went into making them local or not? As usual in life, the answer is yes in some cases, no in others.
As one might expect, many of the local vines in southern Italy have their own Creation Stories. The cynic in me suggests that a good number of these were invented to increase a wine’s marketability, although I could well imagine that there is a desire on the part of the local people to have the stories of their vines reflect their own Creation Stories. Thus, many of the Creation Stories reflect the south of Italy’s ancient history as Magna Graecia, that arc of Ancient Greek colonies which stretched from Puglia all the way to Sicily. They suggest that the vines were brought from Greece by these early colonists. Others look to the Phoenicians as the source of their vines; Phoenicians also had colonies in Sicily and further afield. This map shows the situation in about 500 BC.
If these Creation Stories are true, they would place the original migration episodes for the vines in question at some two and a half thousand years ago, quite long enough to claim that they are now fully local. Other Creation Stories suggest instead that the local vines are crosses between local wild stock and immigrant stock. Who can deny that such vines are fully local? Ampelographers have weighed in (these are experts in the study and classification of cultivated varieties of grape). They have given savant judgements on the heredity of countless vines by comparing the shape and colour of their leaves and their grape berries. Wonderful word, ampelographer! It rolls off the tongue like a good wine rolls down the throat. In my next life, I want to be an ampelographer, it must look so cool on a CV.
Anyway, along have come DNA studies, to cut through all the bullshit. We finally have a scientific basis for making judgements about a vine’s genealogy.
And the white-coated scientists in their labs have discovered some very interesting things.
Take Cannonau, the grape variety that is the Sardinian grape par excellence (editorial note: since photos of bunches of grapes get pretty boring pretty quickly, I will instead be throwing in nice photos of the places where the various grapes grow).
DNA studies have shown that actually, it is none other than Garnacha from Spain! (which, by the way, is also none other than Grenache; the French brought the vine from Spain and then frenchified the name) The most likely Creation Story in this case is that the Spaniards brought Garnacha to the island some time during their centuries-long dominion, from 1324 to 1718. Some Sardinians have tried to claim that the move was actually in the other direction, from Sardinia to Spain, but I don’t think that will wash, especially since a number of other “local” Sardinian grape varieties have also turned out to have a Spanish origin. On the one hand, I’m saddened by the fact that although I thought I was supporting a local variety when I bought Cannonaus in fact I wasn’t. On the other hand, I was pleased to learn of this Spanish connection, because I recall thinking, when I first tried Cannonau, that it reminded me of Rioja, and Garnacha grapes are one of the constituent grapes of Rioja.
Skipping to the island of Sicily, what about the Nero d’Avola grape?
Well there, I’m happy to say, I have been supporting an autochthonous variety – that is to say, a variety which could well have been introduced several thousands of years ago by the Dorian Greeks who colonized the part Sicily where the town of Avola is located; the town does indeed seem to be the center of this grape’s distribution. The original immigrant grape could actually have been a forefather of today’s Nero d’Avola, since DNA studies have revealed a cousin-like relationship between it and two other ancient Sicilian grapes, Catarratto and Inzolia. As far as I know (although the white-coated scientists publish many of their DNA studies in scientific journals which I don’t have access to), no relationship has (yet) been found between Nero d’Avola and Greek grape vine varieties. It could well be that the forefather has vanished, as old vine varieties were replaced with newer ones; phylloxera also put paid to a large number of varieties.
Vaulting now over to Puglia, in Italy’s heel, we can have a look at the Primitivo grape.
And here I must start by admitting that my wine choices were not supporting autochthonous grapes; Primitivo is not an Italian variety. Nevertheless, we have a fascinating story here. DNA studies have shown that actually Primitivo is a Croatian grape variety, more specifically one from the Dalmatian coast. Unfortunately, the devastations of phylloxera mean that there is hardly anything left now of the variety in its homeland – a few vines here and there. We can imagine some adventurous southern Italian sailing across the Adriatic Sea to Dalmatia and bringing cuttings back home. As far as can be judged, this was quite recent, some time in the 18th Century. The grape’s Italian name points to why viticulturists were interested in it – it was an early (“primitive”) ripener.
What makes the Primitivo story really fascinating is that DNA studies have also confirmed that it is pretty much the same as the “Californian” grape Zinfandel! (bar a mutation or two) How a Dalmatian grape variety ended up in southern Italy is not hard to imagine. But how on earth did it end up in California?! The best guess is by quite a circuitous route. Step 1 is that the variety was transferred to the Hapsburgs’ greenhouses in Vienna, when Dalmatia was part of the Austrian Empire. Step 2 is that, as part of a burgeoning global trade in plant species, horticulturalists living on the US’s eastern seaboard requested the Imperial greenhouses to send them cuttings, which they did. They probably also requested cuttings from British greenhouses, which had earlier requested them from the Viennese greenhouses. Step 3 is that one or more of these horticulturalists from the Eastern US joined the gold rush to California but took care to take vine cuttings with them. Presumably, they found that in the end it was more profitable to make wine in California than to pan for gold. (As a quick aside, one of my French cousins many times removed, who came from our family of vignerons in the Beaujolais, did something similar. He joined the gold rush to Australia but ended up making wine; I don’t know if he took cuttings with him or used the vine varieties which others had already brought to Australia. In any event, I have a whole bunch of Franco-Australian cousins whom I have never met)
But let’s get back to Puglia, to consider the Nero di Troia grape variety, which we tried from time to time during lockdown.
DNA studies have shown that this grape has an equally fascinating genealogy – and luckily for me and my determination to support autochthonous grape varieties, I think I can safely say that it is definitely an Italian variety. DNA studies have shown that Nero di Troia’s mother is Bombino bianco, an ancient white grape variety found all along the Adriatic coast but especially in Puglia, while its father is Uva rosa antica, now only found as a very minor variety in the province of Salerno in Campania.
So far, so good. But what makes Nero di Troia more interesting than most varieties is that DNA studies have also shown that it has two full siblings (same father vine, same mother vine): Bombino nero and Impigno. Which just goes to show that grapes are like humans: you and your siblings can have the same parents but you can be quite different from each other.
What’s even more interesting is that comparisons of the DNA profile of the father, Uva rosa antica, to those in DNA libraries have revealed that this minor variety from Salerno is one and the same with another minor variety called Quagliano found only in a few Alpine valleys in Piedmont, in the very north of Italy, which in turn is one and the same with a variety called Bouteillan noir found in Provence, in France. Which just goes to show that there must have been quite a vigorous, though completely informal and unmonitored, trade in vine cuttings throughout southern Europe.
Moving on to Basilicata, the wines we tried from that region during the long months of lockdown were based mostly on the Aglianico grape.
This is definitely one of the grapes where the locals have a Creation Story involving its introduction to the region by the Ancient Greeks through their colonies in Basilicata. Alas, DNA studies have revealed little if any relation to other existing Greek varieties, so if Aglianico was imported to Basilicata the original Greek plantings have all disappeared. Which suggests that perhaps Aglianico is actually a cross between some immigrant vine from somewhere and local wild stock. In any event, I think we can count this one as an autochthon.
Finally, Calabria. The wines we were drinking from this region are mostly made with the Gaglioppo grape.
This is another grape variety that the local inhabitants wish to believe came originally from Greece, through the Ancient Greek colonies on the Calabrian coast. However, DNA studies have clarified that Gaglioppo is a very Italian grape, being a cross of the Sangiovese and Mantonico grapes. The latter is a very typical and ancient Calabrian grape. As for Sangiovese, viticulturists have used this grape to sire a whole series of grape varieties. At least ten are known at the moment, including Gaglioppo. There must have been something about Sangiovese grapes that viticulturists liked; if any ampelographer reads this, please tell me what it was. It doesn’t finish there, because in turn DNA studies have revealed that Sangiovese is itself the product of a cross between the Ciliegiolo and Calabrese Montenuovo grape varieties. Ciliegiolo is an ancient variety from Tuscany. Calabrese Montenuovo, on the other hand, has its origins in Calabria; sadly, it is now an almost-extinct relic. We have here another example of the vigorous trade in vine cuttings, this time up and down the Italian peninsula.
I could go on. For instance, each of these grape varieties is blended with various other grapes, and many of these have had their DNA studied. But I’m running out of steam and I fear that I will soon be losing my readers – there’s a limit to how much information about DNA one can absorb before one’s mind begins to whirl like a double helix.
I leave my readers with a final plea: considering that there are 1,500 varieties of grape in Italy, please ignore any wines made with the Top Ten grape varieties and concentrate on trying out all 1,500 Italian varieties. Cin-cin!
There is a walk which my wife and I take in Liguria (calling it a hike would be a bit of a stretch), which brings us by easy stages to mid level on the hills dropping into the sea, leading us eventually to the small village of San Bernardo perched atop the old fishing port of Bogliasco, from where we can walk down to Bogliasco itself and catch a bus home (after, perhaps, an ice cream to reward us for the walking).
On the way, we pass a wide terrace, which stands out from the surrounding olive terraces and vegetable patches for the simple reason that it is terribly bare. The little grass it has is clipped to within an inch – what am I saying, a centimetre – of its life. This bareness is due to the terrace’s hosting a number of ruminants – a couple of donkeys and three-four sheep – which graze voraciously on any blade of grass that dares to raise its head.
Until a year or so ago, the terrace also used to host half a dozen magnificent palm trees – very old Canary Island date palms judging by their height and girth. Two years ago, we noticed a sign which proudly proclaimed that the palm trees were part of some EU-funded project, leading us to make cynical comments about the wasteful use of EU largesse. Last year, the palm trees were gone; the ruminants had the terrace to themselves. After more cynical comments about wastage of public monies, we began to wonder.
Liguria, like most Italian regions by the sea, has a large population of palm trees. The most common palm tree by far is the Canary Island date palm, and any self-respecting seaside resort will have at least one avenue lined with them, like this one in Taggia, in Liguria.
Many gardens in Liguria, both public and private, will also boast a palm tree or two. Other than the Canary Island date palm, it’s possible to spot, over a garden wall or tucked away in the corner of a park, a whole slew of different palm species: the true date palm, the Chinese windmill palm, the California fan palm, the Mexican fan palm, the Chilean wine palm, and more.
Now, the fact is that in the last year or so during our walks and hikes in Liguria we have been noticing many dead palm trees, either with their fronds dried up and drooping piteously, or with the fronds completely amputated leaving behind a forlorn blackened trunk.
A quick zip around the Internet has shown us that this Great Die-Off of Ligurian palm trees that we have been witnessing is due to this critter.
This is Rhynchophorus ferrugineus, known in English as the red palm weevil. It’s really a very pretty beetle, one which I would be proud to have pinned to the board of a beetles collection if I had such a thing.
But this pretty, pretty beetle has the unfortunate habit of laying its eggs at the base of palm tree fronds, from which larvae hatch, which then burrow down into the trunk to the root of the fronds and live off their lymph, killing them off in the process. The larvae pupate inside the trunks, and when they have metamorphosed into beetles, they crawl out and fly off to find mates and new palm trees to attack. This attack on the fronds is deadly because palm trees, unlike true trees, die when their crown of leaves are killed or are chopped off.
This beetle is originally from tropical Asia, where it attacks many species of palms. But the active international trade in palm trees has brought it to Italy, where it has been overjoyed to find a host of new palm trees to attack. Unfortunately for the palm trees, our beetle friend is not at all finicky about what palm trees it attacks. And it seems to have no complaints about the Italian climate either.
It’s the same old story of invasive species, a topic I’ve covered several times in these posts: the water hyacinth, the prickly pear, the Himalayan balsam, the Jerusalem artichoke, among others. I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, repeating myself over and over again (as I write this, it saddens me to think that only people over the age of 60 will know what I mean, because they might well have owned a vinyl record in their youth and seen how a scratch can lead to the needle jumping backwards and repeating the same piece of music over and over. But I digress.)
Of course, it’s not just Italy which has been attacked by this plague of red palm weevils. Everywhere along the southern rim of Europe, where the climate is mild enough to allow palms to grow, the beetle has arrived and is decimating palm populations. It’s also arrived in the Middle East and North Africa and is decimating their date palm groves.
In this case, there are large, and growing, economic costs attached to this plague – in Italy, palms are merely for show. In fact, I had come across anguished talk of this beetle a year or so ago, when doing some research on date palms for a project I’m involved with in Egypt (the largest producer of dates in the world, in case anyone is interested). It is only now that I have made the connection between the holocaust of palms in Italy and this other massacre of palms in North Africa.
A sighting of the beetle in California was reported back in 2010, but it turned out to be a false alarm. It’s only a matter of time, though, before the beetle arrives in the US, and many of those tall, thin, graceful palm trees my wife and I saw in LA will start dying.
And no other corner of the world where palm trees grow will be spared the red palm weevil’s scourge. Eventually, the pretty red beetle will arrive. We simply live in a world which is far too open to trade; if we and our goods move all around the world so will other species, some of which will turn out to be invasive in their new homes. Simple as that.
As if all this is not depressing enough, Italy’s palm trees are under further attack from another invasive species, a moth this time, which hails from Uruguay and central Argentina. Its formal name is Paysandisia archon, but it’s known in English as the palm moth or palm borer. It too is quite a handsome species.
It attacks palms in more or less the same way as the red palm weevil: it lays its eggs at the base of the palm fronds, the grubs once hatched burrow into the trunk to the root of the fronds, and then they proceed to suck the life out of the fronds. “Luckily” (if that term has any meaning here), this moth has a rather long life cycle, so it’s taking longer to spread through Italy’s palm populations than the red palm weevil (and so is getting less press). But it is spreading, under the radar. Like the red palm weevil, its tastes in palms are quite catholic, so none of the palm species in Italy are spared its attentions.
Of course, one could shrug one’s shoulders and point out that this beetle is wiping out plants that are not themselves natural to Italy but were brought here from somewhere else – a punishment for an earlier disregard of Nature’s ecosystems. Unfortunately, though, the beetle also seems to attack Italy’s one and only endemic species of palm, the dwarf fan palm.
As the name suggests and the photo shows, it’s a bit of a runt of a palm. It doesn’t grow more than 2 metres high, and it grows in clumps, so you can’t use it to line a stately avenue of some seaside resort. But it is actually from this part of the world, and it does have its niche and role to play in Italy’s ecosystems. Right now, the red palm weevil seems to prefer the other species of palm available to it in Italy, so it only occasionally attacks the dwarf fan palm. But imagine what will happen once the weevil has killed off most of the other types of palms around: very sensibly, it will turn to the next best thing to keep going, at which point the dwarf fan palm’s days will be numbered – if it hasn’t already disappeared, that is; contrary to the red palm weevil, the palm moth is very partial to the poor little Italian palm.
I’d like to end this post on a somewhat positive note, but right now it looks like we are losing the battle against weevil and moth. The classic modern response of spraying everything in sight with chemical insecticide is not only dangerous but it’s also not clear how well it works. And on top of that, it appears that the weevil at least is becoming resistant to chemical insecticides. Maybe pheromone traps could work. But maybe not. What I’m really nervous about is that some bright spark will go to tropical Asia (for the weevil) or Uruguay and central Argentina (for the moth) and bring back one of these pests’ natural predators, that the predators will be set free to attack weevil and moth, and that they will promptly attack some other easier target they find, thus becoming an invasive species in their own right – this is not science fiction, it’s happened before.
The best thing is just leave species where they are. We all have perfectly lovely local species. Let’s make our surroundings lovely with them and not with species we have brought from some other corner of the globe.
My wife and I have spent the last month or so on the Ligurian coast, far away – we hope – from the modern pestilence ravaging the bigger cities of northern Italy. Our base is the small seaside village of Sori, which sits at the end of a long and narrow valley that slices up into the range of hills backing the sea. Our apartment is up one side of the valley, with our balcony overlooking the village below and giving us a view of the olive trees tumbling down the steep valley side opposite.
Often now, more often than we remember, as we sit there admiring the view we will see seagulls coming in from the sea, riding up the wind currents on the far side of the valley, banking, and then gliding past our balcony seat back to the lapis-lazuli sea, with perhaps a lazy flap or two of their wings. Once in a while, their flight will be accompanied by the bells ringing out from the village church, as is the case as I write this.
A seagull in flight is a beautiful thing. I’m too busy watching them to take photos, and anyway my iPhone camera is not up to the task. But photographers far more able than I have caught them in flight, as these few photos culled from the net attest.
Sometimes, as the gulls fly by they open their beak – and the love fest is over.
The calls which gulls make are really horrible. A mournful wail is really the only way I can describe it. It can come out as one long sound, or as a string of short sounds, or as both. In fact, I learnt while reading up on gulls that their original name in English was mews, a Germanic word (the German word for gulls is Möwe, for instance, whilethe Dutch word is meeuw; even the French have used the German root, calling gulls mouette). It’s clearly onomatopoeic – another way of describing the noise gulls make is that they are mewing. For some reason, though, the descendants of the Anglo-Saxon immigrants to the British Isles switched to a form of the Brythonic Celtic name (compare “gull” to the Welsh gwylan, the Cornish guilan, the Breton goelann). I would say a rare example of a victory of the original Celtic immigrants over their later Anglo-Saxon overlords.
The moment gulls mew, I am instantly transported to my youth. I am back in some small English fishing port. It’s cold, it’s windy, it’s probably also raining, the tide is out, the boats are sitting awkwardly on the mud flats. And the water is absolutely bloody freezing.
The photo gives the scene a certain aura of romanticism, but for me there was none. I would always become enveloped in a dark cloud of melancholy in places like this, made all the worse by the mournful mewing of the seagulls flying overhead. I thank God every day that the Hand of Fate led me to escape the British Isles, Celtic, Anglo-Saxon or otherwise, and end up in a part of the world where there are no tides (or hardly any), where the cold is moderate, and where the water gets warm enough by August to tempt me to bathe.
While I’m at it, I might as well get my other beefs with gulls out on the table. First, there’s their eating habits. I read that people call gulls “rats of the sky”. I’m afraid this is an apt description. They’ll basically eat anything, which is why – like rats – they thrive on landfills or waste dumps.
The one time I worked on a landfill, I’d mentally take out my depression of being in such a shit-hole on the flocks of gulls dancing around the mounds of fresh garbage being deposited, mewing and squawking as they fought amongst each other for food scraps. How could they demean themselves to eat that crap?!
And they are really cheeky bastards, quite willing to snatch food from beachgoers.
Kleptoparasites, a scientific name to describe their feeding habits, is a polite way of describing this nasty behavior on their part.
And of course, like other species which feed on the crap which our civilizations spew out (rats, pigeons, cockroaches, to name a few), the gulls are thriving while thousands of other species are collapsing all around us.
My other beef with gulls is their readiness to poop on to you the digested remains of that food they snatched from you – another epithet for gulls is “bags of crap with wings”. Of course, it’s hilarious when it happens to someone else, as exemplified by this moment in the Tintin story “Temple du Soleil”.
But it’s less droll when it happens to you.
But why am I complaining? Gulls are what they are. If we want them to behave nicely, we should behave nicely first and not destroy the planet we all share.
And with that moralistic conclusion, I shall go back to watching the gulls – or mews – soar up the valley, bank, and glide down back past our balcony.
Nearly a month ago, when my wife and I were walking through the local town of Nervi, I happened to notice this banner strung across the street.
It was an invitation to all and sundry to come and admire the camellia which were flowering in the gardens of the Villa Durazzo Pallavicini in the Genoese suburb of Pegli.
We filed this invite away for possible future use, but it was only a week or so ago that we got around to going. What we discovered was more than just a bunch of camellia in flower – although we did also find that. It turns out that the villa’s gardens, which were laid out in the first half of the 1840s, are quite famous. They were the brainchild of the Marquess Ignazio Pallavicini and were designed for him by a certain Michele Canzio. This Michele Canzio was a man of the arts: an architect, an interior designer, and – important for our story – a set designer for Genova’s opera house, the Carlo Fenice theatre. The garden he designed for Ignazio Pallavicini was composed of a series of theatre sets made up of little lakes, streams, waterfalls, various buildings of one sort or another, garden furnishings, rare plants, all inserted into general greenery. In fact, a visit to the gardens was quite openly a theatrical event, with visitors invited to wind their way up the steep hill behind the villa through gardens divided into a Prologue and Background followed by three Acts. Each of these in turn were sub-divided into a number of Scenes, with each section and sub-section having a title. So we have:
Prologue and Background
– The Gothic Avenue
– The Classical Avenue
Act I: The Return to Nature
– Scene I: The Hermitage
– Scene II; The Amusement Park
– Scene III: The Old Lake
– Scene IV: The Spring
Act II: The Recovery of History
– Scene I: The Chapel of the Virgin Mary
– Scene II: The Swiss Hut
– Scene III: The Condottiere’s Castle
– Scene IV: The Condottiere’s Mausoleum
Act III: Catharsis
– Scene I: The Inferno
– Scene II: The Large Lake
– Scene III: The Gardens of Flora
– Scene IV: Remembrance
Looking at all that, I have a sense of being trapped in a rather bad knock-off of a Wagnerian opera, with some knight errant wandering the forests of Mittel Europe searching for his Loved One. But what I feel doesn’t matter. It’s what people at the time felt that matters. They loved it. When it opened to the public (for a fee), it was an instant success. It became the centre-piece of a broader plan by Marquess Pallavicini to turn Pegli from a sleepy little fishing village on the far outskirts of Genova into a smart seaside resort where the Great and the Good from all over Europe could come to spend their winters (and later their summers). The Marquess used his political muscle (he was a Senator in the newly-formed Kingdom of Italy) to make sure that the railway being built out from Genova westwards had a stop at Pegli, donating part of his land for the station buildings as well as for an upscale hotel to house the Great and the Good who would be arriving by train and for a smart new municipal building from which the new, modern municipality he was promoting could be run. Other Genoese aristocratic families which had summer villas in the area knew a good thing when they saw it and had their villas turned into luxurious hotels. And the Great and the Good came: the hereditary princes of the German Empire, various members of Italy’s House of Savoy, various literati such as George Sand, Alfred de Musset, August Strindberg, Franz Kafka, Arrigo Boito, among others. All these Great and Good visited the gardens at Villa Durazzo Pallavicini, and where they went so did Europe’s bourgeoisie.
By now readers might be getting a little impatient and asking themselves what these gardens looked like. Let me answer them by showing a series of postcards from the turn of the century. Wonderful things, postcards. People loved to show the folk back home where they had been, and tourist spots like the gardens of the Villa Durazzo Pallavicini were more than glad to oblige. My wife has a large collection of postcards sent by her parents, grandparents, and their friends over the decades, and it’s lovely to sit down of a winter evening and browse through them. But I digress. Here are postcards of the gardens:
The Gothic Avenue
The Classical Avenue
The Hermitage (which Canzio rather cleverly had built on the back of the Triumphal Arch which completed the Classical Avenue)
The Amusement Park (where visitors could take a spin on the carousels)
The Chapel of the Virgin Mary
The Condottiere’s Castle
The Condottiere’s Mausoleum
The Inferno (made by taking the stalactites and stalagmites from other caves and placing them here; the environmentalist in me shudders)
You could also visit the Inferno by boat
And finally the Large Lake
as well as the Gardens of Flora
Oh, and perhaps I should add a photo of the camellias, which was what brought us to the gardens originally (although this is not a postcard, since it would seem that postcard makers didn’t see the interest in having postcards of the camellias).
As this photo suggests, we came a little too late, many of the camellias being past their prime. Quite how the camellias fitted into Canzio’s grand operatic scheme is not clear to me, but we can let that pass.
Would I recommend to readers to visit the gardens? I’m not sure I would. It’s not just that the highly artificial nature of the gardens does not chime with modern sensibilities (at least, it doesn’t chime with mine). It’s also that the gardens have suffered heavily from Genova’s modernization over the last century. To explain what I mean, I have to take up the story of Pegli from where I left off a few paragraphs ago.
Marquess Pallavicini wanted to turn Pegli into a smart seaside resort, and as we have seen for a while this plan was successful, as this poster from the turn of the century suggests.
But in the late 19th-early 20th Century, Genova, which we see in the far distance in this poster, was spreading like a cancer along the coast and up the valleys behind it – it was the only way the city could expand in this region where the steep hills drop precipitously into the sea. To show what I mean, here is a map of what Genova looks like today. It’s expanded up and down the coast, swallowing up places like Pegli, and sent tendrils of urbanisation up into the valleys behind.
By 1926, Genova had reached Pegli and gobbled it up. Pegli as a distinct municipality was no more.
Like all modern cities, Genova was also pushing to industrialize, and it was industrializing on the side towards Pegli. In 1915, just before Italy entered the First World War, this was the view the visitor would have had looking towards the villa.
We have the villa standing proud on the edge of the hill, with the gardens climbing the hill behind it. In front of it are orange trees, vineyards, and other fields, all the property of Marquess Pallavicini and his heirs. A decade or so later, we have this large cotton mill down by the rail tracks, with the villa in the middle distance partially blotted out by the belching industrial chimney. There were even bigger industrial plants to the right of this photo. One in particular became a very large steel plant.
By this time, the Great and the Good had packed their bags and were spending their winters and summers elsewhere along the Ligurian coast, or on the adjoining coast in France, the Côte d’Azur. Pegli had just become a grimy suburb of Genova. I suspect that Pallavicini’s heirs saw which way the wind was blowing, because the last owner of the villa and its gardens donated them to the city of Genova in 1928. But at least she did so with the provision that the villa be allocated to some cultural use and that the gardens be kept open to the public (Genova more or less honoured the bargain; one part of the villa has become a museum and the gardens were kept open until the 1960s – more on that in a minute).
The pace of modernization quickened after World War II. And here, to continue the story, I switch back to our visit of the gardens. We had passed through the Prologue and Background and had started onto Act I when we started hearing a low roar, which got stronger and stronger as we progressed. At some point, we reached a Belvedere where we got a beautiful, close-up view of –– the A10 motorway, which runs from Genova to Ventimiglia. This section of the motorway was built in the 1960s.
This screenshot from Google Maps shows just how the motorway smashed its way through the hill under the gardens.
The construction of the tunnel so badly damaged the gardens that they were closed until 1992, when they were reopened to the public after a decade of restoration. Even today, much of Act I of the gardens is blighted by the continuous roar from the motorway.
When we had climbed higher, reaching the end of Act I, we began to get splendid views over the sea –– and onto the runway of Genova’s airport.
As the photo shows, the runway is built on the sea, a consequence of the fact, which I’ve already mentioned, that Genova lies at the foot of steep hills that drop straight into the sea – there is no nice flat space nearby where a runway could be built. After some back and forth, it was decided to build the airport and its runway to the west of Genova, I suspect because this part of the city had already been blighted by industrialization and no-one would complain too much about it. Luckily, the day we visited the gardens no planes landed or took off – Covid-19 induced no doubt – but I presume that on a normal day the noise of planes taking off would add to the noise from the motorway.
On we climbed, and as we got the end of Act II, and the highest point of the gardens, we could enjoy a new view across the valley running alongside the gardens –– to a series of oil tanks planted on the hill on the other side of the valley. They were painted a sickly green, no doubt to claim they were environmentally-friendly. Unsurprisingly, but unfortunately for me, no-one seems to have posted a photo of these oil tanks taken from the gardens, so the best I can do is to show another satellite photo from Google Maps.
The tanks are that group of circles, and to locate the gardens please follow the motorway as it punches its way through the hill.
The presence of oil tanks there are the consequence of another decision, taken in the early 1960s, to have Genova’s oil terminal built close to the airport (so another pleasant sight from the gardens must no doubt be the periodic arrival of oil tankers coming in to offload their cargo). The oil pipelines snake over the hills from the terminal to these tanks, where the oil is stored prior to further onward delivery to the north of Italy.
After enjoying these sights, we wended our way down through Act III of the gardens and on down to the exit. When we arrived back at the villa we went out on its ample terrace to admire the view –– and got a close-up of people’s clothes drying on their balconies. In the 1960s and ’70s, those pleasant fields of orange trees, vineyards and other crops which used to lie at the foot of the villa, and which I show above in that postcard from 1915, had been cemented over to make way for cheap housing. Here we have a view of that housing, and at the end of the avenue we can see the villa.
No “green belt” was kept between the housing and the villa. The apartment blocks come right up to the gates of the villa.
So, like I say, I don’t think I will be recommending a visit to these gardens to anyone. I feel sorry for the enthusiastic volunteers who manned (and womanned) the gardens, I respect the spending of public moneys to restore the gardens, seen as a great example of garden design from the Romantic age, but the garden’s context has been so ruined as to blight any visit to the gardens.
“Spring his here” crooned Frank Sinatra. And indeed – at least in the little corner of the Northern Hemisphere on which my wife and I are currently perched – Spring is here! Frank then goes on to lament the lack of love in his life, but that is not our problem. My wife and I can just focus on the flowers exploding into life all around us, humming soulfully a tune or two as we do so.
As usual in Liguria, mimosa was the first to burst onto the scene, with joyous sprays of canary yellow.
Those are fading now, their place being taken by crocuses (high up in the hills)
various fruit trees
and of course daffodils! Gardens and public parks have a sprinkling, but my eye was really caught by this bevy of them planted in a corner of an olive-tree terrace.
It’s been decades now since I’ve lived in the UK, but first impressions on the young mind are indelible (as opposed to impressions on the old mind which I find to be distressingly delible). My spending the Springs of my youth in rural Somerset, in that prep school which I mentioned in a recent post, has meant that in my mind’s eye Spring will always be that triumvirate of flowers: the snowdrop, the crocus, and the daffodil, which someone at the school had planted in various corners of the school grounds. Later, when I moved on to my public school (in Brito-speak, a private boarding school for boys (in my time) aged between 13 and 18), my soul was stirred during my first Spring there by bunches of daffodils which sprang out of the lawn in front of my House.
That same Spring, just off the path which led down from the House to the main school buildings, I discovered a group of narcissi, those cousins of the daffodil, scattered down a slope.
I was enchanted.
Alas, I quickly learned that showing a delight in flowers would definitely put me in the uncool category at school. I risked being compared to Fotherington-Thomas in the book “Down with Skool”. Molesworth, the purported author of the book, has this to say about Fotherington-Thomas: “you kno he say Hullo clouds hullo sky he is a girlie and love the scents and sounds of nature … he is uterly wet and a sissy” (Molesworth’s spelling is also quite erratic). This gallery of drawings in the book of Fotherington-Thomas, by the great Ronald Searle, says it all. At the age of 13-14, that was definitely not where I wanted to be! And so I buried my uncool delight in daffodils and other flowers of Spring under deep layers of teenager cynicism and world-weariness. A few years later, when I got to know it, I could only secretly thrill to Wordsworth’s poem “Daffodils”.
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
But now that I am old and venerable, and my foibles and oddities are tolerated (“don’t worry about him, he’s just an old fart”), I can openly advertise my delight in the flowers of Spring. I can, like the Great Poet, lie on my couch and let my heart with pleasure fill and dance with the daffodils and all the flowers that Spring brings us.