SAINT HUBERT, PARTRON SAINT OF FORESTS

Vienna, 10 October 2021

My son commented to me yesterday morning that I hadn’t posted in a while, and he’s right. It’s been over a month! The fact is, I’ve been busy these days (or B-U-S-Y as my son used to write in reply when we fond parents sent him a WhatsApp message suggesting a chat; luckily, he wasn’t B-U-S-Y yesterday morning). I’ve been helping students at a school in Wales figure out how the school could reduce its carbon footprint and I’ve had to prepare and deliver quite a number lectures for webinars on the topic of Circular Economies. All fascinating stuff, but it has eaten into my blogging time.

Anyway, it seems to me that as the days shorten, the temperatures fall, and my wife and I have our last hikes in the woods around Vienna before we migrate south to Italy for the winter, it would be good to celebrate Saint Hubert, the patron saint of all things linked to forests:

– Of hunters and their hounds, here painted by Paolo Uccello.

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– Of archers (because they originally used their bows to hunt in the forests; Robin Hood comes to mind).

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– Of trappers (another type of hunter who lurked in forests trapping beavers and other animals for their furs), here seen in a painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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– Of loggers and other forest workers, seen here in a photo from the late 1800s.

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Here is a photo of Hubert on one side of a small forest shrine that we came across during one of our recent hikes.

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And this is the shrine.

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Hubert’s story, which explains why he was made patron saint of all things to do with forests, is quickly told. He was born in the 650s AD in Toulouse, into a family that was part of the high Frankish aristocracy. Initially, he joined the Neustrian court centered on Paris, but because of quarrels with the Mayor of the Neustrian palace he transferred to the Austrasian court centered on Metz, where he was warmly welcomed by the Mayor of the Austrasian palace, on the grounds of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” – the two Mayors were constantly fighting each other. He seems to have quickly inserted himself into the local elites, marrying the daughter of the Duke of Leuven (if you’re a Flemish speaker, Louvain if you’re a French speaker).

Like all good aristocrats of the time (indeed, like all good aristocrats of all ages), Hubert loved to hunt, and he seems to have spent most of his time roaming the forests of the Ardennes looking for some red meat to shoot. His predilection for hunting only increased after his wife died in child birth, to the point that one Good Friday, when he really should have been in a church on his knees praying for his soul, he instead vaulted onto his horse and rode off into the forest in pursuit of game.

The story goes that he spied a magnificent stag and was riding full tilt after it, when the animal suddenly turned. Hubert was astounded to see a crucifix hovering between its antlers. This scene has captivated various artists over the centuries – or more probably, it captivated their clients and the artists merely executed their clients’ wishes. Here’s a version by Albrecht Dürer.

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Here’s one by Jan Brueghel the Elder

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Even Egon Schiele painted a version!

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In any event, the story goes on that Hubert heard a Voice, telling him to clean up his act or else he would be going straight to Hell. When he humbly asked the Voice what he should do, It told him to go find Lambert, Bishop of Maastricht, who would straighten him out.

And straighten him out he did! Under Lambert’s direction, Hubert gave away all his worldly possessions, entered a monastery, led an ascetic life, evangelized among the heathen folk who lived in the depths of the forest of Ardennes where he had once joyously hunted, etc., etc.

In about 705 AD, Lambert was assassinated, the victim of some quarrel between different Frankish factions. The event is depicted in all its gory detail in this painting by Jan van Brussel.

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Hubert became bishop in Lambert’s place. At some point, he moved Lambert’s remains from Maastricht to Liège, where Lambert had been killed, as we see here in this manuscript miniature.

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He built a magnificent basilica, which was soon turned into a cathedral, of which he naturally became the bishop (in the process, he kick-started the rise to greatness of Liège, which was then just a pissy little village). Alas, this cathedral was demolished by revolutionaries in 1794.

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Much to his disappointment, Hubert wasn’t martyred but died peacefully in his bed in the late 720s AD. He was, as might be expected, initially buried in Liège, but about 100 years later his bones were dug up and transferred to the Benedictine Abbey of Amdain. This event was depicted in this wonderful painting by Rogier van der Weyden.

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Not surprisingly, the town around the abbey renamed itself Saint-Hubert in his honour and became a focus for pilgrimages over the succeeding centuries (no doubt making the Abbey rich in the process).

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I think readers will now understand why Hubert is patron saint of all things forest. He was a very popular saint among the little people in the Middle Ages, probably because forests played an important role in people’s livelihoods until deforestation shrunk those forests, first to woods and then to woodlots on the margins of rural lives. Not surprisingly, given his passion for hunting, Hubert was also very popular among the aristocracy, and several Noble Orders dedicated to hunting were named after him. Take, for instance, the Venerable Order of Saint Hubertus, which was founded in 1695 by Count Franz Anton von Sporck.

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The Order brought together the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI and hunting enthusiasts from various other noble families throughout the Holy Roman Empire. It still exists, its current Grand Master being Istvan von Habsburg-Lothringen.

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Given that in the early days of the European presence in Canada so many French Canadians were involved in the fur trade as trappers, I also now understand why Saint Hubert was a popular saint in French Canada; in the teen years I spent there, I was intrigued by the number of places called Saint-Hubert (there is even a chain of chicken restaurants in Quebec called Saint Hubert). No doubt the saint’s protection was invoked by the Catholic trappers as their canoes set off on their way to the beaver grounds out west.

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Of course, since the regions we now call Belgium and southern Netherlands were the saint’s favoured hunting grounds, both literally and figuratively, many places there are also called Saint-Hubert (French) or Sint Hubertus (Flemish/ Netherlandish). One beer has taken its name from the town of Saint-Hubert around the abbey where Hubert was eventually buried. Here is a bottle of one of the company’s brews (triple amber for any beer enthusiasts among my readers).

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There is also a brew that is popular here in Vienna, the Hubertus Bräu.

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I’m not sure why it’s called Hubert’s Brew. It’s certainly not named after the place it’s brewed in, which is Laa an der Thaya (nice area; we’ve been on a couple of hikes around there). But it has a very distinguished pedigree. The town obtained the right to brew it back in 1454, from Ladislaus Postumus, Duke of Austria (and for this privilege they had to deliver the good Duke a keg of beer on each holiday, which doesn’t sound much – but maybe there were lots of holidays back then).

As readers will note, both these beers have as a symbol the famous stag’s head with the crucifix hovering between its antlers. So does the digestive Jägermeister, that concoction of herbs macerated in alcohol, which for some strange reason became popular with the student crowd.

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In this case, the connection to Hubert is via its name, which means Master of the Hunt.

Of course, I understand why any alcoholic drink which has some sort of connection to Hubert would use the symbol of the stag with the hovering crucifix. But I wonder if the makers of these drinks have thought this idea through. For me, the implication is that drinking the beer or digestive will make you see things which aren’t there (rather like that hoary chestnut that alcoholics see pink elephants).

Not perhaps the best image one wants to give to an alcoholic drink. On the other hand, putting a picture of Hubert as a bishop, like the one in the photo which I started this post with, could well put a damper on one’s enthusiastic desire to drink. A tricky marketing conundrum …

With that, I lift a good glass of wine to my readers and go and join my wife to do the packing. Auf wiedersehen, arrivederci, we will see each other again once we’ve moved down to Italy!

VANILLA

This post is dedicated to my dearest wife,

the most faithful of my readers

Vienna, 4 September 2021

Some months ago, I was asked by the Student Sustainability Committee of a school in Wales which I’m involved with to help them estimate the carbon footprint of the food eaten in the school. In the case of prepared food, which made up a substantial portion of the food consumed at the school, this exercise required me to plough through a lot of recipes to understand what were the raw ingredients of these prepared foodstuffs (so as to calculate the carbon footprint of each ingredient). Apart from this being a hell of a lot of work, as my wife will testify (“have you still not finished that stuff?!”), I discovered with surprise that many, many prepared foodstuffs of the sweet variety (biscuits, cakes, chocolate, and various sundry others) have vanilla extract as one of their ingredients (and as a side note, I was very surprised to see that these sweet foodstuffs made up a large portion of all the food consumed in the school; it didn’t seem to be a very healthy diet).

These constant references to vanilla extract intrigued me, and I decided that one day I would investigate vanilla a bit more. This decision crystallized into action over the last few weeks, because it so happens that my wife is very fond of vanilla. In the Bad Old Days, before we started our rigorous dieting, she consumed a fair amount of vanilla-based ice creams, normally those covered with a chocolate casing (I will not give free publicity to her favourite brand by naming it; I will leave my readers to guess). Now, in these more virtuous times, diet-wise, her vanilla consumption mainly takes the form of vanilla-flavored yogurt, and this only for lunch on our hikes (which these summer days has meant quite frequently). For the sake of complete transparency, I should state that she still consumes a chocolate-covered vanilla ice cream from time to time, whenever a hike is judged to have been particularly strenuous.

The brand of vanilla-flavored yoghurt which my wife generally favours is this one – I should add that she favours it simply because our local supermarket offers it, at a very reasonable price.

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Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed the flower on the tub. This is the vanilla orchid, Vanilla planifolia. Here’s a photo of the Real Thing.

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And here is the plant more or less in its natural state (readers will note that this orchid is a type of vine; in Nature it will grow up trees, like the pepper vine).

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It’s really a very pretty flower, but it is only of passing interest to the vanilla aficionado. She or he is after the “fruit”, a seed pod really, that the flower creates once it has been pollinated. The three dark-coloured stringy things pictured behind the flower on the yoghurt tub are these seed pods. Again, here is a photo of the Real Thing.

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But even the seed pod, if in its natural state, just picked from the vine, does not interest the vanilla aficionado, because it contains very low levels of vanilla flavour and aroma (these, by the way, come mostly from the chemical vanillin, although there are a number of other chemicals present which it is claimed enhance both flavour and aroma). It is only once the seed pod has been cured that the vanilla aficionado becomes interested, because now the levels of vanillin are considerably higher, high enough to add that distinct vanilla flavour and aroma to foods and drinks.

The curing of vanilla seed pods is a rather complicated, months-long process, whose purpose is to bring about an enzymatic reaction in the pods which turns the glucovanillin they contain into vanillin proper (in case any readers were asking themselves, glucovanillin has no flavour or aroma). Curing consists of four basic steps: killing, sweating, slow-drying, and conditioning. In the killing step, the seed pods are generally heated (in hot water or in an oven or by exposing the pods to the sun).

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This stops any further vegetative growth in the pods and initiates the necessary enzymatic reactions.

In the sweating step, the pods are kept at temperatures of 45–65°C and at high humidity levels by stacking them densely and insulating them in wool or other cloth. The pods are subjected to this Turkish bath regime for 7 to 10 days, possibly with a daily exposure to the sun or a dip in hot water.

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The desired enzymatic reactions love these conditions, so by the end of the sweating step the seed pods have attained much of the desired vanilla flavour and aroma. However, they still have a high moisture content. Which brings us to drying.

To prevent the pods from rotting and to lock in the vanilla aroma, drying is required. And so, over a period of three to four weeks, the pods are exposed to air and to periods of shade and sunlight.

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In the final, conditioning step, the dried pods are stored for five to six months in closed boxes, where the fragrance further develops.

The end result looks like this.

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This is what vanilla aficionados lust after, what they dream of incorporating into their dishes, from soup to sweet dishes.  And they are willing to pay top money. Vanilla is the second most expensive spice, after saffron. Those wrinkled-up beans can set you back anywhere from $50 to $500 per kilogram.

When I look at these kinds of convoluted processes, I always ask myself, “How on earth did anyone discover this process?” I mean, really, how did the first vanilla producers stand in front of those aroma-less and flavour-less seed pods and figure out that this long and complicated process would eventually lead them to seed pods with a wonderful aroma and flavour of vanilla? I would have to ask this question to the ancestors of the Totonacs, an Amerindian people who live on the east coast of Mexico. It was they who first “made” vanilla-flavoured seed pods from the vanilla orchid – the orchid’s natural habitat is in this part of the world. Here, we have Diego Rivera’s take on the Totonacs, as part of one of his murals in the National Palace in Mexico City.

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Unfortunately, I’m sure today’s Totonacs have no idea; I just have to accept that the answer is lost in the mists of time.

Readers might think that since the vanilla orchid is natural to Mexico’s eastern seaboard, that country would be a major producer of vanilla. Alas, not so! The reason for that is the great Columbian exchange, that massive movement of plants, animals, humans – and diseases – which took place between the New and Old Worlds after the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus. The vanilla orchid was part of that exchange. The Conquistadors, like the Totonacs (and like the Aztecs) loved the flavour and aroma of vanilla and figured that people back home would love it too. They exported the pods back to Europe, where they caused a sensation, at least among the elites, who had the money to burn on this rare and expensive novelty. They put it in everything, from chocolate (also a product of Mexico) to soup. They adopted the Spanish name for it (vanilla is a corruption of the Spanish vainilla, meaning “little pod”). Other Europeans looked on enviously. Eventually, the French laid their hands on some exemplars of the plant and took them to their colonies which had similar climates to Mexico’s eastern seaboard, namely those in the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean, especially the islands of Madagascar, Réunion, and Mauritius.

For a while, Mexico continued to be the main global producer of vanilla, because this transplant of the vanilla orchid to other places was a failure. The plant flowered alright, but it never produced pods. The reason for this is an exquisite example of specialized evolution: vanilla flowers can only be pollinated by this little critter, Eulaema meriana, one of some 25 species of orchid bees.

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No other insect is attracted by the sex pheromones emitted by the flower, nor can any other insect successfully navigate the orchid’s complicated geometry and pollinate the flower along the way.

Once non-Mexican wannabe vanilla producers realized the problem, they tried the obvious thing, which was to transplant the vanilla-pollinating orchid bee along with the orchid. But it didn’t work; the bee couldn’t survive outside of its native habitat. The wannabe vanilla producers were stumped. Until 1841.

In that year, a 12-year old slave called Edmond (no surname, he was a slave), who had been born into slavery on the Island of Réunion, came up with a quick and easy way of pollinating the vanilla orchid flower by hand. He had been lent out by his master to a botanist by the name of Ferreol Bellier-Beaumont, to help him out. Beaumont had shown him how to hand pollinate a watermelon plant and the boy went off and successfully applied his new skills to the vanilla orchid. (For anyone considering hand-pollinating a vanilla orchid flower, here’s what you do: with a small sliver of bamboo or wood (or even a stem of grass), lift the membrane separating the flower’s anther and stigma; then, using your thumb, transfer the pollinia from anther to stigma.)

Edmond never got anything out of his discovery. Who did were all the the slave-owning planters on Réunion who now got into vanilla growing: for a while, Réunion became the world’s largest producer of vanilla. But the French authorities made sure the method was transferred to its other island colonies in the Indian Ocean and in the Caribbean. Since then, Madagascar has dominated world production (Indonesia, which muscled into the market in the 1980s, is now second in the producers’ league table). Mexico, on the other hand, has pretty much vanished from the scene, which is a crying shame.

As for Edmond, seven years after his discovery, at the age of 19, he got his freedom; the French government finally outlawed slavery in its colonies in 1848. He left the world of plantations to work as a kitchen hand in the island’s main city, and adopted the surname Albius, from the Latin alba or white, in reference to the vanilla orchid’s colour. Beaumont tried to get the governor of Réunion to give Edmond a stipend or at least a reward for his great discovery but the governor ignored the petition. No doubt, he didn’t think it was worth spending public monies on a black ex-slave.

Unfortunately, Edmond fell in with a bad crowd in his new life and got involved in a theft of jewelry. He was caught and sentenced to 10 years in jail, which, after an appeal by Beaumont to the governor, was reduced to five. After doing his time, Edmond moved back to a village close to the plantation and got married.

Edmond’s travails were not over. It seems to have been an irritation in certain quarters that where white professional botanists had failed, a black slave, and a child to boot, had succeeded. Some time in 1860s a well-known French botanist and plant collector by the name of Jean Richard claimed that actually, he had come up with this revolutionary pollination method in the late 1830s, that he had taught it to some planters in Réunion, and that Edmond must have sneaked into the meeting and heard his explanation. Luckily, Beaumont and a few others vigorously defended Edmond’s primacy to the discovery, although Richard’s false claim did get some traction for a while. May Richard’s name be damned forever …

Edmond died in poverty in 1880, at the age of 51. Luckily, he left a physical trace of himself in history, rare for ex-slaves. Here we have a rather grainy photograph of him when young.

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And here we have a lithograph of him from a book published in 1863, standing gravely in front of a vanilla orchid vine.

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Wonderful story, the vanilla story, no? Except that as far as the vanilla in my wife’s yoghurt is concerned, it is all a big red herring.

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I’m afraid to tell her, and any other readers who might be vanilla lovers, that the vast majority of the vanillin used commercially in the world is fake – well, artificial might be a less inflammatory word. Most of the world’s vanillin is produced from crude oil derivatives in chemical plants: benzene is alkylated with propylene to form cumene, which is then oxidized to phenol. Phenol is hydroxylated into catechol, which is further methylated into guaiacol. Finally, guaiacol is reacted with glyoxilic acid by electrophilic aromatic substitution to produce vanillylmandelic acid, which is converted to vanillin by oxidative decarboxylation. The remainder of the world’s artificial vanillin is made from a waste stream generated in the sulphite process to make paper pulp.

Yes, I know, very disappointing. And the worst of it is that when Cooks Illustrated ran some taste tests which pitted natural vanilla against artificial vanillin used in baked goods and other applications, tasters could not tell the difference! Don’t know what the world is coming to … Luckily, the tasters could tell the difference where ice cream was concerned, with natural vanilla winning out; l’onore è salvo, honour has been saved, as my wife might say.

BEECH TREES

24 August, 2021

This post is a hymn of praise to the European beech tree.

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The tree has been a constant companion on our hikes this summer as we explore the western reaches of the Wienerwald, the woods encircling Vienna to its north and west. Apart from the odd oak, wild cherry, and conifer, the European beech reigns supreme in the Wienerwald.

My memories of the beech start at the age of 10 or so, at my Prep school (Brit-speak for a private, boarding, primary school). Just outside the school gates, at the bottom of a field, was a magnificent copper beech; we would pass it every time we made our way to the school’s playing fields which were down the road. I have no photo of this tree, it may even no longer stand, so this photo will have to stand in for it and for all these magnificent variants of the beech.

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I used to think the copper beech was a different species, but no, all the world’s copper beeches are fruit of a single spontaneous mutation that occurred in a beech tree in a forest in Thuringia, in Germany. It was noticed back in 1690 and was carried from there around the world. One single mutation … like blue eyes.

My next memory of beech is a long beech hedge at my Public school (Brit-speak for a private, boarding, secondary school), which bordered the campus’s entrance road. It was lovely during the summer, with that long solid block of tender green running along the road. Again, I don’t have a photo of this hedge, so this photo of a wonderful hedge somewhere in the UK will have to stand in for it.

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It was really only when we moved to Vienna and got to know the Wienerwald that my wife and I discovered beech woods. And what magnificent woods they are! I insert here one photo we took, where the sun dappled the trunks that stretched off into the distance.

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But our iPhones can’t do these woods justice, so I’ve also picked out a few photos from the Internet taken by people who’ve got the right equipment and know what they are doing.

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That last photo could be of us, following the marked paths through the woods, rather like Hansel and Gretel following Hansel’s white pebbles.

Having been enchanted by these beech woods, my wife and I have decided that some day we will visit some of Europe’s primeval beech forests. These are beech forests which have never, ever been cut or otherwise exploited by human beings, the kind of beech forests through which our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have wandered ten thousand and more years ago. There are 94 such forests in Europe, and as a group they have become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Austria has five of the 94, Italy 13. In one way or another, we’ll figure out a way of getting to a couple of them. In the meantime, I throw in a photo of one of the Austrian forests, Hintergebirg.

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Interestingly enough, the UK has no primeval beech forests (nor does Ireland, for that matter). It could be that over the centuries the British have simply not been able to leave any of their beech forests alone, cutting them, clearing them, or otherwise fiddling around with them. Or it could be that there never were any primeval beech forests in the first place. The beech is considered natural in the southern part of the island. However, some voices have been raised wondering if this is actually correct. These voices suggest that perhaps the beech was brought to the UK by our Iron Age ancestors, who wanted to have it with them as a source of food – the food in question in this case being the beech tree’s nuts, or mast as it is called. Here we have a (very) close-up – the nuts are quite small.

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And here we see them as my wife and I would probably see them, if we went looking for them, half hidden among dead leaves on the ground.

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I must confess to having been surprised to read that our ancestors ate mast. But that only goes to show how alienated I have become from natural sources of food – “if it ain’t on supermarket shelves it ain’t food”. By my reckoning, it’s five generations since any of my ancestors might have foraged for beech mast. But foraging is becoming popular, with many websites dedicated to this lost art form. A good number of them mention beech mast, claiming that the nuts are good to eat (although small and time-consuming to gather). Other, probably more objective sites warn that the nuts can taste bitter because of their high levels of tannins, but that they can be ground to a flour and the tannins leached out – that’s probably how my more recent ancestors would have eaten mast, if and when they ate it. I now know that I should start looking out for fresh nuts on our hikes in a few weeks’ time; they fall in late August, early September. I’ll try a couple – and see if I can’t persuade my wife to try them too – and will report back.

Coming back to beech woods, one of their characteristics is that they are – relatively speaking – quite dark; the crown of leaves at the top of the trees are dense enough to keep out a lot of the incoming sunlight. As a result, little if anything grows in the shade of the towering beech trunks. The most common sight is a carpet of bronze-coloured beech leaves lying on the forest floor, the product of the trees losing their leaves year after year. My wife and I see this most spectacularly on the hikes we do during the winter months through a beech wood high above Lake Como, when the dead beech leaves on the ground are the only colour present.

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But from time to time we walk through sections of beech woods where a beautiful field of grass lies at the feet of the trees.

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I don’t know what grass this is, or why it only grows in certain places, but the sight of these lawns stretching off into the distance between the trees is a joy to behold. But perhaps not as breathtaking as the fields of bluebells in some of the UK’s beech woods.

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The bluebells escape the deadly shade of the beeches by flowering before the trees are fully in leaf. I’m ashamed to say that I have never visited any of these bluebell groves – another item on our bucket list.

The other characteristic of beech woods is the trees’ smooth bark. It’s quite a striking sight to see all these pale grey, smooth trunks towering up into the sky above our heads. And one can immediately spot the lone oak or cherry or conifer skulking among the beeches; their rough barks stand out. This smoothness actually signals a fragility in the beech’s bark; it is easily scarred and the marks remain forever as the bark cannot heal. Many of the beech trees we cross are marked by scars in their bark, no doubt caused by branches of other trees or bushes scraping against them when they were young. But on our walks we also see examples of silly boys, and perhaps some silly girls, using the inability of the beech’s bark to heal to carve their initials into it, quite often combined with the initials of a loved one and the whole enclosed within a heart; they will stay, more and more distorted as the tree grows, until it is cut or blown down.

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Initials carved in a beech’s bark is another of my beech memories. This particular beech was in my French grandmother’s garden and the initials carved into its bark my uncle’s. He must have done it 30-40 years before I saw it. Family lore has it that my grandmother was furious with him when she discovered this disfigurement of her tree – “so vulgar!” – and gave him a good thrashing. The tree has gone, alas. It died some 15 years after my grandmother died, shaded out, I suspect, by the mighty sequoia nearby, but also probably suffering from a drop in the area’s aquifer: too much water is being pumped out.

Scratching initials on beech bark allows me to make a connection between this wonderful tree and another wonderful item of which I have many exemplars: the book. Beech and book actually come from the same root, the Old English bōc. This has the primary sense of “beech” but also a secondary sense of “book”. The connection is perhaps more obvious in other modern Germanic languages. In modern German, the word for “book” is Buch, with Buche meaning “beech tree”. In modern Dutch, the word for “book” is boek, with beuk meaning “beech tree”. In Swedish, the word bok means both “beech tree” and “book”. This connection allows me to hold forth on another favourite topic of mine, trade – or rather, the exchange of ideas that comes with trade.

When the Germanic tribes migrated into Europe, pushing out the Celts, they were illiterate, with no culture of writing and no alphabet of their own. When they met the Romans, they fought them of course, but they also traded with them and in so doing came into contact both with writing and with the waxed wooden tablets on which traders (and many others in the Roman Empire) made notes or wrote short missives. As far as the alphabet was concerned, the Germanic tribes adopted a precursor to the Roman alphabet, the old Italic alphabet, to create their runes. As for the tablets, the Germanic tribes used the tree that surrounded them, the beech, to make them, and called these tablets after the tree from which they came. Later, when the Germanic tribes shifted to using parchment, they continued to call what they wrote in books.

Being made of wood, these tablets have normally decayed away, but some examples of Roman tablets have been unearthed along Hadrian’s Wall, somehow miraculously avoiding the normal decay processes.

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So from now on the books which surround me will remind me every day of the beech trees which surround us on our walks in the Wienerwald.

SCENT OF A FIG TREE

Vienna, 6 August 2021

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

TUBING DOWN THE DRAVA RIVER

Milan, 28 June 2021

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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the river will turn sharp left and squeeze through the Sachsenburger Narrows.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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We will now be floating by Spittal an der Drau.

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Soon after, Villach, the biggest town we’ll have seen so far, will hove into view.

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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

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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.

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The river, and us, will now turn eastward, and after running through a sparsely populated area we will arrive to Maribor.

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After admiring the quays of Maribor as we slip by, we will let the river take us southward to Ptuj.

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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.

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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.

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We will patiently follow the meanders, moving sluggishly past the Hungarian border town of Barcs.

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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.

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The river now stops being the border with Hungary. On it goes, looping and relooping as it crosses the region of Slavonia.

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It will eventually bring us to Osijek.

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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.

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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 …

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IRISES

Milan, 4 June 2021

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.

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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.

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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:

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Iris sibirica in Central Europe

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Iris haynei in the Middle East

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The Nazareth iris, also from the Middle East

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Iris lortetii, also from the Middle East

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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And here we have a comparison of a Lieschbloem in close-up and a fleur-de-lys.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The white Iris florentina grew wild in the area around Florence.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 Iris florentinaIris pallida.

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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.

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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.

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HOW ARE THE MIGHTY FALLEN

Vienna, 9 May 2021

My wife and I went for a hike recently along a section of the Jakobsweg, the Trail of St. James, one of the network of pilgrim trails that lead from all over Europe to Compostela in north-western Spain. This particular Trail of St. James starts in Hungary and leads the pious walker to Vienna. From there, it goes on along the Danube, joins the Jakobsweg coming down from the Czech Republic (parts of which we hiked last year), and then wends its way across the Alps.

The particular section we walked this time took us through the village of Petronell, which lies not too far from the Danube River, downstream of Vienna. It also happens to be quite close to the remains of the old Roman town of Carnuntum, which was in its heyday (about 50 AD to 374 AD) an important hub in Rome’s line of defences along its Danubian border. Just to give readers an idea of its importance, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius used it as his headquarters for three years during his war against the Marcomanni in the early 170s (and wrote part of his Meditations there), Septimius Severus was proclaimed emperor there by his soldiers in 193, while in 308, Diocletian chaired a historic meeting there, with his co-emperors Maximian and Galerius, to resolve the rising tensions within the tetrarchy. Over the centuries, several Legions were stationed at Carnuntum: the 15th Legion “Apollinaris”, the 10th Legion “Gemina”, the 7th Legion “Gemina”, and the 15th Legion “Gemina”. A civilian town sprang up around the Castrum, no doubt aided by the fact that the main branch of the very profitable Amber Road, which I’ve written about in an earlier post, crossed the Danube at Carnuntum and entered the Roman Empire, bringing Baltic amber to Aquileia in what is now north-eastern Italy. The town eventually became the capital of the local Roman province, Pannonia. At its height, it boasted a population of 50,000.

All came to an end for Carnuntum in 374, when the town – already badly damaged by an earthquake in 350 – was put to the sword by a host of “barbarians” who crossed the Danube. By then, the Roman Empire itself was decomposing. Within a century it was all over for its western portion.

The modern trace of the Jakobsweg takes the walker past this mouldering remain of Carnuntum’s greatness.

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It is the Heidentor, or Heathens’ Gate, a triumphal arch that stood on the outskirts of the town. The information board proudly informs us that it is the largest Roman remain in Austria. Indeed, the other remains in the country hardly poke out above the ground – archaeologists have had to dig them out. Here are other remains of Carnuntum.

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These are remains of Vindobona, which is now Vienna

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And these are remains of Juvavum, which is now Salzburg

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It gives me pause to see so very little left of what was once a great Empire. If you superimpose the Peutinger map, the old Roman map of the Empire’s road system, onto today’s Austria, you can see that the Romans had quite a presence in the country.

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Yet hardly a trace of any of this remains now. “How are the mighty fallen!” laments David in the Book of Samuel. And indeed how far has mighty Rome fallen.

Around the Heidentor is a wind farm.

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The windmills, wonders of modern technology, tower over the countryside, their blades slowly turning in the wind.

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They are part of our line of defence against the greatest existential threat which our planet faces, climate change. Will we succeed in reining in climate change, I wonder? Or will we fail and see our civilization, like the Western Roman Empire before it, crumble under the strain of the resulting economic dislocations and social disorders? These mighty works of our civilization will eventually come tumbling down – some already have.

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Perhaps a thousand years from now, when our civilization will have been forgotten during the dark ages which will follow its collapse, descendants of the few who managed to survive will stumble across the ruins of these windmills, covered in brambles and ivy, and they will stand there marveling, wondering what they were all for.

THE PALM TREES ARE DYING

Sori, 27 April 2021

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

SEAGULLS – LOVE ‘EM AND HATE ‘EM

Sori, 4 April 2021

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.

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Sometimes, as the gulls fly by they open their beak – and the love fest is over.

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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, while the 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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

THE GARDENS AT VILLA DURAZZO PALLAVICINI

Sori, 16 March 2021

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.

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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

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The Classical Avenue

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The Hermitage (which Canzio rather cleverly had built on the back of the Triumphal Arch which completed the Classical Avenue)

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The Amusement Park (where visitors could take a spin on the carousels)

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The Spring

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The Chapel of the Virgin Mary

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The Condottiere’s Castle

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The Condottiere’s Mausoleum

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The Inferno (made by taking the stalactites and stalagmites from other caves and placing them here; the environmentalist in me shudders)

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You could also visit the Inferno by boat

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And finally the Large Lake

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as well as the Gardens of Flora

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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This screenshot from Google Maps shows just how the motorway smashed its way through the hill under the gardens.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.