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.
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.
These are remains of Vindobona, which is now Vienna
And these are remains of Juvavum, which is now Salzburg
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.
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.
The windmills, wonders of modern technology, tower over the countryside, their blades slowly turning in the wind.
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.
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.
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.
One of the things which my wife and I agree went up during our first Covid lockdown last spring was our consumption of wine. Those long evenings when we couldn’t go out anywhere tended to encourage larger suppers accompanied by copious servings of wine, servings which were repeated when we had finished eating and had settled down for our evening’s entertainment – old TV series which we found on YouTube. When we got out of lockdown, our wine consumption went back down to normal. But when we went into our second lockdown, the wine consumption went up again. What to do, we have to pass the time as pleasantly as possible.
We get our wines from the two or three local mini-markets which are close at hand. I make a bee-line for the sections devoted to 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 – and I find that that red wines from the south of the country have more depth and body to them than the better-known reds from northern Italy; they are considerably cheaper, too. 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. One day, I will write a post about southern Italian red wines, but today I want to write about something quite different.
A few weeks ago, as I was scouring the shelves of one of the mini-markets, looking for a wine we hadn’t tried, I came across this:
“This” is a bottle of red wine from Puglia, with a classification of Indicazione Geografica Tipica, i.e., pretty good but not up there among the stars. Nothing out of the ordinary so far. But what caught my attention was the phrase on the label da uve leggermente appassite: “from grapes that have been slightly dried”. I vaguely knew about the “passito” method of making wine, which meant that the grapes have been dried out before being crushed and pressed. After polishing off the bottle with my wife (more on this later), I decided to do a bit of research on the “passito” method (which for the most part consisted of reading a bunch of Wikipedia articles). I can now happily share my newfound knowledge with those of my readers who, like me, are not super experts on wine (those who are super experts had better just skip to the end).
The first thing I discovered is that “appassimento” (the procedure of drying grapes and making them “passiti”) is actually one of three procedures which are used in grape-growing regions with the primary purpose of concentrating the sugars in the grapes. And the reason for concentrating the sugars is to be able to make strong, sweet wines, usually drunk with desserts (hence often being called “dessert wines” in English).
“Appassimento” is the most obvious, and therefore the oldest, of these three procedures: there is evidence of sweet wines being made this way already 6,000 years ago in Cyprus. There are various ways of carrying out “appassimento”. One is simply to leave the grapes on the vine longer than you normally would, so that they overripen and have higher than normal sugar levels; they also tend to lose water and shrivel, which also increases sugar concentrations. Canny wine-makers can play with the amount of “appassimento” they allow. They can have just a bit of “appassimento” (which is probably how the Puglia wine I mentioned earlier was made).
Or they can go the whole hog and choose extreme “appassimento”.
Of course, the longer wine-makers wait, the greater the risk that something will go wrong (bad weather, mould, etc.). But the more interesting can be the flavours so generated. A variant to this approach is to leave the grape bunches on the vine but twist their stem, to “strangle” them as it were. If I understood correctly, this hastens the “appassimento” process, so that you can avoid the risks but enjoy the advantages – having your cake and eating it.
You can also harvest the grapes at the normal time but then let them dry in the sun.
Or, if you’re not too sure of the weather, you can do it inside.
Wines made this way are called straw wines (vin de paille in the original French), because the grape bunches were originally laid down on straw to dry out.
As readers can imagine, all this works better in places with lots of sun, which is no doubt one of the reasons why Cyprus holds the prize for the earliest use of the procedure.
Let me at this point throw in some examples of sweet wines made this way. Since my investigations were started with an Italian wine, I’ll give Italy pride of place, while recognizing that all of the southern European countries, as well as the New World wine-making countries, make this kind of wine. Even in Italy, there are numerous such wines, so I’ll just mention a couple, chosen for the completely banal reason that they are from lovely places. Thus, we have the various Vinsanti from Tuscany.
And then we have Malvasia delle Lipari passito, made in the small islands of Lipari and Eolie off the coast of Sicily.
In the second procedure used to concentrate sugars in grapes, you allow your grapes to be attacked by a fungus, the Botrytis cinerea. The fungus shrivels the grapes and increases sugar concentrations, thus allowing wine-makers to make a sweet wine. For rendering this useful service, the fungus has been named the “noble rot”.
For the noble rot to work properly, you need specific humidity conditions at specific times of the day at specific times of the year, so there are only a few places in the world where you can use this procedure. And you have to be damned careful that the fungus doesn’t run riot in your vineyards, otherwise you get another form of the fungus, “grey rot”, which completely ruins your harvest. It seems that Hungarian winemakers were the earliest to figure out how to harness Botrytis cinerea to make sweet wines, having done so by the 16th Century.
You really have to ask yourself how anyone – Hungarian or otherwise – figured this procedure out. My assumption is that when one year some wine makers found themselves with a harvest of grapes on their hands which had been attacked by the fungus, rather than just throw the grapes away they decided to go ahead and make wine anyway, reasoning that even a bad wine was better than none at all, and were pleasantly surprised by the result.
As examples of what are, sensibly enough, called botrytised wines, I’ll mention Tokaji from Hungary, because that seems to be the granddaddy of this kind of wine.
And I’ll mention Sauternes from the Bordeaux region of France, perhaps the most famous of the botrytised wines.
The third and final procedure is used to make so-called ice wines. Here, you leave the grapes on the vines until January/February. The precise time you pick the grapes crucially depends on the outside temperature: picking must take place the first time the temperature drops to -7°C, which normally means picking the grapes at night, picking them quickly, and pressing them immediately.
What is happening is that the water in the grapes is turned to ice but not the sugars. When you press the grapes, the iced water stays with the must, and the resulting grape juice has very high levels of sugars. The procedure is a relative newbie: it was only discovered at the very end of the 18th Century, in Germany.
As an example of an ice wine, I’ll mention Canadian ice wines.
This may seem a surprising choice, but it allows me to slip in a mention of what is probably the greatest environmental disaster staring us in the face: climate change. Because of climate change, it is getting more and more difficult to make ice wine reliably in the northernmost wine-growing regions of Europe where the procedure was first developed, because it is becoming rarer and rarer for the temperatures there to drop sufficiently low. But because temperatures still drop reliably every year to -7°C in Canada, its wine regions, particularly those in Ontario, have stepped into the breach and have become the world’s major producers of ice wine.
Readers will no doubt have noticed that all the examples I have given so far are of white wines, and indeed most of the wines made in these three ways are white, using grape varieties like muscat, malvasia, and riesling. But – as my discovery in the mini-market shows – some red wines are also made this way. Since, as I pointed out earlier, I’m more of a fan of red wines than white wines, I want to finish this post by fighting for the red corner, and will do so by mentioning three red wines, all from northern Italy, and all passito wines.
Two come from the Valpolicella region, which lies north of Verona and east of Lake Garda – in this photo, you can see the lake in the distance.
The first of the two red passito wines from here is Recioto della Valpolicella. This, like most passito wines, is a sweet wine, and indeed this photo suggests its use as a dessert wine.
Perhaps at this point I should reveal that I’m not a great fan of sweet wines. I don’t deny that they can be very tasty, but I feel that somehow – and I’m sure this is just a ridiculous prejudice – sweet wines are not serious. This prejudice of mine is most extreme when it comes to red wines; I’ve signaled this already in an earlier post about sparkling Italian red wines, most of which are sweet. To my mind, for red wines to be serious they must be dry. So it comes as a relief for me to able to introduce the second wine from Valpolicella, the Amarone della Valpolicella.
This is a dry wine. Its name signals this, Amarone being derived from the Italian word “amaro”, which means bitter or sour. The wine is not really bitter or sour; it probably refers to the fact that this wine originally came from batches of Recioto della Valpolicella where the fermentation hadn’t stopped and so the sugars had all been turned into alcohol: so from sweet to sour.
Which leads me naturally to my final red passito wine, another dry wine, the Sfursat. This comes from the Valtellina valley in upper Lombardy, upstream of Lake Como (and of the hike along the Sentiero del Viandante which my wife and I did last year).
Let me throw in here a photo of grapes drying in readiness to become sfursat.
And here is a photo of a bottle of sfursat, which gives me an excuse to have a photo of that inescapable part of the wine world, a wine cellar.
At this point, I have to make another revelation. Neither my wife nor I have ever tried any of these three wines. But now we have an excuse to try some different wines during lockdown! (we’ll have to accept to fork out considerably more cash than we are used to, though, but hey! no pain, no gain).
And what about the Puglia wine that started this whole post? As I poured it into our glass wines I was half afraid that it would be sweet, but no, it turned out to be a dry wine, which was a relief. As we sipped it, we felt that the intense and bright red colour of the wine, characterized by delicate purplish hues, was the perfect expression of its complex and fruity bouquet. Balsamic notes of blackberries, spirited cherries and plum jam were smartly dressed by elegant sweet spicy scents. It was warm, round, and with a good balance of tannins … OK, I confess, I just copied all that last bit from the label on the back. As I commented in a post written years ago, I’m always impressed by the bullshit wine merchants come up with. My wife and I, we just went mmm, yummy! And the next day, I bought another couple of bottles.
In these times of Covid restrictions, my wife and I have been exploring hikes closer to home, hikes which allow us to more or less stay within the limits of the commune of Milan, or at least not stray too far outside of it. The latest such hike we’ve done has taken us along one of the old canals which radiate out from Milan, the Naviglio della Martesana. I fear we might have exceeded the legal limit of where we could go. In our defence, the designations of which Covid tier Milan is in has been changing from day to day, making it quite hard to know just how far we are allowed to travel outside of Milan. I trust my readers will not snitch on us!
In any event, the hike was some 30 km long, undertaken over several days, and took us from the north-east of Milan out to the river Adda, which drains lake Como. It’s not a physically challenging hike. Following a canal means no brutal climbs or descents, and the path is paved the whole way – the path is actually a bicycle path, and the only real challenge is to keep out of the way of bicyclists who race along at high speeds, their riders no doubt dreaming of fame and glory in the Tour de France or Giro d’Italia.
First, a little bit of history. Building of the canal started in 1460, under Francesco Sforza, the first of the Sforza dynasty to rule over the Duchy of Milan.
The canal took its waters from the river Adda (which at the time was the Duchy’s eastern frontier with Venice) and carried them over the flat plain that lies between the river Adda and Milan, passing various towns and crossing various rivers along the way. At first, it finished several kilometres to the north of the city, emptying into the river Seveso, but then in 1496 Francesco’s son, Galeazzo Maria, extended it with a short new canal, the Naviglio di San Marco, and joined it up with the series of canals which encircled Milan, the Cerchia dei Navigli.
This map shows the track of the canal.
Alert readers will have noticed the trace of the canal is not all that straight, it zigs and zags a bit. The topography certainly didn’t require this – there was no need to go around hills and such like. The land between the river Adda and Milan is as flat as a pancake, so by rights – to reduce construction costs – the canal should have been a straight line between river and city. But all the landowners on that flat plain wanted the canal to come their way so that they could use the water to irrigate their fields. And the towns that dotted the plain wanted the canal as a source of water and to keep their moats topped up. All these different groups brought pressure to bear on the canal’s planners, so the canal ended up winding this way and that way across the plain as those who had the most influence pulled the canal towards them. Which is just as well for me and my wife; walking along a dead straight canal would have been very monotonous.
There were also quarrels right from the start about which uses of the canal should get priority. As we’ve seen, the landowners wanted to use it for irrigation. But a good number of them also wanted to use its energy to drive watermills, as did the towns. And the landowners also wanted the canal as a means of transportation to bring their (mainly) agricultural goods to market. For their part, the rulers of Milan were more interested in the canal as a means of transportation to move goods and so promote the city’s and the Duchy’s economy. They also wanted it to be part of their defensive system against the dratted Venetians to the East. Irrigation tended to drop the level of water in the canal, which was a problem for navigation since the boats wouldn’t have enough draft as well as for the mills because the flow wouldn’t be strong enough to drive the wheels. But maintaining enough draft and a swift enough flow meant cutting back on irrigation, which was bad for the crops. Tempers flared, lawsuits were filed, and no doubt swords were drawn. In the end, though, a modus vivendi was arrived at, and from the 1580s onwards irrigation coexisted more or less peacefully with other uses of the canal’s waters.
At some point, the Milanese aristocracy discovered the delights of the countryside and many built villas along the canal, reachable by boat from their houses in town. So we have this painting from 1790 of one of these villas in Crescenzago (now on the outskirts of Milan), showing also the normal traffic along the canal.
And we have here a painting from 1834 of the Milanese extension of the canal, the Naviglio San Marco, just before it joined the Cerchia dei Navigli.
Then the industrial revolution came along. New means of transportation competed with canals, first railways then roads. The Martesana canal steadily lost out to these upstarts and was only able to remain competitive when heavy lifting was required: sand, stone, coal, wood. Here we have one of those loads being moved along the canal (shown in the-then new medium of photography).
In the meantime, exploding populations meant that villages along the canal grew and became urbanized, as shown in this photo of the same Crescenzago which was the subject of my first painting above.
These growing villages bled into each other, smothering the farmland that once lay between them, with the ones closer to Milan being in turn submerged by the expansion of that city, eventually becoming its outer suburbs. Much of the growth around Milan was driven by the factories which established themselves on its periphery. A good number of them were located along the Martesana canal and Milan’s other canals, as this photo shows.
In 1929, the demand for road space to ease vehicle congestion in Milan (along, it must be said, with a need to deal with public health concerns) meant that the Cerchia dei Navigli was covered over, along with the Naviglio San Marco.
In the late 1950s, the authorities overseeing the canal bowed to reality and decreed that the canal would no longer be used for transportation, only irrigation. Finally, in 1968, after the municipal authorities had concluded that the covers of the Cerchia dei Navigli and the Naviglio San Marco were in danger of collapsing, they decided to simply fill these in and reroute the waters of the Martesana canal into an overflow canal. This went around the inner core of the city and emptied into the dried-up bed of the Seveso river south of the city. The authorities also decided that more space was needed for Milan’s burgeoning car population and so covered another section several kilometers long at the canal’s end and turned this into a wide avenue, via Melchiorre Gioia.
And so out in the countryside, irrigation had finally won the centuries-long arguments about irrigation vs. navigation, while in Milan itself the canal had become a relic of a bygone era, slowly falling apart and becoming for all intents and purposes an open drain.
Luckily, as I’ve also mentioned in a much earlier post about an abandoned railway line, good sense eventually prevailed. Led by Milan, in the 1980s the communes through which the canal passed got their act together. They cleaned up the canal’s towpath and turned it into a cycle path, and generally encouraged their citizens to use the canal as a park. That’s where things stood when my wife and I embarked on our hike along the canal.
We started where the canal’s waters disappear under via Melchiorre Gioia.
We turned our backs on the city and started walking out towards the distant Adda river. One of the old houses which had graced the canal in its heyday greeted us. As part of the urban renewal which accompanied the upgrading of the canal in the 1980s, its owners had renovated it and painted it a welcoming yellow.
But already, hulking over this old building, we could see the blocks of flats put up during the 1960s and 70s as the city expanded outwards at breakneck speed. It was a harbinger of things to come, as we walked for kilometres through a jumble of old and abandoned, old but renewed, shining new, and new but already showing signs of wear and tear. Even though drawn in 1945, this cartoon captures beautifully the chaos of today’s urban reality which the old canal now threads its way through.
Here we have one railway bridge after another spanning the canal.
New blocks of flats giving onto the canal.
The jumble of tiny gardens which people have carved out of spaces along the canal.
Industrial chimneys, relics of factories which once abutted the canal.
in the next case being recycled into a new use as a pole on which to fix transmitters of the newest means of communication, mobile phones.
Old houses which have been lucky enough to be renovated
Others which are struggling against the odds.
As befits an urban backwater, and as the last photo attests, graffiti on every wall. Most of it the usual ugly, mindless initials, but some eye-catching:
– an impossibly elaborate flower turning into a person on the arch of a railway bridge
– an amusing reminder that we are walking along a bicycle path
– a swirl of brightness
– square upon square of colour
The first of the villas which used to grace the canal’s edge
once surrounded by countryside, but now hemmed in and overshadowed by ugly modernity
The walls again, but this time carriers of messages, most of the lovesick type:
– “I love you Vale”
but sometimes in a more reflective, philosophical tone, which seemed apt in this urban chaos we were walking through:
– “What a shitty life”
and a line from Bob Marley and the Wailers’ 1973 song, the aptly titled “Concrete Jungle”
Finally, on the outskirts of Milan, the first encounter with the countryside, but an encounter showing it to be beleaguered and under threat from the urban sprawl at our backs:
– An example of one of the many crumbling ruins of farmhouses which dot the Italian countryside, victims to rural flight over the last sixty years
– the use of the countryside as a place to flytip our urban wastes
We passed under the ring motorway which is effectively the border of Milan. Had we broken out of the concrete jungle? Alas not. The housing continued. We passed the broken down gate of what must once have been the water gate of a fine villa but which now gives onto an ugly, messy, nondescript yard; the villa itself has vanished.
Spanking new, neat and tidy blocks of flats, but in places which the French call quartiers dortoirs, dormitory districts, places with no shops, no amenities, nothing – just places where commuters can sleep before heading back into town to work.
But a more rural feel began to creep in.
Cottages along the waterfront.
And finally, after some 15 kilometres of walking, some real fields! With the snow-capped mountains glistening on the horizon.
One of the irrigation channels fed by the canal, the water cascading away.
The last villa we passed, and the most imposing of them all, the Villa Alari.
Its history is a metaphor for the canal’s history as a whole. It was built at the beginning of the 18th Century on a magnificent scale, as this print shows.
So magnificent was it that the Austrian Governor of Lombardy, Archduke Ferdinand, rented it over several summers and even negotiated, without success, to buy it (his mother, the Empress Maria Theresa, nixed the idea, considering the asking price too high). After passing down through the Alari family and, by marriage, into a branch of the Visconti family, it was donated by its last Visconti owner in 1944 to the Brothers Hospitallers of Saint John of God in Milan. By then, it had lost the lands around it and with them its magnificent gardens. The Brothers first used the villa as a psychiatric hospital and then as a nursing home. In 2007, they palmed it off onto the municipality, which must be asking itself what the hell to do with the building.
Another of those large farm complexes which dot the plains of the River Po and which, like so many others, has been pretty much abandoned (it was so large it needed two photos to capture it).
In the distance, the new housing complexes of today, feeding their inhabitants to Milan via an extension of one of the city’s subway lines – one of the new forms of transportation which took the place of the canal.
One of the few remaining locks on the canal, which are sadly firmly and irrevocably shut.
One last look across a ploughed field at the mountains, closer now, their snow glistening in the sun.
And we finally arrived in Cassano d’Adda, perched on the river, where we took the train back to Milan.
“The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.”
Holly is a nice plant. With its lovely shiny green leaves and strongly red berries, it really does bring a brightness to our lives just when we most need it. I was struck by this most forcefully last December, when my wife and I were hiking through the woods around Lake Maggiore and Lake Como (a pleasure that is currently denied us by the latest round of Covid lockdowns). The trees were all bare and drear, the rustling underfoot as we trod over dead leaves reminding us of the lovely greenery that had covered them just a few months before. Suddenly, we spied a bright cheerful green among the trees. It was a holly tree.
Quite soon, a few more popped up between the bare trees.
No doubt we were traversing a zone where soil and climate conspired to give the holly a competitive advantage.
It was a pleasure to see holly in the wild. Before then, I’d only ever seen holly trees tamed and manicured to within an inch of their lives in a garden, a splash of dark green against the lighter green of lawn
Or used as a well-trained, well-trimmed hedge.
And of course I’d seen holly as part of the wreaths which people hang on their doors at Christmastime.
This connection between Christmas and holly is very old. When you strip away all the layers of religiosity that envelop Christmas, it’s really a feast about the winter solstice, a celebration of when the sun, which has been dying and allowing the days to get ever shorter and nature to die, is reborn, slowly making the days become longer and nature come alive again. In our festivities welcoming the rebirth of the sun, it made perfect sense for us to use plants like holly which are still green at the winter solstice, to remind the sun of the job it had to do to make everything else green again.
Thus we have the Romans decorating their homes with holly during their feast of Saturnalia, a winter solstice feast where there was a lot of gift-giving, feasting and merrymaking (a lot of other things happened during Saturnalia which need not detain us here, but any reader interested in Roman goings on can read about them here).
Funnily enough, when early Christians followed Roman practice and hung holly in their homes and churches, the pagans around them told them not to – I suppose they thought these bloody Christians were desecrating their festival. But at the same time the Church Fathers were also telling them not to, finding this ritual really too pagan for words. Luckily for us, the Christian-on-the- street ignored both the pesky pagans and kill-joy Church Fathers and continued to hang holly in their homes and houses of worship. Which in turn has allowed us to sing over the ages (in my case, somewhat off-key),
“Deck the halls with boughs of holly
Fa la la la la, la la la la
‘Tis the season to be jolly
Fa la la la la, la la la la”
Presumably, as the legions marched outwards from the Roman heartlands they took with them their Saturnalia festival. Holly (at least the species which grows around Rome) is present in just about all the European regions and some of the North African regions which the Romans conquered (the green crosses mean isolated populations, and the orange triangles indicate places where the holly was introduced and became naturalized).
So no doubt halls were also decked with holly in the Roman colonies of western Europe and North Africa. In fact, it is possible that our Christmas love affair with holly in Western Europe has its roots in the Romans’ Saturnalia festival.
Or perhaps not. Because holly was also a special plant for the Celtic tribes of Northern Europe: the map above shows that holly was very much present in their heartlands. They too decked their halls with holly, and for much the same reasons as the Romans: the plant’s evergreen leaves and bright red berries brought cheer to an otherwise dreary time of the year, and they were a reminder that greenery had not disappeared for ever, that it would soon be back, warmed by a re-born and newly vigorous sun.
The Celts saw holly as a symbol of fertility and eternal life, and imparted many magical powers to the plant. Hanging holly in homes was believed to bring good luck. During winter, branches of holly in the house would provide shelter from the cold for fairies, who in return would be kind to those who lived in the dwelling. In the same vein, holly was believed to guard people against evil spirits. So Druids wore holly garlands on their heads, as did chieftains. Holly trees were often planted around homes; because holly was believed to repel lightning this would protect homes from lightning strikes. Just as the oak tree was considered the ruler of summer, so the holly was seen as the ruler of winter, the dark time. As such, holly was associated with dreams and Druids would often invoke the energy of holly to assist them in their dream work and spiritual journeying. Here is one rather fanciful modern depiction of the magical powers of holly.
Holly is not the only evergreen plant which has been caught up in our Christmas celebrations. There’s the Christmas tree, of course.
“O Christmas tree, o Christmas tree
Thy leaves are so unchanging
Not only green when summer’s here
But also when it’s cold and drear”
The custom of using pine trees in Christmas celebrations started in modern-day Estonia and Latvia, by the way, during the Middle Ages and spread out from there. The trees were traditionally decorated with flowers made of colored paper, apples, wafers, tinsel and sweetmeats. I would say that the original idea was to remind us that trees would soon be a-fruiting again.
Then there’s the mistletoe.
“When I close my eyes
It’s just you and I
Here under the mistletoe
Magic fills the air
Standin’ over there
Santa hear my prayer
Hеre under the mistlеtoe”
Our wanting to steal a kiss under the mistletoe is a pale reflection of an ancient belief that mistletoe brought fecundity into a home – its white berries were considered to be the sperm of the oak tree.
Kissing under the mistletoe will never feel the same again now that I’ve read that.
I actually have a sense that just about any evergreen plant was made part of Christmas celebrations in some place and at some time – after all, if the point of having evergreen plants around was to remind us of the newly green world just around the corner, any evergreen plant should surely do the trick. I rather like a Christmas decoration that was once popular and summed up all the ideas around the use of evergreens in a celebration of the re-birth of the sun. This was the Kissing Bough. It was a popular Christmas decoration before the pine tree dethroned it and came to dominate our Christmases. To make one, five wooden hoops were tied together in the shape of a ball (four hoops vertical to form the ball and the fifth horizontal to go around the middle). The hoops were then covered with whatever evergreen plants were at hand: holly, ivy, rosemary, bay, fir or anything else (signifying the vegetation to come). An apple was hung inside the ball (signifying the fruits to come) and a candle was placed inside the ball at the bottom (signifying the re-birth of light). The Bough was finished by hanging a large bunch of mistletoe from the bottom of the ball (signifying the fecundity to come).
Coming back to holly, before we get carried away with all this magical imagery and mystical meanings (and let me tell you, the Internet is awash with reams of magico-mystico stuff on holly), let’s go back even beyond our Celtic and Roman forebears to a time when we were mere hunter-gatherers. Etymologists believe that the word “holly” has its origins in the Old English word hole(ġ)n. This is related to the Old Low Franconian word *hulis, and both are related to Old High German hulis, huls. These Germanic words appear to be related to words for holly in the Celtic languages, such as Welsh celyn, Breton kelen(n) and Irish cuileann. Probably all come from Proto-Indo-European root *kel- “to prick”.
What an eminently sensible lot, the hunter-gatherers were, to give this plant a name which stressed its prickliness! Yes, holly is nice to look at, but get close and you immediately notice something else: its leaves have very sharp spines.
This is not a tree to hide under or climb: something I learned as a child when I was once violently pushed into a holly hedge by another, very nasty, child. Ouch, it bloody hurt!
Wagram: A region close to the River Danube upstream of Vienna, where there are steep terraces made up of deposits of loess laid down millions of years ago.
“Wagram” is a composite of two Middle High German words: “wac” (moving water, river) and “rain” (meadow, slope). So Wagram means Slope by the Water or Bank. No doubt these terraces were created centuries ago by a meander of the Danube which then changed course at some point, because there’s not much water by these slopes now. Vineyards have been planted on many of the terraces where the slopes are not too abrupt.
I suppose the sandy soil of the loess is good for vines. The wine – mostly made with Grüner Veltliner grapes – is good enough to have given the region its own wine name, “Wagram”. In some of the steeper slopes wine cellars have been dug directly into the loess.
We’ve been climbing up and down these terraces throughout the summer, principally because we’ve been hiking along sections of the pilgrim path to St. James of Compostela, known as Jacobsweg in this part of the world. The path happens to run along the loess terraces.
Many a village which stands at the foot of these terraces has added “Wagram” to its name. So we’ve walked through Fels am Wagram, Kirchberg am Wagram, Königsbrunn am Wagram, Stetteldorf am Wagram, Eggendorf am Wagram, … (there’s even a Wagram am Wagram, which seems a bit exaggerated).
Deutsch-Wagram: Sharp-eyed readers will no doubt have noticed that on the map above, a village of this name is marked. It is across the Danube from Vienna and a little to the north-east of it. It too sits on deposits of loess, although the slopes of the terraces here are very gentle, almost imperceptible. The village stands on the northern edge of a flat plain, the Marchfeld plain, which is rich agricultural land. There’s really nothing much to say about this village. I’ve looked at its Wikipedia entry and sifted through photos of the place online, but I could find nothing of any substance to report – except for one thing: it gave half of its name to one of Napoleon I’s major battles.
Battle of Wagram: It was fought in early July 1809 not too far from where I’m writing this. Napoleon had captured Vienna in May, but the Austrian Emperor had not capitulated, and the bulk of the Austrian army was undefeated and was camped on the Marchfeld plain across the Danube from Vienna. Napoleon concluded that until he had beaten this army no peace could be concluded. He therefore decided to get his army across the Danube onto the Marchfeld plain and give battle. His first attempt, in May, using the island of Lobau as his entry point into the plain, was a costly failure. This has come down in history as the battle of Essling, taking its name from the village of Essling around which much of the fighting took place.
Learning from his mistakes, Napoleon prepared his army’s crossing of the Danube through Lobau with far more care and this time the crossing was successful. And so by the early hours of 5 July the two armies were facing each other across the Marchfeld plain. This rather fine old map shows the battleground nicely.
The Austrian commander, Archduke Charles, knew that Napoleon would cross again at Lobau and had set up his positions along the slight ridge of loess, placing himself at the centre of the Austrian line, in the village of Deutsch-Wagram. That slight ridge, along with a marshy stream which ran at its foot and which acted as a fine defensive barrier, put the Austrians in a good position. I do not propose to give a detailed blow-by-blow account of the battle. A few fanciful paintings of a propagandist nature will suffice.
The reality of the battle was grimmer. After two days of hard fighting, the Austrian army retired in good order while the French army was too knackered to properly pursue it. The French claimed victory, and although that was technically correct the “victory” didn’t change the strategic situation. After another inconclusive battle 5 days later at Znaïm, the two sides agreed to an armistice.
The battle of Wagram and the previous battle of Essling had been very costly. The casualties were very high on both sides, but for the French, after more than 10 years of almost continuous fighting, it was harder to make up the losses. Napoleon’s enemies had finally understood his strategies and were beginning to emulate them. There were going to be no more spectacular victories with relatively light losses as there had been in the past. Many see the battle of Wagram as the beginning of the end for Napoleon.
Avenue de Wagram: One of the twelve avenues that radiate out from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Although now largely forgotten, the avenue’s naming in 1864 was originally a piece of propaganda by the-then Emperor Napoleon III. It was always useful for him to glorify the deeds of his uncle Napoleon I, it was a way of burnishing his rather more doubtful credentials. Baron Haussmann was busy creating a new urban landscape for Paris at the time, which, among other things, meant that the area around the Arc de Triomphe was being remodeled. The Arc had originally been built as a memorial to one of Napoleon I’s greatest victories, the battle of Austerlitz. When his ashes were returned from the island of St. Helena in 1840, they passed through the Arc de Triomphe on their way to his final resting place in Les Invalides.
Why not, then, turn the area around the Arc into a memorial to the first Napoleon’s military genius? And so, in 1864, a number of the new avenues radiating out from the Arc were named after Emperor Napoleon’s more famous battles (his earlier battles when he was a mere revolutionary general or even First Consul were ignored): along with the Avenue de Wagram, there was the Avenue d’Essling which I’ve already mentioned, the Avenue d’Iéna, celebrating the battle of 1806 fought at Jena in Thuringia, during which Napoleon pulverized the Prussian army, the Avenue de Friedland, celebrating the battle of 1807 fought in what was then eastern Prussia, during which Napoleon decisively beat the Russian army, and the Avenue d’Eylau, commemorating a battle fought four months prior to Friedland in the same neck of the woods. One other avenue was named the Avenue de la Grande Armée, to commemorate Napoleon’s imperial army which had fought in all of these battles and more during his campaigns from 1804 to 1814. To cap it off, a circular road which runs around the Arc de Triomphe had one half of the circle named rue de Presbourg, commemorating the treaty of Presbourg signed with Austria after the victory at Austerlitz, and the other half named rue de Tilsit, commemorating the treaty of Tilsit signed with Russia after the victory at Friedland. As a cherry on the Napoleonic propaganda cake, a number of the remaining avenues were named after members of the Napoleonic clan. Quite understandably, all these last avenues had their names changed later when Napoleon III was toppled, along with the avenues commemorating the battles of Essling and Eylau (not surprising really; as we’ve seen, Napoleon actually lost the battle of Essling and he only just won the battle of Eylau).
I’m sure all this propaganda from the past is lost on the avenue’s current inhabitants. The only thing that seems to matter today is that Avenue de Wagram is a very chic place to live. While not situated in the “seizième arrondissement”, the 16th district of Paris, the city’s toniest district, it is still a very desirable place to put on your calling card. Real estate on the avenue is eyewateringly expensive. This is a view of the avenue from the top of the Arc de Triomphe.
As befits such a moneyed area, it is represented in Parliament by a member of the right-of-centre party Les Républicains, Ms. Brigitte Kuster.
Salle Wagram: Whatever the Napoleonic propagandists might have wanted, for the people of Paris the area around what became Avenue de Wagram near the Arc de Triomphe had been a place where you went and had fun ever since the Revolution. The ball got rolling with a drinking hole where you could also dance. Then came theatres, music halls, concert-cafés, and then cinemas. Perhaps the most famous of these palaces of fun was the Salle Wagram, a large hall built in 1865. It was located at 39bis, avenue de Wagram.
It was famous as a place where Gay Paree went to dance the night away.
But it was also a place for exhibitions and other “serious” shows, like the First Cycling Exhibition of 1894.
The money took over from the fun. All the places of entertainment other than Salle Wagram and a couple of others have disappeared, leaving space for expensive offices and apartments. C’est la vie, as the French philosophically remark.
Station Wagram: The name of a station in Paris’s subway system, one of many.
It serves Avenue de Wagram, although it’s actually located on a small street that crosses the avenue – the avenue’s greater name recognition decided the station’s naming. Opened in 1911, many of the initial travellers no doubt used the station to go to Salle Wagram or the other entertainment spots in the area. But now it probably only services workers whose offices are in the area and the cleaners and other domestics who work in the surrounding rich apartments. The station itself is nothing to write home about. Perhaps it was more interesting architecturally when first opened, but the modernizations of the 1960s have left it a bog-standard station.
Its one saving grace is its entrance, which harbours one of Hector Guimard’s delightful Art Nouveau floral designs.
So it is that by the vagaries of history, loess terraces in eastern Austria were transmuted into a dot on the Parisian subway map 1200 km away.
Just look at that maple! What a magnificent yellow its leaves turned!
My wife and I walked under it during a hike we did a couple of weeks ago. We were following the edge of a wood and lo and behold! there it was.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, as we have been walking the woods these last few weeks the trees have been putting on their autumnal colours. We have been bathed in yellows of all hues, turning to russet, and finally to dark brown.
But what we have not been bathed in is reds. We have not witnessed the wonders of a North American Fall
or the splendour of an East Asian Autumn.
“Why is that?” I asked myself as I sat there gazing at my photo of that yellow maple tree, “why is it that North Americans and East Asians have splendid red hues in their autumn colours and we in Europe do not?”
To answer this, we are going to use a version of Root Cause Analysis called the “5 Whys”. This was something invented by Sakichi Toyoda, the father of the founder of Toyota, who claimed that you had to ask “Why?” (more or less) five times before you got to the root cause of something. His son used it extensively in his car factories as a quality control tool, to discover the fundamental reason – the root cause – for a quality failure (and at a much more modest scale I have used it to discover the root cause of a source of pollution or waste). A simple example goes as follows:
“Why the hell isn’t my car working?!”
Because the alternator isn’t functioning.
“Well why is the bloody alternator not functioning?!”
Because the alternator belt has broken.
“Oh. Why did the alternator belt break?”
Because it was well beyond its useful service life but has never been replaced.
“Ah. Why wasn’t it ever replaced?”
Because you, idiot that you are, didn’t maintain your car according to the recommended service schedule.
“Ah, right, OK, sorry about that.”
OK, so now we can start using the method on our little problem:
“Why do the leaves of many species in North America and East Asia go red, whereas so few do so in Europe?”
We see leaves as green because of the chlorophyll they contain. But leaves also contain other pigments, which if the chlorophyll were not there would make the leaves look yellow, orange, or all hues in between. The chlorophyll simply masks them.
In Europe, when autumn comes and the chlorophyll begins to disappear, these other pigments are finally allowed to “express themselves”, giving the leaves the beautiful hues of yellow that we see. This explains the fact that the maple we came across went from green to lovely canary yellow.
In North America and East Asia, something else happens when the chlorophyll begins to disappear from the leaves. There, trees begin to produce – from scratch – a red pigment, anthocyanin, in their leaves. This pigment masks – or perhaps “mixes with” – the yellow or orange pigments already there, to give various shades of red. Thus do North American and East Asian maples go from green to red.
“OK, but why do North American and East Asian species produce this red pigment at the end of their leaves’ lives?”
Yes indeed, it does seem that the trees and bushes which do this are penalizing themselves. Just when their leaves are about to fall off, part of the general shut-down for their winter slumber, the trees start expending precious energy to pump their dying leaves full of red pigment. The reason for this apparently foolish behaviour has to do with pest control and especially control of aphids (which I happened to mention in an earlier post on wood ants). Aphids have this nasty habit (as far as trees are concerned) of sucking amino acids from them in the Fall season, and then laying their eggs on them; the eggs hibernate along with the trees and give birth to a new generation of aphids in the Spring. So the trees get hit twice: they lose precious amino acids to those pesky aphids, and then the next year they have to endure attacks by the next generation of aphids! Now, it so happens that aphids believe that a brightly-coloured tree is a tree that is chemically well defended against predators, so they tend to avoid laying their eggs on such trees. So of course trees in North America and East Asia have evolved to turn themselves bright red in the Fall, just when the aphids are laying their eggs, by pumping their dying leaves full of anthocyanin.
“Why do aphids think a brightly-coloured tree is a chemically well defended tree?”
I thought you might ask that. The answer is, I don’t know. Stop being a smart-ass and move on to the next question.
“A bit touchy are we? Well OK, why don’t European trees make their leaves go red then?”
Because they don’t they have aphids which prey on them.
“Why is that? How can it be that aphids prey on the North American and East Asian trees and not on the European trees? What’s so special about European trees?”
Yes indeed, this is where it gets really interesting. To answer this, we have to go back 35 million years. At about this time, the northern hemisphere began to go through a series of ice ages and dry spells. Most trees reacted to this by going from being evergreen to deciduous. They also retreated southwards when the ice sheets advanced and returned northwards when the ice sheets retreated. In North America and East Asia, their predators of course went with them, evolving to deal with the fact that trees now lost their leaves and went dormant during the winter. In turn, the trees evolved to fight off these predators by, among other things, turning their leaves red in the Fall. This struggle between tree and predator continued even as the trees moved northwards or southwards as the ice sheets advanced or retreated. Thus, still today, the trees in those parts of the world go a glorious red in the Fall.
But in Europe, there were the Alps and their lateral branches, which ran east-west. In North America and East Asia, the mountain ranges, where they existed, ran north-south, so the trees in their periodic advances and retreats could “flow around” these mountains. In Europe, though, as the trees moved southwards to escape the ice sheets they hit the barrier of the Alps; there, they could go no further and so perished in the piercing cold. And so of course did the predators which they harboured. Only seeds were carried southwards, by birds or the wind or in some other fashion, and of course these seeds harboured no predators. Thus it was that European trees did not need to make red leaves and so they give us glorious shades of yellow in the Autumn.
There is at least one exception to this rule, and these are dwarf shrubs that grow in Scandinavia. They still colour their leaves red in autumn. Unlike the trees, dwarf shrubs managed to survive the ice ages; in the winter they would be covered by a layer of snow, which protected them from the extreme conditions above. But that blanket of snow also protected the insect predators! So the plants had to continue their struggle with their predators, and thus evolved to colour their leaves red. We have here an example, the smooth dwarf birch.
Well, that was an interesting use of the 5 Whys method! I must see if there are other issues I could use it on.