of plants! Vivaio Noaro, in the middle of a small town just up the valley from Ventimiglia, and somewhere we've been meaning to get to for the past few years - ever since one of our more respected plant suppliers in the West Country had spoken reverentially of the place as being one of the best nurseries he knew in the whole of Europe. The entire continent. Which was possibly the reason for our surprise, when we found it to be (from the outside) a couple of distinctly unpromising sheds and a fenced-off area in the middle of the town car park. "There must be more", we thought. "This is just the front-of-house, and we'll be directed to some vast acreage up in the hills, where all the good stuff is kept." But, no. This was it; all of it. And crammed to the gunwhales with treasure trove, it turned out to be. Vast quantities of plants, all in perfect condition, all neatly set out and (mostly) efficiently labelled: plants we'd only ever heard of, but never seen before; varieties of plants we would never have guessed even existed; things we had in mind, but had
had no idea where we could lay our hands on them...as well as all the more usual stuff, which we eschewed in favour of the things we wouldn't be able to get elsewhere (car space was limited, and Tuscany is well supplied with nurseries which sell run-of-the-mill). Twenty seven different varieties of Jasmine, alone! Water plants...ground covers...exotic grasses...more different kinds of bamboos, and lilacs than you could shake a stick at....and on...and on. And two hours later, we eventually left...along with three water hyacinths, a prostrate bamboo, a talboteana (plus two other interesting, and hitherto unknown groundcovers), three different kinds of tulbaghia, two jasmines (a nitidum and an angolare), a dietes grandiflora (almost impossible to find!), a Sollya Heterofila (ditto) a vinca minor Getrude Jekyll, and a dwarf papyrus. They swayed gently in the driving mirror along the autostrada del sole, all the way back to Pisa.
And that was the one drawback. The autostrada del sole. I know hidden treasure is generally to be found only after having met and overcome various challenges, rescued maidens, slayed dragons, etc...but the autostrada del sole is actually asking a bit too much, frankly. Things might have been better had we not decided, on our way out of Pisa, that the clutch, which was due to be replaced next week anyway, did not inspire sufficient confidence to embark with it on a 700 kilometre journey, round-trip - so, we left the car in the long term car park at the airport, and transferred into a rental job. Which was small, and rather tinny, and felt not unlike trying to steer a recalcitrant supermarket trolley; I felt I had to hang on to the steering wheel for dear life, in order to prevent the car from being wobbled off-course by every Formula One driver (and every Italian driver is one) who decided to demonstrate their machismo by overtaking at great speed. And even that might not have been too bad, except for the nature of the road, which climbs into the hills beyond La Spezia, and then comprises a series of long tunnels (which are fine) which then debouch suddenly onto stretches of roadway elevated many hundreds (thousands?) of feet above the valleys below...two (narrow) lanes wide, and only a
thin guide rail between the road, and certain death only inches away to either side. The stretches of elevated road are sometimes only a couple of hundred metres long....and sometimes more like a kilometre or so. I speak as one who is unnerved even by that bit of post-war road engineering at the Hogarth roundabout in Hammersmith, which has a drop on either side of all of twenty feet or so. By the time we eventually reached Ventimiglia, it had been the white-knuckle ride to end all white-knuckle rides, and I was reduced to a quivering heap on the floor of the car. And the TD (who still can't drive, since his shoulder hasn't fully recovered) had subsided into helpless silence.
And the other reason for the journey had been to go and see the Hanbury Garden, just on the other side of Ventimiglia. For decades, one of the glories of the riviera, the garden passed in the sixties from the Hanburys into the hands of the Italian State, and since 1987, has been the responsibility of the University of Genoa. Who should be ashamed of themselves. On entering the garden, before we'd had time to look round, we asked one of the senior gardeners what he did against chafer bugs (having found one on one of the roses just beside the entrance gate). "Oh", he said, "there's really nothing you can do about those...so we don't do anything". Which, on the face of it, sounded quite depressing, since chafer bugs are a perennial problem in the garden in Pisa. Except that, having walked around the place a bit, we soon realised that the staff there take the same approach to watering, weeding, pruning, and indeed any aspect whatsoever of garden maintenance. A worse example of careless neglect it would be hard to imagine. A once glorious garden in a pitiful and unnecessary state of decay....they have twice as many gardeners working there as there are at Ninfa, which is in a perfect condition, and, judging from the numbers of people visiting, combined with the not insignificant entrance fee, they have a much more generous revenue stream as well. Inexcusable. It was worth going to see, just to get a sense of what once had been...but as a garden visit, it was on a parallel with a trip to Pompeii, with nothing on view but sadly decayed remains.
Which was what also became of the 'home' car, which, once we were back, I collected from the airport car park in Pisa, and then drove to La Gabella, to collect the four-footed. I suppose it could have been worse, and the clutch could have given up in somewhere like Colignola, instead of in San Giuliano Terme, which is what it did. Conclusively. I think the clutch cable gave way...but, whatever it was, the car gave up the ghost, and I managed, just, to get it off the road, before conceding defeat. With no cell phone on me, all I could do was lock it up and leave it there, in the middle of the Tuscan countryside, before walking the slightly puzzled four-footed all the way home from there. Fortunately, we were able to call the garage and arrange a pick-up truck, just before everybody disappeared for the weekend...I imagine if it had been left to the gardeners at Hanbury to sort out, it would still be there several months from now, minus a couple of wheels and all its mirrors, while they stood around scratching their bottoms and wondering what's for lunch!
Bouchées a là Reine
Pork Chops, stuffed with Gruyère and lardo; Fava Beans in Parsley Cream