Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Sunday's in the Park

It was a surprise when my sister opened the door to her basement and I heard her shout into the abyss, “Who wants to get burned?” With all the snow and the continual need to keep the fire going in the wood-stove, reminiscent of a true Vestal Virgin, she was simply expressing her mounting frustration as she went downstairs to the woodpile for a few more sacrificial pieces of timber. With each new sacrifice, she was incrementally adding ash to what would eventual amount to a ceremonial cremation of Winter.

Here in the Northeast in the middle of March, what my sister needs, what we all honestly need, is to shake off cabin fever. We so want to smell the dirt in the garden once again and see Mother Nature apportion her broad brushstrokes of green over everything in sight. We need to be outside and once again see grass and splotches of emerald leaves emerge from now bare branches. When it does happen, and it will, what better place to drink-in this vibrantly colored metamorphosis than in a park. Can you recall the last time you were in a park? I'm not talking about the amusement type but more along the lines of grass between your toes, a chance to throw a Frisbee around or maybe even fly a kite. Honestly, it has been some time for me. Take kite flying. The last time I recall flying a kite, it got caught in some power lines. That was when I asked Maria Elena if she would hold it, and to this day, she'll remind me of the ungentlemanly cad I'd been to have even considered asking her to do such a thing under the high-voltage circumstances of the moment! But then, we began to travel and though we can't direct the wind, we can adjust our sails, which eventually brought us to Italy.

It's a simple fact that in Italia, Sunday's are reserved for the family. Following the obligatory visit to il duòmo (the cathedral) or otherwise any local church for Sunday Mass (today only two are open daily in Calitri), the remainder of the day is set aside for family activities. What better way to spend those hours than in a park where the bambini (children) can expend their considerable supply of energy, while their parents unconsciously attempt to rejuvenate from the previous workweek, and in due course, relax in preparation for the trials of the week ahead.

We were fortunate to have been able to explore two standout parks during our sojourns in Italy. One was public and very well known while the other was exclusive and located on what was formally a private estate. The first, located in Rome, is the renowned Garden of Villa Borghese. There are many access points to Villa Borghese but we entered the park, I'd estimate, at its southernmost point after climbing the Spanish Steps from Piazza di Spagna, which makes for a rather grand entrance. You might think of Villa Borghese as Rome's equivalent to New York's Central Park with its openness, multiple avenues, foliage and its cooling canopy of trees. It’s easy to feel you have regressed a few hundred years to a more docile time ... the 21st Century in downtown Roma and 1600 AD in the Gardens of Villa Borghese. Like Central Park, once inside, the chaos of the city melts away and you feel as though you are in open countryside within an oasis of peaceful tranquility.

The centerpiece of the garden is the Galleria Borghese. Its twenty rooms on two floors are crammed with a substantial part of the Borghese family collection of paintings, sculpture and antiquities. This considerable collection was begun by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the nephew of Pope Paul V. This was the Pope who began hearings on Galileo's support of an sun-centered solar system, leading to his eventual house arrest. Scipione was an early patron of Bernini as well as an avid collector of works by Caravaggio. It is also here that you will find Napoleon's notoriously promiscuous sister, Maria Paolina Bonaparte, who following her marriage to Camillo Borghese, was fittingly sculpted by Antonio Canova, half naked, as 'Venus Victorious'. Interestingly, Canova initially considered posing the recently-wed Paolina as 'Diana', goddess of chastity, but wisely reconsidered. After the deed, when asked if she had felt uncomfortable posing virtually naked, she replied in a veritable Mae West flair, “Why should I. The studio is heated.” Her rather well proportioned fleshy skeleton would for all time, much to the dismay of both emperor brother and husband, be out of the closet! With value added from all this steamy history, you can appreciate why we had attempted to visit the Galleria on earlier visits to Rome, yet for various reasons, were successful gaining access only once. Coincidentally, the day we finally succeeded in getting inside (postponement upon postponement be damned ... tickets that weren't good, that were actually waiting for us, that met the museum's hours and our availability, etc, etc!), the cardinals paintings by Milan born Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610), famous for his play with light and shadow, were being showcased. All said, the Fates must have delayed our ultimate artistic gratification until the very last, until the very best.

But there is far more to this park, first opened to the public in 1902, than its art collection, however fine and not to be missed. With its 226 acres of gardens, statue-and-bust-lined boulevards, winding wild forest pathways, fountains of icy-cool water, even a handful of artificial lakes and ponds, it is a place to stroll (without worrying about auto traffic), people watch, even rent a bike. The 1911 World Exposition was held in this park and some of the original pavilions remain. Today plenty still goes on here in a bustle of its own. With its size and the number of its distractions to include a zoo, an outdoor playhouse (built to resemble Shakespeare’s Globe Theater), the National Museum of Villa Giulia in addition to a Gallery of Modern Art, it is hard to take it all in. We certainly didn't but what we did experience as we leisurely walked about was something we'd never before seen. No tickets needed, we were fortunate to come upon what for us was a first, a classic Punch & Judy puppet show with all its yammering and of course, punching and flailing, as the children all about us took delightful pleasure at the goings-on. Though we were at least familiar with this type of performance, what we saw later was truly unique. It was like something, that as a child, I might have expected to see on TV, as for example, my recollection of the Banana Man, so captivating then that I remember it to this day. I’m not able to put my hands on the photos I took that day, but what I do recall is a lone woman performer who to the accompaniment of a sound system, put on her own puppet show without need of a stage and curtain affair. What was unlike anything we'd seen before was that she herself was the puppet, and if that wasn't enough, the characters she played were on the back of her legs. She was bent over at the waist the entire time and looking at her from straight behind, which was where the audience was located, you'd think her merry band of puppet-type characters were independent, individual puppets. When looked at from the side, however, you could only marvel at how she could pull-off a performance like that, all the while backwards and using only her legs and arms. With our mouths no doubt wide open in frank amazement, we couldn't believe what we were seeing.

On an earlier visit to Italia, this one farther to the north, we were fortunate to have visited the 'Parco Giardino Sigurta at Valeggio sul Mincio' (pictured above), south of Lake Garda. It had been recommended to us by our hosts, Anna Maria and Jacques, of Villa San Pietro B&B in Montichiari. Although this was some time before we had adopted ‘Margaret’ as our official GPS navigator, we had no difficulty finding it the old fashioned way, with a map. We found the park to be a wonderful fusion of woodland areas, expanses of open lawns and a garden mix of flower beds and ornamental plants. It had been purchased in 1941 from Dr Carlo Sigurtà but hadn't opened its gates to the public until March of 1978. Oddly, the origin of these marvelous gardens is due to a buggy! During World War II, supplies of gasoline were scarce so Count Sigurta, a chemical and pharmaceutical magnate, sought an alternative to his automobile. Carlo made his way to Valeggio sul Mincio, a town renowned for its buggies to buy one of these two wheeled, horse-drawn affairs. However, he didn't buy a buggy that day. His actions had to have been along the lines of the many times we've gone to purchase something, like a couch, only to leave with a kitchen set or microwave! On impulse, he bought the nearby 125 acres that would become Parco Giardino Sigurta. Today, it is considered by botanists to be one of the finest public gardens in the world. Though we have not seen many, we would wholeheartedly agree.

We thought to bring a bag-lunch along with us. We’d picked up our assortment of cheeses, salami and bread from 'Salumeria e Drocheria al Ponte', a small food shop in the once buggy (and no doubt also buggy-whip) mini-metropolis of Valeggio, positioned in the town’s center by a charming waterwheel. With the help of some locals, we bought six fetta (slices) of salami, two small loafs of bread, formaggio (cheese) and a bottle of vino bianco (white wine). We enjoy vino rosso (red wine) more than vino bianco. It's tough though to find cooled red wine since it doesn't exist, at least not in Valeggio sul Mincio. I'm embarrassed to admit it but at first I had asked for chilled red wine, which is essentially a ‘scotch mist’ (something that doesn't exist). To the laughter of a gaggle of locals around me in the Salumeria, I soon realized 'my bad'. But we were, after all, new at this. Sheepishly departing while mumbling a few scusi and mi dispiace (‘excuse me’ and ‘I’m sorry’), we took our purchases to the park. For 30,000L you could enter by car and stop wherever you liked for as long as you liked. It didn't matter how many people were in the car either - it was all the same price. This reminded us of going to a drive-in movie theater here at home, if you can remember what those were like, since many have gone the wayside with the relentless advance of technology. We decided to drive to the far end and work our way back toward the entrance. Once parked, we walked to the hilltop ‘Romeo and Juliet’ lily pond and from there onto the broad flats of the great lawn, where we went barefoot. For lunch, we sat leaning against a tree on the grass with our bags of boodle. The grass was cut close, reminding me of the short cropped grass on a golf course green. It was a hot day (reason I was seeking some cool wine) and the shade of the tree did its magic. We weren't sure if we were allowed to drink wine in the park, so sophisticated bon-vivants that we were, we hid our bottle in a brown paper bag! I doubt we fooled anyone by our attempt at subterfuge but at least no one bothered us. Wasn’t this Italy after all and didn’t just about everyone drink wine 24/7? Rhetorically I ask, but no, not really. As we sat there, sipping from plastic cups, we got a sense for what a popular Sunday afternoon spot this was from the number of tour buses negotiating the roads and the actual number of people about. Cameras clicked and I can only imagine how many photos were made that day catching the two of us out there on the lawn, under the tree, surrounded by a carpet of green and our bagged wine!

Our next stop was at the ‘Hermitage’. This was a single narrow but tower-like building set among shrubs with an apparent room at the head of a steep exterior staircase. Could this have been the Count’s very private hide-away? Evident of modern improvement, there were now speakers outside this building and we recognized a popular Andrea Bocelli tune wafting through the air. On our way there, we passed another interesting attraction, Il Cimitèro dei Cani (the Dog Cemetery). The cemetery arched around the periphery of a small pond with headstones dedicated to each of the clearly beloved family pets. All the owner's dogs had apparently been named "Happy". There was "Happy I" and "Happy II" and Happy ... I'd estimate, all told, the collection of small headstones outnumbered the total number of British King Henrys! Our final dalliance was at a grotto down a woodsy pathway through the forest. The walls looked as though made of porous volcanic rock and it was like walking into a gigantic ‘bathtub Mary’, for those of you who are familiar with these popular backyard shrines. When we emerged once again it was time to leave. We had a wonderful time amidst the natural and man-made beauty of this park in the Veneto that day, certainly comforting to recall here in the shank of winter.

So for a relaxing Sunday venue without fear of any kite flyer's premature death or any Vestal Virgin's fireside negligence, visit one of those natural beauty complexes throughout the world called a park. Go ahead, you pick it. Be sure to leave your instant messaging paraphernalia behind along with those ubiquitous 'facebook narratives'. Better yet, since life is no good alone, be sure to bring the entire family along to experience this adventure to its fullest, and for just a few moments, I'd recommend traipsing around barefoot. Enjoy the catharsis and sense of elation you'll feel. Come on summer, go ahead and bring on the green, we can handle it, allergies be damned!

The Rogue Tourist,

Postscript: We just returned from the annual Boston Flower and Garden Show and what do you think we bought? Not one flower! Instead, mimicking the behavior of Count Sigurta, we bought something far off the mark .... hats for the two of us. Go figure.