3 April 2011

This post first appeared on my website.

I heard my first cuckoo yesterday. Just to make sure I didn’t think I’d dreamt it, he (or she, or indeed they) was/were tootling away as hard as s/he/they could go this evening down in the woods, making me feel all spring-tingly as I sowed grass seeds in my new garden at the south end of the house, wondering how long it would take the ants to make off with sufficient quantities of the stuff to stymy all chance of it becoming a viable lawn.

It has been so wonderfully warm for the past three days, ever since we got back from Portugal in fact. We missed the rainy cold here and had it there instead. Then the whole of southern Europe, it seems, turned springy. Our last Lisbon day (of three) was blue-skied and warm.

Lisbon is a strange city. Last time we were there I was pregnant… so 1989 I guess. At the time, it was the poor downtrodden south of Europe and made Rome feel like London or New York in comparison. Since then, people kept telling me, it had made huge leaps – fantastically cosmopolitan, seriously hip, incredibly trendy. Oh yes? I’m not sure we got that at all. In fact, when we emerged into the main square of Chiado, up in the Bairro Alto, and found smart shops with smart people lounging in the sun at the pavement tables of smart cafés, we felt we’d stumbled into another city. That certainly wasn’t what we were seeing down the hill in other bits of town.

We stayed in the Italian embassy in the Anjos district. The embassy is spectacular: 18th century and with exquisite azulejos and a gorgeous garden. The area is well past its sell-by date which may, I think, have been round about when the embassy was built. There were shady deals going on in the square at the end of the road, and many crumbling properties begging for refurbishment. But I liked it; it was lived in.

My two favourite things about Lisbon are the architectural details and the trees.

Anjos was full of art deco palaces with extraordinary Liberty detailing. And some fantastic tiled facades of course. Around the Gulbenkian museum, many of the new-built (mostly empty) office and apartment blocks were contemporary and adventurous and anything but banal. In Cascais, the Paula Rego museum was amazingly striking and a great space for showing pictures; its designer Eduardo Souto de Moura won  the Pritzker Prize this year and deserved it.

12 April 2011

Well, I certainly allowed myself to get sidetracked there. Rushing. Travelling. Sun-worshipping. The splendid weather I talked about there went on until this evening. Cloudless. High twenties. It was June weather, or early July. I have the watering system on in the vegetable garden, and a sprinkler hooked up to a timer for the new grass.

We went to Rome for four days. When we left, things were looking ready to go. When we came back, trees were bursting with blossom and the lawn – cut two days before our departure – was ankle-high and full of daisies. I cut it this evening, as a southerly blew up, in a cherry-blossom snow storm. Quite magical. Now in the kitchen, the perfume of lilac blossom is overwhelming. And the forecasters are promising rain.

Now, where was I? Lisbon.

From the green point of view,  it’s a treat. Further south than us, and ocean-facing, its flora is tropical-ish and way ahead. The Cercis siliquastrum (Judas tree) was already going over (just starting here) and the Celtis australis (European Nettle tree) was putting on its good-enough-to-eat green leaves all over. Whether it’s Parks and Gardens department policy, or lack of funds, or a little of both is impossible to say, but street-side trees and park trees are barely trimmed: glorious, spreading, rambling things rather than the tortured individuals we’re so used to here. It was a pleasure to walk beneath them.

In the embassy garden, orange blossom vied with ropes of in-full-flower jasmine so immense they wove themselves right up into the higher reaches of a massive cypress tree; fruit weighed down branches of lemon trees (we brought some home and made souvenir lemon marmalade). And the camelias: great trees laden with them.

Out at the extravagant garden of Monserrate, the trees – and valleys full of tree ferns – looked positively prehistoric. A Moreton bay fig had engulfed a chapel – right up the street of William Beckford who lived there briefly. And the Norfolk Island pine (which always brings back Sydney beaches) on the lawn was simply vast. In the university botanical garden back in Lisbon proper, there are Strelitzia plants the size of small houses.

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About Gardens, Food & Umbria

I am a garden designer, working throughout central Italy. I have lived in Italy for over 30 years – for many years in Rome but now in the wilds of Umbria where I have fixed up one wreck of a house, am working on another, and tinker endlessly with two and a half hectares of land, some of which is my garden.
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