23 January 2012


On Saturday afternoon we cycled around the northern and eastern shores of Lago di Chiusi. It’s a strange and wonderful landscape over there: intensely agricultural with huge freshly tilled fields rolling up swelling hills away from the lake. Here and there on the slopes are isolated casali, huge rectangular structures in stone or – more often – in brick, still with a purposeful air depite being, as often as not, abandoned.

Elsewhere, and especially in the villages around the lake (Porto, Vaiano, Gallina), are some of the worst abominations ever to mar such glorious countryside, structures of such gross banality that they make me want to cry. Cry not just because of their ugliness, but also because I can’t imagine the kind of lack of sensitivity which makes it possible for anyone to live with such dreadfulness against such a breath-taking backdrop… never mind the idea that someone – heaven help us – designed such buildings or had them constructed. How can anyone be so blind?

I don’t intend this as an intellectual-snob diatribe. I truly weep for anyone at all who can be so utterly unmoved by what’s around them that they would blight it in that way.

Just above where we parked the car, on the eastern shore of the lake, one of those immense casali stood half-way up a field, its roof caving in and stumpy, twisted trees growing through its walls. Next to it stood a stark, brick farm building: tall, windowless and with dozens of square chimneys ranged along its roof. I took it for a tobacco-drying shed, but the name of the property, our map told us, was La Saponaria – the soap factory: just a name, or really its original function? Slightly higher up, and clearly on the same property, a squat, unappealing modern house clad in nasty stone imported from somewhere else with tacky arches out front, surrounded by those Cupressus arizonica which were so popular as windbreaks in the 1970s and which have nothing to do with the local flora.

How anyone could bring themselves to abandon the elegant casale for this nasty modern bunker, who knows. All right, the family probably rubbed their swollen chilblains through many winters in the draughty, icy casale with no running water and no power supply. In which case the local planning authorities should have stepped in to point out that that situation could be remedied. Then again, in the 1970s and even ‘80s, the local planners probably came from much the same background and understood the yen for something boxy and modern where the bathroom was inside, and heat and light appeared magically at the flick of a switch. It would be comforting to think that things have changed now and that the same mistakes won’t be repeated. But they haven’t and they are. It makes me so sad.

All of which makes it sound like our burst of peddling energy was a nightmare trip. It wasn’t. Look away from the abominations and there was that magical countryside in all its glory, presenting us, as the afternoon drew on, with one of the most dramatic sunsets I have seen for a long, long time: pale apricot splashes across the sky swiftly turned to vermillion and puce and purple and deep deep orange, all perfectly reflected in the perfectly silky lake.

We stood on a little beach, not even noticing the thick dew falling, quite breathless and speechless.

Saturday morning, on the other hand, I spent at San Giuseppe. The occasion was a seminar on future trends, the first in a series of events to mark the publishing house’s 250th anniversary. The talks (well, some of them) were thought-provoking; the topic itself fascinating. But most satisfying of all was, on that beautiful morning, seeing people out in our garden: wandering, admiring, commenting… just being there. Mauro the gardener had the whole place looking immaculate. Despite its size and the formal lay-out (in places), it’s a comfortable garden and the people moseying about looked like they were finding it very easy to be in. So gratifying.

Fernanda died last Friday. Poor old thing: she had been bed-ridden up in that ugly house up the lane for years. People in town were surprised when they heard she was still alive. She was always quite dotty, becoming rapidly more so by the time we got here. She seemed wondrously bemused when we bought this, the house she grew up in. “I always hated that house,” she told me with a grin soon after we bought it. Thank you Fernanda. And I can still wonder at the horrors around the lake when I have benefited personally from the local inability to comprehend the potential beauty of these old ruins…

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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