Finally, a grey day, threatening rain right from the start. Maybe I’ll get some work done and not be lured out into my garden by the magic of blue skies. Then again in this strange, almost tropical season, that temptation is often truncated round about 4.30pm when things go cloudy, loud rumbling begins and – now and then – huge raindrops thump down.
So far we have escaped hail, thankfully. But nothing that happens now, meteorologically speaking, surprises us, and as I pay my regular visits to my little tomato plants, to tie them to their poles and pinch out their axillary shoots, I wonder whether perhaps I shouldn’t be throwing some kind of protection over them, just in case. Driving to Arezzo last weekend, we passed hectares and hectares of something leafy swathed like a Christo installation in thin white horticultural fleece: it was grapes, we realised, and a wine producer determined not to suffer the fate of many around here this summer who have seen their year’s crop punctured and battered to the ground.
Arezzo was lovely, but worrying. I love the way the central piazza has no Benetton, or Zara, or anything in fact except discreet antique shops and other tiny frontages with nothing in the way of garish signs or modern excrescences. We went for the antiques fair, which happens each first weekend of the month. On other visits, in past years, it has been a heaving mass of humanity among the stalls which occupy the whole centro storico. When we arrived last Saturday, around lunch time, it was very quiet. Our hearts sank: the restaurants would be packed. But no, they were rattling too. A stall-holder I talked to told me it had been the most disastrous year. It rained just about every weekend through the winter. Now that summer has come, people are either out of the habit or just too poor. She reckons that from 1000 stalls, there are now only about 250 on most weekends. We bought two 1950s armchairs from her to brighten up her day. The only good thing (from our point of view) is that prices have gone way down. I hope we weren’t her only customers.
We also discovered the truly wonderful Ditta Grilli (corso Italia 84), which has just about everything you didn’t know you needed for your home. We bought a boot jack with stiff bristly brushes on either side – one horizontal and one vertical – for mud removal. Now it squats by the wellies in the chicken house looking like some strange animal waiting to pounce, and scares me witless every time I go in there. And I bought metres and metres of lovely rough hessian to make the awning for the pergola in the orchard. If I ever get around to it.
While C was over for some respite from MA-dissertation-writing, we took four days to explore a bit of Le Marche. L was working of course: we were fairly focussed on stylish hideaways and fine food. Urbino is spectacular, but then we knew that. I had forgotten quite how intricate the marquetry was in the library of the ducal palace. Urbino is good because it’s lived in – a real university town rather than a cutesy tourist attraction.
Unlike the nightmarish Gradara. It was in the castle here – according to a legend neatly cooked up in very recent times to bring tourists piling in by the grockly coach load – that Dante’s Paolo and Francesca fell tragically in love. In fact, it’s rather a magnificent (if much revisited) medieval pile and if you happen to enjoy pastiche – which I do – the improbable faux-med makeover given to the place by an owner with more money than sense or taste in the 1920s is rather amusing. But the village around the castle! I have seen nothing quite like it since I went to San Marino many years ago. It’s a pretty hamlet transformed into a lowest-common-denominator shopping mall for undiscerning visitors… the kind who spend more time browsing the unspeakable offerings on its souvenir stalls (a black truncheon with ‘Mussolini Dux’ stamped on it anyone?) than appreciating the place they’re in. Truly a circle of Dantean hell.
On the plain below the village, there’s another site, of immeasurable pathos and tear-jerking loveliness. There are almost 1200 Commonwealth soldiers buried along terraces beneath olive trees. I suppose we somehow convince ourselves that in times of mass killing, people become resigned or numbed to losing loved ones. But on each of the white gravestones, down the bottom there was a space for family to dedicate a few words. The thought of the uncomplicated wrenching heart-ache of these make me want to cry all over again. There was hardly anyone buried there over 40. Most were under 25. There should be a rule, I think, sanctioned by every nation on earth, that only people aged 40 and over can fight in wars. Those men in, and barely out of, their teens didn’t create that conflict. They had nothing invested anywhere to kill others and be killed themselves for. Let the people responsible for picking the fight in the first place, and people with more material things to lose (as opposed to those with their whole, barely begun lives to sacrifice) do the fighting. We might find a whole lot more people objecting.
That area between Urbino and Pesaro/Fano is (like much of rural Marche) an area out of time. It’s busily agricultural but wild and unspoiled as well. You see lines of scarved and hatted contadini hoeing between long, long rows of onions or potatoes, looking much as they would have looked in the 16th or 17th or whatever century you choose; and vegetable gardens are ringed by vines growing from tree to tree – viti maritate, or married vines – a technique that dates back at least as far as the Etruscans. Crushing poverty lasting until fairly recently is probably responsible for the (relative) lack of ghastly jerry-built constructions blighting the landscape. So many of the villages are just tiny circles of ageless organic-looking pale stone – no concrete round the edges.
Over towards the sea – and much of the coast here is sheer: there are long stretches of tiny coves hollowed out of cliff, rather than interminable beach umbrellas – the San Bartolo nature reserve has preserved the character and flora of that stunning stretch. Pomegranates grow in profusion, everywhere. There are great towering hedges of them.
I thought of this when talking to my friend S, whom I’m helping with her soon-to-be garden. She was seeking a plant for the hedge around her carport, to make sure no cars can be seen from the house. I suggested pomegranate. “Ugh, orange!” she said. “Worse than yellow!” That’s fine – everyone is entitled to their own colour scheme (within reason…) and if her garden becomes a cool space of whites and silver-greys and pinks and dark purple (I have given her dozens of the rhizomes from the iris I am currently busy dividing) it will be truly lovely. I was thinking about this, and wondering whether my attempts to embrace all colours (even yellow!) were too generous. But in the end I decided I just love plants – all kinds of plants – too much to banish huge numbers of them by sticking to a narrow palette. The more pomegranates, with their vibrant green foliage and joyous flowers, the better.