3 December 2016

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It’s been an on-the-road week. Or rather, an on-the-rails week because why on earth anyone would get behind a wheel in a country where the trains run so well and cost so little (yes, this is not irony: this is the truth) is quite beyond me. Well, when travelling city to city, anyway.

First we were in Venice. As we arrived the clouds cleared and we spent two days marvelling at cold blue skies and jewel-like tints, with a couple of tecnicolor sunsets thrown in for good measure.

When they’re good, Venice’s sunsets are in a league of their own. One we watched from a vaporetto, heading to San Giorgio to see an exhibition on Venini glass at the marvellous Stanze del Vetro in the Fondazione Cini. We caught the final glow of another from the roof terrace of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, just revamped and reopened as something resembling a high-class airport duty free concourse. Of which more later.

I’m thrilled to have caught that weather in Venice. But why do I never manage to be at home and able to head into the garden when the same brilliant clarity descends? Last weekend, Saturday was a dream but I was rushing all day to finish I can’t remember what. I wasn’t too dismayed though: the forecast said Sunday would be just as splendiferous. And maybe it was. Somewhere. In fact I know it was because L – frivolously if you ask me – rode his bike through the clinging, dripping cloud that enveloped us for about 36 hours straight, and emerged at Montegabbione which is not even 100m higher than us, into another, cloud-free world.

Fog is atmospheric. For about half an hour. After which I’m overwhelmed with a desire to go screaming through it waving my arms, in a desperate effort to waft it away. Its only saving grace, I suppose, is that it thoroughly concealed the neglect that I was longing to go out and counter. But that’s small consolation and I must say, I felt very cheated.

It’s not only generic neglect that’s nagging, but neglect of comestibles too. I have put nothing in for next year: no onions or garlic, no broad beans or peas. I know, deep down, that if I do it next spring the effect will be more or less the same: perhaps we’d be eating them a week or two later. But I love that sneaking feeling of things putting down roots through the seemingly barren months. (All that’s rooting here are weeds galore.) And of course there’s the fact that autumn-sown vegetables are one less thing to worry about just when spring is making everything else explode around me. I’m going to regret this if I can’t get it done before Christmas. But now that decorations are up in town, and we’ve sent out invitations for our yule-aperitivo, Christmas seems terribly just round the corner.

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Our Venice jaunt coincided with the advent of cold. There have been the usual seasonal moans but the fact remains that we’ve had frost at the bottom of the field on just two mornings (the cold remained down there: the water on the mini-lily bowl had not a trace of ice) and there have been few days when temps haven’t gone into the mid-teens.

We’ve been lighting the wood-burners – mostly to ward off the damp, and generally the living room one around lunch time and the screening room one only on late afternoons when we’re planning to watch something in there later.

I’m not sure that I’m ready for the wood-fetching and fire-stoking that goes with proper winter. It’s such a time-consuming business. I still haven’t worked out quite how efficient – or otherwise – our new solar-panels-plus-condensing-boiler system is for central heating… though it certainly can’t be any less so than our old system was.

I expect we’ll never really know, as we never really use it. I mean, I left it set to go on for a few hours a day when we were away, just to avert the dreadful glumness of returning to a clammy house.

The two Venice days confirmed just how horrid central heating can be when it’s not part of your life. In the hotels where we stayed, and the seriously mauled Fondaco where we had dinner, the air crackled with dryness. My eyes were dry and stinging, and the skin on my face was like stiff crepe paper.

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It was the Fondaco do that took us north. When I first knew the building, it was the city post office: an outsize shell of crumbling Renaissance monumentalness wherein lurked startling inefficiency in an interior which managed to be dreary and inspiringly romantic at the same time. I met an American who would be a significant boyfriend in the line for stamps. That was back in the days when your only summer communication with your parents – if they were lucky – was a cheap postcard.

Now it has been LVMH-ified, with superabundant cheery sleek young staff in many languages, and the kind of luxe-bland fashion that’s aimed at people whose life is no deeper than the slim pile of cashmere sweaters on the shelf. It’s not my kind of place.

Look beyond the surface (or do I mean superficiality?) and there are (for me) interesting elements, such as the snaking metal U containing the kind of lights and heating vents which couldn’t possibly have been inserted into the really lovely 16th-century painted coffered ceilings. Rem Koolhaas and Jamie Fobert have, in their way, done a good job of turning it into a pastiche of every consumerist traveller’s idea of a Venetian palazzo.

In my devil’s advocate moments, I find myself arguing that perhaps this Fondaco makeover is tiny sign of sense in the mayhem that is Venice’s tourism sector; that the kind of traveller for whom any and every destination is nothing more than an opportunity to re-acquaint him or herself with Ermenegildo Zegna or Dolce&Gabbana will be in there, accompanied by an array of credit cards, rather than clogging up the calli of La Serenissima.

But deep down I don’t believe myself. That kind of facility could have been slotted into some faux-Venetian mainland warehouse, thus keeping the gilded grockles out of the canals altogether. And the Fondaco could have been placed at the service of the dwindling populace… though hopefully in more efficient form than the world’s most romantic post office.

The roof terrace is, as I said, the only reason most sane people would want to drop by. Poised as the Fondaco is, right on the sharp bend in the Grand Canal by the Rialto, the city is laid out in a most unexpected way below. But if you insist, masochistically, on lingering inside, the little groundfloor bar is rather charming, designed by Philippe Starck with one of his wonderfully fluid chandeliers (made by Swiss Murano resident Aristide Najean) dominating the ceiling-scape, and a louchly Belle Epoque feel.

The unstoppable Starck himself was leaping about at the inauguration of the restaurant – also designed by him – that occupies the cortile of the Fondaco. He’s effervescent and indefatigable and his mind seems to run endlessly in top gear fueled by creativity. It was an oddly enjoyable do, and the food was good too. Then again, that’s what you expect from chef Max Alajmo who in my experience deserves all his various Michelin stars.

 

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I too am running on creativity at the moment, though in a rather lower gear than Mr Starck. I’m designing furniture for my house in town, working on lighting and bendy stairs (though I’m finding, to my chagrin, that this last may be beyond my budget). I’m musing on my own vegetable garden – to be moved next week, hopefully – and one-woman brain-storming (can you brain-storm alone?) around new garden projects for others. Which is what took me south, the moment I returned from the north.

If I can tease a suitable project from my imagination for a rather wonderful hotel down there, then the Amalfi Coast may be my next theatre of action. I only uncross my fingers for the purposes of designing. I travelled down there with an architect, a veteran of many of Italy’s loveliest hotels. She spent much of her youth in Positano; her home there is a museum to a less touristy, more truly glamorous era when the knobs went to Capri and the intellectuals and creative types went to Posi. The town with no one in it is a marvel.

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At long last my tug-of-love with a charming developer in Chennai has come to an end, spawning my new website. I don’t think I was the client from hell exactly, because I did try to cloak my endless demands in politeness. But I’m still not sure quite how many deep breaths he had to take in order to write, extremely sweetly, that he valued my input, which as usual was somewhere between dithery and passive-aggressive. What I really wanted, deep down, was to be able to do it all myself.

The technical bit he did. The layouts we worked on together. The contents are all mine. How do people who are less computer-savvy than I manage to put together a site? How do they get their illustrations just right and project the image they desire? (I’m not entirely sure I’m there yet…) Maybe other people are less obsessed about being in total control than I am. That might make their lives easier…

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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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