The A1 motorway just north of Naples is lined with seedy light industry with few signs of industriousness, and straggly retail parks more apt to make you accelerate away than stop and buy. But at this time of year it is also flanked by great fields of neatly clipped peach trees, their dark pink blossom hovering in a delicious haze, and by long stretches of verge bulging with clouds of blue borage – small compensations for a very long drive.
I was en route to Positano for a bit of planting in my project there.
It’s warm for the time of year here in Umbria, but in that neck of the woods it was ludicrous. Down towards the strip of restaurants on the beach (how wonderful to see Posi with just a sprinkling of very intrepid, charmingly animated visitors) was a Brugmansia suaveolens (Angel trumpet) in the kind of full flower that I wouldn’t expect to see before June. And the magnificent vegetable garden at the San Pietro is very much up, running and yielding the superb green things that made up my lunch – all of which is more than I can say about my new orto which is still looking forlorn and unfinished, redeemed only by a couple of rows of valiant onions and garlic.
I was totally happy to demolish my old vegetable garden and extend the carpark last December save for one little niggle: I couldn’t help feeling pain at the demise of the sad apology for a damson tree which had, against all the odds, provided the fruit for some of the best jam ever made.
It would have gone of its own accord: when Giuseppe touched it lightly with his digger it keeled over, the trunk a mushy sponge of rot just where it went into the ground. But it hurt. So I snipped off the vigorous water shoots it was sending out in its death throes and stuck them in good earth, some outside in orto #2 and some in pots in the greenhouse. And I watched. And watched.
Around us now you can – I swear – hear furled-up leaves popping. Things that yesterday were bare twigs are now bursting. Clumps of dead aromatic debris that I haven’t yet found time to clip off now stick out of dense cushions of pungent leaf-lets. Obsessive checking of damson shoots was seeming futile. And then… tiny incipient leaves. Not all the water shoots have them (yet) but my chances of being able to duplicate, some years (decades?) hence, my wonderful damson crops have improved significantly. Or so I hope. The jury’s out, my research tells me, on whether they’ll stay true to form or whether some grafting would need to be done to get any fruit. It’s pot luck, it seems.
Spending so much time on the road – I’ve clocked up just shy of 1500km this week – has gone some little way towards shaking me out of my usual spring lethargy. Just when everything else is awakening, I tend to be dog tired and semi-brain-dead.
But still I manage to end up being pugilistic, and on a particularly short leash when it comes to moaners. I spend so much of my time defending Italy’s excellences against its home-grown detractors, pointing out its beauties and superiorities while they rail against its inefficiencies and inequalities, that it was refreshing to find myself working with gardeners on the Amalfi Coast who turned the tables on me. Umbrians complain, Campanians enthuse. Where people around here express disbelief that I should have abandoned the ‘civilised’ north for Italy (“whatever possessed you to live in this screwed-up country?”), down there they were heaping praise on me for my wise choice, as if it were incomprehensible that anyone would want to live anywhere else. Mind you, they do spend their days in paradise.
Up in my project in town they’ve been working on the roof. They’ve removed the tiles and are replacing the leaky skylights. They’ll add some waterproofing and some insulation and the whole place will be a bit less warm and less cold at appropriate times of year, or so I hope.
There’s something quite thrilling about clambering around on a bit of my property where I probably (hopefully) won’t have any reason to set foot for another 30 years or so. Being up there with the jumbly tiles and chimneys and antennas and what have you, it’s a different look-out.
It’s a strange angle: you can’t see all that much of town, but you can of course see things that are hidden from street level.
I noted with a touch of envy that my neighbours to the north have, in some less rule-bound epoch, carved out a tiny tasca – a little indentation-terrace hidden just below roof level. How I’d love to do that! But these days, they actually send drones zipping across the roofs from time to time to make sure no one’s fiddling about with the urban fabric without permission – and permission for such things in the centro storico is absolutely not forthcoming.