18 May 2021

For the past couple of weeks there has been a slight parallel-universe feel to news from the top. Powers-that-be in Rome have been ordering regions to open vaccinations up to over-40s. And over-30s. And why not over-20s too while you’re at it. Here in Umbria, 60s and above are wondering whether perhaps everyone has forgotten them.

In a gloriously offhand comment to local press last week one regional councillor explained why Umbria’s vaccination drive was still stuck on its Very Old People. “We have far more old people here because they live better and longer. We’ve had to go the extra mile to take care of our over-80s.” 

So is Umbria older? Well… yes, it seems. But not oldest. I’m drawing blanks looking for regional over-80s tables. But Umbria’s concentration of over-65s (25.8% of the population according to Statista’s 2020 figures) places it third among Italian regions behind Liguria and Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

I’m wondering though whether Umbria’s interpretation of ‘caregiver’ – who are also entitled to vaccination alongside the recipients of their caring – might not be rather looser than elsewhere. Because although anyone born between 1952 and 1961 has been palmed off with – as of yesterday morning – the chance to ‘pre-book’ (which basically means putting your name on a list then waiting to be called up when they get round to it), Umbria ranks second in Italy for vaccinating over-30s, third for over-40s and fourth for over-20s – or so says this local rag quoting Il Sole-24 Ore. So we’re stealing a march on the rest of the country? At this stage of the proceedings, it’s a bit of a flimsy record.

In the mean time, the country opens up… despite large unvaccinated swathes. I find it quite angst-provoking. I hope this thing doesn’t backfire.

Things I will miss when we get over this: 

  • masks. I’m so fond of my mask – as a winter nose-warmer; as the thing which keeps other people’s germs away from me; because when infuriating bugs do all in their power to get up my nose while I’m digging in the garden there’s generally a mask handy that I can grab to foil them; because when we’re all wearing them I can pretend not to recognise people I don’t particularly want to talk to.
  • the curfew. We’re opening up but – at least for a few more days – we all have to be tucked up in our own homes by 10pm. We’re now at the that delicious stage where you can invite up to four people into your home for dinner. But at a comfortably early time of evening – how comfortable is determined by the length of their trip home – guests are getting their coats, and you’re planning the rest of the evening’s viewing and/or reading.
  • people bringing us stuff. Already the sweet boys who deliver delicious bread of a Sunday morning have intimated that if we’d like to go and pick it up in distant Paciano, they’d be relieved to be spared the trip. Will Beppe keep bringing us his amazing ricotta? Will we be able to summon meals from Domenico at Il Poderaccio?
  • having a perfectly valid excuse to be a hermit.
  • having to share wonderful places with other people. We’ve experienced empty Venice. Next week we’ll find out what Florence looks like without the hordes. Last week, on the other hand, we had the Trevi fountain to ourselves… give or take an eastern European model and a very red dress.

I was in the city to work on a garden. L engineered a stay at The Hoxton Rome – newly opened and raring for reviews. The hotel was fun, which is I think the way they’d like it to be seen: I described it as a grown-up Generator but perhaps that was reductive. Its rooms are stylish, and really want to be your kind of thing. Public spaces are striving to be the place to be – your external office/meeting area/hangout. For many people, I’m sure they will be.

But being in that hotel – or even a hotel – wasn’t the special thing about being in the city. The special thing was the unique privilege of savouring the city itself at this time in history.

We decided to walk from the hotel’s Salario-zone location to the Capitoline – a brisk 40-minute walk through the northern inner suburbs, then through the northern part of the centro storico. The pattern was: mediumly bustling life in that outer zone (just as I had found the previous day in Monteverde Vecchio where my garden work took me); then, the more centrale, the more devoid of people it became – the entirely glorious opposite of ‘normal’ Rome. 

‘Normal’ Rome is pushy and ill-tempered. It’s beautiful of course – breathtakingly so. But it makes you feel hot and/or flustered, even when you can’t blame the weather. It smells unhealthy. You feel like the city makes you aggressive. You feel like over-wrought Romans would push you under a passing bus to get by.

In pandemic Rome the Romans that aren’t WFH in the sticks look almost relaxed at café tables. (Café tables? Romans gulp their caffè at the counter! With that habit banned under Covid rules, they’re learning new, calmer skills.) When you’re not in a pressure cooker, there’s more time to look about, to take in the superb emptiness of it all. There’s time, too, to wish that it could always be much more like that.

At the Campidoglio, we saw the Torlonia Marbles exhibition. It is extraordinary. The Torlonia family has had that collection of ancient marble statues (plus one magnificent bronze) gathering dust in their Tiber-side cellar in Rome’s Trastevere district for many many generations while branches of the family have squabbled over who owns what, and – perhaps – sold off bits and pieces of it and smuggled them out of the country to settle outstanding debts. (We both had a brief glimpse into the Torlonia world at Villa Albani a couple of years ago; L, on the other hand, recently visited the Trastevere deposit which is also described in a recent BBC report).

The exhibition is an incredible promenade through ancient Rome, displayed publicly for – I think – the first time. The show was in doubt until the last minute as a couple of T-principi fell out over who should be pulling which strings. As it was, the well-spaced visitors (numbers are, of course, very limited) were mainly Roman, and quite a lot of them more than old enough to have been thorougly vaccinated some time ago – elderly Romans making the very best of their remarkably gentler city.

I had a couple of busy days at Pieve Suites recently which felt stimulating in parts and panicky in others. It seems so long since I’ve had guests! The odd requests have begun again too. One character wanted the whole place for three months; then wanted one suite for six weeks; and then fled – very graciously and apologetically – when I quoted him a very discounted price for one suite for one month. Had he not checked the tariffe page of my website? The same question goes for the man who was very keen on having a “very discreet and private” suite for one night: he would arrive that same evening and his lady friend would turn up the following day at 11am after which they’d need the room until about 6pm. Ummm, I explained: check-out is by noon. So how much is two nights? No apology here, just stunned silence: clearly his lady friend the “dottoressa” wasn’t worth the price of a two-night stay. Does my website emanate an air of maison de passe? I don’t think so.

Look carefully: there are dozens of boar of many sizes down there

12 November 2018


We’ve had so many people staying recently that I had to resort to the industrial-scale washing and drying machines in the very purple-hued local launderette to deal with my mountain of sheets and towels. Unfortunately, because days and days of rain had stopped people getting to their washing lines, so had many others.

I say unfortunately (and time-wise that was so) but in fact it’s a neat glance into bits of local life.

I get the feeling that some little girls who live in Le Barricate – the oddly named out-lying bit of town where the launderette is located – look upon the place as a play-house. One sat there for ages when I was there the other day, talking importantly into a cellphone which I’m pretty sure wasn’t connected to anything, announcing from time to time to anyone who’d listen that her father was about to appear with washing to put in the machine. He didn’t.

Women who flash metaphorical razorblades to ensure no one gets to the driers out of turn will then help each other fold piles of sheets, chatting cordially as if there had never been any tension at all.

A friendly burly woman who looks after the linen for my friend Silvia said she muscled in on the job when she saw the cack-handed way that the previous male sheet-washer was bungling the job: in the realm of the CdP launderette, men are truly the epitome of incompetence.

As the last of my sheets tumbled about in the drier, the non-stop rain that had marked the end of October and early November gave way to bright sunshine and coat-free temperatures. Our drought-ish September, with less than 10mm of rainfall, was amply compensated by 122mm in October – hopeless for getting any work done on my various projects but not quite enough to dampen spirits for our 30th wedding get-together of far-flung friends.

A big round number has that effect, and it’s wonderful. It mobilizes people – in this case from around Europe but also from as far away as Seattle – to make journeys they might not otherwise have undertaken. What a joy.

Now that it’s gloriously sunny after our heavy rains, I’m back in the same holding pattern as last spring: clients clamoring, contractors overwhelmed. I recently shed – in a very amicable way – one client, who said she couldn’t possibly pay me so much for a “project” which consisted of “a computerized drawing and some ideas”. Which got me thinking about what I do as a garden designer and the various ways it’s perceived.

First, of course, I pointed out to this very lovely lady that that was, reductio ad absurdum, my job description: using my training, experience and expertise to come up with ideas for improving and beautifying gardens and landscapes which I then represent clearly in graphic form.

1112FBut mostly it made me reflect once again the degree to which garden-making – so terribly important IMHO in magicking a property into a unified whole – is looked on as something of an afterthought, even by people with connections to very important gardens indeed. Of course (rightly), the garden is always the last thing to done in any (re)building or makeover. And so I often find myself working with the left-over small change of clients who just want the whole lengthy process – most of which I haven’t been involved in – to end, fast.

But then I come up against the ‘one step up from a couple of pots of geraniums’ school of thought. Anyone can stick some plants in is a common attitude among people who have called me in nevertheless – people who would never, for example, say “anyone can stick some curtains up and paint a wall” – things which are equally true. Why do they think that a garden designer is any lower in the pecking order than an architect or interior designer?

Then there’s the problem I have with some clients – more often than not women – who overlook the ‘designer’ part of my job title and focus on the ‘garden’ – as in gardening: a nice thing to potter about doing of a Sunday, wearing your pretty straw hat and your flowery gloves. By extension, they see what I do as a hobby job, rather than the fruit of long architectural training. “I really don’t understand what I’m paying you for,” one client many years ago announced – then proceeded to employ a (male) colleague at great expense to work on another area of the garden with no qualms or questioning.

Am I moaning? Only a little, because the vast majority of the garden owners I work with and for are wonderful. Most, I have to say, really do get it.

Last weekend, on a take-your-breath-away visit to the Villa Albani Torlonia in Rome, I found myself musing on how that owner/garden designer relationship might have been when the immense garden of a suburban villa, designed to wow visitors into abject amazement, was being plotted. Of course, the client there was an aristo with little interest in the professional pride of his designer. But there must have been some kind of implicit mutual understanding of the huge importance of the outside reflecting the grandeur of the interior.

I was quivering with emotion, visiting those magnificent parterres. This villa – six hectares now engulfed in Rome’s northern suburbs – was something I studied in depth for my Landscape Architecture degree. But at that time it was a dark secret: not even world-class scholars got past the Torlonia family – hugely private and perhap embittered by battles with the state over what they could and couldn’t do with their vast art collection… if it still existed and if they hadn’t spirited it away, into collections in the Gulf and the US (it seems that most of the culture ministry’s worst fears have been disproved).

Photographs of the villa were rare, as they still are now that the family has relaxed its rules just a tiny bit: visitors are forced to sign a document swearing not to snap as they go around the place on pain of being sued. This has the fascinating side-effect of making people look. The group we were with were itchy and jumpy to start off with when deprived of their devices. Some people couldn’t resist getting cellphones out – ostensibly checking messages or taking notes but very possibly defying the rules. But by the end, most were peering and staring, and asking questions in a way that they would not have had they been filtering the experience through a lens. It was a very good thing.

We were there as part of the extravagant package of entertainments for yet another relaunch of the Grand Hotel, now the St Regis Grand. The evening before, we guests were taken in our black tie finery to sip champagne inside the Baths of Diocletian, shut of course at that hour, and splendidly illuminated just for us. It was, naturally, breathtaking.

And so on for two days. We managed just 16 hours of the event but were there for the ballroom dinner jamboree, with a scenografia that was quite magnificent, and floral arrangements in Victorian decoupage/Belle Epoque decadence tones which were truly marvellous… though they did make conversation with guests on the other side of the table rather complicated.

And now, after parties and celebrations of various magnitude, we hunker down for the cold months. Each day you tick off the signs, for better and for worse. The hot water bottles. The stoves lit in the evening, then perhaps mid-afternoon. Those small dazzling spots of lower-in-the-sky morning sunlight breaking in around the edges of the closed shutters to hit unlikely points on living room and kitchen walls. The night time trip to the bathroom that leaves your teeth chattering as you hurry back to bed.

Outside, I’ve taken down the tomato supports. Gales battered the persimmon leaves badly so they’re not as startlingly scarlet and salmon this year but the luminous fruit glow as ever. I’m trying to find a moment to give the grass (such as it is) one final cut before I take my brave neglected lawn mower to be serviced, but it’s still too damp underfoot. The trees across the valley looked so green for so long this year that I had begun wondering whether we’d have autumn colours at all but I shouldn’t have worried.