Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Snapshots from Italy: a golden dream, by Philippa Linton

On Monte Baldo, above Malcesine

I was in northern Italy recently.  I really needed this holiday – things are pretty full-on in work, church and other aspects of my life at the moment, so when my sister suggested on a grey, cold, February day that we might consider going to Lake Garda in late May, I decided this was worth spending time and money on.

All my current writing projects, such as they are, are at a complete standstill right now, because of other pressures.  So today’s post will be about Italy because holidays like this one are healing and restorative.

Italy has problems just like every other nation, but it’s a beautiful, fascinating country with an amazing history.   No wonder those young Romantic poets of the 19th century went wandering off to Italy in search of transcendent experiences.  Late May is a lovely time to visit: the scent of jasmine was everywhere, as people put great banks of jasmine over their garden walls.   Pink, red, and white oleander trees were in full bloom, as were the ancient magnolia trees, and the olive trees were smothered in a delicate mist of little ivory-white flowers.

Lake Garda is the furthest north in Europe where orange and lemon trees can be grown, thanks to its micro-climate.  I learned that lemon is not an indigenous fruit to Italy, that centuries ago the Franciscan monks introduced it from India. 

As we wandered around the cobbled streets of medieval Malcesine, dozens of swifts wheeled, screaming, around the towers of its ancient castle and swallows swooped along the narrow streets. House martins had built a nest right over our hotel window.

Most evenings we walked around the lake as the sun set over the mountains.  Jasmine perfumed the air and the birds sang constantly – blackbirds, chaffinches and a couple of songbirds I couldn’t identify, but which had a piercingly sweet trill.

The winds on Lake Garda are as regular as clockwork: the north wind - the Pelèr – begins at night and ruffles the waters in the morning, and then the south wind – the Ora – takes over from noon until sunset.  And as the sun sets, the lake becomes as calm as a millpond. 
Lake Garda at sunset

The mountains march on for hundreds of miles beyond the lake, forming a massive barrier between Italy and the rest of Europe.   This great mountain range looks cold and hard and completely impenetrable – not that this stopped the rulers who, over the centuries, wanted to invade Italy and take it over.   When people want to expand their empires, they’ll try to find a way through somehow.

One day we took the fast ferry to Sirmione, the posh, pretty town at the southern end of the lake where the opera singer Maria Callas lived in the 1950s.  The boat passed by the magical Isola del Garda which rose out of the lake like an enchanted, forested ship, an island straight out of a fantasy with its antique villa and mysterious, cypress-guarded gardens. 

We had a fabulous day in Sirmione, relaxing at Aquaria, the thermal spa, and visiting the Grotte di Catullo, the huge Roman villa on the cliffs overlooking the lake.  It was sweltering.  Little lizards scampered over the pale stones of the ruins.   Then we got the ferry back to Malcesine and for two hours I sat on the top deck in a kind of dream, basking in the soft, warm breeze.  The entire lake was wrapped in a golden haze of heat.  The majestic mountains disappeared into misty veils.  The bell-towers of the churches seemed to float in the evening air, along the cypress-carpeted ridges of the hills. 

The lake was wrapped in a golden haze of heat
Light. Peace. Timelessness. Wellness.

A beautiful world.  God is good.

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