Half Biblical and half Hesperides,
With dark blue seas calling from a shell-strewn shore”
(Siegfried Sassoon: “In Sicily”)
It’s astonishing how much can be packed into a week’s travel. Our October tour of private gardens – and much more besides – from Ortigia-Siracusa to Taormina in eastern Sicily was no exception.
In addition to the gardens, we explored the lava fields of Mount Etna, ancient Greek and Roman theatres and a related stone quarry where our guide demonstrated the acoustics by his fine tenor voice.
At Le Case del Biviere, a citrus estate near Lentini, the Borghese family have turned what was once a desolate drained lake with its ancient harbour into a restful haven of greenery. An extensive lawn in the former harbor is complemented by the careful placement of Yucca elephantipes, Rosa banksiae, and outsize agaves, with towering jacarandas among the trees providing shade. Meanwhile, the old stone quays are planted with diverse succulents.
Elsewhere the green stems of a Jerusalem thorn (Parkinsonia aculeata) form a delicate archway onto a second lawn. Beyond the garden, the eye is led between olive trees to a row of stone pines (Pinus pinea) on the horizon, mementos of the family’s Roman roots.
On the San Giuliano estate, pines and Australian Xanthorrhoea grass trees add depth and interest to a wide lawn, with splashes of colour from bougainvillea. A magnificent Chorisia speciosa dominates the entry to the garden, a mass of pink flowers when we visited. Close by, cacti from across the world add further colour and texture.
A particular highlight was the secluded giardinetto with its attractive interplay of paving, channeled water and inspired planting, from tropical specimens to Calabrian bergamot, and a pergola with fragolino vine.
In a remarkable garden in Catania we joined the owner-creator for a soul journey through a series of “stanze in fiore” (rooms in flower). Here, an impressive variety of flora from across the globe has been planted with creative flair and a collector’s eye. Influenced by Eastern philosophy, combining primitive sculpture with clever use of water and imaginative landscaping, this jewel of a garden is full of surprises from tropical pools to a quiet and simple Zen corner.
Casa Cuseni, created by English artist Robert Kitson about 100 years ago on rough, barren terrain above Taormina, has a wilder feel. Its charm lies in symbolism of pathways and water features married to a sense of natural woodland, where cyclamen and Amaryllis belladonna flower along the rocky terracing and shady paths.
Also on Taormina’s cliffs we visited the more formal Public Garden, designed by Florence Trevelyan Cacciola in the late C19. Now partially open to the public, it features stands of well-established trees, several eccentric follies and breathtaking views over the bay towards Mt. Etna.
Away from the gardens, we ascended Sicily’s famous volcano passing scores of sweet chestnuts and exploring slopes where the endemic wild broom (Genista aetnensis) flourishes. We were in luck: Some bushes were covered with delicately perfumed flowers, a vivid yellow against the bright blue sky.
Escorted by an expert coach driver we travelled from place to place through a landscape refreshed by recent rain. All around were fields of citrus, vines and olives; oleander flowering profusely by the roadside; and prickly pears, Opuntia vulgaris, laden with fruit.
We found the produce of this astonishingly fertile land, and sea, overflowing the stalls during a visit to Catania’s Saturday market. Even better, we tasted it at every meal. Our hospitable hosts provided wonderful dishes, from pasta alla Norma (with aubergine sauce) to a simple dessert of ricotta cheese with honey. Seafood, on the menu at hotels and restaurants, was excellent, meat rarely chosen. Wines were usually locally produced and offered at every meal.
This was but a taste of the astonishing variety of eastern Sicily’s landscape, flora and heritage. There’s so much more to discover – we can’t wait to return!
Posted by a Mediterranean Traveller