We were staying in what was a monde renverse in Tuscan terms, a luxuriant free-form garden set in a sweep of farmland scarred by too many EU subsidies. At the end of a 3km dirt track, an English illustrator and an Australian geologist have turned the derelict medieval monastery of Venzano into a nursery and showpiece garden for aromatic and Mediterranean plants. By Italian standards, it is almost an outpost of the alternative economy. Among cascades of jasmine and shrub roses and the distant sound of chamber music CDs, Lindsay and Don and their little team of emigres pot up marjorams, mints, sages and a host of antiquely-dubbed, clove-scented pinks. Heaven knows how they translate Jane's White Frilly into Italian. The locals, they freely admit, have not yet progressed much beyond the standard pot- bound geraniums, and the idea of planting lavender - a wayside weed - in a garden is seen as wildly eccentric. Yet Venzano's extraordinary range of plants has a growing clientele among botanic gardens and ex-pat residents of "Chiantishire" and the guests who come to stay in the converted out-houses.
What fascinated me was how this place - a paradise of cultivation in many senses - was also a magnet for the wild. As the day warmed up you could feel it seeping back over the walls. Swallows were nesting behind every open door. Nightingales sang from hedges tangled with wild asparagus and quails from the grassland beyond. In the mornings I would sit and watch the lizards emerge. They climbed gingerly up the steps in rows, the males decked out in gorgeous mosaics of green and blue enamel, then hurtled on to the walls to warm up. In the evenings clouds of fireflies drifted through the shrubs, as bright and weightless as windblown embers. The daytime insects were as thick as, well, flies - especially the carpenter bees which nest in the trellis work, large and furious creatures that crash from flower to flower like violet shuttlecocks. No wonder Don and Lindsay have fantastical crosses springing up in their paths - unknown lav-ender hybrids and ethereal colour varieties.
On our last day we were reminded of Italy's new agricultural order, a hybrid in its own right. On the hillside, a ramshackle mowing machine was cutting the grass, weeks before his ancestors would have done, and advancing inexorably towards the quail's nest. But inside Venzano, a refuge of aesthetic values in a countryside which has been more interested in efficiency for two millennia, the nightingales continued to chant. It would be a couple of months before the local farmers set their sights on them. ! Date: 7 may 95
Richard Mabey, 10 Cedar Road, Berkhamsted, Herts HR4 2LA
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