Sunday, April 24, 2016


Let's face it I'm a bit of a fretter. It can't be helped. I will always be this way. This last week I spent many anxious days watching the weather.

On Thursday we were supposed to have a garden tour. It was the Westlake Hills Garden Club; the same group that I had to cancel last year because of the devastating hail event 4 days before their visit. We reset the date for Thursday this year and although we left the decision until the last minute we had to cancel again: thunder, lightening and heavy rain. The last time I offered them a tour of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, this time I offered them to come the next day. Friday was to be a glorious day and we were not disappointed.

Westlake Hills Garden Group with the Undergardener.

We always meet on the driveway where I can introduce myself and David to the group and give them a little history of the garden as well as share a few anecdotes. I began by showing them one of the branches from my Felica rose, bearing the enormous damage from that hailstorm. A storm that resulted in us removing many woody plants. The 6' rose had tried admirably to mend itself, even putting out a nice display this spring, but the time has come to cut back down to the ground and see if we can build up new, undamaged growth.
It is always wonderful to give a tour to garden groups because everyone is so interested to hear every detail of the garden and the plants. Our garden has small spaces so it isn't easy to show it to a large group and share things with them at the same time. So with warnings to watch their feet, because of uneven surfaces, they entered the garden.
I had taken a walk around the garden just before they arrived because I knew that even though I had my camera with me it would be dormant, and so it was. An hour later the visitors were following this same route.

Side entry to the garden

Side entry water garden
Into the front courtyard

A favorite place to eat lunch
Tiptoe through the bluebonnets

Looking back towards the gate.
Out through the main gate

Yesterday a wren began building a nest in the Huernia

Down the side of the house
Into the Spanish Oak garden

Lots of stories to tell here about the making of the pavers, the head on the wall and the hypertufa trough.
Out into the gulag

Into the English garden with more stone building stories

Through the sun and moon archway into the sunken garden
Sunken garden

Sunken garden

Succulents and cactus on the hearth
The group gathered here for a photograph before visiting the herb and vegetable garden.

The herb garden

The stock tank
And finally the tour came to an end. But wait! There is no harm in asking is there? One of the ladies asked me if I did private tours. Her reason; several of the ladies could not come on the Friday and were so disappointed. "How about tomorrow morning?" And so on Saturday, another glorious Texas day, bright and early, the second group arrived.

What a lovely tour we had and I was able to point out to them the lovely gift of a willow garden ornament. I haven't quite decided on its permanent home yet but you can be sure it will be in the English garden.

Thank you ladies for all your kind words about the garden. David and I really enjoyed your visit.

Thursday, April 21, 2016


On this rainy Thursday, our garden tour cancelled until tomorrow I look back to sunnier times and the third part of our trip to Europe last summer.

Wednesday July 22nd. 2015
We left the cruise ship early in the morning confident that we would find a porter to take our bags, from the terminus of the people mover, to our hotel. Not a porter in sight. And so we set off towards the dreaded bridge.

With the bus station on one side and the train station on the other wouldn't you think they would have been more thoughtful of people with luggage. It was bumpity bump all he way up and down. Can't remember how we did it now. The good news was we didn't have to go back because next day we were taking a train.

The first thing to do was to drop our luggage off at the hotel and then head for the markets.

 I don't know what it is about foreign markets. Is their produce better than ours? Is it because the market is outdoors which gives the feeling of greater freshness? The markets are always accompanied by the smell that I remember from childhood of going into greengrocer's shop. All they sold was fresh vegetables and fruit and the shop had a certain smell. The only time I get that smell at home is when I walk into the vegetable section of Whole Foods. Is it memories of childhood that I am envoking? Whatever the reason we always head to markets when we travel.

Would we buy octopus and scallops if we lived here? Probably not, but they certainly photograph well.

Then we took one of the traghettos that ferry you across the canal for a couple of euros. We had plans to walk the narrow alleys (calle) and check out the little squares ( campi). A friend told us we couldn't get lost in Venice. I can tell you it is all too easy to lose your sense of direction. I remember a similar situation in Sienna. This time the temperature was a heck of a lot hotter as we searched for the way to St Marks Square.

It pays to have a good map of a town or 4G when you travel. We never do.
Lost but still smiling

We needed refreshment.

We spent the afternoon with a quick tour of the cathedral followed by the Doges Palace.

 The Doge's palace seen from our cruise ship as we sailed into Venice.

 It was wonderful to get inside away from the crowds and the heat but those dungeons had me longing to get back outside. At one point I thought we were lost as we went round and round past cells, iron gates. It was like being in a maze and I don't do mazes well.

What crime had they committed that warranted these kind of iron bars.

 No one was ever getting out of the prison and they knew it as they passed over the bridge named for the great sigh they gave as they saw one last look of the outside world.

I gave a sigh myself as we finally found ourselves outside again.

It had been a long day of touring and we were glad to get back and get into our room at the Hotel Continental; a little dated and no elevator once again, but at least we were on the first floor.  We had a nice dinner at a trattoria and turned in for the night. The next day we had a reservation on the train to Milan.

Thursday July 23rd 2015

Breakfast at the Hotel Continental on the Grand Canal
 We may not have had a view from our bedroom window at the hotel but when it came to breakfast we had a table outside right on the Grand Canal. It felt so European to be served an individual jug of fresh coffee and hot milk. It was going to be another hot day in Venice and the proximity to water makes it seem even more so. My advice to anyone would be to visit anytime but on the summer not only because of the possible heat but mainly because of the crowds.
After packing our bags and checking out we headed off to the station. I had told David we needed to book our seats on the train to Milan because of anticipated crowds for the World Fair. It was not necessary. There was plenty of room and we settled down for the ride to Milan. They even served snacks.

We were staying at the Hilton close to the railway station mainly because we were going to be taking trips out every day by train. We took a taxi from the station but that was the last time we would do that. The station was within easy walking distance even with luggage. We checked in and then took off to visit Milan Cathedral and the Galleria.

The cathedral is impressive. In the bright afternoon sun the marble is almost blinding. Work began on the Duomo di Milano in 1386 and work is never finished as we were to find out the following night when we had a tour of the roof. For now we marveled at the interior. The central nave is 45 meters high with 4 side aisles, transcept, choir stalls and apse. There are 40 pillars dividing the nave.

The cathedral has elicited some strong criticism from the likes of Oscar Wilde when he said "The Cathedral is an awful failure. Outside the design is monstrous and inartistic." and John Ruskin who said  it had taken "from every style in the world: and every style spoiled."
Personally I prefer Mark Twain's view "What a wonder it is! So grand, so solemn, so vast! And yet so delicate, so airy, so graceful! "

Saint Bartholomew

From the Cathedral we walked to the Galleria, the oldest shopping center in the world with its domed glass archways.

We then ventured on the subway back to the hotel. As I waited for David to finish showering I was searching for somewhere to have dinner close by the hotel because we had an early start in the morning. This is what I found.

The restaurant was just across the road from the hotel and had a good write up on Trip Advisor. Forget the graffiti they said. You'll love this family Trattoria. No tourists were in the restaurant just locals and the owner Ricardo was busy keeping a watchful eye over everyone. We had a delicious meal starting with my favorite calamari.

Calamari- my favorite
  Friday July 24th 2015

Our Hilton stay included a buffet-style breakfast which catered to all nationalities. We then walked to the railway station to take the train to Lake Como.

The train would take us to the town of Como after which we would board a ferry to Bellagio.

It was a grey day, spitting with rain, and as we boarded the ferry we had to decide whether to sit up top and really see views of the lakeside. We did. You can see there weren't many takers.

As we chugged down the lake we had wonderful views of all the villas along the lakeside. I wondered which one belonged to George Clooney.

We stopped at several places along the way finally arriving at Bellagio, sometimes called 'Pearl of the Lake' As we stepped off the ferry the sun had finally broken through the clouds.

 Ahead of us was the Hotel du Lac. Surely this was the hotel featured in the BBC production of the Booker Prize winning book of the same name, starring the lovely Denholm Elliot and Anna Massey. But it wasn't, I was later to discover. There are tens of Hotel du Lacs and the one featured in the book was on Lake Geneva.
But we did stop in there and ordered delicious fruit smoothies before leaving to explore the village with its cobbled, steep streets rising from the lake and its century old buildings.

As we walked along the upper levels it was no surprise to find the Rothchilds had a villa there. Returning down to the lake we walked along the gardens which border the lake with their stunning oleanders in full bloom.

Then it was time to take a ferry along the other arm of the lake to Lecco where we would catch the train back to Milan. We had booked a tour to go up onto the roof of the cathedral, and walk among the spires, at 5:30pm.
I had booked the tour on line although we didn't have to pay until we got there. In all there were only about 8 of us on the tour, just a nice number. Our guide arrived and took us up the elevator to the roof. You can walk up but I think it is of value to take the tour which meant access to the elevator. Our guide was very knowledgeable and I felt it was worthwhile to pay the extra to learn more about the wonderful carvings and the history. It really was magnificent. Here are just a few of the photos I took. Work on the carvings is an ongoing process as weather pollution and time take their toll on the soft marble. Many of the carvings are surprisingly modern- a tennis racquet and a frog!

This tour should be on everyone's list of things to do in Milan.
Back at the hotel we were feeling pretty weary after our long day and decided a return visit to the Il Cherchio was in order. We were welcomed once again by Ricardo and our same waiter Ricardino. And so to bed.

Saturday July 25th 2015

We were back to the railways station early next morning for our trip to Lake Maggiore.

Milan railway station

Although the train went on to Stresa we only took the train as far as Arona and then boarded one of the many lake ferries which would take us to Stresa. It was a great day for being out on the water.
We were able to sit up top and enjoy the sights of many towns and villas as we sailed by.

It had been in our plans to take another ferry to the Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso. Unfortunately, when we got to Stresa we discovered it closed from 12pm-2pm which meant that the next ferry would arrive just as it was closing. Instead, we decided to take the ferry to Isola Bella.

I didn't know this was going to be a garden tour!

We made our way from the very busy village towards the palace. Construction on the barren rocky island began in 1630 by Carlo III Borromeo. The plan was a palace and a casino ( building for pleasure, music and dancing) on the higher part of the island. The island would resemble a ship although to me it looked like a wedding cake. At various times construction was halted and was taken up by Carlo's sons. Changes to the original plans included the creation of the gardens. Entry included a tour of the palace and there was no way to do the garden alone. We paid our entry fee and I bought a garden guide.

For me the tour of the house was going to be a means to an end! I do have to admit that I am glad I saw the palace if only for its sheer display of opulence. Photos were prohibited but I did manage to sneak one or two.

Plans for the great Borromeo Palace
Rooms filled with paintings with not an inch of wall space are not really my cup of tea. I was more interested in the views from the window, some of which looked down over the gardens. The doors were wide open on one of the coolest days we had experienced in the whole 3 weeks we had been away.

View of lake Maggiore 

I puzzled for some time as to what was written in this floral display on the lawn until I realized it was the Borromeo motto, 'Humility'

 I could barely wait to get outside. I knew we were getting closer when we entered into the grottoes which connect the house to the garden. The rooms, of which there are six, took 100 years to complete starting in 1685. The walls and floors are covered with small pebbles and pieces of limestone creating intricate patterns of a nautical nature. It was a cool place for the family to spend time in the summer.

When the English did their grand tours of Europe they brought many ideas home including the idea of having a grotto in their garden plans. The word has a rather interesting origin being derived from the word Grottesche or grotesque. When Nero's Domus Aurea was discovered in 15C. having been buried for hundreds of years, they found decorations, which consisted of intricate arches of carved stone to resemble leaves, garlands and animals. In this underworld setting everything seemed otherworldly and was given the name Grottesche. At Isola Bella these were no grotty grottoes!

The entrance from the grottoes to the garden was barred forcing us to climb back up a stone circular staircase to make a grand entrance from the house into Diana's atrium.

Diana's Atrium
 From this polygonal courtyard two flights of stairs branched from either side, leading up to a further set of steps and a large iron gate. Fig ivy covered the walls. I have decided that Europe is determined to keep everyone fit by having them walk hundreds of steps everyday.

I had no idea what to expect at the top of the steps. It was not this.

Baroque at its best, this Teatro is ornamented with statues sculpted by Carlo Simonetta. On the very top is a statue of a unicorn, the coat of arms of the Borromeo family, and ridden by an amorino representing "honour" Steps on either side of the teatro lead up to a large rectangular terrace with views overlooking the 9 tiered terraces leading down to the lake.

Ornamentation with pebbles and shell carvings.

Views of the lake from all directions.

This tower, which now serves as a cafe once held a hydraulic pump to feed fountains and gardens with water from the lake.

Terraced gardens which once held citrus are filled with roses and azaleas.

Ah! The greenhouses. I knew we would find them somewhere.

Once again the interior decorated with pebbles and limestone and now holding collections of bromeliads, orchids and other tropical plants.

There are plenty of plants to be seen in the garden and sometimes they manage to distract you from the view, although in the higher sections of the garden it is hard not to look towards the lake.

 Dorothy Wordsworth, sister of William, who visited here sometime in the early 1800s, called the garden "The peak of absurdity, a garden not of flowers but of stone." 200 years ago it may have been just that. Today there may have been enough plants to satisfy her. It makes me wonder what she would have thought of my garden!
This is my first visit to an Italian Garden. I hope it won't be the last. It isn't hard to see why people flock to the lakes in the summer. The air is so much cooler and fresher than in the cities.
We returned to Milan and guess where we went for dinner? Of course, and by the time we left we were giving hugs to Ricardo and Ricardino.

Sunday July 26th 2015

We had one more thing to do before leaving for Zurich and that was a visit to the Cimitero Monumentale de Milano. It came highly recommended for its sculpture. How did we get there? We walked from the hotel passing by Il Cherchio. Now I ask you would you even think about going to this restaurant if you saw it during the day......all boarded up with all that graffiti. You would be wrong. I am so glad that someone in Trip Advisor warned us to ignore the graffiti.

It was an interesting walk, taking us through residential areas past this apartment tower where everyone's balcony was planted. Wonderful.

To the grand entrance to Milan Cemetery. By the way, closed on Mondays.

I had picked up a plan of the cemetery with all the main sculptures highlighted, at the visitor center at the galleria, but they were available at the office inside the grounds.

I think that you probably get the picture from these pictures that among the wealthy Milanese there was a little bit of one upmanship. You can read more about the cemetery as well as location of some of the more important monuments at Milano Walk Around.

You can read about Part 1 and Part 2 of my European Tour here