Cortona revisited

We fell in love with Cortona on our first trip to Italy in 2014 and, even though it was a two hour drive from Montepozzo, we just had to revisit. Yes, it is another Etruscan hilltown but from an elevation of 600 metres, the panorama across the Val di Chiana and Lake Trasimeno is breathtaking.

The alluvial valley covers 2,300 square kilometres and is home to the Chianina cattle, the largest breed in the world and one of the oldest. The beef is sold at premium prices by approved butchers and you will pay handsomely for Bistecca alla Fiorentina in any ristorante.

The Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie was built on the site of a former tannery where, in 1484, an image of the Madonna and Child, painted on the wall of a basin used for tanning leather, began to perform miracles. Because of the steep terrain and presence of a stream, the building wasn’t completed until 1525 and the original icon is still visible on the high altar in the church.

We made our way along narrow stone streets

to Piazza della Repubblica, the centre of the city since Roman times. There was so much to take in around the piazza; gorgeous shops, medieval architecture and sunshine.

We enjoyed coffee & pastries while being serenaded from the steps of the Palazzo Comunale. The town hall was built in the 12th century on the ruins of the Forum of the Roman City and was extended in the 1500s.

Pietro Berrettini was a 17th century Italian Baroque painter and architect. Although he worked mainly in Rome and Florence, he was known by the name of his native town, Pietro da Cortona.

We wandered around Piazza Signorelli

before exploring the shops along Via Nazionale

and celebrating our purchases with an Aperol Spritz in Piazza Garibaldi.

We retraced our steps to lunch at Caffè degli Artisti, seated in the street we savoured our surroundings as much as the food.

Starting with bruschetta, we decided on ravioli with butter & sage, pici with cream, porcini mushrooms, sausage & truffle sauce and pici with walnuts, gorgonzola cheese & pear.

Reluctant to leave, we returned to the car and drove to the top of the town to see Fortezza del Girifalco and the fascinating Basilica di Santa Margherita but that is another story.

Pitigliano

After our relaxing lunch in Saturnia, we detoured on the way home to explore Pitigliano. You might think we’d seen enough gorgeous medieval hilltop towns perched on tufa rock but it’s not something I could ever tire of.

The town is also known as Piccola Gerusalemme or Little Jerusalem, as it became a haven for the Jews escaping from the ghettos of the cities in the 16th century. They lived happily here until 1622 when the residents were confined to the Jewish Quarter and remained so until the Jews were emancipated in the mid 19th century. Many of them moved to the cities and by World War II none were left. Houses seemed to emerge from the rock

as we made our way into town.

We didn’t get far before our attention was diverted by La Dispensa del Conte (The Count’s Pantry), a wonderland brimming with local produce.

With a few purchases in our bags, we wandered to the edge of town

and discovered a spectacular structure with two large arches and thirteen smaller ones incorporated into the walls of the town. The Medici aqueduct was built between 1636 and 1639 to bring running water to the village and the Lorraines added the series of small arches in the 18th century.

From there we had a great view of the road into town and the stunning arched bridge over which we would soon be driving.

Adjacent to the aqueduct, the 14th century Palazzo Orsini is now a museum. The twenty one rooms are filled with antique furniture, jewellery and wooden sculptures as well as sacred art and precious fabrics.

As we drove out of town, there seemed to be one gourmet paradise after another.

It would have been wonderful to spend more time in Pitigliano, there was so much more to see.

Star of the Sea

For many years, I have been fascinated by a beautiful red brick church perched on a hill at one of the main intersections on the highway here in Burnie. Beside it are other similarly constructed edifices, one of which appears to be a school with the year 1912 above the doorway. To satisfy my curiosity, I recently took a closer look. The Catholic Church of St. Mary’s Star of the Sea opened in January 1891.

Designed by respected architect Alexander North, whose work includes Holy Trinity in Launceston, the church is an excellent example of the High Victorian Gothic style. There is no door at the front of the church, the entrance is via a porch on the eastern side wall above which is an elaborately carved white cross imported from New Zealand.

The red bricks were manufactured locally in Burnie while specially moulded bricks and terracotta tiles with a stylised flower design came from Launceston. The finest quality sandstone from Ross quarry in Tasmania’s midlands was used for the window frames.

The use of black bricks amongst the red ones to create geometric patterns, known as structural polychromy, was one of the features of High Victorian Gothic buildings.

The Welsh slates on the pitched roof have stood the test of time.

The interior is welcoming and warm with red brick walls and a pine lined roof.

I made my way to the chancel

where a trinity of colourful stained glass windows depict the Annunciation, the Sacred Heart appearing to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque and the Nativity.

All the windows are of stained glass, the bold geometric patterns throughout the nave were designed by North himself.

A small side chapel in the east transept beatifically captured the morning sun

while the votive candles in the west transept awaited the congregation for Holy Thursday.

The ceiling is a work of art, the spiky elaborate roof trusses are another example of High Victorian Gothic style.

The porch is adorned with memorials of many people associated with the church. St. Mary’s by the Sea was originally a small wooden church on the corner of Cattley Street and Marine Terrace in town. When Irishman Father Matthew O’Callaghan became parish priest, he was instrumental in selling that property and purchasing the land on which the new church was built. He was transferred to Queenstown in 1897 and died two years later. His remains were returned to Burnie for burial in the parish he had served for twenty five years.

The memorials to the Dunphy and Cooney families have piqued my interest. I have found they are buried in the Wivenhoe cemetery a short drive from our house, I shall investigate further.

Another Irishman, Father Patrick Hayes, was appointed to the parish in 1889 and was responsible for building a Catholic school in 1912 and adding a presbytery in 1928. He retired in 1947 and, passing away in 1954, was also buried at Wivenhoe.

A historic plaque was discovered by current parish priest, Father John Girdauskas, beneath the Star of the Sea church, commemorating the opening of St. Anne’s Catholic church and primary school in 1961.

The gardens on the two acre site have been established and are tended by volunteers.

A tidy section by the steps from the car park is dedicated to Father Terry McCosker, whose arrival in 1988 was sadly cut short due to illness.

The steeply sloping land behind the church has been landscaped with care and many hours of hard work have resulted in some very impressive retaining walls.

The path continues from the more formal gardens to a natural reserve, dedicated to the Fraser family.

St. Mary’s Star of the Sea has escaped the threat of removal twice. Firstly with the relocation of the Burnie Highway in 1979 and again just before Fr Girdauskas took over when the Marist priests intended building a replacement church near Marist College. The church is now heritage listed, as it should be.

Hamilton Gardens – Fantasy

Having explored the Hamilton Gardens Paradise Collection, we moved on to the Fantasy Collection where imagination and fantasy are integral to the garden design. Three of these are found along paths leading from Time Court. Bronze characters from Alice in Wonderland are assembled atop a plinth, a plaque quotes: “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there. Lewis Carroll.”

We entered the Surrealist Garden along a disconcerting black & white tiled passageway that led to a fireplace with nothing on the mantlepiece except a pair of egg shaped ornaments.

Surrealist art came to the fore in the 1920s and 30s when artists and writers became fascinated with the mysterious world of dreams and the subconscious mind. In garden design, this was illustrated through distortion of scale, strange forms of topiary & sculptures and elements behaving in an unexpected manner.

Everything in this garden is five times the normal scale

and the lawn edging curves up at the corners like a sheet of paper.

Instead of a dozen white roses, a dozen white noses are dotted throughout the thick foliage bordering the lawn.

I thought I was seeing thing when I saw the ‘branches’ of these trees moving. The ivy covered shapes, known as ‘trons’, appear slightly sinister as their hydraulically controlled arms move when least expected.

The Tudor Garden reflects the fascination 16th century English aristocracy had with geometric patterns and symbolism. A stone pavilion, based on the one at Montacute House in Somerset, overlooks intricate knot gardens that were traditionally outdoor settings for fantasy plays or ‘masques’.

Mythical beasts on green and white striped poles each hold a flag of the Tudor Rose as well as a sculptural crest of some of the notorious personalities of the day. Although some of the shields can’t be seen from the angle of the photo, royalty are represented by the unicorn (Mary, Queen of Scots), the griffin (King Henry VIII) and the dragon (Queen Elizabeth I).

Lord Chancellors of the aforementioned royalty make an appearance with the Centaur (Sir Thomas More) and Satyr (Sir Francis Bacon).

Two favourites of Queen Elizabeth I, both described as a ‘privateer’, are upheld by the sea serpent (Sir Walter Raleigh) and the Phoenix (Sir Francis Drake). The most endearing is the lovable Bottom from Midsummer Night’s Dream holding the shield of Sir William Shakespeare.

Chinese and Japanese imports flowed into Europe in the 18th century and created a fashion craze that became known as ‘Chinoiserie’. Garden design became an expression of the Western fantasy of Oriental art. This Chinoiserie Garden is quite simple. Once through the Bottle Gate and along the path to the Perfume Garden,

there are Chinoiserie seats and a Chinese Pavilion overlooking a sweeping lawn.

The pavilion is modelled on the ‘Chinese House’ at Stowe Landscape Gardens in England which was built in 1738. Like the original, the roof is copper and the colourful decoration gives it a theatrical touch.

Planting in the Tropical Garden has been designed so that the hardier plants offer protection to those more susceptible to Waikato winters. Exotic plants such as bromeliads and orchids sprinkle colour amongst the lush greenery and a trickling stream adds to the tranquil tropical atmosphere.

The next three Fantasy gardens led from Braithwaite Court where a Huddleston airship, full of gardening gadgets, is tethered. The airship is more than ornamental, it glides through the night delivering plants and pruning hard-to-reach hedges.

Essentially a form of outdoor conceptual art, the Concept Garden has been inspired by the square boxes of a legend on a map. Nine types of New Zealand landscape are symbolised in the blocks; pasture is represented by the grass, native bush by Muehlenbeckia astonii, urban areas by White Carpet roses, horticultural by citrus trees, tussock grassland by Carex buchananii, coniferous forest by Pinus mugo, scrubland by Leptospermum scoparium, wetland by Apodasmia and water bodies by the central pool.

Two Māori whakataukī, or proverbs, appear in the garden. He peke tangata, apa he peke titoki, is inscribed on the white wall, meaning ‘the human family lives on while the branch of the titoki falls and decays’. Perhaps a suggestion that as the population grows, it is at the expense of natural environments. The other whakataukī is inscribed on a steel pipe, which will gradually rust away; the interpretation of this message is, ‘but in the end, nature is going to win’.

A change in attitude toward the formality of garden design came about with the Picturesque Garden movement in England during the 18th century. Gardens retained a natural look, some deliberately wild and overgrown, and often had a sequence of features representing a fantasy story or classical legend. The Picturesque Garden at Hamilton makes reference to the story of The Magic Flute, written by Mozart in 1791, along with Masonic symbolism found in the story. We entered through a cave guarded by a pair of sphinxes

and passed the figure of Papageno

before reaching the Woodland Temple of the Queen of the Night.

The number three is significant to the Freemasons, as evinced by the three guardian angels, three portals to enter the temple and, through the dark passage, three temptresses represented in relief sculpture on the wall.

A table of food and wine awaited in a meadow

and the entrance to the cave where Tamino faced his last test is flanked by a brazier and bowl, symbolising fire and water. Opening a door at the end of the path, we wondered what could possibly top that experience.

We weren’t disappointed. One of the foremost pioneers in modern literature, New Zealand born Katherine Mansfield wrote her short story, The Garden Party in 1922. Inspired by an event that took place in Wellington in 1907, the architecture, food and design detail of the Edwardian period has been recreated in the Mansfield Garden. Circular gravel driveways with a pond or fountain in the centre were a common theme

and the Model T Ford was a status symbol of the time.

The lawn tennis court is the setting of the party

and workmen erected a marquee against the karaka hedge, specifically mentioned in the story, on the far side of the court.

The banquet table is laden with mouth-watering fare. Fifteen kinds of sandwiches with the crusts cut off are suggested in the story, although only two were specified; cream cheese with lemon curd and egg & olive. ‘Godber’s famous cream puffs’ were also on the menu, a nod to James Godber, a very successful baker, confectioner and caterer in Wellington at the turn of the century. The delectable spread is actually made from concrete and resin to withstand the elements.

Yet another detail from the story is the placement of the ‘very small band’ in another corner of the tennis court.

Having read Katherine Mansfield’s short stories since our trip, this fantasy garden lacked nothing. Sadly, she died with tuberculosis in 1923 at the age of 34.

Saturnia

We had worked up an appetite lounging around in the healing waters of Cascate del Mulino and so, smelling slightly sulphurous, advanced to the nearby town of Saturnia. Despite dating back to the Etruscans in 800BC, there was a feeling of openness and modernity.

There is a reason for this. In 1300AD, it became the hideout of outlaws and was razed to the ground by the Sienese. Forgotten for hundreds of years, it was rediscovered in the late 19th century, the land around the spring was drained, the spa was built and the town breathed new life. While the boys relaxed with a coffee,

we girls wandered the streets, exploring shops

and local sights,

some of which were quite unexpected.

The Church of Santa Maria Maddalena dates back to 1188AD but the building we see now is due to a restoration in 1933. If only we had known the 15th century Madonna and Child frescoe by Benvenuto di Giovanni was inside.

We found a lovely alfresco dining area at Ristorante Il Melangolo, the perfect setting to savour a vino and delicious pizza.

We enjoyed friendly banter with our waiter, Alex and as we left, an ardent “good-bye” reached us from a smiling chef Marco in the top floor window.

We made our way back to the car and, with a last glimpse of the stunning panorama, farewelled Saturnia.