Early in May I finally made it to Sicily after decades of thinking about it. I booked us into Wisteria Cottage, set in what was described as one of the last authentic Sicilian gardens, in the tiny hamlet of Scopello, west of Palermo. You may have heard of lovely little Scopello because it has recently been ‘discovered’ by the travel pages of The Guardian. It’s just a cluster of houses around an old baglio, literally a courtyard and, by extension, a fortified country estate, with a picture-perfect restored tuna-fishing port in an idyllic cove a little way down the hillside. Obviously I wasn’t influenced by the fact that it had featured in Ocean’s Twelve and that I may bump into attractive men like George Clooney and Brad Pitt. No, it was the allure of this intriguing garden and the spectacular show of spring wild flowers along the stunningly beautiful coastline in the Riserva Naturale dello Zingaro.
Scopello proper has a beautiful little square with a stone fountain and water trough fed from the mountains behind. There’s an intriguing iron gate let into a wall behind the fountain around which a man sells a gathering of seasonal fruit, vegetables, herbs and stripling citrus. The garden behind the gate, known as ‘The King’s Garden’, is carefully obscured– you have to pay two euros to get in – but guests at the cottage are welcome to make it their own.
I love gardens, not because I’m a horticulture geek, or for the tea and cake, but mainly because I’m a bit nosey and gardens give away secrets about their owners and the life they lead. Exploring this one was a bit frustrating as it wasn’t speaking to me. What I saw was a roughly two-acre walled site, basically a citrus grove, with olive trees around the perimeter and a rusty pergola supporting elderly vines, splicing the space in two. There was a stone water tank at the rear which reminded me of similar irrigation tanks in Marrakesh gardens as does the aesthetic, so common in the Mediterranean, which makes little distinction between a flower garden and its country cousin, the veg plot. Getting around was a bit tricky as the understory was thick with knee high weeds. Nearer the house the odd patch between the oranges and lemons had been cleared and planted with everyday essentials: aubergines, tomatoes, salad leaves, basil, oregano and peppers. The garden was trying to communicate but I needed an interpreter. And then a tanned and smiling man magically rose from amidst the long grass, greeting us with a hearty ‘buongiorno, I’m Sergio – I am the gardener here – how do you like my paradise?’
Who doesn’t like a bit of magic? Sergio spoke of the garden as if it was a miracle, a survivor in an age where such gardens are being torn up everywhere on the island – ‘it breaks my heart to see how they destroy our heritage,’ he said. The story of his giardino began in the thirteenth century. It had been huge, around thirteen hectares, managed mainly as a training ground for the famous local falcons which Emperor Frederick II loved to take on the hunt. Then in the seventeenth century the Baroness Teresa Omodei, Princess of Paceo, began walling a small section which she planted with citrus trees, watered by a new irrigation system. Poor Tess had almost finished her dream garden when Emperor Ferdinand IV of Bourbon (popularly known as King Big-Nose) took a fancy to it and stole it for himself. However, he had the cash to make the garden even more beautiful, extending the range of plants with delicious grapes and specimen olive trees – three of which were reputedly over a thousand years old. Fernando would ride out of the baglio across the square and into the garden, processing in a straight line to the hills beyond which were full of game. This route explains the metal pergola – it remained in the memory to become a garden feature. Teresa had the last laugh though – the Bourbon dynasty crumbled and in 1867 the garden once again belonged to her family – though she of course was long dead. And they’ve kept it ever since – this gardener’s name is Sergio Omodei.
‘It looks a bit of a mess at the moment,’ he explained, ‘because we run it as an organic garden. We let the natural flora come and go at this time of year to encourage bees – and of course we like the honey too. In June it gets cleared and we inter-plant with seasonal vegetables.’ By now I was feeling rather ashamed of myself for thinking they were just a lazy lot who had let the place go. ‘We sell everything we produce locally. All my lemons, at least four tonnes, go across the road to the café where they make the most delicious, refreshing granita – and we harvest the olives and make our own organic olive oil.’ My vision of the place was being transformed as he spoke. ‘I’ll give you some – it is truly a marvel.’ Then he searched for a particular tree and carefully selected two, round, smooth-skinned lemons. ‘Here, have these, bastardoni, we eat them finely sliced, skin and all, dressed with olive oil and a little salt – they’re a wonderful salad on their own. In the past that was often all we had to eat, with bread. Cucina povera – poor man’s cuisine.’ So there it was, my ‘bit of a mess’ was his paradise, a productive garden with royal antecedents and a deeply personal family history. His words had literally changed my point of view – which is why, I believe, gardens need to tell their story.
If you would like to know exactly what bastardoni are, look at page 72 of Helena Attlee’s lovely book The Land Where Lemons Grow. If you want to know what they taste like – you’ll have to ask Sergio to give you some. For what it’s worth, I think they were the most delicious lemons I have ever eaten. As for the wild flowers in the Riserva they were simply stunningly beautiful – but that’s another story.
The King’s Garden