Video: Giardino Botanico
Much of Gardone Rivera is reminiscent of the rooms and landscapes seen in Luchino Visconti’s films, giving us glimpses and insights into a time when ladies still wore ornate hats with veils and maids handed them satin gloves from lavender-scented wardrobes in the dressing room. There is something enchanted about the place – a slowness and sluggishness as if time were not responsible for this first true piece of the south which greets the traveller arriving from Riva via the Gardesana Occidentale with its countless tunnels. The promenade, whose foundations were built into the sea, is decked with large oleanders and orange trees and is home to coffee houses with billiard rooms. If you take a stroll along the shore, you can see Monte Baldo in the distance – often covered with snow until May and looming as if it were the Alps’ last stand – and, closer by in the midst of the spectacular waves, the elongated island of cypresses that St Francis chose as a refuge at the start of his journey.
Gardone Rivera consists of two parts: the group of houses next to the water and another group on a gentle slope near the church. Natives call these two parts Lower town and Upper town. The lower part of the town is associated with elegance: the Grand Hotel that Stefan Zweig immortalised in his novella Untergang eines Herzens [Death of a Heart]; the cocktail bar where Winston Churchill used to relax after painting; the grounds of the Hotel Savoy where balls were held every evening for aristocratic spa guests from Russia, Sweden and other chilly regions at the turn of the 20th century. The upper part is more rural, producing olives and dry grappa; pious praying women clutching statues of Mary can still be seen here making their way through the winding alleys. Their grandfathers may well have worked as servants for the dazzlingly monstrous Gabriele D’Annunzio, whose luxurious nine-hectare residence bordering Gardone embodies a luxurious hubris that glorifies victims of war and violence; not for nothing did it mean a lot to Mussolini, and it repels me.
Lower town and Upper town are connected by an area of sensuality full of magical strength: the Giardino Botanico, a collection of flora from all over the world with plants from Africa and South America interspersed with species from Asia, Europe and Australia. Edelweiss amidst orchid meadows; tree ferns several metres high next to pomegranate wonders. Streams and waterfalls; ponds with sacred koi carp, trout and the reflections of dragonflies in flight; hills of dolomite rock alongside cacti and towers of ivy. Indian and Moroccan sculptures in harmony with installations by Roy Lichtenstein, Susanne Schmögner, Mimmo Paladino and Keith Haring. I have belonged to this paradise since 1988 and it never ceases to amaze and delight me. Dr Arturo Hruska, dentist to the last tsar, created this magical place which also contains a Venetian villa that became my blessed home. When I look out from one of the balconies onto the splendour of Lake Garda or into one of my bamboo copses, I can still hardly believe that this park has chosen me to be its protector and ally, and I thank it – as best I can – with love.