In 1905, Baldasare Forestiere, a Sicilian immigrant weary of digging subway tunnels in New York City, purchased a plot of farm land, sight unseen, in a magical-sounding place called Fresno. After handing his meager savings to a fellow Italian, he traveled across the country to faraway California, only to discover he’d been cheated. The 40 acres he’d purchased were hardpan rock, utterly unfarmable. And so, as the sun cooked his small house and desolate property, Forestiere took up his pickax and, for lack of other options, once again went underground.
The Sicilian turned out to have a gift for impromptu engineering. Working alone, he dug nearly 100 subterranean passageways, rooms, and alcoves by hand before he died in 1946. Today, the Forestiere Underground Gardens are a monument to creative madness, elbow grease, and religious faith. Fruit trees grow upward from their dark chambers to peek through holes at the surface. Narrow passageways, 22-feet deep, wind between the rooms, cooled by convection currents. As Forestiere grew older, he abandoned aboveground living entirely, and began to pierce the walls of his subterranean compound with spyholes; from his bed he could observe visitors descending the grand stairway entrance. The gardens include a formal ballroom, a chapel, and an aquarium (now empty). Forestiere’s niece Lorraine and great-nephew Andre maintain the grounds, and they don’t appreciate anyone poking fun at their eccentric forebear. Save it for the car
Forestiere Underground Gardens is at 5021 West Shaw Avenue in Fresno, California. During the summer, the garden offers tours Wednesday through Sunday, but call (559) 271-0734 first—the schedule changes constantly. Admission is $9 for adults and $7 for students.
From San Francisco, take Interstate 5 south to the 99, and get off at exit 140. From Los Angeles, take 5 north, then 99 through lovely Bakersfield, and get off at exit 140.
Unless you love flat, featureless shopping centers, for God’s sake don’t stay in Fresno. Instead, make the gardens part of a trip to Yosemite, a scant 65 miles away. The National Park Service’s Web site sucks; instead, use www.yosemitesites.com to search for available campsites. Or, if you’re not the outdoors type, stay at the Peregrine Inn, a sprawling bed-and-breakfast at the park’s edge. If you can’t pitch a tent like a hardy woodsman, at least eat like one: The inn’s breakfast lasagna will test your mettle. Call (209) 372-8517, or visit www.yosemiteperegrine.com.