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California Bucket List

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Central ValleyFamily-friendly

Go underground in Fresno and see what Baldassare Forestiere was all about

 (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: As soon as you step down into Forestiere Underground Gardens, the temperature will drop about 20 degrees and the strange, wonderful story of Mr. Forestiere will begin to unfold. If you've heard the history of  Simon Rodia's Watts Towers in Los Angeles, this is largely the same thing, upside down.

What: Forestiere came to the U.S. from Sicily in 1901 as a young man and bought land to start a citrus farm in West Fresno. But nobody warned him how hot it would be, or how hard the soil would be. So he adapted. He dug himself a cellar, savored the coolness, devised a system for turning hard-pan dirt into bricks, then set about building a mostly underground home with citrus trees whose top branches poked up through the skylights. For 40 years he dug and built, as deep as 33 feet beneath the surface. To make ends meet, he sold fruit and dug canals for other farmers. He never married but had plenty of friends, whom he entertained in his growing network of rooms and shady courtyards. (Plumbing? No.) After his death at 67 in 1946, a brother preserved part of the property and opened it for tours.

About 60 years later, the gardens are owned by 89-year-old Rick Forestiere, a nephew of the old man, and the tours continue, from March through November. A guide shows you the ballroom, the kitchen, the bedrooms (one for summer, one for winter), the rooms Forestiere hoped to make into a resort, the glass-bottomed pond, the many surviving citrus trees he planted. (He loved grafting, and one used to yield seven different kinds of fruit. It still grows two different kinds of oranges.)

One of Mr. Forestiere's bedrooms. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
One of Mr. Forestiere's bedrooms. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Visiting in August, I heard guide Karin Livingstone tell how Forestiere used a lot of rebar and, as a faithful Catholic, liked to do things in threes and sevens. Also, Livingstone said, "he had a lot of wheelbarrows."

 Where: 5021 W. Shaw Ave., Fresno, 226 miles north of downtown L.A. About two-thirds of Forestiere's original acres lies beneath neighboring Highway 99.

How much: For an hourlong tour, adults pay $17; children aged 5-17, $8. Tours are offered every hour they're open, on the hour. Hours vary by month; check the website. The gardens close to the public from December through February.

Info: Forestiere Underground Gardens

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