It's 100 degrees outside, you can't afford air conditioning and the freezer smells too bad to stick your head in it. There aren't too many other options left to escape the pestering heat.
Little do Fresno State students know about a world one man created so the climate always stays perfect, where there is always an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables growing alongside a fish pond.
Past the array of grocery stores, office supply stores and restaurants on Shaw Avenue, a small, rustic sign above a frail wire fence announces the arrival to one of Fresno's best-kept secrets: the Forestiere Underground Gardens.
Spanning 10 acres, the gardens resemble an underground world, complete with small dark passageways and narrow tunnels.
These tunnels and passageways connect almost 100 rooms, gardens, courts and patios.
The underground gardens also feature living quarters: two bedrooms, a kitchen, a library, a living room, a bath, a fish pond and an aquarium.
This garden, however, is not so secret to the rest of the world.
Adventurers have traveled across the globe to catch a glimpse of this unique world that took 40 years to create. Stories of its grandeur have been published in horticulture journals and newspapers worldwide.
However, had it not been for a bit of bad luck, the underground gardens would have become a produce farm.
Creator Baldasare Forestiere came to America from Sicily once he realized his family assets would be handed over to his eldest brother. He landed in New York and made his way across the country to California, where he purchased 70 acres of land with the intent of becoming a farmer.
But when Forestiere picked up a shovel to plant his first seed, he hit hard ground.
The 70 acres of land sold to him turned out to be a solid plate of hardpan rock.
As a way to escape the 100-degree weather, Forestiere dug a cellar out of the rock. He realized the climate became cooler the deeper he dug into the earth. As he cooled off and saw the sunlight pour in from a skylight above, the idea of planting a tree underground popped into his head.
He planted the first tree in 1906, 25 feet underground in a homemade planter. Forestiere, who was a self-taught artist, architect, engineer and horticulturist created a skylight above the tree from the ground level of rock.
The skylight was made smaller than the actual planter so excess water would not flood the underground rooms and to keep out the hot air.
With the success of his first tree, Forestiere expanded his underground cellar into a 10-acre underground home, using only ordinary tools, a wheelbarrow and an occasional mule or donkey.
Sheryl Wharry came to see the underground gardens from Sacramento.
“The man was a great genius. It is such a fascinating and mind-blowing place. And to think one man created it all on his own,” Wharry said.
Eager sightseers counting down the minutes until their tour started waited patiently in the archway leading to Forestiere's front door.
Light and dark green vines, trees and bushes drape above, giving off the refreshing feeling of a tropical paradise. The sun lightly creeps through the small openings of leaves, creating a glow that entices you to move closer.
The smell of moss and sweet fruit drifts slowly from person to person.
Tony and Anita Yai, from Orange County, brought their mother and aunts all the way from Thailand to see the gardens.
“We had to bring our family from Thailand to see the place. We read about it in the AAA book this summer and highlighted it. This is our first time seeing the gardens and we expected it to be amazing,” Tony Yai said.
Traveling friends Jack Lapidos, from San Francisco, and Lisa Bruce, from Berkeley, made a stop to see the gardens on their way back from Yosemite.
“I have heard about the underground gardens since the 60s,” Bruce said. “I remember reading about it or watching programs on it. It was always on my to-do list. Jack has never heard of it, and I thought he would enjoy it as much as I intend to.”
Andre Forestiere, Baldasare's great-nephew, comes up the small stairway and begins the highly anticipated tour.
The sociable man leads the group into a large, dimly lit room with about a dozen circling ceiling fans.
The room has a tranquil feel caused by the soft red bricks that line the walls, the sea-foam-green wooden ceiling and the tiny white light bulbs draped from one corner to another.
Lorraine Forestiere, Baldasare's niece and Andre's mother, enters the room and tells the story of the brilliant man.
The tour then sets off and takes visitors through part of the 10 acres of land Forestiere spent some 40 years creating.
After devoting a good portion of his life to building a world all his own, Forestiere died in 1946.
At the time of his death, Forestiere was working on a ballroom and an underground lake.
Despite spending 40 years digging, Forestiere spent only $300 on supplies.
As Forestiere himself said: “To make something with lots of money, that is easy—but to make something out of nothing… Now that's something.”
The gardens are now used for weddings, business meetings, parties and small concerts.
The underground gardens are located at 5021 Shaw Ave. close to Highway 99.
Tours are by reservation only and run Wednesday through Friday 10 a.m. to noon, weather permitting.
Seniors tickets are $8, adults $9, teens and students $7 and children $6. Checks and cash are the only accepted form of payment.
For more information about the underground gardens, or to book a reservation, call (559) 271-0734.