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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Tenor and 400 Cactuses for Putin

APThe 186-meter Moskva anchored off the coast of Sardina. Putin is to attend a reception and news conference on the cruiser.
President Vladimir Putin will kick back this weekend at Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's luxury villa on Sardinia, where he will go sailing, be serenaded by tenor Andrea Bocelli and get a chance to check out 400 cactuses planted especially for his visit.

Putin, his wife, Lyudmila, and their two teenage daughters arrive Friday for a three-day stay at the 2,500-square-meter La Certosa residence on the island's northern Costa Smeralda, or Emerald Coast, famous for its crystal-clear waters, white sand beaches and pink granite rocks.

Berlusconi, a lover of what the Italian press refers to as "entertaining diplomacy," has special treats in store for his "caro amico Vladimiro," or "dear friend Vladimir" -- the informal way Berlusconi addresses Putin.

Life has been very busy in recent weeks at La Certosa, which is on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea and surrounded by 50 hectares of park. Workers have enlarged the park's artificial lake and planted a 500-year-old carob tree near its shores. Berlusconi, who has a passion for gardening, bought the tree at the botanic gardens in Cagliari, the Sardinian capital.

Gardeners also have planted 400 cactuses that Berlusconi ordered from the Canary island of Lanzarote. The cactuses form a natural amphitheater that Putin will be able to admire from an enormous gazebo at weekend concerts.

For the concerts, Berlusconi has invited the platinum-selling Bocelli, who sings arias and Neapolitan folk songs. And, according to Italian media reports, Berlusconi is planning to sing a duet with Bocelli.

Neapolitan folk singer Mariano Apicella, who the press calls Berlusconi's private minstrel, has been invited as well.

Apicella, 39, became a star a few years ago when Berlusconi heard one of his performances in an Neapolitan restaurant and invited him to sing at one of his villas. Since then, Berlusconi and Apicella have been inseparable. The prime minister loves to compose songs for Apicella to sing, and the two often sing together.

"[Apicella] will sing Berlusconi's songs especially to the Russian president," said Giampiero Cocco, a reporter with the La Nuova Sardegna newspaper.

Berlusconi, who is trying to lose 350 grams a day on a diet, goes jogging and, according to Italian media reports, is planning to invite Putin to go jogging with him in the morning.

"If Putin does not like to jog, he will be given the chance to go horseback riding," said Augusto Ditel, a La Nuova Sardegna reporter who has been covering Berlusconi's guests for years.

Ditel said Berlusconi has a stable of horses.

Berlusconi, who has said he wants to make his villa a kind of U.S. Camp David presidential retreat, receives foreign dignitaries and holds news conferences there.

Sardinia Island also is a popular vacation spot for wealthy tourists, and a number of Russians have been spending their summer vacations there in recent years.

"Putin won't be the only Russian on Costa Smeralda. More and more Russians are coming to this area," said Vito Fiori, a reporter for the Unione Sarda newspaper.

"Russian is one of the main languages spoken here these days," he added.

This is Putin's first visit to the island, but his daughters Masha, 18, and Katya, 17, stayed there as Berlusconi's guests last summer. Berlusconi's daughter Barbara, 18, is studying Russian, according to Italian media reports.

Security is high for the visit -- and the Italians are getting a kick out of the fact that Russian navy ships that are part of Putin's security detail are anchored several hundred meters from a U.S. naval base.

Three ships from the Black Sea Fleet anchored off the Sardinian coast on Wednesday, and two of them are near the Santo Stefano base, which is visited by U.S. nuclear submarines for routine maintenance checks and supplies.

The Moskva cruiser and its escort ship, the Smetlivy, are about two kilometers from the Maddalena Archipelago, off Sardinia's northern coast, an Italian navy spokesman told the Italian press. The third vessel, the Ivan Bubnov tanker, is staying in international waters.

"This is the first time that we have seen Russian navy ships so close to an American base," said Cocco, whose newspaper, La Nuova Sardegna, ran a story Thursday with the headline "The Russians Are Close to the Americans."

Unione Sarda announced the ships with the headline "Tsar Putin's Vessels Have Arrived."

"People here understand that this is an important event," Cocco said. "We are seeing Russian vessels near an American base for the first time. You have lines of cars trying to catch the scene from different panoramic spots."

Italian press reported that Putin and Berlusconi will hold a joint news conference on board the 186-meter Moskva. The Black Sea Fleet's commander said a reception also will be held aboard the cruiser, Interfax reported.

It was unclear which day the events on the ship would be held. Berlusconi's office and the Kremlin are refusing to comment about the visit.

An official from the Olbia airport, located 30 kilometers from Berlusconi's villa, said two Tupolev jets with "a lot of KGB guys on board" landed Wednesday. The official, who asked not to be identified, said four armored cars were unloaded from the planes.

Italy has beefed up security on the island with scores of officers from the police, the military police, the finance police and the secret services.

"For the Italians, security also is not a joke," Cocco said.

On Saturday, Berlusconi and Putin are to board the 25-meter Yacht Argo, owned by the Italian navy, and sail along the northern Sardinian coast.

Putin will not spend the whole weekend relaxing. He and Berlusconi plan to hold informal talks about Russian-EU ties and international problems.

The visit is the first of two Putin plans to make to Italy while Berlusconi holds the rotating EU presidency, which he took over in July for six months.

Putin will visit again in November to hold bilateral talks and take part in a Russia-EU summit. Russia wants the summit to focus on visa-free travel between Russia and the EU and its bid to join the World Trade Organization.

Berlusconi visited Russia in February and July this year.