Inferno in Montalto

A night of drama and magic in Montalto delle Marche.

At the very end of summer 2019, we were treated to a walking evening dramatisation of Dante’s Inferno, performed by an itinerant theatre group of actors, who, in the historic centre, presented this stunning journey of the human soul into the various depths of Hell. Many townspeople attended, the streets were lit with candles, the atmosphere was palpable and I was simply spellbound.

The Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia) is a long Italian narrative poem by Dante Alighieri, begun in 1308 and completed in 1320, a year before his death in 1321. It is widely considered to be the pre-eminent work in Italian literature and one of the greatest works of world literature. It comprises three major ‘cantiche’ – Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. All Italian schoolchildren study this stunning work.

a smouldering late summer scene set in Montalto delle Marche

While Inferno can be read as a straightforward story about Dante’s journey through Hell, it is also a long allegory for man’s descent into sin. 

The nine Circles of Dante’s Hell:
Limbo, lust, gluttony, greed, anger, heresy, violence, fraud, treachery.

Dante represents everyone. He loses the path of salvation in a shadowy world of sin. He travels the path through Hell trying to find his way back to God’s grace.

“My thoughts were full of other things when I wandered off the path. In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself within a dark woods where the straight way was lost.” 

Those approaching Inferno for the first time, as I did, might benefit from a brief structural description. This is Dante’s journey through the nine circles of Hell, guided by the poet Virgil. At the beginning of the story, a woman, Beatrice, calls for an angel to bring Virgil to guide Dante in his journey so that no harm will befall him.

An unquestionably significant part of Dante’s aim in writing Inferno was to offer a large-scale commentary on the political nightmare of fourteenth-century Florence, from which he had recently been exiled. Being as he was embroiled in the Guelph–Ghibelline conflict, he condemns political figures with whom he disagreed by scattering them ruthlessly throughout Hell. 

“As in the autumn-time the leaves fall off, first one and then another, till the branch surrenders all its spoils to the earth; in similar fashion did these evil seeds of Adam throw themselves from the group, one by one, into the boat at Charon’s signal, as a bird is called to its lure.”

“There is no greater sorrow than to recall our times of joy in wretchedness”.

Dante draws on classical Greek themes and imaginative comparison between a soul’s sin on Earth and the punishment he or she receives in Hell. “The Sullen choke on mud, the Wrathful attack one another, the Gluttonous are forced to eat excrement”, and so on. Wonderful!

“For she doth make my veins and pulses tremble.”

the lovers – Paolo and Francesca

“Through me, you go into a city of weeping; through me, you go into eternal pain; through me you go amongst the lost people” 

He comments on people who have never experienced success nor failure.
“Master, what is it that I hear? Who are those people so defeated by their pain?” And he says to me: “This miserable way is taken by the sorry souls of those who lived without disgrace and without praise.”

Allegorically, the Inferno represents the human soul seeing sin for what it really is, and the three beasts represent three types of sin: the self-indulgent, the violent, and the malicious.

“Through me you pass into the city of woe:
Through me you pass into eternal pain:
Through me among the people lost for aye.
Justice the founder of my fabric moved:
To rear me was the task of power divine,
Most supreme wisdom, and primeval love.
Before me things create were none, save things
Eternal, and eternal I shall endure.
All hope abandon, ye who enter here.” 

“They now co-mingle with the coward angels,
the company of those who were not rebels
nor faithful to their God, but stood apart.
The heavens, that their beauty not be lessened,
have cast them out, nor will deep Hell receive them —
even the wicked cannot glory in them.” 

“So bitter is it, death is little more;” 

Understanding begins to evolve.

“Salvation must grow out of understanding, total understanding can follow only from total experience, and experience must be won by the laborious discipline of shaping one’s absolute attention.” 

“As little flowers, which the chill of night has bent and huddled, when the white sun strikes, grow straight and open fully on their stems, so did I, too, with my exhausted force.” 

It was a fantastic evening, I am smitten and intrigued by my new friend Dante, and I look forward to more delicious Divine Comedy outdoor theatre next summer in Montalto delle Marche.

Many thanks to my brother Jon. God rest his soul.

Autumn break in the Sibillini

Autumn is a perfect time for a short excursion to the mountains, before the snow arrives, and the lovely town of Amandola is only a 35 minute drive away. It is one of 18 municipalities located within the beautiful Monti Sibillini National Park.

During the drive there, you begin to see some of the solid massifs of this part of the Central Apennines as you travel through the pretty farmed countryside. Ten of them tower above 2,000 metres. Here you can see Mts Sibilla, Priora and Castel Manardo.

Nestled in a forested area just below these massifs, Amandola was founded in 1248, a fortified town which has seen plenty of battles. However, the most recent disaster to touch Amandola was the 2016 Central Italy earthquake, which damaged it quite heavily. There are 3,500 people now living here, still trying to adjust. 

Famous for the precious white truffle, there is a festival in October called “Diamanti a Tavola” (‘Diamonds at the Table’). There are ski-fields nearby too for winter enthusiasts, as well as horse-riding and cycling excursions. However, many people just come to trek in the mountains. There is a 9-day trek, staying at ‘rifiugi’ (refuges) along the way, but you can do many shorter walks too. There are rivers, caves, canyons and gorges to explore. Keep an eye out for bears and wolves, birds of prey and the hundreds of mountain flowers, including many types of wild orchids. You’ll need boots and a stick.

Following the road along the way up to the start of your walk, you see how the heavily forested areas are basically untouched. The air now is crisp and pure, and once you get above the tree line, the views are stunning.

I have yet to do the 9-day Grande Anello trek, but I’d love to. ‘Maybe next time’, she says, ever optimistic. One day walking is my limit at the moment. Heading back down to town, I look forward to warm bath, a home-cooked meal and a comfy bed.

I am staying at a little hotel, run by a wonderful family who were hit hard by the last big earthquake. Their livelihood was destroyed, but after a hard decision and couple of years of restoration, they now run their own home as a boutique 5-bedroomed hotel. An historic building, originally owned by the Marchesa Ferranti, pretty ‘Villa delle Rose’ was built in 1920’s Liberty style and is set in lovely grounds. Oreste, the owner, is friendly and very helpful with great advice on what to do and see locally; his mother Enrica, a delightful 83-year old, does the cooking; Manuela, Oreste’s wife, takes care of the beautiful children as well as working in the hotel. Even Lily the dog is a treasure. 

Villa delle Rose has a large rooftop terrace, where you see spectacular views of the Sibillini mountains, forged through ancient glacial periods. Although younger than the Alps, these mountains are still millions of years old. The balcony is also a wonderful place to sit and gaze at the starry night sky. The longer you look, the more you’ll see. Even better if you have downloaded a Night-Sky app on your phone.

After breakfast, a short trip onwards to explore the town of Sarnano, a little further into the park and a good place to stop for a caffe’, before heading back home. Or you could try the Sanctuary of Madonna Dell’Ambro, for a riverside picnic, the stunning Lame Rosse near Lake Fiastra, or perhaps the Gola dell’Infernaccio for another day of trekking. There really is plenty to do here. 

The snows will come soon enough.

Palazzo Paradisi

I love to go back in time. Montalto delle Marche has been populated since time immemorial, with evidence of prehistoric tribes here since 6000BC.

As an amateur armchair historian, I needed to understand more about all the heavily fortified medieval hilltop towns in this region, and the close ties with the church. Once you start delving, you get the feeling just about everyone has had a go at ruling Italy. I am delighted to have found several connecting layers of unique ancient history here in Montalto delle Marche.

During the Middle Ages (5th – 15th centuries), and after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the peninsula of Italy was occupied by a series of Barbarian tribes who wreaked havoc. The Gothic Wars (535-554) were a true scourge for the people of Italy; with ensuing famine, violence and epidemics, and taking centuries to recover from such destruction.

Then came the Lombards in 578 who quickly carved out kingdoms for themselves. As the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) was then losing ground to the Ottomans, and unable to protect the Italian people, eventually the Church decided to step in. These times are now called the Dark Ages. (It’s no wonder the local flour mill had to be fortified, or the town’s people would have starved during winter). The Bishop of Rome subsequently became powerful, and central Italy became a region of Papal States.

In 1118 the Castello of Montem Altum is listed in documents as a confirmed asset of the order of Farfa ( a powerful Benedictine order). Montalto was referred to as ‘Montem Altum’ by the first Bourbon king, Enrico IV.

Montalto delle Marche was an important city in medieval times, with 15 municipalities under it’s jurisdiction. It governed from the majestic Sibillini mountains down to the serene Adriatic coast. There are many old palaces in Montalto, but Palazzo Paradisi, the original stronghold, is the most ancient. Seen through autumn fog, one’s imagination takes over.

Originally called Castello della Rocca, it was constructed by the Paradisi Aronne family, a wealthy family with strong ties to the Farfense monastic order. Security for inhabitants and supplies was assured, and access to the city was gained, via two fortified gates, Porta Marina and Porta Patrizia.

Nowadays you can drive into town through these splendid gateways unchallenged, but you can still see the battlements and iron hinges from which hung the heavy gates.

First time visitors are initially impressed on arrival with the imposing and beautiful 16th century Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, on the main Piazza Sisto V. However one’s gaze is soon drawn a short distance to the grand and elegant medieval palazzo dominating the centre of town with age-old eyes.

The original city walls are now incorporated into the palace complex.
(photo A. Monti)

Constructed in ancient times, long before the cathedral of Montalto, the original part is dated in documentation around the year 1,000 AD. Inside the palazzo, we now find an elegant staircase leading to the noble floor, and can admire the dozens of rooms, overlapping in styles from 16th to 20th centuries, beautifully decorated, and at least three large reception halls.

Subsequent additions over the years grew the complex, now comprising 3,500 square metres in area, and includes the fortified Porta Marina, the Palazzo Noble itself and the Church of San Pietro (once the family chapel).

The palazzo was privately owned since construction until fairly recently, by the Paradisi Aronne family. It was listed in documents as far back as 1027. The Paradisi family achieved a high degree of wealth and several documents attest to this. They are listed in the Books of Income and Outcome, and in a census for the focaccia tax.

Documented medieval titbits: A severe sanction was imposed on two thieves who entered the home of the Paradisi family and stole denari, wine, bread, fava bean flour and flax. (Life was hard, maybe they were just very hungry).

The rise of the Paradisi family continued and in 1537 Gianfrancesco Paradisi committed to pay 6 gold scudi ( a very large sum) to a Franciscan friar if he could heal with ‘ointment, pharmacy, medicine and other things necessary’ his daughter who suffered an unnamed evil (probably a tumour) of the throat. To this day, it is not known if this was accomplished. We hope so.

Numerous prelates of the family distinguished themselves to various degrees in the hierarchy of the Church, and the adjoining church of San Pietro was refurbished in 1606 to welcome the remains of the first Bishop of Montalto. In 1772 the Catastre lists all possessions of Count Pietro Paradisi who was one of the largest land-owners, by land and by evaluation.

The church of San Pietro, with frescoes by Martino Bonfini (16th century)

The complex of the palace also includes the ancient theatre of the Rocca, unfortunately demolished in the 1970s. It had been the centre of cultural, recreational and theatrical activities, especially in more recent times by the last family member Countess Francesca Aronne Coppi, affectionately called Fanny, whom many still remember.

Left by the family in total abandonment after Countess Fanny’s death in 1963, the complex was purchased by the municipality of Montalto delle Marche in 1990, and has now thankfully been largely restored and is being used for community and cultural events .

Acknowledgements: I sincerely thank Montalto Councillor Raffaele Tassotti for his expert help with my research, and Alberto Monti for the use of some of his excellent photos.

Green Heart Montalto

Visitors to Le Marche often express their surprise at how green the land looks here. I guess people normally associate Italy with a tawny sienna colour, scorched and dusty. Further south this is often true. However the region of Le Marche is really the green heart of Italy, along with Umbria.

Here, the terrain is a patchwork, carpeted with cultivated crops, supported with plenty of protected waterways and forested areas. Here, the vines provide bright emerald green, even in high summer; olive trees give a bluish silver-green colour, the various crops and wildflowers add their wonderful hues.

The land in these sweet hills has a lot of clay in it, so it retains moisture, and crops still do well even in the long hot summer. It’s generally a dry summer, but we get a good amount of rain in spring and in autumn. We do get summer storms, like yesterday afternoon, with rolling thunder and spectacular lightning, and sometimes this even produces rain. All good for the land, and the farmers are happy.

Photo: L. Bartolini

July brings intense heat with temperatures of mid to high 30’s, however there is green everywhere. The many rivers and streams that course down from the mountains never run completely dry.

The surrounding countryside is a happy mix of tamed and well-cultivated land alongside rampant and untidy nature. A perfect combination for ensuring the healthy regeneration of humans as well as flora and fauna. Birds and wild animals abound, and with humans coexist peacefully. Except for during the hunting season, I suppose.

In high summer, it pays to take your long morning fitness walk before 8am, or it will be too taxing. The intense heat of midday summer makes it really ridiculous to wander about outside between the hours of 11am and 5pm. Mad dogs and Englishmen! A perfect time for a siesta with a good book. The small green paths are hard to resist, though, and if you must, you can always find a shady tree or stream to sit beside.

It must be time for a light farmhouse dinner, surely.

Long after-dinner strolls are simply wonderful, the breeze is light and warm, the piazza is a great place to meet for a gelato, the bars are busy. Montalto always looks stunning at this hour.

The San Ben market

Most smaller towns have a weekly market, and Montalto has hers every Wednesday. But this week I decided to go to the market in San Benedetto del Tronto. This is a larger coastal town and busy port, and the market there is much bigger, attracting huge crowds.

One has to steel oneself for the heavy traffic! It’s quite a bit of a to-do to find a free car park close by, and eventually I had to walk about 5 or 6 minutes, keeping to the shade whenever possible, as temperatures are quite high now.

Once you sight the large white sunshades covering the stalls, and hear the stallholders calling out loudly to attract attention, your legs hurry you along until you find yourself immersed in the thronging crowds, surrounded by all sorts of delightful merchandise! Goodness, where to start?

Shoes, perhaps?

Or handbags?

I am giddy already. And there are clothes! Acres of clothes! All very reasonably priced, and you can try things on right there.

Hats?

Swimwear?

My head is spinning, I need a nice bit of shade and a cool drink.

After 10 minutes of rest, I am hankering to get back into it again. The household wares are always interesting, you never know what you might find. Then there are the sheets, towels and tablecloths.

Sparkling jewellery and shady sunglasses.

Perhaps some potted colour for the balcony or the piazzetta?

It’s a good idea to leave the fruit and vegetables until it’s time to leave. It’s a bit of a drive back and you don’t want limp and warm produce, now do you?

Don’t forget the freshly baked cakes and biscuits…

Right, that’s it, my arms are heavy with bags now. Heading back to the car. Ciao, tutti! Wait!! One last look at the shoes?

No, no…next week perhaps. And off I trudge back to the car, feeling very much satisfied with my purchases today. Grazie, San Benedetto del Tronto. Alla prossima!

The Blue Hour in Montalto

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I think the most beautiful time here is at twilight, the blue hour or l’ora blu, when the sun has set, and now lies below the horizon and drops even further – and we have about an hour to witness the rich colour velvet-blue begin and deepen, eventually darkening to navy, then to black of night.

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In summer it happens during around 9pm – 10pm, and is the most tranquil and magical time of day. Interestingly, most religions conduct special rituals, vigils and prayers at this time.

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(L’ora blu happens before sunrise too, and one good thing about being jet-lagged from a long flight is that you will likely be up to witness that stunning time also).

It is the perfect time to go for a quiet walk around town. The streets are often deserted, as most people are indoors eating and spending time with the family.

When the sky is clear, the indirect sunlight tinges the sky yellow, orange, pink, red…

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And then to blue –  a rich cobalt blue, almost palpable, with the moon and stars just hanging there.

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The houses and piazzas begin to glow golden with the darkening sky, and eventually you look up and as quick as you like, the vivid cobalt blue has passed into deep navy and darker still.

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Night has fallen.

 

 

 

 

June in Montalto

Finally the heat has arrived, after a rather long, chilly and wet spring,  and the pretty flowers are now out and soaking up the sun.

Mid June, we honour Saint Vito – the patron saint of Montalto delle Marche, and thank him for his continuing protection.

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We also have a new mayor to welcome into office, we extend him all our best wishes in his new appointment. As is traditional here, the mayor presents the keys of Montalto to Saint Vito, a symbolic gesture conducted with great respect and celebration.

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foto: Laura Bartolini

Its summer now, and during the week honouring Saint Vito, we had a very enjoyable concert with food and drink to entertain us in the warm evening. The town looks so beautiful lit up at night, wandering down to the Belvedere to listen to the music, have a drink and say hello to friends and neighbours was just delightful.

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From the high platform of Belvedere, we have a stunning view of Piazza Sisto V at night.

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The last two Sundays have seen the religious ceremonies of Holy Confirmation and First Holy Communion, when each Catholic ritual has been a great honour to attend, with the town brass band playing enthusiastically; the day marked with devout processions in traditional and symbolic costume. These are important religious occasions, where the children are congratulated and valued as young, good and integral elements of our society.

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It is promising to be a long warm summer, so I am looking forward to more concerts and festivals, as well as spending long days at the beach. When it gets too hot, of course, I will head off to the mountains for a little cooler fresher air.

But for now the weather is perfect here in Montalto delle Marche and the surrounding countryside is doing well under the warm skies.

wheat and sunflowers
foto: Cristina Cecmac.

 

 

My Eyes in Montalto

In Italy one gets used to sitting and just gazing…..there is just so much beauty to take in…

And from my Montalto house, gazing from almost 600m above sea level, the views across the countryside are stunning….

Sunrises, moon-rises and sunsets…..every day the colours of an artist’s palette

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a summer evening

It’s enchanting to watch the daily passing of the weather from my window……

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a foggy morning

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early evening rain in violet and pink

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photo by Laura Bartolini

The distinct seasons marking the unstoppable passage of time….

I never tire of these views, and often spend long periods just talking it all in…

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photo by John Allen

Winter scenes are particularly magical….

But the surrounding countryside is mesmerising….in any season

It’s all very restorative for the soul, and apparently even my long-distance eyesight is now much improved for it.

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I cannot imagine living long without this view in front of me.

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Santa Maria Assunta

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Concattedrale di Montalto delle Marche

The Church of Santa Maria Assunta (Our Lady of the Assumption) is the name of the Catholic Basilica Concattedrale of Montalto, and it is quite magnificent. It stands proud and imposing to one side of the main piazza, Piazza Sisto V. Even on an overcast day, its neoclassical portico facade leaves a definite impression on new arrivals to this town.

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One’s breath is taken away upon entering, and one’s gaze is lifted upwards to the wonderfully ornate ceilings and soaring dome.

There are marbled pillars and altars in green, orange, pink and grey. There are Orthodox-styled hanging oil lamps. There are frescoes and very old paintings. There is a golden tabernacle. There are candles, handmade lace altar-cloths, ancient relics and incense. It is calm and cool in summer, a perfect place to sit still and ponder. This beautiful church provides us welcome and ample space for quiet reflection and meditation. The lively piazza outside is generally the opposite.

The Feast of the Our Lady’s Assumption into Heaven is celebrated on 15 August, the national holiday of Ferragosto. Our Lady of the Assumption has long been highly venerated and celebrated in the Catholic church, as the perfect feminine principle. Particularly majestic for such a small town, Santa Maria Assunta cathedral was begun by Felice Peretti, who eventually became Pope Sixtus V, and had received his religious training in Montalto at the San Francesco convent.

The Diocese of Montalto delle Marche (with symbolic pennants of yellow and red) was founded in 1586 by Pope Sixtus V, who having levelled the land for the town, erected the first stage of the church, the present day crypt. This sits several floors underneath the cathedral’s massive nave and transepts. Many past bishops are interred in the crypt. It is appropriately sombre and pale. Architectural trompe l’oeil has been used here to stunning effect.

Here we can see behind the altar the sculptural group, ” The Deposition” by Giorgio Paci.

In the crypt, there is also a simple dimly-lit grotto chapel, for devotees of Our Lady of Lourdes.

There was much work to be done, however, and after Pope Sixtus died in 1590, successive bishops undertook the task. In following years each bishop built on, and contributed to improve and complete this sacred building. By the end of 1600, the Basilica Cathedral was in daily use.

Santa Maria Assunta has an octagonal bell-tower, with huge deeply resonating bells that peal across the surrounding countryside. A true pleasure to hear, as long as you’re not standing too close. The splendid ringing of these bells punctuates my days and my weeks.

After a while here, you get to differentiate the many bell peals and rhythms: announcing Mass, celebrating new life, congratulating milestone achievements, grief and mourning – after all, the Church is in the ‘hatch, match and despatch’ business. Wedding bells are particularly joyous. When someone dies, two long sombre bells toll twice; once on the day of death and then again at the funeral. With some familiarity, you get to distinguish the ringing; you soon get to know your ‘knockers’ from your ‘rockers’!

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The church is beautifully kept and a pleasure to visit, although there has been some damage over the years. The vault of the nave is frescoed in lovely panels, and there are 12 lateral chapels decorated with very ancient ‘dry’ paintings. The first chapel on the right as you enter is the baptistry, and the font dates back to 1652.

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The Diocesan Sistine Museum, formerly the seminary, sits directly opposite the cathedral on the piazza in the grand episcopal Palazzo. This building houses precious Sistine treasures dating from the 13th century and ancient religious reliquaries.

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Il Museo Sistino Vescovile

Previously I have mentioned our patron is Saint Vito, and the important and reverent ceremonies on his feast day bring together the civic and religious aspects of Montalto in rich colour.

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Esteemed parish priest Don Lorenzo Bruni in procession with the sacred relic of St. Vito.

The Cathedral is the religious, spiritual, and cultural anchor for the whole town community; not only churchy ceremonies are held here, also regular musical recitals, concerts and choral events.

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Local alpine choral group – La Cordata – (foto ilgraffio.online)

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E buonanotte!  A very good night from Montalto.

Madre Terra

vista di Montalto

It’s harvest time in Le Marche, and with 2018 being the European Year of Cultural Heritage, it seems appropriate to talk about the ample bounty of nutritious food produced from these hills of pale limestone and taupe clay, fecund Mother Earth and the amazing people who make it happen.

It’s a very old way of life that gives rise to these beautiful patchwork fields we gaze at all around Montalto delle Marche.

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By the end of August, the stone fruit from the valleys has been taken in, with sweet peaches and nectarines being eaten every day in my house; the cherries have been and gone sadly, but the figs and plums are now in, leaving the apples still ripening on the trees. The grains have been harvested & stored, or sold, leaving corn and sunflowers about to be gathered.

summer fruit

figs

Beet and sorghum provide winter fodder for cattle, and ‘erba medica’ (alfalfa) is being cut and turned to dry in the last of the hot sun. Tomatoes, onions, carrots, potatoes, eggplants, lettuces, zucchini and legumes amongst other vegetables are still producing well, pumpkins are ripening on the ground, nuts are almost ready, and the winter crop seedlings are planted in the soft tilled earth.

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erba medica being cut

The grapes will be harvested this month during the vendemmia, then the olives taken for oil and for eating in October.

Here in Southern Le Marche we have high mountains, steep ravines, gushing rivers and tinkling streams, rolling hills and gentle valleys smoothing out down towards the sea coast.

Even with the many pockets of beautiful natural forest, which are protected by law and great for hunting, we have one of the highest levels of cultivable land in Italy.

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The farming destiny of the Marchigiani people has been written for centuries in these sweet hills, ‘le dolci colline’, which are served well by the abundant fresh water from the rivers, keeping the people and the land alive and bringing nutrients down from the mountain-tops to the fields below.

All around this pretty countryside I am constantly impressed by the intensity and neat lines of cultivation, and by the endless supply of quality produce. I love to watch the soft breezes moving across the fields of grain, rustling the tall stands of corn and feel the hot sun baking the heavy sunflower heads. Everything is ripe for the picking at harvest time.

The farms here are small holdings mainly organically run by families with long histories and innate expertise. True farmers, it’s in their blood and they are proud of their lifestyle. They are hard workers, physically strong and muscular, as well as kind and generous of spirit. It’s nothing to see an 80 year old nonna outside in the hot sun, her head sensibly covered, working on her farmhouse orto, purposefully pushing a loaded wheelbarrow or clambering up the hill to help pick grapes during vendemmia. Is there any wonder this region of Italy has an above-average life expectancy?

I have learned about the Mezzadria from local historian Gianluca Vagnarelli, whose family was involved in this particular share-cropping system for generations; and it greatly amplified my respect for these ‘salt-of-the earth’ people, descendants of the Mezzadri.  (Gianluca has allowed me to use some of his family’s photographs here).

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Mezzadria (a contractual sharecropping system) existed in Central Italy since the 14th century, when, with a resurgence in population after the Black Plague, it provided poorer families with a home, work and food; they may otherwise have been destitute. It also gave the landowners a steady supply of food, and provided caretakers for their animals and land. The summer harvest was a very important time for all concerned.

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The Mezzadria share-cropping deal was a pact based on a 50/50 principle – the landowners received 50% of all yield raised, and the peasants received 50%, a house and enough produce to feed the family and with which to barter. It was a no-money system, that sadly was open to abuse as human systems often are. But if you had a good landlord, life wasn’t too bad.

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Many an old farmhouse, a ‘casa colonica’, lie dotted around the countryside mainly used for storage nowadays. They were large practical structures, with a telltale outdoor staircase to the upstairs level, where often as many as 45 people were housed. The animals were kept on the ground floor, especially in winter, to keep the humans warm upstairs. The family was always close at hand to give assistance when an animal was giving birth. All members of the family, even young children, had specific roles to play.

(If you are interested in researching Mezzadria further, please contact Gianluca on Google or his Facebook site, Mezzadria Stories. He is a mine of information on this subject).

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These families worked together, ate together, celebrated together and slept together, maintaining very strong bonds. As well as being excellent farmers, shepherds and horticulturists, they were completely self-sufficient; expert artisans in weaving cloth, cheese-making, the hygienic preservation of fruit, vegetables and meats, basketry, furniture-making, shoe and hat making. All the time keeping ditches and roads clear and protecting the environment. Nothing was wasted, all life was cherished. These qualities and skills are still inherent in the people of Le Marche today.

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The sharecropping system began to die out when the industrial age began. It was basically a system that was open to abuse, and workers were eventually attracted to the shiny new city factories where they were offered easier work and would be paid in cash. A large portion of the peasant workers walked off the land, abandoning these hills and their agricultural roots, but some local peasant farmers stayed contracted until the 1980’s. The landowners lamented the loss of expertise and skills. Luckily for us, though, farming is still a viable lifestyle, and the land continues to give up it’s wonderful yield.

Every summer many workers, originally born in this town but now living in cities like Milan and Rome, return to Montalto where they stay together in family-owned houses. They love coming back home, to celebrate summer with people who have known them since they were children. They enjoy immensely the local festivals, the food and going to the beaches. They are proud and nostalgic for their ‘paese’ or homeland, and their ‘aria nata’  or birth air. Eventually at the end of their holiday they must go back to the bustle of city life for another year of work, but they long to return. It’s sad to see them go.

I sometimes wonder if they are really happy with their decision.

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Many thanks to Gianluca Vagnarelli @ Mezzadria Stories

 

 

Summer festivals in Le Marche

 

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While hot from early June to late September, most Italians are on holiday during the month of August. Everyone enjoys the stunning summer weather, and in the cool of the evenings thousands will travel to seek out the many festivals to meet, eat, socialise and be entertained. Music, food and fireworks feature largely and represent the joy and happiness of life.

Commencing early, summer entertainment in Montalto delle Marche features some excellent events chosen featuring live music bands popular with the youth (sometimes noisy), book-launches and literature evenings, acoustic concerts featuring jazz and Latin genres, as well as some well-loved traditional Italian songs that we can all sing along to. These are organised by either local groups or the town’s administration, and brochures outlining the schedule of events can be found in most shops & bars. Well patronised, they are a great way to relax and socialise, everyone appreciates them greatly.

A way of showcasing food typical to the area, local customs, music and drama, even in tiny rural towns and hamlets, Italians will put on extraordinary festivals and sagras, as a source of immense pride (campanilismo) in their own ‘paese’. The atmosphere is light-hearted and fun!

Each ‘commune’ or ‘frazione’ has a “Pro Loco” group, a grass-roots organisation that seeks to promote the town and it’s immediate area. These groups are comprised of incredibly hard-working citizens who start preparing for these festivals months in advance.

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Screenshot from Antonella & Giuseppina.3gp

Every year August 12th, 13th and 14th sees our town of Montalto delle Marche hosting the  remarkable “Le Notte delle Streghe” festival, our draw-card event. Several weeks of intense volunteer preparation culminates in 3 days of splendid family entertainment, featuring children’s fables with witches, gnomes and elves, ghosts, owls and bats decorating every house, wall and niche in town.

It’s a wonderful atmosphere, not only for the children; costumed fairy-tale characters are set up everywhere, fairy-tale games are played, magic shows and dancers perform in the piazzas, musicals are performed in the auditorium, and there is added street colour in the form of rousing drummers, impressive stilt-walkers, traditional bagpipe players, a prince on a shiny black stallion, and awesome fire-breathers. Even the most prosaic soul  becomes enchanted.

At midnight on the last night, the huge Strega (Evil Witch) made of wood, wire & straw is brought out and taken by bull-drawn cart from the top of town down to the main piazza, surrounded by her menacing coven sisters who rhythmically beat the ground with their sticks. Amid foul-smelling green & red smoke they are followed by the townsfolk with the children blowing shrill whistles to announce her malevolent passing. She has been arrested and will be taken to her fate at the stake, amid protests by her sisters, but her imminent demise is inevitable.

She arrives in the main piazza, which is filled to capacity by excited thousands, ( yes, thousands!) amid loud menacing music ( from Carmina Burana) and is hauled to the prepared stake watched over by fire-breathers, who finally set her alight.

She expires slowly, coughing and cursing everybody, but she can hurt the little children no more, and eventually goes up in flames. Loud celebratory music is played and a massive fireworks display finishes off the evening. Everyone stays up late, as it’s Ferragosto tomorrow, August 15th, the national holiday, and all of Italy sleeps in. All is well in our world again.

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Nearby is Castignano, a town that hosts an unforgettable Templaria festival, at the end of August, dedicated to the particular history of that town, which was an important to the Templar Knights in medieval times. There are actually some Templar Knights buried in Via dei Templari, face-down in full armour & weaponry, should they need to rise again to protect the town.

Castignano is transformed into a spectacular medieval town again, and as you wander the streets, you are taken back in time to witness how it might have been then. Ancient arts and crafts, street pedlars, leather-workers, coin-minters, musicians, dancers and entertainers, birds of prey handlers (eagles, hawks, falcons and owls), real sword fights, knights in armour, pretty maidens, tortured prisoners in chains and miserable writhing lepers, monks giving last rites, and great action. Once seen, never forgotten!

Offida, a major wine producing town, is another beguiling place nearby which hosts summer concerts almost every night during August – you can enjoy classical concerts by the local orchestra, guest musicians and singers, and shows put on by young and aspiring musical students. Open-air wine-tasting, and dancing of course, the tarantella, the tango, as well as magicians and other colourful street performers too. It’s a busy time of a summer evening here too, especially once the opera season starts.

I mentioned ‘sagras’ earlier. These are food-based festivals held everywhere, and the emphasis is on local produce and the wild food of the area. Foraged forest food, wild boar salami and sauces, and speciality pasta dishes particular to the areas are offered for the enjoying. The poster adverts appear early in summer at intersections, on tree-trunks and walls, and I try to remember to jot down the dates. It’s nigh on impossible to attend them all.

Although, we have on, occasion, driven some distance up into the mountains to sample the black and white truffles. Mouthwatering! Wine and beer flows at these events, naturally, and the local traditional musicians play on – I mean, what is life without good food and wine, friendly people and some great summer entertainment?

Buon divertimento, tutti!

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Escape to the mountains!

The Apennines were created up to 100 million years ago under the sea, they’re much younger than the Alps. They form the backbone of the Italian peninsula, are related to the Atlas mountains of North Africa, and ruggedly divide west Italy from east, isolating communities and allowing diverse local cultures and dialects to flourish unhindered.

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There are two National mountain parks close by. The Monti della Laga park is in Abruzzo, home to the awesome Gran Sasso, a mecca for mountain climbers. At 2912m, it stands proud and majestic. A joy to behold on the way across to Rome.

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Gran Sasso, Abruzzo.

But closer to home, the Parco dei Monti Sibillini is a half an hour drive from Montalto. It is very easy to find a reasonable walk here, especially if you are not as fit as a mountain climber. There are plenty of books with good recommendations. For me, it’s exciting to head off, the air getting enticingly cooler the further up you go. A perfect excursion during high summer.

The Sibillini range of the central Apennines forms a beautiful sight, straddling Le Marche and Umbria, and next door to Monti della Laga Park, with most peaks rising to over 2,000m; the highest Mt. Vettore stretching to 2,478m. The rock is mainly limestone karst and the splendid plateaus, lakes, gorges and valleys have been created over millennia by glaciers and melting snow. One’s eye is drawn to these stunning heights all year round – they shimmer hazy-blue in summer, and are crisply blanketed white in winter.

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The Parco Nazionale dei Monti Sibillini provides a wonderful place to explore, hike, bike, climb, picnic, take photos, sit by a river or a lake, rest ones eyes and generally restore one’s soul.

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It is a place of natural beauty, legend, and mystery. The Sibillini range name refers to Sibilla, an oracle who lived in these mountains, an ancient and benevolent priestess, able to tell the future and read the past; her cave providing her access to the underworld. There may have been dragons there too.

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Sibilla

This wilderness park offers many wonderful walks, and we have only sampled a few. Some walks are very easy, a perfect day out. Others require sturdy boots, a useful stick and some stamina. Mountain weather being changeable, some tracks can be challenging, but on the peaks there are refuges available which provide somewhere to sleep and hot food, so it’s wise to stick to a mapped route.

From the small hamlet of Foce, you can spend the best part of a day (6 hours round trip) hiking to Lago di Pilato, a beautiful lake high up past a series of 3 plateaus. Some parts are steep, but it’s well worth it when you arrive.

Legend has it that Pontius Pilate’s body was cast into this lake after Tiberius ordered his execution. It turns blood-red every year as a sign that this could be true. However, the red colour actually comes from a small shrimp-like crustacean that proliferates here. An idyllic place to picnic, often there are still snowy patches even during summer; a night up there under the stars would be fantastic, one day I might just do it.

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Lago di Pilato

Down closer to earth, the Gola dell’Infernaccio offers a less steep walk, a track through a gorge towards a hermitage, it follows a crystalline river up past oak and beech forests into flowering meadows, with butterflies and grasshoppers fluttering and hopping just ahead of you – something you often just dream about. It really is my kind of heaven.

I once sat mesmerized here by the river, silently eating my sandwiches, when I became aware of some heavy breathing behind me. I turned to see that one of the gorgeous white cattle with huge dark eyes had come across silently to investigate. They spend summer up high in these pastures, and are quite unafraid of humans.

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Apart from cattle and sheep enjoying these high pastures, there is plenty of wildlife thriving here. Wild boar, chamois and roe deer, brown bears, wolves, soaring eagles and peregrines, owls, badgers, porcupine, foxes, squirrels, wild cats, pine marten, voles, weasels, bats, cuckoos, snakes, thousands of pretty butterflies and colourful finches….you are in their realm now

Marino Baroncini cervi
foto : Marino Baroncini

Bears? Did I say bears? Yes, they are brown bears, and they like to keep to themselves. If you keep to the tracks you are safe. They are well fed, and the rangers make sure they have plenty of places to hibernate during the winter. Only intrepid photographers will glimpse them. Obviously not me. This wonderful photo of mother and cub was taken by the very skilled Alessandro Picchio.

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foto: Alessandro Picchio

I am enchanted with the flowers. There are over 1800 different types of wildflowers here in this park, including many kinds of wild orchid, roses, aquilegia, peonies, tulips, narcissus, blue veronica and purple gentian, edelweiss, mallows and mountain lilies. Many more I cannot yet identify.

The Pian Grande is a stunning high-level plain often mist-shrouded, moulded by glaciers and particularly suited to growing lentils. Many thanks to Stefano Albanesi for this great photo.

foto: Stefano Albanesi

Once a year in July the tiny town of Castelluccio di Norcia hosts the spectacular ‘fioritura’ or flowering on the Pian Grande. The flowering attracts thousands over summer, and is a magical place, with striking displays of red poppy, blue cornflower among the green and yellow lentil fields. All visitors here experience true enchantment.

The inhabitants of Castelluccio rely heavily on visitors and sales of locally grown produce to get them through the hard winter. We always like to support the local community and so, whenever we go, we eat lentil soup with sausage, mountain greens, fresh sheep’s ricotta, wild boar salami, and pecorino cheese in varying stages of maturity. Often some home-made mountain-herb liqueur. It’s medicinal, of course.

We leave as replete souls, heading back taking more produce with us, feeling once again nourished, not just physically.

So we head back home, with the sun setting over these beautiful peaks. Many thanks to Cristina Cecmac for this stunning photo.

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Foto: Cristina Cecmac

Sigh! Maybe next time I will stay and sleep under the stars……

Ausculum Picenum – Ascoli Piceno

The travertine city

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Piazza Arringo, Ascoli Piceno

The provincial capital of Southern Le Marche is Ascoli Piceno. It is ancient. It sits between 2 rivers and is flanked on 3 sides by mountains and 2 stunning national parks. It faces the Adriatic sea, Umbria and Abruzzo, marking the southern border of Le Marche (meaning the Borders); technically we are in the North, Abruzzo is in Southern Italy.

This beautiful historic city is built from travertine marble – a limestone deposited by hot mineral springs. Like San Gimignano in Tuscany, Ascoli once boasted 100 towers.

Franco Stracci
foto: Franco Stracci

Not so many nowadays, too tall and slender to withstand the strong earthquakes common here. But this stone is beautiful, and ranges in colour from off-white to cream, beige, honey and occasionally rust. It was highly prized by the Romans and used extensively for buildings, bridges, arches, aqueducts and arenas.

Okay, far too much history to put down without boring you senseless here, but Ascoli has neolithic Greek origins, was anciently populated by the Piceni people, a tribe of Sabines who spoke an Italic language, and who venerated and followed their totem, the woodpecker bird, across the valleys and hills to this lovely place. They have left some pottery pieces, engravings and worked iron things in the ground for us to find. They were living here about 1600 years before Rome was a city. True!

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foto: Museo Nazionale Le Marche

Since then, Ascoli suffered ravaging from Ostrogoths and Lombards, was sought by the Romans who needed access to the hugely important salt-producing areas of the Adriatic Sea, salt being once more highly prized than gold. The ‘Via Salaria’ is still used today to get to Rome. Ascoli was established as a free municipality in 1189, then later became included in the Papal States territories. Is that too much history? ( But there is just so much more! ) If you squint and look closely, on this lovely building you might make out some letters, SPQA, in blue between each window. Senatus Populus Que Ascoli. Sure proof the Romans held Ascoli fast.

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The patrono of Ascoli is the martyr Saint Emidio, who continues to do a fairly good job of protecting the city against quakes and plague. The Cathedral is a major shrine dedicated to him. It stands proudly in Piazza Arringo, a richly decorated and impressive 8th century church. There is a lot of art to view inside, even if you are not particularly religious. A stunning cobalt blue & gold ceiling, ceramic tiled walls, chandeliers and a triptych by renaissance artist Carlo Crivelli always impress.

One of THE most elegant piazzas in Italy is the Piazza del Popolo in Ascoli. It is completely paved in smooth marble. After rain, it looks particularly beguiling. It’s home to the Gothic church of San Francesco, begun in 1258, with it’s striking tower and dome added later – in true Saint Francis style, very plain inside. But lovely. He wandered these hills and valleys, communing with nature, and when you come here, you can see why he was such a special man. October 4th is a big feast day here.

Pick up a stone and you can play a tune on the marble Singing Stones of this church, everyone else does. And aren’t those old wooden doors amazing?

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And of course, there is the famed Art Nouveau  Caffe’ Meletti bar / restaurant. Gorgeous! Take a refreshment here, the well-known anise-flavoured liqueur can be served iced if you want or with a floating coffee bean. Particularly efficacious after a big Italian lunch.

There are 50, 000 people living in Ascoli, this number rising to 100,000 when including the surrounding areas. There is plenty to do, with free public entertainment all year long, it can be quite busy. The Giostra della Quintana is a spectacular yearly display and re-enactment of the medieval parade and jousting tournament. Absolutely not to be missed.

Piazza Popolo
foto: Valentina Fazzini

See more here: http://www.quintanadiascoli.it/en/quintana/

Then there is ‘Carnevale’ in February….the Piazza del Popolo is transformed into a magical place in preparation for the festivities.

Attilio Pavoni
foto: Attilio Pavoni

Regular antique and curio fairs are held here every third Sunday,  we go often, mainly to browse.

There is a wonderful art gallery as well as a majolica museum for ceramic buffs.

The local snack you can try from a cart in the piazza is the Ascolana olive – a huge green olive, with the pit skilfully removed, stuffed with a meat, cheese and spice mixture, rolled in breadcrumbs and deep-fried at exactly the right temperature, so it comes to you not greasy at all. Delicious! Buy two paper twists, one will not be enough. I have converted several previously-confirmed olive-haters with these.

Reminders every now and then, the people here are real and human. A graffitist lamenting the loss of his/her mother on a wall below, and a memorial to Michele whom we used to see behind the baptistry of the cathedral; he used to sit with his beloved dog receiving charity from passersby; now sadly passed away, but fondly remembered with a plaque and a photo.

This city can stir emotions you didn’t know you kept buried….I am off wandering now….

See you again soon

 

Patrizio Paialunga
foto: Attilio Pavoni

From the mountains to the sea….

20992581_939274966210391_8327261231805717427_nMontalto delle Marche sits on a ridge between the central Appenine mountains and the Adriatic sea, and a short drive in either direction takes you to whichever slice of paradise you fancy.  It’s now June, and our long summer has just begun…

The Adriatic Sea stretches from Trieste and Venice in the North to the Strait of Otranto in the South, and is shared by Italy, Albania, Croatia, Montenegro, Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. adriatic-sea-political-map

The Adriatic’s surface temperature usually ranges from 22 to 30 °C in summer. Very peaceful now, this sea belies it’s history; the Adriatic coast has been settled since the year 6000 BC, and with Romans, Etruscans, Illyrians, Greeks, Goths, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Crusaders, Austro-Hungarians, Germans etc, it has seen some action.

Summer weather lasts for a good 4 months in Italy. At the start of June, some divine celestial being flicks the switch and it’s suddenly hot outside. This happens every year. One can even bathe in October quite comfortably for a good hour or so.

 

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Looking towards the Dalmatian coast

So, we head off down the hill and along the valley from Montalto (30 mins) and we soon arrive at the beach, ready to grab a couple of loungers and an umbrellone, pop into the changing shed, and head out into the blue…dipinto di blu….volaaaare!

At the local coast, the humidity & salinity are perfect, making the clean Blue Flag beaches idyllic for those who enjoy the health benefits of the seaside. The magnesium in the water is excellent for the skin, and it’s normal to see women (and men) walking together along the line of the beach in thigh-deep water – apparently it gets rid of cellulite. And judging by the gorgeous smooth bodies everywhere, it seems to work! Maybe I will keep at it a little longer.

If you’re not a swimmer, you can spend a very enjoyable day strolling the promenades, eyeing the restaurant menus, slurping on gelato, watching a game of tennis, or mums and dads playing with their children; or just sitting under a pine tree watching the world go by.

 

The Adriatic riviera is dotted with summer concessions or chalets, businesses that supply a bather’s every need – changing sheds, hot & cold showers, toilets, bars and restaurants, sand swept clean every morning, children’s beach toys, music, aquarobic classes, friendly staff and lifesavers on duty. All provided for a small daily charge. The beach provides unending fun day and night. It’s fabulous!

 

There are plenty of free beaches (spiagge libere) too, if you don’t want to pay. They have cold showers out in the open as well. Very handy. But if you need the loo, you’ll have to ask nicely or buy something at a bar.

The beaches I prefer to visit are Grottammare, and pretty little Cupra Marittimma. San Benedetto del Tronto is a bigger port, and has more interesting things happening.

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Cupra is very cute, and not as busy as the other two. It’s a quieter place to have a meal and has a wonderful art & craft market. Pedaso is quite lovely also.

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Quite a hard choice really, but that’s the deal, I’m afraid. We’ve been known to squabble for some time over which to frequent, and which gelateria makes the best fresh ice cream as well. (Don’t be surprised when they offer a big dollop of fresh whipped cream on top of your gelato – it’s almost ‘de rigeur’ unless you’re dieting!)

 

While you head off to the restaurant or bar, you can leave your sunhat, sunglasses, water-bottle, sunblock & towel on your lounger, nobody will touch them.

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If you are an Art Nouveau buff, you might like to gaze at the splendid Liberty villas as you saunter by the pine trees and date palms all along the lovely promenade.

 

And my personal favourite….

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The temperatures will rise steadily now, and in August, when the whole nation is on holiday,  we tend to head up into the mountains, as the seaside is a little too hot & crowded,  with the air temperature at over 40c, and the water often feels like a hot bath. Not particularly refreshing. But for now, back to the water for a few laps out to the rocks and back…..

Keep watching for my next post…into the cool mountain heights.  Ciao ciao!

 

The doors of Montalto

“I will let you in to my soul,  but wipe your feet at the door”.

– Herodes Atticus –  Greek philosopher & Roman consul 143 AD

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Patio garden
A little shade outside my front door

 

a few doors around my neighbourhood

 

 

 

 

The mornings are generally for housework, the time to call and visit is the afternoon…expect to stay a while. It’s a sign of kindness to visit someone at home, and you’ll be treated with respect, offered a seat, a drink  and a long conversation. By far the best way to learn Italian.

An open door, an open window, an offering of friendship.

 

 

Casa Magnolia

 

 

 

 

 

Winter in Montalto

snowy mountain view

Most foreigners forget that Italy has a season called winter. They have an idea that it’s always warm; even though some of the best skiers in the world come from this beautiful country.

The common dream of course is to visit Italy in the summer, but this can be far too hot for a lot of travellers not used to such high temperatures. Autumn, however, is a gorgeous season, with the landscape transformed in the most stunning of colours. We often head to the mountains in late autumn before the heavy snows arrive, to enjoy hiking in the pure air taking in the dramatic seasonal changes.

If you go up into the mountains during the weekdays, you are often the only ones there. The silence is breathtaking.

 

Inverno, winter, is bleakly stunning and very magical with heavy frosts, icy streams and snow. The air is crisp and cold, the mountains immensely powerful and the water icy clear.

After a good night of snowfall, one gaze out the window will confirm how you will confront the day….

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heavy snow at the front door

Before heading out, you will most likely need a snow shovel to even get out of the house….and then to get your car out & onto the road. Sometimes after a heavy snowfall finding your car is in itself a task. Winter brings people together in a way no other season does. Once you are prepared for the encroaching chill, with good heating indoors, appropriate clothing and a strong hiking stick, it can be the most enchanting of seasons.

 

It’s a joy to take a wander, check out if anyone needs a hand with a shovel, an access path or just something from the shops. And to appreciate the icy white beauty around town.

 

winter cross

cathedral snow

I am sure you’ll agree the views are mesmerising and my heart soars all over again as I view these photos taken over our many years in Montalto delle Marche.

wintry dawn

 

 

 

Menu fisso – Set menu

Good eating is extremely important in Le Marche, as in all of Italy, and you often hear the phrase  “In Italia, si mangia bene, si spende poco” – “In Italy one eats well, one spends little”. The Slow Food movement began in Italy, with the belief that locally grown organic food is so much better than any alternative. And these sweet hills grow an amazing amount of food for local consumption. 4) Montalto delle Marche

Even in rural southern Le Marche, there is too much choice really. We eat out a lot. There are several levels of ‘ristoranti’ ( and they DO restore you) all providing excellent food and wine, and for an easy and economical choice we often head with a group of friends to a family-run spacious workers’ restaurant that offers ‘menu fisso’ or ‘set menu’.

‘Menu fisso’ means there is no written menu, and usually only little choice, but you can be assured of healthy home-styled food, everything being prepared from scratch by the older women in the family who really do know what they are doing. It is completely different to the dismal ‘menu turistico’ that is offered in touristy cities.

At these wonderful establishments the cost of a full meal including wine is usually 10 euro per head, but can be up to 15 euro, especially if it includes elaborate antipasti or seafood served fresh on the coast.

Nobody speaks English here, and with no written menus, it can be a little intimidating. So I will now walk you through a normal fixed menu lunch at one of these popular venues. No booking is necessary, there are plenty of set tables every day.

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First you will notice there a smart shiny setting and fresh clean tablecloth, of course, something that is insisted upon in Italy. Where else will you put the rest of your piece of chunky bread – certainly not back in the bread basket – are you a heathen? Of course not, it sits on the clean cloth in front of your table setting.

The wine is served in glass pitchers, a choice of red or white or both, and bottled mineral water always is provided. Fresh crusty bread arrives in a basket. You now have something to begin with while your dishes are being prepared.

Sometimes, but not always, you will be offered antipasti as part of your set meal, which will always consist of a selection of salumi & cheeses to whet your appetite; and other local specialties like olive ascolane (meat-stuffed olives), coratella ( lemony eggs with chopped liver etc), cave-matured cheeses, farro salad, spiedini and cremini. Add seasonally available treats like truffles, quail eggs, fresh figs. rockmelon, and you are almost full already.

Onto the first course, which is usually fresh-made egg pasta or risotto, with maccheroncini being a popular southern Le Marche specialty (you often see it drying on the tables at the back of the restaurant, as it’s made fresh each day by the experienced hands of the grandmas).

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The pasta sauces are made from scratch and are all lip-smackingly delicious. You will most likely get a choice of two pasta dishes. Some restaurants specialise in ‘pasta al forno’ ( oven-cooked pasta like lasagne, cannelloni, fagottini or girelli ). All are superb.

Your second course will be a meat course, although fish is usually served on Fridays. (If you don’t want to eat what’s available, don’t be shy, let the staff know, and they will get the cook to fix you up something more to your liking). This will be accompanied with a contorno, usually a simple salad or other vegetable plate. If you run out of water or wine, ask for a refill, at no extra cost.

Now we finish off with a bowl of fresh fruit,  or a dolce (dessert) like tiramisu, crema catalana or squares of cake, and espresso coffee to follow. A flask of home made liqueur – normally the local aniseed flavoured mistra’ – will be brought to your table with your espresso, purely as an aid to your digestion. By the way, anyone ordering a cappucino after 11am in the morning is regarded as requiring urgent psychiatric care – or you could just be a foreigner who doesn’t know any better!

You might think that’s quite a midday meal, but consider that lunch is the main meal of the day, when your metabolism is at it’s peak and very little is required in the evening. It takes a while to get used to the fact that you don’t have to actually eat or drink everything. Lunch usually lasts at least 3 hours when we are eating with friends.

It’s perfectly normal to leave half a jug of wine on the table when you leave. You stop when you have had sufficient. Nobody would think of polishing off the bottle of liquid moonshine either, it’s just not done. Who on earth wants to see a rolling drunk leaving the restaurant? That would be utter madness.

Life in Montalto delle Marche

Part 8: The Morning Passeggiata

 

“Facciamo una passeggiata?” in Italian means “let’s go for a walk”, usually a leisurely stroll in the twilight evening. However, it can be done anytime, and first thing in the morning from Montalto, if you walk at a brisk clip, you are assured of a reasonable workout ( there are several uphill parts ) and of working up a good appetite in time for pranzo (lunch), the main meal of the day.

Early autumn is perfect, much easier than in high summer, and we walk most days.

 

A popular route is between Montalto delle Marche and the next town Montedinove, a distance of 5.4km there and back,  following the linden trees and gazing at the incredible vistas above the countryside along the way. Montalto sits at over 500m above sea level, so the views are just lovely.

 

There are several routes but few footpaths, so you have to take care with the few cars that come roaring around the corners, particularly if you have met up with friends and are walking in a group. But at least it’s tar-sealed all the way, so you can get up a good speed.

 

We pass the Sancutary of Saint Thomas Becket of Canterbury.  Yes, you read right. During the persecution of Catholics under English King Henry 8th, people fled to Italy and some brought St. Thomas’ relics to this unassuming church on the outskirts of Montedinove. He is a highly revered saint and has a very festive commemoration every year.

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There are also a few roadside shrines to the Madonna on the way, she kindly blesses us as we pass.

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Often we meet up with a local four-legged friend, a free spirit who belongs to nobody but everybody. Our English name for her is Smiley and she is very friendly, afraid of nothing and no-one, except confinement. She is a darling around town, always greets you at the local bars & is loved by all. She walks this route most days. She enjoys a bit of company and a tummy-rub, but she has her own route to follow where her heart leads her. She is not getting any younger, and there are plans afoot to see she is housed warmly over winter, even though she disdains the indoors.

 

We sometimes continue along the road with a steep climb up to the main piazza of Montedinove for a welcome cappuccino and a rest at the bar in the piazza, as well as more wonderful panoramic views. Then after a short break, we head back, stopping occasionally to notice also the small things that change with the seasons.

Like wood piles. People are now making sure there is enough wood in for winter. Snow has arrived on the Sibillini mountain range, so this is becoming an urgent chore. Last year the snow was very heavy and there were 5-day power outages, but people survived well thanks to their traditional reliance on wood for heating and cooking.

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The air here is so clean and fresh, the natural beauty so lovely, it’s like a massive hit of goodness that keeps you a bit delirious for the rest of the day. Well, me anyway.

 

Life in Montalto delle Marche

Part 7: The Historic Centre

centro storico senza gru

There have been humans living here on this hilltop since the Neolithic period 6,000 years ago, many everyday objects surviving from these times attest to this, and can be viewed in the local Archaelogical Museum. There are also items surviving from successive cultural periods: the Apennine culture (2,500 years ago), the Picene period (700 BC), Roman times and later.

Come with me on a walk around the centro storico, where I will show you some of the beauty and history of the oldest part of town.

From the main piazza, let’s walk up alongside the stunning Palazzo Sacconi, named after the Sacconi counts, it’s the largest symbol of prestige and nobility in Montalto delle Marche. Built during 17th -18th centuries, it comprises 4 floors with massive rooms and storage areas, a large courtyard & garden area.

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Palazzo Sacconi