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?
I am giddy already. And there are clothes! Acres of clothes! All very reasonably priced, and you can try things on right there.
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!
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.
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.
(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…
And then to blue – a rich cobalt blue, almost palpable, with the moon and stars just hanging there.
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.
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.
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.
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.
From the high platform of Belvedere, we have a stunning view of Piazza Sisto V at night.
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.
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.
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.
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’!
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.
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.
14th century reliquary with gold, rubies and sapphires
13th century Spoleto crucifix
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Many thanks to Gianluca Vagnarelli @ Mezzadria Stories
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.
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.
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?