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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Agriturismo – Italian Farm Stay

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Following on from my recent ‘mezzadria’ post, I want to tell you about the modern concept of ‘agriturismo’ or farm-stay in this part of Central Italy.

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From the 1950’s – 1970’s small scale farming became less and less profitable (thanks to large corporations squeezing profit margins) and it became increasingly difficult to make a good living out of the land. Once again, the factories in the larger towns seemed a more attractive option.

However, some stalwart land-lovers stayed. The problem was how to ease the financial constraints and not lose more farmers. Italians still place great value on their agricultural traditions, especially small scale production of meats, cheeses, wine and olives.

So the government decided to put in place measures to help. These incentives allowed for rehabilitation and restoration of small farm buildings, and for working families to augment their income by hosting vacationers, providing them with a unique first-hand experience of a traditional way of life.

By 1985 lawmakers had created a legal definition of the ‘agriturismo’ – literally ‘farm tourism’ –  this incorporates any activity that attracts visitors to stay on a farm. Once Italy’s best kept secret, now also for foreign tourists, an ‘agriturismo’ can be a very relaxing and affordable holiday experience. There are several around Montalto delle Marche, all set in splendid rural spots, not far from the village and short distances from the beach or the mountains.

The farms are independently owned by local families, who are primarily farmers but who offer clean and comfortable accommodation and food. The farms are largely ‘biologico’ or organically run, and most of the food is grown on the property. You will often be given a starter-hamper of produce including seasonal fruit and vegetables on arrival, and a couple of bottles of wine to sample. And then there is a hearty home-cooked dinner to enjoy.

If you have children, in the morning they will adore collecting eggs, picking fruit, vegetables and olives, and feeding the animals. Or you can go wandering with them down the paths to the forested areas, and sit quietly beside a tinkling stream.

Also ideal for romantic sojourns, you can sit outside with a glass of wine in hand quietly watching the sun going down before dinner.

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Most agriturismi here are rustic and traditional in style, but are very comfortable; most have ensuite bathrooms and outdoor pools, ‘al fresco’ eating areas and very pleasant gardens.

The food is often cooked by the best people who know the traditional recipes by heart, the grandmothers. They take great delight in ensuring you are well looked after during your stay. They are generally not fussy for whom they cook. Luckily for us town dwellers, we can also ring and book a table. For us, they are wonderful places just to come to eat a long summer lunch or dinner.

You might arrive here a stranger, but you will leave as firm friends; the owners will be delighted to see you again, even if you book to return after a few years. They have very long memories here.

They will still be working hard, tucking in the sheets, preserving the late season peaches, stoking the log fire, checking the rabbit casserole, or preparing the cheese and salumi platter for your imminent arrival. Can you just imagine it? Escaping from the jangling stress of city life?  Sheer bliss

countryside scene

Tempted? Check out these links below; and many thanks to these wonderful families:

http://www.bbilsentiero.it/EN/index.htm

http://www.terrevineate.com/en/

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Agriturismo-Due-Pini/417456481603082

http://www.villageminiani.com/en/index.html

https://www.lavandablu.com/

https://www.vecchiogelso.com/en/

 

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 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.

snow Gran Sasso

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