‘The day that changed Ancona forever’

It felt as if we had had travelled forward through nearly twenty centuries in barely twenty metres. We had just finished exploring as best we could Ancona’s semi-excavated Roman amphitheatre, but heading back down the hill towards the city centre my eye was caught by a small commemorative plaque high on a section of blank, imposing brick wall with a pair of securely padlocked arched wooden gates set into it. It looked like the buttress of an ancient fort but turned out to be part of a 19th century prison that had been used as an air raid shelter during WW2, and the plaque was in remembrance of those who died there in an allied bombing raid in November 1943. Beneath the plaque was a poster: to mark the anniversary of the raid the shelter was going to be opened for a couple of days of guided tours. The very next day I called the number on the poster to book our places.

A week later, on a wet and windy Sunday morning, we made our way up through maze of streets on the slopes of Monte Guasco that rears up to the south of the city centre, our shoulders hunched against the driving rain blowing in off the grey and restless sea. When we reached the gates that were now flung wide revealing a long, broad tunnel, we were surprised on such a dismal day to see so many people milling around after their visit or waiting for the next one to begin. Having had our booking and our Covid Passes checked, we were directed across the road to a small patch of bare land where a guide was just about to start our tour. As he tried to stop the wind tugging his slightly soggy notes from his hand, he began his talk with some historical context.

From the start of the war until autumn 1943, Ancona had never come under attack, notwithstanding its strategic location, as it lay beyond the range of both UK and US bombers. All that changed, though, as soon as German forces occupied Ancona barely two weeks after Italy signed the armistice with the allied powers on 3rd September 1943, and the Allies’ advance into southern Italy also brought the city into bombing range. However, through either complacency or naivety, the city had built only small numbers of shelters after war had been declared, and planned to rely on little more than peals of church bells to warn inhabitants of imminent aerial attack. Not only did the city appear to think its lack of fascist fervour and its centuries-long tolerance of the Jews would make it less of a target, it seemed unaware of its strategic significance, despite its major port and its position on a major north-south rail line. And even after US 12th Air Force rained down bombs on the railway marshalling yard (as well as many other parts of the city) a month after the occupation began, air-raid warning systems and shelters remained staggeringly inadequate; it was as if with this key target now disabled, the powers that be thought that further attacks would be unlikely.

Our guide ushered us back across the road, through the tall wooden gates and into the chilly gloom beyond. He explained that this grave misconception was shattered only a fortnight later when at just after midday on 1st November some 50 American B-25 Mitchell bombers approached the city from the Adriatic Sea. In two waves, one at 12.16 pm, the other at 12.55 pm, they unleashed a ferocious air attack on the port and shipyard that lay no more than 500 metres down the hill from the prison. Many of the bombs missed their target, however, and four of them hit the L-shaped tunnel in which we were now standing. It had been built between 1940 and 1942 by the prisoners themselves so they and the prison staff, along with local civilians and children from neighbouring schools and an orphanage could find shelter from any air strikes. The structure was no match for 250-to-500-pound cluster bombs, though: one hit the prison entrance, which had originally been located on the still bare piece of land where our tour had begun, two more collapsed the roof of the middle section, trapping all those inside within the rubble, and a fourth hit the school immediately behind the tunnel, cutting off the only remaining escape route and rendering any rescue effort all but impossible. In just 40 devastating minutes, 724 people lost their lives, many of them children.

We tried to take in the tragedy of these numbers as we stood in the musty half-light of the tunnel whose now-restored walls still seemed to echo with the cries of those who had perished there. In sombre silence we pondered the exhibition of grainy black and white images showing the extent of the damage the raid had wrought that lined the walls of the end section of the tunnel. After some minutes, we slowly made our way back along the tunnel and out into the grey November light, and above the wind we heard a nearby church clock strike one o’clock. I can’t think I was the only person it made shiver.

In the aftermath of this horror, all but 4,000 of the city’s 80,000 inhabitants fled the city, which at least meant that there were few casualties in the raids that continued into early 1944 – more than 130 in total. However, by the time Ancona was liberated by the Polish 2nd Corps just eight months later in July 1944, more than two-thirds of the pre-war city lay in ruins, including nearly all its Renaissance-era buildings around the harbour, and over 30,000 of its citizens were left homeless. It took until the start of the 1960s for the city to restore some degree of normality. And we could still see the scars left by those months of bombardments as we made our way back down the hill through the hotchpotch of utilitarian, post-war apartment blocks slotted in between tired but elegant neo-classical palazzi that still characterises the centre of this gritty, resilient and fascinating city today.

Discovering Hidden Treasures

So, if the likes of Rome and Florence, awash with jaw-dropping architectural and artistic treasures, are akin to a top-end antiques shop, then I would say that Ancona (40 minutes up the road from us and Le Marche’s capital) is probably more akin to a sprawling and slightly shabby collectables emporium. The glamourous antiques shop is filled with artfully displayed period furniture, glass-fronted cabinets full of delicate porcelain and crystal, and artworks with ostentatious gilt frames hang from the tastefully painted walls; every which way you look, your eye falls upon one beautifully lit artefact after another. The untidy collectables emporium, by contrast, is crammed to the roof with every conceivable variety of knick-knack and bric-a-brac. Stacks of second-hand books lean lazily on dusty shelves, one-eyed dolls sit propped up against floral table lamps with wonky, faded shades, and you have to squeeze through a forest of mis-matched, cobweb-draped dining chairs to reach some interesting-looking glassware almost hidden in a distant, dingy corner.

A brief canter through Ancona’s two thousand years of tempestuous history, however, will explain why the city has had neither the time, the resources, nor the energy to dust the bookcases, polish the crystal or tidy the furniture. This resilient, gritty and strategically important seaport on the Adriatic coast was founded in the 4th century BC by the Greeks to facilitate maritime trade in the eastern Mediterranean. About 400 years after the Greeks came the Romans, for whom the port also provided a valuable military bridgehead to the imperial outpost of Dalmatia just across the Adriatic. In the 7th and 8th centuries the Goths, Lombards and Saracens came and went, leaving a trail of death and destruction in their wake. In the succeeding centuries, it managed to keep the forces of the Holy Roman Empire at bay, sent its ships to the Crusades and later threw its lot in with the Guelphs. As a consequence, it was absorbed into the Papal States in the 15th century, and during the Renaissance enjoyed its heyday as a prosperous centre for trade and banking. In the 18th century it was held under siege by the Turks, Russians, Austrians and the French, and in the 19th century, the city made a major military contribution to the Risorgimento which resulted in the final defeat of the Papal States and the unification of Italy in 1861. The city was bombed by the navy of the Austro-Hungarian empire in WW1 and again by the Allied Forces in WW2 as part their operations to liberate the city from Nazi occupation. Oh, and in the post-war period Ancona has also suffered two major earthquakes and a deadly landslide. And yet, for all the chaos, this unpromising-looking emporium somehow draws you in; there is an energy to all the jumble, a human drama behind every battered piece, and you soon find yourself happily rummaging around among the clutter. Then suddenly you stumble across a real treasure that first piques your curiosity then demands your attention.

Take the other week, for instance. We went for a poke about in the maze of streets on the slopes of Monte Guasco that rears up to the south of the city centre and on the very top of which stands the Romanesque Cathedral of San Ciriaco.  Looking out over the Adriatic on the site of the city’s ancient Greek acropolis, this relatively modest church built from local white stone dates back to the 10th century but has been extended, altered and rebuilt many times since. We had always sensed, though, that in such a prominent location right above the harbour, there must be more layers of history in the area than just the cathedral. And as we wandered up the hill among the hotchpotch of squat, post-war apartment blocks jostling against slightly down-at-heel neo-classical palazzi, we did indeed come across a real treasure.

We had noticed the tell-tale, large oval space set back from the cathedral amongst the tightly packed buildings lower down the hill when we had taken our first post-lockdown visitors up to San Ciriaco’s a few weeks earlier. And having followed our noses slightly inland as we climbed, the sections of thick crumbling wall and half-buried archways came into view confirmed our hunch: that distinctive gap was, as we had suspected, a semi-excavated Roman amphitheatre. It turned out to have been built in the 1st century AD during the reign of Augustus and then enlarged by Trajan a century later when he was also re-building and expanding the port that still lies just a few hundred metres away at the bottom of the hill. It was abandoned three centuries later, however, and over succeeding centuries was used as a burial ground, then plundered for building materials, and later used as foundations for building work. It was re-discovered in the 19th century, but formal archaeological excavation of the site didn’t begin until after WW2. But from the remains unearthed so far, it is known that the arena could accommodate up to 10,000 spectators, seated over 20 terraces and featured separate gateways for soldiers and gladiators to enter through and for the dead and wounded to leave through. There is also substantial evidence, including a fully intact bath tub decorated with mosaics, of a comprehensive bath complex complete with hot water system. Unfortunately, it was very much a case of ‘do not touch’ with our latest find, though: since excavations are ongoing, the site is closed to the public and so can only be viewed from the street through the metal fencing across the front, with just a couple of sun-bleached interpretation boards to help us make some sense of these fascinating remains and provide a tantalising glimpse into this important chapter of the city’s past.

Still musing on what further Roman treasures may yet lie hidden beneath our feet as we turned back down the hill, my eye was caught by a small commemorative plaque high on a section of blank, imposing brick wall that looked as if it might be the buttress of some ancient fort.  Another unlikely find among the dusty shelves of this fascinating emporium? Yes. In barely twenty metres, we found that we had travelled forward through nearly twenty centuries. That imposing wall was actually a part of a 19th century prison that had been used as an air raid shelter during WW2, and the plaque, which only dated from 2015, was in remembrance of the 700 citizens who lost their lives on that site in an allied bombing raid on 1st November 1943. Beneath the plaque was a poster: to mark the anniversary of the raid the shelter was going to be opened for a couple of days of guided tours. The very next day I called the number on the poster to book our places…

That Time of Year Again

As usual, we had been um-ing and ah-ing about when to start for some time, keeping an eye on what our neighbours were doing as a signal for when would be the right time. Over the preceding week or so one of us would come in and report that “Maurizio and Flavia have started.” Or “There were stacks of crates outside the place with the goats.” Or “They’ve got nets out next door to the bakery on the way to the village.”

Our olive crop had ripened much sooner than usual thanks to the exceptionally long, hot summer with its weeks and weeks of intense, unbroken sunshine. By the start of October, the plump bright green fruit had already started to turn to a murky violet. Over the next couple of weeks, it darkened to purple, and finally, as the month drew to its close, to glossy black: tens of thousands of little black beads twinkling in the sun like fairy lights made of jet.  It was clear that our annual springtime pruning efforts were really starting to bear fruit – literally – and so we were confident of another good crop, especially as there had been very few of the violent storms that typically mark the shift from summer to autumn and that can easily devastate a crop at the last minute. But as ever, exactly when to harvest these little black jewels was a matter of judgement, and as ever, we had decided to take our lead from what other people were doing – hence the daily reports on what our neighbours were up to.

So it was the next available weekend that Mr Blue-Shirt retrieved the bright green nets, orange rakes and russet crates from the shed – and also (Mr Blue-Shirt being Mr Blue-Shirt) two chainsaws, the leaf-blower, the battery-powered secateurs, the pole shears, the bolt-croppers, the ladder, and the star of the show, his beloved abbacchiatore elettrico. This car-battery-powered device consists of a telescopic pole on the end of which is a pair of lightly interlocking rakes that jiggle back and forth like a pair of rapidly clapping hands and tease the olives from the tree as you pass them along the branches. What these gadgets lack in romance they more than make up for in efficiency, and the sound of their mechanical chatter drifting across the olive groves forms autumn’s background music.

Our confidence had been justified: at the end of three days’ non-stop raking, jiggling, snipping, sawing and gathering, no fewer than nine crates brimming with shiny black and purple fruit stood in neat rows on the floor of the van. Mr Blue-Shirt wiped his olive-stained hands on his muddy trousers and picked a few stray twigs from his fleece.
“Three crates more than last year,” he declared proudly. “I just checked last year’s photos on my phone. These are much fuller, too.”
“And it’s about twenty-five kilos per crate, isn’t?” I asked, rolling my work-stiffened neck and shoulders back and forth.
“Yep, so we must have a good two hundred and twenty-five kilos there – it was about a hundred and thirty kilos last year. Anyway, let’s get down to Rodolfo’s and weigh them in.”
We slammed the van doors shut, clambered into the cab and trundled off through the gathering dusk, down the hill to the oleificio we use to get our olives pressed. This is a small yet impressive set-up in the corner of a sprawling and immaculately kept olive farm down a lane on the way to Macerata. We had found it three years earlier by following the recommendation of our neighbour Enrico and the signs off the main road to Morrovalle, the next village from us.

“Spot on! Two hundred and twenty-three point four kilos” confirmed Mr Blue-Shirt, reading the display on the industrial scales by the door to the pressing shed.
“We don’t know what the yield will be like, though,” I cautioned “After such a dry summer, we may not get such a good yield as last year – although it might make the flavour better, I suppose”.
“Well, all will be revealed tomorrow: the chap who weighed our crop just said they’re really busy, so they won’t be able to press our fruit today. But can we just take a quick look in the shed? I love watching the pressing process.”  

Ever the engineer, Mr Blue-Shirt has never lost his fascination for all things mechanical and is still drawn to practically any kind of machinery like a moth to a flame, so the year before last he had eagerly accepted Rodolfo’s invitation to go and watch the entire process from weighing the fruit in to picking up our flagon of oil.  As we stood in the doorway of the shed that was little larger than a domestic double garage, but that was teeming with activity, he talked me through the same process that a few leathery-faced old codgers had explained to him two years before.

“Right, so once they’ve been weighed, the olives get tipped into that,” Mr Blue-Shirt bellowed above all the clanking and whirring, and pointed to the large steel hopper behind me. “They drop down through a stream of air that blows away all the twigs and leaves and so on.”
“We spent ages picking out leaves and twigs, though.”
“Yes, we picked out a fair bit, but there’s still loads of debris in there that you don’t want to end up in the oil.”
“I suppose so: you can never get every last twig out by hand. Where do they go next, then?” I asked, peering into the shed where three or four workers wheeled, shoved and carried different pieces of equipment back and forth.
“Well, they land in another hopper – See? Down there? –  which feeds them onto that belt.” He pointed towards a narrow conveyor belt that disappeared into the shed where it dropped the fruit into a large round tray.
“Look! This bit is great. They still use these huge rotating stone wheels to crush the whole olives into a sludgey paste. All this modern technology everywhere…” He gestured expansively around the shed … “…but it’s effectively the same technique they’ve used for centuries. I love it!”
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, as the saying goes.”
“Exactly. And that bit’s just a modern take on ancient technology, too.” This time he indicated the large Archimedes screw that was feeding the black-ish goo up to the next machine. A precision-engineered, stainless-steel one, admittedly, but an Archimedes screw all the same. Then, once the black paste had wound its way up through the screw, it was fed into the slot-shaped nozzle of the next machine which spread a generous layer of paste onto a circular mat made of stainless-steel mesh.

“OK, you can see that when the mat is fully covered, one of those chaps lifts it off, puts on a fresh one, and threads the full one over that pole that’s actually mounted on a trolley.” I watched the fluid and practised movements of the young man who was obviously Rodolfo’s son. “They keep adding mats until they have a stack about a metre and a half high.”
“I’m pretty sure the mats date back centuries too. Only they were made of straw or something originally, I think. Anyway, presumably it’s the actual pressing bit next.”
“Yes, they wheel the trolleys into the press on the left there, which slowly pushes down on top of the stack of mats.”
“I’m a bit disappointed it’s not one of huge cast iron things with a great big comedy wing-nut on top you sometimes see rusting away in farmyards.”
“No, proper hi-tech this time: hydraulic. Four hundred kilos of pressure per centimetre squared,” he recited in full nerd-mode. I rolled my eyes.
“One of the old codgers showed me the pressure gauge when I came to watch,” he grinned. “It takes a good half hour to press all the oil out. It just trickles down the sides into that big steel tank in the floor.”
I peered down into what looked like a vat of used motor oil.
“Yuk! It looks revolting!”
“Yes, there’s still quite a lot of crushed up pulp, skin and bits of pip in there at the moment. So they pump the unfiltered oil from this tank into a centrifuge – that big cylinder over there in the corner – to remove all the remaining solids from the oil. I think the chap said it spins at something like 7000 revolutions per minute.”
“And so that’s the clean oil coming out of the centrifuge from that spout?” I asked, pointing at the glossy, yellow-green stream pouring into the flagon that had been positioned below the spout.
“Yup! And that’s it, done!”
“It must have been so satisfying to see our oil pouring into our flagon when Rodolfo talked you through the whole process”
“It was! I was dying to taste it, but it was still too cloudy and needed to settle for a couple of days.”

“So go on, tell me: how much have we got, then?” Mr Blue-Shirt asked me the next afternoon as he helped heave our flagon from the back of the car and down into the cantina.
“Thirty-eight litres!” I said smiling broadly.
“Thirty-eight litres?! That’s amazing! But you were right about the lower yield. We had getting on for double the quantity of fruit this year, but that’s nowhere near double the quantity of oil.”
“Yes, and it’s not as if the fruit wasn’t ripe. Mind you, Rodolfo still reckons it’s a good yield. And he was very complimentary about the quality too: I was also right about the effect of the dry, sunny summer giving a richer and more intense flavour.”
 “So quality as well as quantity. Let’s have a look…”

Down in the suitably halloweeny gloom of the cellar Mr Blue-Shirt unscrewed the lid of the shiny, stainless-steel flagon and shone a torch in through its wide neck. The beam illuminated the fragrant greeny-gold oil that nearly filled the container and I inhaled deeply, savouring the distinctive grassy, peppery aroma. I swear I could practically feel the glow of sunshine on my face again and hear the song of the crickets echoing around inside the flagon. It was not just oil; not just Casa Girasole oil. It was liquid summer…

The Gift That Keeps On Giving

After almost exactly two years without any visitors, we finally broke our duck in early September when two of our UK blacksmithing pals, Bill and Monica, came to stay for a few days. It was strange how nervous we felt before their arrival, how worried we were if we could even remember how to entertain visitors, if the guest room was up to scratch, if we still knew how to cook for more than two people. It was all nonsense of course. The instant they pulled onto the drive, the nerves dissolved beneath the huge wave of joy at their being here, with us, in our space that washed over us. And, needless to say, we also found that looking after visitors still came as naturally to us as ever.

So just a few weeks later as the arrival of our next visitors started to draw closer, we found ourselves now free of those first night nerves and simply looking forward to David and Samantha’s long-awaited visit with almost childlike, counting-the-days-down excitement. Fellow members of the informal Friday night ‘Sundowners Club’ at our local pub in Lincolnshire, we had first got to know each other by letting off steam together at the end of the working week, sharing in the general silliness and banter bouncing back and forth between a gas fitter, a pilot, an estate agent, a mental health worker, two RAF members, two primary school teachers (David and Samantha) and the two owners of a blacksmith’s forge (Mr Blue-Shirt and me). But over time we grew closer, spent more time and did more things together as we found that we had much more in common than frequently maddening jobs and a taste for real ale and prosecco.  Slightly improbably, we even ended up working together when David, then a primary school deputy head, was involved in a national art project for schools that led to us running drawing workshops and then forging workshops with his pupils and the work they produced with us subsequently being included in an exhibition at the National Gallery.

Their jobs naturally mean that they can only come over in the school holidays, and when they do, they just need to switch off and stop for a few days. So after fifteen months in and out of lockdown, a succession of school closures and re-openings, dealing with on- and off-line teaching, bubbles, staff and pupil absences – and all while still trying to meet the requirements of the national curriculum – that need had become more pressing than ever, especially since they had already had to cancel what had become their regular spring half-term trip right at the start of the pandemic.

For our part, it had simply been way too long since we had enjoyed their company, swapped stories and put the world to rights together, laughed together, eaten together, drunk too much together, and just been silly and mucked about together. So in the run-up to their trip, we had thought about what we could do if the weather was good and what if it was not, which restaurants we might want to go to, what sights we could show them, what dishes we might cook, which walks we could do, what events we could take them too. Whatever we did, though, we knew were just going to have fun re-connecting and just being together again.

Three days before their arrival Samantha confirmed they’d both boked their pre-flight Covid tests required for entry into Italy, downloaded their digital proof of vaccination and completed their passenger locator forms. They were all good to go.

A couple of hours later, though, David let us know us that a colleague he’d shared a car with a few days earlier had tested positive with a lateral flow test. Not a problem, we reasoned: lateral flow tests are known to be a bit unreliable. And the colleague had surely been vaccinated. Plus David had done a lateral flow test as soon as he’d heard and that had been negative, so…. It’ll be fine. No need to worry.

Mr Blue-Shirt’s phone pinged again while we were having dinner; it was David. He’d been picked up by the NHS tracking app: his colleague had received a positive PCR test result and so he too now needed to take a PCR test.  It’s no big deal, we told ourselves. It’s just how the system works. The app is bound to be messaging loads of other contacts. He and his colleague can’t have spent that long in his car together anyway. It’s precautionary: he’s been double vaccinated. It’ll be fine. No need to worry.

They had both already taken their PCR tests earlier that day as part of their pre-flight routine, so it was just a matter of waiting to get their thumbs-up and smiley-face emojis confirming what we all already knew. It’s just a formality, the ever-Tiggerish David assured us: he didn’t have any symptoms and felt as fit as a fiddle. It’ll be fine. No need to worry.

The ping we were waiting for came the next morning, almost exactly 48 hours before we were due to be picking our friends up from the airport. David had forwarded the notification he’d just received from the NHS Covid-19 app: “Your coronavirus PCR test (or other lab test) result is positive. It is likely you had the virus when the test was done. ….. Self-isolate immediately for ten days to avoid infecting others.”
In his succinct accompanying message David spoke for all four of us.
“Bollocks.”

Image of Raffaello Sanzio Airport, Ancona courtesy of http://www.structurae.net

Politics and the Pandemic

Mario Draghi has been Italy’s Prime Minister for eight months now. Even in normal circumstances, that is pretty good going in a country that is famous for the speed at which it gets through governments. But in the current climate, it must surely count as a major achievement.

Draghi was appointed by President Sergio Matarella in mid-February following the failure of the then Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, to build a new coalition after Matteo Renzi withdrew his tiny Italia Viva party from the Conte government in a senseless political tantrum that lost the coalition its wafer-thin majority and collapsed the government. The timing of Renzi’s move could barely have been worse: the country had only just emerged from its Christmas lockdown, industry and commerce were desperate to start receiving some of the €200bn EU recovery funding Italy had been granted, and the vaccination programme had yet to get out of the starting blocks. So in order to steady the ship the ever-pragmatic Matarella decided against calling a time-consuming and distracting general election and instead sought the safest pair of hands he could find with which to entrust the task of putting together a technocratic ‘government of national unity’ capable of ensuring the country’s safe passage through the stormiest waters it had experienced in a generation – and took little time to choose those of Mario Draghi.

Known as ‘Super Mario’ after successfully rescuing the Euro in the midst of the 2012 European debt crisis, Draghi is a former Governor of the Bank of Italy and former President of the European Central Bank, roles which earned him a formidable reputation as an astute political operator with legendary negotiation skills. And he wasted no time in applying these skills: far more quickly than anyone anticipated he managed to bring all the different parties and factions together and form a truly cross-party cabinet that immediately got on with the business of steering the country through the continuing pandemic.

Once Brussels had got its vaccine procurement act together and member states could push ahead with getting people inoculated, Draghi oversaw the successful roll-out of the vaccination programme, which has so far achieved a 75% vaccination rate. The spring surge that peaked at c.26,000 daily cases and that came along before the vaccine programme had fully gained traction was contained by a series of regional lockdowns, but in early June, most restrictions (other than obvious basics such as mask-wearing and social distancing) were lifted again. Then by the time the Delta variant arrived, parameters, thresholds and restrictions had all been adjusted in a way that enabled the country to manage the particular characteristics of the new strain without either an explosion in cases or reimposing restrictions. And by then, of course, the vaccination programme was also running over half a million jabs a day across all age-groups, including teenagers. Although the campaign slowed over the holiday period, its success up to that point, along with the other measures still in place, meant that the summer surge was contained at just under 8,000 daily cases and has steadily fallen back to currently around 3000 daily cases .

The new factor in the mix, though, has been the Green Pass, the digital or paper certificate that provides proof of vaccination, of a recent negative test result, or of recovery from Covid-19 which was introduced in June, mainly to facilitate travel and allow entry to large scale public events – initially at least. And therein lies the source of the choppier waters that the Draghi government has now hit. When it was introduced, the Green Pass was accepted, it seemed, as a minor yet necessary inconvenience since it was seen as an effective means of nudging more people into getting vaccinated – jabs of course are free, but tests cost €15 a time. And when its use was extended to enclosed venues such as museums, theatres, cinemas and restaurants later in the summer there was still little objection: going to such places is optional and inconsequential, and if you are that opposed to the Green Pass, you can always wait for No Time To Die to come out on Netflix. When it was made obligatory in all public sector workplaces, however, the first distant murmurings of discontent could be heard. The nudge, it seemed, had suddenly become quite a bit sharper: people don’t have any choice about going to work, after all. But in the end, there was little active resistance from public sector employees, who perhaps regarded it as an acceptable trade-off for the relative job security and other benefits they enjoy.

Those murmurings became louder, though, when in mid-September the government decided – with overwhelming parliamentary support – to extend the Green Pass mandate to all private sector workplaces from 15th October until the end of the year (with non-compliance risking fines or suspension without pay) at which point some started to feel that the nudge was becoming more of an armlock. And while it was only a minority who objected to the policy, that minority was becoming increasingly disruptive. Initially, those involved in the anti-Green Pass demonstrations that took place in several larger cities were members of Italy’s relatively small anti-vax movement, traditional civil rights campaigners and self-styled ‘freedom activists’. Subsequent protests, however, were hijacked by violent neo-fascist groups, with the worst violence erupting in Rome on the day the mandate took effect when far-right protesters stormed a hospital emergency department and the HQ of the country’s largest trade union. The mob had overplayed their hand, though, as everyone across the political spectrum immediately condemned the violence and the focus of concern quickly shifted from the merits or otherwise of the Green Pass to getting neo-fascist organisations banned. Indeed, the next day’s protest in Rome was not an anti-Green Pass event, but an anti-fascist rally called by the union whose offices had been attacked.

After the shocking events in Rome – attacks by fascists on trade unions arouse some very dark memories in Italy – the protest movement, though still active, seemed to lose momentum, with events in Bologna, Turin, Florence and Rome attracting fewer participants than originally predicted. There had also been predictions of widespread disruption at ports up and down the country, but in the end, while there was some disruption in Genoa and Ancona, it was only in Trieste that dock workers went ahead with a full-on strike and a sit-in, and this was swiftly broken up by police using water jets in a clear indication that Draghi remained unwilling to make concessions. And it seems that most are in favour of the government’s continued resolve. Indeed, even that veteran populist Silvio Berlusconi voiced his support by pithily pointing out that ‘a hero is someone who blocks a train to Auschwitz, not someone who blocks a port over the Green Pass’.

In a poll held at the start of the week, 65% of respondents were found to be in favour of the Green Pass and 24% against, while 63% were against offering free tests to those without the Green Pass (a proposed compromise position that was eventually rejected) and 30% in favour. More tellingly still, Draghi himself still enjoys a very high personal approval rating, with 58% having faith in him while 27% do not. And notwithstanding all the protests and unrest, the policy appears to be having its desired effect anyway. Not only are many more people are getting tested, meaning fewer undiagnosed cases are falling through cracks (thereby also helping to slow the virus’s spread) but the inoculation rate is also increasing as anticipated, thus speeding progress towards getting the economy fully back on its feet sooner rather than later too. It would seem that Super Mario has not lost his touch.

Image courtesy of http://www.ansa.it

Doing our best to do our bit

Just in the last few days autumn leaves have started to skitter and cartwheel across the drive, scraps of red and gold and orange like the final fragments of summer sunshine being swept away on the increasingly chilly breeze. There is, however, another kind of leaf on the drive that will be remaining green: the fully electric car that we’ve now had for nearly five months, our very whizzy Nissan Leaf.

It is the final piece in our complex renewable energy jigsaw puzzle which has enabled us to become almost completely self-sufficient in green energy. The bulk of the jigsaw consists of eighteen slimline photo-voltaic solar panels on our south-facing roof; a stack of batteries in the hall cupboard together with the electronic brains of the system; an air-source heat pump (ASHP) in the upstairs porch to provide hot water and heating; a new, super-efficient boiler as a back-up-cum-top-up, and a clever gizmo that allows the system to switch between the two squidged into the boiler room, as well as three new combined heating/cooling (fan coil) units for our bedroom, the guest bedroom and the sitting room. And, almost as an after-thought originally, an electric car-charging point in the carport ‘just in case’.

In the long weeks during which the system was being installed and two further lockdowns came and went, though, Mr Blue-Shirt spent hours online conducting extensive research into the different types of car technology currently available as well as their respective shortcomings. Then after several more weeks spent weighing up the pros and cons, we eventually came to the conclusion that, on balance, going electric was the right thing to do, and in view of the deepening climate crisis (not to mention the various incentives available as part of the post-Covid economic recovery package) now was the right time to do it. Yes, we accept that the current generation of electric cars are not the Holy Grail of environmentally-friendly driving. Yes, deposits of the lithium, cobalt and nickel used in batteries at the moment are being depleted at a rate that is probably not sustainable in the long-term, and the mining of them is also damaging to ecosystems and communities. However, each car involves a ‘one-off’ use of those minerals that is amortised over the lifetime of the vehicle; added to which, battery recycling and manufacturing technologies are improving all the time. And, crucially in our view, switching from our filthy old diesel Renault to a state of the art, fully electric car will at least enable us to significantly reduce our own CO2 emissions not just in relation to a single purchase, but on an ongoing basis for the foreseeable future. In our assessment, doing something is better that doing nothing, plus whatever we can do at a given time is surely what we should do, and this is the best we can do at the moment. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, as Voltaire (more or less) put it.

So having decided to take the plunge, Mr Blue-Shirt did yet more research, this time into the different vehicles on the market in our price range. Then once movement restrictions permitted, we booked extended test-drives of the vehicles he had short-listed which enabled us to see what the driving experience was like and how accurate the range data were, to see how the charging process worked, and to test out the public charging network. One early contender was swiftly abandoned as it had been discontinued and, bafflingly, replaced with an eye-wateringly expensive alternative, another was rejected, despite its impressive performance, because it was too uncomfortable to sit in for longer than about 15 minutes, and a third was rejected without getting in it because it was so horribly ugly and dated both inside and out, despite its hefty price-tag. So in the end, the Leaf was the Goldilocks option for us, partly because of its features, comfort and styling, and partly because of the combined effect of government subsidies, the manufacturer’s discount and the dealer’s special offer that gave us a ‘can’t afford not to’ 35% off the list price. The real slam-dunk, however, was Nissan’s decade-long proven track record in electric vehicle technology.

 So what has our experience of electric motoring been like so far? Well, for a start, like all electric cars, the Leaf is extremely quiet and extremely smooth, giving the relaxing impression of gliding effortlessly along the road. ‘Range anxiety’ is seldom an issue since its 62kw battery gives us a maximum range of nearly 400km/250 miles, which is more than enough for our day-to-day needs, especially since up to 25% of the energy used comes from the car’s regenerative braking system whereby the energy expended in braking is recycled back into the battery. Incidentally, since we have had the car, around 98% of the energy we have used has come directly from our solar panels, and when we do require top-up from the grid, the mains supplier we use provides exclusively green energy. And on the rare occasion we do need to ‘fill up’ at public charging points, we are still not using that much fossil-fuel-based energy since nearly 40% of Italy’s mains power supply now comes from renewable sources. Added to which, any dirty energy we use to recharge the car when we are out and about is always partially and often completely offset by the unused clean energy that we are generating at home that goes straight into the national grid.

Naturally, there are some differences that take a little getting used to. Firstly, charging is generally a slow process that takes up to 8 hours from flat to full using our domestic supply, so we have developed a habit of topping up after practically every trip. This also means that longer journeys do need to be planned: itineraries worked out, distances measured and charging points identified – and there are lots of apps available for doing this. That said, the apps are sometimes inaccurate, or not completely up to date and consequently can be contradictory, with one app telling you, for instance, that a given charging point is available, while another tells you it is out of service or occupied.  In addition, the charging infrastructure is not yet as comprehensive as it needs to be if electric motoring is to become as widespread as most policy-makers wish. Charging points are often located in out-of-the-way places beyond walking-distance from other amenities, and fast charging points that can take a car from almost flat to full in under an hour are still few and far between. That said, more and more points are popping up in more and more places all the time, with car manufacturers themselves becoming proactive in the expansion of the network, having realised that motorists won’t buy their electric cars until and unless a comprehensive charging infrastructure makes electric motoring a viable choice. There is one quite disproportionately satisfying little win-win we have discovered, though: in places where parking is at a premium, we quite often find that the only available spaces are in fact electric car charging points where the parking itself is actually free; you only pay to top-up your battery, which seldom costs more than the parking would have done, but you get a few more kilometres of range thrown in.

Since we got the car, we have driven just over 8000km/5000 miles. This has saved us a jaw-dropping €600 in diesel we haven’t bought (offset by just €25 or so for the power we have bought). More significantly from an environmental perspective, however, is that based on the same mileage in an equivalent non-electric vehicle, in under five months we have saved a staggering 938kg in CO2 emissions.

So no, our Leaf’s green credentials may not be perfect, but they are still pretty damn good. And doing even a little bit of good is surely better than doing a whole load of nothing.

More Number Crunching

It was June when I last did this, when I last told of my nightly ritual of checking that day’s Covid-19 stats and, by that stage, daily vaccination numbers as well. And it was in June too that, with each set of data going unequivocally in the right direction (down to c.1000 new cases per day and up to over 500,000 jabs per day), the whole country moved, region by region, from the yellow zone into the white zone. In this long-awaited promised land, there was no more night-time curfew, no more restrictions on movement and gatherings, and all attractions and amenities (with the exception of discos and nightclubs) could open fully. Only mask wearing in public indoor settings, social distancing rules and capacity restrictions remained in place, and the ‘Green Pass’ was introduced. This digital or paper certificate provides proof that the holder has either been vaccinated, has recovered from Covid-19, or has tested negative in the preceding 48 hours and was originally designed to facilitate travel and to allow people to attend large gatherings including weddings and sports events. With the Delta variant casting an ever longer shadow, though, caution was the order of the day and every step forward was heavily circumscribed with caveats, making it clear that this was not a one-way street. The law that introduced Green Pass also enabled it to be extended to other areas of activity if necessary, and the system of yellow, orange and red zones introduced back in November was retained, albeit with some tweaks to the threshold criteria to reflect the characteristics of the new dominant variant. To move from white to yellow, for instance, a region would now simultaneously need to exceed 50 cases per 100,000 inhabitant and have over 15% of normal beds and over 10% of ICU beds occupied by Covid-19 patients.

All this was a far cry from the same period last year. After three months in almost total lockdown, case numbers had tumbled to the low hundreds per day by mid-summer, by which time there were only about sixty people in intensive care nationally and daily fatalities were in the teens. Consequently – and while I have little doubt that the decision was made in good faith on the best information available at the time, it now seems over-optimistic at the very least, if not borderline reckless – many restrictions were abandoned and pretty much everything was able to re-open in some form or another, albeit with basic safety protocols still in place. The sun shone, the sea was warm, the beaches full, restaurants busy, and families and friends gathered. But everyone was just a little bit too de-mob happy and the nation lowered its guard, seemingly in the naïve belief that this nightmare was over. At that stage, moreover, there was no real framework in place for reimposing restrictions and vaccines were still awaiting approval. In retrospect, the resulting surge in cases going into the autumn was inevitable, as was the rapid introduction of a whole new raft of measures (principally the 3-tiered traffic light system) aimed at halting the disease’s spread and, politically more importantly, avoiding another national lockdown.

And now, a year on from the start of that huge second wave which peaked at 40,000 cases per day and the two further but successively smaller waves that followed, we are still not yet quite back down to where we were at the end of last summer. In terms of simple numbers at least: since the latest surge in July and August, daily cases have fallen from a peak of around 8000 to just under 3000 this week, hospitalisations have halved to about 2700 and daily fatalities have dropped from the mid-70s to the low 30s, although with the Delta variant these had risen much more slowly than in previous waves. Critically, however, thanks to 73% of the total population having now been fully vaccinated (including over 60% of 12-19-year-olds), the trajectory this October is unambiguously downwards. The scope of the Green Pass has also been extended to include most public indoor amenities and activities, and from mid-October it will become obligatory for all employees in the both public and private sectors, although for now only until the end of the year when the State of Emergency from which such measures are derived is currently due to lapse. There has been some vigorous resistance to this extension, with it being seen by civil liberties groups as compulsory vaccination by the back door in light of the inconvenience and cost (at €15 a time) of getting tested (soon to be every 72 hours) if you haven’t been jabbed, or if you refuse to get a Green Pass at all, face being suspended from work without pay. But although the government has not ruled out compulsory vaccination by the front door, the ‘nudge’ effect of the policy appears to be working: vaccination rates, which dropped back significantly over the holiday period, have picked back up again to around 180,000 per day. As a result, and just 10 days late, the country has now hit the target it set back in March of inoculating 80% of the ‘vaccinatable’ population (ie over-12s) by the end of September: as of this morning, this figure stood at 80.04%.

So on the back of the hard-learned wisdom gained from the false dawn of a year ago, there are encouraging signs that this autumn and winter could be a lot less worrisome than last year.

Note: at the time of writing, Le Marche has vaccinated just shy of 78% of its eligible population, has an infection rate of 29 per 100k inhabitants, while 6% of both ICU and of non-ICU beds are occupied by Covid-19 patients.

Finally!

From the ruby-red sofa on which I am curled I peer through the rain-streaked windows of the garden doors, up towards where Montelupone stands wrapped in a grimy shawl of thick cloud. One of the September storms that mark the start of the shift from summer to autumn is raging outside, angry gusts of wind rattling the shutters and curtains of rain billowing across the terrace. It is almost the first time since May that we have really used the sitting room, which over summer became little more than a corridor between the kitchen and the terrace where we have spent most of the last five months.

In late April we pressure-washed, sanded and oiled all our outdoor furniture, and since it can accommodate around a dozen people, perhaps this was an early manifestation of the growing optimism we felt as we emerged from our third period of lockdown and the vaccination programme started to gain traction. Then once we had re-positioned the dining table and chairs and the L-shaped sofa to their respective positions on each side of the main terrace and re-erected the parasol over the former and the sail shade over the latter, we effectively moved outside for the summer. When we haven’t been busy at home or out and about, we have been outside on one part of the terrace or another: cooking and eating, writing and reading, Zooming and snoozing, making conversation, or just drinking in the picture-postcard view up the hill to the village and down to the tantalising triangle of turquoise sea at the bottom, and in the scented warmth of the evening, simply watching the lights twinkling across the valley and listening to the chirruping of the crickets.

The only thing is, Mr Blue-Shirt built this fantastically sociable space over the course of the first lockdown. So even though it had always been conceived as a place to while away lazy summer days with friends and family, for over a year while further lockdowns came and went and rules on visitors and travel restrictions persisted, it had to remain just the two of us on our own on the terrace. But a couple of weeks ago, and almost two years – two years! – since we had had people to stay, we were finally able to welcome friends here once more and to share our space at last.

It was quite ridiculous really, as before the pandemic we’d been used to having people to stay every six or eight weeks, but we found ourselves feeling almost nervous before Bill and Melanie arrived. All the things that had previously come so naturally now felt unfamiliar and out-of-practice: had I remembered to put fresh towels in the bathroom? had I checked that the hairdryer was still in the drawer in the guest room? did we have enough milk – and wine! – in the fridge? could we still remember how to cook for four rather than just two? But the instant they pulled onto the drive, the nerves dissolved beneath the huge wave of joy that washed over us. This. This was what we had been missing. This was how it was supposed to be. And it really was the simple fact of Bill and Melanie being here, with us, in our space that caused us such delight. For we had already done the whole outpouring of emotion thing when we met up again for the first time in over two years at the international blacksmithing event in Tuscany from where we had just returned. The tangle of hugs as they climbed out of the car, the babble of chat about routes and traffic, the unloading of suitcases, the ‘make yourselves at home’ and ‘what can I get you to drink?’This was what was normal and real and as it should be; not the separation, solitude and relentless monochrome of the last eighteen months. This was us. We were back – because people were back. Full colour had been restored.

Being able to hear other people’s laughter from upstairs, to catch the hum of conversation in another room, or even see two different pairs of legs walking down the stairs as I prepared breakfast in the kitchen were all somehow both alien yet ordinary, surprising yet comforting. The sound drifting in through the garden doors of chairs shifting and plates and glasses clinking, the sight about the place of books and tablets, bags and shoes that were not our own all came as such a delicious familiarity-tinged novelty.

I snuggle deeper into the sofa’s cosy embrace, recalling the late lunches and long suppers the four of us enjoyed together around the table on which the rain now beats down and gurgles in the gutters like an echo of our laughter. I watch the lavender and plumbago that edge the terrace trembling in the strengthening wind that tugs insistently at the sail shade beneath whose shelter we had lounged on the sofa, spinning yarns, sharing jokes and swapping tales, and I am cheered by the renewed sense of connection that this simple togetherness has given me.

Another flash of lightning briefly splits the grey and I reluctantly conclude that it is probably time to pack up the barbecue, take the parasol and sail shade down and put the covers on the furniture for winter. But even though it may be time to close the doors on summer and return to life indoors, my sadness at the fading of the season is tempered by the knowledge that the doors on normal life, on our life, have at last re-opened. And with our next set of visitors due within the month and still more already in the diary, the prospect of more, long-awaited reunions, togetherness and reconnection fill me with more warmth and delight than even the most perfect summer’s day spent out on the terrace.

“And so we emerge to see the stars once more”

Our principal reason for choosing Tuscany as the destination for our brief summer break is that it is the home of the Biennale Europea d’Arte Fabbrile (European Blacksmithing Biennial) which for over forty years has been held in Stia, a small and dignified medieval town nestling in the forest-clad hills of the Casentino area of Tuscany about 60km east of Florence and 50km north of Arezzo. We first started going in 2007, and while we were running our blacksmith’s forge, it provided the ideal opportunity for an extra trip to Italy. Since we relocated to Italy in 2017, though, things have done a complete volte-face and this four-day international festival of forging now provides the ideal opportunity to catch up with the blacksmithing scene. And even though we appreciated that essential anti-Covid measures were likely to compromise some aspects of this large and complex event, we were just delighted it was able to go ahead at all, and were even more excited about meeting up with a few of our blacksmithing friends whom we had not seen since well before the pandemic.

After checking in at our usual hotel in the historical centre, we wandered up to the main square to register our attendance, have our Covid Passes scanned and be given the fluorescent green wristbands that would then give us access to every element of the event without further checks being necessary, then it was straight across to the forging area that takes over most of the rest of Piazza Mazzini. We were pleased to see that along the customary row of glowing hearths, grubby-faced blacksmiths were already hammering furiously at their anvils to produce their entry for the competition that is the raison d’être of the event. Using just the material provided, participants have three hours in which to produce a piece of work in response to a set theme that is announced a month in advance. In the circumstances, few had been surprised to find that it was a famous quote from Dante’s Divina Commedia – E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle” – that refers to the return to normality after a period of anxiety, danger or difficulty.

Apart from the fact that we now had to show our wristbands to enter the viewing area, and could only stand in the space opposite the forges where normally there was a bank of seating to watch from, it was all very much business as usual, with plenty of spectators avidly following what was going on. Meanwhile, the customary unlikely mix of tattoo-ed and dreadlocked smiths, stiff-hipped grannies, smart couples and self-conscious teenagers milled about in the remainder of the shady square, simply taking in all the sights and sounds and comings and goings, and it was good to see that even in these difficult times, the event had, as ever, attracted almost as many ‘lay’ visitors as blacksmiths.

Mr Blue-Shirt was planning to forge a piece he had designed with our pal Bill who was driving down through France from the UK. So we found ourselves looking out for his familiar lanky form and floppy hat as we wandered down the hill for a quick coffee at the quirky bar by the bridge over the Arno that provides the best people-watching spot in town. And as we drained the last of our cappuccini, I caught sight of him, wheeling a suitcase across the road.
“There he is!” I yelped excitedly, suddenly all too aware that this was the first time in two years we had seen any of our UK friends in the flesh.
“And there’s Melanie, too,” said Mr Blue-Shirt, pointing to the equally familiar figure of Bill’s wife in one of her trademark colourful kaftans walking up from the car park. “They look a bit frazzled – Bill said they were setting off at dawn from down by Grenoble.”
“Yes, let’s leave them to get settled in and arrange to meet up later.” I said, trying to be calm and sensible – and to loosen the knot that had formed in my throat.

With Bill and Melanie’s arrival giving us an extra spring in our step, we continued on to Piazza Tanucci in the heart of the old town. This year, there were fewer of the dramatically lit large sculptural pieces normally displayed along one side of this narrow square lined with tall palazzi, and the casual seating made from pallets, scaffolding planks and re-purposed oil drums was very obviously much more spread out than usual. But the stage with full sound and lighting rig was still there: a good sign as it meant that live music was still set to form part of the evening programme. Then from the far end of the square, we headed down the narrow alleyway that leads to the lanificio, the semi-restored woollen mill whose huge contemporary gallery space houses one of the event’s other key elements, a professionally curated exhibition of forged ironwork.  

“I think that’s Luc!” exclaimed Mr Blue-Shirt as we approached the forging demonstration area outside the mill. And sure enough, there was our Belgian friend whom we had worked with at various international events over the years, his distinctive shock of thick silver hair standing out among his team of black-clad smiths hammering away at what we later learnt was sculptural piece for the local children’s playground. We waited at the guard-rail for a few minutes, not wanting to interrupt Luc while he was working. Eventually he glanced up, looked back down at his anvil – then did the biggest double take ever, all but dropped his hammer and ducked under the rail to envelop us both in a massive bear-hug that soon also included Luc’s wife Christine who had suddenly appeared from nowhere. Gradually we let go of one another, our eyes glistening with barely held back tears, and hastily exchanged news, assured each other that we had got through the pandemic OK and promised to meet up for a drink . Then, amid much back-slapping and kiss-blowing, we let Luc and Christine get back to work while we carried on up to the exhibition, babbling excitedly about how fantastic it had been to see them both.

We made a quick tour the exhibition, noting that while there were some fabulous pieces, there were far fewer exhibits than normal – although whether it was simply a sign of the times or a deliberate tactic to keep numbers in the gallery down, we couldn’t decide. But we didn’t really take much in after bumping into Luc and Christine. For this had made us keener than ever to see Bill and Melanie, so after a rapid exchange of messages we agreed where and when to meet for dinner.

They were already sitting at one of the long trestle tables outside when we arrived at the bar by the Arno and leapt to their feet the instant they saw us, their arms flung wide in greeting. And only after a prolonged frenzy of hugging and handshakes (and discreetly dabbed eyes) did we manage to curb our childlike excitement and sit down and talk like proper grown-ups. Without interrupting our conversation, we soon slipped from drinks to dinner, and continued talking and laughing, eating and drinking and then talking and laughing some more until we were the only people left in the restaurant and the charming staff politely made it plain that it was closing time.

The next couple of days were spent drifting from café to gelateria and from bar to restaurant together, catching up properly with Luc and Christine, and simply enjoying being part of this incredibly sociable gathering once more. We did also manage to check out the drawing and design competition and the children’s forging station, attend a couple of lectures and take a proper look at the exhibition, none of which turned out to be as compromised by the anti-Covid measures as we had feared. Best of all, though, while overall participation was definitely lower than usual, a good 70 or so competition pieces ended up on display along one side of Piazza Mazzini, forged by around 85 smiths from over a dozen countries including Russia, the USA and Japan, while the UK sadly had just two representatives this year, namely Bill and Mr Blue-Shirt. Over the course of their three hours, they produced, with a little added muscle power from a kindly American smith, a piece that showed the virus being crushed into submission by a large hammer – one of a number of entries that made direct reference to Covid.

We agreed on our way home to get ready for Bill and Melanie to come and stay for a few days that our trip had been all that we had hoped it would be. We had managed a few days away, we had found the event that we remain so fond of in surprisingly rude health, Mr Blue-Shirt had been able to swing a hammer for the first time in four years, and – best of all by miles – we had had the chance to spend proper face-to-face time with some very dear friends. All of which left us feeling more energised and connected than we had done in months, and that we truly had in some ways ‘emerge[d] to see the stars once more’.

Note: ‘And so we emerge to see the stars once more’ is a rough translation of “E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle”, the quote from Dante’s Divine Comedy that provided the theme for the forging competition.

Refamiliarising Ourselves With The Unfamiliar

In the heady days of last summer when we naively imagined the Covid nightmare might be coming to an end, we managed to escape for twelve magical days in Croatia. This year, although the acute phase of the pandemic and its shocking novelty may have slackened into the weary familiarity of its chronic phase, the cumulative burden of a further year’s anxiety, uncertainty, separation and solitude had left us even more stale and depleted, but also with an even greater need to do something different, be somewhere different and see the world through a different lens in order to shake us out of our post-lockdown lassitude. However, another year of unpredictability and ever-changing rules had also made us wiser and more wary, so in late spring, with our vaccines lined up and the promised land of the white zone in which only the most basic restrictions remained drawing ever closer, we booked ourselves just six days in Tuscany (still taking care to ensure that last-minute cancellation would be possible). But despite the comparative modesty of our ambitions, those six days in late August turned out to be just as special and just as restorative as the previous year’s more adventurous trip across the Adriatic.

We started off with three nights in Arezzo, little more than a couple of hours away from us in Tuscany’s south-eastern corner, close to the border with Umbria and about 40km north of Lago Trasimeno. The opening line of Arezzo’s entry in our aged Lonely Planet guide, “heavily bombed in World War II”, had nearly put us off, but an acquaintance had warmly recommended it some years earlier, and now that we actually live here, we are in any event always keen to pay a brief visit those lesser-known places that stand in the shadows of their showier, more popular neighbours – Florence and Siena in Arezzo’s case – safe in the knowledge that should such a place prove disappointing, it won’t have spoilt a whole holiday. And despite its general sniffiness about the city, our Lonely Planet did concede that its ‘medieval centre packs some inspiring highlights’.

These highlights, not surprisingly, are all located within the ancient fortified walls that still almost completely encircle the city. And at last being able to enjoy once more the simple pleasure of ambling, map in hand, through an unfamiliar city’s ancient streets and discovering all these new and different sights was exactly what we had been longing for. They included a medieval fort, a cathedral and sundry other vast and tiny churches, all dripping with Renaissance artwork, an assortment of grand palazzi, several galleries and museums, and a Roman amphitheatre that is still in use as a performance space. The beating heart of the city, however, is the magnificent Piazza Grande. This broad, sloping square was originally a market place, with the tall, narrow merchants’ palaces built along the eastern and southern sides in the 14th century still standing as testament to its commercial roots. During the Renaissance, however, the square became the civic centre and the imposing Palazetto della Fraternità dei Laici and the elegant Logge Vasari were built alongside the church of Santa Maria della Pieve with its distinctive bell tower and the sombre episcopal palace on the northern and western sides.

As if this glorious jumble of architectural periods and styles were not arresting enough, as we entered the square via a narrow alley in the north-west corner we were also greeted with the sight of large, brightly-coloured flags fluttering from practically every window in every building, while around the edges, tiered banks of temporary seating were being erected, and across the middle ran a banked-up track made from tightly packed earth and sand – and a crackle of anticipation hung in the late summer air among the clusters of dawdling tourists and busy workmen. The waiter at the café where, over a mid-morning cappuccino, we indulged in a little people-watching in an unsuccessful effort to work out what was going on eventually told us all this activity was in preparation for the Giostra del Saracino – the city’s biannual Saracen Joust. In response to our blank expressions, he directed us to the grand Palazzo dei Priori, which, as well as being the current town hall, also houses a museum of the joust that explains the history and traditions of this hugely popular, hugely spectacular event – to which our Lonely Planet guide, quite inexplicably, devoted not one single word.

We are not big museum-goers, but the colourful bustle in the Piazza Grande had piqued our curiosity and, coupled with an unaccountable keenness to test out our freshly downloaded Covid Passes, soon had us striding back across the square and up the hill to the town hall. Having successfully scanned our passes, the young and enthusiastic curator theatrically swung open the huge double doors that gave access to the exhibition and indicated the route we should take through the various rooms. Over the next hour or so, we learnt by means of the first-class immersive audio-visual displays in each of them that the joust, which takes place in late June and in early September, dates back to the Middle Ages when it was used for military training purposes. While it flourished throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, it fell into decline during the 18th and 19th centuries, but was resurrected in the early 20th century, since when it has grown into the day-long extravaganza of today (Covid restrictions notwithstanding), with its cast of some 350 costumed characters. These include a long procession of buglers, drummers, flag-wavers, jugglers, valets, crossbowmen and foot soldiers, as well as the Herald, the Registrar, the Field Steward, the Jury of score-keepers and the Judicature who make sure the byzantine rules are complied with. The real stars of the show, though, are the eight mounted Knights of the Joust. Organised into four pairs, each representing a different quarter of the town, they take it in turns to gallop at full speed across the square and, with the inked tips of their 3.5-metre-long lances, try to strike the highest scoring portion of the target fixed to the shield of the Saracen, a wooden effigy of “Buratto, Kind of the Indies”. After three nail-biting rounds, and frequently a tense tie-breaker too, the quarter represented by the two highest scoring knights is awarded the coveted Golden Lance by the Mayor. There follows a cannon salute and a Mass of thanksgiving held by the Bishop in the cathedral, and proceedings are rounded off with rowdy, night-long celebrations throughout the city.

Here’s the thing, though: the very fact that this September’s joust was happening the day after we left Arezzo did not disappoint us in the slightest. In fact, it came as a much-needed reminder that we could come back in subsequent years at the drop of a hat as such events are practically on our doorstep. The relative novelty of this for us had not so much worn off over lockdown as been shut away and completely forgotten about. And, slightly paradoxically, the simple fact that we felt able to say ‘never mind, we can always come another time’ did almost as much to lift our spirits as being there in the first place.

So we spent the rest of our time in the city contentedly wandering around the enticing maze of narrow, cobbled streets surrounding the Piazza Grande, poking around in their many antique shops and quirky boutiques, and deciding which of the dozens of long-established, family-run ristoranti, trattorie and osterie serving local specialities we would dine in.  And each evening we still got a taste of the joust anyway, as horses were trotted in and out and around the square to familiarise them with the layout of the course, while bands of drummers from one quarter and teams of flag-wavers from another, all incongruously dressed in T-shirts and shorts, carried out their rehearsals in the evening cool of the near-empty streets.

There was another reason why we were not that bothered by missing the joust, though. It was the second half of our trip, and really why we had picked Tuscany as our destination in the first place: the Biennale Nazionale di Arte Fabbrile (National Blacksmithing Biennial) – held in Stia, barely 50km north of Arezzo. Yes, it would give Mr Blue-Shirt his first chance to swing a hammer in nearly four years, but so much more precious than that, it would give us the chance actually to meet up with a few of our blacksmithing friends whom we had not seen for over two years. So: joust-schmoust. We had proper, actual hugs to look forward to…

For more information on the Saracen Joust, go to https://giostradelsaracinoarezzo.it/la-storia/

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