Devils!

It’s the word Emanuela used to describe Stanley and Matilda when we picked them up from at the end of their first stay with her while we were away for a few days: “Sono diavoli, i gattini!” Slightly alarmed, I looked up from trying to wrestle them into their respective travel boxes. Oh God! Had they broken one of Emanuela’s many ornaments? Scratched one of her grandchildren? Eaten one of the several dozen chicks she was hand-rearing? They had been in a cardboard box in the over-furnished but spotless living room where she let her ‘guests’ run about from time to time. But her ruddy, high cheek-boned face had creased into a broad grin, her deep-set blue eyes were sparkling with amusement, and laughter had set her enormous shelf-like bosom aquiver. “Well, we did warn you they were lively!” I countered, mightily relieved to find that our two young tabby cats had not let us down after all.

Stanley and Matilda (aka Tilly) are brother and sister, and by turns partners in crime, bed-fellows, sworn enemies, play-mates, sparring partners – and completely inseparable. They came into our lives at the end of January when we decided that the pain of losing Mimi the previous October had subsided enough for us to countenance ending our state of unintended catlessness. We got them from a blacksmithing acquaintance over in Treia who permanently suffers from a surfeit of kittens and had offered us the pair of our choice – we were quite clear that we wanted two – from his latest brood. Brought up from birth among a furry tangle of cousins, siblings, parents, aunts and uncles, even at four months old, they were savvy, feisty, hardy, bold and perfectly prepared to fight off every member of their extended feline family for any scrap of food on offer. In short, a handful. But when they first arrived, they were transformed into a pair of textbook scaredy-cats: bewildered and jittery, they spent the first few days with us in a perpetual state of wide-eyed terror. Mistrustful and cautious of all the unfamiliarity and newness, they remained cuddled up together on one of the dining chairs, only occasionally hopping down for a quick turkey biscuit or two before returning to their refuge, still reluctant to explore their new surroundings. Gradually, though, they would  gingerly accept the odd scritch and on occasions even found the purr button, but still remained to be convinced that all would be well here in their new home at Casa Girasole.

In the end, however, it took only a few weeks for their confidence – along with their feistiness, playfulness and greediness – to return, and for them to make themselves at home. It didn’t take them long, either, to get used to indoor living: they soon got the hang of tea-cosying up on an armchair in front of the wood burner in the snug, or curling up together on the sofa, entwined in a tabby puzzle of legs, tails, ears and paws – a kind of furry ‘octo-puss’. But as they had been entirely outdoor cats up to this point, it also meant that no surface, object or foodstuff was off limits: placid lap cats they were not. And we swiftly had to re-locate ornaments and breakables from shelves to cupboards, and soon learnt – the hard way – never to leave anything edible even remotely accessible to their raspy tongues and needle-sharp teeth. One morning early on, I left my packed lunch on the kitchen worksurface only for as long as it took to nip to the loo and run upstairs for my laptop bag before heading off for a day’s teaching, but came back down to find my cheese and onion relish sandwich on the floor, a hole gnawed through the two layers of the plastic bag it had been wrapped in, a row of neat, crescent-shaped bites chomped from the crust, and all the cheese (and onion relish) missing – along with any sign of the guilty parties.

Little by little, though, they have abandoned their semi-feral ways and are now really quite well-mannered. That is not to say, mind you, that they are not boisterous, mischievous and sometimes a downright nuisance – especially at 5.30am when they start the day by thundering up and down the stairs in a game of high-speed tag, or conducting a no-holds-barred kick-boxing match on, under and over our bed. But claws are now cleaned on doormats rather than curtains, the worksurface and dining table are now largely free of paw prints and meals (of cat- not human-food) are eaten on the floor from bowls. The penny has dropped that they are on to a pretty good thing with us and that life is no longer a permanent exercise in survival of the fittest. Over time they have relaxed and lowered their guard: rather than shying from our touch they are now trusting and affectionate, and actively seek out our company, ever ready to have their tummies tickled, paws outstretched, legs akimbo and purring like a pair of clockwork toys.  

And in the days following the break-in, when shock and anger have hung heavy in the air, they have been a truly healing presence: somehow picking up on our pain and sorrow they have offered reassurance, company, comfort and affection worthy of the dearest of human friends. So while they may not quite be angels, they are very far from devils – and we would not be without them.

Déjà vu

A jumble of images and thoughts and feelings lie forlornly scattered around my sleep-hungry brain. It remains incapable of tidying them into neat piles of sense and logic. Instead it just keeps shoving them back and forth in the vain hope that meaning and order will somehow magically appear.

“No……!” Mr Blue-Shirt’s strangled roar. The broken window. The ransacked kitchen. The crow-barred stairs. The crow-barred door. A break-in – again. The ransacked study. The ransacked bedroom. The wonky pictures and out-of-position cupboards. The mangled and empty safe and our most treasured possessions gone. Disbelief and shock – again. Howls of rage at the intrusion; tears of pain at the loss – again. This time not tools, but a shared lifetime of birthday, anniversary and Christmas gifts lovingly chosen and given, and joyfully received and worn. The precious mementos of my late parents, too, among which his wartime medals, her grandmother’s pocket watch.  Carabinieri, statements, theories and evidence – again. Lists of stolen items, insurance policy checked, meeting with our agent, loss assessor booked – again. Why? When? Did anyone see them? How long had they been watching? Wasn’t once enough? Bastards.

Sorting, cleaning and laundry: reclaiming and erasing. Repairs, stronger hinges, bigger locks, and more: they will not beat us. Attempts at defiance, resistance and resolve. Yet in the heavy silence of the endless night, doubt and suspicion hold sleep at bay. Irrational – or is it rational? – fear creeps in. Fear that they are still watching. Fear that they might come back. Fear – for now – of even going out together.

Which means that despite the promise we made ourselves this time last year, we simply cannot bring ourselves to go to one of the village’s biggest events of the year, the Sagra del Carciofo, its annual artichoke-fest. So, based on our experience a year ago, this is almost certainly what we shall be missing …

Much as the 57th annual festival did last year, this year’s sagra will doubtless involve a full weekend of solid partying that will take over the entire historical centre. That is, after all, the nature of the beast. Sagra is one of those annoying words that is so particular to the culture that it defies accurate translation. Even the lexicographers who compiled my breeze-block-sized Italian dictionary realise that translating it as ‘festival, feast’ doesn’t do the term full justice, so they helpfully go on to explain that “A sagra is a rural festival held in the open air with folk music, dancing and games. Many are based around one or more culinary specialities, which can usually be sampled in the various booths. These festivals normally take place during the summer months.” (Collins) Which is true enough as far as it goes – except for the fact that this description sucks every last drop of joie de vivre out of the thing.  For these sagre (and there over 5000 of them up and down the country) are not worthy-but-dull events run by local do-gooders in a fruitless attempt to cling to a bygone golden age. Nor are they a cynical ploy to attract gullible tourists and hoodwink them into spending lots of money on ‘traditional’ wares. They are, rather, a celebration of the produce that supports the local economy – many of the fields hereabouts are once again covered with neat rows of the prickly deep green mounds from which the prized thistle-like edible blossoms appear in spring – and since this varies from community to community, they are also an expression of a community’s individuality, and also of civic pride and solidarity.  Moreover, because they revolve around eating and drinking, processions and games, music and dancing, and lots of making merry, there is something for everyone to enjoy, from black-clad nonna to tattooed teenager to curly-haired toddler. And enjoy them they do – in vast numbers, too.

So, were we going, Mr Blue-Shirt and I would be walking the 4km into the village, as the place is bound to be absolutely heaving with life, with every last parking space long since bagged. The narrow, cobbled streets will be crammed with stands selling piles of freshly harvested deep purple artichokes, and with stands selling jars of artichokes preserved in golden olive oil that are a favourite antipasto, and with stands stacked with shiny waxed drums of pecorino (the typical accompaniment to artichokes), offering tastings of all the different vintages, along with a collection of other stands proudly displaying an array of locally-produced artisan foods from hams to honey – all of them doing a brisk trade. It will of course be the stands selling hot food where the real action will happen, though, with a permanent queue of people waiting to take their pick from whole roasted artichokes topped with grated pecorino, roast pork with artichoke, artichoke salad, artichoke and pecorino frittata (omelette), deep-fried artichoke hearts, and olives stuffed with artichokes. Not to be outdone by these pop-up stalls, the pizzeria in the main square will be churning out artichoke pizzas at a furious pace, and the other two restaurants in the village will also have made the artichoke the star of their menus for the weekend. To be honest, though, some of the dishes on offer are still likely to be downright odd. Last year, Mr Blue-Shirt managed to secure one of the last tables in the long-established family-run restaurant on the main street, and to round off each of their specially created four-course artichoke-based menu, the dessert was artichoke strudel, and we later found that the gelateria was even serving homemade artichoke ice cream. Which I still think sounds like last-ditch contributions to a late-night culinary brainstorming session.

Having eaten our fill of artichoke dishes (minus the strudel and ice cream) we would make our way through the crowded streets up to the even more crowded main square where a five-piece band would probably be twanging their way through a selection of country and western favourites. The concert stage, huge speakers, big screen, dry ice and fancy light show would still look slightly incongruous set against the backdrop of the imposing medieval bell tower and grand town hall. But we would no longer be surprised to see the ancient square so buzzing with life and energy and fun as having now been to several such festivals, we know how much our fellow Monteluponesi love to party.

The following afternoon will naturally bring yet more artichoke-themed celebrations, the most bizarre of which will remain the procession of specially made floats that each form a different artichoke-themed tableau. One after the other, they will be towed by a flag-bedecked tractor onto the main square where homage will be paid to the precious artichoke in the form of a brief playlet performed in front of the jam-packed square. We would probably be no less baffled than last year by all this, but would find it no less enjoyable for that. More eating and drinking will doubtless follow, and late in the evening proceedings will reach a climax with another live band pounding out a programme of popular rock ballads that will be carried in through our bedroom window on the soft night air as we search for sleep once more. And curse the thieving bastards whom we shall not – shall not – allow to steal our dreams as well as our memories.

Building Bridges

Fare il ponte” they call it here. They use the same term in several other countries in mainland Europe too. But not in the UK, where ‘making the bridge’ doesn’t exist as an expression – because it doesn’t exist as a ‘thing’. And the ‘thing’ in question is the practice of taking an extra day off between a public holiday and the weekend. That is to say, if a holiday falls on a Tuesday or a Thursday, it is common for people to ‘make the bridge’ and take respectively the Monday or the Friday off too – which necessarily cannot happen in the UK where public holidays are always on a Monday, regardless of which day of the week the festival it celebrates actually falls on.

Before anyone resorts to tired clichés about ‘idle continentals’, however, bear in mind that the counterpart to this is that there is no extra day off when a public holiday falls on a Saturday or Sunday. Then again, while England and Wales have just eight public holidays this year, Italy does have to squeeze twelve in. As well as Christmas and New Year, Easter and May Day, there are the four additional religious holidays: Epiphany, the Feast of the Assumption, All Saints’ Day and the Immaculate Conception – but minus Good Friday, which isn’t actually a holiday here. And then there are there are the two secular holidays, Republic Day – La Festa Della Republicca – on 2nd June, and before that, Liberation Day – La Festa della Liberazione – on 25th April.

This is a national holiday in Italy because it was the day  in 1945 on which the key cities of Milan and Turin were liberated from the forces of fascism. A resistance-led uprising and general strike designed to prepare the way for the Allies’ advance from the south paralysed industry in several northern cities and forced the Nazis into retreat. The initiative marked the end of Mussolini’s twenty-three-year dictatorship and five years of war, which included two years of Nazi occupation as well as a civil war that had resulted from Italy’s surrender to the Allies in September 1943.

Other cities including Genoa, Bologna and Venice were liberated before and after this date. However, thanks to Milan and Turin’s strategic significance, and since it was also the date on which the death sentence was proclaimed for Mussolini and his generals, it was 25th April that became recognised as the national Liberation Day. The festival was initially created by decree in 1946 “per celebrare la totale liberazione del territorio italiano”, and was enacted into law as a permanent annual national holiday in 1949. Since then, many towns up and down the country have named a street via XXV Aprile in commemoration of this critical date in the history of the Republic.

The day, which is also known as La Festa della Resistenza, has always been a day of mixed emotions: of celebration and commemoration, of liberation and loss.  As such, it is rather like a combination of D-Day partying and Remembrance Day solemnity that consists of formal ceremonies at war memorials throughout the country, coupled with parades, concerts and lots of eating, drinking and making merry, all aimed at honouring the memory of the resistance movement – in which, incidentally, 35,000 women also participated.

This year, thanks to Easter falling almost as late as it ever can, many people are apparently preparing for their celebrations by making an extended bridge between Easter Monday and Liberation Day (which falls on Thursday). And, presumably to recover from those celebrations, some are turning it into a double bridge by taking the Friday off as well. Then, with May Day coming up next week, it is said that there are even some canny souls who are going in for some extreme bridge building, and bagging themselves sixteen days off work at the cost of only seven days’ leave.  Well, 1st May is La Festa dei Lavoratori after all: the day on which workers across the world commemorate the struggle for the legal recognition of labour rights…

Looking for Goldilocks

So: Mr Blue-Shirt’s forge. Ever since we viewed Casa Girasole he’s been on the lookout for a suitable building within the immediate vicinity where he can resume his career as a blacksmith. Although we have the space at the house, we both agreed very early on that we didn’t want to have the forge here. Having lived ‘over the shop’ in Lincolnshire for some fifteen years we are only too familiar with how running a business from home can over time muscle in on every aspect of life. No, this magical place that had captured our hearts pretty well the moment we saw it was above all going to be our home-with-a-capital-H.  Casa Girasole, we promised one another, would be a place of relaxation and renewal, of comfort and calm; a place to feed the soul and ease the mind, to live, to laugh to love; a shared expression of more than three decades of ‘us-ness’.

We had realised that for the whole of our married life, where we had lived had been entirely defined by Mr Blue-Shirt’s job, with the result that it could never be left at the door. During his time in the forces, we had always lived in married quarters, either on a base, surrounded by khaki-clad comings and goings, or on a purpose-built military housing estate where every occupant had the same job and every house was identical to the next, with no possibility for alteration or personalisation. Then, when he finished his forces career and Mr Blue-Shirt re-trained as a blacksmith, we moved straight into The Forge. Well, naturally we actually moved into the cottage that was attached to the forge, but in retrospect the name of the place was very revealing: once again, the job defined our living space. And when it comes to blackmithing, which involves nothing that is small or clean or quiet, it is a job that was very well placed to muscle in on our life there more effectively than most. So we were adamant: we were not prepared to risk ending up living at a forge with a house attached again.

His search for a forge has in effect been a variation on our early property searches here when holidays were spent bouncing down white gravel roads and clambering over ivy-choked ruins. On practically every trip to the builders’ merchants over in Villa Potenza, or to the quarry down in San Firmano, to the vet in Piediripa, or even to the supermarket in Trodica – and certainly while out on his Sunday cycles down to the coast – he will detour off along this, that or another track in search of a potential forge. Even I join in, keeping my eyes peeled for ‘Vendesi’ (for sale) signs on the way to or from teaching jobs in Recanati or Castelfidardo, in Ancona or Macerata.

He’s not asking for much: a free-standing building, preferably with a footprint of about 60 square metres, running water, mains power and a bit of outside space; a place where he can hang up his collection of blacksmith’s hand tools, set up his anvil, hearth and power hammer, and install a work bench, welder and spray bay. But just as with our initial property search, Mr Blue-Shirt’s hopes have been repeatedly raised and then swiftly dashed when a place that looks ideal from the outside or on paper turns out to be a non-starter as soon as he sets foot inside. Too big or too small; too far down a white road or too close to housing; too much land or no outside space at all; too much restoration work or too much finishing off.

Thinking more laterally, he even considered a small plot of land on which he could erect a small pre-fabricated workshop and went to the local planning office to find out whether this might be a feasible option: it wasn’t. The piece of land Mr Blue-Shirt had earmarked as a potential location for a forge – a small parcel of land adjacent to that of our neighbour’s about six hundred metres along the road – was designated as agricultural land and as such could not be built on. But in conversation with the helpful and chatty planning officer, Mr Blue-Shirt learnt that until recently Montelupone had in fact had two working forges. One had closed because the aged smith had died, and the other had closed because the not quite so aged smith had retired. But their premises were still there even though their hearths had grown cold. Not one but two forges in the village where we live? Was this some kind of omen..?

With the map marked with two red crosses that the planning officer had printed off for him clasped in his hand, and his heart beating fast, Mr Blue-Shirt set off to investigate. The forge that had belonged to the smith who had retired was sandwiched between two modern-ish three-storey apartment buildings on the southern side of the village. An anonymous cube-shaped building with roll-down shutters and a shallow pitched roof. And decorated with a web of alarming cracks running up the buff-coloured walls – yet another a victim of the earthquakes that shook the region in 2016. So that was another one crossed off the list; there was no point even looking inside. The bureaucracy, time and money involved in repairing any earthquake-damaged property made it a complete non-starter, no matter how suitable it might otherwise have been. One down, one to go.

The second forge was a little further from the village centre, down the hill heading towards our place; we had both driven, walked, cycled and run past it on countless occasions but would never have imagined that behind the folding zinc doors there might be a forge. Tucked in among a couple of light industrial units and attached to a modest 1950s apartment building, it looked very promising.  There was an area of hard-standing big enough to store Mr Blue Shirt’s shipping container and to park his van on: tick. It had plenty of height and natural light, three-phase power and water still connected: tick. A washroom and a cubby-hole that could serve as an office: tick. And even the remains of a hearth that it might be possible to coax back into life: very big tick. Plus a stiff-hipped widow, delighted at the thought of selling her late husband’s forge to a blacksmith. But… it was simply way too big for Mr Blue-Shirt’s needs and consequently came with a price tag that was way too big for his budget. So that was that one reluctantly crossed off too.

The search for Mr Blue-Shirt’s Goldilocks Forge goes on…

How difficult can it be?

Well, we’ve got the four corners in place. Residency, health cover, Italian driving licences and getting the car registered are all done. And we’ve got most of the edges in place too: getting the house and teaching work sorted out; indeed, they are starting to fill in much of the overall picture too. But there is still one large gap at the heart of the giant jigsaw of creating our life in Italy: a forge for Mr Blue-Shirt to resume his career as a blacksmith.

For over a year his forging tools and equipment (along with the contents of the garden shed, and sundry other bits and pieces that were too big and/or heavy to come over in the van) have remained tightly packed in a shipping container in the corner of a Lincolnshire goods yard. But for the past couple of weeks, this has at last been trundling south, just another another anonymous brick-coloured metal box on the back of a mile-long goods train snaking down through Europe. And what a slog is has been to find someone who could deliver Mr Blue-Shirt’s ‘forge in a box’ to Italy. Not that outlandish a proposal, one would have thought in light of the tens of thousands of identical such containers that on a daily basis are shuffled back and forth across the continent like a giant game of draughts. For goodness’ sake, twenty years ago, just such a container holding most of our worldly goods made it safely from the UK, via the mega-port of Singapore, to our tiny tin-roofed bungalow at the edge of the jungle on the northern coast of Borneo without a hitch (although it did take eight weeks to get there). So how difficult could it be? – to coin one of the favourite phrases of the eternally optimistic, never-to-be-thwarted Mr Blue-Shirt. Well, the answer turned out be ‘a damned sight more difficult than you’d imagine’.

A long list of big ‘we ship anything anywhere’ shipping companies were rejected once it turned out that this only applied if the said ‘anything’ was packed in one of their swanky containers, and even then, only upon payment of an eye-watering sum of money. Several hours of intensive Googling in search of smaller shipping companies that regularly transport good between the UK and Italy resulted in another list for Mr Blue-Shirt to plod through, this time of companies in Romania, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic as well as in Italy and the UK. And the responses – such as they were: several companies didn’t even bother to reply to his comprehensive enquiry – were enough to dent even Mr Blue-Shirt’s resolutely positive outlook. There were those that simply weren’t interested in a one-off private job; there were those whose quotes suggested that they were deliberately pricing themselves out of the job, and then there were those that quoted an ostensibly attractive, or at least reasonable price, but then added a catalogue of ‘extras’ – for instance, £750 just to lift the container onto a truck. Things were complicated further by the fact that while a couple of companies would normally have been happy to quote, they just didn’t have capacity to handle the job at the moment. The inexorable ticking down of the Brexit clock had meant that they were not only all overflowing with containers full of emergency supplies of essential goods in readiness for the possibility of the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal, but were also tearing their hair out, trying to fathom what paperwork, checks and other rules they would suddenly need to deal with should this disaster actually come to pass.

Against this background, it was not hard to appreciate why Mr Blue-Shirt’s optimism was wearing thin. Never one to be beaten, however – ‘failure is not an option’ is another of his favourite sayings – he decided to see this impasse as a challenge rather than a problem and so set in place a campaign of direct action. This involved sniffing out goods yards and haulage companies while out and about on various missions, eyeing up what vehicles and equipment they had, and then if things looked promising, visiting them in person, armed with photos, dimensions, serial numbers, weights and packing lists – and a determined look in his steely blue eyes. Having met only apologetic shrugs in a couple of places, he eventually tried his luck at a yard down by Porto Recanati, right next to the toll booths where we join the autostrada that runs along the coast from Rimini to Bari. While such things are simply not on my radar, Mr Blue-Shirt had clocked that they had cranes and forklifts aplenty as well as a fleet of trucks and a designated storage area stacked with containers awaiting delivery. Storage is a critical to Mr Blue-Shirt’s requirements, incidentally: in the absence for the time being of a permanent home for the container (ie his new forge, when he finds it), it can’t be stored at the house. Despite having enough space and even a suitable spot for it in the south-west corner of the olive grove up against the boundary hedge and largely hidden behind a large conifer, the location of power lines combined with the laws of physics and geometry conspire to make it impossible for a crane to lift the fully laden container from a truck, swing it over the 2.5m-high hedge and lower it into position.

Feeling confident, Mr Blue-Shirt ran through his now well-rehearsed pitch with Federico the very business-like owner. Yes, he shipped goods between Italy and the UK; yes he’d be happy to do a one-off private job; yes, he could do it for somewhere close budget. By this stage, Mr Blue-Shirt could happily have leant across the paper-strewn desk and planted a kiss on Federico’s deeply tanned cheek. But then the killer blow: he just didn’t have the storage capacity. Mr Blue-Shirt inhaled, closed his eyes and tried to organise his face into a smile before thanking Federico and taking his leave. “But you can try my friend Antonio in Porto Potenza Picena. He regularly ships stuff between the UK and Italy, and I don’t think his yard is full.” Clutching Antonio’s business card in one hand, he waved Federico a grateful farewell with the other as he clambered back into the van. “Mi hai salvato la vita!” he called as he crunched it into gear and sped off to Antonio’s yard.

Bingo! Antonio could do the lot; he even had a shipping agent in the UK who could organise that end of the journey. But the clincher was that he could also store the container at a very modest monthly rent, and so they shook hands on the deal there and then. Mr Blue-Shirt’s relief was palpable when over dinner that evening he told me how helpful Antonio had been, and how reassured he had been by Antonio’s genial manner as well as his forces background: something which always creates an instant bond and a sense of trust. Over the following days, Antonio proved to be as good as his word and all the necessary documents were provided and information exchanged; the crane was hired, the truck booked, the container shifted and finally placed onto a goods train at a railhead somewhere in the depths of Leicestershire. From there it has doubtless been lifted and lowered, cross-loaded, stacked and shunted about countless times as part of that giant continental game of container draughts, for its trans-European trek, which will end at the railhead in Pescara, some 100km south of us, will have taken over two weeks by the time it is driven back up to Antonio’s yard in the next day or so. And Mr Blue-Shirt will finally be re-united with his much-missed forging tools. Now he just needs that forge to put them in. How difficult can it be…?

Local heroes

So, that selection of noteworthy Marchigiani I spoke of last week; those local heroes whose achievements have entitled them to the honour of having streets in towns and villages throughout the region named after them: I certainly hadn’t even heard of most of them before moving here, and I knew barely anything of the achievements of the few I had heard of. But more to the point, I am unlikely to have found out anything about them had I not had my curiosity piqued by seeing these names on a daily basis on my way to the post office, to the vet or to the pizzeria, to the beach, friends, or to work. So, who exactly are they?

Well, should you stroll down a Via Raffaello Sanzio – or indeed if you arrive in the region by air since Ancona’s airport also bears his name – I can now tell you that this is in honour of the painter better known simply as Raphael.  He was a famously prolific artist and many of his works can be found in the Vatican Palace, and together with Michelangelo and Da Vinci, was one of the artistic ‘holy trinity’ of the period. And his local connection? He was born in Urbino, a picturesque medieval town in the north of the region that in the fifteenth century became a microcosm of High Renaissance culture thanks to the patronage of Federico da Montefeltro, and that is now World Heritage Site.

Then again, if your route includes a Via Giacomo Leopardi, this is a nod to who I now know to be Italy’s greatest poet of the Romantic period; up there Shelley, Keats and Byron. His work is said to have found its greatest expression in L’Infinito, the centenary of which is being celebrated this year, especially in his home town of Recanati. This dignified and handsome town is spread along a high ridge just a few kilometres from us and forms our view to the north at the start of any trip into the village. Superficially, Leopardi’s masterpiece expresses the poet’s desire to escape the rigid discipline of life in deeply conservative Recanati, which at the time was still under papal rule, and to travel to the exotic-sounding places he knew of only from his studies. However, it is also understood to be a meditation on both the potential and the limits of human understanding and the attendant frustrations.

Another son of Recanti popular with town planners in these parts is Beniamino Gigli, a name that I confess was completely unknown to me.  It turns out, however, that the reason for his commemoration in local street names is that he was one of the country’s foremost operatic tenors from the 1920s to the 1940s who spent the early part of his career in the shadow of the mighty Caruso – which is probably why I had never heard of poor Benjamin. The various examples of Via Pergolesi, by contrast, commemorate someone who I had at least heard of.  I have now learnt though that his last name is in fact a demonym that indicates his forefathers’ origins in the town of Pergola, which lies some fifty kilometres to the west of Jesi where Giovanni Battista Pergolesi was born in 1710. A violinist and organist as well as a composer, his best-known sacred work is probably his Stabat Mater, which he completed only weeks before he died from tuberculosis aged just twenty-six, although he is also celebrated as one of Italy’s premier exponents of ‘opera buffa’ – comic opera.

Pergolesi is eclipsed only by Gioacchino Rossini as Le Marche’s pre-eminent musician (whom I had definitely heard of, having actually performed some of his music in my youth). Consequently, any tour of the region is bound to take you along a Via Rossini or two, especially if Montecosaro, Macerata or Corridonia feature in your trip. And certainly if it includes Pesaro, the region’s most northerly coastal city where he was born in 1792. Rossini wrote his first opera aged just eighteen and went on to write a further thirty-eight, best known among which are Il Barbiere di Siviglia (the Barber of Seville), Gugliemo Tell (William Tell) and Semiramide.

Even though I had had no idea that Pergolesi and Rossini had hailed from Le Marche, at least I had a passing acquaintance with their achievements.  When it came to one of the region’s most celebrated scientists, however, I knew neither his name nor anything of the achievements that have earned him the accolade of having streets and schools named after him: Via Enrico Mattei is the street that forms the north-western boundary of Montelupone’s historical centre; it is also the name of a secondary school in Recanati (I have even taught there). And I am pleased to say that I now know that he was a chemist by training and came from Acqualanga in Pesaro e Urbino, the region’s most northerly province, and later became an industrialist. He became an active member of the anti-Fascist resistance shortly after Mussolini’s forced resignation in 1943, with responsibility for organising the supply of weapons to the local resistance cell in the mountains around Matelica (now better known for its white wine made from the Verdicchio grape). More significantly for street-naming purposes, however, was his role in transforming the Fascist-run national oil company (AGIP, a name which still exists today) into one of the country’s principal economic assets, and also for the development of Italy’s natural gas reserves, which helped drive the country’s post-war economic resurgence.

And finally, although immortalised in street, school and airport names less frequently than Pergolesi, Mattei, Raphael et al, if you pay a visit to Chiaravalle where she was born, to Ancona, to Jesi or to Castelfidardo, you may find yourself in Via Montessori, a small memorial to one of the few women (other than saints and martyrs) recognised in this time-honoured fashion. To my shame, I had completely failed to realise that this was in recognition of the early twentieth century physician and educator who developed the educational philosophy based on autonomy and self-motivation that is followed in the schools around the world that bear her name – Maria Montessori.

So, yet another fact about Italy that I probably would never have come across but for this peculiarly Italian street-naming tradition. For visitors and incomers alike, it is an insightful and serendipitous way of learning things about Italy that few guide books will include. Better still, though, by this simple celebration of the people and events that have shaped its history, it bestows even the tiniest, remotest village with a powerful sense of place in a way that boring old High Street, North Road or Oaktree Avenue can never do. So next time you wander along Via Somebody-or-other, or find yourself in Piazza Never-Heard-of-Him, just look them up. For you are sure to find a nugget of information every bit as tasty and quintessentially Italian as the pizza or the cappuccino or the aperitivi you are just about to tuck into…

What’s in a name?

Poets, politicians and popes: all can be found immortalised in Italian street names, along with a smattering of artists and industrialists, scientists and saints, as well as a handful of key dates in Italy’s history. As a result, a brief stroll around even the smallest of villages will turn into a fascinating ambulatory version of an Italian ‘Who’s Who?’

Once you have wandered past the tall, shuttered palazzi along Via Roma – for although not actually obligatory, I’ve yet to come across a town that doesn’t have one (and Montelupone is no exception) – and then paused for a cappuccino on the shaded terrace of an intimate little café on the grand Piazza del Popolo – and there will be one, trust me, or possibly a Piazza della Libertà – you could very well find yourself window-shopping on Viale Cavour, or admiring the fountains in the Piazza Garibaldi or dodging the traffic on the busy Corso Mazzini. Practically every town from the Alps to Etna has a street or square named after at least one of these three heroes of the Risorgimento: those soldier-politicians who led the march to Italian unity and who are still revered as national heroes. And just for the record, the road that encircles Montelupone’s walled historic centre is a Via Garibaldi.

Leave the Piazza del Popolo (or della Libertà) from another corner and there is every chance that this will lead you to Via Papà Giovanni XXIII. Although his papacy only lasted for five years, Pope John XXIII is fondly remembered for championing universal human rights and the peaceful resolution of conflict, so his name is a regular on street maps. And he probably still just pips Papà Giovanni Paolo II (John Paul II) to the number one spot, even though the latter still enjoys almost superstar status. And of course, in practically any town you will encounter any one of a whole clutch of saints, headed up, naturally, by Santa Maria and Saint Francis, who is one of Italy’s two patron saints.  The latter is an especially popular choice in these parts since Assisi and the magnificent Basilica di San Francesco are little over an hour away, but as you turn the corner, you could just as easily find yourself in Contrada Santa Caterina (just as you will if you head down the hill out of Montelupone towards our house). A mystic theologian and one of only four female ‘doctors of the church’, she was born in Siena and was proclaimed patron saint of Europe by John Paul II in 1999, having already been named Italy’s second patron saint in 1940.

Then as you curve back towards Via Roma your route could take you along one of those many streets named after a number of significant dates in Italian history. Via XX Settembre (of which Montelupone has an example) marks the day at the height of the Risorgimento in 1870 that the Pope lost control of Rome, while Via XVII Marzo celebrates Italy’s unification in 1861. And in the village we also have a Via XXIV Maggio. This is a slightly unusual one since it commemorates the day in 1915 on which Italy fired its first shots in World War One. While not normally considered a cause for celebration, the event is significant as this was the first time that the whole country took up arms under a single flag in defence of the young nation.

Figures from more recent times who have streets names after them include Giacomo Matteotti, a prominent socialist who stood up to Mussolini and the Fascists, but who ended up being kidnapped and murdered by Il Duce’s secret police in 1924, and fellow left-winger and industrial activist, Antonio Gramsci who in 1937 also met a sticky end at the hands of the Fascists.  Prime Ministers are always a popular choice too – regardless of how popular they might have been in life – and possibly the most frequent example (and before you ask, yes, we have one in Montelupone) is Via Aldo Moro, named after the prime minister who was kidnapped and then murdered by the Red Brigades in 1978.

Then to go with these prominent twentieth century figures is a collection of dates from more recent history that are memorialised in street names. Our local supermarket, for instance, is on Via XXV Aprile, one of many such streets up and down the country that commemorate Italy’s liberation from the Nazis in 1945, while any Contrada II Guigno you come across marks the declaration of the republic in 1946. Since the monarchy was abolished on the same day the republic was declared, you may be surprised to come across a Corso Vittorio Emanuele, but since this was the first king of the newly-united Italy, he is still fondly remembered as ‘Padre della Padria’ – Father of the Nation – and many a grand, town-centre boulevard is named in his honour.  On the other hand, I find it rather odd that there should be any street named after his son and successor, Umberto I, for despite being nicknamed ‘il Buono’ – the Good – he was an aggressive colonialist, turned a blind eye to the activities of the Mafia and the Camorra, had only contempt for Parliament, and outraged public opinion by decorating the General responsible for the massacre in 1898 of some 400 civilians who were protesting against rising bread prices. Not altogether surprisingly, he was assassinated a couple of years later. But commemorated he is: indeed, the elegant, tree-lined Corso Umberto I is Civitanova Marche’s most up-market shopping street and the place to be seen during the evening passegiata in summer.

But it’s not only national heroes (or villains, in Umberto I’s case) that are honoured in this way. Around these parts there are also streets called Via Rafaello Sanzio, Piazza Giacomo Leopardi, or Viale Maria Montessori; Contrada Enrico Mattei, Corso Beniamino Gigli, or Piazza Giovanni Pergolesi. For street names are also a manifestation of Italy’s famed campanilismo: loyalty to the local. And while the names may not be as familiar as Cavour, Mazzini and Garabaldi, they are all noteworthy Marchigiani. So to discover who these famous sons (and one daughter) of Le Marche are, come and take a stroll through the flower-filled cobbled streets of the region’s many hill-top towns, pausing as the fancy takes you for a coffee, a gelato, perhaps a glass of chilled Verdicchio, or simply to drink in the soaring views of ‘monti e mare’, and their achievements shall be revealed to you….