Third Time Lucky

So we are finally there. It’s taken three years of searching, evaluating, head-scratching and agonising, but a plume of white smoke has at last been seen wafting over Montelupone: habemus workshop.

For the first eighteen months of Mr Blue-Shirt’s search for suitable forging premises, everywhere he found that came anywhere close to fitting his vision of a cosy little forge tucked in the Marchigian was either already occupied, way too expensive, or required too much renovation.  By late 2020, however, two perfectly viable opportunities had presented themselves. One was an 80m2 workshop located about 12km down the hill in Trodica at the premises of Giovanni, the chap whose firm installed our solar energy system; the other was a 70m2 corner of a huge warehouse leased by Antonio, the chap whose shipping company had transported Mr Blue-Shirt’s shipping container full of forging equipment over and in whose goods-yard down by the coast it had been sitting ever since. The problem was, after more than fifteen years’ hitting hot metal in a two-hundred-year-old, circular forge that oozed charm and character from every soot-stained brick, he simply found these brutally utilitarian spaces rather sterile and uninspiring.  But by this stage, even though he was not quite ready to relinquish his dream all together, Mr Blue-Shirt was beginning to realise that he was at risk of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good and that he therefore probably needed to decide which of these two options might be, if not perfect, then at least good enough.

Before Mr Blue-Shirt could make his mind up, however, two further waves of Covid and another round of lockdowns put everything on hold, but at least it gave him another few months to resolve his head vs heart dilemma, and eventually it was his head that prevailed when Plan A was reluctantly abandoned in favour of Plan B. Having ruled out Giovanni’s place on cost grounds, he formally accepted Antonio’s offer of space in his warehouse – not least because all Antonio wanted by way of ‘rent’ was for Mr Blue-Shirt to carry out maintenance and repair jobs around the place as they arose, but also because the place had already effectively become his overflow storage area for all sorts of materials and equipment: it was almost as if mentally he had already moved in. The decision might have been a bit of a no-brainer in the end, but this did nothing to lessen his relief at finally having somewhere to hit hot metal which was matched only by his eagerness to crack on with unpacking the shipping container and setting up his forge after all this time.

What’s that old saying about not counting chickens before they’re hatched, though? For Mr Blue-Shirt didn’t even have a chance to unload as much as a single hammer before we both went down with Covid-19 and while we were out of action, the whole arrangement was put in doubt when Antonio’s landlord unexpectedly made some significant changes to his lease and suddenly it very much looked as if Mr Blue-Shirt’s wouldn’t be unpacking his container any time soon, if at all. But while he was still nursing his disappointment and beginning to wonder if he’d ever be able to swing a hammer at his own anvil, there was a further plot twist in the form of the Plan C that hadn’t even been on the table until a few weeks earlier.

Out of the blue, Francesco, a local farmer and motorcycling pal of Antonio’s, had casually offered Mr Blue-Shirt some space in one of his barns, pointing out that it had the 3-phase power supply that Mr Blue-Shirt needed but that Antonio’s warehouse lacked. This had always been the main ‘but’ with Antonio’s place, and the only viable (but still far from ideal) solution was to buy a generator, so Mr Blue-Shirt had decided that he couldn’t afford to pass up Francesco’s invitation and at least go and have a look. The space in a corner of what turned out to be a fairly anonymous-looking concrete barn set among wheat fields and mature olive groves did have a lot of what he had been looking for – including the kind of location he had long dreamt of – and certainly had potential as a forge. Then again, although it was under 3km from home – something else on his wish-list – it seemed quite a lot smaller than the space at Antonio’s, plus Francesco was likely to want a commercial rent. And apart from anything else, as we had become firm friends with Antonio and his wife Lori over the preceding months, Mr Blue-Shirt had been very keen to avoid offending Antonio in any way, so in the end, he had just said he’d have to think about it and left things there. But that was then. Now, though, with everything at Antonio’s up in the air, surely he’d be crazy to turn down a perfectly workable alternative and risk having to start the whole search from scratch again?

In the end the decision almost made itself. Firstly, the recent spike in diesel prices had made using a generator prohibitively expensive; then Francesco confirmed he didn’t want any rent, just a contribution to electricity costs and maybe some maintenance work on his fleet of agricultural vehicles. And finally, Antonio made it plain that in taking up Francesco’s offer, Mr Blue-Shirt, far from causing any offence, would almost be doing him a favour: even the ever-optimistic Antonio could see that the chances he would have no choice but to withdraw his offer of space were becoming greater by the day.  So from the ashes of near disaster, we suddenly had a win-win-win situation on our hands – and Mr Blue-Shirt had a workshop.

Within a few days, Francesco had freed up a much more generous amount of space in his barn than he had originally proposed and Mr Blue-Shirt had started unpacking his shipping container and ferrying van-loads of tools and equipment up from Antonio’s place. Then, once the container was light enough to move without having to hire a crane and a flatbed truck, they forklifted it onto the trailer hitched onto the back of the tractor in which Francesco had trundled down to the coast, towed the whole thing back up the hill and slid it into position in its new home behind the barn.

Almost every day since, Mr Blue-Shirt has been making the 5-minute trip to the barn where he has been happily pottering about, gradually getting things positioned and set up just as he wants, scarcely able to believe just how well things have worked out in the end. For not only does he finally have a space that meets all his ‘head’ requirements, but tucked in the hills with its magnificent views over fields of sunflowers to the distant Sibillini Mountains, it goes a very long way to meeting his ‘heart’ ones as well.

So very soon there will be a real plume of white smoke wafting over Montelupone. And it will be rising from the chimney of what perhaps should be called Phoenix Forge.

Pilate’s Lake

We could not have hoped for better weather for our trip. It had been hot and sunny for a solid fortnight or so, but a persistent haziness had dulled the sky, blurred the horizon and kept the peaks of Sibillini Mountains all but hidden within a veil of light gauze. As we set off down the hill early on Sunday morning, however, the mountains stood out on the western horizon with such clarity and grandeur against the brilliant blue sky that we could have been looking at them through a magnifying glass.

We were heading to the tiny hamlet of Foce di Montemonaco, located 945m up in the far south-eastern corner of the Parco Nazionale dei Monti Sibillini. This is where Mr Blue-Shirt and I had arranged to meet up with Richard, a former teaching colleague of mine, with whom I had discovered a shared interest in hiking some months earlier, his wife Jane and one of his two teenage daughters. Then from here we would set out together one of the best-known and most spectacular hikes in the park, the 10km trail up to the Lago di Pilato that lies at 1949m.

According to the most popular version of the legend that gave lake its name, it is the final resting place of the body of Pontius Pilate. He is said to have been sentenced to death in Rome by Emperor Tiberius (or possibly Caligula) for having ordered the crucifixion of Christ. Whichever emperor it was allegedly agreed to Pilate’s final request for his body to be placed on a chariot pulled by buffaloes which would be left free to roam as they pleased, and they ended up on the shores of the lake where they threw themselves in along with the chariot and Pilate’s body.

After a quick coffee and a pastry in the garden of the village’s only café/restaurant/hostel, the five of us hauled on our boots, swung our backpacks onto our shoulders and set off onto the trail. It was only about 9.30am, but it was already getting hot, despite the altitude. The first section of our route took us due south along the Piano del Gardosa and we were glad of the dappled shade offered by the trees that edged the broad, rocky path as it meandered steadily uphill through lush mountain pasture sprinkled with red, yellow, pink, purple and white flowers. Heavily wooded hills rose up on each side of the narrow, glacial valley that was filled with golden sunlight and around which a chorus of birdsong swirled on the light breeze. We walked and talked at brisk pace, catching up on each other’s news and respective holiday plans while stopping only briefly to identify a flower, a bird or a bug and completed the first four kilometres in under an hour.

As we approached the end of the valley, however, a phalanx of imposing crags reared up in front of us, the beech trees that clung to their near-vertical flanks apparently defying gravity. Within a few minutes we had plunged into the cool green shade of the forest, but any relief it offered was short-lived. Almost instantly the broad, open path turned into a steep narrow track that wound back and forth up the mountainside, weaving among trees and ferns, round tangles of gnarled tree roots, and over mossy slabs of rock. In minutes our legs and lungs were pleading for mercy, but the ascent was unrelenting and at times it became more climb than walk. On the map, we had noticed the closeness of the contour lines on this section of the route, but hadn’t fully appreciated just how precipitous it would become. From time to time we paused to catch our breath, swig some water or make way for those serious early-birds who were already on their way back down. With every stop we craned upwards in the hope of glimpsing the summit, or even a fragment of sky, but all we could see was yet more of this never-ending forested wall so on and up we laboured.

A good hour but barely two kilometres later, according to Richard’s fitbit, the slope at last began to ease a little, the forest gradually became less dense, and finally we emerged into brilliant sunshine spilling across a vast expanse of upland pasture ringed with towering peaks. But our relief at having completed the most demanding part of the route was tempered by the knowledge that we still had several hundred metres more to climb over the remaining four kilometres of the route. After a few minutes’ rest, however, and a good drink of water, we were good to go again. And if anything was going to take our minds off the relentlessness of the continued ascent it was the majesty of the dramatic landscape. To our left and right limestone peaks soared up into the vivid blue sky, their upper slopes still flecked with occasional patches of snow while drifts of jagged scree gathered on their lower slopes. And as we slowly picked our way among the chunks of rock that dotted the sparse covering of grass across the bottom of the valley, flocks of chough circled high above us, their screeching calls echoing off the bare rockfaces. Onwards and upwards we slogged, the thinning air now filling our legs with lead and slowing our progress. But as the valley steepened further, the grass became sparser and the summits of the two highest peaks in the Sibillini at last came into view- Monte Vettore (2476m) and Cima del Redentore (2069m) – we knew that we were nearly there. For it is these two mighty peaks that stand guard over the Lago di Pilato located at the bottom of the deep crater between them.

Then suddenly, as we crested a small hillock, the tiny lake finally appeared before us: a sapphire pool of gin-clear water, shimmering beneath the midday sun, its twin guardians, along with the craggy bulk of the sheer-faced Pizzo del Diavolo, towering menacingly over it. We had made it! Three hours, ten kilometres and a climb of a thousand metres. No wonder we were knackered. All five of us dragged our backpacks off, flopped down onto the rough, springy grass, grateful for the cooling breeze that tugged at our sweat-dampened T-shirts. Having recovered our breath, we took a few moments just to absorb the awe-inspiring immensity of our surroundings, much like everyone else who had made the trek and now lay stretched out on the area of flattish ground above the lake. Whether munching their sandwiches, exploring the lakeside, or preparing to set off back down the trail, however, everyone remained strangely quiet, almost reverential in the presence of such magnificence.

Our hunger eventually overrode our awe, though, and food briefly became our priority. But once we had wolfed down our picnics, each of us wandered off in different directions to explore the shoreline and take a closer look at the limpid waters of what actually now consists of two almost identical pools, the further one initially hidden from view by the broad ridge of scree that separates them. Until reduced snowfall caused the water level to drop, however, they were connected by a narrow strip of water that from above made the lake look like a pair of spectacles, hence its nickname ‘the glasses lake’. The fragility of the two pools gives them an almost magical air that is reinforced by environmental regulations which mean it is now strictly forbidden to as much as place a hand in their pure, crystalline waters.

After a good hour’s exploring and resting, we eventually pulled our rucksacks on again and set off, slightly apprehensively, back down to Foce. For while the return trip might have been downhill all the way, we knew that the 1000-metre descent was unlikely to be any easier or faster than the way up. The steepness of the route meant that every couple of hundred metres or so one or other of us lost our footing on the loose stones that made up the narrow winding track, and although walking on the grass was less slippery, it was no more even, so stumbles were almost as frequent. The really steep part made the constant jarring of our weary knees even worse, and at some points, the only safe and comfortable way down was, as Jane delicately put it, to ‘lower one’s centre of gravity’ – ie shuffle down on your backside. With fatigue starting to tell, the relief at reaching the bottom of this section was just as great as it had been at the top, and although the final four kilometres that followed were much less steep and slippery, they felt twice as long as when we set out and our pace slowed to a plod. At last, though, the terracotta rooftops of Foce di Montemonaco re-appeared among the trees, and we could almost taste the ice-cold beer we had been promising ourselves for at least the previous hour. So with this thought spurring on, we picked up our pace and positively strode the last the last few hundred metres back into the village. And at shortly after 5.00pm, we finally plonked ourselves down on the same bench where we’d eaten breakfast just over seven hours earlier and raised our hard-earned, ice-cold beers to toast our 2000-metre, 20-kilometre achievement.

Oaks and acorns

On a Saturday morning in late summer some months before the pandemic, Mr Blue-Shirt was waiting to order us a late breakfast in a café on the main square Fermo. A poster behind the bar caught his eye: it featured photos of a gaggle of classic Fiat 500s parked on the square outside the café and was promoting the annual rally and get-together of the local Fiat 500 owners’ club. And as the barista rustled up our cappuccini, the seed of an idea was planted. After all, we had both developed a huge fondness for these lovely little cars that to us are almost the epitome of La Dolce Vita. Then there was Mr Blue-Shirt’s life-long love of tinkering with classic cars – he had completely restored a rare Reliant Scimitar back in the ‘90s, a Triumph Spitfire in the ‘80s and an original Mini a few years before that, not to mention the countless wrecks he had also done up over the years. And finally, there was his enthusiasm for owners’ clubs, which, as well as being a useful source of technical advice, had always proved to be a great way to meet like-minded people and make new friends. So why not combine all three interests and actually buy a Topolino…?

To see whether that seed might grow, he downloaded an Italian car trading app and set the filters for classic Fiat 500s, joined a few Fiat 500 fan groups on Facebook and started researching the availability of original parts and accessories. And to his delight, as summer faded into autumn, Mr Blue-Shirt discovered a buoyant market for these hugely popular vehicles, an active community of fellow-enthusiasts and, as a result, a good number of specialist suppliers of original and replica parts of every conceivable type and at very reasonable prices. So it seemed we might now have a proper seedling to tend.  But within a couple of months, Covid had arrived. The world went into lockdown and the notion of rallies and get-togethers seemed as far off and unrealistic as flying to the moon. And as for our sturdy little seedling, dormancy beckoned.

Mr Blue-Shirt carried on looking, though, and over time shortlisted the models he most favoured, considered how ‘finished’ a car he wanted, thought about how much we were prepared to spend and looked into the cost of various spare parts, and – for when lockdown eventually lifted – estimated how big a search area we would consider. While movement was still restricted, he also discovered that huge discounts on insurance were available to cars that are certified as authentic/original by the Automotoclub Storico Italiano (ASI), the Italian Classic Car Club whose mission is to safeguard and celebrate the country’s motoring heritage and which has nearly three hundred local affiliates nationally. A little more digging as restrictions eased revealed that our nearest one is just down the in the valley, not far from the builders’ merchants we use on an almost weekly basis, that joining was very straightforward, and that they could handle all the paperwork to secure certification. And brief phone call to our insurance adviser established that he was completely au fait with cover for ASI-certified vehicles – and that he too had a soft spot for the Topolino as his father had had one.

As life gradually returned to normal, we brought our little seedling back with us out into the light and it soon began to flourish once more. Following lengthy discussions, Mr Blue-Shirt decided exactly which model was best for us (an original 500L), we fixed the search area (central Italy), fixed the budget (close to the bottom of a price range that can extend to €20,000 or more for an especially fine example of an especially rare model) and he set up alerts on his trading app for cars that met his criteria. The first few matches that came in were right at the limit of our search area, so we just used them for market research purposes and to confirm that what we were after was realistic. But by spring this year, more of the matches were a lot closer to home: it was time for our now vigorous seedling to be planted out and for us to take the next step: actually go and look at a couple and take them for a spin.

First was a lovely, buff-coloured one with a red interior down at the coast in Porto Sant’Elpidio. It was immaculate, came with all the right paperwork and was very attractively priced, but because it was the only one we had seen, we were reluctant to make an offer as we had nothing to measure it against – and, in our excitement, had also omitted to take it for a test drive. Then came the teal-blue one with a tan interior up the road in Loreto that also had a luggage rack on the back, complete with vintage leather suitcase. We did take this one for a test drive, and it ran very well, but it had been poorly re-sprayed and there were ugly cigarette burns on the passenger seat, so in the end it was a no. The next, another buff-coloured one, this time with tan interior, was a little further afield up in the north of the region near Urbino. It was fairly priced, in terrific condition and ran reasonably well. However, the paperwork was incomplete, the vendor would only accept some kind of slightly dodgy-sounding part cash deal and the salesman was everything that gives his profession a bad name, so it was another no. After that came another teal-blue one about 45 minutes away in Tolentino that had recently been reduced in price as, unusually, it had been on the market for some time. And we soon found out why: although mechanically sound with good-condition bodywork, it had the most hideous, messed-about-with interior and laughably awful rally-style seats that quickly made it yet another no. One near Perugia went before we had a chance to arrange to view it, and another in Gubbio had already been taken off the market when we called to make further enquiries. Then came another teal-blue one with a tan interior, this time right at the limit of our search area up in Bologna. But since this is one of our favourite cities, it at least seemed like a good excuse for a nice day out.

It was love at first sight. This little gem was in immaculate condition inside and out: its paintwork was faultless, it chrome-work unblemished, its carpets almost as new and its seats with the lovely rich patina that comes with regular use and with their stitching and black piping all intact. More importantly, it was also impressively well-maintained mechanically, passing Mr Blue-Shirt’s rigorous end to end inspection without a single red flag, and performed correspondingly well when he took it for a test drive and really put it through its paces. The salesman Davide gave us satisfactory answers to all our questions about its history and why the owner was selling it, employed no hard-sell tactics and even discreetly retreated to his desk to allow us space to talk about how we wanted to proceed.

Less than an hour later, we were enjoying a celebratory lunch on the terrace of a quirky trattoria in a quiet, tree-lined square on the edge of Bologna’s historical centre. In the end it had taken us barely a couple of minutes to agree that this was The One. Almost as quickly, we agreed terms with Davide, who immediately set the process of transferring ownership in motion. We even pencilled in a date to come and collect what was soon to be our gorgeous little Topolino. Well, strictly speaking, it was going to be Mr Blue-Shirt’s; in fact, because of the time it was likely to take to get it formally on the road, we decided it would make the perfect present for his 60th birthday in mid-June.

The following week, we trundled back up to Bologna in the van to collect it, and yes, it did fit (just) – although the only way out was through the sun roof.  We stored it for the next few weeks in our friend Antonio’s warehouse while Mr Blue-Shirt carried out a full service and waited for his ASI certification to come through so he could finally insure it, tax it and bring it home – hopefully in time for his birthday. We were therefore both thrilled that everything eventually fell into place exactly as planned, and Il Cinquino was duly certified, taxed, insured and back on the drive just in time for me to wrap it up in a giant red ribbon for Mr Blue-Shirt’s 60th birthday last weekend, when we at last took it out on its maiden voyage under his custodianship…

Topolino

We’ve been suffering from a syndrome for several years now, Mr. Blue-Shirt and I. It started almost imperceptibly, and it was really only in retrospect that we realised what was happening. Over time, though, it has got worse and we now fear we might never get better. The syndrome we suffer from might best be described as a kind of Automotive Tourette’s.

The main cause, I think, is Mr Blue-Shirt’s lifelong passion for cars and subsequent career in the army as an automotive engineer.  So ever since our first trip to Italy over three decades ago, he has always kept a keen eye out for the world-famous superstars of Italian motoring, the macho Ferraris, the sexy Lamborghinis, and a long-time favourite of Mr Blue-Shirt, the cool, understated Maseratis. And as a way of passing time on long journeys, I very soon joined in this motoring version of I-spy. But the car for which we both ended up reserving our most enthusiastic responses was the modest little Fiat 500 – the original one, that is; the one that is practically synonymous with La Dolce Vita; the one that is as indisputably Italian as pasta, prosciutto and prosecco.

Introduced in 1957, the Fiat 500 in effect motorised Italy, and in so doing provided a means of both literal and metaphorical escape from war-time deprivation, austerity and joylessness. It was very much conceived as a ‘people’s car’ by its designer, Dante Giacosa, who made sure it was suited to navigating narrow city streets and fitting into the tightest of parking spaces: it was barely 3m long, originally had only two seats, and a tiny, 18 horsepower, 479cc engine. Initially it also had rear-hinged ‘suicide doors’, but for safety reasons these were replaced with front-hinged ones in 1965. Crucially, as well as being practical, the Topolino, as it was popularly known, was also chic, charming and cheap – the equivalent of about £240 when it was first launched – so it took no time at all for it to win the hearts of Italian drivers. Almost four million of these smiley-faced little things had rolled off the assembly line in Turin by the time production ceased in 1975, and in 2007, when it was nominated as La Macchina Più Amanti degli Italiani (Italy’s most beloved car), it was estimated that there were still some 600,00 on the road. 

Over the intervening years, the national affection for the Cinquino, as it also became known, has never waned. It is quite common to see pedestrians smile and wave as one passes and motorists will often toot and give a vigorous thumbs-up to the lucky owner.  And we share their fondness for these tiny classics; they’re just so… well, sweet. So that’s how it all started. Every time one of us saw one on our travels, we would point wildly and squeal ‘Sweet!’ with childlike excitement. It didn’t take long for this to acquire a competitive element, too: the first person to yell ‘SWEET!’ won a point, with an often hotly disputed tally being kept for the day/ week/ duration of the trip.

Even once we had moved here, the novelty of seeing these cute little vehicles didn’t wear off; quite the opposite in fact. During the four months I was living here on my own, I developed a remote version of the game whereby I would send Mr Blue-Shirt photographs of sightings. Then, for when there were other people in the car, came the silent version that consists of poking one other in the ribs whenever we glimpsed one and manically jerking our heads in its direction. Finally came the single-player version which allows us to claim sightings even when on our own, although photographic evidence is considered desirable for such sightings to count.

So it was against this backdrop that on Sunday we attended the first post-pandemic Annual Classic Fiat 500 Meet in Civitanova Marche. I had almost literally bumped into part of this event back in 2019 while I was running down at the coast and I had to wait for a stream of Cinquini to roar past before I could cross the road from the harbour back onto the seafront, their horns blaring and their drivers waving to the pedestrians enjoying their Sunday morning strolls. I didn’t really know what the event was, but I made a mental note of the date so I could look out for publicity for the event the next time it was run– although I didn’t realise back then, of course, that we would end up having to wait three years, not just one.

As we entered the bottom of the main square, it didn’t look as if much was going on at first.  The small, formal park at that end was as peaceful as ever; its palm-shaded benches were mostly unoccupied and its neat pathways were empty but for a few inline skaters lazily weaving along. But as we left the park, we could see that the upper end of the large, cobbled square was jam-packed with row upon row of Topolini – some 200 in all, we calculated – all freshly washed and polished as if dressed in their Sunday best, their chrome bumpers and door handles gleaming in the hazy sunshine. We joined the clusters of enthusiasts wandering among them, peering in through their windows, admiring this or that feature and chatting with their proud owners. There were a handful of early models with their subdued pastel paintwork and pale interiors, some even with suicide doors; there were the highly-tuned rally versions with their lowered suspension and flared wheel arches; and then there were the hippy ones with their tinted windows and psychedelic, two-tone colours. But most of all, there were simply the well-used and lovingly-restored ones looking as good as they had when they rolled off the production line, still in their factory colours, with their factory interiors and factory accessories.

After about half an hour’s wandering among all these gorgeous Cinquini, we felt some kind of ripple pass through the crowd. As if at an unseen signal, the owners swiftly concluded their conversations, climbed into their cars and started their engines while everyone else moved to the corner of the square where it joins the road that runs round it. A single Cinquino on its own doesn’t make much noise, but the sound of 200 of them, all revving their engines as if they were on the grid at Imola, was pretty impressive. A couple of police bikes swept into position to keep the exit lane clear, and suddenly, after another invisible signal, they were off! One after another, the little cars roared off the square, round the corner and down towards the road that runs along the seafront, their drivers sounding their horns and gleefully waving to all the pedestrians who had stopped to watch the spectacle, while their passengers flourished Italian flags through the cars’ open sun rooves. Then in little more than five minutes the square was empty once more – but we could still hear all the cars in the distance, still hooting wildly and tearing around the town like a litter of boisterous puppies. So we walked back through the park and towards the beach, hoping to catch them on their way from down by the stadium and up to the harbour before they headed off up into the hills for the rest of their get-together. And sure enough, by the time we got there, the procession was already roaring along the seafront, which, much like the town centre, had almost come to a halt as practically everyone stopped to watch, wave, smile and take a couple of photos. In fact, I swear there were some in the crowd with the Italian version of our syndrome judging by the number of times I heard people exclaim “che carini!”  But suddenly, the little topolini had all gone, disappearing in a faint cloud of exhaust fumes, and the excitement was all over for another year.

Next year, though, we could well be taking part in the procession, not just watching it…

When you’re (still) in a hole….

So: that ‘work in progress’ I mentioned the other week when we went for a walk around the garden; those cantina excavations. Well, it all started back in the autumn of 2020 just before lockdown 2 when Mr Blue-Shirt finally decided it was time to tackle the problem of the damp in the cantina. Or grotto. Or cellar. We’ve never decided what to call it this small, cruciform space with it arched, brick roof that actually gives the impression of a tiny, subterranean chapel – probably because we have never been able to use it properly. In fact, perhaps ‘dungeon’ would be a better name. For like all the best dungeons, I suppose, it leaks like a sieve and whenever it rains, moisture trickles in through almost every mortar line, forming tiny glistening beads on the lattice of cobwebs that permanently garland the damp brickwork. As this renders the chilly space almost useless except for storing things made of plastic, glass or stainless steel, we can store little more down there than a collection of plant pots, our big olive oil flagon, a couple of beer crates and a few bottles of wine, even though patches of grey-white mildew leave their labels unreadable within a matter of weeks.

The whole structure was originally designed as a rudimentary refrigerator and so always contained blocks of ice in order to help make perishable foodstuffs last longer, and one reason it leaks so badly is because it extends north beyond the footprint of the house and has a thick layer of compacted soil on top of it. This certainly still helps keep the temperature down, but the inevitable moisture ingress that would have been largely irrelevant when it was used as a fridge is a different matter now, as its effects are not only depriving us of some much-needed storage space but are also now spreading to the body of the house itself. And largely thanks to works carried out when the building was converted to a two-storey residential property. As part of these works, the downstairs internal floor level had to be lowered to achieve the required ceiling height, and then the outside ground level along the northern side of the house had to be lowered to match – although for the section over the cellar this was obviously impossible as its roof by this time extended some sixty centimetres above the new internal floor level. So once the structure had been excavated to install the obligatory anti-seismic concrete bracing, the cellar just had to be covered back up to the original ground level. But it was left under a mass of heavy clay soil a metre deep that was packed directly up against the outside wall of the house, to which, crucially, no waterproofing had been added. To make matters worse, the finished surface of this elevated section sloped in towards the house, thus funnelling yet more moisture into that compacted clay and eventually through the outside wall, leaving a metre deep strip on the inside permanently mottled with pale green-grey mould.

So Mr Blue-Shirt’s plan was to scrape away the rough concrete surface and dig out the tonnes of soggy soil from around the cellar structure. He would then strengthen its foundations, clad the whole thing in concrete, cover both the cellar structure and the outside wall with a waterproof membrane before backfilling all the soil and finally re-landscaping the new elevated section. This would then just leave the cellar floor to waterproof, the internal brickwork to re-point and utilities for the washing machine and a second freezer to sort out.

The thing was, by the time he had completed the first phase of the project, which with the alarmingly deep crater around the hump-backed cellar had given the area more the look of an archaeological dig than a building site, Mr Blue-Shirt felt that he might for once have bitten off a bit more than he could chew. So he decided to get in touch with Silvano, the geometra who had overseen the earlier works on the property, and get a bit of professional advice before going any further. Silvano was horrified to find how much Mr Blue-Shirt had already done as technically it is apparently not permitted to undertake such work on a DIY basis, so told him we would need to get a professional builder involved and put us in touch with a chap who introduced himself only as Cecchi. Cecchi proposed simply patching up the cellar and waterproofing the whole thing and after some nudging, eventually provided his proposal for the works written in blotchy blue biro on a page torn from a child’s exercise book. ‘Proposal’ is probably an overstatement, though, as it gave no indication of timescales, no breakdown of costs, and the final figure was suspiciously low – and not just because there was no mention of VAT.

Silvano was just as suspicious of Cecchi’s low price as Mr Blue-Shirt was; nor was he convinced that a simple patching up operation would be sufficient, so suggested we seek a quotation for knocking the whole structure down and re-building it with the original materials and gave us the number of Lorenzo, another of the builders he regularly works with. Lorenzo duly came and had a look at the job, made a couple of non-committal suggestions but never even bothered to send us a quotation. Then came Mara, a contact of our friend Antonio and a qualified geometra working in her family’s building company. We thought it was going to be third time lucky when she came along with one of their team. They asked lot of questions, offered lots of ideas, told us exactly what permissions we would need and even came armed with a document for us to sign giving them our authority to obtain the relevant drawings from the planning office. And when her quote came in, it was incredibly detailed and professional, but it was for removing the lovely little structure completely and replacing it with a simple square box – at a price that an investment banker commissioning a luxury villa in Tuscany would have blanched at.

So once Mr Blue-Shirt had put a plywood and tarpaulin roof over the site to provide it with some protection from the elements, back we went to Silvano for a further recommendation. But builder number four promptly tested positive for Covid before we had a chance to arrange an appointment and was then too busy on other jobs, many of them already delayed by the pandemic. It was a similar story with Alessandro, the builder who helped out with the demolition of the pigsty and from whom Mr Blue-Shirt has hired diggers and tipper trucks on several occasions since, and whom Mr Blue-Shirt decided to call almost out of desperation: one after another several of his team had gone down with Covid and they then had a massive backlog to deal with. But he does keep promising to come and have a look at the job at some point, at least.

Then on top of the ongoing effects of Covid, there are the ongoing effects of the Eco-Bonus scheme.  This is the government initiative, financed through the EU Covid recovery fund, that is designed to get the construction sector back on its post-pandemic feet and give green building technologies a leg up, while at the same time improving the fuel efficiency of Italy’s housing stock and helping homeowners reduce their heating bills. The scheme offers discounts of between 50% and 110% on among other things the installation of solar panels, heat pumps, insulated cladding, heat-efficient windows, and is the scheme that gave us a 60% discount on the solar energy system we installed last year.  Not surprisingly, with its can’t-afford-not-to discounts, the scheme has proved incredibly popular with consumers and has also succeeded in giving the construction industry the boost it needed. But to an extent it also seems to have been a victim of its own success. The inevitable bureaucracy connected with the scheme has made most projects move very slowly, added to which demand is so high that certain materials and components are in short supply, causing further delays. And the upshot of this is that for the duration of the scheme at least many building firms simply have no spare capacity to take on other projects such as ours. And so for now, here we must continue to sit with our half-finished cantinagrotto… cellar… dungeon… archaeological dig… total pain in the ****…!

Forza! Forza! Forza!

The first we heard of it was in the comune WhatsApp group. This was set up by the town council at the start of the pandemic and was originally intended as a means of passing on Covid-19 information, help and advice to residents of the village while everyone was in lockdown. Gradually, though, it also came to be used for thunder storm warnings, pension distribution dates, changes to the school bus timetable, ‘flu jab details, and warnings of school closures due to snow, as well as local Covid testing and vaccination programmes, and even for Christmas messages from the mayor.  

This latest message, however, was to advise people of a list of local road closures from midday until 4.00pm on Tuesday 17th May.  I was baffled: why on earth did they need to close all these roads simultaneously? They normally carry out resurfacing works overnight, and then it’s only one road at a time. And it couldn’t have been for a festa or a sagra as these are always at the weekend; plus, the roads listed were well away from the village centre… So, still slightly puzzled, I opened the PDF attachment: it was a letter from the mayor, announcing that the roads would be closed for the afternoon because the Giro d’Italia was coming through Montelupone!

The Giro d’Italia is probably the biggest cycle race in Europe after the Tour de France and was first run in 1909, originally as a means of promoting the country’s daily sports newspaper, La Gazzetta dello Sport. Incidentally, it is because this has always been printed on pink paper that each stage winner – and the overall winner, of course – is awarded a pink jersey (maglia rosa). Italians completely dominated the race until 1950 when the first non-Italian, a Swiss cyclist called Hugo Koblet, won it. Since then, however, it has become much more international, with a string of European riders having now won the coveted pink jersey, including one British cyclist, Chris Froome, in 2018 – but so far still only two non-Europeans: American Andrew Hampsten in 1988 and Canadian Ryder Hesjedal in 2012. It has been run annually, except during the two World wars, and even continued (with very strict regulations in place) during the Covid pandemic: in 2020 it was held in October between Italy’s first and second lockdowns, while in 2021 it went back to May as usual, but with extremely strict limits on spectator numbers. However, normal service has been resumed for the 2022 edition of what has become Italy’s largest spectator event. And so with the whole thing practically going past our front door, Mr Blue-Shirt and I weren’t going to miss the chance of being among the 500,000 spectators daily who turn out to cheer on the 22 teams and 176 riders.

Montelupone, we discovered, was on the route of the 10th stage of the race, and having checked the list of road numbers in the mayor’s letter against the map, we found that the race would be passing through the village at the small roundabout on its eastern edge where the road coming up from the coast and down into the Potenza valley crosses the one that leads down from Montelupone and up to Potenza Picena on the neighbouring hilltop. By that time, the race would be into its second week, having started on 6th May in Hungary (no, I don’t know either) where the first three stages were held. Everyone then transferred to Sicily for the next two stages before crossing to the mainland for the rest of the race. Stages six to eight went from the tip of Italy’s toe up to Naples, and stage nine then took everyone up over the Apennine mountains to Pescara on the Adriatic coast where week one ended – and where, after a rest day on the Monday, ‘our’ stage of the race was due to begin at midday on Tuesday.

The first half of the 196km route consisted of the long flat run up the main coast road to Civitanova Marche, then it took a sharp turn inland and up into to the hills towards Montelupone. According to the timetable, the race was due to reach us at about 3.15pm, so we set off in plenty of time to find a parking space and a good viewing position – although we had no idea how many people would be there – if any, in fact. But as we turned onto the road that leads from the village centre down towards the roundabout, we could see that it was already filling up with cars and milling with people, so we tucked into the first available space and walked the last few hundred metres. Barriers were already in place at the roundabout, with the Polizia Munizipale and the local Carabinieri striding around purposefully, but actually doing little more than occasionally shooing people off the road and onto the verge. We wandered around for a few minutes, assessing which would be the place to offer the best view. Some had opted for a position in the shade of the tall oak trees that lined the road each side of the roundabout, but most had gathered around the edge of the roundabout even though it was in full sun. And we decided to join them: getting a bit hot was a price worth paying to be able to see the riders toil all the way up one side of the hill, cross right in front of us and then tear off down the other side. So we squeezed our way into position alongside the excited gaggle of children from the local cycling school who had all gathered at the roadside in their club cycling kit, ready to wave their Italian flags and handwritten placards as their heroes whizzed past.

After fifteen minutes or so the sense of anticipation cranked up a notch as a stream of police motorcycles with their blue lights flashing powered up and over the hill, their riders waving at the crowds of spectators as they went, clearly relishing their moment in the spotlight. Then came a stream of official race stewards on strange 3-wheeled motorbikes, followed by a convoy of liveried support vehicles, their rooves bristling with bike racks and what we presumed was some kind of telemetry equipment. Soon after, a couple of TV company helicopters clattered into view, dipping down and turning figures-of-eight over the long lines of spectators and the excitement rose further.

“Here they come!” cried someone suddenly and pointed across the valley to our right. A mile or so away a line of blue flashing lights streamed down the hill on the far side with a long multi-coloured ribbon of cyclists rippling along in its wake, before disappearing from view among the trees at the bottom. But suddenly the police bikes burst out of the tunnel of green, screaming up the hill, sirens blaring. Close behind them came another gaggle of race stewards and, almost unnoticed among them, the three stage leaders who had long since pulled away from the rest of the pack. Just flicking their hips from one side to the other, they swerved around the roundabout and plunged off down the hill to our left, and as they disappeared round a tight bend, we all turned back to the right to watch the main peloton labouring up the hill like a single enormous millipede on wheels. The crowd cheered and clapped and chanted “Forza! Forza! Forza!” while the kids waved their banners as the huge, panting beast roared past us in a blur of Lycra and carbon fibre. And then, in a whoosh of warm air, it was gone, snaking off down the hill, round the bend and out of sight.

Once the convoy of team support vehicles loaded with spare bikes, yet more police outriders and race stewards and finally a fleet of Red Cross vehicles had all been and gone, and so with the excitement over, the crowds began to drift away. Meanwhile, the peloton was already well on its way up to the highest point of the stage at Recanati, the neighbouring hilltop town we can see from the end of our road. From there it was on to Filottrano, where I taught in a fashion company for some months, and then on to the finish in Jesi, the town where the language school I used to work for was based. By this time, though, the three cyclists who had led the race as it went through Montelupone had run out of steam and been overtaken, and in a dramatic sprint for the line, the victor was Biniam Girmay, the first ever black African cyclist to win a stage in the Giro. It is therefore unfortunate that this Eritrean cyclist is more likely to be remembered for having to pull out of the race only a few hours after his triumph – having popped a Prosecco cork into his own eye on the winner’s podium.

Our mayor, however, along with the town council, the Polizia Munizipale and the Carabinieri, can all be satisfied with a job well done on the day the Giro d’Italia came to Montelupone.

https://www.giroditalia.it/en/tappe/stage-10-giro-ditalia-2022-pescara-jesi/

For the record, stages eleven and twelve took the race from near Rimini on the east coast back over to Genoa on the west coast. Then it was up into the Alps for stages thirteen to fifteen, with the second week of the race concluding in Val d’Aosta only a few kilometres from the French and Swiss borders. Over the course of the third week, the final six stages will continue to wind up, down and around the peaks of the Dolomites before descending to Verona on Sunday 29th May and the dash for the finishing line right in front of the city’s Roman amphitheatre.

Normality is a Big Fat Thistle

Ecco ci! – Here we are!”
Antonio flung his arms wide, ready to envelop each of us in one of his customary bear hugs. He and his wife Lori had just arrived at the café in the main square where we were waiting for them in the early evening sunshine. We had been lucky to bag a table on the pretty terrace with its uninterrupted views across to the distant Sibillini Mountains as the whole place was packed with people who, like us, had come into Montelupone for the village’s 59th Artichoke Festival, aka Sagra del Carciofo.

Il carciofo (pronounced ‘car-CHOFF-oh’) is a local speciality. And when I say ‘local’, I mean that in practically every field within the village’s boundaries there are at least a couple of long, neat rows of the deep green mounds like huge prickly cushions from which the edible buds appear in spring and reach fist-sized maturity in early May. Moreover, a lot of the local growers have achieved ‘certified organic’ status for their produce and/or are members of the local Slow Food community: yes, they take their artichokes very seriously in Montelupone. So seriously, in fact, that since 1960 or so, the village has recognised the artichoke’s contribution to the local economy and to the community’s individuality with this annual, weekend-long celebration of the artichoke.

Only it hasn’t quite been ‘annual’, of course. Thanks to the pandemic and its accompanying restrictions, the last time this open-air festival involving a long list of artichoke-based eating and drinking plus lots of stalls, processions, music and dancing took place was in 2019. But after three years’ absence, it was back in all its glory last weekend, and not only as a celebration of the artichoke, but also, it seemed, as an expression of civic solidarity and resilience – and in effect as a means of marking the village’s official return to normality. As such, it was a party no one was going to miss.

So having finished our aperitivi and caught up on the difficulties Lori and Antonio are having with their solar energy installation, we set off to join the mêlée of black-clad grandmas, smartly casual couples, tattooed teenagers, curly-haired toddlers and over-excited dogs thronging the narrow, cobbled streets that radiate out from the main square. For the entire weekend, these were lined with rows of stands piled high with freshly harvested deep purple artichokes, stands selling jars of artichokes preserved in golden olive oil that are a favourite antipasto, and stands stacked with shiny waxed drums of pecorino of various vintages, along with a collection of other stands proudly displaying an array of locally-produced, artisan foods from hams to honey.

This, however, wasn’t where the main attraction was – the stands gastronomici. They were in the small park that is almost hidden behind the small square where the war memorial is located. And as we made our way there, back through the main square, past the stage where a live band would be performing later and out the other side towards the Parco Franchi, we bumped into our new pal Francesco. This is the neighbour from whom Mr Blue-Shirt will probably soon be renting some workshop space and who is also a good friend of Antonio’s. He was there with his girlfriend Donatella and a couple of friends we’d met at another recent get-together. So having exchanged hugs and handshakes, ‘come stai?’s and ‘tutto bene?’s with everyone, we all joined the queue of people stretching from outside the park gates to the far side of the football-pitch sized space. Here stood a row of open-fronted marquees that housed a huge makeshift kitchen from which plate after plate of freshly cooked food was being served by a team of some forty volunteers to the would-be diners who were waiting to take their pick from, among other things, whole roasted artichokes topped with grated pecorino, roast pork stuffed with artichokes, artichoke lasagne, artichoke risotto, artichoke salad, artichoke omelette, artichoke fritters, and deep-fried olives stuffed with artichokes. Having been served our selections, we carefully carried our food-and-drink-laden trays to the row of marquees along the left-hand side of the park from which spilled rows of trestle tables and benches already crammed with diners munching on their artichoke feast while being entertained by folk dancers and accordion players.

Francesco had somehow managed to bag a whole table for us all in the far corner of the marquee, and so here we remained for the next couple of hours, talking, laughing, joking, eating and drinking, offering each other tasters from our plates and making assessments of the different dishes until we had all finally eaten our fill of artichoke goodies and naturally declared all the food buonissimo. But I suspect that what every single person in that noisy, chatter- and music-filled marquee had enjoyed above all was the simple pleasure of coming together with others, the renewed sense of community and the sense that normality had finally been restored to the life of the village.

With the sky having by now darkened to a star-studded inky-blue, we made our way back through the still crowded streets to the now even more crowded main square where the band was filling the warm evening air with popular Italian rock ballads. The huge speakers, big screen, dry ice and fancy light show looked slightly incongruous set against the backdrop of the imposing medieval bell tower and grand town hall, but it was so heartening to see the ancient square buzzing with life and energy and fun once more – just as it should be.

Gradually, we all went our separate ways, some to meet a different group of friends in the bar, some to sample the artichoke ice cream at the gelateria, and others simply to listen to the music. After a digestivo in the bar with Antonio and Lori – just a normal grappa; we decided to give the specially made artichoke grappa a miss – Mr Blue-Shirt and headed home.  And as we drifted off to sleep to the distant sound of the band floating in through our bedroom window on the soft night air, I hoped that we would not have to wait another three years until the next Sagra del Carciofo.

A Stroll Around The Garden

It was back in late February that we first rejoiced at the apparent arrival of spring, but since then it has been an unusually protracted, on-off affair. Until a couple of weeks ago, that is when spring positively exploded into a glorious riot of colour, scent and birdsong. Over the course of the last fortnight the surrounding hillsides and hedgerows have gone from a sprinkling of tightly folded buds, too timid to open up to the still chilly breeze, to a mass of leaves and blossom bobbing and fluttering in the sunshine. And it’s been the same in our garden too, of course. Not that we really have a garden in the English sense of the word. No neat borders filled with irises and tulips, no stripey, billiard-table lawn, no seedling-filled greenhouse. We do have quite a sizeable chunk of land, though – about half an acre in all. It is rectangular and almost entirely covered by rough grass that is currently sprinkled with daisies, and like a giant green picnic rug, it rolls down the gentle slope of the valley from the longer western side, along which runs the road into Montelupone. A single field planted either with wheat or with sunflowers – this year it’s wheat – wraps around the other three sides. The grassy rug is pegged in place by a single line of thirty-eight olive trees that mark the outer perimeter, while a line of tall broadleaf evergreen hedge (Italian alder, we think) forms an inner perimeter, creating a three- or four-metre-wide shady grove around which are dotted a dozen or so fruit trees. These include apple, pear, plum and persimmon as well as apricot, fig and walnut, all of which are just coming into fruit, their blossom having long since been lost in eddies of pink and white confetti on the lively spring breeze. Shall we go for a stroll…?

The house stands end-on to the road, with all but a narrow strip of land containing the carport and the tall, domed well behind it and the remainder evenly spread out around the other three sides, so let’s start from the back door which opens off the kitchen and onto the northern section of the garden. This is where the old pigsty once stood and for the time being, the upper part can most charitably be described as ‘work in progress’ as it is where all the tonnes of spoil from cantina excavations (don’t ask!) have been piled up and is now little more than a jungle of weeds, albeit very pretty ones. Over the last few months, though, we’ve become adept at ignoring the building site to our left and focusing instead on the shady terrace stretching along the back of the house to our right. This is now home to a small table and two chairs (our preferred spot for breakfast in the height of summer), an abundant herb garden (a handy five paces or fewer from the kitchen worksurface), and a rapidly expanding collection of plant pots and troughs. These are filled with carnations, busy lizzies, hydrangeas and jasmine that are all poised to burst into flower any day now, as grateful as Mr Blue-Shirt and I both are for the slightly cooler conditions that this side of the house still enjoys even when the sun is at its fiercest.  It is a far cry from the almost permanently puddle-filled strip of cracked and flaking concrete, the dilapidated and moss-covered cold frame, the jumble of ill-fitting drain covers, the assortment of wonky chairs and the stack of sun-bleached plastic crates that the space was littered with when we first moved in.

A few metres across the grass from where we are now standing at the north-east corner of the terrace are the long, low-roofed woodstore and a couple of small, increasingly saggy sheds that cluster around the hedge-line at the end of the long eastern side of the plot. They are partly hidden by an extremely vigorous bay tree with its brand-new outfit of shiny, acid green leaves, a pomegranate tree whose tiny leaves are just fading from coppery-pink to bright green and a cherry tree whose young fruit so far looks more like freshly podded peas than cherries.  Then as we continue round onto the eastern side, our gaze is instantly drawn to the view out over the olive trees up to the honey-hued village to the left and then down the lush, olive tree, wheat, rape, vine and eventually sunflower filled valley to the tantalising triangle of sapphire blue sea at the bottom. And for the last two years, we have been able to enjoy this stop-you-in-your-tracks view from this slightly elevated terrace that Mr Blue-Shirt built during the first lockdown. The broad, terracotta-tiled space extends right across the eastern end of the house, which opens onto the garden from the sitting room. Every evening for the last two summers we have lingered at the dining table or lounged on the L-shaped sofa out here, watching the lights twinkling across the valley and breathing in the perfumed evening air, or if we are lucky, listening to the rasping of the crickets and the coloratura song of a lone nightingale accompanying the ballet of fireflies taking place among the trees. Initially, we just wanted to enjoy the pristine openness of this space, rather like those minimalist chefs who like to ‘let the ingredients speak for themselves’. But it soon felt a little too sterile and ascetic, so over time we have softened its crisp, clean lines, first by adding large tubs of lavender and sprawling plumbago, then troughs filled with richly-scented wine-red roses, and most recently the practically obligatory tumble of cheery geraniums and petunias.

So, as we follow the terrace round, our stroll brings us to the south section of the plot. In English terms this would probably be called the front garden since it is here that the heavy sliding gate opens from the road onto a wide gravel driveway from which the main entrance to the house is reached. To our left on the far side the driveway stands a group of stately conifers, a small rotund laurel bush, a neat little hibiscus tree and a huge willow tree that dominates the view from my study window, and beneath whose gracefully arching limbs stands the bench Mr Blue-Shirt forged a few years ago, originally as a golden wedding present for his late parents. Meanwhile, immediately in front of us, there is a vigorous climbing rose that is already weighed down by heavy clusters of pale pink blooms and a pair of bougainvillea plants whose muscular, leaf-sprigged limbs will soon turn into a mass of brilliant crimson. All three scramble up the short section of pergolato that Mr Blue-Shirt and a visiting pal erected over the narrow strip of terrace running along the southern side of the house. Passing the café table and chairs from where we enjoy the sunshine on winter mornings, we reach the narrow, final section of terrace as it passes in front of the stairs running up the front of the house. On it stands a row of two lemon trees and a lime and the heady fragrance from their small, waxy blooms accompanies as we make our way to the heavy oak front door and finally head back inside. But only for as long as it takes to go through to the sitting room, fling open the garden doors, step out onto the terrace and settle down on the sofa in the golden, late afternoon sunshine to listen to the bees humming in the lavender and watch the hoopoes and magpies swooping among the trees. Do you think it’s too early for a glass of wine…?

The Icing on the Cake?

Mr Blue-Shirt arranged to go and have a look at the potential forging space Francesco had offered him in one of his barns on a Saturday afternoon in early April. His heart wasn’t really in it, though, as he had by then committed – mentally, at least – to setting up his forge in the space that Antonio, the chap who runs the shipping company that had transported Mr Blue-Shirt’s shipping container over from Lincolnshire, had offered him in one of the warehouses he rents. In fact, he had been on the point of finally unpacking all his forging equipment when Covid stopped both of us in our tracks back in February. The problem was, in the meantime the owner of the site had informed Antonio that it had become necessary to renegotiate his lease as they needed to do something else with the site, so with Plan A at risk, Mr Blue-Shirt knew he’d be foolish to pass up a potential Plan B. After all, to turn down this opportunity could mean having to start the whole search from scratch – and leaving his forge crammed in it steel box for yet another few months.

Mr Blue-Shirt did have to admit, however, that being just over 2km from home – and with magnificent views across to the snow-capped Sibillini Mountains – the buff-coloured metal barn with a corrugated roof was in the kind of location he had always dreamt of. And the space, complete with a couple of large workbenches, an assortment of tools and several pieces of metal-working apparatus certainly had potential as a forge; it even already had a three-phase power supply – a crucial selling point in Mr Blue-shirt’s book . That said, it was also quite a lot smaller than the space at Antonio’s, plus Francesco was likely to want a commercial rent for the space. And apart from anything, he didn’t want to put his pal Antonio’s nose out of joint. So with quite a lot of pros and cons to weigh up, Mr Blue-Shirt remained politely non-committal as we drove Francesco back up the white gravel track to the main road and dropped him back at the large coral-pink house with white shutters where his mother lived.

“Would you like to come in for a quick coffee?” asked Francesco as he unfolded his long-limbed frame from the back seat and shoo-ed away the very yappy Jack Russell that had noisily greeted us as we pulled up in front of the house. Even though we had never met Francesco’s mother, it seemed churlish to decline, so we followed him up the broad, tiled steps on which a matching pair of large marmalade cats lounged proprietorially. He led us into a wood-panelled hallway where a petite woman in her late sixties with sensibly styled salt-and-pepper hair ushered us into the small dining room that was dominated, incongruously, by a large flat-screen TV.
Mia mama,” said Francesco somewhat unnecessarily.
Piacere – pleased to meet you,” she said, her heavily lined face crinkling into a broad smile. “Sono Lilia,” she clarified and extended her hand while rolling her eyes benevolently at her son and then disappeared into the adjoining kitchen to make coffee.

Shoving his unruly mop of curly chestnut hair back from his face with his wrap-around sunglasses and lighting yet another cigarette, Francesco invited us to take a seat at the scrubbed oak dining table. Over the hiss and splutter of the coffee machine coming from the kitchen he explained that this was the family farmhouse, but that he and his girlfriend lived in an apartment in Montelupone itself, and that while it was mainly an arable farm, they also reared a certain amount of livestock.
Ecco ci qua – here we are,” said Lilia as she returned to the dining room with a tray of tiny espresso cups, each containing barely a tablespoon of deeply aromatic coffee. As she handed round the cups and the sugar and a plate of dainty, homemade almond biscuits, we answered her questions about why we’d moved to Italy, why we’d chosen Le Marche, what we thought of Montelupone and how we had found our house before she returned to the kitchen where we could hear her bustling about with dinner preparations. By the time we had responded to Francesco’s queries about how many olive trees we had, how much oil they yielded and where we got our olives pressed, we had finished our coffee and the delicious biscuits, so stood up ready to take our leave. We thanked Francesco for the tour of the workshop and for his hospitality, and as we called out “Arrivederci!” to Lilia, she suddenly reappeared holding a large Pyrex dish that she had obviously just removed from the freezer.
“Do you like lasagne?” she said, indicating the condensation-coated dish.
“Er…yes, we do.…”
“Here you are, then. It’s all homemade. Our own eggs in the pasta, our own meat and our own tomatoes in the sauce.”
“But that’s far too generous. We couldn’t possibly…,” we protested.
“Nonsense! I’ve got plenty more in the freezer. Just bring the dish back when you’re ready.”
Mr Blue-Shirt and I looked at each other hesitantly.
“Go on, take it,” urged Francesco. “She’ll be cross if you don’t!”
Suspecting he probably wasn’t entirely joking, we accepted the dish, thanked Lilia profusely and said our goodbyes.

We ate the lasagne the following weekend, and needless to say, it was divine. Multiple layers of pasta that was as delicate and smooth as silk alternating with equally thin layers of incredibly flavoursome beef ragù and topped with a generous layer of cheese-rich bechamel sauce. A couple of days later, in order to indicate that we had not just stuffed Lilia’s gift in the depths of the freezer, I drove up to the coral-pink farmhouse to return Lilia’s dish, and took a jar of lemon curd that I had recently made with our own lemons by way of a small thank you. Having assured her that the lasagne had indeed been delicious, I handed her the jar the lemon curd and as it is unknown here, I explained how it was eaten, how it was made and what was in it.
“Eggs?!” said Lilia as I ran through the ingredients. “Just a moment…”
Lilia disappeared into the tall cupboard under the stairs and emerged a few seconds later holding a large polystyrene tray stacked with getting on for twenty enormous eggs to which sprigs of straw and lumps of saw dust still clung. She waved away my protestations.
“We always end up with far more than I can use. In fact, come and get some more whenever you are passing. It’ll soon be the same with tomatoes: if you can take some off my hands, you’ll be doing me a favour.”
Sensing Lilia would not take no for an answer, I gave in gracefully, accepted the eggs, and promised to return for some more in the near future.  So now I need to think of another way to reciprocate Lilia’s neighbourly generosity while Mr Blue-Shirt weighs up all those pros and cons. But we both agreed that meeting the generous, knowledgeable and persuasive Lilia was an unanticipated addition to the ‘pro’ side of the scales.

The Continuing Echoes of History

Tomorrow is Liberation Day in Italy. And seventy-seven years after the conclusion of the country’s battle to free itself from the forces of fascism, there is an echo of history as its battle to free itself from the deadly grip Covid also seems to be coming to a close. So following two years of lockdowns, quarantines, rules and restrictions, the poignant irony of this anniversary has not been lost on the Italian people, and with life now almost as close to normality as before the pandemic and nearly all anti-Covid measures gone, Italians are in the mood to party. So for the first April since 2019, every roadside is once again bristling with posters advertising events ranging from food festivals to antiques fairs, fun-runs to flower markets, classic car meets to concerts and bike races to battle re-enactments, all aimed at celebrating both the country’s most recent liberation as well as that which occurred in spring 1945.

It was on 25th April 1945 that the pivotal cities of Milan and Turin were liberated from Nazi occupation, just six days after the partisan Comitato di Liberazione Nationale (Committee of National Liberation) proclaimed a resistance-led uprising that was quickly followed by a general strike initiated by Sandro Pertini (who later became President of the Republic). These twin initiatives were carefully timed to coincide with the Allies’ Spring Offensive, the 15th Allied Army’s multi-pronged attack into the Lombardy Plain and the culmination of their two-year-long advance up through the country from Sicily.

The partisan insurgency quickly paralysed industry in several other strategically important northern cities including Genoa, Bologna and Venice, while British and American units forced the Nazis, who for some time had been without arms or ammunition, into full retreat. Their capitulation just a week later finally brought to an end Mussolini’s twenty-three-year dictatorship as well as five years of war, which included two years of Nazi occupation and two years of civil war between the partisans and the collaborators that had resulted from Italy’s surrender to the Allies in September 1943.

25th April 1945 was also the day on which Il Duce and his generals were sentenced to death. And just three days later Mussolini himself was shot dead after a member of a group of partisans involved in checking convoys of retreating SS lorries recognised and arrested him on the Brenner Pass as he was trying to escape to Switzerland with his mistress, Claretta Petacci. Their bodies were returned to Milan, and along with the bodies of eighteen other prominent fascists who had also been executed, were hung upside down in the Piazzale Loreto – the scene a year earlier of the public execution of fifteen partisans on the order of the head of the Gestapo in Milan in reprisal for a resistance attack on a German military convoy.

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, practically every town in the country has named a street via XXV Aprile in commemoration of this critical date in the history of the Republic. The day is also known as La Festa della Resistenza in recognition of the decisive role in the liberation played by the partigiani (partisans) of which there were about 250,000 by 1945. It 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 Remembrance Day solemnity and D-Day partying, complete with parades, concerts and lots of eating, drinking and making merry.

Before the partying begins, however, civic wreath-laying ceremonies are held at the memorials ‘ai caduti’ (to the fallen) that are found in practically every town and village in the country. Chief among these ceremonies is that held at the Vittoriano in the centre of Rome. This huge, flamboyant national monument, which is also known as the Altare della Patria (Altar of the Fatherland) was built in 1885 in honour of King Vittorio Emanuele II who played a central role in the country’s unification in 1861, and also houses il Sacello del Milite Ignoto (the Shrine of the Unknown Soldier) dedicated to all Italian soldiers lost in war. It is here, surrounded by military pomp and pageantry, marching bands and flags that the President of the Republic and other senior government officials lay wreaths of laurel leaves in tribute to all those killed in the service of the nation. And as the spectre of Covid slowly retreats, for the first time in three years, the commemorations seem set to be as full as ever of spectacle and ceremony as Sergio Matarella lays his wreath. Along with a full complement of military and political dignitaries including Prime Minister Draghi, the presidents of the Chamber and the Senate and the Chief of the Defence Staff, he will then stand to attention as a lone bugler sounds ‘Il Silenzio’, leading the nation in recalling the defiance and courage of the partisans of earlier generations and the sacrifices they made that brought about the nation’s rebirth in 1945, before the Frecce Tricolori round the ceremony off with a deafening and triumphant fly-past.

In his address to the nation, the President will naturally pay tribute to ‘the fallen’, once again drawing painful parallels with the battle against Covid and emphasising that the hardships, solidarity and of the preceding two years will just as surely as in 1945 bring about a further national rebirth. But this year in celebrating the fortitude and patriotism of Italians’ resistance to and eventual liberation from Nazi occupation in the 1945, Matarella, in a gesture of solidarity with Ukraine, is also set to draw parallels between and Ukrainians’ vigorous resistance to Russia’s ongoing invasion of their nation and make an appeal for peace. The echoes of history continue to reverberate…

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