A road less travelled

“Physical activity and individual exercise are permitted within the immediate vicinity of one’s place of residence.” It was probably the rule that we were keenest to check as Le Marche went back into the zona rossa (red zone) last week following a worrying surge in Covid-19 cases, since being allowed to spend at least some time out in the spring sunshine remains an absolute lifesaver now we have another ban on almost all movement other than for proven work, health or other needs. That said, the current restrictions still rule out Mr Blue-Shirt’s up-hill-down-dale cycle routes around the comune as well as my runs up into the village and back that orange zone rules permitted, never mind his lung-busting round trips to the coast and my lovely long, flat runs along the seafront in Civitanova Marche when we were in the yellow zone.

So in order to keep ourselves within the red zone rules, we have developed a walking and running route consisting of a couple of there-and-back spurs off a main path, none of which takes us much more than about 500m from home, but which together take a good hour to complete. While the bitty-ness of the route doesn’t make for particularly enjoyable cycling, its hilly-ness still sets the muscles tingling and the heart pumping whether walking or running. And possibly most importantly at the moment, its glorious springtime prettiness lifts our spirits and brightens our mood.

The other plus is that our ‘red zone route’ has – almost literally – given us a new perspective on our surroundings. The house and the sloping plot on which it sits are both orientated towards the east and the south, so it is the magnificent view of the broad green valley that sweeps down to the glittering triangle of Adriatic at the bottom that inevitably gets all the attention. Meanwhile, because the house sits just below the crest of the ridge that passes behind the house, the view to the north and west gets forgotten about as soon we come through the gate. And it is this equally magnificent landscape that our new route has enabled us to enjoy most afternoons as the shadows just begin to lengthen.

Having turned right out of the gate, we cross the too-quiet road, turn sharp left immediately before the towering oak tree that fills the view from the window of our back door and head up the gravelled track that zig-zags back past the house and then swings right, past a cluster of single-storey houses where Cecilia from the village café lives with Federico, their son Nico and Numa, their striking Abruzzo shepherd dog who often gallops out to greet us. If any of them are about, we wave and call out a cheery “Ciao!”, eager for a little human contact. After another hundred metres or so we reach the brow of the hill from where the view to the west is revealed in all its splendour. A patchwork of vivid green fields, olive groves and vineyards drops away in front of us, and then rises up again to where the honey-coloured towers and domes of Macerata stand silhouetted against the receding hills, the city’s outline so remote and enigmatic in these days of confinement that it might just as well be Xanadu.

Then as the dusty white track curves round to the left we suddenly get a full-on, straight-between-the-eyes view of the mighty Sibillini Mountains that stand out like roughly hewn white marble against the blue-pink sky, the low sun edging their jagged peaks with gold. And every time, we just stop and stare, marvelling at their majesty and their mystery. Having given ourselves a couple of moments to take in their grandeur, we continue down the hill, occasionally skidding on the loose gravel, past the part-built, salmon-pink rendered house where all the local tractors seem to congregate and on to our first there-and-back spur. After an even steeper descent, the gravel track flattens out and leads on past a picturesque, tightly-shuttered brick-built villa with a lovingly-tended garden and then dips further into the valley and all but disappears into a field of rough grass before finishing at a ruined farmhouse that is almost hidden from view by a tangle of long-neglected olive trees, its roof caved in and gaping cracks in its wonky walls. From what remains of its bramble-and-ivy-choked terrace we scan the fields around us, pointing out to one another the latest tinges of green spreading over the chequerboard of beige and brown to the left and among the distant clumps of trees along the sky line to the right before toiling back up the hill.

After the steep climb, we are grateful for the short flat stretch on the main path, but our breathing has returned to normal by the time we reach the turn-off for next spur which is marked by the half-finished building that for some months Mr Blue-Shirt had his eye on as a potential forge. The large amount of land that came with it as well as the large amount of conversion work it would have needed eventually made it a non-starter, but every time we pass it, I sense his inward sigh at what might have been. The tall bay hedge surrounding the plot permanently casts the track in deep shadow and we zip our fleeces more tightly as we squelch through the muddier terrain and down past the grand, cream-coloured villa with the ornate gates and paved garden – a holiday home, we assume. We follow the winding path down the gentle slope until it comes to an abrupt halt at a pair of modest but securely chained and padlocked electric gates across a long grassed-over driveway that leads across the slope and then disappears into an impenetrable thicket of tall conifers among which presumably stands – or perhaps stood – a house of some kind. After briefly speculating about who once lived there and why and when they left, we head back up the track and onto the main path once more.

We crunch along the track in the dappled shade of trees whose slender brown limbs are gradually disappearing behind a mass of tender young leaves and breathe in the smoky-sweet scent of the clouds of yellow blossom spilling from the hedgerows. Then, having passed the row of brightly covered beehives and the abandoned pale pink villa with the green shutters, we begin the steep descent towards the substantial house at the bottom of the hill that marks the end of our route. The column of woodsmoke rising from the chimney draws our gaze up towards the mountains whose snow-capped peaks are now flushed with pink in the fading rays of the late afternoon sun: it’s time to return home.

So we turn away from the mountains and begin the long trudge all the way back up past the pink villa and coloured hives, past the forge that wasn’t and the tractors parked outside the part-built house to the cluster of single-storey houses at the top. As we pass, Numa often gallops out again, and having reconfirmed we are friend not foe, trots back up the drive, her guard dog duties done once more.

Happily tired from our exertions and soothed by our meanderings amid the serenity and the timelessness of the landscape, we swing left and amble back down the track. With the stillness of the approaching dusk settling about us, Montelupone rises up behind the house, now illuminated in the coppery glow of the setting sun, the day’s final reminder that ‘this too shall pass’. We cross the road and slide the gate open. We are home.

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