Journey to Freedom

“So when was it, then?” said Mr Blue-Shirt through a mouthful of croissant. “I thought it was when we were back in yellow after the Christmas lockdown.”
“No, that was when we had those really good homemade fish burgers down in Civitanova the first weekend things re-opened in January,” I said between sips of cappuccino. “It was ages before that.”
We were enjoying breakfast in the spring sunshine on the terrace of the bustling café down in Trodica.  We always pass it on our way to do our weekly shop, and after so many weeks with its shutters closed and its chairs and tables stacked up under tarpaulin, it was great to see it buzzing with life again. For at the start of the week we had returned to a new-look yellow zone, meaning cafés and restaurants were permitted to offer daytime outdoor table service at last.

 “Oh, yes. And it was just before the thirty-kilometre limit came in when we took the cross-country route to San Benedetto del Tronto for lunch at that terrific but unlikely looking place behind the port.”
“…. And the route was so windy I was beginning to get car sick. We ended up using the autostrada for the last bit, remember?”
“That’s right. So it must have been before Christmas, then, that we went to that little bar in Servigliano where we used to go with Pam.”
“Yes, definitely: there was a Christmas tree in the middle of the square.”
With this new-look yellow zone had also come the lifting of restrictions on movement between regions and so we were trying to work out exactly how long it had been since we had last left Le Marche.

“But restrictions had already tightened again well before that trip to Servigliano because all our teaching went back online in October and that’s when movement between regions was stopped again, wasn’t it?”
“I think so. In which case, it must have been……” Mr Blue-Shirt chased the remaining croissant crumbs around his plate with a moistened index finger as he mentally counted back through the different periods and levels of lockdown “… September!”.
“Yes, that’s it! We nipped over into Umbria shortly after our holiday and before the infection rate started to climb again…”
“… and it was still quite warm so we had lunch in Spello on the terrace of that place with the fabulous views across the plain to Assisi.”
“ God, so that’s over seven months! I hadn’t realised it had been that long!”

The café in Trodica sits just off the roundabout where we join the east-west dual carriageway that runs inland from the coast at Civitanova Marche, and as soon as we had finished our breakfast we were going to turn right instead of left at that roundabout and head off west, and – for the first time in seven months, as we had just established – cross over from Le Marche into Umbria. For we had decided that we should celebrate our new freedom to travel with another trip to Spello which, as well as being one of the closest places for us to visit outside Le Marche, is (in normal times) one of our favourite day-trip-able destinations.

This almost implausibly picturesque, small medieval hill-top town with its narrow, flower-filled lanes and shady squares lined with small shops, restaurants and galleries is barely 100 kilometres away and little over an hour door to door, but going to Spello always somehow feels much more than it is. I suspect this is largely thanks to the journey, which involves crossing from the eastern, Marchigian side of the Sibillini Mountains to the western, Umbrian side. Up until five or six years ago, the dual carriageway ran out just before it reached the mountains, making and the onward route up and over into Umbria long, tortuous and not suited to anyone in a hurry. While undeniably pretty, the road, with only one lane in each direction, wound through steep-sided valleys offering an occasional glimpse of distant snow-capped peaks, zig-zagged up and down forest-clad slopes and passed through a succession of tiny villages strung out along each side of the road. But not long after we started coming to Le Marche, long sections of extensive roadworks started to appear along the route and over time it became clear that the old road was not only going to be upgraded, but ultimately replaced with a swanky new dual carriageway that would run all the way from Perugia to the Adriatic coast. And rather than meandering along the valleys and over the hills, it would pass, swift and straight as an arrow, right through the mountains by means of a long series of impressive tunnels.

With each successive holiday-cum-house-hunting-trip we took in the area, another section of dual carriageway would be completed or another tunnel finished, but because it was not feasible for traffic to switch from old to new and back again, the new road remained just a tantalising hint of the speed and efficiency to come until every last section of tarmac had been laid, every last stretch of crash barrier erected, every last white line painted and every tunnel light switched on that it finally opened for use. All this delayed gratification only increased the sense of anticipation so that when we did finally slip seamlessly from the old dual carriageway and onto the new one, it felt as if we had joined some high-speed super-highway to another world. All of a sudden, we were effortlessly sailing past the tiny villages that we used to snake through, sometimes at little more than walking pace. Then as we gained altitude, we found ourselves plunging into and bursting back out of tunnel after tunnel, some little longer than a wide bridge, others extending for three or four kilometres. The short sections of open road in between gave little indication of exactly where we were at any given point, with only the steady upward climb followed by the steeper descent providing a reminder of the nature of the journey, until we emerged from the final tunnel and the road began to swing round in a broad arc, as if bringing us in to land at our destination down on the narrow Umbrian plain.

And when were at last able to repeat that journey last week, the sense of anticipation and other-worldliness we experienced all over again was eclipsed only by the long-overdue pleasure of simply being somewhere else.

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