Montelupone is one of Italy’s loveliest villages. I know we’re a little biased on the matter, but this description happens to be official. Montelupone is one of 27 villages in Le Marche, and fewer than 300 nationally, that are members of the ‘Borghi più belli d’Italia’. This is the association that was founded in 2001 to promote the history, culture and individuality of small Italian towns, and whose names means ‘Italy’s Loveliest Villages’.
To qualify for membership, historical buildings must not only predominate but also form a harmonious whole; and if a village also has a fortified castle or ramparts, then so much the better. Looks aren’t everything, though. Members must also have a strong cultural heritage and be living, breathing communities with an active village life that is celebrated with local events.
It is therefore not difficult to see why Montelupone qualified for membership. Contained within over a kilometre of defensive walls that ring the entire historical centre, access to which is gained through four imposing town gates, are four medieval churches, a small park and a war memorial around which winds a maze of cobbled streets lined with traditional, green-shuttered townhouses built in honey-coloured brick. These narrow walkways radiate out from the generous central square that is overlooked by the 14th century Palazzetto dei Priori with its distinctive castellated clock tower, and the elegant Palazzo Comunale (town hall) that also houses the exquisite little Teatro Nicola degli Angeli.
As for being a living, breathing community that celebrates it heritage, Montelupone’s annual fixtures include an artichoke festival, a pizza festival, an apiculture festival, a medieval weekend and a Christmas market, as well as a summer programme of smaller, family-orientated music, dance and sports events. And almost all of these events are organised and run by community volunteers from the not-for-profit association found in most small communities, the ‘Pro Loco’, whose purpose is the promotion of the town, its sights, history and identity. The village also offers its 3000 inhabitants a surprisingly comprehensive range of commercial and public services. These include a primary school, a doctor’s surgery and a pharmacy; a butcher, a baker, a greengrocer and a supermarket; a laundry, a newsagent, two hairdressers, two restaurants, a bar, a bank and a post office. And the last plays an unusually significant role in terms of bringing the community together – as everyone in the village seems completely united in finding the place utterly infuriating.
Located on the ground floor of a recently restored palazzo just off the main square, the modest space boasts three counters – although the middle one is completely redundant as in the five years we have been here I have never once seen it in use – largely because there are only two clerks. One is chubby and rosy with prematurely thinning dark hair while the other is skinny and sallow with curly hair and a threadbare beard. And both are expert in working glacially slowly, avoiding all eye-contact (or even smiling), and completely ignoring the growing gaggle of customers waiting to be served – with one or other of them often even carrying out non-customer-facing tasks while young parents are left trying to entertain fractious toddlers and stoical pensioners keep having to shift their weight from one stiff leg to the other.
Out of habit, we customers still dutifully tug a numbered ticket from the rickety dispenser in the foyer on arrival and still glance up at the LED display screen inside to see how far down the queue we are – only the staff haven’t bothered to turn the screen on for months (or, for that matter, replace the battery in the clock, which has stood at 21:43 for as long as I can remember). But as we then compare numbers to establish who’s ahead of who, at least we all have the chance to share in a collective moan, or maybe even ask someone to keep your place so you can pop to the café on the other side of the square for a quick cappuccino – and then offer to return the favour so someone else can go and grab an espresso. Or, now that winter is here, simply to announce that you can’t face waiting in the cold any longer. For even though all rules on capacity and social distancing have long since lapsed, our two ‘jobsworth’ postal clerks still won’t let people queue inside, so everyone is obliged to wait outside in what is probably one of the coldest streets in the village as it both faces the keen wind that blows in direct from the mountains and is in almost permanent shade.
This is exactly how things played out when I ‘nipped’ to the post office the other day, resulting in a 25-minute wait in damp, swirling fog to send a single letter to the UK: the half-dozen customers hunched against the cold, the shared grumbles, the comings and goings to the café, and the exasperated departure of a middle-aged man whose wife, judging by his responses, had obviously called to find out where the hell he’d got to as lunch was nearly ready. And rounded off, eventually, with a near-monosyllabic exchange with the chubby clerk with the thinning hair – his bearded co-worker was nowhere to be seen – whose disdain for the customers still waiting outside was all too apparent in the well-practised slowness with which he went through the (admittedly laborious) process of weighing and franking a single letter, taking my payment and giving me my change – all without once actually looking at me. I was met with rueful smiles and thankful glances as I left the fusty warmth of the interior, since my leaving meant that they were all a little bit closer to their turn. A couple of people even gave me a cheery “Ciao! Buona giornata! – Bye! Have a nice day!” as I disappeared into the fog.
Like I said, the post office has a way of bringing the community together – and consequently still helping make Montelupone One of Italy’s Loveliest Villages.