The Music of the Mediterranean

“A downside of life in rural Italy in summer: mosquitos the size of B52 bombers with the thirst of Dracula. I shall spare the world the sight of my bite-spattered limbs and offer instead an image of the arsenal of defensive, offensive and curative weapons I have gathered in my personal war against the little bastards.” So went a social media post of mine from around July 2017, along with a photograph of an array of anti-mosquito sprays, coils, candles and plug-ins, as well as various bite creams, bite zappers and fly swats.

This was a few weeks after we had completed the purchase of our house and in the middle of that first summer, during which we kept shuttling back and forth between Lincolnshire and Montelupone with van-loads of our worldly goods, only staying in the house for a week or so at a time at best. So with the place remaining empty for fairly lengthy periods, the local bug population – which includes many more species than just mosquitos, by the way – had ample opportunity to make itself at home completely unchecked. It was very much the same story with the large area of rough grass surrounding the house that we seldom found the time to try and tame as we were so focused on getting the house ready for me to move into come September while Mr Blue-Shirt returned to the UK to conclude the sale of the forge. Just swishing through the knee-high grass as far as the compost bin caused clouds of bugs to swirl up into the sun-baked air in preparation for an attack, but of course for as long as we didn’t mow their homes down on a regular basis, they just continued to proliferate. And back then, we had no terraces either, so all that rough grass came right up to the house, which meant that we had swarms of bugs for company every time we set foot outside, but above all, every citronella-scented evening over dinner since the only area of the garden flat enough to put our outdoor dining table and chairs was immediately in front of the patio doors from the sitting room.

Happily, those days are long gone. Our near-permanent presence has driven almost all bugs and creepy-crawlies from the house, the grass is well under control, and the terrace that now wraps all the way round the house helps keep whatever bitey-bastards remain at a relatively safe distance. Over time there has been a corresponding process of disarmament, with my arsenal now reduced to the odd, seldom-used coil, one anti-mozzy spray and a single tube of bite cream. And so these days, languid afternoons and leisurely evenings on the terrace are much more peaceful affairs, no longer punctuated by frantic bouts of flapping, slapping, swatting, cursing and scratching.

One bug that never seemed to bear us any ill-will, though and whose presence we continue to enjoy is the humble cricket. I fell in love with this harmless insect’s nocturnal chirruping when Mr Blue-Shirt and I spent our first holiday together in the south of France. Ever since, their sibilant song has for me been the quintessential sound of the Mediterranean: of sun-soaked days and balmy evenings, of bougainvillea and umbrella pines, of glossy black olives and aniseed liqueurs. It is a song whose vaguely hypnotic tune I feel I have somehow always known and which I like to think confirms that in this northern body has always dwelt a southern soul.

This summer, however, the softly-spoken crickets have faced unusually stiff competition from those most vocal of insects, the cicadas. Normally the two of them work in tandem: the crickets, who produce their song by scraping their textured fore-wings together, cover the night shift and fall silent as night fades, and then the diurnal cicadas take over the day shift with their incessant rhythmic sawing. The thing is, while they don’t typically start up their mini chainsaws until the temperature climbs above 30°C or so, they then tend to keep them running until the temperature drops back down below 30°C again. So, as we have had an unusually long and hot summer with temperatures reaching that critical threshold by breakfast time and then not falling back below it until late into the evening, those strident little chainsaws have been running non-stop for up to fifteen hours at a time almost every day since mid-June. And the racket they produce – by means of a pair of tiny vibrating membranes built in to their abdomen whose hollow structure amplifies the sound – really is unfeasibly loud at times: up to 120 decibels, apparently, which at close range is as loud as a passing aircraft or, indeed, a real chainsaw. All of which can become rather wearing, like the crackle of an untuned radio turned up to full volume, especially as we seem to have a sizeable flock of them living in the enormous oak tree about 20m from our back door. As a result, the poor unassuming crickets have barely been able to make themselves heard until finally the SODDING CICADAS SHUT THE $%&* UP!

As the earth’s tilt away from the sun increases by the day, however, even day-time temperatures now seldom exceed 30°C – and then, not by much and not for long – while the sultry night-time heat has at last been replaced with delicious, restorative cool. Which also means, of course, that the cicadas have – apart from a brief but vigorous sawing session around the middle of the day – largely fallen silent. So, as the heather and honey of dusk darken to inky blue, the soothing susurration of the crickets can once again be heard floating on the soft, evening breeze. And unlike that first summer, we can now even enjoy the music of the Mediterranean without getting bitten.

Image of cricket courtesy of

Not Quite “As The Romans Do”

On 15th August we and our latest visitors woke to grey skies and a mass of thickening cloud rolling in from the mountains. This left us with something of a dilemma, though, as it was Ferragosto, the national public holiday that marks the height of summer and that is typically celebrated with a protracted lunch all’aperto (in the open) with family and friends, preferably somewhere that offers some respite from the mid-summer heat. And we had been planning to observe this custom by heading up into the relative cool of the Sibillini Mountains for a picnic on the shores of the cobalt-blue Lago di Fiastra where Mr Blue-Shirt and I had marked the holiday with a refreshing dip as well as a picnic a year earlier.

We had risen later than usual that morning too, as we had been to see a dazzlingly bonkers performance of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the Sferisterio in Macerata the night before and hadn’t gone to bed until well after 1am. So over a leisurely late breakfast– and as we scanned an increasingly gloomy sky – I told Nick and Elaine about the origins of this festival, which, like many traditions in Italy, are Roman. The name is a corruption of ‘feriae augusti’, which translates as ‘the holidays of Augustus’, the pre-Christian Emperor who designated August as a period of rest following the strenuous labour of bringing in the harvest over the preceding weeks. During this period, working animals were also relieved of their loads and horse races were held as part of the celebrations.  Indeed, this is the origin of the palio, the bare-back horse race that many towns still hold in their central squares, the most famous of which takes place in the Tuscan town of Siena on 16th August in much the same form as in Roman times.

In between bites of toast and distant rumbles of thunder, I ran through what I could remember of the holiday’s origins, with Nick checking details for me on his phone as I went. Well before the emperor’s intervention, August was already punctuated with festivals such as the three-day Nemoralia dedicated to Diana the Huntress, the Consualia to honour Consus, the god of the harvest, and the Vinalia Rustica to celebrate the forthcoming grape harvest. So by unifying all these pre-existing jollities into one continuous holiday period, Augustus’s apparent largesse was tempered by obvious efficiency considerations. Not that the masses would have objected, especially since, providing they wished their masters ‘buon ferragosto’, they would also receive a small gift of money or food from them with which to enjoy the holidays. This tradition became so entrenched that during the Renaissance, the Papal States (of which Le Marche then formed part) made it obligatory.

Having placed another batch of toast and a second pot of coffee on the table on the terrace I explained that along with many other festivals of Roman origin, the Catholic Church soon muscled in on things and sought to Christianise these pagan festivities as early as the 5th century AD when it established The Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary bang in the middle of the feriae augusti.  Since then, 15th August has marked the day on which the Virgin is claimed to have ascended to Heaven at the end of her life on earth and so is officially the reason why it is a public holiday in Italy.

While we were still trying to decide whether or not to spend that public holiday as custom dictated, I added that during the first part of the twentieth century, Mussolini gave the festival a more secular and political flavour. Another quick google enabled Nick to fill in the sketchily-remembered details for me: Il Duce’s fascist regime began organising discounted trips for workers through its Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro (National Recreational Club), which was conceived as a means of competing with the Socialists in terms of providing for workers’ welfare. The scheme, known as ‘the People’s Trains of Ferragosto’, ran from 1931 to 1939 and gave the working classes the opportunity to take short trips to the seaside, the mountains or cultural sites. This, I then recalled, is why present-day tourists are still able to visit museums, monuments and galleries on 15th August even though many other amenities are closed. And as this initiative was aimed chiefly at city dwellers and workers, it turned Ferragosto from an almost exclusively rural affair into a festival for all the labouring classes and as such was effectively a fore-runner of modern mass tourism. Since the People’s Train trips did not include meals, however, travellers had to bring their own food with them, so the picnic quickly came to be one of the defining features of the fascist era Ferragosto, and the tradition has stuck.

It was already late morning by the time we had finished our extended breakfast and our fact-checking, and by this time the weather over the Sibillini Mountains was looking even more threatening. So with a lakeside picnic now definitely looking ill-advised, we broke with tradition and opted to go for an ice cream in the village instead and then, despite the thunder eventually delivering much less than it had promised, to spend the rest of the afternoon with our respective books, sketch pads and podcasts before making our own pizzas for dinner. It might not have been the traditional way to mark Ferragosto, but I don’t think Emperor Augustus would have minded too much.

A Night At The Opera – Act II

It somehow felt rather like time travel. There we were, my nephew, his partner, Mr Blue-Shirt and I, sitting beneath a warm inky sky in a 3000-seater arena inspired by the Romans, built a couple of decades before the Risorgimento originally as a venue for a game created in the Renaissance, ready to watch an opera set during the Napoleonic Wars that was written at the very start of the 20th century: Tosca.

One of the best-known and best-loved works of the mainstream operatic repertoire – and a personal favourite of all four of us – Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca is a tragic story of love and betrayal, power and politics. In a nutshell, the action unfolds in Rome in June 1800 with the city under French occupation. Floria Tosca, a singer, is the lover of Mario Cavaradossi,a painter. Baron Scarpia, the corrupt Chief of Police who has long lusted after Tosca and who is willing to go to any lengths to have her, suspects Cavaradossi of assisting an escaped political prisoner, Cesare Angelotti. Cavaradossi is soon arrested and tortured for helping Angelotti to flee, so Scarpia tells Tosca that she can end her lover’s suffering if she reveals Angelotti’s whereabouts. Unable to bear her lover’s screams of agony any longer, she eventually succumbs, to Cavaradossi’s later dismay. But Scarpia is still not satisfied as it is Tosca herself that he really wants. So he offers her a deal: if she gives herself to him, Cavaradossi can go free. She is revolted by the prospect but when she hears preparations being made for her lover’s execution, in despair she agrees to submit to him and Scarpia duly instructs his men to carry out a mock execution. As Scarpia forces himself on Tosca, however, she kills him. But her triumph soon turns to horror as Cavaradossi is later executed before her eyes and she realises that Scarpia had double-crossed her. She has no time to mourn her lover’s death, though, as Scarpia’s henchmen are on their way to arrest her for his murder and so she flees. They chase her up onto a parapet and with no means of escape now left to her, she flings herself to her death.

Surrounded by all the Neo-classical architectural splendour of Lo Sferisterio, we were all fully expecting the traditional bicorn hats and muskets, tight bodices and sweeping cloaks. But what the director of this production had in store for us was in fact another leg on our journey through time, for she (yes, she: Valentina Carrasco) had chosen a Hollywood film studio during the 1950s McCarthy era as the setting for her interpretation of the work. In Ms Carrasco’s telling of the story, Scarpia is now a McCarthyite film producer seeking to root out Hollywood ‘Commies’, which Scarpia suspects Angelotti of being, while Cavaradossi is depicted as a communist sympathiser and Tosca as an up-and-coming film actress. A film being made about the occupation of Rome by Napoleon’s forces provides the backdrop for the action between the three main protagonists, and this ‘film within an opera’ device is developed further by various characters using hand-held movie cameras to film key scenes and arias such as Cavaradossi’s torture and Tosca revealing Angelotti’s hiding place, with the images, mostly in close-up, projected in black and white onto the vast wall at the back of the stage.

Scarpia’s predatory advances to Tosca and her resistance to them are handled in the same way, and with the almost painfully tight close-ups of the powerful film producer preying on the vulnerable an desperate young actress, Ms Carrasco brings us another step forward in time by drawing clear parallels to the crimes of Harvey Weinstein and the origins of the ‘Me Too’ movement.  And the action takes another step closer to the present day at the deadly climax of the opera which even appears to take on echoes of the recent Alex Baldwin incident – although because this is so recent, it is possible that this may be ‘happy’ coincidence rather than yet more clever adaptation work.

I am pretty open to modern interpretations of classic dramatic works at the best of times as I am drawn to their ability to underscore the universality and timelessness of the themes their plots explore. But none I have seen has come anywhere close to the inventiveness and relevance of this particular re-telling. Locating the ‘film within an opera’ scenes at the sides of the mighty, 40-metre-wide stage while keeping the main action tightly in focus in the centre and then using the imposing back wall as an almost full-size cinema screen turned the practical difficulties of the physical setting into an artistic virtue; and then the McCarthy era setting along with all its more current film industry references transformed what some consider a slightly clichéd, late Victorian melodrama into a genuinely gripping, heart-wrenching and modern thriller, to which Ms Carrasco even managed to add a feminist edge. Who said that opera has to be all about mythical kingdoms, consumptive heroines, and swashbuckling heroes?

As the audience spilled back out onto the pavement at well past midnight, we caught snatches of their conversations on the mild night air, all of them along the same lines.
“Tosca’s voice was stunning…”
“Wasn’t the Scarpia-Weinstein reference clever…”
“The end of Act I gave me good-bumps…”
“Projecting Cavaradossi’s torture onto the back wall really added to the drama…”
“I was so impressed with that orchestra…”
“The whole McCarthy thing worked so well…”
“That baritone made Scarpia such a bastard…”
And there was not a single comment that any of us could disagree with. On the way back home and then over a late supper of cheese and biscuits we shared our favourite moments, googled McCarthy and Un-American Activities hearings, shared our opinions of the quality of the singing and wondered how on earth Valentina Carrasco had come up with such an inspired idea in the first place. And the four of us concluded that it had been by far the most adventurous and captivating production of this classic work that any of us had ever seen – and all in a two-hundred-year-old converted sports stadium in the provincial depths of Le Marche.

A night at the opera

We initially came across the place way back in 2009 on our first fact-finding tour of Le Marche when we spent a couple of nights in the large hilltop town of Macerata. Our room in the tiny hotel looked straight out onto a section of enormously tall, blank brick wall which a quick look at the city street map told us was the rear of Lo Sferisterio. A similarly quick look in our well-thumbed Lonely Planet guide told us this large outdoor arena hosted a major opera festival every summer, but as it turned out we had missed the month-long event for that year, we just mentally logged it as an interesting thing to have in the vicinity should we happen to end up in that neck of the woods.

The place remained on our radar, though, especially as the regular holidays we started to take in the area often included a good mooch among the honey-toned palazzi in Macerata’s historical centre and maybe a meal in one of its bustling piazze. However, since these trips were typically timed to coincide with a blacksmithing event in Tuscany that is always held in September, we were still always too late for the opera festival. But over time – and certainly once we had decided this was the part of Le Marche we wanted to move to – we did at least find out a little more about this unique venue.

Lo Sferisterio resembles an ancient Roman arena – albeit an elongated one that has been sliced in half lengthways by an 18m-high wall – but it was actually built in the 1820s. Its name is derived from the Latin word sphaeristerium which in Roman times was the term for a large open space dedicated to ball games and often formed part of a complex including baths. And as such, rather than hosting gladiatorial contests, chariot races or executions, its primary purpose was as a venue for the then very popular sport of pallone col bracciale (‘ball with bracelet’). This game, which could be described as some kind of a cross between tennis, squash and handball is thought to have originated in about the 16th century. Although there are several variations, it normally involves teams of three players hitting a solid, leather ball back and forth, not with rackets or bats, but with a spiked wooden cuff (or bracelet) that extends from the fist to the middle of the forearm. It was effectively Italy’s national sport until the early 20th century when football started to take over, eventually leaving just a handful of places where it is still played – including, incidentally, the pretty town of Treia, which is under 20km from Macerata. Despite the sport’s continued popularity locally, however, Macerata’s Sferisterio gradually fell into decline as a pallone col bracciale venue, but at the start of the 1920s, its surprisingly good acoustics were discovered, quite by chance, apparently. As a result, the arena was quickly converted into an outdoor music venue and its first production, Verdi’s Aida, was staged there in 1921, although the internationally renowned Sferisterio Opera Festival of today wasn’t formally established until 1967.

This unique venue still never got any further than our radar, though, even after we ended up living within sight of Macerata’s domes and towers that stand silhouetted against the skyline barely 12km to the west of us. The 2018 season, during our first full summer here, coincided with a final overland trip to the UK to tie up the remaining loose ends of our transfer to Italy, while the demolition of the pigsty and the building of the first section of the wrap-around terrace meant that the 2019 season passed us by too. The 2020 season was cancelled all together because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and although the 2021 season ran with limited capacity, we still didn’t feel comfortable going to large public events at that stage. But when my nephew, a professional conductor, and his partner, a proficient organist as well as a doctor, said they wanted to come and stay with us at the end of July – ie slap-bang in the middle of this year’s festival – we had the best reason possible to get our act together and finally book tickets. Better still, of this year’s trio of operas, it was Puccini’s Tosca, a personal favourite of all of us, that was the one that coincided with their visit.

And the experience was every bit as magical as we had hoped as we found ourselves sitting beneath the star-sprinkled sky in this 3,000-seater arena with its spectacularly lit Doric-style columns running around the long, curved side that houses two tiers of boxes and below them, the huge, fan-shaped main auditorium. What really makes it a venue completely unlike any other though, is the mighty forty-metre-wide stage that spreads out in front of the vast and imposing wall that forms the arena’s straight side and thus provides an arresting backdrop to every performance. All of which, effectively of necessity, results in productions unlike any other too. And this particular telling of Tosca, with its timeless themes of love, betrayal, politics and power, was certainly nothing like any that the four of us had ever seen before – but also much more current, gripping and heart-wrenching than any that the four of us had ever seen before…

Like all good stories, to be continued…

More haiku snapshots

They may have been our fourth set of visitors so far this year, but their stay felt no less momentous as a result. For this visit was the first time my nephew, the youngest of my late sister’s three grown-up children, and his partner had come to stay with us, either in the UK or here in Italy. Consequently, with so much catching up to do, so many sights to see, so many places to go and so many things to say, there was little time for putting pen to paper. So after a couple of days’ pause for reflection, here are some snapshots of a very special few days expressed in haiku.

That same sweet fizz of
Excitement, rising as if
Bubbles in champagne

An embrace so tight
I feel our hearts beat in time
Pumping our shared blood

Languid splashing in
Limpid lake and sapphire sea
Bathed in golden sun

Shared love of music
A night at the opera
Goose-bumps and tingles

Sprawled beneath bright stars
Wine-loosened conversation
Late into the night

Sharing memories
That connect aunt and nephew
Now and for all time

Weaving more tightly
The tapestry of kinship
That time cannot fray

Then and Now

I realised when I saw the first posters for the event that we had actually only been once, back in 2018 – our first summer here. In 2019 we were still too fearful to leave the house empty following our second break-in only a couple of months earlier. In 2020 we were between lockdowns, but all public gatherings, even outdoor ones, were still prohibited. And in 2021, although outdoor events were allowed by mid-summer, Covid restrictions had been lifted too late to leave enough time to organise everything. So last weekend was the first time since that first summer that we had been to one of Montelupone’s biggest events, the four-day long annual Festa della Pizza.

Four years on, however, our experience of it felt very different, right from when sat down for an aperitivo on the terrace of the café in the main square. Back in 2018, we knew hardly anyone in the village and were still very new to village life. These days, though we are greeted by the café staff as regulars not tourists, and as we waited for our drinks to be served, we pinged messages back and forth with the two sets of friends we had arranged to meet, agreeing that Francesco and Donatella should go and get in the queue while we stayed at the café to wait for Lori and Antonio. Although they only live in the next village but one, they had never been to this event before, so this time they were the ‘newbies’ while we were the ‘old hands’, ready to show them the ropes.

So busy was the village, they eventually arrived a good half hour late having struggled to find a parking space, so we all set straight off to the little park where the festa was being held. This well-hidden space nestles between the square where the war memorial is located and the ancient walls that encircle the village centre. And as we walked through the gateway, we were delighted to find that the event we had such fond memories of seemed pretty much exactly as we had remembered. Just as before, the space was thronged with people, euro-pop was blaring from speakers, strings of lights were dancing in the breeze, and the warm evening air was rich with the aroma of freshly baked pizza. We ushered Antonio and Lori past the dance floor and the stage for the band that was due on later, both of which were in the same place as before beneath the magnificent cedar tree that dominates the park, and directed them towards the pair of cash desks on our right.
“We need to order and pay for our pizzas and drinks here and they’ll give us separate receipts for our pizzas and our drinks which we take over there.” I pointed towards the long narrow marquee where the pizzas were being made and that, together with the bar, ran the entire length of the far side of the park. Having placed our order, Mr Blue-Shirt took our drinks receipt and joined the queue for the bar and Antonio went off in search of Francesco and Donatella while Lori and I headed for the pizza marquee.
“Do we have to queue up again, then?” asked Lori.
“Not as such,” I said, indicating the gaggle of people crowding around a long bench across the entrance to the pizza marquee at which stood a tiny woman wearing a fluorescent yellow ‘crew’ T-shirt and holding a microphone. “But we do have to wait for them to call out our order number – look.” I showed her the number printed on the corner of our receipt.
zeta cento quattro!” called the woman over the crackly PA system, plucking a ticket from where it was tucked into the stack of pizza boxes that had just been deposited on the bench.
Si, io!” yelled someone in the crowd and waved their receipt at the caller who then checked the number before handing over the order.
“What number are we?” asked Mr Blue-Shirt, suddenly appearing at my elbow with a tray of drinks.
“Z123,” I said with a grimace.
“If they’re only up to Z104, we might as well go and find the others. Francesco has just messaged me to say they’ve got their pizzas and have bagged a table in there.” He gestured towards the open-sided marquee from which spilled rows of trestle tables and benches already crammed with diners munching pizza.
“You go,” said Lori, taking our drinks from the tray. “We’ll wait here. Our order shouldn’t take too long, should it?”
A quaranta nove!” blasted over the tannoy as Mr Blue-Shirt disappeared into the marquee.
“A49 is from the other cash desk,” I explained in response to Lori’s puzzled expression as she passed me my drink. “So there are effectively two queues. We could be here quite a while.”
“Oh, well, it’s probably cooler out here anyway,” said Lori with a shrug.

So in between sipping our drinks and chatting, we watched the pizza-making operation going on in the marquee. This was teeming with volunteers in their acid yellow ‘crew’ T-shirts and white aprons, and was furnished with a row of tables that formed the pizza production line. At one stood a team forming dough into plump balls, at the next stood the dough-rolling team, and at a third volunteers were ladling rich tomato sauce onto the wafer-thin bases. Then came the topping-adding team, and finally the mozzarella-scattering crew. Here, the finished pizzas were lined up ready for the pizza chefs to slide them onto long-handled paddles and feed them into the roaring maw of the one of the four huge wood-burning pizza ovens that dominated the marquee. After just three or four minutes, the bubbling, sizzling discs were slid back out of the fiery caverns and passed to the pizza-boxing crew who brought each completed order to the front of the marquee. And eventually it was our order that arrived on the bench.
Zeta cento venti tre!
Si, io!” I cried, waving our receipt in the approved manner.

We jostled our way out through the crowd with our pizza boxes and went to find the others. As we threaded our way among the tables I exchanged greetings with Luca, one of our local Carabinieri who was there with his family, then with Silvia who runs the village laundry and dry cleaners, and all but bumped into Alessandro, the builder who helped out with the demolition of the pigsty and who may well end up re-building out our cantina, before arriving at the table at the back of the marquee where the others were waiting for us. Francesco and Donatella had already finished their pizzas, so we just had time to say hello, have a chat with Lillia, Francesco’s mum (whose hens provide us with most of our eggs these days), and to be introduced to his sister and coo over his brand-new baby niece before they all went back to the square for an ice-cream and we took over their seats.

Since the live band had started their set by now, conversation was difficult, so while we ate, I looked around the marquee. Unlike four years earlier, I saw lots of faces I recognised from around the village as well as a couple of our neighbours with whom we are on regular nodding and waving terms, along with the chap who used to live in Cambridge and who always collars Mr Blue-Shirt whenever he seems him to ask what he thinks of Boris Johnson’s latest antics. And from over by the entrance, I even got a cheery wave from Massimiliano, the Carabinieri station commander who was so kind to us after the burglaries and who had clearly drawn the short straw that evening as he was there in uniform.

Antonio dabbed the last traces of tomato sauce from his lips. “That was excellent,” he bellowed over the music, tossing his napkin into the empty pizza box. “In fact, I’m already thinking about hiring a couple of those ovens for a pizza event at the motor cycle club. What do you reckon?”  Lori and I rolled our eyes at each other as held forth on this latest big idea for the club into which he has drawn us both over the last year or so. And while we finished eating, I reflected just how far we had come since the last time we had eaten pizza in that marquee. Back then we felt like outsiders and mere observers of village life; now we felt like real participants and utterly at home.

By name and nature?

It was right back close to the start of the pandemic that the town council in Montelupone set up a comune WhatsApp group. Originally it was used solely for passing on Covid-19 information, help and advice to residents of the village while everyone was in lockdown. Gradually, though, the group came to be used for an ever-wider variety of purposes including thunderstorm warnings, pension distribution dates and changes to the school bus timetable. It has also been used to disseminate information on the annual ‘flu jab programme, school closures due to snow, power outages thanks to maintenance work to mains cables, road closures resulting from re-surfacing works, as well as local Covid testing and vaccination programmes, and even for Christmas messages from the mayor. 

Regardless of whether the announcements are of relevance to us personally – and in all honesty, many are not – we enjoy the succession of snapshots they provide of the vibrant community we are part of. Just in the last couple of months we have received details of the list of road closures to allow the Giro d’Italia to pass through Montelupone, the days on which anti-mozzie spraying would be carried out, and information on the council-funded programme of children’s activities being run over the school holidays. And more recently, we’ve received the new local ordinance on water usage in light of the extremely hot and dry period we’ve endured since mid-June that has pushed temperatures well above what would normally be expected in August, but without any of the accompanying thunderstorms that normally provide a welcome temperature reset. So it seemed somewhat ironic that, just the day after being informed of rules that until the end of September ban the topping up of swimming pools and washing cars at home, and ban watering the garden except on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays (and then only between 10pm and 7am), we received a warning for heavy storms and strong winds for the following 24 hours. In our experience, the Protezione Civile do seem to err very much on the side of caution, but they did get it bang on this time round. The next evening we were indeed battered by one of the most vicious thunderstorms we have seen since we’ve been here.  Luckily, we had hedged our bets a little on this occasion and had at least closed the parasols and brought all the seat cushions in before the storm was due, but we still ended up with plant pots toppled like skittles and garden furniture tossed across the lawn like children’s toys. But we did get the temperature reset we had been longing for, with a drop of about twelve degrees in little more than two hours.

While the only unusual thing about this latest storm warning was its accuracy, the message we received first thing last Monday morning was rather less quotidian. For it warned us, not of storms or road closures or bus cancellations, but of the presence of wolves in immediate locality! The lengthy warning included advice on deterring wolves, such as disposing of organic waste carefully, not leaving food out for animals at night, and – a tad superfluously, I thought – not trying to feed any that happen to come onto your property.  And should we actually see any wolves, the official advice is, for the record, to move away quietly but remain vigilant if they are between 50 and 100 metres away, but if they are under 50 metres away, to scare them off by yelling, waving your arms and throwing sticks or stones towards them (not at them) and to retreat slowly while keeping the animals in front of you. Rather incongruously, the message also included a breathless-sounding request to send photographs or videos of any sightings to the council offices as soon as possible, but then recovered its more serious tone with a reminder in red capitals that the wolf is a protected species and that killing one is a criminal offence.

The Italian (or Apennine) Wolf is native to the Italian Peninsula and numbers remained high until well into the 19th century thanks to a cultural respect for the species dating back to Roman times that made killing wolves unacceptable. After all, according to Roman mythology, a she-wolf suckled Romulus and Remus, the twins who are said to have founded Rome, and wolves were also strongly associated with Mars, the Roman god of war, guardian of agriculture and of the Roman people. Consequently, wolves were never killed for food or used as sacrifices in religious rituals, while the use of wolf parts – such as teeth, fur or fat – was commonplace in Italian folk medicine.

From about the 1850s onwards, however, their numbers declined steeply, principally as a result of hunting, either for sport or to protect commercial livestock. Poisoning campaigns after World War II accelerated their decline further, and by the start of the 1970s, when the World Wildlife Fund for Italy carried out a census, numbers were found to have reached an all-time low of barely 100 animals. And these were confined to a remote mountainous strip of territory extending south from the Sibillini Mountains to the far end of the Apennine chain in Calabria.

At this point, the country regained some of its historical regard for wolves and hunting them was outlawed in 1971. Since then, other forms of protection, at national and at EU level, have been added, including a compensation scheme for farmers who lose livestock to wolves. As a result of such measures, the population has increased continuously ever since and now stands at well over 2000 animals. Thanks to the natural dispersal process whereby the young leave the pack in search of new companions and territories, that population is now also distributed over the entire length of the country – albeit still largely confined to mountainous areas – and has even reached parts of south-east France and Switzerland.

And Montelupone, it would appear. To be honest, we find this quite surprising. Although we are very much in a rural area, it is criss-crossed by a number of busy roads that are distinctly wolf-unfriendly, and prey would seem limited as most farming is arable and, apart from sheep, any livestock is kept indoors. Added to which, we are a good 60 to 70km from the wolf’s mountain habitat. That said, I imagine the extreme weather may have driven them down from the mountains in search of food and water, or perhaps it’s simply the result of population growth. Or maybe it’s just the comune erring on the side of caution again. But then again, I did see some alarmingly big paw prints on the road when I was out running the other day. And it is also perhaps worth bearing in mind that ‘Montelupone’ actually translates as ‘Big Wolf Mountain’, so…

I Carabinieri

They are the butt of jokes among both Italians and foreigners alike, regularly characterised as low on intelligence, high on self-importance and generally more of hindrance than help. After all, who in Italy hasn’t been extravagantly flagged down by a Carabiniere in steeply peaked cap, black flannel trousers trimmed with a broad red stripe and white Sam Browne belt, striding out into the road and waving what looks like a large plastic lollipop, as puffed up and purposeful as if they are on the hunt for a dangerous criminal or about to save you from imminent catastrophe, only to find it is just a routine driving licence check. And who hasn’t got caught up in a cacophonous gridlock in some town centre only to find that it isn’t an accident or roadworks causing the hold-up, just a couple of Carabinieri on traffic duty? And who hasn’t got their own favourite apocryphal story demonstrating their limited deduction skills? Mine is the one told to me by a young Italian student years ago: she and two friends were stopped at the roadside and asked to present ‘i documenti’. On noticing that the two males in the car had the same first name, the razor-sharp Carabiniere, with the comically misplaced conviction of Inspector Clouseau, observed “So, you’re brothers, then…”, only to follow this up, in response to their sniggered denials, with “Well, cousins, then…”

It’s unfortunate that they are characterised in this way, though, as the Carabinieri have a long and proud history. The Ancient Corps of the Royal Carabinieri was founded in Turin in 1814 by King Victor Emmanuel 1 of Savoy as the police force of Kingdom of Sardinia. This was the forerunner of the unified Kingdom of Italy that was created in 1861 when the Carabinieri were promoted to ‘First Force’ in the new national military organisation. Just to provide some historical perspective, the oldest police force in the UK, London’s Metropolitan Police Force, was founded in 1829, while the UK’s first national police force was in fact the Irish Constabulary founded in 1837. Meanwhile the first police force in the US was established in Boston in 1838.  The Carabinieri are technically a military force with law enforcement, crime detection and civil protection duties in relation to the civilian and military populations, and in 2000 they officially became a separate branch of Italy’s armed services. As such, they have participated in peace-keeping missions in Kosovo. Afghanistan and Iraq where they have also been involved in the training and reconstruction of local police forces, while on the home front they were very much at the sharp end of efforts to overcome the Red Brigades as well as the crackdown against the Mafia in the ‘70s and ‘80s, suffering many fatalities in the process.

They are also very proud of the fact that they have a presence in every part of the country, which is seen as fundamental to the institution’s purpose. There are some 4600 local stations scattered around the country, meaning that all but the smallest communities are likely to have their own local police presence, as we in Montelupone do. And I have to say, our personal experience of the local Carabinieri has been surprisingly positive. While unable to track down the thieves who carried out the burglaries we suffered in 2018 and 2019, they did at least make efforts to trace the items that were stolen and we were invited into the station on a number of occasions to see if our possessions were among the latest haul of stolen goods they’d seized, although none ever were. Arguably just as valuable, however, was the personal service we received from local officers as part of their investigations. In the days and weeks following the break-ins, we received regular home visits, as much to make sure we were all right as to keep us informed of progress. The station commander – with whom I am now on first name terms (Massimiliano, since you ask) – even gave me his mobile number with an invitation to call him personally with any concerns and also to let him know whenever we go away so he can include our place on the route of local patrols. Naturally, it is impossible to be sure whether this actually happens, but one thing we can be sure of is that the turning into the lane directly behind our house has become a regular location for one of their driving licence checkpoints.

This level of personal service has not been a one-off either. A few months ago, someone fraudulently took out a landline contract in my name and on querying the matter with my provider it turned out that the only way of seeking redress was to make a formal complaint to the Carabinieri in the first instance. Finding it strange, if not rather excessive, that the process should involve the Carabinieiri at all, I messaged Massimiliano to check I had been given the correct information and he immediately confirmed that I had – they apparently take any kind of identity theft very seriously – and invited me in to the station. I spent a good couple of hours in his office while he took a detailed statement for me to take back to my phone provider so I could progress my claim. He then dropped round a few days later to let me know they had requested the relevant documentation from my provider, and called me a few weeks later to invite me back in to the station to go through the documents they had received. It then took another hour or so in Massimiliano’s office to make a further statement confirming that the signatures on the documents were not mine and that I had not been in the shop on the dates on the contracts, and so on. It all seemed incredibly cumbersome and time-consuming, but I couldn’t help but be impressed by the time and effort that was going into pursuing my actually very minor complaint. For goodness’ sake, since actually claiming my refund – a contractual rather than a criminal matter – was still down to me, Massimiliano even insisted that I call him if I needed him to rattle my provider’s cage a little.

All a very far cry from the UK, though, where, even for reporting far more serious crimes than we have experienced, the very idea of being able to walk into a local police station and speak to a named officer, who then not only makes home visits to keep you informed of progress, but also gives you his mobile phone number – and who, incidentally, also hoots or waves in greeting whenever he sees you – would be completely unthinkable; laughable, almost. So yes, the Carabinieri may at times seem ridiculously pompous and a bit slow on the uptake, but – and perhaps this is because we have been victims of crime ourselves – there is something that Mr Blue-Shirt and I actually find very reassuring in knowing and being known by our local Carabinieri, as well as in their hands-on, community-based policing style. And, as foreign incomers, it also helps make us feel much more part of our adopted community: I was flagged down on my way to the gym recently by another of the local officers we have come to know, and when he saw who it was in the car, he simply pulled down his mask (‘It is I, Leclerc’ – style), grinned broadly, waved in greeting and then directed me on my way without even asking to see my driving licence. I found it an absurdly heart-warming experience – and not just because I was running late and was over the speed limit…

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.

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