A Post-Covid Treat

This was what we’d joined for. This was one of the many reasons we moved to Italy: discovering the myriad gorgeous places oozing charm, history and culture that are practically on our doorstep. And all without the compulsion that you feel on holiday to do and see everything at one go, or the disappointment of finding that your destination’s not-to-be-missed defining event takes place just before or just after your visit – but with the luxury of now being able to say ‘never mind, we can always come back another time’. Which is precisely how we recently came to enjoy a second long weekend in Arezzo.

This small city of not quite 100,000 souls, which was, incidentally, the setting in 1997 for Roberto Benigni’s Oscar-winning ‘Life is Beautiful’, is little more than a couple of hours away from us in Tuscany’s south-eastern corner. When we were planning our first visit late last summer, we were nearly put off by the opening line of Arezzo’s entry in our aged Lonely Planet guide: “heavily bombed in World War II”, but despite this unpromising comment, it did concede that the city’s ‘medieval centre packs some inspiring highlights’.

Those highlights, which are all located within the ancient fortified walls that still almost completely encircle the historical centre, include a medieval fort, a cathedral and sundry other vast and tiny churches, all dripping with Renaissance artwork, an assortment of grand palazzi, a range of galleries and museums, and a Roman amphitheatre still in use as a performance space. The wow-inducing star of the show, however, is the magnificent Piazza Grande with its arresting jumble of architectural periods and styles. This broad, sloping square was originally a market place, and the tall, narrow merchants’ palaces built along the eastern and southern sides in the 14th century still stand as testament to its ancient commercial roots. Then during the Renaissance, the square also became a civic and judicial centre when the imposing Palazetto della Fraternità dei Laici and the elegant Logge Vasari were built alongside the 12th century church of Santa Maria della Pieve and the sombre episcopal palace on the northern and western sides.

While we were there, we discovered not only that every June and September the city holds a spectacular Saracen Joust that dates back to the Middle Ages and now involves a huge cast of costumed characters, but that for over 50 years it has also hosted a major antiques fair (fiera antiquaria) that spills out from the Piazza Grande on the first weekend of every month. However, the timing of that first visit meant that we were going to miss both these events, so we spent the rest of our time in the city happily strolling around the enticing maze of narrow, cobbled streets surrounding the Piazza Grande, poking around in their many antique shops and quirky boutiques, and deciding which of the dozens of long-established, family-run ristorante and trattorie serving Tuscan specialities we would dine in – while also resolving to return for these impressive-sounding events at the earliest opportunity. Hence our second visit last weekend for two nights in a cosy B&B, a good mooch around the antiques fair and a couple of nicer-than-usual meals out.

We know practically nothing about antiques, but we were keen to enjoy all the sights and sounds of what claims to be the biggest antiques fair in Italy – with some justification, as became apparent the moment we emerged from the system of escalators that carried us up from the parking area outside the city walls and spat us out into the bright spring sunshine in the heart of the centro storico (historical centre). Well before we got as far as the Piazza Grande, row upon row of stalls stretched out in all directions, filling every street and alleyway radiating out from the main square, and although many traders had not yet even finished setting up their stalls, bargain-hunters were already poring over the wares, checking the quality and asking about prices. 

The first fair took place in 1968 to mark the national Festa della Republicca on 2nd June and was the brainchild of Ivan Bruschi, a local art scholar and antiques collector. After the war, he established a small exhibition of objets d’art in his family home just off the Piazza Grande – once he had restored it to its original condition after it had been partially destroyed in a bombing raid in 1943. This grand palazzo dating from the 14th century is now a museum that houses Bruschi’s personal collection of artifacts and whose dramatic arched windows look and down onto the stalls that run the length of the Corso Italia every month.

Here the stalls specialised in artworks, books and magazines as well as vintage toys, some of which Mr Blue-shirt was dismayed to find he recognised from his own childhood. With so much life bustling around us and all the luxury shops and busy cafés that line this central thoroughfare, it was difficult to imagine that much of this part of the centro storico had been abandoned after the war and lain in ruins for more than two decades. But it was in the early ‘60s when the city’s main fruit and vegetable decided to abandon its ancient home in the Piazza Grande that Bruschi felt compelled to step in and help revive what had once been the most beautiful part of the city he loved and where he now ran his own successful antiques business a couple of hundred metres away in Piazza San Francesco – the streets around which last weekend were filled with stalls selling records, pop art posters and retro costume jewellery. And it was following Bruschi’s buying trips to the flea markets of Paris and London’s Portobello Road market that the idea of an open-air antiques market was born.

Despite the near-cloudless skies, the brisk breeze made the shadier streets and alleys distinctly chilly, so after a warming cappuccino in a cosy café on Piazza San Francesco, we wandered back towards the sunny Corso along Via Cavour, browsing around the stalls selling crisp white table linen, richly coloured Persian rugs and high-quality vintage clothing. Then it was briefly back into the shade as we turned into Via Seteria, which was too narrow for any stalls but was instead lined with opulent-looking antiques emporia and several inviting botteghe crammed to the vaulted ceiling with a dizzying selection of cured meats, local cheeses, artisan bread, olive oil, pasta and Tuscan wines, before we finally re-emerged into the brilliant sunshine that flooded across the magnificent Piazza Grande itself.

Squinting against the sudden brightness, we could see that the square was filled with a selection of stalls selling furniture of every era, shape and size, ranging from the simplest of milking stools to the grandest of dining tables. We wandered among the stalls, trying to imagine the grandeur of the palazzi that had originally housed these imposing pieces – and wondering who might have a home large enough to accommodate them today. In amongst all the furniture were more modest stalls specialising in vintage hand tools, military memorabilia and different types of lighting, the classical crystal chandeliers casting showers of sunbeams across the cobblestones, although it was actually a stunning art deco chandelier made of interlocking bars of solid glass that really stopped me in my tracks. Meanwhile, beneath the graceful porticoes along the front of the Logge Vasari on the northern side of the square were all the stalls selling smaller items such as jewellery and vintage luxury handbags (which I have to confess, rather caught my eye) as well as pastel-hued porcelain, highly polished silverware and delicate glassware, all sparkling in the sunshine.

In the end, although we picked up and put down lots of items over the weekend, opened and closed lots of drawers and doors, and tested lots of zips and straps (OK, that was only me), we didn’t buy a single thing. Which was absolutely fine as with all its sights and sounds, bustle, hub-bub and life the fair had given us just the post-Covid boost we needed and so delivered everything we had hoped for. And in fact, probably much more than Ivan Bruschi had ever dreamed of, for since that first fair 54 years ago, his vision has grown into an internationally recognised event that now attracts some 400 exhibitors every month and 200,000 visitor per year. Better still, the Piazza Grande, long since restored to its pre-war glory, is once again the beating heart of this Tuscan gem that we find utterly captivating. And perhaps on our next visit I will find that perfect vintage Louis Vuitton handbag going for a song…

Something afoot among the vines

Of course, there’s not much to see at this time of year. In the vineyards hereabouts there are currently row upon row of what look like muscular brown forearms thrusting up from the winter soil. Each is topped with a gnarled, chunky fist that still holds last year’s long, thin branches in its grasp. Now leafless and lifeless, these cling to the rows of horizontal wires around which they wound themselves last season; like musical notation on a stave from which the notes have been plucked, the song of summer now just an echo.

Something is stirring, though. With another unusually mild winter already on the wane, preparations for the coming season are getting underway. Scattered across the vineyards, groups of hunched figures slowly work their way up and down the rows, laboriously snipping away the dead branches that bore last year’s crop. They let each fist keep old of just one, maybe two strong slim branches, the torchbearers for the new season’s growth. For in just a few weeks, a delicate frill of zingy green will sprout from those slim branches, the fragile young leaves shivering in the chill of early spring. Within a few more weeks, whole new branches will burst forth and race along the wires and the tender frills will thicken into bright green jagged-edged bunting fluttering in the breeze. Then as spring advances towards summer, that bunting will grow into extravagant garlands that loop in and out among the now invisible supporting wires, creating palisades of rich green within which will nestle the flower clusters that will later develop into fruit.

Even though practically any and every view of the region’s undulating patchwork of fields will include at least one large vine-striped oblong, Le Marche is not one of Italy’s primary wine-growing regions. That honour goes to the likes of Tuscany (and its world-famous Chianti), Piedmont (and its elegant Barolo) and Veneto (with its all-conquering Prosecco). But like the other seventeen ‘also-ran’ regions, Le Marche nonetheless has its own vigorous wine industry made up of myriad small-scale wine co-operatives and family-run vineyards that between them produce a range of wines that are unique to the region and that reflect the local terroir, climate and cuisine, with only a small proportion of their output destined for sale beyond the region, and an even smaller proportion destined for export. That is not to say, mind you, that the wines from these less famous regions are automatically of poorer quality. After all, Italians have been producing wine since pre-Roman times and in 2021 the country was once again the world’s largest wine producer (beating both France and Spain by a considerable margin) so it seems safe to conclude that they have got the hang of it.

So while you are unlikely to find Marchigian wines on the shelves at Tesco or on restaurant wine lists, the region, which the New York Times has coined ‘the new Tuscany’, still has plenty to offer the more curious wine-lover. The three best-known are Rosso Piceno, Rosso Cònero, and Verdicchio. The first is made predominantly from the Sangiovese grape (the same grape that is used in Chianti) which is cultivated on the slopes around Ascoli Piceno in the south of the region. The second is made predominantly with the Montepulciano grape (also used in the popular Montepulciano d’Abruzzo) which is cultivated on the westward facing slopes of the Cònero promontory near Ancona. And the third, that is biologically identical to the better-known Trebbiano grape, produces a pale and citrussy white wine and is cultivated in two principal areas around Jesi and Matelica, and is the region’s rising star and trailblazer: it is this now prize-winning wine from the centre of the region that you are most likely to come across in the UK.

Just as popular locally, though, are the ancient Passerina, and Pecorino (my preferred accompaniment to fritto misto and a simple green salad eaten at a beachfront restaurant), which has enjoyed a huge resurgence in popularity in recent years. When it comes to reds, other local favourites include Lacrima di Morro d’Alba and Vernaccia Nera, which is also the grape used in the ancient and idiosyncratic sparkling red wine, Vernaccia di Serrapetrona, which features in Dante’s epic ‘Divine Comedy’. Another regional oddity is vino cotto, which literally translates as ‘cooked wine’. This intense, ruby-coloured, port-like sweet wine dates back to the pre-Christian era and is made from boiled down and fermented grape must.  For many years it was regarded as a clandestine local hooch, but it recently acquired official recognition as a traditional Italian local food product and its newly elevated status is celebrated every year in Loro Piceno, the present-day centre of production (and, incidentally, the village near Macerata where we once thought we might live) which holds an annual Sagra del Vino Cotto.

So, while there may not be much to see at this time of year, there is still plenty going on. For those muscular forearms with their chunky fists poised ready for the start of spring are the continuation of the same cycle of cultivation that has been repeated for generations and that has sustained local culture and community for more than two thousand years.

Salute!

Among the twelve million

We felt properly sorry for ourselves. Initially annoyed and disappointed that, despite having followed all the rules, been sensible and cautious for the last two years as well as being fully vaccinated and then boosted, we had still both managed to catch Covid-19. And also hard done by, having to spend a week in self-isolation (longer if we still tested positive) just at a time when many countries are talking about learning to live with Covid and considering reducing if not abandoning various regulations and restrictions. Then tense and hyper-aware of every new symptom, wondering whether that cough, that sneeze or that muscle pain was the first sign of something much worse to come. And finally just plain miserable about feeling lousy, with neither of us up to providing tea and sympathy, plumped pillows and homemade soup for the other, but both of us just plodding along together, longing for the virus to leave us.

Paradoxically, our gloominess actually increased as our symptoms began to ease and we both felt almost back to normal – especially when first Mr Blue-Shirt and then me three days later still tested positive a full week after our respective initial tests. For it was as we started to feel better and keen to do more than just shuffle from bed to sofa and back again with just the occasional detour via the kitchen that the sense of confinement really started to bite and we felt trapped in a kind of no-man’s land between illness and wellness. Self-isolation was starting to feel all too reminiscent of lockdown, only without the laughs.

It was almost exactly two years since the word had entered the global lexicon; two years since the world had started to close its doors in response to the relentless advance of Covid. But despite the fears and the uncertainty, we had drawn comfort from the sense of solidarity and community and from the knowledge that we were all in it together, suffering the same anxieties and enduring the same restrictions while all distracting ourselves with quiz nights on Zoom and all keeping fit with Joe Wicks workouts. And even a year ago, when lockdown was still the primary means of slowing the spread of the virus, movement, work and play were all still tightly restricted and vaccine programmes were only just starting to gain traction, it had all still felt very much part of a collective effort; very much that we were all in the same boat and all pulling in the same direction.

But now, even with relatively elevated (but rapidly falling) case numbers, the ongoing booster campaign and continued health measures, that sense of solidarity and collective endeavour has dissipated. And as the virus shifts from pandemic to endemic, from acute to chronic, battening down the hatches and staying at home, even in still super-cautious Italy, is the exception not the rule. Everyone is – quite understandably – focused on returning to normality, re-building their businesses, picking up their education and re-starting hobbies. Zoom quizzes have passed into memory, online events have gone. And self-isolation is now very…isolating.

I suppose that sense of isolation was in some ways a positive, a sign of just how far we have now come. But until Mr Blue-Shirt finally tested negative on day ten, we found it ever more difficult to look on the bright side as lunches with pals were cancelled, hikes with our walking group missed, hair appointments postponed and shopping trips abandoned, and pruning the hedges became our sole outside activity. However, while Mr Blue-Shirt was once again permitted to re-join the human race, my incarceration had to continue, and my envy of his ability to do mundane things like get his van taxed, take the hedge clippings to the tip and even just go to the supermarket was intense. So it was with huge trepidation that after three further days, during which I felt more trapped and cut-off than ever, I took my own day ten test. And when I finally dared to look at the slim white cassette, a huge wave of relief washed over me as in the narrow result slot was displayed a single pink line. Seldom had such an unequivocal negative felt quite so positive.

The Italian Job

“Hang on a minute, lads. I’ve got a great idea.” It’s Michael Caine’s closing line in the 1969 classic gold heist movie set in Turin. But it could just have easily been said by Antonio when he had set out his action plan for the day a couple of weeks earlier.

And that plan was why a group of eight of us had gathered down at the site that the classic motorcycle club, in which Antonio is a leading light, uses for social events during the summer months. For several years, the club rented the generous patch of oleander-enclosed land from the huge restaurant and mini-menagerie next door. Recently, however, the owners decided they want the space for their growing collection of animals, so the club is having to vacate the plot. Consequently, our mission for the day was to clear the site of all the club’s equipment and, more particularly, move the huge, classic American-style caravan that serves as a clubhouse-cum-bar-cum-store to Antonio’s goods yard at the shipping company he runs a few kilometres along the main coast road. This is, incidentally, the same shipping company that transported Mr Blue-Shirt’s container full of forging equipment to Italy and where it has been stored free of charge ever since. In return, Mr Blue-Shirt carries out a whole range of maintenance and repair jobs for Antonio, as a result of which they have become firm friends and we have both been drawn into the social circle of the motor cycle club. Anyway…

Antonio’s idea was to pump up the caravan’s tyres, then lower it from its axle stands onto its wheels before pulling it out with the enormous tow bar mounted at the front and tow it to its temporary home where it would stay while details of the club’s new site were finalised. Easy-peasy. Antonio had got everyone lined up: Giordano was bringing his compressor to do the tyres, Mr Blue-Shirt was bringing a jack to get the caravan back onto its wheels, Francesco was bringing his tractor to tow it away, Lorenzo was bringing his truck to transport the ridiculously heavy metal staircase it had taken six people to detach from the caravan a couple of weeks earlier. And the rest of us were just providing extra pairs of hands to pack everything else into Lorenzo’s truck . Sorted.

Well, more or less. Giordano’s elderly compressor expired after barely a few seconds. After flicking all the switches, kicking it, checking the cable, the plug and the extension cable, however, Vittorio and Enzo eventually traced the problem to the socket it had been plugged into. So once they had located a socket that worked and it had wheezed back into life, the very rotund Giordano, who almost looked as if he had been inflated with this own compressor, puffed his way around the caravan, re-inflating each tyre. Meanwhile, Mr Blue-Shirt had been crawling around under the caravan identifying suitable jacking points, and as soon as Giordano had finished, he cranked it up a few centimetres, chucked the collection of makeshift axle stands fashioned out of bits of timber and chunks of concrete out from under the caravan, then rolled back out to safety before lowering it gently back onto its wheels. So far so good.

So far, but no further, though. The caravan was facing into the far corner of the space, meaning that there wasn’t enough room for Francesco to get his tractor in to hitch it up to the tow bar. And even if there had been, there still wasn’t enough room for him to turn the whole thing through 180° and tow it out through the gate. Cue much head-scratching, tooth-sucking and distance-pacing as a Plan B was hatched to try and rotate the van by hand and then hitch it up to Francesco’s tractor. The only problem was, as a grim-faced Antonio pointed out, it was just too damn heavy: it had taken the full weight of six people just to free up the tow bar, so shifting it by hand was never going to happen. And even without the tractor, the caravan’s turning circle was still too big.

While the others went back to head-scratching and tooth-sucking, Francesco slowly clambered down from his cab, lit yet another cigarette, shoved his wild mop of hair back from his face with his sunglasses and casually fiddled with the flap at the back end of the caravan. Then once Mr Blue-Shirt had cut the rusty padlock off the catch, Plan C was revealed in the form of a second towing point. This would allow Francesco to tow the caravan out backwards onto the spacious parking area in front of the restaurant using one of the sundry lengths of rope Mr Blue-Shirt always keeps in the van. There would then be enough room for Francesco to swing it round so it was facing the right way, unhitch the tractor from the rear and re-hitch it at the front. This left the large tree overhanging the gateway as the only remaining obstacle, but by balancing on the back of Giordano’s pick-up, Mr Blue-Shirt could just about reach the offending branches with the chainsaw he had brought along ‘just in case’. To Antonio’s evident relief, we were back on track.

And sure enough, barely ten minutes later, both the tractor and the caravan were facing in the right direction and ready to hit the road. Now with a huge grin on his face, Antonio leapt into his enormous SUV and roared off down the track towards the main road, with Vittorio, Mr Blue-Shirt and me hanging on for dear life as he flung it across the junction, blocking the road in both directions to let Francesco and his 15m long rig out. Enzo, with Giacomo and Giordano on board, followed suit with his car and then all three joined Antonio and Vittorio in the middle of the road where a lot of wild (and largely unnecessary) arm-waving and gesticulating ensued while Francesco calmly manoeuvred his load round the corner. Once he had safely negotiated the turn, everyone scurried back to the cars, Antonio screeching off to the front and Enzo lurching into position at the rear – for all the world as if they were squealing across the rooves of Turin in a convoy of Minis.

Half an hour later, the caravan was safely parked up in a secluded corner of Antonio’s goods yard following a masterclass in advanced trailer reversing skills from Francesco – accompanied by another spate of unnecessary arm-waving and gesticulating, and followed by much back-slapping, air-punching and whooping.
“Right, lads! Back to the club – lunch is on me!” boomed Antonio, now practically giddy with delight.
So we all trooped back to the bustling restaurant where we tucked in to great bowls of steaming pasta, washed down with copious amounts of rough red wine. But it was only as the lads tossed back their coffees and shots of grappa that Antonio seemed to remember that Lorenzo and his truck had been due at the club more than half hour earlier.
“Let’s get moving, lads!” he said, purposefully banging his glass down on the bar. “We’ve still got work to do.”

A totally unperturbed Lorenzo, who it turned out had been there for nearly an hour, flicked his cigarette stub into the bushes as we approached, and after a round of fist and elbow bumps, scrambled back into the cab and swung his truck through the gateway. The rest of us formed a human chain and set about passing from one to the next all the club’s chairs, tables and other stuff from the corner where they’d been stacked up to Vittorio and Mr Blue-Shirt who packed everything neatly into the furthest reaches of the truck, ensuring they left as much space as possible for the last piece, the unwieldy steel staircase.

This was quite a tricky job as not only was the structure massively heavy, it also had bars, brackets and corners jutting out all over the place, meaning that it was going to fit into the truck with only about 5cm to spare all round. And even then, Francesco had to lift it from a very particular angle, although this left it in danger of over-balancing and toppling off the tractor’s forks. The lads soon hit upon a solution, though. Emboldened by red wine and grappa, Antonio, Vittorio, Enzo and Giacomo clambered up onto the structure like a bunch of overgrown kids on a climbing frame in order to stop it tumbling to the ground. Enough to make any health and safety inspector’s hair stand on end, but it worked. After a few minutes of ‘Up a bit!’, ‘Down a bit!’ and eventually ‘Yesss!’ the staircase was safely on board and after another round of back-slapping, air-punching and whooping, Lorenzo trundled off down the road towards the goods yard. And with that, we were all done and dusted – and we hadn’t even needed to “… blow the bloody doors off!”

Right Back Where We Started From

The political cauldron in Rome was at a steady simmer on Monday when the electoral college of around a thousand parliamentarians cast their ballots in the first round of voting for a new President of the Republic. Normally this passes almost unnoticed, as if it is merely some piece of constitutional house-keeping that happens every seven years, the only evidence of which is a new face carrying out ceremonial duties on behalf of the nation.

This time around, however, the election of a new Head of State has dominated the news cycles here almost as much as “partygate” and criminal investigations into the Prime Minister’s activities have in the UK. To a large degree, this is because over the course of the pandemic, people have realised that the President’s job is not merely ceremonial and that his actions can have genuine political implications. Sergio Matarella’s interventions, for instance, twice avoided destabilising general elections that would have disrupted the national Covid response and could have put substantial sums of EU recovery funding at risk. Consequently, at such a delicate time in the ongoing Covid emergency, there was widespread recognition that it mattered now more than ever that Matarella’s replacement should be someone with the safest possible pair of hands and with enough cross-party support to provide stability and confidence both at home and abroad.

The only problem was, it was felt by many that the most suitable and obvious candidate for the job was Mario Draghi, the country’s highly-regarded Prime Minister. However, just as many, while not disputing Draghi’s eminent suitability, pointed out that if he were elected President, he would have to resign as PM, thus putting at risk the very stability Matarella himself had appointed him to achieve. And to add to the dilemma, that superannuated proto-populist Silvio Berlusconi, who still enjoys a degree of support on the right, had also thrown his corruption-stained hat into the ring. So the question soon boiled down to should they keep Draghi in post by electing Berlusconi – the only other high-profile ‘big hitter’ in the race – and trust that the former’s statesmanship and gravitas would outweigh the latter’s divisiveness and overtly partisan nature; or, in order to neutralise Berlusconi, should they elect Draghi and hope that, if the government collapsed, he would provide the same steadying hand as President as he had as Prime Minister; or was there a way they could find a third option that would keep Draghi in the Palazzo Chigi while simultaneously keeping Berlusconi out of the Palazzo Quirinale?

In the end, things became simpler – in theory, at least – when Berlusconi pulled out of the race two days before voting began, widely believed to be because he realised he lacked sufficient parliamentary support so withdrew in order to avoid humiliation. Consequently, those in the ‘anyone but Berlusconi’ camp no longer felt compelled to back Draghi’s candidacy regardless of the destabilising effect this may well have on the government. And by the time voting began on Monday, many more had come to a similar conclusion: even though Draghi remained the ideal candidate, at this particular time he could better serve the needs of the country by remaining as PM. So now the focus shifted to finding another candidate who would be able to command support across the political spectrum. The search didn’t go well.

For a start, while the Draghi/Berlusconi drama had been playing out, the list of candidates had grown to in excess of thirty individuals, making it all but impossible for any of them to achieve the two-thirds majority (ie 665 votes) required in the first three daily rounds of voting. Indeed, in each of the first two rounds, the ‘winning’ candidate, an 86-year-old former constitutional judge, secured fewer than 40 votes, largely because the main centre-left and centre right parliamentary groupings couldn’t agree on a common candidate and so submitted blank votes. More absurd still, the candidate who topped the poll in the third round was none other than Sergio Matarella himself, the 80-year-old outgoing President who had repeatedly stated that he had no wish to serve a second term.   

In subsequent rounds, the required majority dropped to 50%+1, but with the centre-left and centre-right continuing to take it in turns to reject each other’s nominees and to abstain or submit blank votes, it still proved impossible for any candidate to come anywhere close to even the lower threshold of 505 votes without a mandate from any of the main parties. But while the current and a former head of the Senate, a former EU commissioner, a former PM and a collection of ex-ministers, diplomats and judges all fell by the wayside, Matarella somehow continued to top the poll in successive rounds, and by a larger margin each time, despite having no formal support from any party, and despite what appeared to be either collective amnesia or collective deafness among parliamentarians regarding his wishes.

By the time the 7th round had been concluded on Saturday morning, the main parties had effectively run out of viable options to put to one another and thanks to their blank vote/abstention strategy, the nominees that were put forward by the minor parties were never going to get anywhere either. However, with Matarella having yet again topped the poll, this time with 387 votes, it was becoming increasingly clear that despite all the to-ing and fro-ing Parliament had actually spoken: it was Matarella or no one. And the latter was plainly unacceptable, so…

The stumbling block was, of course, that Matarella hadn’t wanted to take part in the race in the first place. So Prime Minister Draghi (who after all the brouhaha at the start, incidentally, never received more than 5 votes in any given round) eventually asked Matarella to allow his name to go forward to the next round of voting ‘for the good and the stability of the nation’. And later on Saturday, a delegation representing all the parliamentary groups trooped off to the Palazzo Quirinale to make the same request. Matarella duly bowed to pressure, allowed his name to go forward, and on Saturday evening, having secured 759 votes in the 8th round of voting, the outgoing President who hadn’t wanted to be President again was duly voted back in as President. Don’t you just love Italian politics!

So after several weeks of bickering, in-fighting, horse-trading and arm-twisting and eight rounds of voting, blank voting and non-voting, the country is right back where it started with the über-competent Mario Draghi still Prime Minister and the pragmatic Sergio Matarella still President. Only it isn’t quite back where it started. All the wrangling between the centre-left and the centre-right has revealed worrying fissures in the coalition which Draghi is going to have to work hard to repair. And the last-minute decision to back Matarella has also caused a serious rift between the two main hard-right parties which may prove significant in the general election that is due in spring 2023 – but may, of course, happen sooner if Draghi fails to keep the coalition together. Just on the basis of this everyday story of Italian politics, though, there is little doubt that there is a lot more turbulent water to pass under the political bridge before then. Meaning that we really are right back where we started from.

Image: http://www.reuters.com

Cooking up a political storm

If it is any comfort, the UK is not the only country where politics are in a febrile, agitated state; they are something of a hot mess in Italy too. That said, while bickering, in-fighting, horse-trading and arm-twisting are the order of the day in both countries, it is only in the UK that corruption, deceit and a criminal investigation are also part of the mix. And in contrast to the UK, the catalyst for all the tension and uncertainty here is not the legally and morally indefensible behaviour of an increasingly unpopular Prime Minister, but the expected political side-effects of a perfectly proper constitutional process.

The process in question is the election of the next President of the Italian Republic at the start of February when the current incumbent’s seven-year term of office comes to an end. As set out in the Constitution, Sergio Matarella’s successor will be elected in a secret ballot by members of both parliamentary chambers (the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies) plus special electors representing each of the regions, forming an electoral college of about 1000 members. A two-thirds majority in the first three rounds of voting is required for victory, with an absolute majority (50%+1) sufficing thereafter – although even that can be difficult to secure and in some elections it has taken multiple rounds for a victor to emerge. While the framers of the constitution intended that an ‘elder statesman’ of national stature should fill the post (Matarella is a former Constitutional Judge) there is no formal candidacy process and any Italian citizen aged over fifty can in theory be elected, irrespective of whether he or she has expressed a desire to be a candidate.

As might be expected, the role of Head of State is largely ceremonial – but critically, not completely so. As guardian of the Constitution and symbol of national unity, the President has important powers in relation to inter alia judicial, executive, parliamentary and legislative affairs that can become decisive in times of political instability. Just in the last few years Matarella has, for instance, twice declined to exercise his power to call general elections. The first occasion was in autumn 2019 when Matteo Salvini, solely in order to try and capitalise on his rising popularity in the polls, pulled out of the coalition with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (Movimento Cinque Stelle – M5S), in which his hard-right La Lega party was a junior partner. Instead of calling elections, however, Matarella instructed party leaders to try and form a new coalition as he was concerned that a victory for Salvini and his hard-right, Eurosceptic allies would endanger Italy’s relationship with Brussels and risk losing EU funding. But in a matter of days, M5S and the Partito Democratico (PD) became the principal partners in a new centre-left coalition, once again led by M5S’s Giuseppe Conte, and Salvini was effectively side-lined.  

The second occasion was in the depths of the pandemic in January 2021 when Matteo Renzi, simply because he couldn’t get his own way on how to spend the EU Covid recovery funding, withdrew from the coalition in which his tiny and otherwise inconsequential Viva Italia party was a minority partner and thereby brought the government down. Matarella again preferred to see if a new coalition could be formed, and even when negotiations failed, he still shied away from calling elections on the grounds that at a time of national crisis an election would be a dangerous distraction from dealing with the ongoing Covid emergency. Added to which, there were concerns that a destabilising election could spook the EU which had just handed Italy a huge sum of money from its Covid recovery fund. So he used another of his presidential powers to appoint Mario Draghi Prime Minister and tasked this formidable political operator with assembling a cross-party government of national unity to steer the country safely through the pandemic, which Draghi has gone on to do with considerable success and to widespread approval.

And it is these three ingredients – 1) the relative ease with which someone can become a presidential candidate, 2) the political implications of some key presidential powers, and 3) the popularity of ‘Super Mario’ (as Draghi became known after successfully rescued the Euro in the midst of the 2012 European debt crisis) – that have been stirred into the political cauldron that has been bubbling away for several weeks now.  

As a result of the first, the superannuated proto-populist Silvio Berlusconi felt the time was right for him to throw his corruption-stained hat into the ring and set about garnering support for his candidacy among hard- and centre-right parties where he retains a degree of popularity. In light of the second, though, many have been appalled by the prospect of this 85-year-old convicted tax fraudster, who still faces proceedings for bribery, defamation and child prostitution, getting his grubby hands on any of the levers of power, and of bringing the office of Head of State into disrepute.

Then, as a result of all three, plus a strong ‘anyone but Berlusconi’ sentiment in some quarters, Mario Draghi has found himself the favourite in a race which he has not formally entered. Those who wish to see Draghi move into the Palazzo Quirinale argue that he is best placed to ensure political stability at a time when all the parties are already gearing up for the general election that is due in 2023, especially since any instability may affect recovery funding from the EU where Draghi is still held in extremely high regard. There are others, however, who argue that he should remain in the Palazzo Chigi as long as possible as they fear his resignation as Prime Minister may cause the government that he has so carefully created and nurtured to collapse and possibly trigger a snap general election – thus bringing about the very instability he was appointed to avoid. Draghi himself, meanwhile, has sought to remain above the fray, but with his gnomic declaration that “My personal destiny is of no importance, I have no particular ambitions. I am, if you like, a grandfather in the service of the institutions,” he has not exactly helped clarify matters. Although, since he has not objected to his name being put forward, it can be inferred that he is not uninterested in the role.

Finally, thanks to the first, a further dozen or more names from across the political spectrum have been thrown into the pot, in an effort to find someone that the pro- and anti-Draghi factions as well as the pro- and anti-Berlsuconi factions can all agree on – and that’s before any of the usual political rivalries and alliances have been added to the mix. But the heat was turned down quite a bit last weekend when Berlusconi suddenly pulled out of the race at the last minute. While he claimed he was withdrawing as a gesture of ‘national responsibility’ at a time when ‘Italy needs unity’, commentators were of the view that he had realised he lacked sufficient parliamentary support so withdrew in order to avoid humiliation. Whatever the reason, his withdrawal certainly simplified things – slightly, anyway – and for the time being at least, the hot mess had been reduced to a steady simmer by the time parliamentarians started to cast their ballots in the first round of voting on Monday morning…

Image: http://www.thelocal.it

The Season of Sorrows

January’s miserable, isn’t it. Yes, I know it’s a bit of a cliché; every year the media would have us believe that finding January miserable has effectively become traditional, if not compulsory. You know the usual shtick: the sparkle and cheer of Christmas have faded, the only Quality Street left rattling round at the bottom of the tin are the sickly soft centres, and all you can find in the freezer is yet more leftover turkey and you’ve already made curry three times. The credit card bills have landed, the poinsettia has turned to twigs, and as for the new year diet and ‘dry January’…. And of course, thanks to the shocking surge in Covid-19 cases driven by the arrival in early December of the super-contagious Omicron variant, whatever sparkle and cheer people here might have been planning quickly became a lot more muted. Although there were no restrictions on movement and families were not prohibited from hosting gatherings at home this year, lots of hotels and restaurant reported last-minute cancellations as the government urged maximum caution. Then two days before Christmas, with Covid cases doubling every few days, all discos and nightclubs were closed for a month and all public New Year celebrations including concerts and count-downs were banned. So January’s arrival was once again greeted not with optimism and joy, but with yet more gloom and apprehension.

For me, though, January is not simply a collection of media tropes and pandemic-based woes. For me, January has, in a very personal sense, long been the ‘season of sorrows’. It is the month in which barely forty-eight hours into the new year, I buried my father. It is the month in which, just two years later, Mr Blue-Shirt and I repeatedly pounded up and down the slush-slicked motorways between our home in Lincolnshire and my family’s in Devon, initially sick with dread and later numb with grief, to spend the agonising final days of my sister’s life at the side of her hospice bed, watching cancer steal her life from her. It is the month, exactly two years after that and in the hospital right next door, in which I spent the almost identical, agonising final days of my mother’s life at the side of her almost identical hospital bed, watching cancer steal her life too.

January is the month in which I became an only child. January is the month in which I became an orphan.

This year the anniversaries of these life-changing personal losses are marked within the context of the five million lives now lost globally to Covid-19; of the five million people still taken to soon, whatever their age, the five million people who spent their final days and hours in pain, in fear and in distress, but who, unlike my father, my sister and my mother, died alone and separated from their loved ones, making their passing infinitely more awful. And so in remembering the loved ones that I have lost, my sorrow also extends to those five million grieving families, those five million heartbroken circles of friends, those five million sets of shocked colleagues, all too many of them denied the chance to hold a trembling hand or stroke a tear-streaked cheek, to say farewell, and in the earlier months of the pandemic at least, to draw comfort from togetherness, or even to perform the burial rites so crucial to the process of bereavement; tens of millions of people caught in the ripples of pain and loss expanding across the world and crashing as waves of grief and shock on every shore around the globe.

But from within the sorrow-infused bleakness of another January that never ends, a flicker of light can perhaps be glimpsed at the end of this latest passage through the longest and darkest of tunnels: the signs that Omicron may have reached its peak, that its arrival has actually served to push vaccine rates ever higher, and that in much of the world the idea of learning to live with Covid is starting to take root as the virus perhaps begins to shift from its pandemic to its endemic phase, each little spark of light sowing the seeds of further hope and healing, and nurturing the promise of greater normality.  And then here in Le Marche, it is already possible to see other, more typical symbols of hope and healing in the early hints that spring is drawing closer. Tiny white and blue flowers are beginning to fleck the hedgerows, while here and there the landscape is illuminated with flashes of brilliant yellow mimosa blossom. The fields are covered with a haze of vivid green as the spring crops start to come through, and on occasion the breeze even carries the first, tentative murmur of birdsong. The sight and sound of these unfailing emblems of rebirth, and recovery have seldom been more welcome, glimpsed within the timeless Marchigian landscape whose features have barely altered for generations. These hills and valleys, vineyards, fields and olive groves have borne witness to drought and deluge, fire and famine, earthquake, war and occupation – and have withstood the lot. It is a landscape that has endured and recovered, that has provided food and sustained communities for centuries, that has continued to shift from past to present in an infinite cycle of renewal and regrowth – and so continues to remind me every day, just as it has for the last two years, that ‘this too shall pass’. It lifts and sustain me and its reassuring embrace and even in these most difficult of times, still helps ease the pain of the season of sorrows.

Edging Closer

Mr Blue-Shirt’s parents had one for years at their converted barn in Wiltshire; we had one for some time at the cottage that was attached to our forge. And ever since we first moved in, we have had one here in Italy too: a west wall that bears the full force of the prevailing weather – and that as a result becomes a major pain in the backside. In the case of my in-laws’ place, moisture found its way in between the rough-hewn stones from which the house was built and was only cured by completely re-pointing the whole wall and spraying it with a waterproof film. At our funny little circular place in Lincolnshire, the rain was able to seep in through single-skin, curved brick wall because a cowboy builder in the 1980s had applied the wrong kind of render, so the whole lot had to come off and be replaced with the right kind. And here… Well, as we know all too well, there is never a simple answer with this house.

Our latest west wall, with no doors or windows, is at the short end of the house and faces directly into any rain, hail, sleet or snow sweeping in from the mountains. It was originally an outside wall, but sometime in the 1950s it became an inside wall when a crude, two-storey extension was thrown up. Then, while our predecessors were converting the place from a farmhouse with storage areas taking up the entire ground floor and all the living accommodation on the first floor, the whole extension collapsed. The resulting cloud of concrete dust had a silver lining, though, as the lost volume was moved to the other end of the house where it now forms the sitting room with the main bedroom above. The west wall became an outside wall once more and the space left by the old extension was cleared and levelled and turned into a carport, which for the last four years has served principally as a storage area for all Mr Blue-Shirt’s building materials and equipment. It is also where our latest west wall problems started.

The newly-revealed outside wall was repaired, rendered and painted from the apex of the roof to the ground; all fine and dandy, it appeared. In our first winter, however, a bloom of white, furry mould kept appearing inside along the lower portion of the wall in what is now the entrance hall, no matter how often or how hard we kept scrubbing it off with mould remover. So Mr Blue-Shirt dug a couple of investigatory holes outside at the base of the wall and these soon revealed that no form of below-ground waterproofing had been installed to take account of fact that the external ground level is a good 30cm higher than the internal floor level of the hallway. This is because the entire ground floor had to be dug out to achieve the headroom required by building regulations. Meanwhile, the new car parking space, which butts straight up against the outside wall, was created from just a mix of our heavy clay soil and smashed up building rubble rather than proper hardcore and gravel, meaning it drains very badly. And the combined effects of rain running off the west wall plus bad drainage minus waterproofing is that moisture from the densely-packed, wet mud has leached right through the solid 60cm-thick west wall into the hall, providing the perfect conditions for white mould to flourish.

So resolving all these issues has been Mr Blue-Shirt’s latest project. This started with digging a broad trench about 80cm deep along the full 7m length of the west wall and then adding a sturdy, concrete foundation – made from about a cubic metre of liquid concrete that was poured into the purpose-built timber formers during one of the heaviest downpours we’ve ever had here, almost resulting in a mini dam-burst and landslide, which through sheer adrenaline and brute force Mr Blue-Shirt just managed to avert. Once it was dry, he glued a heavy-duty waterproof membrane to all the vertical surfaces, covered the whole of the bottom of the trench with a plastic drainage membrane, installed a drain pipe which he connected to the rest of the drainage system he’s installed, and then backfilled the trench with pea gravel and hardcore to improve drainage further.

Then came the 80cm wide concrete path running from the front step to the far corner of the house that Mr Blue-Shirt had the foresight to ensure slopes away from the wall slightly, encouraging rainwater run-off to flow into the gutter he has also installed along the path’s outer edge. Once the concrete has dried, Mr Blue-Shirt can finish backfilling the trench, level the surface of the carport and finally, tile the path which will join up with the sections of terrace he has built around the other three sides of the house. And in addition to solving the damp problem in the hall, the new path will give us the extra bonus of bringing us an awful lot closer to the day when we can walk right around the house and finally dispense with the need to walk three sides of a square, which we currently have to do annoyingly frequently.

Mind you, in order to enjoy this seemingly simple luxury, there is the small matter of first adding a flight of three or four steps up from the back of the carport to the higher ground level at the back of the house, and then re-building the very leaky cruciform cantina/cellar that Mr Blue-Shirt excavated last year (https://wordpress.com/post/lemarche.life/610), covering the whole thing back over and then finally closing the circle by adding the last four or five metres of path and another couple of steps down towards the back door. As Mr Blue-Shirt always says, how difficult can it be…?

A Good Start

It was New Year’s Day and the fog of the previous week had finally lifted, so as we drove up to the start of the hike we were going on in the Sibillini mountains, it was a joy to see once more their soaring, snow-capped peaks set against a gleaming, turquoise sky.

“You concentrate on the driving, Antonio. I’ll tell them the story,” said his wife, Lori.
We had just left the main road that ran along the broad valley floor and were now snaking up into the hills in Antonio’s powerful SUV, clinging onto the grab handles as we swung round each hairpin bend. In order to make sure he kept his huge hands on the wheel and his mind on the increasingly narrow roads, Lori continued his story. In poche parole*, to coin Antonio’s favourite expression, he had gone on his own for a day-long hike to a remote glacial lake in the heart of the Sibillini. Despite being an experienced walker, though, he had ended up being helicoptered down by a mountain rescue team – all because the soles had fallen off not one but both of his trusty old walking boots. He didn’t have any mobile signal either and had had to rely on the weak signal of a couple of passing hikers to raise help, so poor Lori had known nothing about Antonio’s predicament until he finally returned home many hours later than anticipated, by which time she was convinced he was lying dead at the bottom of a ravine. Mr Blue-Shirt and I exchanged worried glances.

Since Antonio was our guide for the day, Mr Blue-Shirt and I were slightly concerned what we had let ourselves in for as we ascended between ever steeper limestone crags and ever sheerer drops into the narrow valley below, and the tarmac road dwindled to a gravel track. Finally, we bounced to a halt in a small parking area where the valley narrowed even further to just a great cleft in the cliff-face, along the bottom of which roared and frothed the ice-blue River Tenna and above which just a narrow strip of brilliant blue sky was now visible. In the chill of the deep shadow cast by the hulking crags we pulled on coats, hats and gloves, while Antonio’s booming laughter echoed off the rockface as he made sure we had all noticed his brand-new walking boots and their rugged, firmly attached soles. Once we were all fully kitted out, he pointed up to where a small cross on the top of a distant church tower just peeked out above the crest of the cliff on the other side of the valley. “Andiamo lassù,” he said with a grin – “We’re going up there” – and strode off down the track.

To get ‘up there’, however, we had to pass through the ‘L’Orrida Gola dell’Infernaccio’.  Although the name, which roughly translates as ‘The Dreadful Gorge of Hell’, evokes the Sibillini’s centuries-old reputation for mysticism, witchcraft and necromancy, it actually refers to the menacing and dramatic landscape. And as Lori, Mr Blue-Shirt and I fell into step behind Antonio, I could see little reason to argue with the distinctly off-putting name. Within a few minutes, the valley was completely shut off from the brilliant sunshine and a biting wind blew down through the mouth of the gorge while icy water rained down on us from the numerous tiny waterfalls and channels worn into the overhanging rockface. And in order to enter the gorge itself we had to pick our way across a shallow section of the fast-flowing river before it plunged over the cliff edge into the valley below; a section which nonetheless turned out to be just a couple of centimetres too deep for the height of our boots.

Still, scrambling up the rocky track on the other side soon got the blood flowing back into our soggy feet. Then after for a few hundred heart-pumping metres the track joined the long-established man-made path running parallel to the river which tumbled and gurgled over moss-clad rocks as it worked its way between the towering limestone buttresses draped with ferns and creepers. The higher we climbed, though, the wider the gorge became, and the looming crags gradually gave way to a deep, beech-filled valley whose floor was still carpeted with a thick, swishy layer of autumn leaves.  

After an hour or so Antonio eventually led us away from the river bank onto the path which zig-zagged up the steep hillside to the church. With every turn, the roar of the river grew fainter, the air grew warmer and after some time hats and gloves were stuffed back into pockets and backpacks. A few turns further and the biting wind softened to a gentle breeze, dappled sunlight started to filter through the naked trees, turning the moss on their trunks to a vivid, emerald green, and winter seemed to turn to spring.

The summit finally came into view and after a couple more lung-busting minutes the path suddenly spat us out at the edge of a meadow into which brilliant sunshine spilled from a dazzling sky. Unzipping our jackets and pulling water bottles from our backpacks, we took in our new surroundings as our breathing eased. The snow-crested peak of Il Pizzo reared up to our left, while the gently rolling foothills of the Sibillini spread out below us from where the land on the far side of the meadow dropped straight back down to where we had started our walk – and from where Antonio had pointed out the tiny church of St Leonard that now stood on our right.

As we stretched our tired legs and slaked our thirst, Antonio told us its story. It had been constructed on the ruins of a Benedictine monastery dating from the 15th century by just one man. Over the course of more than forty years, Padre Pietro, a Capuchin friar born in the village where Antonio and Lori live, single-handedly built the modest place of worship as an act of piety and devotion, apparently transporting all the necessary materials and equipment through the gorge and up the mountain on the back of an ancient motorbike. We couldn’t take a closer look at this pretty little church, though. Tragically, just a year after the death of “God’s Builder” in 2015, Padre Pietro’s life’s work was badly damaged in the earthquakes that struck the region in 2016 and is now fenced off, its pale stone walls, gothic arches and neat, square bell tower all held up by a mass of scaffolding and bracing struts.

Having briefly pondering whether, despite the scale of his remarkable achievement, Padre Pietro might have expressed his faith in more practical ways, we re-filled our water bottles from the spring opposite the church, pulled our coats back on and set off back down the hill. By now, the sun had dropped behind the rocky bulk of Monte Zampa, casting even the upper slopes of the valley in deep shade and quickly draining it of its earlier warmth.  We soon pulled our hats and gloves back on, glad that the knee-jarring return trip would at least be much quicker than the outward one.

Just over an hour later, we picked our way back over the river – Mr Blue-Shirt this time gallantly giving me a piggy back – before making the final ascent back up the track to Antonio’s car and heading off for a late hearty lunch. While we were still changing back into dry socks and shoes, his booming laughter echoed round the valley once more as I showed him the damp boot I had just pulled off – its mud-caked sole flapping loosely and clinging on just at the toe.

* ‘In poche parole’ = ‘in a few words’, or ‘in brief’

Ring out, wild bells

It’s inevitable, really, at this time of year – any year, in fact, that urge to look back and take stock. As 2021 staggers to its exhausted close, however, that need to review and reflect on another extraordinary year, to weigh up the highs and the lows and prepare to turn the page feels stronger than ever. A greater need, perhaps, to find some positives, or perhaps to find some understanding; or more simply just to be thankful that we have come through it all – again. But weary in mind and spirit after now two years Covid, I find myself unable to unravel the tangled mess of words and thoughts and feelings that still churn round inside my head and that refuse to coalesce into orderly sentences and paragraphs that are capable of making any sense of it all. So I close the year with the words of Alfred Lord Tennyson that I think hit the mark exactly.

In memoriam (Ring out, wild bells)

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
   The flying cloud, the frosty light:
   The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
   Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
   The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
   For those that here we see no more;
   Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
   And ancient forms of party strife;
   Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
   The faithless coldness of the times;
   Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
   The civic slander and the spite;
   Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
   Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
   Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
   The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
   Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ* that is to be.

* As a non-believer, I would prefer the word ‘year’ here, but leave it in place out of respect to Tennyson’s mighty words and the broader sentiment that they express so powerfully.

The image is of Montelupone’s 14th century Palazzetto del Podestà and Torre Civica complete with its impressive cast bronze bell. It was taken 36 minutes into 2020, before the tempest fell upon the world.

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