Refamiliarising Ourselves With The Unfamiliar

In the heady days of last summer when we naively imagined the Covid nightmare might be coming to an end, we managed to escape for twelve magical days in Croatia. This year, although the acute phase of the pandemic and its shocking novelty may have slackened into the weary familiarity of its chronic phase, the cumulative burden of a further year’s anxiety, uncertainty, separation and solitude had left us even more stale and depleted, but also with an even greater need to do something different, be somewhere different and see the world through a different lens in order to shake us out of our post-lockdown lassitude. However, another year of unpredictability and ever-changing rules had also made us wiser and more wary, so in late spring, with our vaccines lined up and the promised land of the white zone in which only the most basic restrictions remained drawing ever closer, we booked ourselves just six days in Tuscany (still taking care to ensure that last-minute cancellation would be possible). But despite the comparative modesty of our ambitions, those six days in late August turned out to be just as special and just as restorative as the previous year’s more adventurous trip across the Adriatic.

We started off with three nights in Arezzo, little more than a couple of hours away from us in Tuscany’s south-eastern corner, close to the border with Umbria and about 40km north of Lago Trasimeno. The opening line of Arezzo’s entry in our aged Lonely Planet guide, “heavily bombed in World War II”, had nearly put us off, but an acquaintance had warmly recommended it some years earlier, and now that we actually live here, we are in any event always keen to pay a brief visit those lesser-known places that stand in the shadows of their showier, more popular neighbours – Florence and Siena in Arezzo’s case – safe in the knowledge that should such a place prove disappointing, it won’t have spoilt a whole holiday. And despite its general sniffiness about the city, our Lonely Planet did concede that its ‘medieval centre packs some inspiring highlights’.

These highlights, not surprisingly, are all located within the ancient fortified walls that still almost completely encircle the city. And at last being able to enjoy once more the simple pleasure of ambling, map in hand, through an unfamiliar city’s ancient streets and discovering all these new and different sights was exactly what we had been longing for. They included a medieval fort, a cathedral and sundry other vast and tiny churches, all dripping with Renaissance artwork, an assortment of grand palazzi, several galleries and museums, and a Roman amphitheatre that is still in use as a performance space. The beating heart of the city, however, is the magnificent Piazza Grande. This broad, sloping square was originally a market place, with the tall, narrow merchants’ palaces built along the eastern and southern sides in the 14th century still standing as testament to its commercial roots. During the Renaissance, however, the square became the civic centre and the imposing Palazetto della Fraternità dei Laici and the elegant Logge Vasari were built alongside the church of Santa Maria della Pieve with its distinctive bell tower and the sombre episcopal palace on the northern and western sides.

As if this glorious jumble of architectural periods and styles were not arresting enough, as we entered the square via a narrow alley in the north-west corner we were also greeted with the sight of large, brightly-coloured flags fluttering from practically every window in every building, while around the edges, tiered banks of temporary seating were being erected, and across the middle ran a banked-up track made from tightly packed earth and sand – and a crackle of anticipation hung in the late summer air among the clusters of dawdling tourists and busy workmen. The waiter at the café where, over a mid-morning cappuccino, we indulged in a little people-watching in an unsuccessful effort to work out what was going on eventually told us all this activity was in preparation for the Giostra del Saracino – the city’s biannual Saracen Joust. In response to our blank expressions, he directed us to the grand Palazzo dei Priori, which, as well as being the current town hall, also houses a museum of the joust that explains the history and traditions of this hugely popular, hugely spectacular event – to which our Lonely Planet guide, quite inexplicably, devoted not one single word.

We are not big museum-goers, but the colourful bustle in the Piazza Grande had piqued our curiosity and, coupled with an unaccountable keenness to test out our freshly downloaded Covid Passes, soon had us striding back across the square and up the hill to the town hall. Having successfully scanned our passes, the young and enthusiastic curator theatrically swung open the huge double doors that gave access to the exhibition and indicated the route we should take through the various rooms. Over the next hour or so, we learnt by means of the first-class immersive audio-visual displays in each of them that the joust, which takes place in late June and in early September, dates back to the Middle Ages when it was used for military training purposes. While it flourished throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, it fell into decline during the 18th and 19th centuries, but was resurrected in the early 20th century, since when it has grown into the day-long extravaganza of today (Covid restrictions notwithstanding), with its cast of some 350 costumed characters. These include a long procession of buglers, drummers, flag-wavers, jugglers, valets, crossbowmen and foot soldiers, as well as the Herald, the Registrar, the Field Steward, the Jury of score-keepers and the Judicature who make sure the byzantine rules are complied with. The real stars of the show, though, are the eight mounted Knights of the Joust. Organised into four pairs, each representing a different quarter of the town, they take it in turns to gallop at full speed across the square and, with the inked tips of their 3.5-metre-long lances, try to strike the highest scoring portion of the target fixed to the shield of the Saracen, a wooden effigy of “Buratto, Kind of the Indies”. After three nail-biting rounds, and frequently a tense tie-breaker too, the quarter represented by the two highest scoring knights is awarded the coveted Golden Lance by the Mayor. There follows a cannon salute and a Mass of thanksgiving held by the Bishop in the cathedral, and proceedings are rounded off with rowdy, night-long celebrations throughout the city.

Here’s the thing, though: the very fact that this September’s joust was happening the day after we left Arezzo did not disappoint us in the slightest. In fact, it came as a much-needed reminder that we could come back in subsequent years at the drop of a hat as such events are practically on our doorstep. The relative novelty of this for us had not so much worn off over lockdown as been shut away and completely forgotten about. And, slightly paradoxically, the simple fact that we felt able to say ‘never mind, we can always come another time’ did almost as much to lift our spirits as being there in the first place.

So we spent the rest of our time in the city contentedly wandering 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 ristoranti, trattorie and osterie serving local specialities we would dine in.  And each evening we still got a taste of the joust anyway, as horses were trotted in and out and around the square to familiarise them with the layout of the course, while bands of drummers from one quarter and teams of flag-wavers from another, all incongruously dressed in T-shirts and shorts, carried out their rehearsals in the evening cool of the near-empty streets.

There was another reason why we were not that bothered by missing the joust, though. It was the second half of our trip, and really why we had picked Tuscany as our destination in the first place: the Biennale Nazionale di Arte Fabbrile (National Blacksmithing Biennial) – held in Stia, barely 50km north of Arezzo. Yes, it would give Mr Blue-Shirt his first chance to swing a hammer in nearly four years, but so much more precious than that, it would give us the chance actually to meet up with a few of our blacksmithing friends whom we had not seen for over two years. So: joust-schmoust. We had proper, actual hugs to look forward to…

For more information on the Saracen Joust, go to

‘…. As The Romans Do’

Ferragosto is the national public holiday on 15th August that marks the height of summer. Like many traditions in Italy, the origins of this festival are Roman. The name is a corruption of ‘feriae augusti’, which translates as ‘the holidays of Augustus’, the Emperor who in the 18BC 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 world-famous palio that is still held in the Tuscan town of Siena on 16th August in much the same form as in Roman times, although it had to be cancelled again this year as its traditional rituals (and the crowds it attracts) did not conform with anti-Covid regulations.

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. By unifying all these pre-existing jollities into one continuous holiday period, the Emperor’s gesture of largesse was consequently tempered with an element of practicality, not to mention a dash of politics by currying favour with the masses, who on wishing their masters ‘buon ferragosto’ would receive a small gift of money or food 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.

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 is technically the reason why it is a public holiday in Italy.

In the first part of the twentieth century, the festival took on a more political flavour when Mussolini’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 looking after workers’ welfare. The initiative, 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 – which is why present-day tourists are still able to visit museums, monuments and galleries on 15th August even though many other amenities will be shut. As it 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.

Another feature of the fascist era Ferragosto that has persisted is the picnic. As the People’s Train trips did not include meals, travellers had to bring their own food with them and this tradition has stuck. A protracted lunch all’aperto (in the open) with family and friends, preferably somewhere that offers some respite from the mid-summer heat, still forms an integral part of celebrations. And this is exactly how we spent the day, especially since Ferragosto this year coincided with the peak of the pitiless heatwave that has held us in its searing grip since mid-June. So with temperatures set to reach 38°C locally we headed up into the relative cool of the Sibillini Mountains for a picnic on the shores of the cobalt-blue Lago di Fiastra. By the time we had reached Sarnano, the self-styled ‘gateway to the Sibillini’, it was already well into the mid-30s. But within minutes of turning off onto the long, winding climb up towards Sassotetto (literally ‘rock roof’) the temperature began to fall. About half the way up we raised a cheer as the display on the dashboard finally dropped below 30°C, and continued to drop by another degree with every additional 100m or so of altitude. By the time we reached the summit (c.1100m), it showed just 24°C – cooler than most nights for the preceding fortnight – but as soon as the road started to take us down the other side towards the lake, the temperature began to climb again and was back to 30°C by the time we reached the normally sleepy lakeside village of San Lorenzo al Lago. Today, however, its narrow, winding streets were crammed with visitors to its Ferragosto farmers’ market selling an array of local pecorino cheese, lentils, sausage, ham and all sorts of truffle-based delicacies, and traffic was reduced to walking pace despite the frantic arm-waving and whistle-blowing efforts of the local police to keep things moving. Within a few minutes, though, the mayhem was behind us and we caught our first enticing glimpse of glittering turquoise further down the hill.

Most people remain on the through-road that runs parallel to the lake and provides easy access to the steep shale beaches along the eastern shore. But we headed left, over the bridge towards the small town of Fiastra and immediately turned off to our preferred spot at the southernmost end of the lake. Down a narrow, easily missed lane, clumps of mature trees cast dappled shade over a broad grassy bank that slopes gently down to the inviting water. Usually it is very quiet and, well hidden from the road, feels almost private. Today, though, it was teeming with people, for not only is it the ideal spot to spend the hottest day of summer, there is also a simple chalet-bar serving drinks, snacks and ice-creams and, more importantly on this particular day, a flat, shaded area equipped with several brick-built barbecues, a small food preparation corner and a collection of long trestle tables and benches. And even though it was only mid-morning, all of them were already crammed with large multi-generational groups setting out bowls of salad, cutting up slabs of bread, slicing cheese, threading meat onto skewers, lighting barbecues and generally just enjoying being together.

Somehow we managed to squeeze the car into the last remaining parking space and even to find a suitably socially-distanced spot to spread out our beach towels on the grassy bank where it was very much the same story: more groups of friends, families and couples, all of whom were setting out folding tables, chairs and parasols and unpacking elaborate picnics, their laughter, chatter and excitement making whole thing feel almost as festive as a Christmas dinner.  And even though it was just the two of us, as we laid out our own modest picnic, we still relished the feeling of being part of the festivities – all the more so in year when such celebrations have been in short supply – and of being part of a tradition stretching back over two thousand years. Not to mention spending a few hours in the deliciously cool mountain air and having a dip in a deliciously cool mountain lake.

More on last week’s story – Ice Cold in Ancona

Much as I had expected, it had been a very long nine days since my doctor had diagnosed the brown, now thumbnail-sized bump on my right temple as keratosis. A long nine days since she had assured me it was nothing serious, but recommended I have it removed anyway and referred me to a dermatologist. And the day of my appointment with that dermatologist had finally arrived.

The thing is, I am a seasoned worrier with a life-long tendency to seek out the worst-case scenario in every situation. Consequently, instead of dispelling any fears as to the nature of the growth, Dr. Rinaldi’s diagnosis and proposed treatment had simply set my internal alarm bells ringing more loudly than ever. So for nine days solid my cool-headed, rational self had been engaged in a bitter war of attrition with my fretful, emotional self, the former doing its level best to quell the mounting anxieties and darkest imaginings of the latter which had raced through the full gamut of nightmarish ‘what-ifs’ starting from mis-diagnosis and going downhill from there.

Mr Blue-Shirt kindly offered to drive me to the large, modern university hospital on the north side of Ancona and by the time we set off, the battle-weary combatants in my head had reached an impasse, though, leaving me exhausted in a vaguely fatalistic no-man’s land of ‘what will be will be’ – but with the firm conviction that this would still mean bad news (my fretful self always has to have the last word). We arrived well in advance of my 3pm appointment to allow time for the inevitable Covid-19 checks and then find the relevant clinic among the hospital’s sprawling collection of inter-connecting buildings, walkways and levels. Fortunately, both of these proved much more straightforward than anticipated: an automated temperature-check-cum-turnstile followed by a simple “over there” from the ‘meet and greet’ volunteer we asked for directions to the dermatology clinic. 

‘Over there’ was in fact the general outpatient clinic, and from reception we were directed down a short corridor to the dermatology unit. We took a seat in the deserted waiting area and completed the obligatory anti-Covid-19 health questionnaires. Then at just after 3pm a young doctor in green scrubs and black mask and holding a clipboard in his hand strolled down the corridor and called out my surname. I got to my feet and Mr Blue-Shirt gave me an encouraging thumbs-up as I followed him into his consulting room. I showed the dermatologist the growth on my temple and repeated what Dr. Rinaldi had told me. Exactly as she had done nine days earlier, he slowly and carefully examined the growth with an instrument that looked like an elongated jeweller’s magnifying glass and finally declared “She was right, it’s definitely keratosis – and nothing at all to worry about.” I exhaled deeply, unaware I had been holding my breath.
“We can remove it for you if you want, though…”
“Yes, please.”
“… But it will only be for aesthetic reasons; the growth is completely harmless.”
“I’m not worried about aesthetics, but I’d still like it removed – just for peace of mind.”
“I know what you mean. But before we make the appointment, which will probably be in September or October, I’d like my professor to take a look. I’ll just go and get her.”
He left the room and my fretful self barged in. Was he unsure of his diagnosis? Was it actually something more serious?

After what felt like an eternity, he reappeared with a reassuringly mature woman in owlish glasses who introduced herself as Professor Cellini. She examined the growth in the now familiar fashion and within seconds confirmed what her colleague had said and my fretful self retreated a little. I reiterated that I did definitely want it removed, so please could I make an appointment for September or October as her colleague had indicated?
She scanned the appointment list on the desk, glanced at her watch and then casually said “We’re not very busy this afternoon. I can remove it now if you want. We use liquid nitrogen to freeze it off so it will only take a few minutes.”
“Yes, right now. You can wait until autumn if you’d prefer, though…”
“No! I’d much rather have it done straight away.”
My rational self had finally taken charge.
“OK, just lie down on the on the couch and I’ll go and get my equipment.”

“Is that your husband out there?” asked Prof. Cellini as she re-entered the room, carrying a stainless-steel canister about the size of a thermos flask, a bundle of what looked like wooden barbecue skewers and a large wad of cotton wool. “He can come in if you want.”
I nodded and she waved Mr Blue-Shirt in. He sat down in my line of sight as I twisted my head to the left ready for the procedure, and gave me a broad wink of support. The professor and her colleague took up their positions on each side of the couch, she to my right and next to the trolley where she had placed the canister of nitrogen, he to my left with the skewers, around each of which he wound a blob of cotton wool before handing them to his boss who placed them tip down into the canister from which escaped occasional wisps of vapour. I held Mr Blue-Shirt’s gaze and swallowed hard. There was a faint hiss and out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed a sinuous plume of dry ice as the professor removed the first skewer from the canister and turned to press its now frozen cotton wool tip firmly into my temple. My heart started to race and my body tensed. The disconcertingly loud sizzling sound and accompanying cloud of vapour made Mr Blue-Shirt wince, but it was in fact almost entirely painless. Once the sizzling had stopped and the nitrogen dispersed, she handed the spent skewer to her colleague, took a fresh one from the canister and repeated the process.

And so they continued for a good twenty minutes, with the prof and her junior chatting amiably over me about placements and exams as they swapped spent skewers for fresh ones, only occasionally thinking to ask if I was all right. For the most part I was, although the longer the procedure went on the more the frozen patch on my temple began to sting, accompanied by the kind of jabbing pain you get at the bridge of your nose if you bite into a super-cold ice cream. But just as it was getting really uncomfortable, Prof. Cellini tossed her last skewer onto the trolley and declared “A posto! – All done!”
I slowly relaxed and sat up gingerly, the movement causing a surge of pain.
“I’ll prescribe you some antibiotic cream to make sure it doesn’t get infected, but it’ll be a bit sore for a couple of days in any event,” she said, pulling off her blue latex gloves.
“Should I avoid washing my hair or going swimming?” I asked as I slid down off the couch.
“No, it doesn’t matter if you get it wet. Just make sure you put some cream on afterwards,” she said. “And if you go out in the sun, use plenty of sun cream,” she added as her colleague sat down at the computer.
“We just need to book a check-up for next month,” he said, opening the calendar on his screen. “And then you’re good to go.”

By the time we got back to the car barely five minutes later, the side of my head had begun to throb as if I’d been hit with a rock wrapped in wire wool and I started to feel distinctly wobbly as my adrenaline levels crashed and relief washed through my body.
“Can we go and have an ice-cream, please? I think I need some sugar,” I said weakly, stuffing my appointment confirmation in my bag and reaching for the seatbelt.
“I bet you do! That can’t have been pleasant, but you were really brave.”
“I’m just glad it’s done and that the growth has gone. I’d got really worked up about it.”
“Yes, I know. But you got through it; I’m proud of you.”
“Thanks. I’m feeling pretty wrung out now that it’s over, though.”
“I can imagine. So let’s go and get that ice-cream, then. Mind you, I’m surprised you want anything frozen…”

Meanwhile, in other news…

I found the bump one morning in June as I ran my fingers through my hair. That’s new, I thought, twisting my hair up into a chunky tortoiseshell clip. I peered into my magnifying mirror to examine what I quickly discovered was a slightly raised and discoloured circle of dry skin on my right temple. No pain or redness, no itching or signs of an insect bite. Just a small, brownish patch about the size of my little fingernail. Hmmm, I thought. I’ll keep an eye on that. Having spent three years in the scorching equatorial sun of Borneo, much of it outside either on or in the water, I’ve long kept a watchful eye on any new marks appearing on my naturally pasty, northern European skin, regardless of how insignificant they appear. But for the next few weeks there was no change so I decided it was just the latest addition to the sprinkling of freckles and moles I’ve had for years.

On a Monday morning in late July, though, I realised the bump had suddenly doubled to the size of my thumbnail and darkened in colour. Still no pain, redness or itching, but I reached for my phone anyway. I scrolled through to my GP’s number and, following the protocol that the practice put in place at the start of the pandemic, sent her a brief text message, detailing my symptoms and requesting an appointment as soon as possible – but suspected that this would probably mean the end of the week at the earliest. She responded within twenty minutes, though, offering me an appointment at the surgery in village for later that morning.

Avanti, avanti!” called Dr. Rinaldi cheerily and beckoned me into her bright and airy consulting room as a young mother came out, carrying a rather wan looking toddler on her hip.
“So you’ve found a new mole,” she began as she picked up a bottle of anti-bac spray and swiftly wiped down the top of her desk and the wooden chair placed in front of it.
“Yes, it doesn’t hurt or itch at all, but because it’s recently doubled in size, I wanted to get it checked out.”
“Very sensible,” she replied, tossing the paper towel in the bin and tugging on a fresh pair of blue latex gloves. “Take a seat and let’s have a look.”
I sat down on the freshly sanitised chair and tipped my head to the left as she picked up an instrument that looked like an elongated jeweller’s magnifying glass, pressed the cool metal tube to my right temple and peered in through the eye-hole. Saying nothing, she slowly and carefully slid the lens back and forth over the growth to examine every last bit of it. The only thing to break the silence was the sound of my heart pounding in my chest.
“I’m certain it’s a keratosis, so nothing dangerous,” said the doctor after what felt like an eternity. “But for peace of mind it’s probably still a good idea to have it removed, so you’ll need to see a dermatologist.”
I exhaled deeply, suddenly aware I’d been holding my breath. She snapped off her gloves, pushed her thick chestnut hair behind her ears and sat down at her keyboard.
“I’ll give you a prescription, one that will ensure you’re seen within ten days. This will just be an initial consultation, though; you’ll need to make another appointment actually to have the keratosis removed.” She handed me the prescription that had just rolled off the printer as I tried to slow my still pounding heart. “So, just take this along to the pharmacy and they’ll be able to make the first appointment for you. Let me know how you get on.”
I put the prescription in my bag and gave her a slightly shaky smile as I bade her farewell and left her consulting room.

“Well, I can offer you a slot in …… Osimo ….. and …. Urbino this week, although that’s probably a bit far to go….” said the white-coated assistant as she scrolled through the schedules on her screen. I was sitting in the fancy new pharmacy that has recently opened on top of the supermarket just outside the village centre and barely five minutes’ walk from Dr. Rinaldi’s surgery.  “….or Ancona…..and…… Cupramontana next week, but still within ten days.”
Savouring the delicious cool of my almost spa-like surroundings, I weighed up the options. Osimo and Urbino are both fairly small places with correspondingly small hospitals, so they weren’t wildly attractive. But I did want the growth removed as soon as possible – for peace of mind, as Dr. Rinaldi had rightly said – so they were certainly tempting. Cupramontana was definitely out, though: as well as being much smaller than either of those two places, it also meant a longer wait. Then again, if I did wait until the following week – and since the keratosis was apparently harmless, a few more days surely wouldn’t make any difference – I could go to the big, modern, university hospital in Ancona…
“I’ll take the appointment in Ancona, please.”
“No problem. So that’ll be next Wednesday. Is 3pm OK for you?”
“Yes, that’s absolutely fine,” I said gratefully.
The pharmacy assistant tapped at her keyboard. “Right, that’s all confirmed. I’ll just print off all the details for you,” she said and hit the return key with a flourish.

“That was quick!” said Mr Blue-Shirt as I pulled onto the drive a few minutes later and little over half an hour since I’d gone out. “What did the doctor say?”
“She says it’s a keratosis,” I said. “Which is nothing serious…” I swallowed hard. “… But she recommends getting it removed anyway.”
“So how that’s going to work?”
“Well, I’ve already got an initial consultation with a dermatologist in Ancona, but not until next week,” I said and ran through my reasoning for my choice of hospital.
“Makes perfect sense to me. A bit of a backwater this week or the region’s main hospital next week: a total no-brainer,” declared Mr Blue-Shirting skimming through the A4 sheet on which the pharmacy assistant had helpfully circled the key details of the appointment with a pink magic marker.
“Fantastic result!” he exclaimed.
Part of me felt just as impressed: from my initial enquiry to an appointment just over a week later with a specialist at a major teaching hospital had taken under three hours. Which was indeed a fantastic result, except…

I am a seasoned worrier with an over-developed tendency to seek out the worst-case scenario in every situation, so the combined effect of “I’m certain…but…”, “… a good idea to have it removed…” and “… ensure you’re seen within ten days…”, far from reassuring me that I had nothing to be concerned about, had simply set my internal alarm bells ringing more loudly than ever. It was going to be a very long nine days…

Getting Back on the Bike

Get this! We went to a concert at the end of last week! It was nothing grand; no big names, no hot venue. It was free, in fact, and was held in the village square. But it was real, live music performed by real, live musicians in front of a real, live audience. And it was delightful.

We could have gone to a similar event a week earlier, but the Swing Band concert that kicked off the village’s modest Musica in Piazza programme this summer simply slipped our minds. Only it didn’t really slip our minds in the sense that we forgot the date or were just too busy to go. No, over the days that followed, it dawned on me that it was more as if we had somehow almost forgotten how going to an event worked. After so many months in lockdown during which, even when it became possible to move around freely, there was still nothing to do and nowhere to go, the staying in habit had become so ingrained and so familiar that we were out of practice with proactively going out, being sociable and having fun.

This dispiriting realisation jolted us into action, though. So in bright red capitals I immediately scrawled details of the following week’s concert – a soul quartet – on a large, fluorescent orange Post-it note that I stuck at eye level on the door of the fridge to make sure we both saw it every time we prepared a meal or poured a drink. And it worked. In fact, so firmly planted in our brains was this low-key outing that, come Friday, our anticipation was such that anyone would have thought we had got tickets to the opening night of the opera season at La Scala. But even that was part of it, really, as it had been so long since we had had something like this in the diary to look forward to.

To be honest, we came over all a bit too Anglo-Saxon about it – which showed just how out of practice we were. According to the poster we had seen outside the town hall, the concert was billed to start at 9.00pm. So, knowing that the most of the village centre would be closed to traffic, we pulled into the parking area just outside the ancient fortified walls that encircle the centro storico at about ten to nine, leaving us plenty of time to walk through the formidable Porta Ulpiana and up the cobbled hill lined with tall, elegant townhouses with their dark green shutters and geranium-filled window boxes, then down through the shady Piazzale Cesare Peruzzi dominated by the imposing Church of the Crucifix and its even more imposing neighbour, the Church of St Peter and St Paul, before arriving in the corner of the Piazza del Comune. On the far side, in front of the grand 14th century Palazzetto del Podestà with its sturdy bell tower stood a brightly lit stage with drum kit, keyboards and mike stands already set up for the performance, and to the left, in front of the graceful Palazzo Comunale (town hall), groups of people sat at tables that spilled out onto the square from the Pizzeria del Borgo and the neighbouring Caffé del Teatro, the sound of laughter and the clinking of crockery drifting across the square on the soft, pizza-scented breeze.

We ambled across the square and sat down at a table with a clear view of the stage, gave Cecilia our order and settled down ready for things to get going. As Simeone the café owner set our customary beer and Aperol spritz combo down in front of us, however, we noticed that even though the town clock was about to strike nine, the organisers hadn’t yet started setting out in rows the dozens of white plastic chairs that were stacked next to the stage, no one was champing at the bit to get seated, and there was no sign of any roadies, never mind any band members. And it was at this point we realised that over the previous eighteen months we had also forgotten that few events, especially informal local ones such as this, start anywhere near on time. We briefly cursed our lapse into our old, overly-punctual ways, but then, with the sky darkening from lavender to indigo, sat back to enjoy some long overdue people-watching as we sipped our drinks and picked at the selection of tasty morsels that are invariably served with drinks. It was such a pleasure to see the square teeming with life on a deliciously warm summer’s evening – and, despite a scattering of masks, all looking so wonderfully normal. Parents dishing out slices of freshly-baked, oozy pizza to their families, dumpy grandmas rocking babies to sleep, groups of leathery old men shooting the breeze, teenage couples staring dreamily into each other’s eyes over glasses of cola, children playing tag across the square, and toddlers happily dripping ice-cream down their fronts.

At about 9.30pm, a handful of men in black ‘crew’ T-shirts started setting out chairs in front of the stage and people began to take their seats. Shortly afterwards, another crew member checked the microphones and adjusted a couple of lights, then at just before 10pm, the band, comprising vocals, trumpet, keyboard and drums, finally took to the stage and without preamble launched into Ben E. King’s ‘Stand By Me’.  In the context of the ongoing pandemic, starting their set with this track seemed a very apt choice, and as the words ‘When the night has come, and the way is dark / And that moon is the only light you see / No I won’t be afraid, no I won’t be afraid / Just as long as the people come and stand by me.’ rang out across the square, I found myself with a lump in my throat.

The band were really very good; they performed a selection of Soul and Motown hits, interspersed with Italian classics that got people clapping along and a couple of folk up on their feet. After a solid ninety minutes on stage, they brought their show to an end with a well-crafted medley of Soul/Disco crowd-pleasers that concluded with ‘I Will Survive’. And with its defiant chorus of No, not I, I will survive / Long as I know how to love / I know I’ll stay alive / I’ve got my life to live / And all my love to give and / I will survive’, it was another choice that surely can’t have been a coincidence…

In the end, though, the evening was ultimately less about the music than the sheer pleasure of reconnecting with the community and being among people united in the enjoyment of a shared experience.

And as for the whole going out thing, it seems it’s like riding a bike after all.

The Greening of Casa Girasole – Part 2

The first time we went out for a meal with Giovanni was last October in a brief ‘yellow’ phase between lockdowns. He took us for lunch at his favourite fish restaurant towards the northern end of the seafront at Civitanova Marche after we had signed the contract with him for the supply of our solar energy installation following a lengthy period of to-ing and fro-ing that had begun back in summer. We’re going out for another meal with him next weekend, this time to celebrate a much bigger landmark: the completion – at last – of the project, the management of which has been Mr Blue-Shirt’s main pre-occupation for much of the last year.

Even though it was carried out in the depths of winter, the easy part was the mounting on our south-facing roof of the set of eighteen slimline photo-voltaic panels that form the heart of the system, together with the installation of the electronic brains of the system and the stack of batteries that hunch in the hall cupboard like a softly humming dalek. These were all wired in, connected up and actually producing solar energy by the end of January. But they were only the start of the all-singing-all-dancing system that the government’s programme of fifty to sixty percent discounts on domestic renewable energy installations had enabled us to include in the specification.

In order to minimise our use of gas as well as fossil-fuel-based electricity, this also consisted of an air-source heat pump (ASHP) to provide hot water and heating, along with a new, super-efficient boiler as a back-up-cum-top-up, a clever gizmo that allows the system to switch between the two, and three new combined heating/cooling (fan coil) units for our bedroom, the guest bedroom and the sitting room, as well as several hundred metres of tubing, ducting, cables and conduits to knit the whole lot together. Oh, and for good measure we also threw in a bit of future-proofing in the form of an electric car charging point in the carport, ‘just in case’.

The much more complicated and protracted part was getting this huge, hi-tech box of tricks up and running in a converted 19th century farmhouse; a task that tested the skills and patience of Giovanni’s team of tradesmen to the full. Giacly the cheery plumber, his shaven head and thick beard combo giving him the curious appearance (to me, at least) of someone with his head on upside down, Gianni the Rolling Stones-loving, drama queen electrician and Paul the totally unflappable, softly-spoken technology wizard spent much of the spring either crouched in the upstairs porch with the ASHP, or squidged in between the boiler and the switching system in the tiny, cramped boiler room, or with their heads buried in the hall cupboard making adjustments to the software that runs everything, or going from room to room to check whether this, that or the other bit of kit was working properly or not.  Needless to say, very often it was not – mostly thanks to the idiosyncrasies of the house, its 60cm-thick walls and the way it had been plumbed and wired by our predecessors, but also because in some instances Giovanni hadn’t got the spec. quite right (like ordering fan coil units that looked as if they belonged in a factory and which we insisted he replace with something more suitable for a domestic setting), and all-too frequently, just because, well that’s just how tech is, all of which slowed progress considerably.

Things were slowed down even further by ENEL, which as well as being the mains electricity supplier also manages the distribution infrastructure. It took Giovanni weeks of nudging and nagging to get their engineer to come and upgrade our meter so it could cope with the increase of our supply from 3kw to 6kw in line with the system requirements for a house the size of ours. It took even longer, however, and even more nudging and nagging, as well as a flurry of form-filling, actually to achieve that increase in supply – even though this, as far as I could see, surely amounted to little more than the equivalent of turning a knob or opening a tap. This delay caused a real bottleneck, though, as until someone bothered to flick the relevant switch, we only had half a system as it meant that the ASHP couldn’t be commissioned and so we had to continue to rely on gas for hot water and heating.

Mind you, it was while we were waiting for ENEL to get its act together that, after extensive research and several test-drives, we also took the plunge and used some more of Mr Blue-Shirt’s inheritance to replace our aged diesel Renault with a brand new fully electric Nissan Leaf. In the end, it wasn’t that difficult a decision, largely because of the government subsidies, the manufacturer’s discounts and the dealer’s special offers, which brought the price down by more than a third. But our purchase quickly revealed a glitch in the system set-up, which meant that Paul the gizmologist had to come and configure the car charging point (wallbox) so that it appeared on the system app, thus giving us the means to maximise the use of our own solar energy when charging the car depending on how much power we are actually generating, how full the house batteries are and how fast we need to charge the car; all very clever. And no sooner had we got this glitch resolved than another became apparent when ENEL were doing some maintenance work nearby and knocked the power out. This revealed that the back-up that is supposed to allow us to use energy stored in the battery to maintain certain key functions in the case of a power cut was not connected, so this time Gianni the drama queen had to come back to do some additional wiring work, cursing as long and loud as ever as he flounced back and forth between boiler room, battery cupboard and fuse box until he was satisfied he’d got it working correctly.

ENEL eventually got round to upgrading our mains supply in late May, which was fortuitous as it meant that the ASHP came on stream just in time for the sudden and early arrival of summer and so allowed us to take advantage of the fan coils’ cooling function; cooling that is as deliciously ironic as it is guilt-free, incidentally, as it effectively runs on pure sunshine. And with the upgraded supply, the final piece of the jigsaw dropped into place: the switching of our mains supplier from ENEL to SENEC, the company that supplied the batteries but that is also a power distributor, and one which uses exclusively renewable energy, meaning that even on the rare occasion that we require top-up from the mains, it will still be completely fossil-fuel-free. Better still, this switch also enables us to feed back into the grid any surplus power that we generate, which we have already found easily compensates for any we take out, thus meaning that the latter is almost free.

So after a year in which Giovanni has spent so much time with us explaining this, chasing up that and sorting out the other that we’ve become quite good pals, we’re finally there. Not only is the whole system now properly connected and configured and we are at last officially driving, heating, cooling, lighting and bathing on sunshine, we are also now saving several hundred kilos of CO2 emissions every week. All of which sounds like a pretty good cause for celebration to me.

Image shows:
Solar panels generating 5kw
House battery at 100% so not charging
House consuming 0.6kw
Wallbox not in use as car fully charged
4.4kw (ie 5kw-0.6kw) going to the grid

What a time it was..

I’m feeling a bit nostalgic. This is normally the weekend of Montelupone’s  annual Festa della Pizza. Mind you, even though this is our fourth July in the village, we’ve only been the once, the first year we were here – and it was terrific: a glorious celebration of practically everything we love about life in Italy concentrated into one fantastic evening. The following year, though, it was only a few weeks after our second burglary and we were still wary of leaving the house unattended, while last year Covid-19 restrictions meant that all such summer events were banned. And this year, although festivals and fairs are permitted now we are in the white zone’ (subject to an array of public health measures, of course), there was, presumably, insufficient time available to put together an event of this scale. But how I wished we might have had the opportunity to repeat the experience this year. Sitting on the terrace after dinner and holding the glass of grappa Mr Blue-Shirt had just poured me, I looked up towards the village, its crown of lights making its honeyed walls and stand out against the inky sky, and, as I leant my head on Mr Blue-Shirt’s shoulder and took a sip of grappa, my thoughts drifted back to that very special evening …

We plodded the final few metres up the hill into Montelupone’s main square, the Piazza del Comune, more than ready for a cool drink after our 4km walk from home. We had come into town for the Festa della Pizza and had assumed that the four-day event would be held here in the centre of the village, as this is where all village festivals tend to take place. But although the square was buzzing with life, it was just the Caffé del Teatro and the Pizzeria del Borgo doing their normal roaring trade on a warm summer’s evening. Slightly puzzled, we looked around for some evidence of the festa and soon noticed a series of hand-written signs bearing the words ‘stands gastronomici’ with large arrows drawn below them. These guided us out of the square and up the narrow street behind the town hall and eventually led us to the imposing pair of forged metal gates at the end of the high moss-clad wall that runs along the back of a small quiet square where the village war memorial is located. They look as if they are the gates to the courtyard of one of the tall slim houses facing onto the square, and for most of the year, it seems, they remain chained shut. But now they were flung wide in welcome, and stepping through them we discovered that they are in fact the entrance to what looked like a secret little park: a large grassy area about the size of half a football pitch surrounded on three sides by high stone walls with the fourth looking straight down over the sea, and a magnificent cedar tree bang in the middle, its ancient limbs fanned out in a giant parasol of gracefully arching green.

The little park wasn’t much of a secret tonight, however, for it was thronged with easily half the village’s 3000 population, music blaring and strings of lights dancing on the breeze and the evening air rich with the aroma of freshly baked pizza. To our left along the front wall was a stage with microphone stands and drum kit set up ready for that evening’s live band, and in front of this was a raised dance floor across which small children were charging and sliding, squealing with excitement. Around the right-hand edge of the space stood a couple of small open-fronted marquees housing banks of cash desks, in front of which queued groups of people chatting animatedly. Along the far wall stood another much larger open-fronted marquee from which spilled rows of trestle tables and benches already crammed with diners munching their pizzas. These were appearing in a steady stream from a bigger marquee still that, together with the bar, ran along the fourth side.

Once we had got our bearings, we worked out that we needed to order and pay for our food and drinks at the cash desks first before collecting our order from the relevant marquee.  “Una pizza diavola e una pizza verdure,…” Mr. Blue-Shirt bellowed above the Euro-pop pounding away in the background when we finally reached the front of the queue, “…una birra grande e un vino bianco”. Having handed over our €20, we received two receipts, one for our drinks order, the other for our pizza order, which crucially also included our order number: F180. We eased ourselves away from the crush around the tills and while Mr. Blue-Shirt joined the queue for the bar, I headed for the pizza marquee. In front of the entrance stood a long bench behind which stood a chap in shorts and a bright blue ‘crew’ T-shirt and clutching a microphone. “Effe cento quaranta cinque!”  he called over the crackly PA system, as he plucked a ticket from where it was tucked under the flap of the uppermost pizza box in the stack that had just been deposited on the bench. Someone in the gaggle of people gathered in front of the table yelled “Si, io! – Yes, me!” and waved their receipt at the caller who then checked the number before finally handing over the stack of pizza boxes to the hungry customer. If order number F145 had only just been served, we were in for quite a bit more pizza bingo until they got to F180, then. Fortunately, Mr. Blue-Shirt re-appeared beside me at that point, clutching a large plastic beaker of beer, a smaller plastic beaker of white wine and, balanced between the two, a portion of deep-fried artichoke slices, so at least we would have something to keep us going until our order was called.

As we enjoyed our aperitivi, we watched the incredibly slick pizza-making operation in full swing in the marquee. This was swarming with a huge team of volunteers in their bright blue ‘crew’ T-shirts and white aprons, and was furnished with a long row of trestle tables, each of which formed a different pizza-making station. “Effe cento cinquanta cinque!” blasted over the PA.  At one stood a team of people forming dough into soft plump balls, at the next, amid clouds of flour, stood the dough-rolling, -spinning and -tossing team, and at a third a team of volunteers was ladling rich, chunky tomato sauce, fragrant with herbs and garlic, onto the paper-thin bases. “Effe cento sessanta quattro!” Then came the topping-adding team, with their battery of plastic tubs overflowing with different ingredients, and finally the mozzarella-scattering crew. “Effe cento settanta due!” Here, the finished pizzas were lined up, ready for the pizza chefs, their faces glowing red in the blazing heat, to slide them onto long-handled paddles and feed them into the roaring maw of the one of the two huge wood burning pizza ovens that dominated the marquee. “Effe cento settanta otto!” After just three or four minutes, the bubbling, sizzling discs were slid back out of the fiery caverns and passed to the pizza-boxing, -slicing and -stacking crew who finally dispatched each completed order to the front of the marquee. “Effe cento ottanta!” “Si, io!” I cried, waving my receipt in the approved manner.

Mr. Blue-Shirt dabbed the final smears of garlicky tomato sauce from his lips. “That was top-notch”, he shouted over the band who were now in full swing just across from the trestle table where we had managed to squidge ourselves into a couple of spare seats. With my mouth still full of the final delicious oozy, smoky forkful, I could only nod vigorously in agreement. “The sausage on mine was properly spicy”, he continued. “As good as anything we’ve had from a proper pizzeria.” “Absolutely!” I was able to say at last. “My vegetable topping was really generous and the crispy base was yummy”.  Replete, we swivelled on our bench to watch the band. They were clearly going down well as the dance floor was now full of couples of all ages performing the practised steps and twirls of traditional dances taught by one generation to the next.

We could still hear the band as we headed back down the hill, but as we descended into the cool night air, the rhythmic thump of the bass finally gave way to the gentle rasping of the crickets. Walking hand in hand beneath the velvety sky we reflected on a wonderful evening that had effectively been some kind of vindication of our decision to move to Italy.

I lifted my head from Mr Blue-Shirt’s shoulder, drained my glass and sighed deeply. It had been wonderful not only in its own right, but also as a powerful affirmation of community and the bonds that maintain it. And as I remarked here a couple of weeks ago, it was such a cruel irony, therefore, that just when those bonds and the need to celebrate them seem more important than ever, we have had to be denied a much-missed means of doing so.

Mind you, I’m betting that next year’s pizza festival will be an absolute corker…

Title taken from ‘Bookends’ – Simon & Garfunkel

Into the Lions’ Den

Antonio’s mask may have concealed the grin spreading across his round, suntanned face, but it did nothing to hide the playful twinkle in his large brown eyes.
“All very simple and relaxed again” he assured Mr Blue-Shirt. “A bite to eat and a couple of drinks down at the bike club while we watch the match…”

Mr Blue-Shirt has become quite good pals with Antonio, proud owner of a classic Triumph motor cycle and leading light in the Porto Potenza Picena bike club. His day job is running the shipping company, together with his Canadian-born wife Lori, that transported Mr Blue-Shirt’s storage container over from UK. He has kindly let us store it in his yard free of charge ever since in return for Mr Blue-Shirt doing a series of maintenance and repair jobs around the place.

A couple of weeks earlier he’d invited us to a similar get-together at their ‘clubhouse’ just along the coast from Porto Potenza Picena. This turned out to be a huge customised classic caravan permanently pitched in the corner of a generous patch of grassy land enclosed within a tall hedge of crimson oleander trees. I imagine the club rents the plot from the huge pizzeria next door which throughout the evening supplied us with a steady procession of dustbin-lid-sized pizzas straight from their enormous wood-burning oven. Coming shortly after Le Marche went into the white zone when nearly all restrictions on eating, drinking and making merry were lifted, it was a very welcome evening of conviviality enjoyed around picnic tables assembled at the base of a magnificent sycamore tree strung with lights and filled with cicadas and crickets whose noisy rasping accompanied our conversation.

Consequently, we happily accepted this latest invitation – albeit with just a smidgen of apprehension. For the match Antonio had mentioned was the final of the Euros 2020* between Italy and England. Now, if there is one thing that anyone knows about Italians it is that football is practically the country’s second religion. And if we add to the mix that Gli Azzuri  -The Blues, as the national team is affectionately known – were still smarting from having failed even to qualify for the last World Cup in 2018 (practically a national disaster) it is no exaggeration to say that, with a good chance of laying that particular demon to rest at last, excitement in the run-up to the match was at fever pitch. The ever-affable Antonio convinced us, however, that he had no hidden agenda in inviting a pair of English people to come and watch a match in which everyone else present would be desperate to see Italy triumph. They were a bike club, after all; the football was just a good reason for a get together…

Ragazzi e ragazze – Guys and girls,” boomed Antonio almost as soon as we walked through the gate. Twenty or so people looked up from setting out tables and chairs, filling paper plates with portions of cheese, cured meats and porchetta, or rigging up the large-screen television, amplifier and aerial.
“Some of you met them a couple of weeks ago,” he continued with his arm draped across Mr Blue-Shirt’s shoulders. “But for those who didn’t, I’d like you all to meet these two friends of ours, an ENGLISH couple who I think you will agree are being very BRAVE in joining us this evening to watch THE BLUES WIN tonight’s final!!”
Bastardo!” muttered Mr Blue-Shirt under his breath as Antonio winked mischievously at him and the assembled company broke into whoops, catcalls and applause.
“Let me introduce everyone,” he said, thrusting a cold beer into Mr-Blue-Shirt’s hand and a glass of chilled local white wine into mine.
“Are you here on holiday from England, then?” asked someone called Laura who good-naturedly looked us up and down as if searching for signs of union flags or ‘three lions’ emblems.
“No, we live in Montelupone; we’re officially Monteluponesi.”
“See? We’re all practically neighbours!” exclaimed Lori supportively.
That we were ‘locals’ certainly helped prove our pro-Italian credentials, but it was Laura’s husband Marco who asked the question that was still on everyone’s lips:
“Ah, but who are you supporting this evening?”

We knew we were bound to be asked, but also knew that as an answer, ‘it’s complicated’ wouldn’t quite cut it. For a start, neither of us actually likes football and only knew how the England team had been progressing as a result of the blanket coverage the UK media had given all their matches. In addition, we had been absolutely appalled by the way that sundry racists, xenophobes and jingoists (in government as well as on the terraces and on social media) appeared to have hijacked the tournament to further their own dubious political agendas. However, despite our love of Italy, we still couldn’t quite bring ourselves to abandon completely what is still ultimately our home nation. But then again, we didn’t want to antagonise our friendly hosts either. Like I said: it’s complicated.
“What do you think?” I responded evasively. “Look what colour we’re both wearing!”
“Blue! So it’s blue for The Blues!”
“Well, there you are then!” I declared, hoping this would be sufficiently ambiguous to let us off the hook. There was a brief pause, and then our interrogators raised their glasses in an impromptu toast to “Gli Azzuri!”
“Well done!” hissed Mr Blue-Shirt in my ear. “That was genius.”

So with everyone at least reasonably satisfied (if not totally convinced) of our loyalties, we sat down with Lori and Antonio to enjoy our apericena and watch the match.  But we were soon lost in conversation about the relative merits of Nortons versus Triumphs so only realised that England had scored two minutes into the game when twenty pairs of Italian eyes turned towards us, eager to see how we would react to this apparent catastrophe. Thankfully, as this implausibly good start for England had passed us by, our slight bafflement at the sudden excitement was, happily, interpreted as indifference and any remaining doubts as to our allegiance were assuaged.

Throughout the rest of the match, we paid as much attention to the reactions of our fellow diners as we did to what was happening on the pitch. When Italy were in the ascendant, it was all shouts of “Forza Italia!” and “Bravissimi!”, while it switched to wails of “Madonna!”, and “Porca miseria!” whenever England looked dangerous. But when Italy drew level early in the second half, had there been any roof on the place, it would have been blown off by the deafening collective roar of “G-o-o-a-a-l-l!!!” Then as the clock ticked down and the more likely extra time became, the further the volume fell, leaving just the cicadas cheering the players on by the time the final whistle blew.  Those around us quickly concluded that a penalty shoot-out would inevitably provide the climax to the tournament, so used the ensuing ‘phoney war’ to settle their nerves, clear the tables and refill their glasses in preparation for the final few minutes of exquisite agony. Then as the fuchsia-pink-clad referee signalled the start of the shoot-out and both teams went into their respective huddles on the pitch, so we all rose from our tables and huddled around the television screen.

With each penalty kick, our mini-crowd burst into a succession of whoops of joy, howls of dismay or cheers of glee depending on whose shot had gone in, been saved or had missed completely. But with one kick remaining, and the last chance for England to level the score at three-all, silence fell. Then as that final young Englishman, with the weight of his nation’s hopes on his shoulders, had his shot saved by the Italian goalkeeper, the warm night air was rent with roars of delight and a mass of fireworks – in red, white and green – exploded across the inky sky to chants of “Abbiamo vintooooo!! – We’ve wooon!!”

Even as our hearts went out to those poor young Englishmen whose penalties had not gone in, it was easy for us to be magnanimous in defeat. And not so much because of our relative lack of investment in the outcome as for our companions’ graciousness in victory. We exchanged congratulations and commiserations, fist-bumps and back-slaps with our euphoric companions, whose delight at winning contained not a single taunt or shred of Schadenfreude. While the podium was erected on the pitch for the presentation ceremony, Antonio distributed glasses of sparkling wine (which he had clearly put on ice ’just in case’) and as the huge trophy draped in green, white and red ribbons was presented to the Italian captain, we all as one raised our glasses of fizz and toasted the new UEFA Champions, ‘Gli Azzurri’.

If the evening had been a test, I think we had passed it.

* The UEFA European Football Championship postponed from the previous year.

Image courtesy of

Not Quite Back to Normal

The holiday season is upon us. The beaches are open, the sun-loungers are full, the sea is warm, restaurants are doing a roaring trade and business and factories will soon be falling quiet as they shut up shop for their summer break.  So far so normal. The whole country is, after all, now in the zona bianca (white zone). That said, wearing masks remains obligatory indoors, social distancing is still in place and venues still face capacity restrictions. In addition, access to many events is restricted to those with a ‘Covid Green Pass’, ie those who can prove either that they are full vaccinated, that they have tested negative for Covid-19 in the previous 48 hours, or that they have officially recovered from Covid-19. These sensible measures aside, though, nearly all other restrictions have been either eased greatly or lifted completely. The curfew has gone, we can move freely from one region to another, we can welcome an unlimited number of visitors into our homes, many of the rules governing weddings, christenings and funerals have disappeared, and museums and galleries, theatres and cinemas, gyms, pools and spas have all re-opened. 

Only it still isn’t Italy in summer quite as we know it. For a while I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It wasn’t just the more Anglo-Saxon approach to queuing in bars and gelaterie. It wasn’t even the almost total absence of hugs and handshakes among friends greeting each other at the beach. And it certainly wasn’t the weather, which has been as hot and sunny as mid-August since early June. It finally struck me the other day on my run into the village. I was toiling up Via Santa Catarina (aka Heart Attack Hill) in the shade of the steep grassy bank that rises up to the small complex of flats just outside the historical centre. The bank that at this time of year is usually bristling with rough timber posts that bear colourful placards advertising some sagra, festa, concert, pageant, exhibition or market taking place in any of half a dozen nearby villages. The bank that for the second year running remains conspicuously bare, the customary placards substituted with a scattering of self-sown sunflowers and garlands of bindweed blossom. For the recent national ripartenza (re-opening) came too late for the vast majority of these otherwise annual events to be able to go ahead and so they have had to be put on hold once again.

And for the second year running that is leaving a pretty big hole in the cultural life of the country, as the sheer number of these local events that normally take place throughout Italy during the summer months is truly remarkable – and not just in tourist hot-spots such as Florence or Venice, the Lakes or the Amalfi Coast. Even in tourism-lite Le Marche, our village – with its population of barely 3000 souls – typically holds a series of 3- or 4-day-long events between May and August, all of which are regular fixtures in the summer calendar. Normally we would have had the annual artichoke festival back in May, the annual pizza festival in July, the medieval weekend, the celebration of apiculture and the Ferragosto fireworks in August, and over the weekends in between, there would have been well over a dozen live music, dancing and sports events, many of them especially for children. Our village is far from unique in this respect, mind: the July and August issues of Corriere e Proposte, the catalogue of events that the region normally produces every month, typically contain around a hundred and fifty closely printed pages listing literally hundreds of events in several different categories. Usually on any weekend over summer we could choose between, say, A Sagra della Polenta up in Penna San Giovanna or a Horror Festival over in Monte Urano, the Palio down in Servigliano or maybe the Street Food Festival in Pedaso. This summer they haven’t even published Corriere e Proposte; it simply isn’t worth it for the meagre number of events that are happening across the region. In Montelupone, for instance, the programme has been reduced to a handful of low-key musical events in the main square, a classic car rally, and the apiculture fair, with access still only available to those with a Covid Green Pass.

One thing that has not changed, however, is that most of these events have, as usual, been organised, promoted and run entirely by the local ‘Pro Loco’, often with a degree of financial or logistical support from local sponsors as well as the Comune (town council). Literally translated, Pro Loco means ‘in favour of the place’ and so the purpose of each of these entirely voluntary, not-for-profit associations (of which there are now some 6200 nationwide, the first having been founded in 1881), is the promotion of the town, its sites, its history, its traditions, its culture and – of course – its gastronomy.

Interestingly, the principal purpose of all this activity is not, in the first instance, to attract tourists, but to improve the quality of life of the local residents by celebrating community identity and strengthening community ties. As such, the Pro Loco movement is in many ways an embodiment of the peculiarly Italian notion of ‘campanilismo’, which is rooted in the need in times past for communities to pull together to defend the parish bell tower – the campanile.  This highly developed sense of local allegiance is in turn derived from the fact that until little over a hundred and fifty years ago Italy was made up of a patchwork of perpetually warring kingdoms and dukedoms, imperial territories and papal lands, where conflict between adjoining regions, towns and even neighbourhoods was commonplace. Loyalty to the local was consequently often a matter of survival.

So it is a sad irony that in a period when people from one end of the country have been under sustained attack from a shared enemy in the form of an invisible virus and notions of the common good and reciprocity have seldom been more important, their communities have also had to be denied one of the very means of publicly reaffirming that crucial sense of solidarity and togetherness. We can only hope, therefore, that normal service will soon be resumed and that Pro Loco groups everywhere still be dusting off their collections of trestle tables, benches, banners, pergolas and PA systems and (providing we are able to remain in the zona bianca, of course) gearing up for an autumn of celebrations for the grape harvest, the truffle season, the hunting season, the olive harvest and even Advent. And for having got as far as we have through this crisis in the only way possible: together.  

Walking in the Footsteps of the Righteous

Heroes crop up in the most unlikely places. And we certainly had not been expecting to come across one as part of a Sunday morning hike in the gently rolling hills between Tolentino and San Ginesio just to the north of the Sibillini Mountains and about thirty kilometres south-west of our place.

These hikes normally take us to some of Le Marche’s more remote and rugged corners, up where the wind is brisk and the air is cool. And on this particular Sunday, when the whole country was tightly swaddled within a steamy blanket of suffocating heat, we could certainly have done with a few hours in one of those fresher corners. But on this occasion, starting from just outside the tiny village of Camporotondo at a pretty agriturismo (whose owner, Luca, was our guide for the day), our hike took us along well-used gravel tracks and even tarmac-ed roads, past fields of wheat and sunflowers and through groves of olive, fig and cherry trees, seldom climbing higher than 300m above sea level. There was method in the untimely choice of routes, however. On this particular hike, one of the organisers, Franco, had invited along members of a local cultural group in which he is also a leading light. This group has a particular interest in the Marchigian poet, Tullio Colsalvatico, who was born at his family’s farm in the nearby hamlet of Colvenale in 1901. Since Colsalvatico had drawn much of his inspiration for his poems from the local landscape, the idea was to intersperse the walk with readings from his works, with the intention that landscape and poetry should illuminate and enrich each other.

At this point I should mention that neither Mr Blue-Shirt nor I had heard of Tullio Colsalvatico, our limited knowledge of Italian poets not really extending beyond Dante, Primo Levi and Giacomo Leopardi (and we only know anything about him because he was born just across the valley from us in Recanati). Added to which, our Italian language skills are not yet at a level that enabled us to appreciate fully the finer points of Colsalvatico’s poetry. But the brief readings nonetheless provided us with moments of stillness and repose in which to contemplate the splendour of the surrounding countryside (as well as find a patch of shade and take a few swigs of water) as we let the beautiful music and richness of the language wash over us.

The final reading – for which the longest poem had been selected – was conducted at the highest point of the walk on a grassy ridge that to the south gave over the Tenna valley – and on to a wall of solid heat haze behind which lurked the northern crags of the Sibillini, and to the north over the Chienti valley – and a matching wall of heat haze that concealed the distinctive forest-clad mound of the Cònero Peninsular. Beneath the hot, colourless sky in which the sun appeared as no more than a pale blur, we eased our rucksacks from our sweat-drenched backs and drained the last tepid drops from our water bottles as we strained to catch the words of the poem before they were scattered on the sultry breeze. After a polite round of applause at the end of the reading, few of us were able to conceal our relief when Franco announced that it was lunchtime.

We descended to a dense copse of oak trees in whose welcome shade we gratefully plonked down and enjoyed a leisurely (socially-distanced) picnic lunch. This had been ferried up to us by Franco’s wife Silvana and Luca’s son Tobias, and consisted of local organic meats and cheeses, artisan bread and locally grown fruit, all washed down with young white wine from Luca’s organic vineyard. As we finished our picnic, Franco, an enthusiastic and loquacious Colsalvatico expert, filled us in on the poet’s life-story.

Now, I have to confess that Mr Blue-Shirt and I were a tad ‘Tullio-ed out’ by this stage. In all honesty, we would probably have preferred to spend the break getting to know our fellow walkers a little better, or even having a brief post-lunch snooze before winding our way back down to the agriturismo. So we did rather zone out, keeping just half an ear on proceedings while picking at the remains of our hearty lunch and conducting our exchanges sotto voce as Franco held forth.
“… father sent him to agricultural college in Fabriano… love of books and literature…”
“Pass me just one more bit of that yummy prosciutto, will you?”
“…deeply religious… abiding love of the land and those who work it…”
“Do you want any more of Luca’s wine? It’s rather good, isn’t it.”
“… published his first collection of poems when he was just eighteen…”
“Ow! Something’s just bitten me…”
“… interested in left-wing politics… moved to Rome but often returned to Colvenale…”
“I must ask Silvana where that fantastic bread came from.”
“…journalism and short stories as well as poetry…”
“Look! I think Primo has nodded off…”
“…always a passionate champion of Le Marche… role in setting up what became the Monti Sibillini National Park…”
“Stelvio has too, by the look of it… ”
“…a vocal critic of Mussolini… became involved in the resistance….helped organise shelter and safe passage for partisans in these very hills…”
I perked up a little at that.
“Oh, that’s interesting. I’d love to know more about the partigiani in Le Marche…”
“But it wasn’t only partigiani that he helped shelter…”

Franco had got my full attention now.
“By late summer 1943, with conditions for Jews becoming harsher by the day and the bombing of Rome growing every more likely, a certain Cesare Di Tivoli had decided it was becoming too dangerous for him, his wife Ester and their three children Fiorella, Emma and David to remain in Rome’s ancient ghetto. He chose a village near Tolentino to evacuate everyone to, not only because it was in faraway Le Marche, but also because a Jewish woman they knew had been transferred there by the authorities and given the status of ‘free inmate’.”
“That was good timing – it must have been just before Italy surrendered, surely…? ”
“Dunno,” shrugged Mr Blue-Shirt.
“As soon as the Nazis’ occupied Rome after the surrender that September…”
“…thought so…”
“… other members of Di Tivoli’s family decided to join Cesare and Ester in Le Marche. But to the Di Tivolis’ dismay, only a few weeks later, the local Comandante of the Caribinieri received orders to arrest all the Jews in the area. Colsalvatico knew the Di Tivoli family and understood the danger they were in so advised them all to flee, but promised that he would help them. Over the following days he organised high quality false identity papers for all twenty-four of Cesare’s family and also arranged shelter for them with families in several different villages around Tolentino and Camporotondo.”

And there they all stayed for the rest of the war, effectively hiding in plain sight, partly thanks to the convincing new identities their forged papers enabled them to create, and partly by becoming regular church-goers and participating in local Christian rites and festivals. Colsalvatico, meanwhile, continued to oversee their welfare and to protect them from the reach of the authorities. On one occasion he saved Cesare’s then seven-year-old daughter Fiorella from certain capture by swiftly moving her to another village when German forces entered the village where she had been staying.

Only when the Di Tivoli family returned to Rome at the end of the war did they realise how fortunate they had been to have had the help of such a courageous friend as Colsalvatico. With the clearing of the ghetto in late 1943, their homes had been wrecked and plundered and two thousand of their neighbours had been deported, most of them to perish in Auschwitz, while the remaining six thousand of Rome’s Jewish population continued to live in hiding and under constant threat of discovery until the liberation of the city in June 1944.

“The thing is,” said Franco, “the story of Colsalvatico’s rescue of the Di Tivoli family only came to light in 2006.”
Everyone sat up. “Did he say 2006??” we all asked one another.
“Yes,” confirmed Franco. “Remember Fiorella, the seven-year-old daughter who had to flee when the Germans arrived? Well, she and her family emigrated to Israel at some point. But even though she was now in her eighties, she had never forgotten her wartime experience in the hills of Le Marche, or the poet who had saved her and the other twenty-three members of her family, and she wanted to have his bravery recognised.”

So after three years of rigorous and meticulous research, the details of Fiorella’s story were confirmed. And on 30th March 2009, and twenty-nine years after his death, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem officially recognised Tullio Colsalvatico as Righteous Among the Nations.

Photo courtesy of

The Righteous Among Nations are defined by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, as non-Jews who during the Holocaust put themselves at risk to save the lives of Jews without any personal benefit to themselves. They currently number 27,712 individuals from 51 different nations. Italy has the 7th largest number of Righteous Among Nations, with 734 of its citizens having been awarded this title since the programme started in 1963. For more information, please visit

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