Normality is a Big Fat Thistle

Ecco ci! – Here we are!”
Antonio flung his arms wide, ready to envelop each of us in one of his customary bear hugs. He and his wife Lori had just arrived at the café in the main square where we were waiting for them in the early evening sunshine. We had been lucky to bag a table on the pretty terrace with its uninterrupted views across to the distant Sibillini Mountains as the whole place was packed with people who, like us, had come into Montelupone for the village’s 59th Artichoke Festival, aka Sagra del Carciofo.

Il carciofo (pronounced ‘car-CHOFF-oh’) is a local speciality. And when I say ‘local’, I mean that in practically every field within the village’s boundaries there are at least a couple of long, neat rows of the deep green mounds like huge prickly cushions from which the edible buds appear in spring and reach fist-sized maturity in early May. Moreover, a lot of the local growers have achieved ‘certified organic’ status for their produce and/or are members of the local Slow Food community: yes, they take their artichokes very seriously in Montelupone. So seriously, in fact, that since 1960 or so, the village has recognised the artichoke’s contribution to the local economy and to the community’s individuality with this annual, weekend-long celebration of the artichoke.

Only it hasn’t quite been ‘annual’, of course. Thanks to the pandemic and its accompanying restrictions, the last time this open-air festival involving a long list of artichoke-based eating and drinking plus lots of stalls, processions, music and dancing took place was in 2019. But after three years’ absence, it was back in all its glory last weekend, and not only as a celebration of the artichoke, but also, it seemed, as an expression of civic solidarity and resilience – and in effect as a means of marking the village’s official return to normality. As such, it was a party no one was going to miss.

So having finished our aperitivi and caught up on the difficulties Lori and Antonio are having with their solar energy installation, we set off to join the mêlée of black-clad grandmas, smartly casual couples, tattooed teenagers, curly-haired toddlers and over-excited dogs thronging the narrow, cobbled streets that radiate out from the main square. For the entire weekend, these were lined with rows of stands piled high with freshly harvested deep purple artichokes, stands selling jars of artichokes preserved in golden olive oil that are a favourite antipasto, and stands stacked with shiny waxed drums of pecorino of various vintages, along with a collection of other stands proudly displaying an array of locally-produced, artisan foods from hams to honey.

This, however, wasn’t where the main attraction was – the stands gastronomici. They were in the small park that is almost hidden behind the small square where the war memorial is located. And as we made our way there, back through the main square, past the stage where a live band would be performing later and out the other side towards the Parco Franchi, we bumped into our new pal Francesco. This is the neighbour from whom Mr Blue-Shirt will probably soon be renting some workshop space and who is also a good friend of Antonio’s. He was there with his girlfriend Donatella and a couple of friends we’d met at another recent get-together. So having exchanged hugs and handshakes, ‘come stai?’s and ‘tutto bene?’s with everyone, we all joined the queue of people stretching from outside the park gates to the far side of the football-pitch sized space. Here stood a row of open-fronted marquees that housed a huge makeshift kitchen from which plate after plate of freshly cooked food was being served by a team of some forty volunteers to the would-be diners who were waiting to take their pick from, among other things, whole roasted artichokes topped with grated pecorino, roast pork stuffed with artichokes, artichoke lasagne, artichoke risotto, artichoke salad, artichoke omelette, artichoke fritters, and deep-fried olives stuffed with artichokes. Having been served our selections, we carefully carried our food-and-drink-laden trays to the row of marquees along the left-hand side of the park from which spilled rows of trestle tables and benches already crammed with diners munching on their artichoke feast while being entertained by folk dancers and accordion players.

Francesco had somehow managed to bag a whole table for us all in the far corner of the marquee, and so here we remained for the next couple of hours, talking, laughing, joking, eating and drinking, offering each other tasters from our plates and making assessments of the different dishes until we had all finally eaten our fill of artichoke goodies and naturally declared all the food buonissimo. But I suspect that what every single person in that noisy, chatter- and music-filled marquee had enjoyed above all was the simple pleasure of coming together with others, the renewed sense of community and the sense that normality had finally been restored to the life of the village.

With the sky having by now darkened to a star-studded inky-blue, we made our way back through the still crowded streets to the now even more crowded main square where the band was filling the warm evening air with popular Italian rock ballads. The huge speakers, big screen, dry ice and fancy light show looked slightly incongruous set against the backdrop of the imposing medieval bell tower and grand town hall, but it was so heartening to see the ancient square buzzing with life and energy and fun once more – just as it should be.

Gradually, we all went our separate ways, some to meet a different group of friends in the bar, some to sample the artichoke ice cream at the gelateria, and others simply to listen to the music. After a digestivo in the bar with Antonio and Lori – just a normal grappa; we decided to give the specially made artichoke grappa a miss – Mr Blue-Shirt and headed home.  And as we drifted off to sleep to the distant sound of the band floating in through our bedroom window on the soft night air, I hoped that we would not have to wait another three years until the next Sagra del Carciofo.

A Stroll Around The Garden

It was back in late February that we first rejoiced at the apparent arrival of spring, but since then it has been an unusually protracted, on-off affair. Until a couple of weeks ago, that is when spring positively exploded into a glorious riot of colour, scent and birdsong. Over the course of the last fortnight the surrounding hillsides and hedgerows have gone from a sprinkling of tightly folded buds, too timid to open up to the still chilly breeze, to a mass of leaves and blossom bobbing and fluttering in the sunshine. And it’s been the same in our garden too, of course. Not that we really have a garden in the English sense of the word. No neat borders filled with irises and tulips, no stripey, billiard-table lawn, no seedling-filled greenhouse. We do have quite a sizeable chunk of land, though – about half an acre in all. It is rectangular and almost entirely covered by rough grass that is currently sprinkled with daisies, and like a giant green picnic rug, it rolls down the gentle slope of the valley from the longer western side, along which runs the road into Montelupone. A single field planted either with wheat or with sunflowers – this year it’s wheat – wraps around the other three sides. The grassy rug is pegged in place by a single line of thirty-eight olive trees that mark the outer perimeter, while a line of tall broadleaf evergreen hedge (Italian alder, we think) forms an inner perimeter, creating a three- or four-metre-wide shady grove around which are dotted a dozen or so fruit trees. These include apple, pear, plum and persimmon as well as apricot, fig and walnut, all of which are just coming into fruit, their blossom having long since been lost in eddies of pink and white confetti on the lively spring breeze. Shall we go for a stroll…?

The house stands end-on to the road, with all but a narrow strip of land containing the carport and the tall, domed well behind it and the remainder evenly spread out around the other three sides, so let’s start from the back door which opens off the kitchen and onto the northern section of the garden. This is where the old pigsty once stood and for the time being, the upper part can most charitably be described as ‘work in progress’ as it is where all the tonnes of spoil from cantina excavations (don’t ask!) have been piled up and is now little more than a jungle of weeds, albeit very pretty ones. Over the last few months, though, we’ve become adept at ignoring the building site to our left and focusing instead on the shady terrace stretching along the back of the house to our right. This is now home to a small table and two chairs (our preferred spot for breakfast in the height of summer), an abundant herb garden (a handy five paces or fewer from the kitchen worksurface), and a rapidly expanding collection of plant pots and troughs. These are filled with carnations, busy lizzies, hydrangeas and jasmine that are all poised to burst into flower any day now, as grateful as Mr Blue-Shirt and I both are for the slightly cooler conditions that this side of the house still enjoys even when the sun is at its fiercest.  It is a far cry from the almost permanently puddle-filled strip of cracked and flaking concrete, the dilapidated and moss-covered cold frame, the jumble of ill-fitting drain covers, the assortment of wonky chairs and the stack of sun-bleached plastic crates that the space was littered with when we first moved in.

A few metres across the grass from where we are now standing at the north-east corner of the terrace are the long, low-roofed woodstore and a couple of small, increasingly saggy sheds that cluster around the hedge-line at the end of the long eastern side of the plot. They are partly hidden by an extremely vigorous bay tree with its brand-new outfit of shiny, acid green leaves, a pomegranate tree whose tiny leaves are just fading from coppery-pink to bright green and a cherry tree whose young fruit so far looks more like freshly podded peas than cherries.  Then as we continue round onto the eastern side, our gaze is instantly drawn to the view out over the olive trees up to the honey-hued village to the left and then down the lush, olive tree, wheat, rape, vine and eventually sunflower filled valley to the tantalising triangle of sapphire blue sea at the bottom. And for the last two years, we have been able to enjoy this stop-you-in-your-tracks view from this slightly elevated terrace that Mr Blue-Shirt built during the first lockdown. The broad, terracotta-tiled space extends right across the eastern end of the house, which opens onto the garden from the sitting room. Every evening for the last two summers we have lingered at the dining table or lounged on the L-shaped sofa out here, watching the lights twinkling across the valley and breathing in the perfumed evening air, or if we are lucky, listening to the rasping of the crickets and the coloratura song of a lone nightingale accompanying the ballet of fireflies taking place among the trees. Initially, we just wanted to enjoy the pristine openness of this space, rather like those minimalist chefs who like to ‘let the ingredients speak for themselves’. But it soon felt a little too sterile and ascetic, so over time we have softened its crisp, clean lines, first by adding large tubs of lavender and sprawling plumbago, then troughs filled with richly-scented wine-red roses, and most recently the practically obligatory tumble of cheery geraniums and petunias.

So, as we follow the terrace round, our stroll brings us to the south section of the plot. In English terms this would probably be called the front garden since it is here that the heavy sliding gate opens from the road onto a wide gravel driveway from which the main entrance to the house is reached. To our left on the far side the driveway stands a group of stately conifers, a small rotund laurel bush, a neat little hibiscus tree and a huge willow tree that dominates the view from my study window, and beneath whose gracefully arching limbs stands the bench Mr Blue-Shirt forged a few years ago, originally as a golden wedding present for his late parents. Meanwhile, immediately in front of us, there is a vigorous climbing rose that is already weighed down by heavy clusters of pale pink blooms and a pair of bougainvillea plants whose muscular, leaf-sprigged limbs will soon turn into a mass of brilliant crimson. All three scramble up the short section of pergolato that Mr Blue-Shirt and a visiting pal erected over the narrow strip of terrace running along the southern side of the house. Passing the café table and chairs from where we enjoy the sunshine on winter mornings, we reach the narrow, final section of terrace as it passes in front of the stairs running up the front of the house. On it stands a row of two lemon trees and a lime and the heady fragrance from their small, waxy blooms accompanies as we make our way to the heavy oak front door and finally head back inside. But only for as long as it takes to go through to the sitting room, fling open the garden doors, step out onto the terrace and settle down on the sofa in the golden, late afternoon sunshine to listen to the bees humming in the lavender and watch the hoopoes and magpies swooping among the trees. Do you think it’s too early for a glass of wine…?

The Icing on the Cake?

Mr Blue-Shirt arranged to go and have a look at the potential forging space Francesco had offered him in one of his barns on a Saturday afternoon in early April. His heart wasn’t really in it, though, as he had by then committed – mentally, at least – to setting up his forge in the space that Antonio, the chap who runs the shipping company that had transported Mr Blue-Shirt’s shipping container over from Lincolnshire, had offered him in one of the warehouses he rents. In fact, he had been on the point of finally unpacking all his forging equipment when Covid stopped both of us in our tracks back in February. The problem was, in the meantime the owner of the site had informed Antonio that it had become necessary to renegotiate his lease as they needed to do something else with the site, so with Plan A at risk, Mr Blue-Shirt knew he’d be foolish to pass up a potential Plan B. After all, to turn down this opportunity could mean having to start the whole search from scratch – and leaving his forge crammed in it steel box for yet another few months.

Mr Blue-Shirt did have to admit, however, that being just over 2km from home – and with magnificent views across to the snow-capped Sibillini Mountains – the buff-coloured metal barn with a corrugated roof was in the kind of location he had always dreamt of. And the space, complete with a couple of large workbenches, an assortment of tools and several pieces of metal-working apparatus certainly had potential as a forge; it even already had a three-phase power supply – a crucial selling point in Mr Blue-shirt’s book . That said, it was also quite a lot smaller than the space at Antonio’s, plus Francesco was likely to want a commercial rent for the space. And apart from anything, he didn’t want to put his pal Antonio’s nose out of joint. So with quite a lot of pros and cons to weigh up, Mr Blue-Shirt remained politely non-committal as we drove Francesco back up the white gravel track to the main road and dropped him back at the large coral-pink house with white shutters where his mother lived.

“Would you like to come in for a quick coffee?” asked Francesco as he unfolded his long-limbed frame from the back seat and shoo-ed away the very yappy Jack Russell that had noisily greeted us as we pulled up in front of the house. Even though we had never met Francesco’s mother, it seemed churlish to decline, so we followed him up the broad, tiled steps on which a matching pair of large marmalade cats lounged proprietorially. He led us into a wood-panelled hallway where a petite woman in her late sixties with sensibly styled salt-and-pepper hair ushered us into the small dining room that was dominated, incongruously, by a large flat-screen TV.
Mia mama,” said Francesco somewhat unnecessarily.
Piacere – pleased to meet you,” she said, her heavily lined face crinkling into a broad smile. “Sono Lilia,” she clarified and extended her hand while rolling her eyes benevolently at her son and then disappeared into the adjoining kitchen to make coffee.

Shoving his unruly mop of curly chestnut hair back from his face with his wrap-around sunglasses and lighting yet another cigarette, Francesco invited us to take a seat at the scrubbed oak dining table. Over the hiss and splutter of the coffee machine coming from the kitchen he explained that this was the family farmhouse, but that he and his girlfriend lived in an apartment in Montelupone itself, and that while it was mainly an arable farm, they also reared a certain amount of livestock.
Ecco ci qua – here we are,” said Lilia as she returned to the dining room with a tray of tiny espresso cups, each containing barely a tablespoon of deeply aromatic coffee. As she handed round the cups and the sugar and a plate of dainty, homemade almond biscuits, we answered her questions about why we’d moved to Italy, why we’d chosen Le Marche, what we thought of Montelupone and how we had found our house before she returned to the kitchen where we could hear her bustling about with dinner preparations. By the time we had responded to Francesco’s queries about how many olive trees we had, how much oil they yielded and where we got our olives pressed, we had finished our coffee and the delicious biscuits, so stood up ready to take our leave. We thanked Francesco for the tour of the workshop and for his hospitality, and as we called out “Arrivederci!” to Lilia, she suddenly reappeared holding a large Pyrex dish that she had obviously just removed from the freezer.
“Do you like lasagne?” she said, indicating the condensation-coated dish.
“Er…yes, we do.…”
“Here you are, then. It’s all homemade. Our own eggs in the pasta, our own meat and our own tomatoes in the sauce.”
“But that’s far too generous. We couldn’t possibly…,” we protested.
“Nonsense! I’ve got plenty more in the freezer. Just bring the dish back when you’re ready.”
Mr Blue-Shirt and I looked at each other hesitantly.
“Go on, take it,” urged Francesco. “She’ll be cross if you don’t!”
Suspecting he probably wasn’t entirely joking, we accepted the dish, thanked Lilia profusely and said our goodbyes.

We ate the lasagne the following weekend, and needless to say, it was divine. Multiple layers of pasta that was as delicate and smooth as silk alternating with equally thin layers of incredibly flavoursome beef ragù and topped with a generous layer of cheese-rich bechamel sauce. A couple of days later, in order to indicate that we had not just stuffed Lilia’s gift in the depths of the freezer, I drove up to the coral-pink farmhouse to return Lilia’s dish, and took a jar of lemon curd that I had recently made with our own lemons by way of a small thank you. Having assured her that the lasagne had indeed been delicious, I handed her the jar the lemon curd and as it is unknown here, I explained how it was eaten, how it was made and what was in it.
“Eggs?!” said Lilia as I ran through the ingredients. “Just a moment…”
Lilia disappeared into the tall cupboard under the stairs and emerged a few seconds later holding a large polystyrene tray stacked with getting on for twenty enormous eggs to which sprigs of straw and lumps of saw dust still clung. She waved away my protestations.
“We always end up with far more than I can use. In fact, come and get some more whenever you are passing. It’ll soon be the same with tomatoes: if you can take some off my hands, you’ll be doing me a favour.”
Sensing Lilia would not take no for an answer, I gave in gracefully, accepted the eggs, and promised to return for some more in the near future.  So now I need to think of another way to reciprocate Lilia’s neighbourly generosity while Mr Blue-Shirt weighs up all those pros and cons. But we both agreed that meeting the generous, knowledgeable and persuasive Lilia was an unanticipated addition to the ‘pro’ side of the scales.

The Continuing Echoes of History

Tomorrow is Liberation Day in Italy. And seventy-seven years after the conclusion of the country’s battle to free itself from the forces of fascism, there is an echo of history as its battle to free itself from the deadly grip Covid also seems to be coming to a close. So following two years of lockdowns, quarantines, rules and restrictions, the poignant irony of this anniversary has not been lost on the Italian people, and with life now almost as close to normality as before the pandemic and nearly all anti-Covid measures gone, Italians are in the mood to party. So for the first April since 2019, every roadside is once again bristling with posters advertising events ranging from food festivals to antiques fairs, fun-runs to flower markets, classic car meets to concerts and bike races to battle re-enactments, all aimed at celebrating both the country’s most recent liberation as well as that which occurred in spring 1945.

It was on 25th April 1945 that the pivotal cities of Milan and Turin were liberated from Nazi occupation, just six days after the partisan Comitato di Liberazione Nationale (Committee of National Liberation) proclaimed a resistance-led uprising that was quickly followed by a general strike initiated by Sandro Pertini (who later became President of the Republic). These twin initiatives were carefully timed to coincide with the Allies’ Spring Offensive, the 15th Allied Army’s multi-pronged attack into the Lombardy Plain and the culmination of their two-year-long advance up through the country from Sicily.

The partisan insurgency quickly paralysed industry in several other strategically important northern cities including Genoa, Bologna and Venice, while British and American units forced the Nazis, who for some time had been without arms or ammunition, into full retreat. Their capitulation just a week later finally brought to an end Mussolini’s twenty-three-year dictatorship as well as five years of war, which included two years of Nazi occupation and two years of civil war between the partisans and the collaborators that had resulted from Italy’s surrender to the Allies in September 1943.

25th April 1945 was also the day on which Il Duce and his generals were sentenced to death. And just three days later Mussolini himself was shot dead after a member of a group of partisans involved in checking convoys of retreating SS lorries recognised and arrested him on the Brenner Pass as he was trying to escape to Switzerland with his mistress, Claretta Petacci. Their bodies were returned to Milan, and along with the bodies of eighteen other prominent fascists who had also been executed, were hung upside down in the Piazzale Loreto – the scene a year earlier of the public execution of fifteen partisans on the order of the head of the Gestapo in Milan in reprisal for a resistance attack on a German military convoy.

The festival was initially created by decree in 1946 “per celebrare la totale liberazione del territorio italiano”, and was enacted into law as a permanent annual national holiday in 1949. Since then, practically every town in the country has named a street via XXV Aprile in commemoration of this critical date in the history of the Republic. The day is also known as La Festa della Resistenza in recognition of the decisive role in the liberation played by the partigiani (partisans) of which there were about 250,000 by 1945. It has always been a day of mixed emotions: of celebration and commemoration, of liberation and loss.  As such, it is rather like a combination of Remembrance Day solemnity and D-Day partying, complete with parades, concerts and lots of eating, drinking and making merry.

Before the partying begins, however, civic wreath-laying ceremonies are held at the memorials ‘ai caduti’ (to the fallen) that are found in practically every town and village in the country. Chief among these ceremonies is that held at the Vittoriano in the centre of Rome. This huge, flamboyant national monument, which is also known as the Altare della Patria (Altar of the Fatherland) was built in 1885 in honour of King Vittorio Emanuele II who played a central role in the country’s unification in 1861, and also houses il Sacello del Milite Ignoto (the Shrine of the Unknown Soldier) dedicated to all Italian soldiers lost in war. It is here, surrounded by military pomp and pageantry, marching bands and flags that the President of the Republic and other senior government officials lay wreaths of laurel leaves in tribute to all those killed in the service of the nation. And as the spectre of Covid slowly retreats, for the first time in three years, the commemorations seem set to be as full as ever of spectacle and ceremony as Sergio Matarella lays his wreath. Along with a full complement of military and political dignitaries including Prime Minister Draghi, the presidents of the Chamber and the Senate and the Chief of the Defence Staff, he will then stand to attention as a lone bugler sounds ‘Il Silenzio’, leading the nation in recalling the defiance and courage of the partisans of earlier generations and the sacrifices they made that brought about the nation’s rebirth in 1945, before the Frecce Tricolori round the ceremony off with a deafening and triumphant fly-past.

In his address to the nation, the President will naturally pay tribute to ‘the fallen’, once again drawing painful parallels with the battle against Covid and emphasising that the hardships, solidarity and of the preceding two years will just as surely as in 1945 bring about a further national rebirth. But this year in celebrating the fortitude and patriotism of Italians’ resistance to and eventual liberation from Nazi occupation in the 1945, Matarella, in a gesture of solidarity with Ukraine, is also set to draw parallels between and Ukrainians’ vigorous resistance to Russia’s ongoing invasion of their nation and make an appeal for peace. The echoes of history continue to reverberate…

The Ties That Bind

It’s been another momentous week. Our first family visitors of the year since autumn 2019. And the first ever visit, initially planned two years ago, from my younger niece, her husband and their three-year-old son whom we had previously met on barely three or four occasions and then only briefly. But with so much lost time to be made up for, there was little time for putting pen to paper. So after a couple of days’ pause for thought, here are some reflections on a special week expressed in seven haiku.

This time burnishing
The golden bonds of kinship
That time can’t loosen

Poignancy made flesh
My late sister’s first grandchild
Whom she never met

Rediscovering
My inner child by skipping
With my great-nephew

The left-handed gene
Passing through time and linking
Five generations

Photo albums that
Open windows to the past
And wounds yet to heal

Sharing memories
Anchoring me to my past
Aunt, niece, sister, mum

Making memories
Investing in the future
Great-aunt, great-nephew

As One Door Closes…

It was in mid-February just before we went down with Covid that Francesco mentioned it. Mr Blue-Shirt and I were with our friend Antonio down at the site that the classic motorcycle club he runs had used for social events for the previous few summers. Along with a few of his other pals, we were helping clear the site of all the club’s accumulated stuff as the owner had decided he wanted to use it for something else. Francesco had come down in his tractor so he could tow the huge, classic American-style caravan that serves as a clubhouse and store to its temporary home in Antonio’s goods yard at the shipping company he runs a few kilometres along the main coast road.

While the others were getting the caravan ready for its short journey, Mr Blue-Shirt told Antonio about the difficulties he was having sourcing the type of generator he would need in order to be able to run his forge from the space Antonio had offered him in one of his warehouses as there is no mains power on site.
“I’ve got some space you could use in my workshop,” said Francesco conversationally as he shoved his unruly mop of curly chestnut hair back from his face with his wrap-around sunglasses. “And it’s in Montelupone,” he said, lighting yet another cigarette. “Just up the road from your place, in fact.”
A posto!” bellowed the others, giving a collective thumbs up: the caravan was good to go. Francesco swung himself up into the cab and turned the tractor’s ignition. “It’s got three-phase power too,” he shouted over the throaty roar of the engine, ramming the huge beast into gear and swinging it into position with practised ease.

This brief conversation, which had gone no further as we had an extremely heavy 12m long caravan to shift, came back to Mr Blue-Shirt when we were just getting back to normal after Covid and he called Antonio to check it was OK for him to start the long-awaited task of un-packing his shipping container and beginning to set up his forge.  For in response, Antonio told him that the owner of the site – completely out of the blue – had just informed him that it had become necessary to renegotiate his lease as they needed to do something else with the site. Suddenly the absence of a generator was the least of Mr Blue-Shirt’s concerns: depending on the outcome of these renegotiations, he might not even have a forge anymore. So after a brief exchange of messages with Francesco and having confirmed that his seemingly casual offer had indeed been serious, Mr Blue-Shirt arranged to go and have a look at his workshop the following Saturday afternoon.

The location pin Francesco sent took us to a large coral-pink house with white shutters and an abundant vegetable garden to one side that was no more than 3km from our place and that we realised we drive past every time we go to Macerata. This was the family farmhouse, Francesco explained as he shoo-ed a very yappy Jack Russell back inside, but he and his girlfriend lived in Montelupone itself. The space he had in mind was in one of the farm’s barns about a kilometre away just along the main road and down a lane, and so he climbed into the back seat of our car to show us the way.
“Turn left just up there,” said Francesco, pointing to a gateway onto a tree-lined, white gravel track that meandered gently down the hill between mature olive groves and neatly-ploughed fields, across which a tinge of fresh green was just beginning to spread. A couple of minutes later we crunched to a halt alongside a grey, metal barn with a terracotta-coloured corrugated roof and magnificent views across to the snow-capped Sibillini Mountains.

Francesco un-padlocked the pedestrian entrance in the huge sliding doors across the end of the barn.
Prego…,” he said, elegantly gesturing for us to enter.
Shafts of brilliant sunlight streamed in through the skylights in the roof, illuminating several huge pieces of expensive-looking agricultural equipment that dominated the space. Huddled around them out of the spotlight were a couple of large workbenches strewn with tools, several pieces of metal-working apparatus, piles of metal and timber offcuts of the ‘might come in useful some time’ variety, and an apparently long-since abandoned restoration project in the form of a dust-and-cobweb-clad Ford Panther missing its roof, seats, steering wheel and tyres. Mr Blue-Shirt was clearly itching to have a good poke around inside it, but limited himself to a cursory once-over and a quick “I could help you get that sorted out, if you want” before returning his attention to the barn’s potential as a forge.

Yes, the place was a bit of a tip at the moment; yes, it might mean quite a lot less space than at Antonio’s, and yes, Francesco was likely to want a commercial rent for the space. But it wouldn’t take that long to shift things around to create a useful forging area, and there was space outside to store his shipping container. Francesco had also offered Mr Blue-shirt the use of any tools and equipment he needed, and it already had three-phase power, and it was under ten minutes’ drive from home. For goodness’ sake, it even had the kind of marvellous views he had long envisaged being able to contemplate while waiting for his metal to come up to forging temperature. And yet…

Mr Blue-Shirt looked carefully about the place, assessing what was on offer and weighing up his options. He said very little, though; he was clearly torn. It had taken him several months to come to the conclusion that Antonio’s warehouse was the best (if not the only) option available, and had now become fully invested in making work. But if what by then had become Plan A was at risk, he knew he’d be foolish to pass up a perfectly workable – and completely serendipitous – Plan B, even if it did mean totally re-designing his carefully thought through forge layout and re-calculating his running costs. After all, to turn down this opportunity could mean having to start the whole search from scratch again – and leaving his forge crammed in it steel box for yet another few months.

“Well?” said Francesco’s raised eyebrow as he locked the door behind us.
Ci devo pensare,” said Mr Blue-Shirt. “I’ll have to think about it.”

A Twist in the Tale

It is almost exactly three years since Mr-Blue-Shirt’s shipping container full of forging equipment arrived from Lincolnshire, after which came eighteen months of ultimately fruitless exploring, browsing, asking and searching for a suitable premises to use as a forge. By late 2020, however, Mr Blue-Shirt had ended up with not just one, but two apparently viable options to consider. While both of them (on paper) seemed to offer practically everything he needed, neither (on paper) seemed to be quite what Mr Blue-Shirt originally had in mind. But having reluctantly concluded that such a place, should it exist at all, was either already occupied, way too expensive, or required too much renovation, it was now a matter of not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good in trying to work out which, if either, of these two options might at least turn out to be good enough.

One was about twelve miles away in a former furniture factory. The site, which is down at the coast just outside Porto Potenza Picena, is leased by Mr Blue-Shirt’s chum Antonio who runs the shipping company that transported his container over and in whose goods yard it had stood since it arrived. Having assessed the various options offered by the vast site that consists of an office building along with several large sheds and storage yards, they decided that the best area for a forge was a 70m2 corner of the main, 750m2 warehouse, which would still leave a huge area for the industrial tenant Antonio was planning to sub-let the rest of the space to. Once cleared of several years’ detritus and pigeon droppings, this would offer Mr Blue-Shirt more than enough space for all his forging equipment. He could even bring his shipping container inside to use for lockable storage since the full height sliding double doors at ‘his’ end of the warehouse would allow it to be forklifted into the warehouse, which also offers a flat concrete floor, high ceilings and lots of natural light as well as a generous area of covered of hardstanding outside. All he needed to sort out was a suitable power supply.

The other, meanwhile, was an approximately 80m2 workshop at the premises of Giovanni, the chap who owns the firm who did our solar energy installation, and is only about six miles away in Trodica, a suburb just off the dual carriageway that runs down to the Adriatic coast. Located at the rear of the site, it had all the essentials, including the all-important three-phase power supply required for running some of Mr Blue-Shirt’s more power-hungry pieces of equipment. However, one wall of the building had a large and vigorous bush growing through it, and the small extension containing a washroom seemed to be parting company from the main building, which, strangely, had a suspended ceiling of the type found in large office buildings. It was also chock-full of several tonnes of redundant heating and air-conditioning equipment from Giovanni’s business. But then again, it was a good, square shape, was completely self-contained and relatively easy to secure.

And yet…. Well, they just didn’t make Mr Blue-Shirt’s blacksmithing heart sing. After more than fifteen years’ hitting hot metal in a two-hundred-year-old, circular forge that oozed charm and character from every soot-stained brick, he simply found these brutally utilitarian spaces rather sterile and uninspiring. In his mind’s eye he had envisaged something quirkier and more bucolic; something, perhaps, with far-reaching views over the rolling Marchigian hills towards the sparkling Adriatic which he could contemplate while waiting for his metal to come up to forging temperature. So despite his head’s best efforts to be objective and business-like, his heart just wouldn’t let him give up his original vision and allow him to commit to one of these two soulless yet practical options, and Mr Blue-Shirt found himself gripped with uncharacteristic indecision.

Then before Mr Blue-Shirt could resolve his head vs heart dilemma, the country was hit by two more waves of Covid, a further round of lockdowns and another raft of restrictions that put everything on hold once more. And then there was the catalogue of jobs on the house that over the preceding year had moved up the list from ‘when we get round to it’ to ‘getting really quite urgent’. In addition, he found that he did have some lingering concerns about the physical security of the two sites (bearing in mind we’ve suffered two burglaries since we’ve been here), and some niggling doubts had surfaced regarding security of tenure too. After all, both Giovanni and Antonio had made their offers on an entirely informal basis, with nothing ever likely to be put in writing. And finally, there was the fact that Mr Blue-Shirt, the old romantic, was still clinging to his hope of finding somewhere a bit more picturesque. So his forge remained crammed in its steel box for another few months.

By last autumn, though, Mr Blue-Shirt’s head and heart seemed to have shaken hands. The idea of a pretty little forge in the hills was abandoned once and for all, and despite its advantages, Giovanni’s place was also abandoned because it was simply going to be too expensive – especially since Mr Blue-Shirt had come to the conclusion that he would need to scale back his forging ambitions in light of the pandemic. So this left Antonio’s place down by the coast as the only viable option – which did still have a lot going for it, not least the solid friendship that has developed between these two former soldiers, as well as the reassuring conversations they have had about Antonio’s long-term plans for the whole site. In addition, Mr Blue-Shirt has done a range of maintenance and repair jobs for Antonio that have made the premises more secure, and, thanks to Antonio’s generous, easy-going nature, it has already become our overflow storage area and now houses a couple of pallets of tiles for when he completes the final section of terrace, all the timber for the pergolato that Mr Blue-Shirt is going to erect over the main terrace he built during the first lockdown, and the elderly but capable small forklift truck (mulettino) that he recently acquired for moving his heaviest kit around. He had even spent weeks trying to track down a generator for his three-phase power supply. Indeed, this ‘mission creep’ combined with a growing sense of realism meant that Mr Blue-Shirt would by now have finally un-packed his shipping container and at last started to set up his workshop had we not both caught Covid in February.

Paradoxically, however, this delay turned out to be more of a silver lining than a cloud, for just as Mr Blue-Shirt was feeling well enough to go and begin the long-awaited yet time-consuming process of unloading, shifting, positioning and setting up, Antonio was told by the freeholder of the site – completely out of the blue – that it had become necessary to renegotiate his lease as they needed to do something else with the site, and suddenly everything was back on hold yet again.

Since then, there has been much to-ing and fro-ing between the parties, with Mr Blue-Shirt helplessly looking on from no-man’s-land. And thanks to Antonio’s dogged determination and utter refusal to contemplate failure (something else he and Mr Blue-shirt have in common), it does look as if there is a slim chance that a solution of some sort may possibly be found. But in the meantime, Mr Blue-Shirt has started scanning the countryside once more – just in case – and his forge looks set to spend a few more weeks yet crammed in its steel box.

Sunshine for the Soul

It’s felt like quite a momentous week. Our first visitors of the year, our first visitors since before Omicron. And the first visit since pre-pandemic times from these very dear friends (and, until Covid, regular house guests) who we know from my singing days in Lincolnshire. But with so much catching up and living life to be done, there was little time for writing it about it too. So after a couple of days’ pause for thought, here are some reflections on a wonderful seven days condensed into seven haiku.

Anticipation
Then tears and hugs and laughter
They are here at last!

……..

Giddy with delight
Babble, chatter, eat and drink
Late into the night

……..

Overlapping lives
The warp and weft of friendship
The fabric of life

……..

Sea, snow, mountain views,
Marvelling at palaces
Sharing food and wine

……..

The warmth of friendship
As nourishing as the spring
Sunshine for the soul

……..

Telescopic time
Hello to goodbye shortened
From days to seconds

……..

Longing to slow time
The week has passed too soon and
Suddenly they’re gone…

Photo taken at c.1500m ASL on the southern edge of the Piano Grande in the Sibillini Mountains.

A Night at the Opera

A survey in 1868 listed 113 of them in Le Marche, of which more than 100 are still in regular use today. One for almost every second comune in the region. And roughly four times as many per head of population as in the UK. I’m talking about theatres. Yes, that’s right: theatres. Remarkable, isn’t it. Of course, I’m not talking about theatres on the scale of The London Palladium or as distinguished as Stratford-upon-Avon’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre. No, the theatres of Le Marche are much more modest affairs. These tiny auditoria can usually be found tucked in between – or even inside – other civic buildings, meaning that they are often barely noticeable from the outside. Montelupone’s Teatro degli Angeli, for instance, forms part of the Palazzo Comunale (town hall) and its entrance is squeezed in between the café and the pizzeria. But their ambitions were far from modest: mostly built in the neo-classical style the late 18th or early 19th centuries during a period of vigorous urbanisation, these delightful confections were conceived as symbols of civic pride and aspiration and very much designed as places for ‘the great and the good’ in the town to see and be seen. As a consequence, they typically feature several tiers of boxes and galleries that are lavishly decorated in masses of gilded plasterwork and rich upholstery and look down over just a few rows of seats in the stalls. In fact, all this embellishment, coupled with the lofty proportions, rather gives the impression of being inside a giant wedding cake. Although many fell into disrepair during the first half of the last century or were badly converted into cinemas in the second half, an extensive programme of works has seen nearly all of these tiny jewels restored to their former glory over the last thirty years or so.

With just ninety-nine seats, the Teatro Flora in Penna San Giovanni – a village of barely a thousand souls perched on a hill at the edge of the Sibillini Mountains – holds the record as the smallest of all. At the other end of the spectrum, the biggest seat six hundred or more and can be found in more important towns such as Jesi, Ascoli Piceno or Fermo. The majority, however, such as Teatro Giuseppe Verdi in Recanati, Teatro Feronia in San Severino Marche, Teatro La Rondinella in Montefano, Teatro Giuseppe Verdi in Pollenza or Teatro Alaleona in Montegiorgio, seat two or three hundred. And it was at the last of these that Mr Blue-Shirt and I recently attended a rare performance of Donizetti’s one-act opera buffa (comic opera), Il Campanello (the doorbell).

Montegiorgio is located on a hill, as its name suggests, 411 meters above sea level and looks out towards the Adriatic coast about 25km to the east.  Although it is only about 35km south of our place, it is a bit of a trek to get there as it involves wiggling up to the crest of the steep ridge that separates the Chienti and Tenna river valleys which both run from the Sibillini Mountains down to the sea. Despite being one of the region’s smaller theatres, the Teatro Alaleona nonetheless turned out to be one of the less ‘tucked in’ ones, built in the heart of the historical centre on the site of former town hall, but it still took some finding among the tight maze of narrow winding streets lined with tall townhouses.  However, despite living here for over four years now, we have never shaken off our Anglo-Saxon approach to time-keeping in favour of something more Mediterranean, so we still managed to be in our seats just before curtain-up at nine fifteen.  Well, that’s what it said on the tickets, but this being Italy, such timings are largely for guidance purposes only: when we peered down into the auditorium from our cosy little box on the first floor at ten past nine, the place was still almost empty. So the 20 minutes or so until the overture started gave us plenty of time to indulge in a little people-watching (just as the original architect, Giuseppe Sabbatini, had intended) and also to drink in our lavish surroundings. These featured a pretty, frescoed ceiling, a pair of opulent ruby-red velvet curtains trimmed with gold braid and heavy fringes that contrasted with the rich cream paintwork, a few rows of velvet-covered tip-up seats in the stalls, then three tiers of boxes hugging the stage, each of them framed by almost life size nude statues, which I imagine were representations of the muses. And the whole space softened to mellow gold as the house lights were finally dimmed and the huge curtains swept open.

The setting for this operatic farce is the wedding reception of Annibale Pistacchio, a pharmacist, and his young bride, Serafina. Among the guests is Serafina’s former lover, the philandering Enrico who is determined to prevent the newly-weds consummating their marriage in a bid to win Serafina back. With this end in mind, Enrico exploits a local Neapolitan bye-law whereby at night pharmacists are obliged to dispense medicines in person and so throughout the night he keeps ringing the doorbell (hence the title of the piece) to appear in a series of ever more preposterous disguises, each time pretending to be another patient in urgent need of medicine to treat ever more lurid symptoms. By the time dawn breaks, it is too late: poor Annibale still hasn’t made it to his nuptial bedchamber, but must now depart for Rome to oversee his aunt’s will. So the piece ends with Enrico, Serafina and the wedding guests waving him goodbye, and with what happens between the two former lovers left to the audience’s imagination. It is all completely daft and utterly implausible, of course, but very entertaining – which is the whole point of the piece.

And the reason we made the cross-country trek to watch such a little-known work in such an out-of-the-way place? Well, it was a kind of recce, I suppose. You see, the wedding guests that formed the chorus were all members of an amateur choral society that I have just come across, something that I have been looking for ever since we moved here as singing is one of the few things I really miss from our old life in the UK. And just when I was beginning to think I would never find an opportunity to sing again, I find a choir which even turns out to be based about 5km away in the next village. So having established that they are probably not completely out of my league, I just need to find out whether Voci Libere could do with an additional soprano…

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…

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