A Hike in the Hills – Part 1

As soon as we had returned to the yellow zone at the start of the week, we had been keen to make the most of our newly-restored freedoms. And by Thursday we looked set to achieve a hat-trick: we had just finished our first breakfast on the terrace of the café in the village for weeks, we were about set off to Umbria on our first trip outside Le Marche in seven months, and as Mr Blue-Shirt was settling the bill for our coffee and croissants, my eye fell on a poster stuck on the café door that offered us the opportunity to ‘participate in an outdoor physical activity together with other people’.

The tightly printed A3 sheet set out the programme for a half-day guided hike that Sunday in the hills just to the north of the Monti Sibillini National Park – complete with breakfast stop and pre-ordered picnic lunch plus a visit to a remote church on the way back to see a major 15th century religious artwork. It was organised by the regional branch of a national environmental group called L’Umana Dimora that, primarily by means of such walks, focuses on the relationship between humankind and nature.

Now, while our house is powered by solar energy and we are even toying with the idea of buying an electric car, we can’t, hand on heart, claim that it was the environmental angle that caught our attention particularly. But having spent much time at home on our own over the preceding weeks and months, restoring our own relationship with humankind and nature by spending a morning striding through the Apennine hills in the height of spring with a bunch of other walkers sounded very attractive indeed. So I took a quick photo of the poster and when we got back from Umbria, I exchanged a couple of emails with the organiser, booked our places and ordered our picnics, and on Saturday evening dug out our walking boots and backpacks ready for the next day’s 7.30am start.

Old habits die hard and Mr Blue-Shirt still can’t shake his military ‘five minutes before’ custom, so at precisely 7.25am on Sunday morning we pulled onto the deserted car park outside the pharmacy on the edge of Macerata that was our designated meeting point, a little unsure what and who to expect, and when. But on the dot of 7.30am, a gaggle of cars converged on the car park. The organiser, an incongruously rotund chap called Primo, did a brief head-count of the dozen or so people milling about in walking gear and masks and exchanging elbow bumps in the early morning sunshine. As soon as he was confident we were all present and correct, with a cheery “Andiamo!– “Let’s go!” he invited us all to return to our cars and head off to our breakfast stop at the services a few kilometres inland along the dual carriageway, and by 7.35am the car park was empty again.

As Primo handed out our picnic bags over breakfast at the stand-up tables on the terrace of the service station, we discreetly checked out our fellow walkers. We were mildly relieved to find that they were all pretty much the same vintage as us, and that, like us, they were certainly dressed for hiking, but not a route march. So, pleased that we didn’t stick out too much like sore thumbs (other than being the only English participants, of course), we tentatively struck up conversation with a couple of people and discovered that most didn’t really know each other, but had only met once or twice on previous walks, which we also learnt took place every fortnight or so – all of which we found quite promising as trying to break into a long-established, close-knit group would be more of a challenge.

With everyone fed and watered we once again all jumped back in our cars bang on schedule, following Primo’s instruction to keep an eye on the battered 4×4 Fiat Panda driven by Corrado, our guide for the day. Only Corrado shot off so quickly that he was already out of sight by the time we were able to join the convoy, so we took the next best option and slotted in behind Primo who had set off along the dual carriageway at a slightly more sedate pace in his ancient Ford Focus. We began to doubt the wisdom of this some minutes later, however, as we sailed past the exit that sign-posted the village closest to the start-point of the walk. Fair enough, we thought: local knowledge, perhaps. But as some vigorous arm-waving broke out between driver and passenger in the Ford Focus, it became clear that Primo had missed the turning – along with the other half dozen or so cars behind him.

No matter, we thought: we could all take the next exit, re-join the dual carriageway going the other way and leave at the correct exit from the opposite direction. And sure enough, barely two kilometres further on, we all followed Primo off the dual carriageway. But, still gesticulating wildly at his passenger, he ended up bouncing along a gravel track away from the dual carriageway, and although we were briefly prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, he soon slowed to a crawl, and then executed an ungainly about-turn in the driveway of a disused cement works. So one after another, we all duly executed a similar multi-point turn and followed Primo back to the main road.

We had little choice but to stick with him as we had no idea exactly where the walk was supposed to start, so despite our bafflement, but still pinning our hopes on local knowledge, we stayed on his tail as he headed off up the slip road to the dual carriageway – on the same side as we had all just come off – only for him to slam on the brakes halfway up, and the line of cars behind him to miss concertina-ing into one another by a whisker. Primo’s increasingly exasperated passenger leap out, his extravagant body-language leaving little doubt as to the thrust of their latest exchange:
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?! You’re on the wrong bloody side!”
“But you said get back on the dual carriageway!”
“Yes – going back the other way, you stupid idiot! It’s miles to the next exit!”
“Don’t blame me! It was your crap directions! I’ll turn around…”
“What? You can’t turn around here! It’s a bloody slip road!”
“I haven’t got much choice, have I! Just get everyone to follow me.”
“For f…. sake….!”

So as Primo performed his heart-stopping U-turn, his co-pilot took his life in his hands and stood in the middle of the downward side of the slip-road to warn drivers taking that exit of the obstacle ahead, while simultaneously frantically directing the rest of us to follow Primo’s lead.
“Jesus!” exclaimed Mr Blue-Shirt as he executed the fastest U-turn on record. “I don’t believe we’re doing this!”
“How that guy hasn’t got taken out on the slip road I do not know. Thank God there’s so little traffic at this time,” I said weakly, clinging onto the dashboard as we spun through 180 degrees.

Once safely off the slip-road and finally facing in the right direction, the convoy pulled over to catch its collective breath – and to allow another driver who actually did know the way to our destination to take over from Primo as lead vehicle. Having fallen in behind the dark blue Fiat 500 with Primo now relegated to tail-end Charlie, we were on our way again in a couple of minutes – not onto the dual carriageway as expected, but, after yet another dodgy U-turn across a petrol station forecourt, along the minor road that ran parallel to it – and going in what at least felt like the right direction. And sure enough, within a couple of kilometres, we began to climb out of the valley up into the steep, forest-clad hills, at last following signposts to the village we were supposed to have been heading towards before everything had descended into a real-life version of Wacky Races.

Little over ten minutes later we finally arrived at our destination at the bottom of a steep stony track leading up into the forest on the far side of the tiny village of Borgianello, perched on a bluff high above the Chienti valley. The other half of the group who had followed Corrado straight there were standing around, boots laced and backpacks on as we finally hove into view to a round of mock applause and multiple calls along the lines of “About bloody time! What kept you?”

While they were all understandably impatient to get going, after our white-knuckle ride just to get there, we could have done with a bit of a rest first – even though it was not yet 9.00am and we had yet to walk a single step…

Journey to Freedom

“So when was it, then?” said Mr Blue-Shirt through a mouthful of croissant. “I thought it was when we were back in yellow after the Christmas lockdown.”
“No, that was when we had those really good homemade fish burgers down in Civitanova the first weekend things re-opened in January,” I said between sips of cappuccino. “It was ages before that.”
We were enjoying breakfast in the spring sunshine on the terrace of the bustling café down in Trodica.  We always pass it on our way to do our weekly shop, and after so many weeks with its shutters closed and its chairs and tables stacked up under tarpaulin, it was great to see it buzzing with life again. For at the start of the week we had returned to a new-look yellow zone, meaning cafés and restaurants were permitted to offer daytime outdoor table service at last.

 “Oh, yes. And it was just before the thirty-kilometre limit came in when we took the cross-country route to San Benedetto del Tronto for lunch at that terrific but unlikely looking place behind the port.”
“…. And the route was so windy I was beginning to get car sick. We ended up using the autostrada for the last bit, remember?”
“That’s right. So it must have been before Christmas, then, that we went to that little bar in Servigliano where we used to go with Pam.”
“Yes, definitely: there was a Christmas tree in the middle of the square.”
With this new-look yellow zone had also come the lifting of restrictions on movement between regions and so we were trying to work out exactly how long it had been since we had last left Le Marche.

“But restrictions had already tightened again well before that trip to Servigliano because all our teaching went back online in October and that’s when movement between regions was stopped again, wasn’t it?”
“I think so. In which case, it must have been……” Mr Blue-Shirt chased the remaining croissant crumbs around his plate with a moistened index finger as he mentally counted back through the different periods and levels of lockdown “… September!”.
“Yes, that’s it! We nipped over into Umbria shortly after our holiday and before the infection rate started to climb again…”
“… and it was still quite warm so we had lunch in Spello on the terrace of that place with the fabulous views across the plain to Assisi.”
“ God, so that’s over seven months! I hadn’t realised it had been that long!”

The café in Trodica sits just off the roundabout where we join the east-west dual carriageway that runs inland from the coast at Civitanova Marche, and as soon as we had finished our breakfast we were going to turn right instead of left at that roundabout and head off west, and – for the first time in seven months, as we had just established – cross over from Le Marche into Umbria. For we had decided that we should celebrate our new freedom to travel with another trip to Spello which, as well as being one of the closest places for us to visit outside Le Marche, is (in normal times) one of our favourite day-trip-able destinations.

This almost implausibly picturesque, small medieval hill-top town with its narrow, flower-filled lanes and shady squares lined with small shops, restaurants and galleries is barely 100 kilometres away and little over an hour door to door, but going to Spello always somehow feels much more than it is. I suspect this is largely thanks to the journey, which involves crossing from the eastern, Marchigian side of the Sibillini Mountains to the western, Umbrian side. Up until five or six years ago, the dual carriageway ran out just before it reached the mountains, making and the onward route up and over into Umbria long, tortuous and not suited to anyone in a hurry. While undeniably pretty, the road, with only one lane in each direction, wound through steep-sided valleys offering an occasional glimpse of distant snow-capped peaks, zig-zagged up and down forest-clad slopes and passed through a succession of tiny villages strung out along each side of the road. But not long after we started coming to Le Marche, long sections of extensive roadworks started to appear along the route and over time it became clear that the old road was not only going to be upgraded, but ultimately replaced with a swanky new dual carriageway that would run all the way from Perugia to the Adriatic coast. And rather than meandering along the valleys and over the hills, it would pass, swift and straight as an arrow, right through the mountains by means of a long series of impressive tunnels.

With each successive holiday-cum-house-hunting-trip we took in the area, another section of dual carriageway would be completed or another tunnel finished, but because it was not feasible for traffic to switch from old to new and back again, the new road remained just a tantalising hint of the speed and efficiency to come until every last section of tarmac had been laid, every last stretch of crash barrier erected, every last white line painted and every tunnel light switched on that it finally opened for use. All this delayed gratification only increased the sense of anticipation so that when we did finally slip seamlessly from the old dual carriageway and onto the new one, it felt as if we had joined some high-speed super-highway to another world. All of a sudden, we were effortlessly sailing past the tiny villages that we used to snake through, sometimes at little more than walking pace. Then as we gained altitude, we found ourselves plunging into and bursting back out of tunnel after tunnel, some little longer than a wide bridge, others extending for three or four kilometres. The short sections of open road in between gave little indication of exactly where we were at any given point, with only the steady upward climb followed by the steeper descent providing a reminder of the nature of the journey, until we emerged from the final tunnel and the road began to swing round in a broad arc, as if bringing us in to land at our destination down on the narrow Umbrian plain.

And when were at last able to repeat that journey last week, the sense of anticipation and other-worldliness we experienced all over again was eclipsed only by the long-overdue pleasure of simply being somewhere else.

The Echoes of History

The country raised a battle-weary cheer last Monday as coronavirus restrictions were eased once more in all but the worst affected areas of the country. For the preceding five weeks and with light-touch yellow zone restrictions on hold, all twenty regions had been confined to some form of lockdown in either the red or the orange zone in a concerted effort to keep a ‘third wave’ at bay. And, combined with the steady roll-out of the vaccination programme, it seems to have worked; or at least worked well enough for the government to move all but three regions into the new ‘reinforced’ yellow zone and to issue a provisional timetable for the wider riapertura (re-opening) of the country.

Among the lengthy list of new dos and don’ts the highlights for most are the re-opening in some form of all schools and colleges, the re-opening of bars and restaurants (albeit for outside dining only, and for the next few weeks only at lunchtime) and best of all, the possibility to move freely not only within one’s own region, but also between all regions in the yellow zone – something that we have not been able to do for a good six months. And the symbolism of the restoration of these freedoms on the day after the 76th annual Liberation Day commemorations to mark the country’s liberation from the forces of fascism was lost on no one.

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 also the civil war 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 grandeur, marching bands and flags, and all rounded off with a fly-past by the Frecce Tricolori, that the President of the Republic and other senior government officials normally lay wreaths of laurel leaves in tribute to all those killed in the service of the nation.

For the second year running celebrations were muted and minimal, but still as full of defiance and hope as the partisans of earlier generations. The President of the Republic, Sergio Matarella, again cut a sombre figure in his dark suit and surgical facemask as he slowly mounted the steps of the Altare della Patria, laid his wreath to the fallen, and along with just a scattering of military and political dignitaries including Prime Minister Draghi, the presidents of the Chamber and the Senate and the Chief of the Defence Staff, stood to attention as a lone bugler sounded ‘Il Silenzio’.

The President’s address to the nation as usual recalled the sacrifices and the courage of the resistance that brought about the nation’s rebirth in 1945. Even more than last year, his references to ‘the fallen’ were laden with added poignancy as, on the final day of lockdown for most of the country, he once again drew clear parallels with the ongoing battle against coronavirus and how the sacrifices, solidarity and courage of the preceding year will just as surely as in 1945 bring about a further national rebirth.

The Rhythm of the Seasons

If autumn in Italy is characterised by the olive harvest, then spring is the season of olive pruning. Both tasks involve a lot of tools – if Mr Blue-Shirt has anything to do with it, anyway – and both are rewarded with sore shoulders and stiff backs. Both bring their own rewards, though, and both are rooted in age-old customs, established through long experience.

When it comes to pruning, its primary purpose is to produce dense clusters of fruit that can easily be stripped off in great showers come harvest time. So to achieve this, these ancient customs dictate that it is necessary to maintain – or in our case, create – the shape of wine glass: a neat, hollowed-out, flat-topped crown supported by three or four main branches growing up and out from a fairly short, broad-based trunk. Mind you, judging by the range of variations on the basic wine glass shape we see round and about, there is considerable scope for interpretation. Some trees locally, for instance are left each spring with a completely bare top and exclusively downward-growing shoots on their main branches, giving them a curiously droopy aspect somehow reminiscent of a weeping willow. Others leave all the young downward hanging shoots to grow so long that they end up creating an abundant crinoline of silver-green that almost grazes the floor. And others again laboriously snip out practically every other shoot and branch, resulting in an impressively lean but strangely uncomfortable appearance that reminds me of an obsessive athlete who has taken their training that little bit too far. 

Whichever look one favours, however, probably the easiest place to start is snipping off at ground level any suckers growing from the base of the trunk as these interfere with the tree’s ability to draw nutrients up to its productive branches. Then, since we have no good reason not to go for the classic wine glass shape (which we prefer anyway), it’s a matter of dealing with any excessive height, which deprives the lower branches of the light they need to produce fruit and also makes harvesting a lot more difficult. As reducing the height alters the overall proportions of the tree, it makes sense to reduce the size of the rest of the crown too, and at the same time restore some distance between the branches of one tree and those of its neighbours. In addition to improving the trees’ appearance and making harvesting an awful lot easier, this helps restrict the spread of pests and diseases, and helps maximise the amount of all-important sunlight that is required to produce fruit.

With all thirty-eight of our trees having been left to their own devices for several years before we moved in, it was these basics that we focussed on initially. For each of the first two years, we tentatively worked on one half of the badly-overgrown and unkempt trees with little more than a couple of pairs of secateurs, a single set of pole shears and a ladder. And during this period, we learnt that no matter how much tooth-sucking and head-shaking our novice hacking might induce among our vastly more experienced neighbours, it was unlikely to do any lasting damage to our reasonably mature, and hence all-but indestructible trees. Indeed, our early efforts were even rewarded with a couple of very healthy crops, which gave us the confidence in our third year to attack the trees with greater impunity – and more tools.

So with nearly all of our trees displaying at least some semblance of the sought-after wine-glass profile, we graduated last year from just sorting out the trees’ appearance to working on their productive potential as well. And with our increased confidence, our range of tools and gadgets expanded to include a pair of bolt-croppers, a small but vicious folding saw, a large hacksaw, and Mr Blue-Shirt’s personal favourites, a pair of frighteningly capable battery-secateurs and two types of chainsaw. With this armoury at our disposal, we were now equipped to remove all the dead wood from the first batch of trees we had earmarked to experiment on as well as any branches growing from or into the centre of the tree: the aim is an empty wine glass after all, not a full one (that comes later).  Freeing up the centre of a congested tree once again provides easier access when it comes to harvesting, but more importantly, helps direct growth to the principal fruit bearing limbs and allows them to get more of the sunlight that is necessary for the tiny cream-coloured flowers that appear in April to set fruit, and for that fruit to produce a good amount of oil. Indeed, according to experts, every olive should be in direct sunlight for at least some part of the day for maximum yield. Incidentally, those same experts also point out that it is the horizontal and downward hanging shoots and branches on the outside of the tree that are the most productive – which probably explains those ‘weeping willow’ and ‘crinoline’ styles. Meanwhile the inward-growing and vertical shoots and branches bear little or no fruit at all as they waste most of their effort simply racing off in all directions to chase the light, which is precisely what had happened with all our excessively tall, dense trees.

Having achieved ‘the double’ again last year – good harvest and good yield – and that initial group of trees having rebounded with undiminished vigour from their first ‘proper’ pruning in years, we spent several birdsong-filled, warm, sunny afternoons this March giving the remainder of our trees their long-overdue full-blown facelift, safe in the knowledge we had at least got the hang of the basics of pruning. Even though all that cutting, sawing and snipping is both tiring and time-consuming – especially since we strip and cut down all but the scrawniest branches we remove to use for fire wood – we both find it an intensely satisfying task. Remember that first post-lockdown haircut? Well, that’s how we sense that the trees feel once freed of all that tatty, annoying growth and standing proud and groomed once more. More importantly, though, it is both humbling and grounding to think that this annual rite, like its autumn counterpart, has been carried out almost unaltered for countless generations over many centuries; its long history binds us to the landscape, to the culture and our community. And in these turbulent times, we find that constancy and rootedness especially comforting and reassuring.

Keep on Running

I’ve been running for almost exactly ten years now. Not continuously, you understand. But regularly and frequently: these days I run between eight and twelve kilometres, up to three times a week. And it is a permanent, non-negotiable part of my routine; it wasn’t always like that, though.

While I enjoyed PE at school, I could never in good conscience have been labelled ‘sporty’; music had been my thing. Then, other than the occasional bout of half-hearted hiking, I gave up sport altogether after I left university, where I played a bit of netball, but really only because I thought the club sweatshirt was cool. Fifteen years later, though, I did a lot of swimming, played a lot of badminton and even learnt to ride and to water-ski while we were living in Brunei where the climate encouraged an outdoor lifestyle and, in the absence of pubs, sports clubs were our main social hubs. But I still had an aversion to running as a sport in its own right: I considered it mindless, pointless and dull (rich, I know, coming from someone who twice a week ploughed up and down a 25-metre pool 64 times) and derided those who banged on about the ‘natural high’ that running gave them. And once back in the UK, I returned to my sedentary ways.

A decade later, though, two things brought about my eventual conversion. First, as a means of helping with the depression I’d been diagnosed with following my sister’s death from cancer, my GP advised me to take up some form of regular outdoor exercise ‘that got my heart pumping’ (she didn’t mention the R-word as such, but I knew what she was driving at). Then, in a gesture of enormous friendship, a very dear pal said she’d like to do something in my sister’s memory so suggested that we both sign up for the 5km Race for Life and in the process raise some money for Cancer Research UK. I agreed instantly as it gave a purpose to my new exercise regime: a specific target to aim for, as well as a means of benefitting others and not just me, which was crucial in light of the disastrous effect depression had had on my sense of self-worth.

Just three months later, having both started from zero in running terms, we completed our respective races (me in Lincolnshire and my pal in Hampshire) in about 35 minutes – not too shabby for a pair of novice runners in their late 40s – and each raised several hundred pounds in sponsorship as a result. Just as importantly, though much less tangibly, I’d also come away with a huge and much-needed sense of achievement that massively lifted my spirits. Better still, I had also come away with an appreciation of the broader mental health benefits of running which extended well beyond the boost to self-esteem that my first ever runner’s medal had given me. Yes, I finally got the whole endorphin thing that those runners I used to deride had been banging on about all along – the euphoria-inducing, anxiety-reducing, mood-enhancing cocktail of hormones that running releases. I was hooked – and remained so even once my depression had lifted.

Which was just as well, as following my mother’s death, also from cancer, exactly two years later, the depression returned. So once again I used a running challenge to aid my recovery, and, having now lost both my sister and my mother to cancer, decided to double up and do the 10km Race for Life and at the same time double my sponsorship target. With that challenge successfully ticked off and my depression in retreat, I then went on to participate in further charity races, culminating in 2016 with the night-time London Moonwalk Marathon in aid of several breast cancer charities.

But when we moved to Italy a year later, I wasn’t convinced I would be able to keep up my good habits. Without a specific target to aim for, would I still find sufficient motivation, especially since I was by now well into my fifties? Plus, for the preceding four years I had run on a treadmill in an air-conditioned gym, and for the two years before that, although I had run outside, it was in Lincolnshire. And after its sausages, Lincolnshire’s main claim to fame is probably its extreme flatness.  Which is not one of Le Marche’s principal characteristics. Almost the opposite, in fact: apart from a narrow coastal strip and a handful of west-east river valleys, the terrain ranges from merely hilly to properly mountainous. Added to which, from May to October Le Marche tends to be hotter than even the best summer’s days in Lincolnshire, which lies almost 1000 miles further north.

My doubts were unfounded, however. Pretty well as soon as we had recovered from the enormous physical effort of moving from the UK to Italy, sufficient motivation to dig out my trainers and get moving again came simply from the sheer beauty of the spectacular landscape – whose hills, believe me, also quickly provided a whole new set of very specific targets for me to aim at. And in this last year characterised by fear and uncertainty, I am so very glad that I maintained my running habit, for the impact of working and living through lockdown has meant that I have needed to draw more heavily than ever on its mental health benefits – which I have learnt over the years extend well beyond improved self-esteem and endorphins. For instance, the best way I know to empty my mind of corrosive worries and niggling anxieties is simply focussing solely on the mood-lifting sights, sounds, scents and sensations of nature that surround me as I run. Or sometimes, to still my troubled mind, I focus on nothing but the act of running itself: my heart rate, my breathing, the stretching, the flexing of my muscles, and simply putting one foot in front of the other until I reach the next marker post and the next and the next until I reach the top of the hill or the end of the road. By contrast, when there is something specific I need to think about, then going for a run gives me the necessary head-space for all kinds of problem-solving, decision-making, lesson-planning and even blog-drafting.

So as I’ve currently got no idea what I’m going to write about next week, I’d better get my trainers on…

A little balance

Yes, it is absolutely true. There is no question about it. The implementation of the EU vaccination programme has been very slow in getting going. Much slower than anyone would have wanted; much slower than anyone had planned. However, despite the hugely frustrating political and commercial wranglings that have dogged the programme’s roll-out, it has not been quite the ‘shambles’ or the ‘disaster’ that large sections of the UK press and media would have people believe.

Firstly, in an impressive gesture of solidarity, the twenty-seven EU member states unanimously agreed on a collective procurement policy in order to prevent a bidding war that might have seen see its smaller and weaker members losing out and/or its larger and stronger members potentially hoarding supplies. On the basis that ‘no one is safe until everyone is safe’, as practically every public health official given air time continues to point out, this collective approach is, I would contend, intrinsically sound, both morally and rationally, and stands in sharp contrast to some other countries’ grossly individualistic and ultimately self-defeating ‘vaccine nationalism’. And I would further contend that the unmitigated balls up that has admittedly been made of the external and, to a degree, the internal politics of the matter does not detract from the inherent worthiness of this overarching objective.

Secondly, the EU’s collective purchasing power also enabled it to secure more favourable prices for its members than many individual states, whether inside or outside the EU, would have (or in fact have) been able to achieve. For example, the UK is paying approximately £2.17 per dose for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and £15 per dose for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, while the EU is paying £1.56 and £10.60 respectively per dose (vs. £2.90 and £14.27 per dose in the US). And in view of the pressures the pandemic has placed on every country’s economy, this surely has to be seen as more than mere penny-pinching. The EU’s collective negotiating clout also resulted in higher standard of accountability for the vaccine manufacturers; the UK’s fast-track approach, by contrast, gives manufacturers complete immunity from legal liability in civil cases. But I would again contend that the balls up – to which one manufacturer itself has contributed significantly – that has also been made of the supply chain elements of the deals the EU has struck, does not detract from the essential rationality and worthiness of these objectives either.

The EU’s approach to product liability was also partly a strategic response aimed at alleviating vaccine hesitancy: the possible risks of negative side-effects being seen to be acknowledged and taken account of is intended to provide reassurance for those with concerns over the speed with which vaccines have been approved and rolled out. That same keenness to reassure people that their concerns are being taken seriously has also been behind the ubiquitous ‘abundance of caution’ currently being shown by various national governments in suspending use of the AstraZeneca vaccine for certain age groups. And with regulatory authorities even in the UK having paused trials of the vaccine in teenagers and recommending that 18-to-24-year-olds now have a different vaccine if it is available, the EU’s arguably more far-sighted approach to product liability may turn out not have been quite so misplaced as some of its critics have suggested.

As for things ‘on the ground’ within the EU, naturally I can only speak of Italy in any detail. Like all other member states, it orders its own supplies of its preferred vaccines direct from the manufacturers with whom the Commission has concluded EU-wide supply contracts. All member states consequently receive vaccines under the same conditions – at the same price, and on a pro-rata basis according to population size – with the option to make adjustments according to need. The Pfizer-BioNTech jab currently accounts for about 60% of Italy’s supplies, Astra-Zeneca for about 30% and the Moderna version for about 10% – although these proportions are set to change as new allocations become available and other manufacturers begin deliveries, for instance Johnson & Johnson and Sanofi-GSK. Incidentally, all this information is readily available from a number of different online sources which are updated at least daily and which can be interrogated in relation to a wide range of parameters.

When it comes to domestic distribution of the vaccine and actually getting it in people’s arms, this is a national responsibility, as is deciding precisely which groups to prioritize. Along with most other countries, Italy gave priority to the over-80s, of which we have a disproportionately large number: very nearly one million over-90s have so far had at least one jab. Then came health and social care staff, the most medically vulnerable, the armed forces and school and college staff, with younger age groups and lower levels of vulnerability to follow. For the record, we are due ours later in the summer.

The government website tells me that there are now well over 2000 formal vaccination points across the country (plus drive-throughs and pop-ups) although in certain circumstances it is also possible to arrange for vaccinations to be carried out at home. The site also indicates that supplies are doubling every 3-4 weeks,and that nationally over 80% of the doses delivered so far have currently been administered – a good third of which, incidentally, are already second doses.  With every region having received another consignment in the last couple of days, it will take a few days to return to its typical level of around 90%, with the rate varying a little from one region to another. For the record, Le Marche is currently is pretty well on the national average.

Much more significantly, however, actual numbers nationally are not that far behind what was projected by the EU at the start of the roll-out, with things still potentially on course for a daily rate of 500,000 injections per day within the next couple of weeks: yesterday, some 370,000 jabs were administered in Italy, while France and Germany both hit that half-million target. Which is far from shambolic and even further from disastrous.

Image: Matteo Bazzi/Reuters

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Here we are, then: our second Easter in the time of Coronavirus. The shocking novelty of lockdown last year has congealed into weary resignation this year. The acute fear, anxiety and uncertainty of last Easter have ossified into a chronic ache this Easter. And this time last year, it was in the soothing words of This is the Time to be Slow by the Irish poet, author, philosopher and one-time priest John O’Donohue that I found solace: This is the time to be slow – Easter in the time of Coronavirus. So with another chance to pause, to reflect and recharge upon us, I once again turned to poetry in search of messages of hope and comfort and I eventually stumbled across a piece called For One Who is Exhausted – A Blessing which instantly resonated deeply with me. And wonderfully serendipitously, it also turned out to be written by that same philosopher-poet John O’Donohue. May you too find comfort in his gift for the tired soul.

For One Who is Exhausted – A Blessing

When the rhythm of the heart becomes hectic,
Time takes on the strain until it breaks;
Then all the unattended stress falls in
On the mind like an endless, increasing weight.

The light in the mind becomes dim.
Things you could take in your stride before
Now become laboursome events of will.

Weariness invades your spirit.
Gravity begins falling inside you,
Dragging down every bone.

The tide you never valued has gone out.
And you are marooned on unsure ground.
Something within you has closed down;
And you cannot push yourself back to life.

You have been forced to enter empty time.
The desire that drove you has relinquished.
There is nothing else to do now but rest
And patiently learn to receive the self
You have forsaken in the race of days.

At first your thinking will darken
And sadness take over like listless weather.
The flow of unwept tears will frighten you.

You have travelled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.

Take refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through.

Become inclined to watch the way of rain
When it falls slow and free.

Imitate the habit of twilight,
Taking time to open the well of colour
That fostered the brightness of day.

Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
Be excessively gentle with yourself.

Stay clear of those vexed in spirit.
Learn to linger around someone of ease
Who feels they have all the time in the world.

Gradually, you will return to yourself,
Having learned a new respect for your heart
And the joy that dwells far within slow time.

From ‘Benedictus – A Book of Blessings’, John O’Donohue.
Bantam Press (2007)

When the Saints Go Marching In

It was St. Augusta’s day here yesterday. She was a 1st century Christian martyr from modern-day Veneto whose staunchly pagan father had her imprisoned, tortured and beheaded in an effort to make her renounce her faith. The day before was St Teodoro’s day. This particular St. Teodoro was martyred in Libya in the 3rd century, but there are apparently a further eleven whose feast days are scattered about the year. And earlier this week we also had the feast day of St. Lea of Rome (who as a young widow joined one of the first female Christian communities of which she later became mother superior and where she lived a life of extreme humility and piety until her death in 384AD), St. Turibio di Mogrovejo (a 16th century Spanish bishop who undertook missionary work in Peru where he founded South America’s first seminary), and St. Romolo (who was a victim of the persecutions of Christians carried out by Emperor Diocletian in the 4th century).

Then next week we’ve got the feast days of St. Amedeo (born a Savoy Duke in 1435, he gathered armies at the Pope’s request to defend Christianity against the Turkish threat in the Peloponnese and lived a life of great austerity and humility coupled with great generosity to the poor), and St. Beniamino (a 5th century Persian deacon who, having refused to stop preaching the word of God, suffered martyrdom by having his body pierced with pins).

But St Alexander of Sicily, St Francis of Paola and St Isidoro of Seville are all going to have to take a back seat this year as their feast days are effectively trumped by Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday respectively. Once Easter is over, though, we go back to a saint a day – literally: every day of the church year has a corresponding saint, and every saint has his or her own day in the church calendar. However, since there are very many more saints in Italy than days, a lot of days have more than one saint. For instance, while 17th March is recognised throughout the Christian world as St Patrick’s Day, the patron saint of Ireland actually shares his feast day here with another seven saints and three beati (‘blesseds’). Mind you, 17th March is actually quite a quiet day, saint-wise: if today weren’t Palm Sunday, no fewer than thirteen saints and eight beati would normally be celebrating their feast day on 28th March.

As a kind of side-effect of the abundance of saints in Italy is that every town can claim to have had a saint who was born there, who died there, who studied there, or who even just visited the place, and that saint will then be adopted as the town’s patron saint. On his or her feast day an icon of the saint will often be carried in a procession to or from the parish church where a special Mass will be held, and there will also be other more secular festivities, typically involving eating, drinking and making merry. In many places the day is declared a public holiday so shops and schools will even be closed for the occasion. But only in that town of course: the day won’t be a holiday anywhere else since it won’t be their patron saint’s day. Thus Montelupone more or less closes on 11th March for the feast of San Firmano who founded a Benedictine abbey here in the 10th century and went on to perform a range of miracles. Meanwhile it is on 4th May that Ancona has a public holiday to celebrate the feast of San Ciriaco, an early bishop of Ancona who is believed to have assisted Empress Helena in her search for the True Cross, and who died (or was killed) on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in about the 4th century. Macerata, on the other hand, comes to a halt on 31st August when the sky is lit up with fireworks to mark the feast of San Giuliano, who in penance for killing his wife in a fit of jealous rage became a pilgrim. He also gave assistance to other pilgrims, helping them across the Potenza river just outside Macerata. One of those he helped was a leper who was revealed to be an angel sent to confirm that his penance had been completed and that he would be reunited with his wife in heaven.

Such celebrations are not limited to smaller, more rural communities either. Cities as large, sophisticated and otherwise secular as Milan also set great store by their patron saints. Indeed, even this economic powerhouse closes for business every 7th December to celebrate the feast of its patron saint, Sant’Ambrogio. A skilled and eloquent politician and academic as well as an ascetic and pious cleric, he did much to strengthen Christianity and the Catholic church in the post-Roman era and was elected bishop of Milan in the 4th century.  On his feast day, which also marks the unofficial start of Christmas, a special Mass is held in the basilica he himself commissioned, and in the piazza that surrounds it there is a sprawling street market selling food, drink, toys, crafts and antiques. It is also the day that traditionally marks the opening night of the season at the world famous La Scala opera house.

The other main way in which a given saint’s feast day is celebrated is through the custom of the onomastico, or name day. That is to say, if you are named after a saint – and nearly everyone is, even if it’s just their middle name – then that saint’s feast day is your onomastico. For the record, mine, it turns out, is on 9th March and Mr Blue-Shirt’s on 26th January. On this day, you may receive cards, small gifts and a special cake, almost like a second birthday; indeed, in parts of the south, your name day is considered more important than your birthday. 

So should you happen to be called Carné, Eumelio, Castore, Gontanno, Conone, Ilarione, Cirillo, Giuseppe Sebastiano, Prisco, Malco, Alessandro, Proterio or Stefano (unlikely, I realise), then Buon Onomastico!

To find your name day or details of your daily saint:

Image: http://www.geni.com

A road less travelled

“Physical activity and individual exercise are permitted within the immediate vicinity of one’s place of residence.” It was probably the rule that we were keenest to check as Le Marche went back into the zona rossa (red zone) last week following a worrying surge in Covid-19 cases, since being allowed to spend at least some time out in the spring sunshine remains an absolute lifesaver now we have another ban on almost all movement other than for proven work, health or other needs. That said, the current restrictions still rule out Mr Blue-Shirt’s up-hill-down-dale cycle routes around the comune as well as my runs up into the village and back that orange zone rules permitted, never mind his lung-busting round trips to the coast and my lovely long, flat runs along the seafront in Civitanova Marche when we were in the yellow zone.

So in order to keep ourselves within the red zone rules, we have developed a walking and running route consisting of a couple of there-and-back spurs off a main path, none of which takes us much more than about 500m from home, but which together take a good hour to complete. While the bitty-ness of the route doesn’t make for particularly enjoyable cycling, its hilly-ness still sets the muscles tingling and the heart pumping whether walking or running. And possibly most importantly at the moment, its glorious springtime prettiness lifts our spirits and brightens our mood.

The other plus is that our ‘red zone route’ has – almost literally – given us a new perspective on our surroundings. The house and the sloping plot on which it sits are both orientated towards the east and the south, so it is the magnificent view of the broad green valley that sweeps down to the glittering triangle of Adriatic at the bottom that inevitably gets all the attention. Meanwhile, because the house sits just below the crest of the ridge that passes behind the house, the view to the north and west gets forgotten about as soon we come through the gate. And it is this equally magnificent landscape that our new route has enabled us to enjoy most afternoons as the shadows just begin to lengthen.

Having turned right out of the gate, we cross the too-quiet road, turn sharp left immediately before the towering oak tree that fills the view from the window of our back door and head up the gravelled track that zig-zags back past the house and then swings right, past a cluster of single-storey houses where Cecilia from the village café lives with Federico, their son Nico and Numa, their striking Abruzzo shepherd dog who often gallops out to greet us. If any of them are about, we wave and call out a cheery “Ciao!”, eager for a little human contact. After another hundred metres or so we reach the brow of the hill from where the view to the west is revealed in all its splendour. A patchwork of vivid green fields, olive groves and vineyards drops away in front of us, and then rises up again to where the honey-coloured towers and domes of Macerata stand silhouetted against the receding hills, the city’s outline so remote and enigmatic in these days of confinement that it might just as well be Xanadu.

Then as the dusty white track curves round to the left we suddenly get a full-on, straight-between-the-eyes view of the mighty Sibillini Mountains that stand out like roughly hewn white marble against the blue-pink sky, the low sun edging their jagged peaks with gold. And every time, we just stop and stare, marvelling at their majesty and their mystery. Having given ourselves a couple of moments to take in their grandeur, we continue down the hill, occasionally skidding on the loose gravel, past the part-built, salmon-pink rendered house where all the local tractors seem to congregate and on to our first there-and-back spur. After an even steeper descent, the gravel track flattens out and leads on past a picturesque, tightly-shuttered brick-built villa with a lovingly-tended garden and then dips further into the valley and all but disappears into a field of rough grass before finishing at a ruined farmhouse that is almost hidden from view by a tangle of long-neglected olive trees, its roof caved in and gaping cracks in its wonky walls. From what remains of its bramble-and-ivy-choked terrace we scan the fields around us, pointing out to one another the latest tinges of green spreading over the chequerboard of beige and brown to the left and among the distant clumps of trees along the sky line to the right before toiling back up the hill.

After the steep climb, we are grateful for the short flat stretch on the main path, but our breathing has returned to normal by the time we reach the turn-off for next spur which is marked by the half-finished building that for some months Mr Blue-Shirt had his eye on as a potential forge. The large amount of land that came with it as well as the large amount of conversion work it would have needed eventually made it a non-starter, but every time we pass it, I sense his inward sigh at what might have been. The tall bay hedge surrounding the plot permanently casts the track in deep shadow and we zip our fleeces more tightly as we squelch through the muddier terrain and down past the grand, cream-coloured villa with the ornate gates and paved garden – a holiday home, we assume. We follow the winding path down the gentle slope until it comes to an abrupt halt at a pair of modest but securely chained and padlocked electric gates across a long grassed-over driveway that leads across the slope and then disappears into an impenetrable thicket of tall conifers among which presumably stands – or perhaps stood – a house of some kind. After briefly speculating about who once lived there and why and when they left, we head back up the track and onto the main path once more.

We crunch along the track in the dappled shade of trees whose slender brown limbs are gradually disappearing behind a mass of tender young leaves and breathe in the smoky-sweet scent of the clouds of yellow blossom spilling from the hedgerows. Then, having passed the row of brightly covered beehives and the abandoned pale pink villa with the green shutters, we begin the steep descent towards the substantial house at the bottom of the hill that marks the end of our route. The column of woodsmoke rising from the chimney draws our gaze up towards the mountains whose snow-capped peaks are now flushed with pink in the fading rays of the late afternoon sun: it’s time to return home.

So we turn away from the mountains and begin the long trudge all the way back up past the pink villa and coloured hives, past the forge that wasn’t and the tractors parked outside the part-built house to the cluster of single-storey houses at the top. As we pass, Numa often gallops out again, and having reconfirmed we are friend not foe, trots back up the drive, her guard dog duties done once more.

Happily tired from our exertions and soothed by our meanderings amid the serenity and the timelessness of the landscape, we swing left and amble back down the track. With the stillness of the approaching dusk settling about us, Montelupone rises up behind the house, now illuminated in the coppery glow of the setting sun, the day’s final reminder that ‘this too shall pass’. We cross the road and slide the gate open. We are home.


Every day for the last few weeks I have gone to check on Dorothy, anxious to make sure she’s made it through winter unscathed. And I’m relieved to report that she is fine – as vigorous as ever, in fact. Her slender limbs look strong and healthy, and in between her deceptively sharp thorns are dozens of tiny leaf-buds: confirmation of life returning. One by one they are unfurling into the characteristic, five-leafed sprigs. Initially more pink than green and tightly crimped into perfect shiny pleats, they tremble in the brisk spring breeze but soon turn deep green as they open their little oval faces to the sun’s pale rays.

In case you hadn’t guessed, Dorothy is a rose bush. She is the latest incarnation of the elderly grande dame that once grew where the main terrace now wraps around the eastern end of the house. When Mr Blue-Shirt first started work on the foundations we carefully relocated her to her new home in the dappled shade of the large willow tree in the front garden: we found ourselves unable simply to rip out this battle-scarred survivor of whom we had grown so fond – largely because she so vividly embodies the irrepressible spirit of my wonderful aunt, after whom we named her. Despite the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ she has endured down the years, her tenacity, resilience, defiance and sheer zest for life consistently shine through as brightly as her namesake’s highly-perfumed, vivid pink blossoms.

The real Dorothy (affectionately known to all the family as Dodo) is my late mother’s younger sister: a cheerful, fair-haired, apple-cheeked child with a ready smile set below gentle grey eyes whose humorous twinkle has always been enhanced and never hidden by her trademark glasses. As a young girl she was evacuated from the family’s home in London’s East End to avoid the Blitz and later trained as a nurse and midwife – an early reflection of the compassion, warmth and common sense that characterised a career path which subsequently included teaching, foster care, hospitality and finally care of the elderly. It was also a nomadic career path that, having started in London, then took her to several places around the Home Counties and eventually to several more first in North and then South Devon – sometimes by choice, but sometimes by force of circumstance. Repeatedly overcoming one challenge before moving on to embrace the next, Dodo has moved house more than anyone I know (and that includes all our friends from Mr Blue-Shirt’s army years): getting on for twenty, she reckons, but tends to lose count these days as there have been so many.  

As a result, I saw very little of her as a child, which gave her a slightly mystical quality: an apparently free spirit, always seeming ready to plough her own furrow and live life facing forwards. In adulthood, however, I got to know her much better, to understand some of the difficulties she had faced, and also grew to delight in the perfect blend of wisdom and daftness, of determination and sensitivity that helped guide her – and others – through life. For as sister, aunt, great-aunt and even great-great-aunt, she has been a mentor, confidante, champion and friend now to four generations.

Having lost her second husband when she was in her late sixties, some in the family naively thought that Dodo might finally slow down a little and enjoy her retirement; with a life time of caring for others behind her, she had surely earned it, after all. But no. Just at the point when most of her contemporaries were preparing to put their feet up, Dodo flew off to Australia and New Zealand with a girl-friend for a few weeks, and on her return moved house again, this time buying herself a ‘project’ that she single-handedly did up from top to bottom. With undiminished energy she set about wallpapering, painting and even tiling, and when my father cast (misplaced) doubt upon her DIY skills, her typically feisty response was the immortal “You don’t need a willy to hold a paintbrush!”

And with an undiminished desire to grab life with both hands, she also joined a Singles Club and threw herself into South Devon’s dating scene. In no time she found herself a ‘boyfriend’, a similarly fun-loving and convivial septuagenarian divorcee with whom she soon built an active social life consisting (among many other things) of jazz clubs, book groups, fancy-dress parties, travel and eating out: goat curry at the local Nepali restaurant is their favourite, by the way. After a few months’ dating, they moved in together, but continued to pursue their own individual interests in between all their shared activities. For him it was bridge, golf and snooker; for her it was University of the Third Age and voluntary work at the local museum – as well as running two choirs and writing and starring in several W.I. pantomimes.

Then in the autumn of their second or third year living together, when asked by her partner what she would like for Christmas she replied with absolute conviction “A wedding ring!” And so on New Year’s Eve that year they married: she a radiant, elegant and stylish bride; he a beaming, proud and debonair groom – who as man and wife walked down the aisle to The Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-Four”, the fact that they were both a good decade out by then neither here nor there.

They have slowed down a bit since then, I suppose, but really very little. In fact, it is lockdown that has acted as far more of a brake on their activities of late than health or mobility or any other limitations of old age: with all their fun curtailed and confined to their cosy flat with just TV, email, Skype and Zoom, their main problems have been cabin fever and boredom.

Consequently, Dodo and her husband – ‘Dot ‘n’ Den’ in family parlance – have long been our role models for when we reach our later years: while there is life still to be lived, then live it to the full. So hardly surprisingly, Dodo was hugely disappointed and frustrated that it was with just a big family Zoom call that she could celebrate her 90th birthday the other week.  True to form, however, she is already planning a proper party for later in the year…