Words & Photography Clifford Roberts
‘From outer space the landscape around Italian cities resembles an aerial view of waterholes in the African bush’
The new pool has sprung a leak. From my window perch I watch the trio of Italian tradesmen on their knees over the drainage trap. The minutes crawl by and I wonder how they can stand the heat from the sun-baked marble slabs around them. Then, one of the builders is on the phone to Pierro the architect; the other two take out sandwiches.
The first few days in any new locale sends the mind into frenzy, seeking associations to bring order and safety. Gualdo, the town near Macerata in the province of Le Marche where I’m staying, sounds to me like the name of some Disney character. The scene below reminds me of Peter Mayle’s celebrated 1980s autobiography A Year In Provence, except that reading about someone else’s anguish over foreign custom and dealing with builders is, well, much funnier.
The British/South African owners of the guesthouse have been at it for a bit and renovations are—they assure me—almost done now. Tiberius, the ironmonger, has finished his work; handyman Eddie helps where he can. The residence comprises rooms linked by short flights of stairs inside the wall that once protected the ancient hilltop village. The guesthouse is named after its location, Cancello Est—the eastern gateway, once used by the Knights Templar during the Crusades. Painstaking work inside revealed 17th century frescoes and medieval clay tiles some with the paw prints of wild beasts. Outside my window, beyond the pool from where the builders have now disappeared, the world drops away. The bright yellow squares in the patchwork of hills that run to the foot of the mountains are sunflowers.
If there is a thing like a quintessential Italy, this countryside is where it might be found. From outer space the landscape around Italian cities resembles an aerial view of waterholes in the African bush. The web of byways explodes from the centre, radiating outwards. It is at one of the extremities, where the threads grow thin and are spread furthest apart in rural Italy, that I find myself.
The roads are without shoulders. They wind around hills like a freshly carved apple peel. Gualdo is typical for this part of the world—cobbled streets, shuttered windows, stonewalls and narrow alleys. It has a only few hundred residents, many of them elderly, retired farmers; there’s a bakery, a small convenience store, a couple of cheap-and-cheery restaurants; and, a nursery that leaves its display of veggie seedlings on the pavement overnight. A church stands at the centre, just off the square, and there’s a park that fills with children over weekends.
Tourists—and especially travel writers—are enthusiastically welcomed. Within days of my arrival, I get a visit from the smart tourism office chairman Vincenzo Martines (Admiral, retired) and his translator.
We spend our days riding out, exploring west around the hills of Sibilini. We visit Perugia, Ascoli Piceno, Assisi and Ancona on the Adriatic coast. We pause in Sassotetto, a ski resort vacant at this time of year except for a herd of sheep and their singing shepherd.
A new east-west highway is under construction, a path of interlinking tunnels like giant noodles through the mountains that will slash travel time but also mean more tolls. At a labyrinthine produce market in Modena, we buy more bread, cheese, cold meats and olives than we can possible eat. But we try anyway, seated in the square with the unwrapped parcels scattered about us.
More than once we visit Gualdo’s larger neighbour, Sarnano, getting lost in the narrow passageways that see little daylight. There are arches over scuffed doorways decorated with polished gargoyle knockers; weathered marble sculptures; and, a few wandering tourists clutching little plastic bottles of water. In the late afternoon, grey-haired shopkeepers bring chairs out onto the pavement to chat and watch the passersby.
The Italian summer is peak season for festivals and every village seems to have one. Sarnano has its Castrum Sarnani that sees the town stage life as it was in medieval times—swordfights and all. At a small gnocchi celebration, I join the locals with a polystyrene plate filled to the brim and watch raffle winners collect arms full of salami. Some regionally famous accordion musician is scheduled to take to the stage later in the evening. Even though it’s close to midnight, the streets around Loro Piceno are packed for the Festa del Vino Cotto, or festival of cooked wine (black-and-white photographs of vats in gloomy stone cellars and men with big wooden stirrers are stuck up everywhere). We eventually give up looking for parking and head home, exhausted.
But rather than the sights in Italy’s bustling tourism centres—Rome, Venice, Milan, the Amalfi coast—it is everyday life that becomes the attraction in these rural parts. Over the weeks I follow the slow progress of a tractor in a distant field; note the occasional car pulling up at the cemetery for a mid-week consolation with loved ones; sit on the square every morning to watch the town awaken.
Occasionally, I pop in to Maria’s café for a quick espresso. Under the eaves, more old men sit chatting. Inside, just behind the counter alongside a bottle of Campari lies pack of worn playing cards.
Evenings are filled with our own private celebrations of great Italian food and liquor—a glass of bitter-sweet artichoke liqueur as a sundowner; vegetables from small garden patches and sold at the local market; wine with a cheerful label and unpronounceable name; a bowl of fresh, simple pasta.
“Fresh, good quality ingredients!” declares Guiseppe ‘Pippo’ Domitti, when I ask the restaurateur about the secrets to good Italian cooking. Pippo and his wife Gabriella have run their ristorante since 1978 in the house near San Angelo where he was raised.
There’s a paradox in all this however. One quickly feels that if you can get beyond the crippling Rand/Euro exchange rate, life in the Italian countryside might be so easy to do. But I suspect that adopting intangibles such as custom and what seems to be a different concept of time could be harder. I found reactions to this English-speaking city slicker occasionally warm, but more often dismissive; during summer holidays, many hospitality businesses are shut. One local I ask about this state of affairs just shrugs and mutters something that sounds like “boeuf!”
A few days on and still nothing seems to be happening with the swimming pool below my window. “They think they’ve found the problem,” my host tells me optimistically. “Great,” says I. “When might it be filled? What does the foreman say?”
For a second he deflates a tad: “Nothing much. He just shrugged and said: ‘boeuf!’”