Up in the Apennine mountains in a bowl surrounded by soft, curved hills is a wonderful place. It’s called Piano Grande, and is actually just across the regional border in
The spectacular weather attracted throngs, and as we sauntered through the shady, oak-covered avenues in the valley en route, we were constantly overtaken by bikers buzzing like black insects toward the honey pot. Biking is a very popular weekend sport here, particularly among the curving mountain roads in our neighborhood. For some reason – maybe it’s a biker thing – they’re always in a hurry, which means, given the innate and unchangeable habits of the Italian driver, a constant dance with the wild side: overtaking on solid white lines (what lines?), speeding by on the other side on blind curves (who's blind?), and generally making a mad dash to get there … and do nothing. It’s all black leather, making everyone look the same, so it’s always intriguing getting to a communal stop to see who’s actually underneath all that black – anyone and everyone, as it turns out, and – in this country – pretty much as you’d expect.
Casteluccio has a permanent population of about 3, and on festival days, 30,000. Cars are parked all the way down the approaching roads in typical Italian fashion: eclectic, avante-garde style. The numerous mammoth coaches slow things down to a crawl, and jam up the village’s piazza, but it doesn’t matter – it’s festa time and all that’s important is that you’re there in some way or other. Chaos, after all, is what Italians thrive on, it’s like a life juice that injects them with an oblivious energy that makes everything just OK.
Ignoring the apparently obvious requirement to park a kilometer away, we crawl into the piazza, and scoot up a sidestreet, finding a parking on a precipitous slope just 50m from the action. Why everyone else isn’t doing this is anyone’s guess – I thought that finding obscure but convenient parking places was a national pastime.
Anyway, after spending a nano-second on that thought, off we go to explore. In the town itself, there are only three things to do – browse the few stores for the local products (lentils, salami, cheese, and curios), watch the people … and eat (of course). We did all three, crushing into a busy diner-cum-restaurant that had a single, heaving line to get in and out. Amongst the many dishes available, Julius and I had the compulsory lentil and sausage soup – more like a stew but delicious. My son then followed this up – much to our surprise since his appetite has shrunk since his eating-machine days – with a monster of a porchetta sandwich: whole roasted pig, a specialty of the larger region and an absolute must if you have the stomach for it. To our even greater surprise, he flattened it, and left sated and satisfied, hands and mouth glistening with grease.
We then took a drive up a bumpy dirt road that leads to who-knows-where up and around the corner, and stopped to watch the group of hang- and para-gliders readying themselves and throwing themselves off the slope and into mid-air. It reminded me of Douglas Adams’ flying instruction manual: throw yourself at the ground … and miss. Well, miss they did, these fellows, most of them English, it seemed, and went soaring over the plains and some of them up into the stratosphere, gliding peacefully some few thousand feet above the central Apennines’ highest peak, Vettore. There’s actually a school for such ventures not far from where we live, and watching these guys do what birds do – apparently as easily as they do too – took me another step closer to being convinced that I want to do it too. We shall see, maybe it’ll be my 50th birthday present to myself, although my Italian would need to improve in order to be able to understand all of the instruction and increase chances of survival.
After a couple of hours of this, down we went into the plains to get a close-up of the flowers. Not inordinately spectacular, I have to confess, but given the peaceful setting, buzzing with happy visitors lying down in the fields posing for photos, there was little to criticize.
Driving back at the settling dusk, I was reminded why I came here (notwithstanding my son’s unfathomable tantrum). Sure there are other beautiful places like this all over