Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Camping in the mountains - Part 2

If you're interested in reading about the event that these pictures portray, take a look at the Part 1 blog entry.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Camping in the mountains - Part 1

For nature lovers, the Sibillini mountains are a dream - airy ridges, narrow gorges, forested valleys, alpine plains, and legends to fit their mystical feel. From spring to autumn, its most popular trails are busy with seasoned and sometime hikers, most often in large gregarious groups, lending the experience a distinctly sociable Italian flavour. However, often you can find a place all to yourself, and you can feel as if you're the only person in the world, with nothing but the wind, the river, and the birds complementing the stillness.

As an occasional but keen camper, I've often hankered after spending a night in such surrounds, and so after years of procrastination, we finally gave it a whirl. Now there are numerous campsites available, with designated sites, water and toilets, and the accompanying social buzz that characterizes any gathering of more than one person in this country. But our aim was solitude and the still night of the mountains, away from noise, light, and convenience, while still being accessible enough to be able to camp next to the supply-carrying car. We found it near Castelluccio in Umbria's alpine plain, the Piano Grande - a site tailor-made for our purposes, on the fringe of the forest with marvellous views of the mountains, totally out of sight of the town and the plain's organized and bustling campsites. It was as if the site had been conjured out of a description based on my wishful preferences. There was even a ring of stones for a fire, with a healthy stack of wood neatly piled next to it.

Sitting round a blazing campfire with meat sizzling on the grill and the crescent moon rising in the evening sky over the forest takes you about as far away from the daily grind as you could imagine, and when we stumbled upon the fact that it was our fifteenth wedding anniversary - we're not very good with such dates - it completed the scene. Marche's second highest peak (or Umbria's highest, depending on which map you reference), La Cima del Redentore (2,448m), was etched against the deepening blues of the heavens, prompting ambitious thoughts of the next day's walk to one of the central Apennines' premier destinations - Lago di Pilato.

Our ambition to do the full Redentore-Pilato loop ended up being tempered by the hot weather and our physical condition, since we hadn't done a long hike in quite some time. Even so, the direct Lago di Pilato round trip took us around 8 hours (with breaks, including at least an hour at the lake), covering about 18km. The resulting burnt foreheads and aching legs aside, it's a wonderful place, nestled in a bowl at 1,940m between Redentore and the central Apennine's highest point, Monte Vettore, the twin lakes glittering "like the glasses of a rattlesnake", according to local myth expert Giuseppe Santarelli.

The lake is named after Pontius Pilate, who - according to one of many legends - requested Emperor Tiberius to load his body on to an ox cart after his death (which itself is somewhat vague) "and left to the power of fate." The oxen, masochists that they were, chugged up the mountains to this very spot - remote and accessible only with extreme difficulty - and subsequently deposited his body in the lake. Another legend claims that the lake turned blood red at precisely the moment of Christ's crucifixion, while yet another that leaves suddenly sprouted on the surrounding slopes in the shape of joined hands pierced by nails. The tiny rare freshwater shrimp that turns the waters red at spawning time flapped about the shallows like bulging-eyed fledglings learning to fly, perhaps smiling at their role in the creation of a legend.

Whatever the truth, it's a popular destination, and on our visit was buzzing with the satisfied acclaims, camera shutters, and reclining snores of numerous hiking pilgrims. On our return trip we met a mountain runner charging recklessly down a steep slope, and a gentleman clad in nothing but a towel and a skimpy swimsuit, adding distinct colour to an already multi-hued cast.

Needless to say, there was less activity around the campfire that night, but not so in the surrounding forest, where combative grunts interrupted the still night, suggesting a family of cinghiale (wild boar) in the neighbourhood. But we were wrong - just before turning in, a bluster of hooves and snorts drew us out to see a herd of horses come galloping out of the trees. Wild horses? Sort of ... The Piano Grande down below is a favourite of horse people, some of whom spend several weeks up here as part of the annual holiday. There are some who have "retired" or released their horses into the semi-wild here, giving them the freedom to roam as they will. We've encountered such herds before, and one needs to treat them with respect - get too close and the dominant male will suggest in no uncertain terms that you're quite close enough. Seeing their shadowy frames careening out of the forest as if escaping an unseen foe, gave a feel of being part of some dark medieval tale, but we were tired enough to sleep soundly in spite of our imaginations.

After packing up the next morning - leaving no trace of our presence - we headed for Castelluccio and the daily capuccino fix (there are some luxuries that simply can't be given up), our creaking bodies told us that the planned hike for the day (a short one) was not a starter in the continuing heat. So we headed for Norcia instead, and a taste of Umbria's premier salami town, but that's another story.

All in all, a perfect getaway, and our camping fix accomplished. The freezer blocks held out just long enough in the mid-summer heat to keep the dairy and other perishables fresh, although the absence of a grocery store and butcher in Castelluccio - it must be the only such town in pork-mad central Italy - did impact the planned menu.

It would be remiss of me to omit mentioning that, strictly speaking, free camping and fires outside of the designated areas are not allowed within the Sibillini National Park. Which makes the rather obvious campsite we stayed at, along with its fire ring, rather curious. But let's not forget - this is Italy after all.

For a photographic experience of the trip, see Part 2 of this entry.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Festivals: Montelago Celtic Festival (Serravalle di Chienti)

Given where we are - in a deeply traditional part of central Italy - the Montelago Celtic festival is best described in a single word: unique. Ringed by peaks of the central Apennines, the high Colfiorito plain on the Umbrian border comes alive over the course of a weekend in a feast of colour, sound, and humanity.

"Colour, sound, humanity ... unique?" I hear you justifiably ask. OK, consider this - there were enough kilts on display to suggest a McFellini family reunion (although the black Megadeth T-shirts that offset their tartan pleats were a tad incongruous). Then there was the all-night concert which ended after sunrise, a not unheard of phenomenon in these parts ... except for the fact that The Wild Rover by a band from Lazio named The Shire ended the musical festivities after a stream of Celtic favourites throughout the night. (A local marchigiano band named Mortimer McGrave closed out Friday's lineup.) Tossing the caber, McEwans Scottish ale, and a Tolkein booth (amongst many other similar attractions) added a flavour that these hills - and others in the region - have seldom (if ever) tasted prior to Montelago's first bash eight years ago.

But away from the stage, and the food, drink and craft stands, it's the life in tent city that defines the festival. A broad arc of coloured domes, gazebos, A-frames, and who-knows-what border one side of the site, with setups ranging from the sophisticated to the fleeting. Our neighbours, who obviously got there early, had their site neatly pegged out and cordoned off, military style, with a covered outdoor area and sheeted entranceway meticulously pegged down, citronella candles laid out symmetrically to repel the anticipated coordinated (and symmetrical) mosquito attack. Their shoes and boots stood neatly in paired obedience outside the sleeping area. The mosquitoes never came, obviously deterred by such organized defence, but it was all we could do to stop from mischievously disturbing the candles' symmetry and fussing the shoe ranks.

In front of us was an open-sided gazebo with an equally open-ended invitation for strangers and kin alike to join their festivities, while a few sites down a couple of night owls had draped their canvas loosely over a very low horizontal support constructed out of those flexible tent rods meant for the sides - if any thought had gone into its construction, it was fleeting, with only one object in mind: haste. Every now and then a chorus of voices would join forces to herald a developing primal roar, sweeping around tent city like a wind.

The majority of regalers seemed to be in their twenties, something of a surprise I must say - I expected more thirty- and forty-somethings - but despite their not inconsiderable overindulgence in a diverse menu of liquid refreshment (with predictable purgative results), there wasn't a hint of tension, confrontation, or anger. And this to me is what makes it uniquely Italian (or perhaps central-rural Italian) - the spirit of friendliness and camaraderie of a group of young revellers out on a weekend adventure. It's one of the many reasons that makes living here such a pleasure.

As for the music, it was pretty good all round, although the featured group on Saturday - coming on stage at 1:30 am on Sunday morning - was outstanding. Kila is an acclaimed seven-piece band from Dublin, playing a range of rousing music with Celtic overtones that was several notches ahead of their fellow performers. Well worth the trip on its own. Last year featured Spanish bagpipe virtuoso Hevia, demonstrating the organizers' continuing efforts to attract world-class headlining acts.

As we packed up and left at around 8:30 am on Sunday - as part of an extremely well-organized and civilized exodus - I reflected on why it took me four years to finally make it to this festival. But one thing's for sure - it won't be another four before I'm back again.

The Montelago Celtic festival is typically held on the second weekend in August. Details of the festival can be found online at www.artenomade.com.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Festivals: Treia - Disfida del Bracciale (Part 2)

If you're interested in reading about the event that these pictures portray, take a look at the Part 1 blog entry.

Festivals: Treia - Disfida del Bracciale (Part 1)

The Renaissance had a major influence on Italian, European, and even world culture back in the 15th and 16th centuries. But it wasn’t only in the fields of the arts, humanities, and sciences, it also played a significant role in the development of popular sport in Italy. Born in the noble palaces of Tuscany, and based on a combination of tennis and an ancient Greco-Roman game, il pallone col bracciale became the most popular sport of north and central Italy from the late 17th century until as recently as 1930. Using spiked wooden armlets (bracciale), a leather ball was pounded back and forth between two teams of three, with a high wall on one side permitting deflection back into the field of play. Such was its popularity that it spawned full-time professionals and massive followings, particularly in the Piedmont, Emilia-Romagna, and Le Marche, and special courts called sferisteri (singular sferisterio = ball court) were built throughout its popular realm.

The most renowned sferisterio of the time was Macerata’s, which today hosts the illustrious Opera Festival every July and August. The prescribed dimensions for the high wall that borders one side of a sferisterio required a height of between 14 and 20 metres (Macerata’s is 18m), and a length of around 90 metres (Macerata’s is 88m). It also needed to be on the west side of the court to prevent the players from being disturbed by the rays of a setting sun (the game was played in the afternoon). The arena was also used for other activities such as circuses and an Italian form of bullfighting, which was a popular Papal State “sport”.

Le Marche’s other major centre of pallone was just a few kilometers away in Treia, perhaps not surprisingly since it was a privileged man’s sport, and Treia was home to numerous noble families. And it was here, into the wealthy landowner Ercolani family, that the greatest player of the game was born – Carlo Didimi. Such was his prowess that he amassed a substantial fortune from his tournament winnings, on one occasion in 1830 demanding a fee of 600 scudi for a performance – schoolteachers at the time earned 25-30 scudi a year. A strong proponent of the growing unification spirit of the country, he was implicated in the failed 1831 revolution, but was pardoned when Pius IX was elected pope.

On the pallone court, Didimi was a battitore (batter), the player who sets the game in motion with a mighty swipe of the ball tossed by a mandarino (server), who plays no further part in the game. The other two players that participate are the terzino and spalla, who stand in mid- and fore-court respectively. Scores are the same as tennis – 15, 30, 40, game – and the first team to win six games is the victor.

If this year’s finals of Treia’s disfida del bracciale are anything to go by – the competition has been held since 1978, just 100 years after Didimi’s death – the battitore exhibits one quality in spades: attitude. Losing finalists in 2009, the green-sashed Cassero team has a battitore that walks so slowly back to the serving board that I wondered if he was actually going to make it. His attitudinal amble is liberally punctuated with furtive glances to the crowd, all the while keeping a stern, stoic expression on his face. The yellow-sashed Onglavina team – 2009 winners and clear crowd favourites – has a battitore with rather more urgency about him, although the serious attitude and crowd-checking glances are the match of his Cassero counterpart’s.

The game itself is a drama-filled event, with much chest-bumping, primal screaming, and angry self-remonstration. This year’s final dished up an added element of drama, one which my local friends could not remember happening before. Onglavina’s mandarino must be close to 70 years old, and on August 1st the occasion seemed to get to him – his tossed serves to the battitore were all over the show, and on most occasions he (the battitore) was forced to “decline” the first serve, and risk an erratic second. The battitore’s initial anger turned to arm-around-the-shoulder encouragement, but it wasn’t long before the team manager called a halt and replaced the poor fellow with a younger mandarino. Their serving improved dramatically, they got back into the game, having been two down when the original mandarino was replaced, and almost snatched victory. However, after drifting off into the crowd, I never saw the old man again, and I don’t believe he watched out the game. Even though Treia is one of Macerata’s larger towns, it’s still small enough for everyone to know everyone, and with the disfida being its leading event of the year, I’m sure “the replacement of the mandarino” is going to be a talking point for some time.

When Cassero finally won the thing, their team members collapsed in a heap on the ground, soon to be joined by a few groupies who gleefully leapt on to the mound of bodies. Serious stuff, this pallone. But I must say as a first-timer and a lover of ball sports it was really engaging, and I was captivated throughout – the seesawing contest, the emotional charge of the players (and the crowd), and the skill and thumping shots of the protagonists. (To be honest, I’d love to have a go myself.)

The whole thing is preceded by a parade consisting of four groups each dressed in period costume portraying a particular social stratum – artisans, the middle class, nobility, and the peasants. On a sweltering day when shorts and T-shirt constituted a state of overdress, I admire the parade participants for their forbearance in their heavy fabrics and multiple layers, all the way down to the youngsters.

This is a unique festival in the province (and indeed the region, if not the nation), and definitely deserves a visit - it's held in late July/early August. And if you were dubious about the importance of pallone to this area’s history, consider the fact that Goethe wrote about it during his Italian journey in 1786-7, and that Le Marche’s poet laureate Giacomo Leopardi – who was born in the nearby hilltop town of Recanati just eight weeks after Didimi – eulogized its most famous player thus:

The face of glory and her pleasant voice,
O fortunate youth, now recognize,
And how much nobler than effeminate sloth
Are manhood's tested energies.
Take heed, O generous champion, take heed,
If thou thy name by worthy thought or deed,
From Time's all-sweeping current couldst redeem;
Take heed, and lift thy heart to high desires!
The amphitheatre's applause, the public voice,
Now summon thee to deeds illustrious;
Exulting in thy lusty youth.
In thee, to-day, thy country dear
Beholds her heroes old again appear.

If you're interested in seeing a few pictures of the event, have a look at the Part 2 blog entry.