Babbo Natale is coming to town

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I swear I’m not a Grinch. But the “Christmas Spirit” has been a bit elusive for me of late. But I caught a glimpse of it tonight in Il Centro in Tolentino. We knew there was some sort of festa going on, and that it had something to do with Christmas.

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Did not know it was “Cioccaloto Natale,” or “Chocolate Christmas.” About 20 booths each had their own special hand made chocolates. A video screen carried an Italian game show, which transfixed many in the crowd (go figure). Kids and families were everywhere. Tolentino has planted a Christmas tree in the middle of the plaza—I mean really planted it. They built up a huge pile of earth, covered it with real grass and shrubs and put a 15 meter tall tree in the center of it all. Really pretty.

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We wandered around and sampled a few of the chocolate booths. Our friend Stephano Belfiore, the furniture craftsman, recognized us and called us over to the booth his family and friends ran. https://fitzwritesinitaly.wordpress.com/2013/11/29/theyre-crafty-like-that/ It’s nice to be able to say “I know that guy” after spending a few weeks here.

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Their specialty was chocolate covered chestnuts (you can see them roasting chestnuts here over an open fire). Oh, dear God. With the hot mulled wine (vin brule) we bought from another booth… yes, it warmed our cockles. I didn’t see Babbo Natale—the Italian Santa Claus—but I did see an Emmet Kelly lookalike clown on break—he was having a vino cotto with a very stylish Italian couple.

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From Tolentino we went to Ripo San Ginesio, where we had heard of another Christmas festival, the Presepio. We actually got there just as it was closing up, but the first person we saw really wanted us to see it, so he let us in (and didn’t charge us the 4Euro per head entry). We learned that the Presepio is a collection and competition of Nativity scenes.

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When I first realized that, I was ready to go get some more vin brule. But this tiny medieval town had blocked off their tiny streets and alleyways and set up 17 different hand-made Nativity scenes throughout the town.

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It was really pretty amazing. The intricately crafted designs ranged from a huge sand sculpture to more modest desk-tip sized displays. Each showed incredible workmanship and detail that was just mind-boggling. And since it had officially closed, we three were free to roam the tiny village alone. Really glad we did.

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(This one was made entirely of wheat)

Earlier, at Tolentino, I gazed up at the town’s official Christmas tree, saw the happy, bundled-up families wandering about giddily, and looked around at what we Americans would call a small-town affair. The thing that got me is that it’s not commercialized– nor was Ripe San Ginesio. It’s very subtle and sweet and real and beautiful. The way Christmas ought to be. That’s when I caught my glimpse. So I sidled up to my sister and our friend Bob and thought “we need a picture.” Enjoy.

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I did.

 

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Flush with victory

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One of the things I love most about travel is seeing how other people do the very same things you do every day at home. Whether it’s cooking or dressing or washing a car or getting around a city or country… We may think we’ve got it all down and that ours is the only way– or the best way– to do things. But there are many ways. Some have more style, some are more efficient, and some just make you go “huh?”

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Mountain Towns and Dancing Shoes

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I love the mountains. Love looking at them, and even more being out in them. So one of the things on my tick list while in Italy was to get to the mountains. Most people know about the Italian Alps, in the northwest. A few more know about the Dolomites, in the northeast. I was not familiar with the Sibillinis, which actually run pretty much down the spine of “the boot” of Italy.

They’re at their highest and most beautiful in Le Marche, where the Parco Nazionale dei Monti Sibillini is located. http://www.sibillini.net/en/index.htmlImage

So we drove first to Sarnano and then to Amandola, about 30-45 minutes south of us. Both are picturesque walled towns in the mountains. Both are fascinating to wander through. They’re both built at the top of a rise at the foot of higher mountains. So the streets circle the hill, dividing it into level or layers. It sounds orderly—sort of. But walking around these narrow vias and vicolos, you could easily get lost. And that’s part of the fun of it—at least to me. It’s also a great way to get to the top of a very steep hill—traversing back and forth past storybook castle-like homes that have been occupied for the better part of a millennium.

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The snow that affected us affected these mountain towns even more. Our puny 20 cm of snow paled in comparison to their meter of snow. We had a couple of warmer, sunny days, and thanks to their experience and preparedness, the streets were completely clear. Heading up the mountain toward the rifugio (mountain retreat), we wondered what the mountain road would be like. Let me just say it got worse the higher we went. But the snowplows had been there, God bless’em. We stopped before they did. We could have gone farther, but we didn’t have snow tires or chains. Still, the views were worth it. Saw a pack of wild boar on the way down—probably 12-15 of the hairy beasts. Tried to get a pic, but they were too skittish.

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I don’t have a shoe fetish, but I do have a pair of Italian shoe that I got 20+ years ago that make me very happy. I call them my dancing shoes. Low-cut loafer in an oxblood color I’ve never seen anywhere else. Leather sole so you can slide on the dance floor. I’ve had them resoled 6-8 times over their lifespan, I love them that much. Another item on my Italy tick list was finding a pair of Italian shoes to replace them (well, supplement them, at least). Success! Le Marche happens to be home to several nice Italian shoe makers, and they have “venditta diretta” stores (outlets, basically) where they sell direct for cheap.

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We visited a couple of shops in Monegranaro and got a tour of the last one, Piampiani, in Civitanova. Its not Prada or Bruno Magli, but they had some gorgeous shoes, and they’re made by actual people (who use machines—but still – very high-touch). When you think of “Italian shoes” and you think of Gepetto in a little shop with a hammer and some thread, you’re not alone. You’re wrong, but not alone. They DO make prototypes very much by hand, with hand stitching and the little cobbler’s lasts, etc. But when it comes to manufacturing shoes, they… manufacture.

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But again, it’s very high touch and there are real people touching the work and making sure it is high quality. The women’s boots… que bella. So, yes, I got a new pair of dancing shoes.

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Now, to hit the dance floor. Ladies…?

 

Buck Knives and Open Borders

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Our friends Bob and Francesco came over for dinner tonight. (oliviotree.com) They (Francesco mainly) cooked for us a while back  (https://fitzwritesinitaly.wordpress.com/2013/11/22/buona-note/).

So it was our turn. I cooked a chicken-sausage gumbo. “First, you make a roux…” They’d never had gumbo (not sure gumbo has ever been served in Le Marche, actually) and really liked it. I was quite pleased. They’re both quite well traveled and well versed in wine and food, so I was hesitant to say the least. But for an excellent Italian cook to say my dish was good… well, it made my heart leap up.

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(Wine, water, oil, vinegar)

 We talked about travel a lot, and how with the EU’s open borders, Europeans travel more than Americans. Francesco’s family is from Naples, in the south of Italy. Every summer his family would spend all of July in the north of Italy in a little mountain village in the Dolomites. The Dolomites just happen to be on my rock climbing bucket list.

We’d had a really productive day around Casa Mosaico. Bob did a lot of plumbing for us (hot water at the kitchen sink, thank you baby Jesus), and I did my odds and ends—door knob for the guest bathroom, chopping kindling wood for the fireplaces, hanging the 8 cup hooks on the newly hung cabinet, clearing leaves from the pool cover, etc. After dinner, over dulce, I asked Bob if he carried a pocketknife. I have 2-3 at home, but never got in the habit of carrying one regularly. My father always did. 

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(Fine Italian design… it’s everywhere. This is the carrier for our dessert dish)

I happen to pack mine for this trip… as it happens, a nice Buck knife my father gave me when I was probably a teenager. I’ve kept it sharpened and oiled all these years, but just never got in the habit of having it in my pocket on a daily basis. Fitz (my father) was a country doctor, so surgery was only one of the many things he did in his practice. Fine steel was always important to him. From his scalpels to his hunting knives to his daily pocket knife. He passed that appreciation on to me. A fine, sharply honed kitchen knife is a joy to me to this day, and I always keep a sharp Gerber folding knife on my climbing harness.

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So, bucking my usual habits, I packed Fitz’ Buck knife with me on this trip. I find myself reaching for it several times a day here. Every day. Slicing open the packing around some dishes sorella stashed in the attic; prying out an errant screw I just mis-placed; cutting apart the sashes that held together sorella’s old twin bedframes (in preparation for the new frame delivered by our new favorite store, Fallimenti); carving up an apple for an impromptu al fresco lunch; getting the seemingly ever-present gunk from under my nails (please don’t tell my now-departed mother. She’d think it uncouth.) I don’t feel dressed unless it’s in my front pocket now (handkerchief ever-present in the back).

So what do good food, good friends, travel, and pocket knives have to do with each other? I’m still working on that. But I think that when you open yourself up to new experiences, you become a more versatile and useful utensil of the universe. Something that will deliver when called upon. Something that adds to the experience at hand. Something that can slice prosciutto, pecorino fresco and pears and still slit open a love letter with grace and aplomb.

Peace out.

Market Day, I meet an Italian fox

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We drove into town today to get sorella’s identification card (she’s actually a full-on resident now—at least part time). Her attorney said everything’s easier with the ID card. But the comune office (like a county, sorta) wasn’t open. Discovered that Tuesday is Market Day here. Until about noon, the streets, il centro and the many piazzas around the downtown area are filled with vendors selling clothes, foods, spices, vegetables, meats, fabric, yarn and other assorted stuff.

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We wandered around a bit and I got a few gift ideas, but made no purchases. Some of the merchandise was nice—fairly high quality at decent prices (not bargain basement) and some was just cheap junk. Not a lot of cheap junk, considering the number of vendors. Every street we went down seemed to have an open space filled with vehicles and awnings and kiosks and stands. I passed by an upscale brick-and-mortar store and saw the clerk arranging her merchandise unbothered by customers. I wondered how the local shops felt about market day. The residents were certainly out in the streets in full force.

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While mi sorella went into town to try for the third time to get her ID card, I spent the afternoon hanging towel racks, clothes racks, cleaning up and siphoning off the rain from the pool cover. I did this last bit about dark and noticed out of the corner of my eye something dart around the yard. I turned and found myself face to face with the famous Foxy Loxy (so named by the previous homeowners, Ben and Lisa). A beautiful, nervous little animal about the size of a very large and long-legged housecat. He came within 8-10 feet of me. I got a few (bad) photos of him. When I would try to get closer, he would dart off just out of reach. As I went about my yard work, I saw him bump a tennis ball under a bush. I retrieved the ball and whistled for him. To my surprise, he approached cautiously. I threw the ball and sure enough, he bounded off after it, grabbing it in his pointy little mouth.

 

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I was kinda sad when he left (with the ball). I was alone again, but I glanced up and was struck by the incredibly beautiful starlit sky above me. We’re out in the country, so there’s no light pollution. Just millions of bright stars. I immediately picked out Orion and Taurus and the Pleiades, and figured they’ll be back tomorrow evening. Maybe my little fox will, too. 

Iron and Stone, Chapter 2

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Iron and Stone Chapter 2: Stone

From the front walk of Laurence Love’s beautifully restored farmhouse near Treia, we could see the Sibillini Mountains in the distance, and closer, a small mountain topped by what looked like a tall, slender spike or piton. Among the myrid tidbits of interesting information Laurence shared with us, he insisted that if we got to the top of that hill, and saw that torre or tower, it would be unlike anything we’d ever seen. Guaranteed. I was a little skeptical.

After we talked iron and rock and roll and Le Marche for a couple of hours, Laurence sent us off with directions to the torre (and a stop at an agriturismo for lunch). We found the agriturismo easily enough, but there was a sign on the neat little farmhouse: “Chiuso per lutto.” (“Closed for mourning.” Sorry for your troubles.)

So we went off in search of the torre. Laurence had pointed out the mountain next door to the torre and said the view there was almost as good. Almost. As it turned out, we took the wrong road and got to the almost-mountain first. And the view was spectacular, actually looking down a little on Torre Pitino. We backtracked and eventually made it to Pitino.

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The last bit of road still held snow and Clio the Renault slipped and slid a bit as she carried us to the top. Laurence had told us incredulously that “they” (not sure who “they” were) stabilized the ruins, put in a new roof on the church, new windows and a locking front door and then left it wide open. Sure enough, the church doors were wide open, I followed piles of cow poop into the sanctuary and was amazed that I was all up in it. No fences, barriers, velvet ropes. Just me and this thousand-year old church and ruined village.

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There’s not much of artisitic value left to see inside the main church (except the architecture itself), probably because it had been open to the elements for so long. Wandering around outside, I came to the tower, some 25 meters high and six meters wide at the base, tapering as it rose in to the bluebird sky. There are no ground-level doors, so I couldn’t get all up in it. But I could get all up in the two-meter wide stone city walls. So I climbed up and walked around a bit on the battlements… a dream come true for a kid whose childhood fantasies often included castles in faraway lands.

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I explored a side chapel and found one faded fresco.

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I wandered around the side chapel gazing upward. When I finally looked down, I discovered I was standing in a pile of bones. I couldn’t identify them but hoped there were of one of the cows who pooped in the main church. Our friend Enrico told me the next day that his father (a doctor) used to go with his medical school colleagues to collect and reassemble human bones at Pitino for their anatomy class. Turns out they date from the Napoleonic Wars. Gulp. I was glad I had resisted the urge to take a photo… just seemed disrespectful somehow.

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Anyway, the view from Torre Pitino was all that Lawrence had promised and then some. We could see the snow-covered peaks of the Sibillini mountains in the distance, and the beautiful Le Marche farmland all around. We could also see a wall of weather approaching from the Adriatic to the east, a portent of the rain we had the next day. Lawrence had told us hardly anyone goes there anymore, and we were indeed the only ones exploring, which was kinda nice. It was a quiet, windswept, cold, beautiful, contemplative adventure. We basked and warmed in the glow of our discovery all the way back to Paterno.

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