SERRA DE' CONTI - BELVEDERE OSTRENSE
The art of Feng Shui recommends sleeping with our head pointing North. It would follow, then, that when we‘re awake, our head should be pointing South. This comes naturally in Serra de‘ Conti where the ancient ring walls, still practically intact, are laid out in a typical elongated shape, along a North-South expansion line. This means that after a walk through the 13th-century historic center and a delicious plate of local chickling peas, the natural slope of the town will lead us southward to explore the Esino River valley!
BELVEDERE OSTRENSE - CUPRAMONTANA
Le Marche is a gorgeous region, as everyone knows, with its tiny hamlets, lush landscapes, gentle hills, and ancient lands. Sometimes, though, when one is on vacation in such a spot, just sending a postcard can be an undertaking. If you‘re ready to tear your hair out because it‘s Sunday and all the tobacconists (they sell stamps, too) are closed, then offer up a prayer to Saint Rufus, protector of letter carriers. That‘s right. The remains of the saint are housed in the Parochial Church of Saint Peter of Belvedere Ostrense, and every year, on 28th November seminars are held on the topic of the safety of letter carriers. Funny? Maybe. But go ahead and light a candle to St. Rufus and, just maybe, your “Greetings from Italy” will make it to their destination safe and sound!
«If your adversary is stronger than you, make him a friend». Who know? someone from Cupra might have said that. The community of Cupramontana was founded on the pagan cult of Cupra, the Goddess of fertility and of fecundity of the land, a symbol of femininity and eroticism. Presumably, the rites included the practice of hierogamy, Bacchanalians, Dionysian orgies, and the phenomenon of sacred prostitution. In fact, Bacchanalians were so widespread throughout the Roman Empire that in 186 B.C. the Senate launched a series of laws forbidding such practices in the countryside because they posed a serious threat to the public order. Despite these prohibitions, Dionysius won out over Apollonius. Still today, dancing, music, pull-out-the-stops fun, and excellent wine are on the calendar year after year at the oldest and most entertaining Festa dell‘Uva (Grape Festival) held in the Marche. Thousands of bottles of wine are uncorked and thousands of people toast the harvest of the prized Verdicchio.
CUPRAMONTANA - APIRO
A pear tree? A flame? A woman entwined in the branches? One look at the old coat of arms of Apiro and the imagination has free reign. Pirum- pear tree: one was planted at the top of a hill. The position was so strategic that it could be seen from everywhere and by everyone passing through the area. Pir Piras - fire: maybe it isn‘t a pear tree that we see on the coat of arms, but a fiery flame. Can‘t choose between the two iconographies? In the Secretary‘s office of Priory there is a picture on the wall depicting a woman entwined in the branches of a pear tree, its branches laden with abundant fruit, and on the woman‘s breast there is a flame. It‘s a bit like having one‘s cake and eating it, too. Better yet, a pear-cake¹.
The Italian equivalent expression would be “to have a full cask and a drunken wife”.
APIRO - ELICITO
«I don‘t think Sergio Leone ever went to Elcito. Had he known of it, he would never have gone to Sardinia to film his Westerns, but would have come to this corner of the Marche» write P. Merlini and M. Silvestri in Un altro viaggio nelle Marche, a must-read travel book about a journey through our region, on public transportation. A handful of rocks, a colossus sitting on a high ground: Elcito is its name. Just like the mysterious pistol-packing Armonica in C‘era una volta il West, if you are so lucky as to encounter the only resident of this immovable hamlet, he will cross your path with eyes cast down, hat worn low, and a sure step. Tumbleweeds don‘t roll by here in Elcito, but the wind blows just as hard as in West. And you‘ll really think you «hear an accordion playing Baclov, but it‘s just the wind playing on the stones and whistling through the crumbling houses».
ELCITO - MATELICA
If all of this wandering through the Marche countryside and old villages has made you lose track of time, and you don‘t quite remember what century you are in, then hurry to Matelica and take a look at the Globe. It works like a sundial and calculates, with fair precision, the hours of the day and the rising of the Sun, the calendar, the dates of the Solstices and the Equinoxes, the rising of the sun in the various constellations of the Zodiac, the length of day and night, etc. It is a unique exemplar of a solar clock, a Greek, crystal-clear marble sphere that bears engraved lines, concentric circles, arcs, letters, and words in the old Greek alphabet. Does all of this make your head spin? Splash some cool water on your face from the fountain in Piazza Mattei and then go enjoy a nice glass of the local Verdicchio. Wine has been produced in these parts since the 8th century B.C. Hats off to them!
MATELICA - CASTELRAIMONDO
Leonard Cohen sang «There‘s a crack in everything. That‘s how the light gets in». I wonder who tore open the sky on summer evenings, then. At sunset in Castelraimondo, all of the artificial lights go out and the ones that light up the dome of the sky come on. With no source of light pollution and because of its excellent position in the Marche hills, Castelraimondo‘s twenty or so towers scattered around the village become “celestial strongholds” from where one can freely gaze at the stars. Let the magic begin.
CASTELRAIMONDO - CAMERINO
In this world there exists a very strange dish, indeed, called a Sundae. If you order it in the USA, your server will bring you a big dish of ice cream covered in chocolate syrup, nuts, whipped cream, and topped with a maraschino cherry. If you order it in Korea, they bring you a plate of cow or pig intestines boiled in pig‘s blood. Now then, if one were to pour the town of Camerino into a pasta bowl and serve it up for lunch, it would be something like a sundae. The opulence, the power, the blood of military conquests, the Aequum Foedus with Roma, the House of Varano, Cesare Borgia, the excesses of the Seigneuries â€“ on the one hand. Spirituality, the birth of the Order of Capuchins, the cult of Saint Philip Neri, peaceful coexistence with the Jewish Quarter, the vow of poverty of the Order of Franciscans, of the Poor Clares, and the silent countryside â€“ on the other. Does there exist, anywhere, such an awesome synthesis of opposites?
CAMERINO - PIEVEBOVIGLIANA
You‘ve walked and walked like mules, so you‘ll need a rest. According to legend, when Saint Francis thought the workers who were building his beautiful church in Pievebovigliana needed refreshment, he transformed the water from the well into wine to relieve their thirst. Had he left a little of it (the water) in the well, they might have been able to save the original thirteenth-century Crucifix from the fire that broke out centuries later. In his journeys, Saint Francis always travelled on a donkey. Today, in Pievebovigliana, these animals still lead travelers along the first Donkey Track in Europe, on a path of marvelous biodiversity; here, the mind benefits from the peacefulness of the surroundings and the body is rejuvenated. The donkeys, known as mountain “engines”, will do the rest.
PIEVEBOVIGLIANA - FIASTRA
If it is true that the most wonderful and gratifying treasures are won only through maximum effort and toil, then get ready to sweat and walk. One must first conquer impassable trails before being able to enjoy the extraordinary views of the caves that flank Lake Fiastra. These are remote areas, wild and solitary. The Friars‘ Cave was a refuge for the Clareni who were penitent friars that made this inaccessible place their sanctuary for prayer, renunciation, and contemplation. During WWII the men of the Italian Resistance found protection and hiding there. How many secrets and how many stories can be held prisoner in the eroded rocks of a mountain?
FIASTRA - SAN GINESIO
San Ginesio is the patron saint of artists. They say that a dog and its master end up looking alike after a while. We don‘t know if the same fate befalls patrons, to be similar to the creatures they protect. The village of San Ginesio looks a little like artists, for sure. Multicolored and mysterious, it is peppered with signs that speak of a spiritual and material history that broke with conventions, that lived outside the rules: «San Ginesio‘s murky and controversial past intrigues us, for it flirts with heresy, yet is obedient to the religious power of Rome, and although peripheral, it becomes crucial to the birth of obscure Confraternities that give refuge and anonymous protection to the Knights Templar who left the Order once it was dissolved. For all of the 16th century, it had frequent relations with German heretical movements, to the point that in 1549, Rome got word of the rumor that there were prohibited books from Germany circulating in San Ginesio.» Without freedom, there is no creativity.
SAN GINESIO - SARNANO
Every traveler is granted a comet. If your journey isn‘t through the desert, but through the Marche countryside, then look for the dark foliage of oak trees. Rachel wrote: «You can tell which ones are the old roads because they have oak trees growing on them. If you are walking on a country lane and are not sure which way to go, look up to see where the largest line of oak trees are growing, and follow them.» As you walk, «take a moment to appreciate the people who planted and tended the saplings, trusting that they would give pleasure to future walkers in the heat of a late Summer day».
SARNANO - SMERILLO
Every year a festival is held in Smerillo, called “Le parole della montagna” (the mountain‘s words). Those who are born in the mountains know perfectly well that up on the most inaccessible peaks, there reigns a calm and a silence that can be deafening. A mountain speaks. But it speaks the symbolic language of transcendent signs. It‘s the place where the human and the divine meet, where one experiences interior and meditative dialogue, where stories are born that are later handed down from generation to generation. The stories of these places must be told and of their beauty and their legends we must speak. Let‘s make sure they enchant us, thus leaving us speechless.
SMERILLO - FORCE
A foreigner who decides to travel in Italy should know, before leaving his own country, that communication in English is nearly impossible in the outlying provincial areas. Imagine the chaos that would result if you decided to visit these places back in the time when the coppersmiths spoke in an ancient language known only to them, the baccaiamento, a sort of local dialect with made-up words, used only by the merchants and incomprehensible to others, thus preventing indiscreet ears from overhearing business talk. Don‘t worry, though, if you fall in love with one of the beautiful copper objects made here in Force, go ahead and talk to the artisans and use a dictionary. The old language disappeared some time ago and no one uses those terms anymore. Of the ancient art of the coppersmiths there remains the beauty and splendor of the craft and the passion with which the town hands down its heritage.
FORCE - CASTIGNANO
Surrounded by steep ravines, it sits up high on a hill, an unmistakable profile: a pyramid-shaped town supported by a colossal wall and dominated by a Romanesque tower with a soaring apex. The natural aura of mystery that envelops Castignano deepens when one learns that it was one of the major strongholds of the Knights Templar and still stands guard over some of their important documents. If you lean out over the wall, you can smell the sea, as though the kilometers that separate the fortress from the Adriatic were nothing but a few hundred meters. In contrast, the view extends infinitely far, from the Conero Promontory to the Sibylline Mountains, to the Gran Sasso, to the Maiella, and all the way to the sea, way down there, at the bottom. The castle seems to almost lose itself in this immensity, lose itself, dramatically. Solitary, in the midst of a valley that extends as far as the eye can see, fading from green to blue.
CASTIGNANO - COSSIGNANO
The belly button of the Picene region. In the human body, the navel is equidistant from all of the limbs, it is at the center. Cossignano is at the center of the Picene area, halfway down the road from Ancona to Atri. Even more important in a body, the navel is a scar that remains as a reminder of the event of one‘s birth. Cossignano is, in fact, the original location of the Sabellic migration, an ancient Osco-Umbrian people, and its fortress bears the symbol of the woodpecker, a bird that was sacred to Mars; this makes the village a stronghold of the God of War. None of us probably takes enough notice of our own navel, but as we stroll inside the walls of Cossignano, it is impossible not to wonder about the people who trod these streets and how they lived. Concentric narrow streets that design a delightful historic town center. Seen from above, it looks perfectly round, just like a belly-button.
COSSIGNANO - OFFIDA
Have you ever seen Billy Wilder‘s Arsenic and Old Lace”? If I were you I‘d stop talking about the art of lace-making as though it were just a boring pastime for old ladies who had nothing better to do. In Offida, bobbin lace-making has been passed down for generations, since the 1400s. Not only that, but it has always seen women from the lower classes, from the ecclesiastic world, and from the aristocracy become involved with both passion and intelligence. And what‘s more, Offida stands out in the female artisan sector of central-southern Italy for establishing the only Cooperative of Artisan Lace-makers, in 1979. The goal is to produce and sell their work, done according to the old Offida traditions, directly to the public. What old ladies? They‘re suffragettes!
DAY 18 / 19
We walk on land and sometimes, on summer nights, we look up to see the stars. But there is one place, here in the Marche, where you can walk on the stars. This is possible thanks to the fascinating mythological story that Offida is founded on. Probably founded by the inhabitants of the Island of Rhodes (once called Ophiussa), it is said that the golden serpent was once venerated in Offida. In fact, not far away from the town, up on a hill, there was temple where priests provided the responses given by the Oracle of the Ophites (from ophis = serpent). On a parallel, mythology tells of Asclepius, son of Apollo, who was transformed into a constellation so he could escape death: the constellation of Ophiucus or ‘he who holds the serpent’ (Asclepius is represented as a man with a serpent wrapped around him). Take a walk as far as the majestic church of S. Maria della Rocca, then turn around and look back towards the center of town. The constellation of Ophiucus is right before your eyes. It‘s under your feet. It has been drawn in the path you have just trod. The head of the serpent rests on the church and on Via Roma, the tail winds from Piazza del Popolo to Piazza della Libertà. Approximately 660 meters. The Golden Serpent street really does connect the earth and the sky.