Thursday, June 28, 2007

Along The Sheep Trail

The steady breeze brought cooling relief as well as the only sound audible, rustling the grasses in the pastures. High in a mountain valley we found solitude and a break from the incessant heat of the last few weeks. We also found relics of a bygone era scattered about the area, le caciare, as they are called. Round huts built without mortar by stacking stones in a concentric manner to form a beehive shape, the caciare were constructed and used by shepherds for many years as they grazed their flocks in the mountains.

There are said to be one hundred of the unusual shelters still standing in this area, testimony of the importance of the wool industry in this region, dating back as far as the medieval times. In Ascoli, the wool merchants’ guild was very powerful and paid for the construction of a colonnaded loggia abutting the monumental church of San Francesco, on the Piazza del Popolo, as a shady place to gather. One guidebook says the Medici family of Florence controlled many of Abruzzo’s Appenine mountain pastures as wool represented one of the major sources of income in those days. This part of Monti dei Fiori may have been included in their holdings. An old map in another guidebook shows that in 1605 there were an estimated 5,500,000 head of sheep along the Wool Route, which included an elaborate system of trails to move the sheep from mountain valleys to the lower plains. That's a lot of lambs!

The rustic caciare, with their conical shape, are reminiscent of the trulli in Puglia, and may well have been inspired by them since the route stretched from Abruzzo all the way to the plains of Puglia south of the Gargano Peninsula. Inside, the dry stone construction keeps the primitive interior a relatively constant temperature.

In some of the fields, evidence (ahem) of sheep having been grazed here in the past was abundant, though we were surprised that we did not encounter any animals nor shepherds. We inspected several caciare, wandering around the recently-harvested grain fields and enjoying the breeze and the silence. Not a single car passed along the road during the two hours we were exploring. The gorgeous, calming views swept across the mountain ranges included in the national parks of Gran Sasso e Monti della Laga and included the Sibillini and Monte Ascensione as well. A few puffy clouds skirted overhead and cast shadows on the mountain slopes. We were reluctant to return to the heat of the city, but will return to the high pastures with picnics throughout the summer now that we have found a tranquil refuge with picturesque remnants in the cool, fresh mountain air.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Music, Fry Bread, and the Wine of the Holy Thorn

We have started seeing posters announcing the sagra of the week, the summer-time festivals that are held in every corner of Italy. Here in Ascoli each sestiere, or neighborhood, has its own sagra, and the little hill towns all the over the province have them slated throughout the summer, as well. They are frequently sponsored by a church, thrown in conjunction with a saint’s feast day, and usually include a procession or other religious observance as part of the activity line-up. But for the most part, as with everything in Italy, it boils down to the food. For while a sagra may proclaim a saint day, the bigger headline on the poster is always the type of delicacy they will be cooking up.

We are looking forward to next weekend’s sagra at the Porta Romana district, as the highlighted food will be spaghetti all’amatriciana served in the shadow of the ancient Roman gate to the city. Well. Can’t say no to that, can we?

Last week’s was a fun one, though. The neighborhood by the church of San Pietro Martire threw a party in commemoration of the sacra spina, or holy thorn. They have a thorn said to come from the crown Jesus was forced to wear, preserved in an ornate reliquary in the church. It is usually under lock and key and we have not had the chance to gaze upon it up close and personal until this event, when they threw wide the metal gate that usually protects the relic and allowed us access to it. Almost. The reliquary was kept behind protective glass. But still. Worth the trip.

The event was officially called the Festa della Sacra Spina and the sagra della crispella. Not knowing what a crispella was, we thought it a good thing to investigate. As we approached the roped off area, the streets were festooned with colorful lights and music was coming from a stage area. We saw a line of several old ladies departing, all carrying bottles of vino and thought that was a funny sight. Unfortunately, the camera was left at home. Tents were erected in a little piazza to serve up the mysterious food, and a group was gathered on the perimeter to watch the solemn procession leave the church. The holy thorn was not paraded through town as I’d assumed it would be, so I’m not quite sure what the point of the procession was, and to be honest, it was a little sparse and disappointing. I don’t know if it is indicative as far as processions go in this area, or if it was just an off-night. Thus, we headed to the table where tickets are sold and asked for two crispelle, per favore and a bottle of water. Tempting as a cold beer sounded, it was just too hot for booze. I’d get woozy.

The crispelle turned out to be kind of like Indian fry bread, but without the honey. They could be ordered plain (ours) or with prosciutto. Honestly, after a few bites, I was done. The honey really would have made them palatable. As it was, they tasted rather greasy and…well, a little bland. Now we know.

Before leaving I had to investigate the Pesca di Beneficenza set up in the historic Romanesque church of Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio across the street. Dating from the tenth century, it’s an interesting place in itself and rarely open. Inside we found a kind of luck-of-the-draw raffle where you pay two euros and pull a number out of a jar. About one hundred prizes were lining the walls and the number you draw corresponds with a prize. I saw a nice bike, a whole prosciutto, and some fine wines among the shelves of little toys, stuffed animals and whatnots. Heck, it’s for the church, you’d have bought a number, too. I figured anything that could net me my very own prosciutto would be worth two euro. My number, however, presented me with a very cute hair clip, useful for my long, flowing locks (see profile photo). I’ll be giving that to the little girl next door.

We went back to the piazza to listen to the band playing on the stage. Not too talented a group, unfortunately, but that didn’t stop them from belting it forth and shaking it down, anyway. More power to ‘em. While standing there we heard a commotion over at the raffle table and I looked in time to see a kid of about 10 jumping up and down in absolute glee. I nudged Bryan and said, “look, the boy got the bike!” The man running the table came out and rang a bell and everyone inside was clapping and slapping the kid on the back. He stepped out of the church pumping his arms in the air and yelled, “Wooooo! PROSCIUTTOOOOOO!!!!” Now I ask you, is that an only in Italy moment or what? I can’t imagine any ten-year old in America getting that excited about winning a ham.

But what of the wine we saw the old ladies toting? Back at the ticket tent a guy started unloading a case of bottles and arranging them on the table. Aha! I had to investigate this and found…private label church wine for the festa of the sacra spina! Three measly euros a bottle! Sold! I proudly carried my bottle through town as we hit the passeggiata before making our way home. Turns out to be a nice Rosso Piceno, by the way, so the church got themselves a good vintage. I love the label and have decided that I’ll not pass up a sagra if I can possibly help it.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Singin' With A Smile

I’d like to give a great big thanks to Sognatrice for her latest meme of naming songs that make you smile, for while it’s a cute idea and I’ve decided to play along, it has also induced a loathsome side effect and wedged that grating tune, I’m Walking On Sunshine, into my head (sorry Michele!). It’s so perky it’s annoying and I’ll now have to extricate it by calling my sister, for everyone knows that the only way to get rid of a song that has become “stuck” is to pass it on to some other unsuspecting schmuck.

I also saw this meme at the Olive Notes, so I’ll share the credit with Erin. It’s basic…name the song that never fails to make your heart sing (or smile or feel happy). The official rules are posted below if anyone else wants to join in the fun.

The #1 Song That Always Makes Me Smile

*Wooly Bully by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs

Why? Well, there’s a little story behind this one.

Some years back, a good portion of my beloved family traveled to Albuquerque to spend Christmas with us. It was the first time we’d had company for the holidays and we were thrilled. My parents, my sister, my favorite uncle (I have to say that in case he’s reading this), and my grandparents all flew to the Land of Enchantment for a feliz Navidad, New Mexico style. We had a great time laughing, joking, singing off-tune, and making general merriment for days on end.

On Christmas night, for reasons that none of us can fully recall, we started amusing ourselves by calling the local classic rock radio station and requesting songs. The DJ who was stuck working on Christmas was fully entertained by our antics and started announcing the songs, “and here’s another one for the wacky family on the Westside!” We requested Herman’s Hermit’s classic favorite, “I’m Henry the Eighth I’m Am” for my grandpa, whose name was Herman. We pulled out the Beach Boys, La Bamba, Louie Louie, and more, eventually feeling punchy and pushing the furniture to the edges of the living room to make a dance floor. By the time we got around to calling in for Sam the Sham and the Pharaoh’s my grandma was completely enjoying the fun. Wooly Bully was cranked up loud and in the midst of us all, my then-83 year old grandmother got up and danced it down like a teenager. Thankfully (thankfully!!) my step-father video-taped the entire scene. Now every time I hear Wooly Bully I can see my grams shaking her booty and swinging her arms. And who just can’t help but smile at that?

*Avalon (the entire album) by John Tesh. This instrumental music never fails to lift my spirits when they start to sag.

*Anything, but anything by Harrick Connick, Jr. Gotta love Harry!

*I’ll Be There For You by the Rembrandts, better known as the theme song from Friends

*Bon Jovi’s anthem song, Living On a Prayer.

Now it’s your turn! The rules:
Post about the one song that makes your heart sing, and uplifts your spirit every time you hear it. If you can provide a link to lyrics and/or audio that would be fabulous. But it's not essential, so don't worry about it if you can't.2. Include a trackback to this post.3. Tag three others and ask them to include a trackback to your post and this one when they post.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Jessica and Jonathan

Some time ago I received comments on my blog from Jessica and clicked through to see her writings over at her blog, In Search of Dessert. I liked her outlook and writing style and added it to my bookmarked list. She seemed like the kind of gal I’d have a lot in common with, so when she sent an email to say she and her guy Jonathan would be in Marche, I quickly responded and looked forward to the visit.

They arrived Tuesday afternoon and we met up in the blistering sun in the expansive Piazza Arringo. Turns out, Jonathan is even more of a caffe addict than Bryan, so I knew the boys would get along well. We wandered around the centro, stopping for various caffeine fuel-ups while showing them the centro storico…probably more than they wanted to see in the heat, but we amiably chatted nonstop during the trek.

Jessica is every bit as sweet and outgoing as I’d imagined she’d be and I loved hearing about her move to Switzerland. We shared the common experience of trying to get comfortable learning and functioning in a foreign language as well as the common struggle of dealing with chronic fatigue syndrome. Jonathan is soft-spoken and charming, adventurous and interested in other cultures. He is from Switzerland and has that cute French-accent English when he speaks. Together they are una bella coppia (a cute couple).

He’s also an IT guy and designed Jessica’s blog as well as her new project, a joint effort with fellow bloggette (another one on my Bloggers I’d Like To Meet List), Shelley in Rome, to exchange English language books among expats around Europe. Together they’re bringing books to us desperate souls who love to read (something that will be especially helpful to those of us whose shipments of books never arrived).

We enjoyed a nice dinner together in a little hole-in-the-wall place we love because Jessica specifically wanted to experience the oral menu that is so common around here. While the atmosphere is not exactly “quaint,” the food is always good and so inexpensive it left Jonathan gaping, and we followed it up with tastings of the famed Anisetta at Caffe Meletti.

It was a pleasurable day and we thoroughly enjoyed their company. If you’re an expat in Europe, be sure to check out the Sisterhood of the Traveling Books website! Readers Without Borders also provides a forum to post and read book reviews, so it has much to offer even if you’re not living in Europe.

Monday, June 11, 2007

But I'm a Nice Person!

Or, Why Does Technology Have It In For Me?

I’ve been neglecting the blog, I admit it. And while I have un sacco di scusa involving work projects, visiting family in town, and marketing efforts for the tour company, it actually boils down to technology. Or lack thereof.

Technology, I’ve discovered, can be an angry beast. I’ve committed some unknown sin for which I must be punished, apparently. Don’t believe me? Consider; my internet connection, which was a slow but normally reliable cell-phone dial-up, decided to halt all functioning for nearly two weeks. The back-up, an even slower cellular connection would sputter like it might connect, but then it, too, would cease and desist. It was like they had a conference on how best to annoy me.

Alright, said I, I’ll try to keep the chin up and stay chipper. I’ll take the trusty laptop down to the neighborhood coffee bar which had recently rigged itself up with wireless, I said. My saving grace, I thought. I’ll mix it up with the ragazzi and all will be well. When I arrived I watched the barista’s face turn sadly regretful. He was, bless his heart, so upset to inform me that his internet wasn’t working that he gave me a coffee for free. I tried to give him the money, but he was too distracted by his explanation of how he couldn’t figure out what the problem was and by his laments of how much it was going to cost him to call a technician out to look at the system. He was off-line for more than a week.

I discovered that I live and die by internet, as sad as that may be to admit. It’s my lifeline to my loved ones back home, my necessary link for work, and my source of news. Reading an Italian newspaper can be a comical but also frustrating exercise if one wants actual news. They have long articles that give flowery words but when sifted through boiled down actually amount to roughly one paragraph of sketchy information. I can never discover what the real bottom line is in most of these journalistic writings. Meanwhile, my emails backed up. The cell phone connection would tease me, letting me online for about five minutes, then kick me offline. It was a good joke that greatly amused me. Not.

But that wasn’t enough. My actual cell phone, the one used for phone calls and which had served me well for a year, went kaput. Well, not completely, but the battery stopped holding a charge for more than a half-hour at a time. Constantly plugging it in to charge was consuming way too much time and I'd always discover it was dead when I needed it the most. I scoured the phone stores in and around Ascoli only to discover that not a single one carries the battery for this off-brand phone and none could order it for me, either. I don’t feel I can complain; I won the phone last year in a Slow Travel contest before our departure. It came into my possession just before we left the States, so I was able to give our phone number out before we even landed on the sunny shores, and had immediate access to my family’s voices. But I find the timing of its demise just a bit odd. I’m convinced I have bad technology karma and they’ve got it in for me. I broke down and bought a new phone, but now I have to figure out how the dang thing works. All the function keys work differently from my other one. I mean, it took me nearly the entire year to figure out how that one worked, and then it decided to poop out on me just when I got the hang of it. Just a little unfair, I think.

While I was at the phone store pricing out new models we asked the owner about the Vodafone internet problems. Ah, shee-shee, he said. In Ascoli’s dialect “si” is always slurred into “shee”. He nodded knowingly and explained that the connection we have for that is UMTS (whatever the heck that means) and that the problem is with the UMTS signal and it affects the whole of the area. Aha! It’s not just me. He said we could down-shift the phone to function at the lower speed and connect. That worked for a day. Now it’s back to connecting to the server but not having enough strength to load the page. Sickly creature, it’s really sad to watch it suffer like this.

Blessedly, GianLuca got the technician out and fixed his wi-fi. Bryan was so relieved he spent two hours solid on the internet while drinking way too much caffe. We may have to give it up and try to get Telecom, the nation’s phone provider, to come out and install a line in the apartment. Trouble is, we’re told it can take 6 months for them to come, then they usually arrive without all the necessary line, equipment and tools needed for the job. For that fine service, they whack the customer 250 euros. This is what friends have told us. We couldn’t get anyone to answer the phone when I called the service line for information.

Which just sort of makes the whole circle complete…that somehow, in the technological realm, I’m being punished. I just can’t figure out why. Nor how to get back in it’s good graces.

2007 Valerie Schneider

Sunday, June 03, 2007

A Few of My Favorite Things

La Passeggiata

Fare una passeggiata means "to take a walk," but la passeggiata is an event. It is held daily, but Sundays at noon-time are particularly active. It is the time period set aside for the people parade, when the good citizens of town all turn out in the piazzas and main streets of town to meet together, enjoy an aperitivo, dress to be seen, and people-watch. It normally lasts for about two hours before everyone returns home to eat. Many will return to the streets for a stroll after dinner, but the late-afternoon is the time things are most crowded. An active passeggiata signals a lively, active city. It's a great way to become part of the local scene and meet up with friends.