It’s summer up in the hills and the visitors have started arriving. Italians from the cities come, in need of some fresh air, wide open spaces and the chance to try the regional cuisine and wines. Foreigners, a mix of German, Dutch and British arrive and are easily spotted at the local beauty spots and in the villages where some have houses. None seem to speak any Italian and I long to tell them how much they’re missing by not being able to converse with their neighbours and the friendly, welcoming and incredibly generous local shopkeepers.
Today is my day for my weekly lymphatic massage in Castelnovo de’Monti, the area’s regional town. By asking at the local Herbalist shop if they knew anyone who offered such a specialist treatment, I was so lucky to be introduced to Chiara. A wonderful gentle, calm and hugely professional girl yet with a naughty sense of humour and a magic touch.
I always arrive really early so that I can get a sandwich from the little shop next door, run by the gorgeous, fun and generous Betti and her elderly yet indefatigable mother. When I say “sandwich” I mean a gastronomic experience!
First we select the bread – and there are several types of artisan bread to choose from. All delicious and about as far from industrially produced bread as possible. Then we select the salami – Betti recommends the Salame al Contadino (locally produced by the pig farmer) and then we enter the cheese tasting phase! She lifts huge slabs of various cheeses; cow’s, sheep and goat’s milk – smoked, aged, rolled in leaves, some piccante, some hard, some creamy. All delicious – and as she cuts the thin slices she makes suggestions as to what I can cook with them. Today she suggests spaghetti with a few slices of Smoked Sardinian Pecorino (sheep cheese), seasoned with a dash of oil and a squeeze of lemon juice. My mouth waters and I promise her that I will try it.
My packed lunch sorted, I head for the local beauty spot, the Pietra di Bismantova, to eat it on the conveniently situated shaded bench and table, with the most incredible views.
The Pietra, an Italian version of Glastonbury Tor, Ayers Rock or the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming (remember the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind?) is a huge lump of rock from the Triassic period, which was sacred to the indigenous people and which became an Etruscan sacrifice area where convicted criminals were hurled off the top. Despite that grisly connotation the energy of the place is peaceful and beautiful and the views are staggering. We are in a UNESCO biosphere and the Tosco Emilian Appenines offer some of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen.
Birds soar on thermals above the Pietra, crickets play their noisy tunes in the trees and the visitors arriving here are usually rendered silent by the spectacle and very tangible energies. There is a steep and winding path to the top but it’s not for the faint-hearted or lazy and there is always a little breeze – even on the hottest days.
I love it here and find the energies both soothing and uplifting. Today there is a haze so the view is not as far-reaching but I can still “my” mountain, Monte Valestra, in the distance. I reflect on how happy I am to be able to spend several months here each summer and how fortunate I am to have found some amazing people, to have been accepted by them and to be counted as a friend. I even have an admirer. A widowed, gentle but oh so garrulous farmer who has several properties for sale and who seems to be very taken with me – much to the amusement of Signore S, the patriarch of The Hamlet, who chuckles with glee when I tell him of our encounters.
I am not betraying any confidences as nothing much has happened, and in any case I am more often seen in the company of my very gorgeous colleague who lives in the village and has an office in the town. In spite of his gorgeousness I treat him as if he is a brother and he treats me like a slightly eccentric older sister. We are a good team.
Much to the amusement of the locals we head off again in his massive 4×4 truck, nicknamed “the tractor”, to look at some rural properties that might be interesting for our potential clients.
We bounce over rutted tracks amidst fields of golden wheat into leafy groves where if one looks hard one can see the remains of a couple of beautiful little stone houses with outbuildings – one of which even contains an entire antique hay wagon.
Nature is fast removing all traces of human habitation in this lovely secluded place, but despite the incursion of trees and bushes, the views are wonderful and there is a profound and gentle sense of tranquility.
Craning my neck I spot, through the foliage, the little stone 10th century church, sitting stoically upon its gentle hilltop.
Grouped around it is a cluster of traditional houses, their terracotta tiled roofs glowing in the afternoon sunlight.
Two of the houses have recently been restored and Paolo, quite correctly, a traditionalist and architectural purist, mutters that one of the roofs has been restored using modern industrially produced tiles and not the traditional handmade ones. I follow his gaze and, he’s right, they DO look very out of place!
Today it’s market day in Carpineti and the main street is closed to traffic, so parking is a little more difficult than usual. I’ve obviously become very Italian in my thinking for, rather than parking miles away, I remember that there is a small bar/restaurant which is closed for the holidays and which has a couple of parking spaces outside. I head there and am overjoyed to find that there’s plenty of room and no one else seems to have been as lazy as me for it is close to the market and it’s too hot to walk far.
I’m meeting my colleague and a lovely lady who lives in the town who speaks and writes excellent English. We’re chatting to her about the possibility of working with us on an as-needed ad hoc basis to help with translation, assisting with potential clients and generally mobilizing local people to help where required – important things such as B&B owners, local trattoria and bar owners and suchlike. I’m happy to hear that there is a Brazilian lady who co-owns a local bar and who makes wonderful Caipirinhas! Unheard of in the Appenines!! I’ve struck gold with her…
Needless to say, my colleague is aghast at my sudden interest in cocktails. I try to explain that I like variety and, wonderful as Italian wine is (and I’ve even got a taste for the orange sticky drink that is Aperol Spritz) there’s NOTHING like a Caipirinha or a Mojito at the end of a long day…!!
Today we decide we’ve had enough of spine-jarring tracks and head back onto the asphalt road towards our favourite Trattoria several miles away. We are, as always, greeted with huge smiles by the owners and we choose our usual corner table. Today we choose homemade tagliolini (thin ribbons of pasta) with a smoked ham, pea and cream sauce, followed by wafer thin slices of locally produced Prosciutto and succulent melon. We decide to drink a chilled sparkling white wine and as always we discuss our work, the properties we’ve seen and how to convince the more unrealistic owners that the values they ascribe to their properties are simply ludicrous!
We are enjoying ourselves so much that we decide to indulge in our favourite dessert, cantuccini biscuits and Vin Santo from neighbouring Tuscany, followed by minuscule cups of hot bitter coffee. It’s a hard life!!
Replete we climb back into the Jeep and head for the cool of the office, Paolo’s two large computer screens and an afternoon of wrestling with the Pages programme on our Mac computers. I reflect on the juxtaposition of centuries old properties with the modern technology we use to promote them. And the fibre optic broadband is faster here than in London!!!
Copyright Cassandra Campbell-Kemp 2018