■ May 13, 08:07 AM by James Martin
San Severo in Puglia is an interesting place. It’s located in the province of Foggia on the flat part west of the mountainous spur bit called the Gargano. They make good wine there. A big influence on the local dialects was the Tratturo del Re, the ancient transhumance path you can see just out of town, linking Aquila in the Abruzzo to Foggia in Puglia.
It’s a baroque town, but the bits of the Romanesque you find are oddly out of whack, like in the church pictured on the right.
But that’s not all that is wacky. The procession of the Madonna del Soccorso, the Black Madonna worshiped in San Severo, is celebrated in May.
It’s one of those crazy festivals celebrated in the south, like Matera’s Madonna Bruna. It’s all about the daredevil youth. In this case, as in the famous running of the bulls in Pamplona, the youth risk life and limb (well, sorta) running down il tunnel della paura, the tunnel of fear.
What they do is line the route followed by the Black Madonna with a long “fuse” upon which has been tied bags of gunpowder and light it at just the right moment. Kids called “fujenti” run in the midst of all the explosions, trying to keep ahead of the next one, all to prove devotion to the Madonna Nera.
Crazy? Yup. But really, you gotta see it. So here:
Here’s the schedule for the 2013 festival (in Italian)
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■ May 5, 06:23 AM by James Martin
What is the well attired travel writer bopping around in these days? Well, if you go by the picture, donning a mastruga or mastruca might be just the thing for the start of the new millennium. It’s an ancient Sardinian skin outfit worn by shepherds past—also called best’ e peddi. The Romans got a bit snotty over the dress, calling the Sardinians they found “Sardi pelliti” or the pelted Sards. One does not make this out to be a compliment.
My research (well, ok guide Paola Loi’s research) defines the mastruga as an ancient “microfiber”, cool in summer and warm in winter. All the more reason to wear one in modern times, as we head back to the stone age after a few filthy rich people win all the wealth, leaving the rest of us a shriveled husk of a planet.
Interestingly, the roots of the word mastruga are found all over Europe. It’s pretty likely that Romanians and Germans were pretty much decked out the same when they were happy and productive barbarians. Today the Mastruga is featured at pretty much every festival in Sardinia, especially at the costume extravaganza called the Festival of Sant’Efisio in Cagliari on the first of May.
The hat is called sa berritta, the traditional “beret” knit in a tube form and set upon the head in a variety of ways, including jauntily. They were typical shepherds hats in the 1800s, when the traditional costume started to become more lavish and distinctive.
So look for a mastruga shop coming soon to a boutique mall near you. Goat or sheepskin? It’s pretty much the only decision you ‘ll have to make. One size fits all. But get the accessories. That shepherds stick really rounds out the outfit, don’t you think?
(Grazie to our model, Martha Bakerjian of Italy Travel)
■ Apr 1, 11:55 PM by James Martin
Ladies and gents, we are about to begin the world championship Easter egg game. The one with the most unbroken eggs wins. The eggs are hard boiled, of course, uove sode in Italian. The stadium is the dining room at the fabulous organic temple of great organic food Agriturismo Pieve del Colle near Urbania in Le Marche.
Here are the rules. Each contestant holds an egg firmly in clenched fist, as in the picture, with just the tip of the egg (the pointy end) showing. Then, the first to play chooses an opponent from around the table and the pair bash their egg’s pointy ends together with the degree of violence each views as the amount crucial for victory (the kids tend to bash with quite a bit more vigor than the older folks, I wonder why?). Whoever comes away with the unbroken egg gets sole possession of his opponent’s broken egg, then challenges another player at the table for a bash. The player who has accumulated the most smashed eggs wins. Yes, only one egg breaks each time.
For a while your humble reporter began accumulating eggs like the biggest and strongest fox in the hen house. Then I was overtaken by a ringer, the waitress at our dinner. I am demanding a rematch, having taken second place over all the other patrons at Agriturismo Pieve del Colle. Besides, staying after for a meal would be a great joy, win or lose.
Just one last note on the Agriturismo pictured here. On the property of this organic farm, in the midst of the freshly sprouted organic wheat, the Balcony of Piero della Francesca has been discovered and marked so that you can gaze out at the landscape preferred by owner Federico da Montefeltro (he of the famous dented nose profile) and his painter Piero della Francesca. I’ll be writing more about the trail of this famous painter and his patron later.
Popular These Days
■ Oct 20, 08:33 AM by James Martin
Sant’ Angelo throws a big party in October called Mostra Nazionale del Tartufo Bianco pregiato delle Marche. It’s not the rather staid event held in San Miniato in Tuscany; here there are rock bands blasting away, magicians making things disappear, butchers slicing through hams, and the rather odd gent you see to the right with his two legged camel and bone phone. if I remember my physical anthropology, it seems to have femur written all over it. In any case he hes a leg up on the TIM service. (He was constantly on the phone inquiring for the location of Sant’ Angelo’s virgins, who, he surmised after a while, were all “used up” or something.)
And here’s something you probably don’t know. Withing the mayor’s “cabinet” there exists a “Minister of Truffles.” I want that job.
It’s not often you hear of a truffle festival held in October. The dogs usually don’t start pawing the ground before November. A truffle hunter told me that the reason it’s held in October is that if a few early truffles were found, they’d bring a great price on account of the scarcity of them. And indeed they are expensive. You can see a picture I took of the pathetically small truffles being sold for quite a lot of money in this early truffle fair.
Here’s the official site (in Italian), in case you want to attend next year.
■ May 28, 02:33 AM by James Martin
We were listening to the thunderous yet pleasing ringing of the bells during Cascio’s spring sagra, strolling with friends like Serena and Federico, eating delicious things from the local wood-fired ovens, drinking chestnut beer and grapey wine, and having the kind of great day that Italians have and everyone else in the world is envious of (or should be).
Cascio is called the Terrazzo dell’Ada; it is a perch from which you can see the whole valley of the Garfagnana. Better known Barga sits tantalizingly in the distance.
Cascio was smack in the middle of what they called the “Gothic Line” in WWII. The town was bombed to extinction. Except for the bell tower.
So, when Federico invited me to clamber up its wooden stairs to observe the origins of the clamorous symphony filling our ears, I jumped at the chance. The jump didn’t get much altitude on account of my age, but still.
He flew up the internal stairs of the bell tower as I struggled along behind.
The topmost room where the bells were attached was accessed by a wooden ladder bolted to the side of the square tower. Once you got high enough on the ladder, you threw your weight toward another short staircase and hoped for a landing. Then you pushed your way through the guys.
Stout guys, not fat but well equipped for strenuous activity. The sea of people parted. I lurched toward a corner of a small room dominated by three bells anchored just above our heads. Ropes tied to them were longer than you’d expect, ending like fat white snakes uncoiled over the floor. I kicked one away and headed unsteadily for a corner under the sweet curves of a Romanesque arch where I’d have a view of the piazza below.
The bells were already being rung. Loudly. I plugged my ears with a couple fat fingers. Ah. Now I could concentrate on the vibrations; others played the bells while the bells played me.
I became engrossed in the sound in the way one might become enamored with the perfect bit of chocolate truffle, eyes closed as real time stops but the internal rhythms continue. Suddenly I feel a slap on my elbow. A man besides me points towards my feet. In my spiritual stupor I’ve managed to actually step on the end of one of the ropes attached to a bell. Noticing I still had my fingers in my ears, the man gave me a look that said all it needed to say. Like, “You’re going to get torn in two if you insist on being an idiot around here!”
Thus chastised, I went back to watching the bells, exaggerating my focus on them to look more like a journalist and less like a moron. Each muscular tug of the rope by the campanaro caused an enormous bell to swing in a long arc, maybe 350 degrees. A stop prevented the bell from going completely over the top and coming back down on the other side, which would have royally messed up the ropes, but the experts here kept the rig from hitting the stop by a half inch or so (hitting it would have messed up the sound and the timing).
When things were going right, the little room was serine. When the rhythm of the three bells got off a bit, folks stepped in from the shadows to give direction. Slower tug, less tug, more speed. Timing eventually returned. If someone was tired another took his place. Wordlessly.
This three-note rope-pulled symphony lasted quite a while. By the time the last vibrations had died down, three men took hold of the battants, you know, the ringer dealies that make the sound, and started playing the bell a mano, by hand. As the tension of the big sounds subsided, the jazzy little tune took over. Three notes, lots of syncopation. Intense concentration.
When the piece was over, the “little people” way down in the piazza clapped politely. I turned to look at them while one of the ringers started venting his displeasure at the previous ringing. I didn’t catch all of it, but the gist was that the rope-pulling wasn’t nearly fast or hard enough. I don’t know the Italian for the word “sissies” but it was probably in there.
Then a crescendo as the ropes gained speed and the air became rancid with manly scents; sweat, the searing heat of the ropes, the stench of hot grease as the heavy bells flew to and fro in their tracks.
It was then I noticed the that tower was moving. No, It’s all in my head. Gotta be! Too much thinking of that recent Italian terremoto and aftershocks. Just to check, I sighted along the edge of the window that faced the piazza. Crap, the tower was moving when you compared it to the fragrant shrubbery that grew luxuriantly along the periphery of Cascio’s other bell tower, now just a stump. Yes, that one just up and fell down one day. I’m glad I read the lit.
Imagine all that weight being thrown around on the top of a tower made of bricks! It must be like God’s bigger-than-life sledgehammer slamming into the sides of it. The boys were playing fast and furious now, and the tower was right there with them, bopping to the beat.
Then, suddenly, the fury of the moment came to roost in my hen house; a rope, zinging through the air, smacked me right between the eyes. I happened to be wearing one of those bright orange baseball caps with “Io Bevo” written on it. Io Bevo means “I drink.” This is probably the reason I didn’t feel a thing, really.
Then, after the tower was cleared of the bell ringers and I had retrieved my hat, they demonstrated how they’d rescue a climber if he happened to get injured while repelling down the bell tower. Boy, that made me feel good.
■ May 24, 06:48 AM by James Martin
Anna Vacca of the Mansion Giovinazzo, a fantastic (and inexpensive) modern vacation rental apartment in the historic Palazzo Ducale in Giovinazzo (Puglia, home to the octupus slappers and an amazing assortment of historic wonders we’ll write about later) reminds us that the 20th edition of Cantine Aperto, Open Cantinas, is just about upon us. If you are unfamiliar with Puglian wine, now’s the time to get cozy with a bottle or two. I recommend a wine I’m very cozy with, the Paolo Leo Passo del Cardinale Primitivo di Manduria, one of the best wines we’ve tasted in Puglia yet, and from a suddenly hot producer at a bottle price of a mere 8 euro. You just can’t beat it.
During Cantine Aperto, wineries all over Italy will be open and many offer special events and tastings, not only of wine but of local food as well. Cantine Aperto is held on the last Sunday in May.
But hold on, there’s more! If you’re in Puglia and you like wine, you shouldn’t miss the Calici di Stelle which features events and tastings in the piazze of old town Trani on the Night of San Lorenzo, which would be the night of August 10th.
Don’t know about the Night of San Lorenzo? Mon Dieu, I must explain everything! Saint Lawrence was set upon a bonfire by the rich Romans when he represented the poor as the most valuable treasures of his church. (Ha! It’s not a new phenomenon! Mon Dieu again!)
As deacon of Pope Sixtus II, San Lorenzo had been ordered by one of tyrant Valerian’s judges to offer up the church’s treasures; San Lorenzo presented the poorest of his congregation, and the judge ordered San Lorenzo to be burned alive on a gridiron.
San Lorenzo bravely faced his death and famously said, “I am roasted enough on this side; turn me over and eat.” ~ La Notte di San Lorenzo: Make a Wish!
Italians see the shooting stars visible around August 10th as part of the Perseid Meteor Shower representing either the tears of the cheeky saint or the sparks from his fire. Take your pick but make a wish. That’s basically what you do.
I’d wish for a case of the Passo del Cardinale.
■ Jul 11, 09:51 AM by James Martin
Last night the Disfida degli Arcieri di Terra e di Corte was held. We ambled over to Fivizzano at about 8:00pm so we could watch the villages group together and get photos of the social interaction between medieval-garbed villagers, my favorite part of the festival.
The various local villages and neighborhoods around Fivizzano get together once a year to see which geographical location has the most accurate archers. It’s the biggest festival in Fivizzano, I’m told.
At about 9pm the groups left for Fivizzano’s main piazza, filling the narrow streets with the resonant boom and clatter of the drums. When they arrived at the piazza, the pomp and circumstances began in the area near the famous Medici fountain. Lots of pomp. Almost endless pomp.
We were lucky enough to grab a seat at the Bar Ricci, so the pomp could be endured while sitting down. I ordered a glass of wine. It was festival time so you’d expect them to really screw you with the price. It was €1.30, and we had our seats for the rest of the festival.
So, you’re thinking we done good, eh? Well, while the big wigs were making their passionate speeches, and the flag throwers were filling the air with brighly colored flags, a whole bunch of young folks just threaded their not-so-narrow bodies through the cafe tables and stood exactly where nobody sitting could see what was going on. They didn’t order any food or drink. Nor did they watch the proceedings. They were just like those “good” drivers who like to drive slowly, but only as long as they are in front of you. They will turn up the turbo boost to get there, and then watch the scenery go by like a myopic slug. They are the barrier people. Welcome to their world.
Another thing about these younguns. Since they weren’t eating, they needed something phallic in their mouths and hands. So they lit up—awful, cheap, and stinky cigarettes. Like the proceedings, they ignored these as well, just letting them smolder for effect. They yammered on and on, while the folks on the stage did the same.
Then the archery started. I stood up. I could see over the head of one of the shorter barrier babes. One archer from each location was chosen and they all shot their arrows in the allotted time. 5 arrows, five targets. Odd thing, after they were done the totals were announced. I don’t know what a direct hit was worth, but it was a bundle. After the second round the numbers had gotten as astronomical as I had gotten tired. It was midnight, and after the second round, ten arrows each, the scores were like 12,450, 17,900, 9,890…
Almost beyond my ability to count in Italian.
By that time the area between us and the door to the bar was occupied by about 7000 people, all fondling smoldering cigarettes. Someone’s hair was burning; I could smell that.
It was time to go.
But I like the Medieval portraits I shot earlier. I thought you might, too. Disfida Fivizzano Pictures.
■ Jul 10, 08:40 AM by James Martin
Ok, if you look at the picture on the right, you’re maybe thinking, wow, “that’s some tower with that small building on it.” Lots of people have never seen it before. In fact, I couldn’t get anyone on our facebook page to identify it. It’s in Lucca province, and it’s just up the Sercio river east of Massaciuccoli. It’s not so far from Lucca, as a matter of fact.
We came upon the view when we were letting our GPS guide us home from Massaciuccoli after we had taken an excursion to look for a well-signposted hotel. The GPS babe placidly lead us to an intersection when I blurted out, “Look at that!” and made Martha turn the car in the opposite direction, which perturbed the GPS woman no end. Since the last time I’ve had a GPS they’ve made the women who speak sound quite a bit more realistic. So when she muttered, “recalculating” there was a hint of annoyance in her voice, as if you’d wakened her during her pedicure by twisting one of those sticks under her toenails they use to torture you with. Anyway, we made it into town and there it was in front of us: Nozzano Castello, a walled hill town with a castle whose keep couldn’t be visited, ever, according to a woman I consulted who happened to be sweeping her terrace (with a great view!) before I interrupted her.
But hold on—perhaps you can. You see there’s a festival called Il Castello Rivive coming up. It’s one of those medieval festivals where people dress up in old-time costumes and you watch them take 7 hours to make things they could have bought from a Chinese sweat shop for half a Euro. Anyway, it’s likely that during the festival you might get into the castle keep. (I’ve read today that all historical sites in Italy have to open to the public at least one day a year.)
On the right you see a clickable picture of the town gate. Nice, eh? Nozzano Castello reminds me of the little Castle and borgo at Lari.
There’s a lot of interesting things the folks on the grand tour never see. Perhaps you should try a vacation rental for a while and see some of the small things.