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Oh Sarzana! The Acoustic Guitar Meeting

■ 1 June 2014 by James Martin


Sunday afternoon, a free day in the schedule of the Sarzana Acoustic Guitar Meeting, couldn’t have been a better day to wander the towers and turrets of Sarzanello Castle, listening to Guitar and Mandolin experts tickle those strings.

And the music trumped the weather.

I don’t know why I’ve put off going. It’s one of the best festivals I’ve attended. In every nook and corner folks played. They didn’t interfere with each other and the sound quality in the castle was fabulous.

We’d just grabbed some free seats to see the end of Elsa Martin set. I knew I had to get some video. (She often sings in Fruilian dialect; that’s why you can’t understand it.) We are now proud owners of her latest CD: vERsO.

Then we came upon a stage set up in one of the castle towers, and were lucky enough to snag two front row seats in the tight little corner. There were four to a row, 6 rows deep. That’s it. Then, as if mom nature thought we wanted some privacy, a pigeon let loose and covered the poor folks in the adjacent seats—leaving enough of its multicolored offings to give us sole survivor access to the first two rows. How lucky.

Roberto Bettelli

Then came the touchy Roberto Battelli and his solo guitar (what fingers!), shown working above, and finally, guitar-less, Mauro Manicardi featuring “Gli Scariolanti”. Enjoy the video, it seems to have worked out well, considering it was done with my handheld Sony NEX-7.

Oh Sarzana! The Acoustic Guitar Meeting originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Jun 01, 2014, © James Martin.

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Ciociaria: A Land of Ancient Silences

■ 8 March 2014 by James Martin

Funny what you find out rummaging around in your old record collection.

Let me start again. I’m recording many of my old LPs onto CDs so I can bring them to Europe with me. A suitcase bulging with vinyl might be suspicious, if not a bad idea in general.

But while perusing my jazz discs, I came across a recording by Ettore de Carolis called Ciociaria, a Land of Ancient Silences. It is traditional festival music of a region in Central Italy—and it’s quite compelling.

After reading the liner notes, a bit of enthusiasm to discover where this Italian country folk music was coming started to seep in, leading me to discover other interesting stuff about this shadowy region. Ain’t it always the way?

I found that the name “Ciociaria” refers to an area around Frosinone with indistinct boundaries. It’s a territory in Lazio, south of Rome. It’s also a hotbed of traditional festivals.

“Part of the Ciociarian folklore are the songs, both sacred and profane, dances such as the saltarello, accompanied by music and cheered by the dishes of local cuisine,” Wikipedia tells us.

The word also has ties to a shoe worn by shepherds—a very interesting shoe. the Ciocia, sometimes called zampitto.

Wikipedia again:

In the traditional form, ciocie were made of large soles in leather and straps (strènghe or curiòle) with which the leg was tied from the ankle to the knee. Feet were covered by a large napkin (pèzza).

But who cares about shoes, right? Even when combined with napkins, which seems like a good idea in a culture that eats outside all the time. In any case, Ciociaria also happens to be near Montecassino, which caused another problem.

Before the Allies recaptured Montecassino, the Goums Marocains —Moroccan colonial troops of the French Expeditionary Corps commanded by General Augustin Guillaume—were fighting Germans against some long odds in difficult mountain territory. To spur them on they were evidently promised, “For fifty hours you will be the absolute masters of what you will find beyond the enemy. Nobody will punish you for what you will do, nobody will ask you about what you will get up to.”

When the Allies moved in and took Montecassino, the Goums Marocains took advantage of the promise.

The next night, thousands of Goumiers and other colonial troops scoured the slopes of the hills surrounding the town and the villages of Ciociaria (in South Latium). Over 60,000 women, ranging in age from 11 to 86, suffered from violence, when village after village came under control of the Goumiers. Civilian men who tried to protect their wives and daughters were murdered. The number of men killed has been estimated at 800. ~ Marocchinate

While the shivers work their way out of your system, let me tell you that Italian writer Alberto Moravia wrote the novel La Ciociara based on the mass rape and Vittorio de Sica made a movie of it starring Sophia Loren called Two Women.

In the little town of Castro dei Volsci you’ll find a monument called the “Mamma Ciociara” which serves as a reminder to us of the women who tried to defend themselves and their daughters.

Castro dei Volsci is also the setting of a fine B&B and cooking school called Casa Gregorio Bed and Breakfast and Cooking School

Yes, it’s amazing what an old record with an interesting name and premise can bring up 40 years after it was issued. As we reflect upon Italy’s current economic and political situation and wonder why they can’t be more like America, wouldn’t it be wise to also consider how Italians in the recent past have lived with things we Americans haven’t?

In any case, there’s one more thing. Ettore de Carolis has a web site. It hasn’t been updated since about 2008, but there’s some darned interesting music he plays there. It’s not like today’s background music, intentionally recorded to offer the part-time listener a complete lack of compelling sound so that workers and dreamers don’t take to actually paying attention to it. No, it brings me back to that exploratory wonder of my youth.

That’s a good thing, I think. Or a time suck. You decide.

Play Gocce in un sogno de Chetro by Ettore de Carolis. (Chetro is evidently the nickname of Ettore de Carolis, who founded a folk group called Chetro & Co.)

Ciociaria: A Land of Ancient Silences originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Mar 08, 2014, © James Martin.

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The Arena di Verona Opera Festival at 100

■ 23 July 2013 by James Martin

Yesterday folks saw the 100th performance of the opera La Traviata in the Arena di Verona, which is celebrating 100 years of performances in the Arena as I type.

Did you know that if you’re 100 years of age you can get in to one performance free this Centennial season?

This year in fact people born in 1913 can go free at the Arena di Verona for one performance in program. It’s one of numerous initiatives for the Centennial Festival that is already receiving a lot of requests from all over Europe.

Geez, how many of them can there be I wonder?

I’m not much of an opera fan, but the idea of seeing one in a Roman Arena is quite tempting. Here’s a synopsis of La Traviata:

The idea for the opera came from a theatrical pièce called “La Dame aux Camélias” by Alexandre Dumas, junior. Set in the contemporary Paris of Louis Philippe and inspired by the famous character, Alphonsine Plessis, a courtesan who died of consumption at the age of just twenty-three, in 1847, renamed Marguerite Gautier in the novel and Violetta Valéry in the drama, Verdi composed the music in only forty days, and Francesco Maria Piave, the libretto, in two weeks.

Imagine an arena full of hundred-year-olds watching a character who dies at age 23.

Anyway, here’s the program and we have a map and guide to Verona, which is quite popular this Centennial year.

The Arena di Verona Opera Festival at 100 originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Jul 23, 2013, © James Martin.

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Festa del Soccorso in San Severo, Puglia

■ 13 May 2013 by James Martin

san severo romanesque church picture

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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Festa del Soccorso in San Severo, Puglia originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com May 13, 2013, © James Martin.

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Mastruga - Goat Skin for the Fashionista

■ 5 May 2013 by James Martin

mastruga pictureWhat 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)

Mastruga - Goat Skin for the Fashionista originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com May 05, 2013, © James Martin.

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The Easter Egg Game: Punta e Cul

■ 1 April 2013 by James Martin

easter egg game pictureWhat is the woman to the right preparing for? Why is her fist clenched as if the championship of the world is at stake? And finally…what are all those eggs doing in front of her? It’s “Punta e Cul”!

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.

easter egg gameHere 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.

The Easter Egg Game: Punta e Cul originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Apr 01, 2013, © James Martin.

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An Early Truffle Fair in Italy: Sant' Angelo in Vado

■ 20 October 2012 by James Martin

truffle fair characterSant’ Angelo in Vado is a small town in the Marche region not far from Mercatello near the Umbrian border. It’s known for its true white truffles, Tuber Magnatum Pico.

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.

cost of truffles pictureIt’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.

An Early Truffle Fair in Italy: Sant' Angelo in Vado originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Oct 20, 2012, © James Martin.

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The Bell Ringers of Cascio

■ 28 May 2012 by James Martin

cascio belltower pictureItalian Bells. They lull the locals to sleep. They irritate the tourist unaccustomed to their presence—which is why we foreigners don’t know diddly about the workings of them.

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.

ringing the bells pictureStout 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.

playing bells by hand pictureThis 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.

the bellringers of cascioSo fresh men manned the ropes and the pulling began anew. “din, don, dan” bells sing in Italian, and these Italian beauties, made in Vittorio Veneto, were tuned quite nicely.

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.

cascio italy pictureImagine 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.

bell tower rescue pictureAnyway, the cap made the escape out the window and I watched it flutter down the tower. Martha tells me it fell right beside a woman who was selling tickets. It made her day—or at least awakened her.

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.

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The Bell Ringers of Cascio originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com May 28, 2012, © James Martin.

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