Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Hidden Havens: Gola di Jana

The backroads around Matelica in the middle-western part of the region are peppered with signs announcing that you're on the Franciscan Assisi-Loreto pilgrimage route. It's been well-trodden over the centuries, but there are others without signposts that are even older. The town once stood on a route that connected the Adriatic and Tyrrhenian seas, and dates back to the ancient Etruscan and Umbrian civilizations. The names of the area bear testament to this history, perhaps none more so than Gola di Jana, which lies to the north-east of Matelica beyond the village of Braccano.

Jana (or Giana) was an ancient deity of the sun and guardian of the gates of heaven, opening them at dawn and closing them at sunset. The east-west conjunction of Gola di Jana suggests that it might have borne some relationship to this pagan god, since it has a natural alignment with the arc of the sun as it traces itself across the sky, particularly during the summer soltice's rising sun and the setting sun of its winter counterpart.

Conjectures and conjunctions aside, however, the gorge's stands of tall trees provide welcome respite from the summer sun, its steep sides converging into a narrow canyon whose precipitous cliffs you can touch with outstretched arms before you're boxed in by a waterfall fronted by an inviting pool with its crisp, clear water.

There's a whole host of different plants and trees on its short trail, attracting butterflies, dragonflies, and other inhabitants that likely seldom venture beyond this small pocket of natural diversity.

The road beyond the gorge's parking area opens up on to the hilly plains enclosed by mounts Canfaito, Pagliano and Argentaro, where you'll find the abandoned ruins of the Abbadia di Rotis. Old stone slabs in front of the abbey suggest an ancient temple where the very same Jana may have been worshipped.

(If you click on the photos, a full-scale version opens.)

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Hidden havens: St Eustachio

The beautiful medieval town of San Severino (in Le Marche's Macerata) province and the nearby Roman settlement of Septempeda have several things in common (besides their location). One of them relates to building material – the stone used to build their respective edifices comes from the same quarry, tucked away in the Valle dei Grilli to the west of town. There the huge cavern that opens into the side of the sheer rock face dates back milennia, and you can see the score marks on the rocks from the chiselling work of the stone cutters. History records that the stone and lime from these quarries were highly rated in ancient times, and were transported to other places in Marche and even into Umbria.

There are several other smaller caverns in the area that likely served as quarries, but the largest of them is the only one that boasts a Romanesque church at its entrance. It's called the Gallo quarry, after a rooster that was thrown into a hole to try and find two lost monks - it (the rooster) eventually came out at a spring near Camerino, some 20km away. The monks? There's no account of what happened to them. Perhaps they teamed up with two oxen that went into the grotto and were never found again.

Although not quite as old as the quarry, the church at the quarry's entrance dates back almost 1,000 years, and covered a far larger area than its crumbling remains now hold on to. At one time an important Benedictine abbey, St. Eustachio in Domora started out life in Lombard times as St. Michael, and over the centuries served as a guest house on this important connection road between San Severino (in the Potenza valley) and Camerino (in the Chienti valley).

Inside the main structure with its large round eye for the rose window is a shrine of sorts in Gothic style, and underneath one can still see the cells which most likely served as living quarters. The “prodigious crucifix” from the abbey is now in the San Lorenzo Abbey in San Severino.

Across the river in another cavern are the remains of a circular tower, and all around (especially at this time of year), the burgeoning green tide of vegetation threatens to overcome the ruins.

A trail – likely the old road to Camerino – leads up through the valley, but it's not frequently used these days, and in the early walking season is overgrown, with brambles and thorns predominating. High up on the western cliffside the constant drone of a huge wasp's nest provides a natural "No Entry" warning to the steep and unstable slopes that reach to the top of the gorge. Against my better judgement, I braved it, but was turned back by a vertical face, and so once again held my breath as I slunk past the thousands of stingers just waiting for a chance to use them ...

Monday, 3 August 2009

Ancona in pictures

Ancona is Le Marche's capital and biggest city. Its history has been linked with maritime traditions and trade since the first settlements as far back as the 8th century BC, but it wasn't until 357 BC that the Greeks established a permanent outpost. Named after the Greek word for "elbow" (ankon) after the shape of its promontory, it became a municipum under the Romans and a base for the fleet ... the first city of the Byzantine Maritime Pentapolis (which also included Rimini, Pesaro, Fano, and Senigallia) ... an independent commune and a maritime republic ... and the largest commercial and fishing port of the modern-day Adriatic. Sections of the port area may be somewhat grimy, but its history emerges through its monuments and museums, with the old and the new sitting comfortably next to each other. Here's a short photographic essay from a trip I did a month ago on a writing assignment.

Faces of Ancona and a musical tradition

Trajan's Arch built in 115AD in honour of the Roman Emperor,
with the 14th century bell tower framed in its arch.

Red marble lion of St. Cyriac's Cathedral, built on the foundations
of the 4th century BC Temple of Aphrodite

Romanesque-Gothic portal of St. Cyriac's Cathedral

Decorated spouts of the Calamo Fountain,
otherwise known as the Fountain of the Thirteen Spouts

Statue of Pope Clement XII, created in 1738 as a token
of gratitude for his granting of free port status to the city

Blending the ancient and the modern - an Emperor and a Greek god

Silo art in the port

Colourful facade of a residential building

Seven centuries - the 14th cetury bell tower and the dome of the
18th century Church of Pellegrino and Teresa (the barfooted Carmelites)
are joined by a gilded group of recent creation

Section of the Porta Pia, grand entrance to the town, completed in 1789

Church of the Holy Sacrament, built in 1538 and rebuilt in the 18th century

Bell Tower and Cathedral

Trajan's Arch framing the bell tower and cathedral.