Monday, 2 August 2010

Hidden Havens: Valle Acquasanta

With sharp ridges, steep hills, and repetitive undulations being a feature of this area, finding a flat trail is unusual. But that's essentially what the path to the Acquasanta waterfalls and gorge is, with just a few rises and falls at either end of it. Better still, in these hot days of summer, the majority of it is through the cool of the forest, with tall beeches providing shade and respite from the beating sun.

Wildflowers appear in colourful clusters, the trees range heavenward in their impressive strength and grandeur, and - in the latter half of the walk - waterfalls roll down rock walls and scree banks, offering refreshment and cooling stations, not to mention the beauty spell that cascades seem to cast on our human sensibilities.

The main destination for most walkers are the waterfalls towards the end of the trail, and they're well worth the effort - streams fall down the steep hills in veils in one spot, and gush down in a singular channel in another. But beyond them lies the gorge itself, which - due to its narrowness and height - has been used in the past as a natural cantina, the sun barely (if ever) reaching in to warm its stones. You can reach the gorge through a tunnel cut into the rock, and then - if you're drawn on - clamber up the river's rocky bed into the narrowing gorge, which twists and turns to its sheer-sloped beginnings. You'll need shoes for wading, and a strong constitution - the water is very, very cold.

With all this wonderful water around, it's no wonder that an aqueduct has been built here, and for much of the way you'll follow its course, the raised concrete blocks and flagstones making for easy walking. Every now and then you can see into its channel, the cool, clear water running invitingly below, happily wending its way down to the town of Bolognola. Its quite an engineering feat, cutting through sheer rock walls in places, and disappearing under steep forested slopes in others. But it's had its impact on the landscape, particularly at its source and down in the valley below, and one wonders how it would be if left to its own (natural) devices. That said, it's a wonderful hike, and is good for the whole family, although at around 3-4 hours round trip, might be a bit long for the young ones.

Directions: Just behind the church in the main (middle) section of Bolognola, there's a brown signpost for the Cascata di Acquasanta - follow this road, keeping left and go through the small borgo to the end of the road, where there's a small parking lot. The trail is obvious just beyond the parking lot, heading down into the forest.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Venues just waiting for the season

Le Marche has 71 restored theatres that the region – for good reason – mentions among its highlighted statistics in the preamble to many of its tourist promotion guides. 27 of these are in Macerata province (where I live), most of them built in the 19th Century, many of them replacing or renovating even older structures, and one or two of them retaining their original materials. For the most part following the neoclassical horseshoe shape with two, three, sometimes four tiers of boxes, among them are numerous veritable jewels with ornate curtains, Baroque fa├žades, and frescoes depicting ancient legends and the theatres' origins. Including among them the first public theatre made entirely of wood (Camerino 1728) and with designs by famous architects such as Antonio Galli (Bibbieno) and Giuseppe Piermarini (Teatro alla Scala Milan), the theatres were hubs of the town's cultural life, and their performances enjoyed popularity until into the early part of the twentieth century. However, the intervening world wars caused many to fall into disrepair, which resulted in widespread closures and a few cases where the buildings were actually condemned. Thanks to a late twentieth century revival in the public's interest for their cultural heritage, numerous restoration projects were launched to return their local treasures to their erstwhile condition. After being closed for as long as twenty years, some were reopened as recently as 2005.

To mark the start of the 2009/2010 theatre season, I thought it appropriate to profile two theatres – one of the largest, and one of the smallest.

Named after the town's well-known 19th Century composer and director of the Conservatories of Milan and Naples, Macerata's Teatro Lauro Rossi has a capacity of 550, and its most recent restoration – complete in 1989 – “returned the hall to its ancient physiognomy, freeing it from all decorative encrustations.”

But it's the festival currently running that attracts the attention more than the theatre's architecture or history - the 41st Festival Nazionale Macerata Teatro for the Angelo Perugini prize runs until December 6th. The competition is open to amateur drama groups only, and this year attracts companies from places such as Brescia, Tuscany, Salerno, and Liguria. Among the playwrights whose works are being performed are Woody Allen, Ugo Betti, Thornton Wilder, and Daphne du Maurier.

The second example of Macerata's theatre masterpieces is also the joint smallest, with just 99 seats. It's in Penna San Giovanni, and it's unique in that it's the only one in the province made entirely of wood, and one of just a few throughout Italy.

Built in the 18th Century by local craftsman Antonio Lozzi with two tiers of boxes, it's a Baroque gem with carved columns, floral motifs, and an embellished polychrome ceiling. The theatre's programme has yet to be finalized for 2009/2010, but it's worth a visit at least once for its intimacy and old-world opulence.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Le Grotte di Santa Sperandia and La Roccaccia

The cave on the northern slopes of Monte Acuto must have been difficult to see in the 13th century and even harder to get to. Carved out of the mountain's precipitous cliffs, it sits above the the rugged valley of the Laque river just a few kilometres from Cingoli. Today one can clamber down the steep slope on sets of wooden and travertine steps to the place of stone and solitude where Santa Sperandia spent so many years of Benedictine penitence. Just getting down there in the 1200s must have been an ordeal, never mind how one might survive in such an environment.

But Sperandia was no ordinary ascetic.

More than a mere visionary, she was also renowned for her ability to perform miracles, and is best known for her act of producing fresh cherries to some hungry labourers one cold and snowy January. She died in 1276, and her incorrupt body now lies in state in the Sanctuary dedicated to her in Cingoli, where she is the town's patron saint.

From the ridge of the mountain, the views are impressive. The closest town to the north is Cingoli, while to the south-east one can see Treia and Macerata. To the west you can see Monte San Vicino, while in the distance to the east lies Monte Conero and the Adriatic … on a clear day. Unfortunately, it was so hazy when I visited that I could barely see Macerata.

On the edge of the mountain ridge are the ruins of the 13th century La Roccaccia. Only a few crumbling walls remain, but the surrounding area is littered with the stones of the one-time important medieval fortress.

Monte Acuto with its man-made relics is an interesting place to consider the relationship between man and nature. It's clear that nature is slowly winning the battle to reclaim the territory of La Roccaccia, and Santa Sperandia's cave will remain intact for a long time, etched as it is into a cliff of stone upon which little grows. But the concrete shrine built into the cave in the 1970s covers a large part of its entrance, and it leaves you pondering what the intent was of its (evidently well-meaning) architects. One wonders what Santa Sperandia would make of this. There's little doubt she'd be less than enamoured with the quarries (and the accompanying drone of its trucks) that scar the hillsides below her erstwhile silent haven.

Despite the human intrusions, it's still a wonderful place to spend some time, whether as a destination in and of itself or as a stopover or excursion between/from San Severino and/or Cingoli. Just behind the cross where you can leave your car is a wonderful cool patch of green grass just begging for a blanket, a picnic, and a lazy snooze. I was hard-pressed to ignore its call …

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.

Friday, 17 July 2009

The Hidden Gems of Italy’s Best-Kept Secret

For a recent article I had published on the Dream of Italy web site, click here.