Keeping the Donkey Warm.

The Brothers Johnson are playing Stomp, as I walk along the lane. It’s a warm and sunny afternoon, perfect for a leisurely stroll. The Italian countryside is filled with unloved and unwanted buildings. The reason for this is a culmination of unemployment and the antiquated, convoluted inheritance law. You can understand people moving to where the work is but as it’s unlawful to disinherit your children, so, even if you have a disobedient first son who brings shame to the family door, he’ll still have automatic entitlement. The shares of your estate go down in fractions depending on your living relatives, meaning one property could have as many as fifty-owners, with Luciano in New York owning a third of the attic room, while Maria in Torino owns the doorstep. This plethora of properties means that Italy is still a good place to buy a holiday bolthole, and falling prices mean the buyer is in a good position. The only problem is getting all the owners in one place, at the same time. I have met an English couple who told me there was fifty people crowded inside the notary’s office when they signed for their little house in the hills.

100_6157Nearby is a ruin, two small one storey houses side by side, I take the ear-buds to my iPod out, just as Ultravox begin to play, Visions In Blue, letting them play on without an audience. I step inside one of the houses. The stone walls are solid, at least half a metre thick and the oak beams look like they’ll still be doing their job in the next millennium. The doors and windows have gone, possibly removed for firewood, and a simple chair lies broken upon the floor like a wooden corpse. There is only two rooms, one has a manger, cage and a stall, obviously the animal housing. But what’s this in the corner, a wood burning oven. Surely if you have animals, you have straw and hay, so isn’t an oven in a stable a little risky? I like to think that the owner was so caring, that on cold winter nights he lit the oven to keep his donkey warm?

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I move back into the other room, its ceiling is testament to Italian ingenuity, but an health and safety horror. Bamboo that grows in abundance here and the rafters are canes that have been cut and laid side by side. Other canes and an assortment of branches and planks make up the cross beams. This all sits upon the oak beams and sitting on top of this ancient and dry bamboo is a roof made up of ochre and terracotta coloured tiles. It’s amazing to think many years on, all this weight is supported by something as slender as bamboo. On the floor is several crates of passata, homemade tomato sauce, abandoned like the bricks and mortar. I estimate that there must be at least one hundred and fifty, mostly brown beer bottles of the reddish brown liquid. They say storing passata in brown glass keeps it fresher.

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I pick up a bottle and break off the cap, the heady aroma of tomato fills the air, it still smells good, I can imagine women de-seeding and skinning as the sun shone, while the men drank beer and lit a large fire for the sterilising of the bottles and eventually sealing them. I pour a little out onto the stone floor, it looks good enough to eat, however I’m wouldn’t be game enough to try this batch. I replace the bottle, step over the skeletal chair and leave the house. Outside, replace my ear-buds; Kate Bush is singing, Mother Stands for Comfort, and I continue on with my stroll.

Hanging Baskets and Ancient Cat-Flaps

Last week I took a trip over to Fara San Martino to visit my friends Vivienne and Seppe. Fara is a town renowned for its exceptional pasta and being the only place that produce the pasta destined for the Vatican. I wrote an article for Italy magazine sometime back about this: LINK HERE But I wasn’t in Fara to talk about pasta,

Vivienne, teaches English and had a lesson booked so Seppe took me to see the mountain town of Civitella Messer Raimondo. His fiat panda climbed higher and higher up the mountain past empty bars and vacant shops, “It’s a shame,” he said, “so many people have now left.” For many years, with dwindling work prospects many of the people from this hilltop town have boarded up their homes and moved away to the cities. We park the car and walk through streets that are silent, no footfalls can be heard but ours. “Years ago,” Seppe points to an empty house, “People were selling these houses to foreigners. Many made a healthy profit, but those times have gone, and the foreigners don’t come as often as they once did.” This of course has a knock on effect, with no tourism the shops close as do the bars.

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We walk through a narrow vincolo (alley) and are treated to a view down to Fara, the late evening sun is cutting through the mountains, spilling over the red rooftops creating a magical effect. We wander along streets with empty narrow properties, three storey high, I peer into an empty cantina and it’s almost like looking back in time. It’s unchanged, a piece of living history. Seppe points out the ancient feeding trough, telling me this would have been for the family’s donkey, over in the corner is an old cage, possibly where rabbits or chickens were kept. We continue along and see where water over the years has caused damage. Looking into one house we see the upper floors, having fallen years before, lying derelict upon the lower one. It’s a haunting image, knowing that years ago the walls would have contained the clatter of family life. We pass a door with a plaque upon it, “It’s where the old Alpini would meet and talk about the old days,” Seppe tells me, “I’m not sure if the old mountain soldiers remain or still use their club.” 

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The visit to the town is tinged with a little sadness but when I look up and see flowers growing in the cracks in the brickwork above my head. I feel hopeful as life will always find a way. Seppe points to a neat little square in the bottom of a cantina door, I look at the cut and it’s definitely man made, the house next door has one as does the one next to that. “Do you know what that’s for?” asks Seppe, I shake my head, I’ve not a clue. “For the cat,” he tells me. I laugh, an ancient Italian cat-flap. Of course it makes sense, if you keep animals and feed in the cantina beneath your house you’re bound to get rats and mice, so a cat is a necessary part of the family and therefore must have its own door.

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Our visit over and we return to Fara in Seppe’s Fiat, and I’m treated to a trip along streets as narrow as the car and with almost impossible right angle junctions, as he’s an experienced Italian native this is normal for him, but to me it’s an amazing feat of navigation. Back at the piazza opposite his house, like all Italians he squeezes the car into what looks like an impossibly small space and we go back to his house for a cup of tea. Vivienne’s lessons have finished and we all sit chatting as the light begins to fade. I leave with a portion of Seppe’s local history embedded into my consciousness and with one of the amazing olive wood hanging baskets that he makes. Below is a photo of the hanging baskets he makes and his amazing handmade olive wood strawberry planter.

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Eyes Open

I was on my way to the main library to do some research on an article. As usual I had my iPod with me and Julie London was singing Take Back Your Mink as I passed through a small grassed area with benches. I stopped and loitered for a while as the brass section played the middle eight. Suddenly from behind a cloud the sun appeared lighting up the building opposite. It made me think about how we disregard the architecture around us. The buildings are so familiar they lose its splendour, yet when we go on holiday and/or travel abroad we’re there with our camera’s snapping away. We take  photographs of churches, fountains, castles and I suspect even council buildings if we like the look of them. Maybe it’s the sunshine that makes them more appealing, or it could just be because we’re so relaxed we take more notice of our surroundings.

So, with this thought in my head I took a look around me, and noticed some magnificent buildings that previously I walked past without giving them a second glance. I was looking at a round building and it reminded me of a photograph of the Baptistery at Pisa that I had taken back in 2005, so I whipped out my camera and fired off a shot. Obviously the weather wasn’t as nice as it was when I took the picture in Pisa whilst visiting its famous leaning tower, but you get the idea.

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Another gem is the Bethesda chapel, and it’s looking so much nicer now it’s being restored, thanks to lottery grants after being left in a state of disrepair for decades.

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Sadly there are some buildings that no matter how nice the weather, will always be ugly, regardless of what angle you view them from.

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Next time you are out and about, take time to look at the familiar places around and hopefully you’ll see them in a new light.