A carpet of hilltop towns, patterned with crops and fields of faded sunflowers unrolled around every corner. Up and up the old car climbed, the oil hot and the passengers restless – we were nearly there.
This was Le Marche, all of it a discovery for us as we searched for the village of Montelparo and its new Hotel Leone.
We called the hotel to tell them we were late but not far out. That was when we heard about the festa.
“You’ll have to use the back entrance.”
It was a steep cobbled road. Above its edge washing blew into the evening sun and right at the end, at last, were the warm, anonymous walls of the hotel. We’d arrived.
It was mid-August and the heat in Naples had driven us to take refuge in the mountains for a weekend. Thanks to the internet, and by some miracle of a mouse’s whisker, we had been directed to the Hotel Leone, in Montelparo near the Sibillini Mountains of Le Marche.
The village of Montelparo is not big, less than a thousand residents … a hilltop town above waves of well-worked farms. The mood is instant – deeply tranquil with views that take the mind for miles.
We spent a lot of our time in front of the views, planted right in the thick of them by our hotel, with its pool that hangs over the distance – suspended in a world of ploughed lands; farmhouses; hilltops sprinkled with churches; the drift of bells; and the squeak and clank of tractors at work across the valley.
It was beautiful, but in spite of our front row seats and the hotel comforts, we did manage to drag ourselves away for two trips.
The first was not far – just out the front door and into Montelparo. It didn’t take long to circle the town but, strangely, the more we moved the less we felt like moving.
We spent lunch under an umbrella in the main street whilst the one-man-cafe-cross-delicatessen dealt with a rush of local shopping orders and then prepared us plates of fresh paninis and cheeses, with glasses of white wine and local ale. The meal left us almost horizontal with pleasure, but the final blow to all signs of life was the complimentary flourish – biscotti and vino cotto.
Riposo was the only cure but we were back on our feet in good time for the festa. It was the second night – the first had been quiet but on the Saturday the main piazza overflowed … the Queen tribute band, Regina were in town.
Grandparents sat along the edges of piazzas, families paraded, couples dated and a mix of volunteers and entrepreneurs served endless plates of food: polenta (a rough maize meal – fried, grilled or baked); arrosticini (deliciously slight mutton kebabs); olive ascolane (deep-fried, meat-filled stuffed olives); hamburgers; chips; peanuts; pistachios; and, of course, gelato.
We recovered with a late breakfast the next morning and then set off over the mountains, along a high, winding, tarred (and then suddenly un-tarred) road, to Ascoli Piceno.
“One of the prettiest piazzas in Italy,” we’d been told by our hostess.
She was right. The largely thirteenth century Piazza del Popolo is beautiful with a gentle sense of aged, contented proportion. It is completely paved in light grey slabs of tavertine, and the old buildings along its side are quiet ochre in colour, gracious and understated, with cafes on every corner.
Bigger, but similar in feel, is Piazza Arringo which gives centre stage to its pair of small fountains designed by Giovanni Jecini, each with two bronze ‘merhorses’ and a cheerful dolphin. The merhorses, sculpted by Giorgio Paci, are all attitude in old bronze with well-loved, well-rubbed muzzles that double as water fountains.
A few hours in Ascoli Piceno can’t cover it but I am absolutely certain of what I thought of the town: stunning in its proportions and the pale age of its old centre; friendly and welcoming; and deliciously empty. I would like to visit again.
We left Montelparo on the Monday and headed back towards Naples over the Apennine Hills, and through the wild Abruzzo National Park. We hadn’t chosen the easiest of drives but it was a last chance in the mountains before Naples and the sea.
The big relief when we arrived safely home was to find that the worst of the intensely humid 2015 heat waves had passed.
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Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2015