150th anniversary of Italian unification
Italy unified for 150 years but still gloriously fragmented
March 17th 2011 marked Italy’s 150th birthday; this surprisingly young nation being unified in 1861 when Victor Emmanuel II was crowned King of Italy. Prior to this Italy consisted of disparate autonomous regions and experienced insurrection and uprising as inhabitants rebelled against independent rulers that included the Roman Catholic Church
Despite the unification of Italy, “campanilismo” or loyalty to one’s “campanile” or bell-tower, to the local community and traditions is alive and well. Initially, this “localism” may appear parochial but in essence it is a positive force, such as pride in local history, culture, folklore, games, political thought, cuisine and creativity. The ties that bind communities together ensure that every area is unique and whilst it may sometimes restrict 21st century advances, it ensures that when embracing these changes, the baby is not thrown out with the bath water.
The fragmentation of Le Marche
Le Marche is an area that has particularly strong local communities each with their own unique flavours and customs. Ancona in the Le Marche region was the gateway to Italy through which Christianity entered, paving the way for the battles between Popes and Holy Roman Emperors for control of these valuable lands region that were to come during the time of the Renaissance. This period saw huge fluctuations in power between ruling families, the Borgias among them, and cities such as Urbino and Jesi were handed around like pawns and smaller towns gained in strength and status – it is no mystery why Le Marche is known for its 100 walled cities. These battles and fortifications divided the region and demanded self reliance and sufficiency from the inhabitants and is probably one of the underlying factors in the Marchegiani people keeping things local. The region was a papal-state during the period from the middle ages until unification and was answerable to and paid its taxes to the church in Rome. A legacy from these days is the wonderful bread; which is unsalted as an act of defiance against the taxes imposed on salt in the middle ages. Nowadays, the region is a tapestry of rich farmland that folds across the hills that roll down from the Apennine Mountains in the West to the Adriatic Coast in the East. Like its central Italian neighbours Tuscany and Umbria its feudal history has left it with a wonderful legacy of Terracotta villages that embellish the stunning landscape.
Life in Le Marche’s Sibillini Mountains
It seems that the deeper you delve into Le Marche’s interior, the more untouched by the ravages of modern life it becomes. The terrain to the West suddenly rises up to the Sibillini Mountains, a series of 10 peaks in excess of 2000 metres, and the National Park that protects the flora and fauna within this rugged wilderness. In March the area is still snow-capped and boasts a ski resort at Sassotetto which is home to new chairlifts and restaurants, but in April the snow melts and will crash down the many mountain gorges in the Park. One of these is amongst Italy’s most dramatic; “Gola del’infernaccio” or hells gorge is carved by the crystal waters of the river Tenna and is a simply breath-taking home to a vast array of rare butterflies and a Capuccian monk who has lived as a hermit and built a gothic church single-handedly over the last 30 years. If you take the road a few miles west and then North from the Gorge, you travel through truffle reserves and reach stunning fortified towns of Montemonaco, Montefortino and then Amandola. The latter has a beautiful piazza that is home to Bar Belli that makes a sumptuous array of cakes to accompany your coffee and also supplies them to many restaurants in the local area, the village also hosts a truffle fair later in the year.
Sarnano- Medieval roots that continue to live
Continue through the ancient arch in Amandola and 8km up the road and you reach Sarnano, one of “I borgi piu belli in Italia (the most beautiful villages in Italy). The Centro storico of Sarnano has an amazing elliptical layout that was formed in medieval times upon Roman foundations, take a stroll through the concentric rings of perfectly restored 13th Century churches and dwellings. In summer a two week festival celebrates “Castrum Sarnano” or the roots of the fortified roman town, an alfresco banquet takes places every night with wenches serving medieval fayre, whilst minstrels, jugglers, sword fights, music and dance seem to spontaneously appear. The ancient streets of Sarnano spiral up to Piazza Alta; which was the centre of social, political and religious life during the middle Ages. It contains the buildings that illustrate the political power of the village at that time. The Palazzo del Popolo was turned into the beautiful Teatro della Vittoria in 1831 and has recently been restored and returned to its former glory. It is one of over 1000 theatres in the Le Marche region. Piazza Alta also contains the Church of Santa Maria Assunta and the Palazzo dei Priori and from the same period. The Church of Santa Maria Assunta was built between 1265 and 1286 with a finely carved white stone Portal and contains valuable medieval works of arts. As you amble back down through the village you catch glimpses of ancient architectural features, chestnut and cotto roofs, frescoed and vaulted ceilings, arches, grottos and well-kept courtyard gardens. Below the town is the “Terme” a historic thermal spa, where visitors come for health and beauty treatments and great lunches.
Wander through Sarnano and you will be amazed by the array of small delicatessens and food shops that reflect the historical importance of Sarnano’s food and cattle market. Today, stylish bars and a wide range of restaurants compete with the 8 butchers that all specialise in something slightly different. There are no food miles here, all the delicatessens know the farms that supply their cheese and wines and the butchers know the provenance of their meat.
Walking into the heart of the rugged Sibillini Mountains
Sarnano’s proximity to the edge of the National Park and the Sibillini Mountains make it an ideal centre for walking and the local tourist office have a map of local circular walks or for the more adventurous there is a detailed map of the many tracks and trails that dissect the Park. What better way to round off a hard days hiking than sitting in the Piazza sipping an apperitivo, before heading off to one of the excellent local restaurants or pizzerias. Agriturismo Tennacola is a small restaurant run by a family who forage for and farm most of the ingredients on their menu, our trip there included a 5 course meal of local meats and cheese, home-made pastas, honey and wines, wild boar and truffles that they had hunted themselves, “capretto” or kid stew. We finished with cakes and 5 homemade liqueurs and all for €20.
Our accommodation, Villa San Raffaello is luckily only a short walk outside the village in a stylishly restored farmhouse sitting in 8 acres of farmland. The beautifully furnished apartments included beamed, cotto ceilings, modern kitchens and bathrooms. The landscaped gardens have many alfresco eating areas including a tranquil “cortile” or courtyard garden and incredible views of the medieval village and the Sibillini Mountains beyond, guests are invited to pick their own organic herbs, fruit and vegetables from the garden.