Time af­ter time

The rhythms of vil­lage life in Italy’s Abruzzo re­gion

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - ZOE BOCCABELLA

ROGER re­mains sound asleep as I qui­etly get up and walk over to the win­dow. I look out over Fossa’s ter­ra­cotta rooftops, shiny rain, and am struck by how con­tented I am to be gaz­ing at this al­most time­less scene once more.

A strange thing has been hap­pen­ing to me since I have been staying in the fam­ily house in Italy. Or­di­nar­ily, when I travel there is a nat­u­ral com­pul­sion, from time to time, to ap­praise a des­ti­na­tion in re­la­tion to home, mean­ing my life in Bris­bane.

How­ever, in Italy I find my­self think­ing of the vil­lage as home com­pared to the rest of Italy. I feel al­most like an Abruzzese in that when I ven­ture into other Ital­ian re­gions I be­come aware of my­self com­par­ing them not just to the Abruzzo but to our prov­ince of L’Aquila.

From some­where deep within, a loy­alty, pride and pro­tec­tive­ness for ‘ ‘ my’’ re­gion is emerg­ing. Through our ex­tended trav­els that have now cov­ered most of the other re­gions, I have dis­cov­ered that Italy can be stun­ning and quirky, but also abra­sive. Some­times I may pass judg­ment on Italy, but if I hear a per­son or tourist of non-Ital­ian back­ground crit­i­cis­ing Italy, I be­come sud­denly de­fen­sive. It is a strange po­si­tion to be in.

Misty clouds swirl around the vil­lage. The top half of Monte Cir­colo is not vis­i­ble at all. To­day is Fri­day the 13th. I wan­der around the silent, dark­ened rooms. The foot-thick stone walls and the driz­zle com­bine to muf­fle any sounds of the vil­lage. I do not even hear a Vespa or the usual shouts in Ital­ian. I switch on the naked bulb hang­ing above the din­ing ta­ble and sit down to write.

About an hour and a half later, Roger emerges. He makes French toast for break­fast and then heads to L’Aquila, hav­ing no in­ten­tion of be­ing made house­bound by the rain. His love for Italy and all things Ital­ian only grows in fer­vour and he is de­ter­mined to make the most of ev­ery minute here.

I am con­tent to stay in the dry, cosy house, high in the moun­tains, dur­ing foggy, rainy weather. For me it is per­fect weather for writ­ing.

At 1pm, Roger bus­tles back in, full of verve. From the bags of pro­duce he has col­lected, he un­packs a round of sheep’s milk pecorino, made at a lo­cal farm. It is just like Granny Mad­dalena used to make when she lived in this house 70 years ago. Zio Elia told me that one of the sheep they owned and milked was very smart and would come to them like a dog.

‘‘WhenIwas buy­ing the agretti, two cara­binieri were get­ting tips from the gro­cer for a par­tic­u­lar salad,’’ Roger tells me. He loves this Ital­ian way of life.

The rain has stopped and the tem­per­a­ture is lift­ing so we de­cide to have lunch on the bal­cony. I make lin­guine with but­ter and sage.

Un­like the rainy quiet­ness of the morn­ing, the clear­ing weather brings the vil­lage to life. Just as we sit down, a chain­saw starts up in the nearby woods, shat­ter­ing the seren­ity. Then a power tool be­gins to whine in one of the houses fur­ther along.

Near the main piazza, a man wields a re­lent­less, dron­ing Whip­per Snip­per, de­spite the long grass be­ing wet from the rain. The theme song to the de­tec­tive show Columbo blares from an open win­dow above us. And, just when I think it can’t get any nois­ier, a young guy comes out on to his sker­rick of a bal­cony be­low us to yell into his mo­bile phone. We sigh and twirl our pasta.

A mo­ment later, it be­comes com­i­cal. A con­voy of about 20 cars sud­denly bursts through the vil­lage, all of them blast­ing horns in a cel­e­bra­tory man­ner. They take the road to­wards the monastery. Min­utes later they drive back down the moun­tain, snaking their way through Fossa once more, all honk­ing their horns in a jum­bled ca­coph­ony.

We start laugh­ing. Roger spec­u­lates that their team has prob­a­bly j ust won a foot­ball match. I won­der whether I glimpsed a bride in one of the cars.

We are wip­ing our plates clean with the last crusts of bread when a white van lum­bers into Fossa. Recorded piano ac­cor­dion mu­sic bel­lows from its rooftop speak­ers. The van pulls up out­side the church.

Roger and I lean over the bal­cony rail­ings to watch. It is a dry-clean­ing ser­vice at­tract­ing its cus­tomers with mu­sic, much like an ice-cream van does in Aus­tralia. Peo­ple come out in droves. I can lit­er­ally hear doors bang­ing and run­ning foot­steps on the cob­ble­stones.

A dy­ing ru­ral town with an age­ing pop­u­la­tion this is not.

Sev­eral years ago, on our first visit, it seemed to be, but now it is bustling and full of younger fam­i­lies, though it still has its fair share of the age­ing. I no­tice sev­eral nonni, dressed all in black, some with head­scarves, mak­ing their way to the van.

Head­ing down the road for a walk later in the af­ter­noon, Roger and I come across a trio of women sitting on wooden chairs around a doorstep in a cosy sewing cir­cle. We smile and greet them.

The two old women raise their heads to re­veal kind eyes like squashed raisins. ‘‘ Buonasera,’’ they cho­rus back. The younger woman, who looks to be in her 30s, keeps her head down, in­tent on her lace­work. A lit­tle fur­ther on in the lower reaches of the vil­lage we come to Fossa’s orig­i­nal church. Built in the early 13th cen­tury, Santa Maria di Cryptas Chiesa is guarded by two small lions, now chipped with age. With a low­pitched roof and tiny bell arch, the al­most win­dow­less facade is more forbidding than wel­com­ing.

This unas­sum­ing shoe­box of a build­ing has none of the out­ward or­nate­ness of other Catholic churches we have seen, yet in­side 800-year-old fres­coes cover the walls, typ­i­cal of gothic-byzan­tine art in the Abruzzo. They fol­low a log­i­cal se­quence: the Cre­ation; an agrar­ian calendar; a cy­cle of Christ with the sto­ries of the Pas­sion, the Cru­ci­fix­ion and the Sepul­chre; and then 12 episodes from the life of the Vir­gin Mary.

I love that the 15th-cen­tury fresco of the Madonna and child de­picts the baby wear­ing evil-eye amulets around his neck; an Abruzzese touch, per­haps. The fres­coes of the saints and cru­saders Gior­gio and Martino and their pro­tec­tor, San Mau­r­izio (rep­re­sented, as usual, with his right hand of six fin­gers), lend sup­port to many the­o­ries that the Tem­plar Knights came here.

As­sum­ing that the vil­lage would have had no more than a few hun­dred peo­ple when they built Santa Maria di Cryptas Chiesa, the de­tail and work­man­ship in the fres­coes is as­ton­ish­ing. I par­tic­u­larly like the con­cept of the agrar­ian calendar, with each month de­picted by lo­cal ac­tiv­i­ties sig­nif­i­cant to that time of year — some­thing im­por­tant and rel­e­vant to a ru­ral com­mu­nity.

These paint­ings were not merely dec­o­ra­tion; they illustrated sto­ries for the il­lit­er­ate. The colours have now faded to earthy ochres, sand and auburn. Sec­tions of plas­ter have de­tached, caused by the earth­quakes the area has ex­pe­ri­enced over time, leav­ing ghost-like pale gaps in sev­eral fres­coes. The thick stone walls con­tain only a cou­ple of slits for win­dows, which let in very lit­tle nat­u­ral light and weather, per­haps ex­plain­ing why these fres­coes have sur­vived eight cen­turies so far.

Le­gend has it that Dante Alighieri vis­ited this church and was so over­whelmed by the Last Judg­ment fres­coes, par­tic­u­larly the scenes de­pict­ing hell, that he was in­spired to write In­ferno. It can be sub­stan­ti­ated that he vis­ited L’Aquila and the churches there, mak­ing this le­gend plau­si­ble.

On the out­skirts of Fossa, the houses thin out to un­kempt pad­docks con­tain­ing tus­socks of grass and trees gnarly with age. We come across an aban­doned vine­yard with ram­pant grapevines es­caped from their trel­lises to crawl across the thick grass. Roger stands be­side a drunken fen­ce­post, its wood now weath­ered to sil­ver, as he sur­veys the ne­glected vines.

‘‘It would be my dream to get one of these vine­yards into work­ing or­der again.’’

I smile. Who knows what the fu­ture holds. This is an edited ex­tract from Mezza Ital­iana by Zoe Boccabella (ABC Books, $29.99).

ERIC LOBBECKE

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