Thursday, 4 August 2011

See the light ram through the gaps in the land

Today we visited the Gran Sasso Mountains, which are the dark, ominous peaks you can see in the distance from Julie’s house. We set off in a rain shower and stopped off at a cash point in a little village en route. Julie, as ever, got chatting with one of the locals, a little old lady, who commented on the rain. Julie had meant to say; “do you think this rain will turn into thunderstorm?” but got her Italian words temporarily muddled up and actually asked, “do you think this rain will turn into an earthquake?” The old lady looked horrified and said very categorically that she didn’t think it would. When you consider that the village she was in is less than 50 km from Aquilla, which was ripped apart by an earthquake about two years ago, the beautiful irony of Julie’s mistake becomes comedy gold! Still, insult, or no insult, the little old lady would have been unlikely to smile. The old women here are universally fat, battle-axe-like and grumpy. It seems that the menopause in Italy is extremely unkind. Women go from being utterly beautiful, fashion-conscious sirens in their youth, to a apple-shaped harridans with jowly cheeks and badly dyed hair. We’ve started to play a game which is called, “see if you can make the Italian harridan smile.” Suffice to say that neither of us has yet won a point.

On the way to the Gran Sasso region, the motorway passes straight through the middle of a 3,000 metre mountain in the form of a 10 km tunnel, which is an extraordinary experience, made all the more remarkable by the James Bond-style exit right in the middle which takes you to an internal tunnel with tall metal gates which scream “unauthorised personnel only.” One assumes entry is granted by iris recognition or something, and that there’s a helipad right at the top of the mountain which allows the governments of war-torn countries and various top spies to simply disappear.

The mountains are breathtakingly beautiful, and at various moments I found myself close to tears. The air is remarkably soft and infused with the sweet smell of pine trees. Clouds cascade like waterfalls from the highest peaks. Above the tree line, the landscape becomes almost lunar, but hundreds of gloriously-coloured alpine flowers poke up through the yellow scrub-like grass and the piles of chalky scree.

We stopped many times to take photographs, and at one moment stood looking over a mountain-top pasture filled with scores of grazing cows, each with a little bell around its neck. The sound was spectacular, like a million miniature church bells ringing out from a city of rocks.

The road snakes higher and higher, and the perilous hair-pin bends with terrifying drops on either side, test even the finest drivers. At one point we passed a camera crew. Perhaps unsurprisingly they were filming an advert... for a car.

On our way back down the mountain we visited San Stefano di Sassanio; a hilltop village, which is, in part, carved into the very rock on which it perches. It’s a twisting mesh of medieval lanes and at one point, the street that we were walking along became an alleyway, which then became nothing but a rock face which we had to squeeze through before emerging into something that resembled a street again. They call it the Tibet of Italy.

Last night we went to an amazing pizza restaurant with Julie’s English friends. We had an absolute blast playing a game called Ratfink which involves a pack of cards and 5 spoons. It’s an extraordinarily aggressive game that was passed down to me, I think, by my mother. In any case, I’ve been playing it since I was very young. It brings back countless memories of sitting around our kitchen table back in Northamptonshire. It was exactly the right game to play in the pizza restaurant and I have seldom laughed so hard.

350 years ago, and Pepys’ day started in an orchard where he picked fruit with his cousin, Roger. They talked about their uncle’s will. It was still far from sorted, and would remain up in the air for some time to come. It was a Sunday, so they went to church, and the local peasants got rather excited to see gentlemen in their presence. Pepys was, as you’d expect, almost ecstatic with joy, so much that he went back again for the afternoon service. During an evening stroll, Roger Pepys told his cousin how worried he was about the state of things in Parliament. The younger MPs were, apparently, “the most profane, swearing fellows that ever he heard in his life.” They went to bed worrying that this roguish element would bring war to the country again. Hmm.... Tony Blair, anyone?

treacle light

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