I was celebrating the new year with some friends, when one of them proposed a new (yet another!) toast: “Long live 2023 which will bring us loads of holidays!” At the time, I didn't pay much attention but then thinking about it later, they were right. Whilst 2022 was stingy in terms of opportunities to get away, this year is a completely different story.
The ponte (long weekend, literally ‘bridge’), in Italy, is a long weekend created by ‘bridging’ a midweek holiday with a weekend to produce a mini break of a few consecutive days. And this first half of the year includes several ponti: a quick glance at the calendar reveals that April 25 will fall on a Tuesday, May 1 on a Monday and, again, June 2 on a Friday. So now, all you need to do is grab your toothbrush and choose where to go. And you don't need to travel great distances: Italy is full of more or less well-hidden treasures, which for many are still completely unknown.
Let's go to Umbria: every year in the Monti Sibillini National Park, there is the spectacular flowering of the Pian Grande in Castelluccio di Norcia. If you love Impressionist paintings, are an amateur photographer, or are simply drawn to the idea of witnessing a rarefied and breathtaking natural wonder, then this is for you. This wonderful event happens in spring but the dates can vary, because it all depends on when the flowering begins: it usually takes place between the end of May and the beginning of July, but local farmers claim that, in recent years, it has been starting a few weeks early, probably due to climate change. Castelluccio, with a population of just 120, is famous for its lentil fields but actually the annual kaleidoscope of colors is the result of the spontaneous flowering of wild plants that grow on the farmland. These wild species have been left to thrive by farmers in order to protect the fields and avoid the use of pesticides on the lentils. Thus, every year, the plain becomes a stunning carpet of many colors: first to peep out are the wild orchids (on the Sibillini Mountains, there are as many as 37 different types!), followed by the yellow wild mustard, the red poppies, the white chamomile, the purple Venus’ looking glass and the blue cornflowers. There are various paths in the Pian Grande, and many panoramic viewpoints from which to admire this spectacle of nature. You can even take part in a photography workshop, and return home with some incredible photo memories.
If instead you prefer history to nature, and you haven't done so yet, you cannot miss a tour of the Villa Romana del Casale in Piazza Armerina, about 40 miles from Catania. Famous for its mosaics and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997, it is the most important archaeological site in the whole Mediterranean and is one of the largest and most luxurious villas in ancient history. Divided into 48 rooms over an area of 3,500 square meters, it is full of polychrome mosaics dating back to the 3rd-4th century AD, exceptional in terms of both artistic quality and creativity and size. They date back to the golden age of mosaic art and are most likely the work of North African artists. They feature a wide variety of subjects, many taken from mythology and depicting hunting scenes, flora and fauna, or episodes of domestic life.
They tell us how the Roman nobles lived, revealing details unseen elsewhere. These small colored tassels also reveal details of clothing and hairstyles and, like an ante litteram movie, they suggest their habits, such as hunting wild animals to be sent to Rome, where they were exhibited in the circuses at the Colosseum. In this sense, the most impressive area of the Villa is undoubtedly the Corridor of the Great Hunt, a passageway stretching for 66 meters and 5 meters in width, which represents historically and geographically the entire Roman Empire, from Morocco to far-off India. The most entertaining scenes are found in the halls of the Otium: one of the most famous mosaics, which you will surely have already admired in the history books, shows girls in bikinis, young girls in skimpy clothes, playing various games.
If, instead of a history or nature trip, you prefer a relaxing break to recharge your batteries, you can always book yourself into a Spa. In Italy, when it comes to spas, you are truly spoiled for choice. But if you've never tried it, I would recommend Saturnia, the ancient baths in Follonata, in the municipality of Manciano, in the Grosseto area. For 3,000 years, 500 liters of water have gushed out of the springs every second, at a temperature of 37 degrees. It seems that they date back as far as the Etruscan period, but at the time they were known as Aurinia.
The name Saturnia derives from the legend according to which the baths were formed in the exact point at which the thunderbolt - hurled against Saturn by Jupiter, enraged by the atrocities of men - fell to the Earth. And thus they were renamed by the Romans, who adored this place to the point of building an ad hoc road, Via Clodia, which connects the city with Via Aurelia, precisely so they could reach it in the shortest possible time. Saturnia is divided into a large, free public area including the ‘Cascate del Mulino’ (recommended to get there early in the morning or go at sunset to avoid the crowds) and a luxury spa resort. But I assure you, and you can trust me (because, I confess, I'm a big fan), that the best experience is to search the area for your own little pool hidden among the leaves. Take a bottle of prosecco and a glass (or even two...) and immerse yourself in the hot water, preferably in the moonlight, as the air temperature drops to zero. You won't get cold...
... Let's change the type of holiday: fans of Italian literature and Giacomo Leopardi in particular will certainly be able to fill a couple of days enjoying the beautiful town of Recanati, the town in the Marche region where the poet lived for most of his life. There is the poet’s home, Palazzo Leopardi, where visitors can discover the inspiration behind his many works. For example, looking out the windows of the library, the poet admired the craftsmen busy at their daily work or the peasant farmers returning from the countryside, i.e. scenes of simple life from which he drew inspiration for his poem ‘A Village Saturday’. Or you can find the house where Teresa Fattorini lived, whom the poet recalls in the canto ‘To Silvia’. Or, just a short distance away, you can stroll through one of the most famous places in Italy: the Colle dell'Infinito, the “lonely hill” that inspired his most evocative poems. Next to the Town Hall, there stands the impressive Torre del Borgo, remembered by Leopardi for the sound of the bells in the poem ‘Memories’. In the cloister of the Church of Sant'Agostino, you can see the tower made famous by ‘The Solitary Sparrow’. In short, Leopardi is everywhere in Recanati and the building where he lived is open to the public, although some of the rooms are closed to visitors. Apparently, the poet's bedroom - which is off limits - was left exactly as it was at the time of his death, way back in 1837, i.e. without electricity and with the same furnishings. In addition to the museum areas, don't miss a tour of the Leopardi cellars, where you can buy the wine produced by the family (his descendants have continued to live in the house for generations). But it is also true that Recanati is just about Leopardi but is also an attractive destination for the overall beauty of the town and its other historic buildings. So, after enjoying a tour of the places frequented by the poet, you could visit the Palazzo Antichi, Palazzo Venieri or Palazzo dalla Casapiccola and, later in the evening, simply breathe in the atmosphere of past times. Time for a glass of wine, or a bite of bread with ciauscolo (a type of soft, spreadable salami, typical of the Marche region), and then back you go to normal life. But with renewed spirit and satisfied curiosity. What else?
The country girl comes in now from the fields,
Before the sun goes down,
Carrying her truss of hay, and in her hand,
A bunch of roses and violets,
As is the way, she’ll decorate,
Her bodice and her hair with them
To celebrate tomorrow’s holiday.
With all her neighbours round,
The old woman sits spinning on the steps,
Turning towards the dying light,
Telling the tale of her young days
When she dressed up for holidays
And how, still slim and lovely then,
She used to dance the evenings away
With all her boyfriends in her shining youth.
The whole sky now begins to gloom,
Air turns a deeper blue, and shadows
Stretch out from the hills and roofs
Beneath the whiteness of the rising moon.
And now the bells announce
That coming holiday;
And at that sound, it seems,
Each heart is comforted once more.
A gang of little boys shout out
Around the tiny square,
Jumping here and jumping there,
Making a cheerful din.
Meanwhile, the labourer goes whistling home,
Back to his simple meal,
And thinks about his day of rest.
Then, when all the other lights around are out,
And all things else are quiet,
You hear a hammer tapping, hear a saw.
The carpenter is still awake.
His shop is shut; but in the lamplight,
He sweats and strains
To get things finished before the dawn.
This is the best-loved day of all the week,
So full of hope and joy.
Tomorrow, the hours will bring back
Sadness, boredom, and make each person
Turn to think of their accustomed toil.
You lively little lad,
This blossom-time of yours
Is like a day of pure delight,
A clear and cloudless day
That heralds your life’s festival.
Enjoy it, little boy. This is a state
Of bliss, a glad and pleasant season.
I’ll say no more. But if your festival
Seems a long time in arriving, let that not make you grieve.
A Village Saturday, 1829. Translation by Tim Chilcott, tclt.org.uk, 2008
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