Alf in Italy, Ferragosto in San VitoJun 29, 2015
I’m sitting at my desk on a chilly, damp Melbourne June morning. The last flowers clinging to the branches of the Bougainvillea are a reminder of a distant summer. Rain is slowly dripping off the leaves of the bay tree joining the few forlorn geranium petals that have been blown onto the terracotta tiles on our terrace. Icy wind is funnelled between our building and the one opposite. So to put myself in a more cheerful state of mind I begin to imagine myself warmer and less restricted by the three layers of winter clothing that cocoons, in my mind I’m back in Italy and it’s summer.
Today is the 14th of August and it’s the height of summer in Abruzzo, the sun is shining and there is just enough cloud to make the air humid and heavy. Tomorrow we will celebrate Ferragosto, the annual holiday when Italians take themselves to the mountains or the sea to enjoy a picnic or a meal together. We will join Paula, Sandro and their friends at the beach house in San Vito Marina they share for the summer. At the end of this post I’ll explain the origins of this holiday. After a day at the beach we will be gathering for dinner. Sandra and I will provide the antipasto, so today we are going to shop at the indoor market in Pescara, the Mercato Coperto.
The market is in Via dei Bastioni, a street of nondescript buildings in the Portanuova area of Pescara. Most buildings are modern but there are a few survivors of the devastating bombing by the Americans during World War Two. The market itself is one of the more basic, functional buildings that you will ever see. Low, grey, rectangular with a red parapet, peeling paint and graffiti it is not one of the architectural highlights of downtown Pescara. We park the car the best we can as we are rule abiding Australians. Everyone else seems to park in whatever opportunist fashion they can. Double park, parallel, nose in, right under no parking signs, half on the footpath and even in designated parking areas. As there is insufficient parking I can understand this laissez-faire approach. People just park where they can so they can get their shopping or business done. If there are not enough parking places or the Comune has incomprehensible rules that are designed to stop you getting on with life’s necessary activities then these deserve to be ignored.
We enter the market and look around at the produce and various stalls and then stop to buy. The fruttivendolo knows things we don’t. He can see right into our minds and discern our deepest subconscious desires. All the fruit and vegetables we think we need are in a heap on front of him. He knows that what we really want are zucchini flowers.
You want the zucchini flowers.” He tells Sandra firmly.
No.”, she replies, “I don’t want any. How much are they?”
So then how many would you like?”
Sandra begins to loose patience with him. “None!”
He puts all our purchases into plastic bags but he won’t take no for an answer. Through his mind reading ability he knows what we want and he starts stuffing a bag with zucchini flowers.
Do you want this many?”
Sandra is not very good at putting up with fools who don’t listen to her.
None, nulla, niente!”
She hands him the money, he takes it and passes us the bags.
Va bene signora”, he says sweetly, “and here are the zucchini flowers.”
He has won. We take all the bags and leave before he discovers that we really want pumpkins or figs or…….
Then we shop for the antipasto at one of the deli stalls. This one is run by a world master of suggestive selling. She knows exactly what we need for Ferragosto. Perhaps she is the mind reader’s cousin and it’s a family gift.
So signora you are obviously having an antipasto platter so you will need mozzarella. Now try these olives. I only have the best. Everyone buys from me because I am the best.”
We have learned our lesson and buy everything she suggests and only stop because we can’t carry any more. We begin to walk back to the only legally parked car in the street. But the mind readers are not as good as we imagined. We have forgotten tomatoes. Turning back we spot a woman sitting on a wooden box in the side street by the market and she has boxes overflowing with wonderful tomatoes. She’s old and wizened and has a pair of even older rusty, hand held beam scales. We only want three tomatoes and we put them on the scales. She insists that she will only sell a kilo so Sandra adds a few more to make up a kilo.
Come on signora it’s a kilo, but it’s a very slim kilo.”
More tomatoes are piled on to make a chubby well fed kilo. We pay her and escape before anyone else forces us to buy something that only they know we need.
As the A14 Autostrada skirts Pescara and heads south toward Ortona it follows a galleria, viadotto; tunnel, bridge pattern. Passing through the countryside we tunnel through hills and fly over lush valleys before taking the Ortona exit and drive along back roads toward San Vito Chietino. This village on a ridge overlooking the Adriatic is not our destination. We are going to San Vito Marina, its beachside extension. Now this is not Positano or Portofino and if you’ve heard of it you must be a local or were paying particular attention to Silvia Colloca’s television programs but it’s charming in its ordinariness. Green hills run almost down to the sea. Farmland is always in the background. Around the junction of the two main roads there are shops and bars and of course a restaurant or two. On the shore a breakwater runs into the sea protecting the only sandy beach from being washed away. This is where the hire an umbrella and beach lounge establishment is. There are pebble beaches to either side. There is a social division, those who can afford it pay for an umbrella and lounge on the sand but the pebble beach is free and the trendy thing to do. This is where Paola and her friends go.
To find our patch of pebble beach paradise we cross the Strada Statale Adriatico, walk beneath the railway line and turn left, to the right is the civilised order of the beach establishment. Well drilled, ordered and compliant umbrellas are arranged into perfectly straight lines on the only patch of sand. An ordered holiday from an ordered life. On the pebble beach, disorder and individuality rule. We crunch over the hard pebbles passing the usual array of beach goers. The elderly don’t care how many chubby skin folds cascade around bikinis or Speedos. They are here to improve their tans just as they have for the last 60 or 70 years. Young pregnant women are making sure that their extended bellies are evenly bronzed. An African hawker brightly robed and carrying a portable CD player is bringing the delights of African music, towels and cheap sunglasses to anyone who will part with a few Euros. Children are splashing in the shallow water between beach and the breakwater formed with a jumble of enormous brown rocks. Some are harvesting mussels from the rocks just as Sandra did with her father when she was a child. Others straddle the tops of the rocks casting their lines and hauling in tiny fish no more than 6 centimetres long. Perhaps they are destined to make a contribution to a brodetto? This is not a beach to strut along so that everyone can admire your deep, bronze tan or invoke jealousy because the perfect style of your beach outfit. Here appearance doesn’t matter too much, although one of our group is wearing her best red high healed plastic beach shoes.
At the north end of the beach is a small headland with a projecting trabocco, since destroyed by a storm. These fishing platforms with their mad web of ropes, beams, pulleys and nets always make me think of a monster web built by a giant not quite sober spider. Among the few groups enjoying the solitude here is another quaint, primitive structure. This is a creative alternative to the umbrellas, all the same size and colour. A sheet of material has been stretched between rickety bamboo poles held in place by guy ropes hopefully held in place by being tied to large chunks of stone. It’s decorated with strings of shells gathered from the beach. Like the trabocco it looks like it shouldn’t work but it does providing a patch of welcome shade. This gem of inventive beach architecture is the work of Paola’s friend Franco who shares the little house in summer. At the end of each day on the beach the shelter is packed up and hidden under an upturned boat by the beach.
There’s a daily routine to life on the beach. Each morning Franco prepares lunch for the day, packs it and takes it down to the shore. He gets the shelter out of its hiding place and puts it together. At lunchtime friends arrive for food, a splash in the Adriatic or more likely stretch out in the sun to improve their tans. During the middle of the afternoon businesses in Pescara shut so if you are working over summer you can take a short drive to San Vito and enjoy the beach life for a few hours before things get moving again at four pm. This is exactly what one of Franco’s friends does. He’s a delivery driver so at about noon when everything starts to close he makes a quick dash down the Autostrada to San Vito, parks his van, runs down to the beach, draws the cork from a bottle of rosato, pours a glass, helps himself to some of Franco’s cooking and lays back in a state of relaxed bliss until it’s time to return to Pescara and his delivery round. If this happened in an Anglo-Saxon country I’m certain it would be made illegal.
Back under the umbrellas things may be more ordered and the lounges more comfortable than sitting on a towel folded double and placed over stones but I know where I’d rather be. We are just beneath the green scrub of the headland, there’s a soft breeze, the sunlight dapples the shallows and if it gets too intense for my pale readily burnt skin I can retreat under Franco’s tent. Our group has the beach almost to themselves. A few others are casually rolling from back to stomach to get an even tan and the biggest display of energy is to slowly wander to the water and walk slowly along ankle deep. One or two make a gargantuan effort and scramble to the top of the breakwater and drop in a line hoping a suicidal fish takes the bait. I take a swig of rosato and make a few lazy notes in my diary. This would be a perfect paradise, but we are in Italy and the railway has been built just above the reach of the highest tides fifty metres behind where I sit.
Reluctantly we leave and trudge back over the stony beach to the little house. Tonight is our Ferragosto dinner. The friends who share the house for summer call it Little Mykonos because it’s square and white with blue trim like a Greek island house. From the terrace there are views of the sea over the roofs of surrounding houses and in another direction San Vito sits above on a ridge with a commanding view over land and sea. Now as I have already suggested any glossy tourist guide impressions of romantic Italian seaside resort set in a spectacular landscape can be put aside. If you are thinking Amalfi Coast, a terrace with a view over the Mediterranean and a bow tied waiter bringing you a cooling cocktail stop that dream immediately! San Vito Marina is pleasant enough in a low key way but Little Mykonos is down a narrow scruffy street. To reach the house we must walk past a decrepit shed some less than well-tended vegetable patches, houses that are dull grey with water stained render, and terraces are lined with terracotta pots with neglected plants struggling to survive. Almost at the crest of the hill is a tiny white rendered house. There is one room on the lower level and above another room and a terrace shaded by a pergola.
On the terrace the scruffiness of the surroundings can be ignored. Sitting there you are high enough to catch any breeze that is moderating the summer heat. Looking over the terrace walls the maintenance free houses and sheds are invisible. There’s the sea directly ahead and to one side San Vito Chietino atop a green wooded hill commanding this section of coast. Potted geraniums growing taller than the terrace walls help disguise the unkempt surroundings. This is where we will have our Ferragosto dinner with family and friends.
Dinner preparation begins now that we have all returned from the beach. The portable charcoal grill is dragged out into the cul-de-sac street that is like a somewhat run down piazzetta. The table on the terrace is set. The antipasto platter is arranged with the olives, mozzarella and salami we bought in Pescara. Sandra stuffs the zucchini flowers with mozzarella and anchovies, and prepares them to be deep fried. A tomato salad is constructed. Bright red peppers are grilled over the coals outside. Every dish is prepared, cooked or assembled in the tiniest kitchen I ever seen. Cooking is done on an antique gas stove, all the slicing and chopping happens in a tangle of arm and hands on a bench about half a metre square. There’s hardly room for one cook to work, let alone three. All help to get the meal ready in an atmosphere of organised chaos. The whole set up of Little Mykonos is one step above camping. Sandro and his friend Cacio (a nickname which means cheese) help like many Italian men do. They stay outside out of the way and talk. An enormously fat chicken is put on the grill. Sandro and Cacio are responsible for looking after this and the thick juicy sausages that are put on the grill when the monster chicken is almost cooked. The boys keep chatting. Sandro asserts his masculinity by taking charge. Walking up to the chicken he shows it who’s boss by casually flipping it from its breast to side. Cacio knows how to wear responsibility insouciantly. He just stands by casually regarding Sandro’s mastery over dead poultry and chubby, inert sausages with silent admiration, hands in pockets.
Later everyone is gathered on the terrace, eating, sharing anecdotes, laughing splashing wine straight from the demijohn into glasses, drawing on relaxing cigarettes and felling content with the world. Now it is dark, the breeze is gentle and the conversation quietly echoes from the closest houses, one globe suspended from the pergola and a few candles illuminate the table. We are on a floating island of soft light. On the hill above the street lights of San Vito are glowing, the sky is soft velvet dark and the moon is rising casting shadows and scattering reflected light across the sea. This is the secret of Ferragosto. Family and friends sharing conviviality and companionship, sustained by a meal prepared cooperatively and eaten appreciatively, digestion and wellbeing enhanced by simple wine straight from a local farmer’s cantina.
Ferragosto is an Italian national holiday held on the 15th of August each year. On this day Italians go to the sea or the mountains for a picnic or have an elaborate meal at home with family and friends. Its origins go back to Roman times. The emperor Augustus instituted the Feriae Augusti, Festivals of Augustus, to celebrate the end of the harvest. Even horses and donkeys where given the day off. In Cristian times the Catholic Church aligned the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin with this date. The Italian habit of taking a trip to the country or seaside began in the nineteen twenties when Mussolini’s Fascist government organised cheap train travel to the sea or mountains at this time for those who could not normally afford to travel. Everyone in Italy now celebrates Ferragosto. It is the single most important holiday in Italy and the fact that it is summer makes it all the more memorable.
Follow me, AKA Sandra’s husband, on my journeys in Italy as this sometimes bewildered Anglo-Saxon tries to understand this beautiful, complex, contradictory, frustrating and absolutely fascinating country.
(Written by Alf)