When it comes to planning a holiday, one that promises sun, impossibly delicious food, and the rare commodity of utter relaxation, Italy is on the top of the list for many vacationers. It’s a country with a history as rich and robust as its cuisine, gelaterias and intoxicating bakeries framing almost every tucked away, ancient cobblestone alleyway. Italy, with its boot-shaped body planted firmly in the sea, boasts coastlines that put California to shame, mountains that look airbrushed and purposefully chiseled, and people who treat stress like a foreigner.
With a country so beloved, so well-traveled, hidden gem seems like another foreign descriptor but I think I’ve been lucky enough to find one.
For a couple of weeks now, I’ve stayed in Fabriano, a small yet prideful medieval town in the Le Marche region. At this point, I think I’ve walked and run along every inch of cobblestone in the city but still I’m intrigued, humbled by its unassuming beauty. The people here are proud to be Fabriano-bred and I’m proud to call myself a visitor.
Coming from a small town myself, I’ve learned that size has no relation to importance, to impact, and Fabriano is certainly no exception. Starting in the thirteenth century, Fabriano was the cornerstone of paper production, producing some of the most innovative paper products on a global scale. Fabriano still carries on the tradition, producing uniquely handmade paper with it’s signiture watermark for artists, writers, and paper enthusiasts alike.
Perhaps that’s my biggest take away from Fabriano, that tradition can not only be kept alive but grow in strength over time. Tradition unifies, amplifies, and intensifies, perserving a culture small in size but tenacious in presence.
Tradition and cultural preservation has been the unmistakable theme this week, especially as Fabriano is holding host to it’s coveted festival, Palio.
In short, Palio is a really, really cool thing. The town is divided into four districts (red, green, blue, and yellow) with medeival-cut flags hanging from every arch, pole, and window in sight. There is an event in the central square almost every night, the moon slapped into intense-shine mode by bagpipes, drummers, fire dancers, blacksmiths, horse carriages, archers, and crowds of camera-clad people. The best part of Palio starts on the last night of the ten-day fesitival which will be the same day I leave Fabriano. I’m not exactly sure how to describe this closing ceromony of sorts but it basically involves a relay race that morphs into a blacksmithing competition. The first team to forge a key to the corresponding lock wins a flag and perhaps a lot of drinks at the bar. By far, the coolest relay I’ve ever heard off.
Thanks to Palio, I have a handmade coin, a piece of Fabriano paper with my name in caligraphy, and an important reminder that the places were culture is most alive, flushed in appearance and punchy in spirit, are, thankfully, undetected by the far-reaching pages of guidebooks and online listicals. The beating hearts of some towns, no matter how strong, do not always register on our touristic monitors. Beauty, in simple form, is arhythmic.
When Palio is pajama-clad and dormant, however, I’ve been trying to hum along to the quiet and assuring rhythm of the mountains/big hills of Fabriano. They have a lot of tunes up their sleeves. Some melodies bristle against cattle-protected meadows, others are sharp and thorny, leaving their marks on my ankles but the spirit of the mountains (or hills) in any country is literally uplifting.
After taking a very roundabout path with two of my fellow workawayers this past Sunday, we reached the patchy peak of Valleymontana just as the wind spiraled faster and the cattle grazed by the base, making way for the heard of mountains that circled us like sharks. Motto bello, stupefacente, bravissimo-Italian adjectives describe it best. In many ways, nature has always been a grandparent to me; it spoils me rotten (in Italy especially).
At this point, I’m stiched into Fabriano-it will be hard to cut loose from this place. This town has left it’s footprints (and thornbush prints) and my appreciation for it seems to deserve another language entirely. I can only hope that I can continue to put my experience to paper because that’s exactly where it starts. Punching, pulsing, perperfezionare, the adjectives you rarely get to use-I put all of those to the paper-loving town of Fabriano.
PS: Next week, I finally tell you about my experience living in an Italian monastery. Stay tuned!