Internazionali d'Italia Series - Esanatoglia

Stories from the outback

Words and Pics:
Miriam Terruzzi

The morning in the heart of the village smells of bread just out of the oven, a sudden flight of crows interrupts that quiet that characterises the hours before people wake up and begin to open the windows to let in the new day’s air, to flutter the pillows, to put on the moka for coffee. At the bar – the classic meeting point of Italian villages, all the more so those of the hinterland – the hurry is locked out, someone arrives and someone leaves, in the still tranquillity of Good Friday. Lives flow by like stories. Cycling arrives with its whirlwind and lifts them all, to be delivered to visitors who are here for a specific reason and – perhaps – will return for many more. 
Art, origins, workshops and the rhythm of the river. At a glance, from the municipal hall one can see all of Esanatoglia in its ancient cluster of houses and aristocratic palaces, pushing one’s gaze to the hills and then Matelica in the distance. The mayor greets everyone before turning on the lights in the ballroom and going back centuries, when the Da Varano da Camerino used these rooms to receive guests on summer days. The cycle of bare-faced knights runs along the four walls and represents the most eminent personalities of this family that had purchased the castrum of Santa Anatolia from the Grand Duchess of Spoleto after 1100. 

‘The Da Varano family remained here until 1500,’ he explains. ‘Until, during the war between Guelphs and Ghibellines, they found themselves on the wrong side and were defenestrated. From then on Esanatoglia passed into the hands of the Vatican and remained so until the Kingdom of Italy.’

The deep historicity of this village has built over time the industrious character of this people who, throughout their lives, have followed the rhythm of the river. The ceramics, the paper mills, the tanneries: all around the Esino that flows practically inside the village, delineating the artisan and industrial personality of a place dedicated to the arts and intellect. 

The secret life of the village.

Now Esanatoglia has the social aspect of a village like so many others: the bar, the butcher, the baker and the laundry hung out in the sun on the wrought-iron balconies. But the truth is that every corner here has meant something – terrible or wonderful – to those who have lived there. Angelo recounts that at the end of that alley there was a beam they used for hangings, while under that balcony there was a ladder leading to a stable with a cow and he himself went there every morning to get milk.

 

 

‘Every family had an animal,’ he says. ‘At this door there was a donkey, it belonged to a close friend of mine. He would get up at dawn to take it to graze every morning up the mountains before coming to school.’

 

He, who has done practically everything in life – altar boy, politician, aspiring priest, showman, bell ringer – remembers with nostalgia the times when he knocked on the doors of his little friends to have a snack and play football in the little squares where tables were set up in the evening for everyone to eat together. Life was circumscribed but intense, made up of shared things. 

On one wall is written: ‘via degli Innocenti’ and Angelo opens a small door that leads to ‘Le Bare’, a room with a frescoed vault where the bodies of children were watched over before burial in the small church nearby. Like existence, the stages of it were simple and almost defined by the conformation of the house. Here too, as in the villages of neighbouring Umbria, there was a three-door dwelling. One was for everyday life, the second was opened when the owner married, and the third was the one for which he left after his death. As the ancient walls are hit by the midday light, shivers come to think of how many people have spent their time here on earth, happy to have this hamlet as their only place in the world. 

The buried treasure.

Ombretta looks out of the window and, a moment later, opens the door of the small workshop that is just below her flat, in order to reconcile her life as a mother with her life as a craftswoman in Esanatoglia. 

Inside, the workshop is a small forge of colours and objects, unfinished or painted, bearing witness to the intertwining past and present.

‘I was abroad for some time,’ she explains, ‘and when I came back, I had the good fortune to attend an archaeological excavation where ceramics that had been thrown into the so-called “butti”, or large pits where the pieces that had gone wrong, broken or defective were buried. 

 

That day, looking at the colours and designs emerging from time, something inside me snapped. I started to study, to take courses to bring back to life the art that had characterised the existence of the village.’

The production of traditional ceramics exploded in the 16th century, again with the complicity of the abundance of the river, and continued until Napoleonic times, bringing with it a lively bustle of great ceramists who came from Gubbio and Faenza. Today Ombretta is the guardian of this art that was disappearing forever and it is she who now writes the plaques on the doors – doctor, pharmacist, family – the country house by house, drawing the roots, one brushstroke at a time.

Between sacred and profane.

As we walk through the narrow streets, a cheerful gentleman comes towards us: the last communist of Esanatoglia goes to open the church. No, this is not a Guareschi novel, but just one of the many small testimonies of how sacredness and paganism have always intertwined here, between prayers and rituals, without there ever being a real border between the two. The place name itself evokes this contrast: Esus was the Celtic god of war while Anatolia was a martyr from 240 AD. 

As a good Latinist, it is always Angelo who points out a pre-Romanesque plaque that was on a pagan altar two thousand years ago and has now been walled up on a wall of the ancient parish church. 

 

 

When you get to the top, the wind blows through the holm oaks in an incredibly strange way, like a constant breath, typical of places that are more spiritual than real. The boulder that stopped San Cataldo is still there, in the middle of the path, with the two round, black holes carved in the rock – his fingers – and over there in the valley is the village he saved: Celtic and Christian Esanatoglia, with its vows and imprecations, men of faith and lost men who certainly believe in miracles. 

‘To heavenly Jupiter he makes a vow and is accepted’ he translates.

Popular pietas is something that has always defined the character of the inhabitants, as evidenced by the numerous churches, the four religious orders and the striking Hermitage of San Cataldo, clinging to the rock as in a Caspar David Friedrich painting. It was here, from the monastery of Fontebono, that the Capuchins climbed in prayer: eight kilometres to do strictly barefoot to atone but above all to meditate.

Cycling has something similar in it: pain is a necessary viaticum for self-discovery, an inner journey that, seen from the outside, borders on masochism.

When you get to the top, the wind blows through the holm oaks in an incredibly strange way, like a constant breath, typical of places that are more spiritual than real. The boulder that stopped San Cataldo is still there, in the middle of the path, with the two round, black holes carved in the rock – his fingers – and over there in the valley is the village he saved: Celtic and Christian Esanatoglia, with its vows and imprecations, men of faith and lost men who certainly believe in miracles.

In the shadow of Verdicchio.

Eating well remains a luxury even for our hectic society where often everything is standardised, even food. 

This steaming crescia with pecorino cheese and wild savoy cabbage was the lunch of yesteryear, when families ate with what they gathered from the land. Traditions are all about this, in Italy the cuisine is so poor as to be extraordinary. When you bite into this kind of stuffed focaccia – don’t call it piadina – you wonder how such a handful of simple ingredients can taste so incredible.

The restaurant La Cantinella – clearly a family-run business – is practically a must in the village: Isabella brings to the table a merry-go-round of Marche traditions, including fava beans with fennel with a sauce that surely hides a secret.

In the glasses, the prince of these lands: verdicchio, which smells of flowers and is lighter than water. After all, when the sea air blows over the hills from afar, something special is bound to happen.

Two wheels and a circuit.

The Esanatoglia stage of the Internazionali d’Italia Series has a very special track that takes place inside a cross track. The contamination between the two disciplines is something extraordinary that links adrenalin, tenacity and, of course, crazy love for a vehicle – motorised or not – that you practically live with since you are a kid. Or a child. 

Andrea is on the track with his brother – and his bike, of course – and makes strange gestures to his father, who is now the race opener. Once he has ascertained the regularity of everything and seen the start, he tells us that he is ten years old but, in reality, he first climbed into the saddle when he was six.

‘It was my father who passed on this passion to me,’ he says. ‘I saw him and wanted to try it and I immediately had a lot of fun. The thing I like to do most when I race is hurdles. Of course, I am still too small to ride on this circuit but I have already done a few races. Now I’m resting because I had bursitis but I’m here to see my brother who can’t run on the three hundred so I lent him mine.’

 

Andrea explains the features of his machine in full. The height is practically the same as his father’s, the pride with which he presents it is the same in the eyes of his brother Matteo – they are two peas in a pod – who, riding his Sherco 2021 edition Fajardo says: 

‘Dad taught me how to ride and now we race together. I have tried to ride on this circuit, it is a lot of fun. The part that is a bit trickier is in the woods, with small shifts or downhill sections, but in general it is a track that gives satisfaction.’

Mother’s heart.

It is the last lap of the Junior race, and a lady comes running out of the bush. Marta is the mother of Tommaso Bosio who, at this precise moment, is leading the race. 

‘Both my boys are racing on their bikes,’ she explains. ‘As it should be, we make a lot of sacrifices, the family moves all the time. We came on Thursday because we wanted to avoid the traffic but still found ourselves bottlenecked. We left at two o’clock and arrived at nine in the evening. We took a bed and breakfast nearby. Now, after the race, we’re leaving because my son Giovanni has to take him to a road race in San Miniato and we’re stopping to sleep there. Then we go home but we have two more appointments, in Melegnano and Florence.’

 

She says that Tommaso is a very serious and reserved boy, a guy who only wants to focus on performance in action but how do you tell a mum not to cheer?

‘I always try to keep quiet,’ she adds. ‘I’ve learnt to stay a little bit in the background while running. But it’s not easy. Then today she showed again her great ability to recover over distance. You could say it’s his characteristic: every time he gets to the end, he tells me he would have more. Halfway through the race he was sixteenth, I know he is very good at recovering positions but I didn’t think he could even play for the victory. This fighting side of him makes me very proud.

Marta prepares to take a photo of Thomas crossing the white line with his arms raised, looking at him a little from a distance as he catches his breath. Then, as she approaches, she surely would like to hug him but only hands him a handkerchief, they say something to each other. 

In cycling it is not easy to be the frame, to love without raising your voice too much, to apologise even a little for being emotional, which – after all – is the most natural thing of all. But that’s how it is, you learn to stay where you need to be. Crossing your gaze is sometimes like embracing the whole. 

Olivia and her friends.

The girls are running the third lap, there is more wind up here, in the straight stretch where the athletes stand out against the sky that has turned grey, almost black in contrast to the white dome of the closed observatory. A hyperactive dog cannot contain her enthusiasm. The lady holding her leash explains:

‘This is Olivia, she is five years old. And I’m Elisa Freti’s mother who rides for Ciclistica Rostese and we are from Finale Ligure. We always travel around Italy with the camper van to accompany my daughter to the races and she is always with us. She loves travelling and cheering on her mistress, she never misses!’

But Olivia is not alone, there is a real four-legged team supporting the athletes on the sidelines: Australian shepherds, Labradors, dachshunds and microscopic puppies on the finish line. The truth is that the dog is not only man’s best friend but has something that makes him even the ideal supporter, everything he hears you read in his face – snout, pardon me – and you don’t need words to know that you are doing well, no matter what. Whether you are winning or losing, you will certainly be first in his personal pecking order. 

Riding in Italy.

Half an hour to go before the start of the Élite race, Charlie Aldridge is sitting quietly under his team’s gazebo, revealing nothing of that famous pre-race atmosphere that mere mortals can never interpret. The silence of the athletes or their placid tranquillity puts an aura of mystery over these moments before the competition that will probably forever remain a mystery. 

 

 

 

 

‘It’s really fun racing in Italy for me, it’s great,’ he says, looking around the circuit. ‘There’s always a good atmosphere at competitions, especially around the Rock Gardens where there’s always a lot of cheering and it’s really exciting to tackle those sections.’

He knows the Esanatoglia track, he has already raced here last year, and he knows which are the points where you have to pick up the pace and those where you have to stay sharper than necessary. 

‘This is a really nice, fun course,’ he adds. ‘There’s some Rock Garden and a lot of climbs, so it can also be difficult if you’re not on a good day.’

 

The truth is that for Charlie it’s a good day, that’s the point. For all the laps he stays in the lead with his team-mate and Cameron Orr, three musketeers towards the finish line which is a sprint mockery. Sometimes condition is not enough, from the outside everything looks pure athleticism, but strategy often claims its role. 

Sweat drips down his cheeks like tears, even from his glasses you can see his lost look, overwhelmed by the effort.

The clouds of moisture have engulfed the hills, the village remains isolated like a fortress until evening falls slowly over its palaces and monasteries. Up there, between the village and the hermitage, in the dark bowels of Fontebono, the miraculous spring that attracted princes and necromancers continues to flow silently. Gold and silver dust flow at the feet of Esus and Anatolia, war and love, massacre and sacrifice, Yin and Yang, divided by the Esino river and yet inextricably linked. 

Tonight and for eternity.