The biggest event in our town of Penna San Giovanni is the annual Castagnata, or Chestnut Festival, which takes place around the last week in October. I was holding off writing this story until I could experience it myself, but unfortunately, this year’s event was cancelled due to the earthquakes, the strongest of which happened on October 30, the day the Castagnata was scheduled. It’s a popular event and a source of pride for our town, so it was disheartening to all that nature imposed its will, causing far more serious damage than a missed festival.
Penna’s other big event, in addition to its own Saint’s Day, is the Polentata, which takes place in early August. Up in the Terazza Belvedere, a lovely paved area midway between the playground and the top of the town with its old Roman ruin and views over the valley, there is a bar, a stage for outdoor performances and loads of space for tables and chairs. For those who like polenta, and don’t find it a rubbery yellow disc of bland filler (and I’m in the former category), the Polentata brings the townspeople out to cook polenta in huge vats stirred with boat oars. It’s served up with tomato-based ragu or wild boar ragu, or a combination of the two. One plateful will have you waddling. My daughter Sophie refuses to touch the stuff and got into quite the mood when we chose Penna’s Polentata over the Pancetta Fest in the nearby village of Vecciola. But the whole town is out; it’s fun to run into our neighbors and always good to support these pro loco events.
There’s a relatively new wine bar in Penna. It’s only open in the summer months, and the owners have created something really special. They are very knowledgeable about cheeses, salumerie and wines, and generous in explaining what goes best with what. The cozy space feels somewhat cave-like, walls lined with bottles, and there’s always some house-made snack served that’s traditional for the region. One night two summers ago, our good friend Sergio, a longtime resident of Penna now in his 80’s, was reading poetry that he’d written in dialect. The owners of the wine bar staged an evening in the spirit of the bards– for visitors stopping at an inn with a traditional dinner and a poet to entertain. We bought our tickets and were somewhat embarrassed to be seated at the “head” table with the poet himself. We were the only foreigners there– the sold out crowd (of about 25 people) was mostly older residents of the town. We didn’t understand a word but were honored by the special treatment and bowled over by the food– traditional breads, pasta with a simple tomato sauce, roast pork and vegetables– hearty and delicious.
As I mentioned in a previous article, all of the small towns in Italy organize events like these to encourage local pride and bring people together– this sense of the importance of community is one reason we love the country so much. At Porto San Giorgio, where we go to the beach, we’ve seen concerts, puppet shows and circus performers, but always managed to miss the Padella Gigante dell’Adriatico, a huge frying pan set up in the main square of the town for an enormous frittura di calamari of over 1000 kilograms! This event commemorates a 40-day strike by Porto’s fishermen in the late 18th century, protesting inflated prices for wheat and grain. To celebrate the end of the strike, this enormous pan is erected in town to feed the residents with Porto’s (in my humble opinion) unparalleled calamari. One of these days we’ll make it to the party.
This past summer, we did stumble upon the grand opening of Vongolopolis, the Clam Fest in Porto San Giorgio, set up near the train station. Another way to promote local business, food and wine, as well as attract tourists, the Mayor was out to cut the ribbon initiating three days of festivities, as was the promotional director. It’s worth celebrating if you ask me– one of the can’t-miss highlights we show our guests is spaghetti vongole and calamari fritti at the beach concessions in Porto. There’s nothing better.
I think it was the third year we stayed in our house, Sophie was about 13 years old and her best friends, twins, came to visit us with their parents who are also our good friends. On one of those quick drive-by sign sightings, I saw notice that the Gypsy Kings were performing at the race track in Piane di Montegiorgio. The Gypsy Kings? In Piane de Montegiorgio at the Ippodromo San Paolo? We couldn’t believe it, so we packed up all the kids and grownups and went to the races at 6:00 pm, when it seemed all the festivities would be getting started. Well, here’s where not knowing the language can mess you up. Evidently the first race was at 6, but all we heard of the Gypsy Kings was the road crew doing a sound check. Horses are fun too, so we tried to figure out how to place an actual bet, avidly watched the first two races, set up our own pool to pick the winning horses, and cheered heartily. This show of enthusiasm distinguished us as the Americans in the crowd. The Italians showed little or no interest in the races. What got their attention after the second race, was the parade of vintage cars that came next.
Perched upon each car was a scantily clad lovely young Italian contestant, each competing for the title of Miss Le Marche to place in the national Italian beauty pageant. The cars drove slowly past on the racecourse; the Italian beauties waved and smiled, and the Italian spectators were on the edge of their seats. A priest then appeared to bless the proceedings, his red face implying he’d been celebrating since earlier that day. The blessing of the cleavage, my friend Clare said. Meanwhile, it turns out the Gypsy Kings were not due to perform until after the last race, which likely wouldn’t be till after 10:00. So we piled everyone back into the cars and went to the beach for dinner. What an experience!
Race tracks, movies, it’s hard for foreigners to figure out how all these things work in another country. We’d always wanted to go to a movie in Italy, despite the annoyance of all foreign movies being dubbed into Italian, rather than just subtitled. When we finally got internet access in our house this summer, we could actually figure out the show times and decided to see the movie “Tarzan,” assuming Tarzan doesn’t talk all that much and it’s an old story, so possibly we’d understand it. The Super 8 cineplex in Monte Urano, on our way to the beach, had a gigantic poster for Tarzan on its exterior, so we drove into the parking lot on our way home one day just to check it out. We couldn’t find the entrance. Sometimes it is truly embarrassing to be a tourist. All right, we thought, there must be an entrance somewhere, so on the day of our film, we parked the car in the completely empty parking lot at about 8:10 for an 8:30 show. Still couldn’t find the entrance. We walked around the entire complex twice and finally saw what appeared to be an employee emerging from an unmarked door. “Possiamo entrare?” we asked. No. The entrance is around the corner and won’t open till 8:20.
At 8:20, big, low, round lights came up in the cineplex lawn. The entrance lights lit up in sequence. Duh, the entry was right in front of us, but the movies don’t start until 8:30. Why open earlier? This cinema was great. All flashy lights, displays of home furnishings and pasta in the large lobby area; play spaces for the kids; concession stands with ice cream and pizza. Nice, clean uber-modern bathrooms. And the theatres themselves were state of the art– comfy seats, great sound system, undulating dimming lights, big, wide screen. Unfortunately we were three of but six people in the theatre. Our friend Alberto told us when it rains, the theatres are crowded. We enjoyed our nearly private showing and managed to get the gist of the movie plot, despite the dubbing. Next trip, we’re going to search for a bowling alley.