I had been just two days in the medieval hill town of Montone, Umbria, savoring the absolute tranquillity of cobbled streets with few people and fewer cars, having magnificent views of wild landscapes beyond stone walls almost to myself. Then the festival began and hordes of people came to town.
An Italian-born friend of mine once told me Italians like nothing better than an excuse to celebrate so they hold as many festivals as they can. The proof is in the thousands of festivals in Italy each year. The famous ones like the Carnival in Venice or the Palio horse race of Siena draw tourists from around the world. But small towns and villages find a reason for festivals in just about everything that brings joy to their lives. They find a reason in foods like gelato, lemons, truffles, chocolates, artichokes, and Chianti and in flowers like azaleas and roses. Plus you get a festival for every religious and national holiday going. It was in Montone that I saw how one festival brought a boisterous energy to the otherwise quiet routines of small-town Italy.
Montone has been described as one of the prettiest places in Italy, a well-preserved castle town with medieval towers, walls, and homes. It's less than fifty kilometers north of Umbria's capital, Perugia, but if you're there without a car, as I was, it seems to exist isolated in the hills and mountains that surround it. The fewer than two-thousand people who live there are served by one café, a small grocery store, two clothing stores, a butcher shop, a fruit and vegetable shop, and a handful of a restaurants. That was enough for me. I'd come to Montone in the middle of a month of visiting larger Italian cities, to an apartment loaned to me by a friend's brother. I had no more expectation for my time there than peaceful walks, long vistas, and hours of reading.
At first, I was happy to explore. I discovered every sloping street and secret staircase to the town's summit where a piece of an ancient Roman wall lay unguarded and a modern triangular sculpture stood against the skyscape without explanation. I descended to walk along the nearby Tiber River with its alder trees golden in the late fall. On my second evening, feeling like I'd "done" the town, I returned to its heart to discover men tying plastic streamers across the main square, electricians rolling out cables of wire, and carpenters finishing wooden booths. Garage doors that had been locked tight were raised and vendors, inside the spaces, were setting up displays of vegetables, cheese rounds, and honey. Handmade signs for everything from garlic to salami had popped up on the streets. There was a buzz to the place that hadn't existed just the day before.
The thirty-fifth Festa del Bosco was about to begin. Bosco translates into wood or forest and when I asked one vendor the purpose of the festival, she told me it celebrated "things grown in the woods and in the undergrowth of the woods." But it seemed to be a catch-all festival for local products and crafts of all kinds. Truffles and berries and even honey made sense. But jewellery, wines, breads, garlic, and even salami less so. Although some of the salamis and other charcuterie came from the region's wild boars, woodland creatures at least.
Really though, the festival seemed an excuse to party.
Parked cars circled the town's walls and filled every lot below the town into the late evening. Wine and beer sampling pop-up booths were everywhere. Bands appeared at different corners throughout the days and evenings of the festival. And as children ran around me on the streets, I could see their excitement at the puppet shows and at the carny style games set up in one of the squares. I watched as children and their parents took the art of lifting as many plastic swans as they could with a hook to win large teddy bears with an intense seriousness. One afternoon, a dancing school instructor appeared in a square to teach locals how to swing dance. Young and old bounced to old American hits with no self-consciousness.
The whole town became a canvas for food, fun, crafts and the arts. In one church, an artist displayed watercolors in muted tones that resonated with the faded frescos on the wall. In another, an experimental artist explained his technique of leaving his paintings in a river for up to a year to make nature his co-artist. Later, I'd join a group on a Saturday morning hike to the nearby Carpina Valley to learn about the geology of the valley and see an installation of the artist's paintings set in the running water of the river.
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