We circled out of the last narrow valley and climbed upwards, and San Valentino in Abruzzo Citeriore appeared before us like a silent beacon on the hillside. From the tangle of low boxy dwellings the twin pointed towers of the church rose like a flower, and our narrow mountain road wound ever closer up the narrow hillside. We reached town by dusk, and felt glad to be home. Every travel guidebook on earth leads you from one major destination to the next, leaving mystery on all sides in the broad neverlands between highlights. These wide patches of mystery are home to our most intriguing neighbors, living their lives outside the glare of the tourist spotlight. San Valentino was such a place, and it was marvelous.
The narrow, stone streets echoed our footsteps back at us through the early winter air redolent of wood fires and hearty mountain cooking. From the piazza we could easily make out the broad Abruzzo coastline on the horizon, but it was far away physically and emotionally; rather, the sharp mountain ridges of the Appennines set the village's tone, including for its purity. Throughout town were fountains from which crystalline, cold mountain water poured into troughs. It was so plentiful until recently the locals used it to cool the wine.
We were traveling as guests of good friends whose family made up what seemed like the bulk of San Valentino's 2000 inhabitants. We couldn't walk a whole block without someone coming out of a shop or home to hug our friends, and before long the treated us like family as well. San Valentino doesn't have much in the way of tourist attractions, but that wasn't why we were there. Rather we were there to enjoy the hospitality and warm family of our friends, and it remains one of the best memories of our trip. We did, however, manage to catch one of Italy's more ribald festivals, the Festa dei Cornuti ("the festival of cuckolds"). Its origins have long been forgotten but the spirit has not: the whole town turned out for a parade led by a band in uniforms emblazoned with an unmistakable cock-and-balls and local men holding deer antlers or bull horns on wooden poles. At the end of the ceremony last year's most recently married man presented a symbolic wooden phallus to this year's chagrined most recently married man. The whole procession as well as the spectators laughed throughout the procession.
At one point, one of the marchers, carrying a set of horns on a stick, called out "hey Giancarlo," to a spectator at the side of his girlfriend. "Why aren't you out here with us? I put the horns on you myself!" No one believed him, but everyone got the joke, including Giancarlo's girlfriend, who shifted uncomfortably on her feet as Giancarlo launched into the procession to defend his honor.
I heard a similar anecdote about a gentleman leaving home to watch the parade. "Maria," he called out from under the window of his home, "should I put my hat on straight or slanted?"
"Straight," called back his wife, making clear he had not been cuckolded.
The man walked a few doors down the street and called back again, "Maria, are you sure? Straight or slanted?"
"Straight," came the reply again.
The man proceeded to the end of the block and asked a third time.
"Maybe you should put it on a little slanted," Maria called back, "just in case."
When I think back on San Valentino I won't remember the horns, but I will remember the outpouring of warmth and affection, the carefree way strangers took us into their homes and treated us like family, and the wonderful mountain cooking. For days on end we enjoyed a cornucopia of warm pasta, plump sausages, steaming bowls of soup, thick crusty bread with fresh olive oil, and dark, rich coffee served before blazing wood fires. Above us, the wood smoke rose up into a starry sky unchanged since the Middle Ages. As the church bells pealed in the early hours of the morning it was easy to believe over the past millennium nothing had ever changed.
San Valentino will remain off the tourist's map for some time to come, and maybe that's for the best. In the meantime, I enjoyed it more personally than many places that came well documented, and for all the reasons that make anywhere delightful: warm, spirited people, hearty, satisfying food, and a sense of simplicity that goes under-appreciated in the modern world. I won't be back soon to San Valentino, but I know what I will be looking forward to when I do.
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