If nothing else, I was keeping Melba moving for the last days of her visit. We worked night and day preparing for the Infiorata, and then left immediately for Florence, the Cinque Terre, and then Cuneo, where we visited her relatives. Next came the train trip to the Arezzo Antiques Fair through the fields of sunflowers, still keeping up the pace.
On the Sunday following the Infiorata, Leonardo and Paola invited us to join them for a drive to the Piano Grande, which I had never seen before that day. We drove through the Apennines toward Norcia, and then dropped down into the vast basin of the Piano Grande (“big plain”), surrounded by the Sibillini Range and a part of a large national park. I have been asked repeatedly, as a photographer, if I have ever visited the Piano Grande, and never knew why the question kept coming up over and over. One look at the immense and flat valley, and I understood.
Famous for the ever-changing colors of wildflowers that are cultivated in the valley, we were “too late to the party.” Many types of wildflowers were still evident, but photos show that, in early summer, the valley floor is striped with vast fields of flowers, and each color is replaced as it fades with the next flower to bloom. (Here’s a link, to see for yourself why this basin is so famous in central Italy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZNnrnXwHZJ4.)
Leonardo drove us through the valley to an area with a few parked cars (probably a fraction of the traffic that appears at peak blooming season), and we were off on foot to explore and photograph the scenery and the last of the wildflowers. Across the valley, Paola pointed out a cluster of pines on the side of one of the nearby hills, planted in the shape of a map of Italy, Sardegna and Sicily. We began to walk across the fields toward “Italy,” with many types of flowers mixed in the grasses along our way.
Castelluccio di Norcia is a small village located on the top of one of the smaller hills, at the far end of the valley. Often, this is called the “Piano Grande di Castelluccio,” for the village here. Since there is no admission paid to see this spectacle of flowers, I suppose the tourists who come to see and photograph, hike and ride horseback through this area provide income for the village residents. I can only imagine the view from their village down onto the blocks of color below when the flowers are at their peak.
As we got closer to the “Italy” pines, we came upon a field of fiordalisi, one of the wildflowers we had collected two weeks before near Colfiorito, in the wheat fields. Although we were assured that the peak had passed, there were still enough blue flowers (“cornflowers,” to us) to make a swath of blue as a foreground for the little village above us. A few red poppies dotted the blue, and we could see stripes of red poppies in the distance, closer to the village.
Turning toward the valley, only a few other people were there, wandering through a concentration of red poppies, with yellow buttercups flanking the stripe of red. It was not difficult to turn in any direction and photograph more flowers. As we climbed up one of the side hills, we could see both the blooms flanking the hills and the obvious cultivation zones below. I had a difficult time convincing Paola that, although they WERE “wildflowers,” they were obviously planted (in rows, as we walked through them) in huge fields, with perfectly square edges. I cannot help but wonder who does this work each year, when this stunning landscape is open for all to see and visit without paying an admission fee. The national park, perhaps? The blue fiordalisi were fading to green grasses, but the rectangles of varied colors were still visible from the hillside.
As we began to turn the car to leave, a pair of shepherds arrived with their flock and sheepdogs. People (including Melba and me) appeared with cameras, and photographed them as the dogs moved the herd along, on the commands of the shepherds. Later, as we stopped the car near a watering trough for Leonardo to take a phone call, one of the herding dogs arrived for a drink from the fountain, and we met one of the shepherds who was following the dog back to the small trailers where the shepherds and dogs live among the sheep.
For me, and for Melba, it hardly mattered that we had missed the peak of the blooming season for the Piano Grande. It is a beautiful landscape, surrounded by rolling hills and dotted with a tiny medieval stone village, and the weather was perfect for all of us. The sheep, the dogs and the shepherd who spoke to Leonardo added to our trip, and we saw more flowers than we had seen in our many trips to pick for the Infiorata. On my “bucket list,” now is a trip to catch the Piano Grande on a perfect early summer day, when the entire valley is covered in solid patches of blossoms from end to end. As beautiful as our day was there, I’d love to see what a real riot of blossoms would look like in this beautiful setting!