First there was Mass, and then a little desultory singing of hymns. Then came the motorbikes, the dogfights and the heavy petting. The Holy Feast of the Assumption has begun - and it's no wonder that the priest is looking worried
The weather in the mountains grew steadily hotter into the middle of August. Thunder rumbled on the ridges behind the village, but no rain fell. We were too high up for mosquitoes, but from first light swarms of flies buzzed, settling lightly on our faces, making sleep impossible. Blasts of wind out of nowhere rattled the shutters and died away. It was, they said in the village, the build-up to the breaking of the weather on the Feast of the Assumption, Italy's biggest holiday.

The crowds in the village had increased over the six weeks we had been there. No foreigners, only Italians back from Toronto. In Canada, an alternative Abruzzo existed. Such was the binding power of the mountain communities that the displaced villagers only married among each other. Every second or third year they came home and the intervening years were spent saving for the next visit. Those who had returned this year were already counting the days left to them.

Then there were the old women who had come home for good. Their husbands had died, they were in perpetual mourning. Through the hot weeks of summer, they sat in silence at the well in the middle of the square. They were toothless, white-haired, shapeless as sacks under black everyday dresses. They seemed to have outlived themselves, to be looking back from beyond the grave. They had fulfilled their role in a patriarchal society. It would be a while before we realised that the self-effacement of these mother-figures exacted a high price from the males they had fostered. We were living in a feminised society.

As the heat and crowds increased, so did the noise. Situated as we were across the road from the bar, we got the worst of it. At least the others who got tired could stagger away to the quiet of their own houses at the other end of the village. Our night's sleep was reduced to a couple of hours between closing and opening times. We came to appreciate at first hand the absence of an upper limit to pure noise.

To add to the confusion, our Teramo priest moved into one room in the house for August, to give the church a presence in village affairs in those weeks, to instruct the children in catechism for their Communion later in the year, and to take his youth group climbing in the mountains. Summer was when the younger priests did their stint in the mountains. They were quickly brought face to face with their own declining influence. Our priest made it his business to be involved locally, but there was a reserve towards him always.

"They're hostile," he said, "because they've lost their ecclesiastical culture. It's different in the sheep villages further north." Although he needed only a couple of hours" sleep a night, he too suffered from the noise, especially on our account, as our reason for coming here in the first place had been a search for silence. For a while, we toyed with the idea of leaving the mountains altogether, but he advised us to wait and see if it continued into September, and in the meantime offered us a room on the Adriatic coast for a week.

Everything climaxed in the middle of August. All the villages around us held festivals. Looking out at night, we followed the numerous car lights of drivers going from festival to festival, village to village, like stars gone astray in the black mass of the Appennines.

"Our festival is held in the name of the parish," the priest said ruefully, "yet look what it has become."

It was the wildness in the village that troubled him. A stage was being built opposite the church. Music pounded out, day and night, from a hastily assembled sound system. Pews from the church were carried into the square to serve as seating for the audience. What he had in mind was a little innocent merriment, patronised by the church. But as the villagers well knew, he didn't live there. He dropped in once a week to say Mass, and sped away again. He didn't know what the place was all about.

"We'll have to pickle the priest," a village woman said, "the way I pickle the tomatoes in my jars - to keep him in one place long enough to see what is going on here."

Lorries with stage equipment rolled into the village. North African traders set up stalls by the wall of the church. Motorcycle gangs roared up from Teramo for the day. The local boys, with their small noisy bikes, stood in awe of these mighty machines, the symbols of Italian machismo. The gangs vanished into the bar, to drink and play the slot machines. They were looking for trouble, although they found none in the village. We were to see them elsewhere in Italy, mostly when travelling in trains. Their stylistic energy, lostness and violence were to impress us again and again.

They were the ones Pasolini had written of in his Lutheran Letters - the so-called working class, stripped of its inherited culture, chasing a consumeristic dream beyond its means, and ripe for fascism. The tough little village boys, still innocents beside them, looked up to them as gods.

On the Feast of the Assumption, a larger than usual congregation attended Mass. Those home for the summer were making a gesture to their communal and religious past. For many, it was the only time in the year they would enter a church. In the bar we had seen a yellowed photograph from the Thirties. It showed mobs of poor but respectably dressed villagers waiting meekly outside the church for the procession to emerge. Now, their Americanised sons and daughters, wealthier than the church itself, had come back to patronise it. Through the service they came and went, in their gold chains and open-necked shirts, or strolled up the centre aisle during the Consecration to take flash photographs. They were looking at a world that awoke no resonance in them any more, other than curiosity and perhaps a certain nostalgia.

After the Mass, when the procession had moved off, the village turned its attention to the wooden stage again, the microphones, the sound system pounding out music. An old woman whose house adjoined the stage appeared on her balcony, put her fingers in her ears in a silent eloquent gesture, and went inside again.

The concert was held that evening. The performers, a folk group, a theatre group and a showband, drifted in from neighbouring villages during the day. The theatre group consisted of an extremely fat man, an extremely thin man and a young woman. They had with them the text of a Pirandello play. We heard them rehearsing it, in high histrionic voices, behind closed doors. The folk group, singing devotional songs, sat in with them and tuned their guitars. The technology on stage was for the showband, who arrived much later in a lorry, and kept to the bar.

As night fell, the theatre group went on. They were performing a farce with metaphysical overtones, about a corrupt judge and a man who is cheated. The extremely fat man banged his walking stick on the boards of the stage and shouted "Signor giudice!" every so often, while frantic costume changes went on behind an improvised white curtain. It seemed an interminable exercise, and after a few minutes' attention, the villagers got up from their seats and resumed their normal drift and conversation, as if a silent film were happening in the background. Boys on motorbikes roared through the square, dogs fought, teenagers heavy-petted beneath the stage. Above them, the actors persisted in their idealistic effort, explained to us earlier, to raise the level of consciousness in the downtrodden villages. An hour later the villagers noticed them again, just long enough to applaud them politely off the stage.

"They won't be coming back up here," the priest said darkly, "if I have anything to do with it."

He had slightly better luck with the singers who followed. At least it was music, and the sentiments of the songs - uplifting, religious - accorded with what he considered appropriate for occasions like this. They even made an attempt to get the villagers to join in the chorus of their final song. It was met, however, with dour, mountainy silence. It took the high technology and flash of the showband who came on next to dynamite them out of their apathy.

The band had been drinking. In their own good time they strolled across from the bar, plugged in and tuned up. All this took at least half an hour of the time they were being paid for. They had been on the mountain circuit for most of August already and were economising on energy. They had replicated the showbands on television who played behind the "personalities" - glitzy suits, Brylcreemed hair, a repertoire from the English charts of 20 years ago. As they started playing, a girl vocalist in fishnet tights leapt into the centre of the stage. It gave the impression, at last, that something was happening. The teenage boys in front of the stage faced each other down in mock bravado. The girls danced with each other in tight, smug little circles. The fattest boy in the village danced self-consciously with a girl.

Awed, the other boys pretended to ridicule them. Now and then the band slowed the tempo and older people waltzed stiffly around, with the odd foxtrot or tango thrown in.

For an hour, it broke the ice. Then, with a single encore, the band broke for cover and were gone. The crowd dispersed to the stalls selling meat on sticks, dispensing free wine. Gegeto helped the priest to put the pews back in the church. No one, not even the children, went to bed until the small hours.

The following day, the weather broke.

This is an extract from `On the Spine of Italy' by Harry Clifton, which has just been published by Macmillan at pounds 12.99 Harry Clifton 1999. To order your copy at the special price of pounds 9.99 inc P&P, please call 0181- 324 5700