2014 ITALY TOUR
This tour was to the beautiful hilltop town of Cortona in Tuscany where we stayed in the convent of Sta Margherita above the town with breath-taking views down the valley. It began with the usual coach journey to the airport. 46 choir members and 5 adult helpers (Jane, Sue, Simon, Eve and Rachel) accompanied Marion and Chris on the flight out. Fortunately we’d allowed enough spare time to cope with the having to load our own bags into the coach hold (many thanks to Simon for sorting this situation out!) and a 40 minute delay on the M25. With the bags checked there was time for a quick impromptu song in the terminal building before finding our own lunches. We regrouped to find one lost boarding card – but this was luckily found before the flight was called! We then enjoyed the luxury of a BA flight – free food and drinks were a bit of an upgrade from our previous tour experience with EasyJet.
We arrived in Pisa airport and were all allowed into the country once one choir member’s passport had been retrieved from the plane seat pocket where it had been carefully stored (and forgotten).
The transfer to Cortona took until 1:20 am but there was the surprise of spotting people still eating outside a restaurant even at this time of the morning. We were greeted at Sta Margherita by our advance guard of Michael & Louise Rosen and Nick & Jo Grout who had driven out with our bedding, sorted all the bedroom arrangements, made the beds and bought in provisions so that after a quick drink we were all able to crash out.
The next day started with a late breakfast, some free time and an all-important fire drill. Rita, our local organiser, had arranged delivery of our pack lunches in time for loading into the coach and heading for Siena. These were eaten under the shade of the trees outside the great Medicci Fortress walls by a sadly dry fountain. We just had to let the choir know that it looked beautiful in February during our recce trip! We then trouped into the Piazza del Campo wearing our distinctive tour T-shirts to find that preparations were underway for the famous Palio horse race. Plenty of ice creams were consumed and enjoyed and we all made it back to the coach even though our original meeting place ended up behind the police cordon that was clearing the square for a practice run of the palio! We then headed up into the beautiful Tuscan hills, along dusty white roads to our evening concert venue in the Chianti Sculpture Park. We performed in a modern, open air amphitheatre on a stage of Zimbabwean Granite and Italian Marble to a packed audience of locals and visitors (http://www.chiantisculpturepark.it/video2014.htm). An Israeli family particularly enjoyed Simi Yadech which was the second of our three encore pieces – they just kept wanting more but we had a tight schedule as we needed to be back in Cortona for a late dinner – three courses of Pasta followed by pork and potatoes and fruit.
Wednesday was a fun-filled day – we sourced a selection of local Italian cuisine for a buffet lunch – including anchovies, octopus, olives, roast chicken, hams, cheeses, salad, fruit and breads etc ….
We then headed to Pienza – a hilltop town on the other side of the valley- passing fields of sunflowers (to Marion’s delight) and vines. When we arrived in St Francesco church for our rehearsal one local told us the building we were in was not St Francescos! Further enquiries established the first local was wrong!! Afterwards we explored the walled town with its stunning views – ate more local delicacies before starting our concert rather like the pied piper. We sang outside to the milling tourists and then led them in for the remainder of the concert. The acoustics were amazing and being an afternoon concert we had a rather unusual evolving audience – some stayed throughout while all others dipped in and out. The concert included Rachel’s viola solos and was well received – bringing many compliments afterwards. One visitor handed us a concert programme with a note saying how much she’d enjoyed it – especially the dynamics that had given her goose bumps.
After dinner back at the Sta Margherita we headed down into town to advertise our concerts later in the week with some singing and leaflet distribution as Rita had organised police permission. As the European folk music and dance festival was taking place in town and we were soon wrapped up in an impromptu dance and singing exchange with a Slovenian group – it was many peoples highlight of the tour!
On Thursday we visited Assisi with its fantastic basilica dedicated to St Francis. Unfortunately, we hadn’t bargained for the torrential rain that wiped out our planned picnic in the gardens of StaMaria with its views of the town. However, the rain stopped by the time we reached the coach park and we were able to explore the town, sing in the square outside the Minervan temple and carry out more quality control on Italian gelatos. We arrived back in Cortona to bright sunshine and no sign of any rain – but at least we had no sunburn.
In the evening we gave a short private concert to our marvellous hosts and then had a choir talent competition with entries varying from a piano solo to muppet show sketches, S-club tribute acts, singing and a very short ballet demonstration!
Friday the 15th August is the major festival day in Cortona and we were invited to sing in the Sta Maria Duomo’s service in the morning which was a fascinating experience. Dressed in their new event polo shirts the choir were then given money and allowed to find their own lunch within Cortona – some negotiated a discount for a song, while others preferred the takeaway option on the steps of the town hall!
After dinner we walked back into town for our second event of the day – a concert in the church of St Dominico. The priest requested we started straight after their evening service so we sat patiently outside in the sacristy until our cue then had to perform some unaccompanied songs while the piano was set up in a rush! The audience was great and the massive acoustics again were conducive to some lovely singing and viola solos.
After the concert the municipal park was holding the “festival of the steak” with famous 500g chianti beef T-bone steaks being cooked on an enormous BBQ by chefs holding 4ft long tridents. We were allowed in to experience the festive atmosphere for free and try some very strange looking sweets.
On Saturday we went on a boat trip on Lake Trasimeno – armed with a pack lunch that we ate in the olive groves on Isola Maggorio. We entertained the captive audience on the boat with a flash mob performance of “with a little help from my friends” – they must have liked it was they asked for more and clapped along. Even though we had the disappointment of not being able to swim in the lake due to water quality advice from the islanders we had a great trip.
We returned to Cortona for our final concert as part of an event organised by Rita to raise funds for the local museum. Although the audience was small it was appreciative as we battled with strengthening, cool northerly winds – it turns out our new formal dresses were not really designed for these conditions that were so dramatically different from all our other evenings.
On our final day we headed back to Pisa and visited the Leaning Tower and a local pizza restaurant that did a great meal – producing our pre-ordered food in record time so that we had plenty of time to explore the local shops and stalls before heading to the airport.
We finally arrived back in Romsey at 3:30am tired but united having had a great tour experience. We are indebted to the financial support of the Romsey Mayor’s community fund and the Romsey Rotary in supporting this trip and the acquisition of our new formal uniform that saw its first use in Italy.