In May 2017 a large group of 46 people from three choirs left a very wet and misty United Kingdom behind them to go on tour singing in Tuscany.
Flying from Manchester across the channel travelling south east over France and then the stunning Swiss Alps before circling out over the sea to land at Pisa around lunchtime.
The first thing that hits you when you get off the plane is the heat. With temperatures around 30 degrees, compared to the 15 degrees back home, this would take a little getting used to.
Our guide Claudia, who would look after us for the week, directed us to the coach for the short journey inland to Montecatini. The Italian roads are quieter and smaller than here in the UK with their motorways being only two lanes wide on each side. The journey afforded us some amazing views of the countryside although it was difficult to spot the Leaning Tower of Pisa in the distance.
Our hotel in Montecatini was comfortable and we made good use of the pool as the temperatures during the week sored. On our first afternoon, we had a brief practice in the hotel lobby before going off to explore the town and find somewhere to eat. With everything in walking distance of the hotel we relaxed and visited the town centre and the Basilica where we would be singing the next evening.
Day two of the tour started bright and early with an excursion to Florence. This beautiful and amazing city was once the capital of Tuscany. For our trip, our guide would walk us from the coach station drop off point to the main square of the Santa Maria Cathedral; the sheer scale and beauty of which takes your breath away. Various groups split off to explore the museums and markets and many crossed the Ponte Vecchio bridge with its jewel shops.
An amazing hidden corridor the size of a road traverses above our heads as we walk from the kings Royal Palace Vecchio down through the Piazzale degli Uffizi and turns right along the river and over the Ponte Vecchio bridge to the Pitti palace with the queen’s royal gardens. The road way was wide enough for a horse and carriage to take the Medici from one palace to the other without the risk of being assassinated.
Walking round Florence in temperature of 33 degrees that day was lovely but exhausting and we certainly needed to keep buying lots of water to cool down. Later we regrouped with our guide to return by coach to Montecatini.
That evening we sang on tour for the first time in the impressive Basilca Di Santa Maria Assunta in the centre of Montecatini. The show went well and it was an incredible experience to be singing in such an impressive church. You had the feeling that you were going to wake up at any moment and find it was all a dream and normal life had been restored.
Singing here was hard work because of the heat and the large echo from the cavernous structure. The audience were very appreciative and we left celebrating and feeling exhilarated as we returned to the hotel.
On Day 3 we departed for the very small but pretty town of San Gimignano (the city of beautiful towers). Nestled in amongst the vineyards this medieval town is like no other perched on the top of the hills and not very accessible by coach with all our gear and instruments. We had plenty of time to explore the narrow streets and lovely restaurants. A few of us even visited the local torture museum which was interesting but somewhat grizzly. The more energetic members made it to the top of the tower to take some stunning photos.
We were pressed for time in San Gimignano as the time of our concert had been brought forward to accommodate a wedding in the church that afternoon. Still we packed a fair number of visitors into the church and improved on our first evenings performance. One thing they don’t tell you about these concert venues is that they usually have an open-door policy so that people come and go as they please. This is very different from the UK, however, more people kept coming in rather than going out.
We dashed back to the coach for the journey back to hotel in Montecatini for a well earned refreshing swim in the cool outdoor pool before heading out for dinner. That evening most of us had planned to take the Funicular railway up the mountain to Monticatini Alto. This is the very beautiful old town with winding streets leading to a massive plaza full of open air restaurants. A great evening was had by all sampling some great Italian food and we left that evening feeling like we had experienced a true taste of Tuscany.
Day 4 was a little more relaxed and less of a rush. We had time to enjoy the pool and go out into the town to enjoy the local markets and buy gifts for friends back home. We asked the hotel manager what time the market opened and although he said around 10am – mornings can be an entirely optional affair in small Tuscan towns depending how hot it gets.
After a light lunch we took the coach to explore Lucca for a few hours. Lucca, the birth place of Puccini, is a busy complex walled town with small tight streets spiralling out from plaza’s full of cafés and cathedrals in the centre. The streets are meant to be pedestrianised however the local bike, cars, and vans delivering things have to compete with you and space is so tight you quickly need to dive into a shop doorway as the vehicles pass.
Puccini, renowned as one of Italy’s greatest opera composers, was born in Lucca in 1858 and a statue marks his birth place which is now a museum which many of us visited whilst here. Some of Puccini’s well known works are La bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly.
The heat in Lucca that day was reaching 34 degrees and thankfully there are many refreshing gelato parlours (ice-cream) and open-air cafes. You find the cafes and Gelato vendors all have large umbrellas to provide shade with cool water mist sprayers attached. So as you sit there the light spray cools and evaporates into the air around you – very ingenious.
After Lucca we were whisked away on our coach to Pescia, a small town between Lucca and Montecatini. We were greeted with a warm welcome by the pastor of the church we would be singing at called Chiesa de Santo Stefano. However, before that it had been arranged for us to have a lovely group meal at nice restaurant close by. The food and drink was amazing and we were well rested before our performance that night around 9pm.
We were surprised to learn that our concert that night would be attended by the Reverend Father Roberto Filippini, the bishop of the Diocese of Pescia, and that he would be bringing the reverend mother from the local convent. With such esteemed guests the pressure was upon us to deliver a superb performance which we did in front of a packed audience in the beautiful church. The applause went on for a very long time before each choir was presented with a large certificate showing the history of this special town.
On a high note after such praise we were all ushered back into the restaurant next door to continue celebrating with the pastor of the church and a few guests. We were all served with a lovely pudding for supper while the Champagne flowed freely. The Tuscan people were so welcoming and friendly all week. It really is a very special place.
Following a successful tour we reluctantly returned to Pisa airport to fly home to Blighty the following morning. The trip has given all those who attended a wealth of beautiful memories and we can’t wait until we embark on our next big adventure. Many thanks go to Dan, Hillary and many others for organising a trip of a life time.