Winning over Italy

A "heel to toe" look at Italy by C.C. Winning

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Glendaruel (Gaelic; Gleann Dà Ruadhail)
The river flowed red with the blood of the Norse invaders who were defeated there over a thousand years ago.

Moving to a new country brings wonder, delight and inspiration, but it can also refresh memories of home. This is a song about a small, fertile (i.e. often wet) Scottish glen with a glorious past which has inspired a few pipers in its time. Now, sadly, it’s almost abandoned but its secrets and ghosts still drift through the twilight mist….the salmon still come home to the tumbling, whisky-coloured waters.
Please listen to the song and, if you like it, share with your friends. By the way that’s me with the red guitar. Thank you.
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Bop Till You Drop!

ImageOne of the few things I’ve missed is a good 6-Nations Saturday.  The ritual of starting the day with a big breakfast before heading for a fire-warmed pub to review the rugby pages with a few mates till the first game of the afternoon begins…..with a Guinness or two.

Instead I had to make do.  The chores were done and the afternoon set aside to watch Scotland v Italy, glass of red wine and a little cheese for company as we (me and the cheese) huddled round the little gas heater in front of the T.V. 

3.30pm and I rubbed my hands as much against the cold as the prospect of a long awaited Scottish victory.  The teams trotted out and lined up for the anthems, the first lungful of bagpipe lifting the hairs on the back of my neck.  I felt suddenly homesick.

Shrill ring of phone interrupts

“Who can that be?  Do I answer?”  Sighing as I turn down the volume, I pick up the handset.  “Pronto”.

“Hi Charles, It’s Sergio.” (master instrument maker from Scilla)

“Sergio, what’s up?” 

“Are you still selling your bass amp?”

“Well, yes, I haven’t got round to putting it on the internet, why?”

“I’ve got a client here in the workshop who might be interested, do you mind if I give him your number?”

“No, not at all..go for it.”

I put the phone down rather abruptly as out of the corner of my eye I had just seen a rare Scottish score.  Maybe this was good karma.  I tensed again (you can never relax watching Scotland).  Ten minutes later I was beginning to warm up as much as the game when…..Shrill ring of phone interrupts.

I sigh again.  The number on the display is not allocated to anyone I know.  Do I ignore or not?  I mean, I can always call back later.  I gave in and answered.  “Pronto.”

“Excuse me but my name is Pasquale, Sergio in Scilla gave me your number.  Can you talk?”

I really didn’t want to as the crowd were going mad in Edinburgh and I so wanted to join them.

“Yea, what can I do for you Pasquale?”

“You have a bass amp for sale, is there a possibility I can have a look at it?” 

“Yes, of course, when were you thinking?”

“Well, now if that’s possible.  We’re already in Pellaro.”

My jaw dropped.   I screwed up my face in angst as I found myself suddenly confronted by the worst possible dilemma for a Scot.  On one hand a very real chance of a very rare rugby victory, on the other…!  The words ‘iron’ and ‘hot’ sprang to mind as I pondered.

“Hello, hello?” said the voice on the phone….”Are you still there?”

I came back to my senses and responded reluctantly, yea sure he could view the amp.  After all how long would it take and I would probably catch all of the second half.

Pellaro is a small place so it was hardly surprising when a few minutes later I was dragging myself to answer a knock on the front door.  What was surprising however, was the very large grey moustache that was waiting on the other side of the threshold.  I stepped aside as it manoeuvred its way slowly into the living room.  I was staring at the shiny dome of a bald topped head with what looked like a curtain of long hair that had slipped down a few inches from its proper position.   So surprised was I, that I very nearly shut the door in the faces of the three very elderly-looking gentlemen that had just struggled up the stairs and were now catching their collective breath on the balcony.

“Er, come in.”  I beckoned, half looking over their shoulders for a line of waiting zimmer frames.  The rugby was still very much on my mind and my composure was being sorely tested by the roar of the crowd at Murrayfield stadium.

“Well this is it.” I said indicating the amp in the corner.  After untying themselves from a variety of sound cables and managing to hang my bass guitar over Pasquale’s creaking neck….they plugged in.  The room shook for a few minutes while he pounded the strings, things started shaking on the table and my father-in-law was woken from his siesta in the house below.  Pasquale stopped.  “Does it go any louder?”

“Louder!”  Yes, of course but….”  I was tempted to check if he’d switched his hearing aid on. 

“Well what do think?”  I said getting a little impatient.

“Would you mind if we tried it out with the band?”  Band! I thought.  I’d imagined this was to be a gift for some lucky grandchild, not a band with an average age of eighty.

With some reluctance I gave up on the idea of seeing out the rugby and helped them lug the gear down to a row of waiting cars and followed them to their rehearsal room which they told me was just down the road in Lazzaro.  When we arrived at the agreed meeting point (The Hunter’s Cafe) I got out and looked around.  I could see nothing that resembled a practice studio.

“This way” said the ‘boys’.

We staggered (literally) down a few steps towards the beach and turned towards a large steel door that had been hidden from the road.  As we carried the amp into the room I couldn’t believe my eyes.  This was huge!  Charlie Watt’s uncle was setting up a drum kit to one side and a little head was bobbing around behind a bank of keyboards whilst a middle aged woman prepared coffee and Limoncello (was this the groupie?).  The Four Tops put the amp into position in the heart of the great room and argued about what cable should go where.  I looked around in awe.  I was in an Aladin’s Cave of  classic instruments and hi-tech performance.  Beside the large EV speakers and digital mixing consol lay an array of collector guitars and original amps.  A ’61 Telecaster, a ’67  Strat, a worn left-hand Les Paul (that was strangely played right-handed later) and a bank of amps that would provide collateral on any new Hard Rock Cafe enterprise.  It dawned on me that these were the guitars and amps they’d bought when they were in their early teens.  For them it was just their ‘axes’…..for me it was a very expensive museum of the most desirable instruments I’d ever seen in one place.

All thought of the rugby had evaporated…..I had been transported into another age.  Only problem was, I couldn’t work out if it was the future or the past. 

When they counted 1,2,3, 4….there were at least 9 musicians hitting the beat.  Santana. Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, Albert King, Garry Moore……They rocked!!!  I couldn’t believe my eyes, nor my ears.  The lead guitarist, whose hands had been shaking Parkinson’s style minutes before, had become one with the fret-board, the drummer had gone from unsteady to rock-steady and even the singer who looked as if he was hanging onto the mic stand, more as a means of support, was managing to do a mean version of Ian Gillan….even if his glasses kept slipping off his nose during the chorus.

The rehearsal finished about 7.00pm and I’d even forgotten why I was there.  It wasn’t till one of the roadies asked me to help carry the meat for the traditional BBQ-after-practice that I thought to ask if Pasquale liked the amp enough to part with some dough.  “Great he said.  Would I mind taking the money in instalments?”  By this time it seemed churlish to refuse.  They had been getting me cunningly drunk with local wine and great music. 

I had to decline the tempting food as I had to go and collect Maria from Reggio but I took up their offer of going back any weekend…..sing for your supper they say.  I have since been back and had enormous fun jamming with these guys and I’ve learnt a great truth…..

Here’s the thing.  When you put an instrument round your neck and step up to the microphone, the years just roll away and you’re young again.  The secret of long life is bop till you drop!


Live From Vieste

The early morning sun is already hot, dazzling the soft ripples of the Adriatic.  We sit admiring the carved strata of the cliffs that rise from the sea up to the ancient town of Vieste above us.  Two traditional stilt fishing platforms (trabucchi) act like sun-bleached sentinels, guarding each side of our private lagoon on the Gargano coast.

I’m writing from a sun-bed by the hotel swimming pool, set near the foot of the rock-face, overlooking a scene of turquoise tranquillity.  The pool can be reached by the many steep steps that twist and climb up to Hotel Seggio, our spur of the moment stop-over….however we chose to reach it by the conveniently placed lift in the lobby, it’s a holiday after all.  We’re on a mini tour of the south that has taken us away from Calabria through Basilicata, Napoli, Abruzzo and now Puglia.

We’d only intended to stay one night in Vieste but the romance of the lantern-lit alleyways and the slew of late-night restaurants and tavernas seduced us into extending our visit another day.  It also seemed a little rude not to enjoy a poolside ‘bibite’ when the hotel had been so thoughtful in supplying the facility in the first place.

This is the joy that an unorganised, even disorganised, road trip brings….No plans to break, no bookings to cancel.  Early September is still pleasantly hot but the majority of holiday makers have gone, the botigas and museums are still open but without the chaos of Ferragosto.  There is probably no better time to enjoy the ‘spur’ of the Italian boot, the peninsula of Gargano with its historic towns, national park and sublime sandy beaches.  The long and winding coast road lies ahead, the secrets of Puglia await….but they’ll keep until tomorrow.

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Today I arrived!  Today I made a decsion.  I got to the beach for the first time this summer at 8.00am.  The water is so clear, clear enough to drink and so calm!  The heat (at 8.00am) is about 27°.  From today and for the next two months I am going to get up early and go for a swim….I am going to feel healthy.  For the last two months it’s all been about promises, promises.  The work is nearly finished, so now it’s time to watch the ketch sail up the Straits, the children absorb the pleasure of the cool water and play their games.  Next week Maria and I start to enjoy our first true holiday…Naples, Pompei, Abruzzo, Bari and the coast roads back to Calabria…

Only last night we were on the beach at midnight.  The band started up. I was standing on the beach, the full moon above me, the waves lapping luxuriously on the sand and surrounded by beautiful women in bikinis!  The singer in the band was kind enough to intoduce me ” I cannot understand why this man has left London to come and live in Calabria” She said!

If only you knew!!!

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How To Find Out What’s On In Calabria

Saturday and there’s something in the air, Reggio is waking up again.  I took Maria into work a little earlier than usual so we could check out a table and a chair or two for the balcony (yes, the same one I fell off  and broke my neck before Christmas).  There wasn’t much to see so we found ourselves on Reggio Calabria’s Lungomare (the promenade) with a little time to kill.

“Mmm that’s interesting.” I said, pointing out into the Straits.  “They’re laying marker buoys for something.  Must be a little sailing race about to happen.”

“You don’t read much do you.”  Maria responded.

“What do you mean?”

“It’s the Windsurfing World Cup this weekend.  Haven’t you seen the hoardings all round the city?”  You know, it never occurred to me till now how little you take in of posters in a foreign language, even huge ones.  It’s as if they can’t really be important unless they’re in your own.

“Yea but…….”

“And when was the last time you read an Italian newspaper?” Maria continued.  “And what about the fact that the Via Marina is closed to traffic at the far end, with exhibition marquees and big signs saying ‘Windsurfing World Cup’  A clue perhaps!”

“But I never drive up that end of the town.” I pleaded in my defence.  “What you’re saying is that unless there’s a road block you wouldn’t know something was happening.”

“O.K. I suppose it’s true to a point.”  She confessed.

“In fact when you think about it, how did we ever get to discover about all the great music gigs we’ve been to see….word of mouth or a traffic queue.”

If I’d known just how amazing Calabria is for music, especially in July and August, I would have had my rucksack on my back years ago.  Two whole months of great festival camping.  From world-music folk festivals to blues weekends and jazz jamborees, every little town by the sea or in the mountains has something going on.  Big names too…. From The States, Africa, Europe and up the road in Milan they come.  In one evening you can drive up to Gambarie, a little ski resort in the forested mountains, and help fill the town square with a thousand others to watch Bandabardò and then drive back down to the city to watch another act, courtesy of the RTL road show.  Over the last few years Italy’s main ‘rock’ station has decamped to Reggio and broadcast everyone from Edoardo Bennato to Van Morrison.  All this and I mean ALL…..FOR FLAMIN’ FREE!!!   Not a penny to spend, except the odd Euro for a cold beer and a sausage Panini.  You couldn’t find a better area or better weather to dance along the shoreline or boogie till dawn.

The most amazing part is that nobody seems to know anything about it..well until about an hour after the sound-check or just before the stage lights up.  “Calabria’s so boring” say my teenage students, “There’s nothing to do.”  They’re so wrong but I can understand their problem.  Calabria doesn’t exactly shout from the rooftops when it comes to marketing.  Coordination is not its strongest point either.  It’s as if each village tries to outdo the others on the concert stakes by cunningly disguising the fact that they’re putting on a show at all…..until that is, someone like Lorenzo passes the word.  “Psst. Wanna see a cool gig tonight?”  I confess that the impromptu nature of gig-going adds something special to the experience.  There’s no time to think about whether it’s your scene or not and certainly no need to queue for tickets.  So how come it’s all free?  It would seem that the local councils pay for it all and I suspect top dollar too.  A musician friend of mine recently confided that he’d managed to obtain quite a substantial fee to put his band on stage with a well-known tribute band from Rome, to celebrate next year’s 50 years of the Rolling Stones (including film, lighting, sound crews etc.) all courtesy of the city coffers.  You certainly can’t accuse the Italian authorities of skimping when it comes to putting on a show for the culture vulture.  I just hope the Euro crisis doesn’t put too much of a damper on things.  For me it is particularly refreshing to see musicians and performers actually getting paid, even at the smokier winter clubs and venues, rather than relying on their own facebook-based promotional abilities and the honesty of the money-taker at the door.  Even at these gigs the punter rarely has to pay, except for the beer perhaps.  Of course if you feel you must, you can grab the ferry to Sicily and catch Santana or Lou Reed play at Taormina’s ancient Greek amphitheatre under a star-studded sky.  But again, you often don’t find out there’s something on until the tickets are all gone.  I’m sure there are plenty of musicians out there who won’t agree with me – work can be thin on the winter ground for some of the local musos when the competition is so fierce – but this is just another indication of the amount of exceptional talent that exists in these parts.

So, I kissed Maria goodbye and wandered along the promenade towards the lido area at the far end of the bay, clutching my camera.  “Windsurfing World Cup eh?”  I thought.  “Hope the breeze picks up a little.  Make a mental note to self… time there’s a road blocked off, go down it and see what’s on!”