Here we are on an even year so that meant choir trip again! This year we returned to Italy, to Calabria, where the choir director's wife P comes from. She'd arranged a marvel of a trip that left us all breathless with the pace of everything but certainly having seen as wide a variety of landscape as can be achieved in just 7 days.
We flew to Bologna and then to Lamezia Terme, then by bus to our hotel, a network of holiday apartments situated on a cliff facing the sea and Stromboli's menacing silhouette on the horizon. To get to the beach, we sauntered down a path trimmed with geraniums and exotic, unrecognizable plants where lizards skittered underneath, then through a lemon grove to the lovely white sand beach. It was a properly European beach so our hotel had its own squadron of parasols and beach chairs, all striped the same and blazoned with its name. Certainly civilized. Of course everyone went crazy absorbing sun, taking lemons from the grove, floating in the aquamarine water, and relishing the delicious simple wines.
Calabria is a wonder of cultivation, and P had selected restaurants and trips that ensured we'd see the maximum marvels of the area. The area where we were was chock full of fields growing the famous red onions, tomatoes, olives, lemons, hot peppers, grapes. Hedges of rosemary bloomed everywhere, and the roadsides were choked with mint. The many dinners we had together took well advantage of this, serving up local seafood flavored with all the abundant vegetables and herbs. One place we went to, called Agriturismo Villani, served only food that had been grown and prepared in the immediate region- fresh sheep cheeses, hams of all sorts, glorious firm eggplants roasted and drizzled in olive oil, zucchini blossoms & frittatas. Served with a view of the sea or in an ancient courtyard ringed with flowering hedges, it was an unforgettable experience.
Between all the eating we held three concerts, each in a different sort of church with its own acoustics. In Tropea, a tiny seaside village, the mayor of the town attended and we were filmed for the local news as we sang in their "cathedral" (stop imagining Notre Dame and downscale a lot). In Lamezia Terme we sang in the lemon-colored Rococo church where P and the director had gotten married, and the audience was full of P's relatives. In Gerace, a medieval city perched on a hill, we sang in a church built by the Normans nearly a thousand years ago. The building, the largest religious building in Calabria, threw our song up into the rafters so that it was as loud in the back as it was next to us, but we could barely hear the person next to us singing. We sang on the ferry from Sicily, we sang in the peaceful church amid the pines at Certosa, a monastary high in the hills. We sang in the mass at Lamezia Terme on the day of a festival where the street had been converted into a market selling pistachio cookies, slices of coconut, nuts & candied fruits, and all sorts of other baubles.
This part of Italy is definitely not easy to get to or to explore, especially the way we were doing it. We had several bus mishaps due to the twisted hairpin roads that interlace the spine of this part of the country, and other than two disgruntled women from New Orleans, I met not a single other American. The beach where we were was mostly filled with Italian holiday-goers except for one Russian family, and it was pretty clear that almost everywhere we went it was not a place that tourists tended to visit. The only exception was Taormina, a village in Sicily that's been frequented by famous foreigners for some time now. After having been traipsing the streets of Lamezia Terme, it was a bit odd to be in a place where there were signs in German and people could speak a few words of English. That's where I skipped out on the museum and wandered down the narrow streets until I found the public garden, a marvel of follies and topiary hedges where Italian kids piled upon each other in giggling heaps, and the view of Etna and the curving coastline was framed by cedar trees and a fluorescent bougainvillea hedge in full bloom.
Unlike the first trip to Italy where I was lost and lonely in the language, and where I didn't have the proper summer travel clothes, I could speak and understand enough to actually grasp what was going on. It also helped to have light summer dresses and sandals that can handle the cobblestones and narrow streets. On our last day in Bologna I remembered the afternoon 4 years ago when I'd been alone and sweltering in Bologna, not sure what to do except wait for the bus to the airport. This time I lunched with a delightful group of people (oh, such pizza!), explored with enthusiasm, and absorbed the vibrancy of the city with happiness before one last ice cream and then back to the airport. Overall it was one of the most memorable choir trips ever. I returned slightly more brown, with a suitcase full of lemons and delicious jams and liqueurs, my Icelandic markedly better, and having shared an incredible experience with an extremely varied group. That's what travel should be about.