Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Somerset Singers Sing their way into Italian Hearts

The Bridgwater Priverno link gets stronger with each visit

The thing about Community Choirs is they’re a great way to bring people together and break down cultural barriers.  Even better probably than the football trips we do where players of different nations kick seven shades of crap out of each other on the playing field or the rock tours where junior would-be-rock stars trash foreign bedrooms and each other.  So we’ve done two choir trips this month –one to the South of France and now this one to Italy – and, unless I missed it, no-one trashed anybody.

Yvette 'looking for talent'
The Voice of the People choir were formed in the Bridgwater Arts Centre a few years back by natural voice practitioner Yvette Staelens. Nowadays they come from all over Sedgemoor , West Somerset and Taunton Deane and every year they come somewhere interesting with Bridgwater International. A few years ago they visited Priverno in Italy only to find themselves singing on the steps of the town hall to a locked door and in a nearby town when no local choir turned up to meet them . Then last year the Mayor changed and suddenly the Bridgwater link has blossomed into overdrive.

Rome on a plane

It’s easy to get to Rome. You go to Bristol and take an aeroplane  and you’re there in a couple of hours. 47 of these singists flew out  and 46 landed (one arrived the day before). Meeting them by bus we took them the hour or so drive down the Lazio coast to the seaside town of Priverno and the welcoming luxury of the Hotel Oasa di Kufra in the town of Sabaudia. Good food, course after course of it, never ending unfinishable carafes of wine,charming Italian waiters and a beckoning sea just 10 metres from the hotel terrace and they were away.

The beach at Kufra
The autumn sun woke us up next morning, casual breakfast in the casual breakfast room with sunlight streaming in and drawing people magnet like to the beach. A lazy morning. So some of us walked into Sabaudia.

Fascism....Don't try this at home

The problem with Sabaudia is it’s a great place and you want people to appreciate that…but on the other hand it was built in 1934 as a Fascist New Town by Mussolini so you need to make sure people don’t get ‘too’ attached to the place. 

Sabaudia '1934's Fascist New Town of the year
“OO isn’t it lovely”,’no, that’s the former Fascist Party offices’…”Ahh, that’s a nice artistic display they’ve done there” ‘no, that’s pictures of Il Duce laying the first stone of the evil fascist empire!!’…”well, it’s lovely anyway”. Fascism is a bad thing, and on no accounts must you try it at home!!

Il Duce in Sabaudia
Luckily in the afternoon we were off to Priverno. Where the Mayor’s a communist. And there he was on the steps to welcome us, along with some other councillors. Since coming to power last year 34 year odl Mayor Angelo Delogu has taken the Bridgwater link to heart and has done everything he can to promote it. Here he was today hosting a concert in the Cathedral with a Priverno choir…who also played Madrigals.

Singing in the cathedral
The concert was the highlight of the trip. Of course. That’s why we were there. The Voice of the People people  enchanted their Italian hosts who joined in and sang along,  welcomed them in turn to some refreshments in the town hall and even came to see them at the Kufra for a final party the following night.

Priverno-welcomes carefull twinners
The wide variety of songs from all over the world echoed out  across Priverno amplified and elaborated by the perfect natural sound system that only a Cathedral can bring. We should get one in Bridgwater. Tape loop chants from the Equatorial rainforests mixed with choreographed Hawaiian hand and elbow routines that Busby Berkely would have been proud of. And of course the only National Anthem of the world that people actually like singing ‘kosi sikulele’ from South Africa. (ok I’ll concede la Marseillaise as well, but only because of the scene in Casablanca).
Mayor Angelo (our choir) and translator Susie

And then it was back to the beach hotel, the food, the wine, the beach, the midnight skinny dipping (although I did have to go half a mile down the coast) (to find some).

A day at the Cassino

Sunday was a special day trip to the nearby hilltop monastery of Monte Cassino. In world war 2 for 5 months, soldiers of many nations fought together to dislodge the Germans from this imposing peak and open the road to Rome to try to end the second world war or at least to liberate Italy. British, New Zealanders, Indians, French all tried to take the  summit. The Americans bombed the 5th century monastery to rubble, killing 250 civilians in the process (who were sheltering from the battle inside it)and almost hitting their own commander with over 1,500tonnes dropped including some near his tent.

Monte Cassino today and just after the battle
No one could take the hill until 18th May when the Poles did just that. Today the scene of their final battle near the summit is a spectacularly laid out cemetery with a museum to commemorate the Polish role in world war too.

Kufra sunset
So it was fitting that we visited the Monte Cassino Monastery, even though it was on top of the windiest road in the world with knuckle whitening hairpin bends every 3 minutes . On the plus side there was a live performance of a mass sung in Latin going on inside  and spectacular views across the Appenines and down the lire valley. So well worth it. And the Poles  had to make the trip whilst being shot at, so we probably owe it to them for that anyway.

Bella Ciao

Marco passes the audition to join 'Voice of the People'
The final evening was party time. We’d invited Damiano and his band from Anzio down to perform some Italian folk music for us. And what a treat. The hotel had laid out an unrivalable buffet, brought out even more wine that we couldn’t finish drinking and Mayor Angelo and our Priverno chums turned up to join in a fun filled finale of frolication.

The highlight for me was everyone singing the anti-nazi anthem of the Italian Partisans ‘Bella Ciao’, clenched fists at the ready.Although this was closely followed by the jaw dropping spectacle of Mayors partner Allesandro and Voice of the Person Claire  doing some kind of eastern dance using a table napkin as a pair of pants. International friendship was certainly on its way to being cemented that night.
a bit of a turn.....(well, I had one anyway)

Rome in a day, well, 4 hours

Cllr Smedley isn't having any of this 'Smile for the camera' nonsense
As the plane back to Bristol doesn’t leave until late afternoon we spent the morning in Rome. As they say “If you haven’t seen Rome, you haven’t been to Rome” (or something like that). But how to see it in 4 hours? That’s right, a route march at Cllr Smedley breakneck pace – past the colloseum, through the forum (‘that’s it over there’)  over the mad traffic mess that is piazza venezia, pop into the pantheon and then up the Trevi. 

Sadly the Trevi was closed for repairs. There weren’t 3 coins in this fountain just 3 dozen workers putting up scaffolding. That of course didn’t stop Yvette from trying to get the choir members (that hadn’t collapsed of heat stroke on the long march) to sing. One final version of ‘Moon River’ and even the Italian Police couldn’t bring themselves to arrest them.
Yvette has one last go at getting the choir arrested

The link with Priverno was taken an immense leap forward by this trip and looks well on course to becoming a full twinning in 2015. Thanks to Yvette and her choir for making that dream even closer!!!

Sunday, 19 October 2014

It's October, it's La Ciotat and it's still summer. Hura pour Le Jumelage!

Le reception committee Francais....

Bridgwater is incredibly fortunate to be twinned with the French Mediterranean  town of La Ciotat. Apart from both once having a bit of industry there’s not a right lot in common. However, this ‘jumelage’ has been in existence since 1957 so look ye not gift horses in mouths.

The La Ciotat jumelage committee sit in constant readiness for Bridgwater visitors to turn up to bestow upon them  bundles of generosity, camaraderie, friendship and hospitality. Well, not just Bridgwater visitors, they also have twin towns in Germany and Slovenia and maybe Italy, although the Mayors apparently keep getting shot there. The French support International relations in a big way and councils have a budget to support this whilst in England ‘twinning’ is a scary word, little financial backing  is provided by the councils, people ‘pay their own way’  and an increasing number of ‘little Englanders’ are voting UKIP. C’est la vie, we might say (unless we’re UKIP) (which we aren’t).

Bridgwater-La Ciotat veterans

Claire Anstee
This time La Ciotat played host to a community choir led by natural voice practitioner Claire Anstee. The 35 strong group also included none singers and some seasoned Bridgwater-La Ciotat veterans, notably Keith Giles currently the Bridgwater Twinning rep for the French link.

Flying out from Bristol to Nice at an unappealingly early 7am (which meant getting to the airport at 5am) the group landed in Cote ‘d’azur sunshine, boarded the waiting coach and were in La Ciotat by 1230.

Staying at the Hotel Croix de Malte run by Pierre and his team (largely a man from Brittany called Stefan) the travellers were inches from both beach, harbour and town centre. Some went shopping, some went into the sea and the rest went to the Calanques. That’s a range of intriguingly shaped coastal peaks and inlets which stretch from La Ciotat to nearby Cassis.  People were in the water, yes in October, in  Eagles Beak bay and wandering the sub tropical gardens of the nearby park Mugel.

Sur Les Quais

The yachting fraternity
La Ciotat was once an industrial dockyard. As that industry declined the yachting fraternity moved in and now you can’t move for yachts all along the harbour side and in the old dock. Massive yachts. Yachts so big that you could walk from one end to the other and you’d be in the Bahamas . Crews appeared to be mainly Brits (if you count Australians) (which isn’t easy given the rate of unreported boomerang incidents). The choir had a concert on the quayside in the shadow of the yachts. A nightclub called ‘Sur Les Quais’ (yes, ‘on the quays’) stepped in last minute when the planned concert at the Eden theatre was pulled because of ‘technical difficulties’ –which also extended to the planned French choir also not making it.

The Choir perform at the night club
But never mind, the singers sang and did their show on the stage of the nightclub with a big and appreciative audience, largely from the jumelage committee, but also including a few bemused matelots presumably spotting the notice ‘welcome to the Bridgwater choir’ on a sign where they expected to see ‘ce soir DJ Jean-Claud avec son eep-op’.

La Voie Douce

A rapid deployment of French singing talent saved the day from being a one sided Britfest as up stepped Jean-Marie Vandamme to sing something from Mozart and a fellow twinning worker to sing Amazing Grace. And then in stepped DJJC and the ripping sounds of the soundsystem ripped  arses from chairs and set feet a flying as the nightclub reverted to purpose with the Brits leading the way in a ‘bit of a dance’.

Taking the soft track
A new feature of La Ciotat life is ‘La Voie Douce’, literally ‘the soft track’ but actually a converted railway line. Converted into a railway line that both pedestrians and cyclists can pass along (without the trains).  Leading from very near the Croix de Malte in the centre of town  it takes people comfortably to the edge of town near la Bastide Marin, which is a small chateau within it’s own grounds that  the local council have done up . And so we took a walk up it and at the end were the French jumelage people, this time armed with bread, cheese, a paste made from olives, some rose wine, awkwardly interspersed anchovies, and some grilled sausages (for the vegetarians) (not really, they probably had anchovies).

une autre jour in Eden

Visiting the worlds 1st Cinema
On the final day the group were invited into the Eden Theatre. Right next door to the Croix De Malte. This was the first cinema in the world. The Lumiere brothers had filmed the first movie ‘train entering La Ciotat Station’ in La Ciotat and then premiered it here. The plot wasn’t up to much. Train enters station then stops. But it paved the way for the entire movie industry and numerous late night art movies on BBC 2.

Taking advantage of the constant good weather,  several people went off to nearby Cassis-obviously at one time twinned with Burnham (and Highbridge) (well, done that jumelage committee) and by the final night we invited all the French (not ALL of them obviously, that would be 67 million and the Croix De Malte can only hold 50) to a little party. Which seemed to also include some of the yachting fraternity. And inevitably turned into another opportunity to dance la nuit away.

This particular visit was so popular with the French Jumelage ctte that they decided to come over to Somerset next year so we could return the favour. But also it was important because we negotiated a restoration of the student exchange links which had been laying on the shelf for a few years. So…bon chance and ca plan pour moi!
Eagle's Beak bay along the Calanques

Monday, 6 October 2014

Bridgwater and Priverno well on the way to a Full Twinning as Mayor drops in.

Mayors Angelo and Steve on the balcony at Priverno Town Hall

Bridgwater’s link with Priverno is going from strength to strength and this week it was the turn of Mayor Steve Austen to pay his first visit to the hilltop Italian town with a small delegation  to see what projects we could bring about for the benefit of both communities.

For the past few years we have taken students from Bridgwater college, footballers from Bridgwater and our Czech win town Uherske Hradiste, and the Voice of the People choir –who will shortly be returning for their second bite at the mozzarella.

Sabaudia- a view from the breakfast table
Priverno is less than an hour south of Rome.  That’s a 5 € train journey. However, it’s also not far from the sea, so we started our expedition this time at the Hotel Oasa di Kufra in the nearby seaside town of Sabaudia  where we often accommodate touring groups who are attracted by it’s private beach access, sand dunes,  stunning lagoonside location and spectacular views across the Med. 

Every room has a sea view (apart from the few that don’t) , the sea laps almost at the beach-side terrace and the restaurant with it’s wide span of ocean facing windows provides diners with terrific sunsets.

The hilltop town of Priverno
Less than half an hour away is Priverno. To get to it you travel across the former Pontine marshes, drained in the 1930s, to present a landscape reclaimed from the sea and not too dissimilar to Sedgemoor. As the marshes reach the Appenines the landscape is dotted with fortified hilltop towns, the first of which is Priverno – formerly Privernum in Roman times and with a wealth of archaeology from that period which it displays in a town centre museum.

Mayor Steve meeting the youth of Priverno. (mainly councillors)
Mayor Angelo Delogu was there to greet us with Chairman of Council Roberto Antonini and the youngest set of town councillors you’ve seen this side of  S-Club Seven. In fact it would take 3 Piverno councillors to equal the average age of their Bridgwater counterparts.

Now,most of this trip involved one long conveyor belt of Italian food which seemed never ending, so I’ll just describe the programme in between that and if your mind starts to wander, just imagine another stream of plates of Mozarella, polenta, prosciutto, olives and artichokes  filling in the gaps.

Mr Orsini demonstrating how to choke on an olive
One thing they wanted to show us was the opportunities for economic co-operation, particularly in the field of food. The San Martino castle, where the group was staying, happened to be the venue for the ‘Slow Food’ co-operative who were promoting the precise opposite of ‘fast food’- natural, organic, full of taste and obviously best eaten in the courtyard of a Medieval castle. 

One key member of the organisation was the Orsini Olive Oil firm, based in Priverno, and very keen for us to find an outlet for their excellent quality  virgin brand and so we were taken to the factory and given an ‘oil tasting’ – first thing in the morning when your taste buds are at their best apparently. It didn’t help when Mr Orsini demonstrated the art of oil tasting by snorting the luminous green substance through various nasal orifices and nearly choking himself in the process. The olive oil smelt of cut grass and tomatoes and had won world wide awards.

Tim and Mick 'Bufala Soldiers'
Another local product was Mozarella. The famous cheese made from the milk of the Buffalo. Indian buffaloes. The wet marsh land of the area was ideal for this and so we went to the farm of (yet another insanely young)  councillor Enrica Onorati to meet the buffalo themselves and then eat them in their restaurant. 

Italian bread is a must for any dinner table, and in Priverno they make Falia, which is their own brand.  So we were invited into the Panificio Bilancia to see Mr B himself making the Falia and then handing it over to us 30 minutes later piping warm  and loaded with ham.

Sibelco-providing a big hole that brings employment
Employment is a big issue in Priverno, where the agricultural output is not matched by an equivalent in traditional industry. We saw two sides of the coin when we first visited Sibelco, a major employer , which had dug one of the largest holes in Europe in order to extract it’s silica and brought with it well paid jobs for the local economy, whilst at the nearby SAPA metalworks the behaviour of the multinational  company  there in attempting to transfer the plant to Vietnam and throw 135 families onto the streets had been met by the workers occupying the plant to stop the company asset stripping and keeping open the chance for a buyout by another company. 

Bridgwater visitors join the picket line
Striking workers were on the SAPA picket line and our delegation had no hesitation in joining them in the spirit of international solidarity in defence of their community.

The main purpose of the visit was to firm up the school to school links. Bridgwater College Italian department had offered to set up an exchange project, initially based on pen pals, then homehosting. To promote the  link the delegation was invited to the Teodosio Rossi High school where students  spoke of their keen interest to visit Bridgwater and had the chance to demonstrate their proficiency in English.

Italian students present themselves to the Mayor
Teodosio Rossi school is situated down one of Priverno's many typical narrow backstreets but once you're through the iron security gates and find a window it suddenly opens up with  spectacular views across to the not so distant hills.

Mayor Steve Austen  praised the students for their ‘bravery’ in speaking before an English speaking audience before himself demonstrating his own bravado by launching into an impromptu promotion of Bridgwater  and bigging up future links….of which MANY are planned, including the Voice of the People Choir, Bridgwater College Italian students, a senior and junior football project, a UK summer camp, economic co-operation and a support fund for the  striking workers. Bridgwater and Priverno are well on their way to a full twinning with support catered for wherever it’s needed.

Luigi introduces Cllr Smedley to Cllr Enrica on the road to buffalo central
The delegation of 7, including teachers and  councilors, had to be shovelled back onto the plane home  lest they exploded with the quantities of Italian food  bestowed on them by almost everyone they met in Priverno. A special thanks has to be said to the hard working  Luigi Teodonio (Mayor Angelo's left hand man) who translated, drove the minibus, organised the programme and even refrained from drinking for the weekend.