Friday, 21 November 2008

Imagining Siena

We park outside Siena and walk in through one of gates in the walls – Siena is a car-free city, being the first European city to banish motor traffic from its centre in 1966. Proceeding to Il Campo, we stock up with tourist information brochures and sit at a café at the edge of the square for a cappuccino and to get our bearings.

Il Campo is scallop-shaped and slants on nine sections (for the members of the Council of Nine) from the Fonte Gaia (the Happy Fountain) to the Palazzo Comunale, which is sparse and elegant, dominated by the tower – the Torre del Mangia. The streets radiate in circles which swirl around and can make navigation difficult, but this hardly matters as it is pleasant to wander about the city admiring the buildings and sculptures.

The cathedral is one of Italy’s greatest gothic churches – small in comparison with Florence’s but civic rivalry led Florence to try to do everything bigger and better.

Legend states that Siena was founded by the son of Remus and so the symbol of the wolf feeding the twins Romulus and Remus is as ubiquitous as it is in Rome.

There are fountains and squares, palaces and churches everywhere but we don’t go into any of them – we just walk around the streets remembering to look up.

Every building has a coat of arms; a statue; a painted façade; a frescoed ceiling; ornate shutters; a tether for a horse; a decorative door, archway or window.

I get quite carried away with the doors and windows, and we have to buy a new memory stick for the camera to accommodate my happy snapping. Incidentally, camera shops share premises with opticians which I thought was a bit odd at first, but makes perfect sense really as they’re both concerned with lenses and visuals.

Siena is a city of imaginings. Twice a year (2nd July and 16th August) it hosts Il Palio – a series of colourful pageants and a wild horse race around Il Campo. Ten horses and their bareback riders (representing the town’s districts) tear three times around the perimeter of Il Campo (it is covered with packed dirt) while the spectators are fenced into the centre.

Even if a horse looses its rider it can still win the event and claim the coveted and fiercely contested Palio (silk banner). The only rule is that the riders mustn’t tug at the reins of other horses. I can imagine the clatter of their hooves around the piazza; the screaming and cheering of the fans; and the snapping of banners in the breeze.

I can imagine secret trysts and assignations in sun-drenched, high-walled courtyards where ancient frescoes look down on lovers whose murmurings are accompanied by the soft splash of fountains.

I can imagine the dim alleyways were perfect places to plot and scheme with an accomplice or to lure an acquaintance to be dispatched.

Siena still maintains its mediaeval gothic glory, leaving the flashy Renaissance to its Florentine rival, with whom it was frequently at war. It is allegedly the home of panforte – a rich cake of almonds, honey and candied fruit, which was created for Crusaders to take to the Holy Land – but we make do with enormous slices of pizza which we eat in the square.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Florence AM

I love seeing a city wake up – the blare of horns as folk head off to work; cyclists and pedestrians negotiating the traffic, while an old man serenely pushes his wife under rugs in a wheelchair down the main street.

Shutters rattle up and the wise buy bottles of water to see them through the day, which is deceptively cool at present.

Gloves are displayed in windows; the sharp smell of leather beckons on the crisp air.

The gold glistens behind heavy wooden shutters; the papal bankers are keeping their secrets hidden in a private, hedonistic confessional.

The duomo and the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio cut cleanly into the pale blue sky; their precise incisions not yet blurred by the midday haze.

A man stands at the counter of a tripai eating lampredotto; hot chilli sauce drips from his fingers and he snorts from his nostrils and shakes his head violently in a semblance of penance.

The crowds have not yet formed between the solemn alcoves of the Uffizi where the sightless marble statues stare past tempestuous humanity.

The faded Italian flag shades of the cathedral are pastel and sharp like the tangible flavours of the mounds of ice-cream; tantalising pyramids of pineapple, strawberry, lemon, raspberry, chocolate, pistachio studded with fruit and labelled with exotica. Their geometric lines will melt to puddles of kaleidoscopic colours by afternoon.

As I rub the shiny snout of the Fontana del Porcellino I see its clouds of white breath evaporate in the morning air. Grazie! I will return to Firenze!

Monday, 17 November 2008

Toast Martinborough

We begin our day by heading to the yacht club for bubbles and a bagel. We are meant to meet a friend but he has cunningly disguised himself in a wig and hideous outfit. We stand next to him at the bar without recognizing him. Him Outdoors has trouble with technology – apparently stumpy Celt fingers are no friend of cell-phones and it doesn’t help when he’s trying to ring the wrong number in the first place.

Our friend announces, “I’ve got some spare moustaches in my pocket for later.” As he has organized the transport, it would seem churlish to question the relevance of this statement.

A group of us pile onto a chartered bus which winds over the hill to Martinborough. It is a little disturbing that when we play with the aircon, we manage to light up the ‘Bus Stopping’ sign. Fortunately it doesn’t until we reach our destination and we alight in the square, pick up a special glass and a programme, swap our money for wine tokens and we’re off!

It’s windy but sunny so we all liberally apply the sun cream – a group of pasty poms and Irish folk let loose with wine and sunshine; it could end in tears. The ladies all look lovely in their floaty summer frocks, floppy hats and flip-flops – the men have dressed up Kiwi-posh, which appears to mean a clean t-shirt.

Our first stop is Craggy Range which seems pricy but the Te Muna Road reisling is crisp and clear and the venison and rocket pizza is delicious. I bump into a friend – not literally – I have only just started drinking. She, however, is on winery number six and has come here for lunch. It seems a lot of people have.

Buses run between the vineyards but you can walk if you want the exercise – nowhere is very far apart. We head to Palliser Estate where I have some bubbles – they are light and cheerful, and the day is looking good. One of our friends has ‘found’ some fairy wings which look particularly fetching although I doubt they were designed to be worn with a Hacienda t-shirt by a thirty-something bloke from Manchester.

Him Outdoors ignores the old adage – red then white; you’ll feel like shite – and he is tucking into the pinot noir already. It is fresh and clean – you can taste the skins, stalks, earth and fruit which leaps out of the glass with a pinot punch.

All of the vineyards have bands playing on makeshift stages. The Beat Girls are due to perform here, but although they’re perfect wine and food accompaniment, no one seems to know when they are coming on (the lack of times printed in the programme would be my one criticism of the event) and we decide not to hang around and wait – so many wineries; so little time.

At Martinborough Vineyard and Burnt Spar people are starting to relax; stretching out among the vines, enjoying the wine, food, music and convivial atmosphere. One wine taster confidently asserts, “I can honestly tell you with all my experience as a connoisseur, that wine is definitely white.” Another helpful comment is “It’s a good drop; that will get you pissed.” I'm quite impressed by the insightful, "Too many lemons; not enough melons" until I realise he's not talking about the wine. I give up asking people to give me their tasting notes.

Margrain has a separate ‘bubbles bar’. Of course, I have to try the 'La Michelle' inaugural methode traditionalle bubbles and they taste like crushed digestive biscuits and are almost golden in colour. I also have some chenin blanc which the programme claims is very limited. It's also very tasty.

Ata Rangi has a delectable Craighall chardonnay which is my favourite of the day. Oak; butter; cinnamon; walnuts; peaches – all the things I like in a hearty chardonnay.

This is a good place to sit and take stock; we meet up with lots of friends and more money is exchanged. People wander about with bottles in picnic baskets – topping up drinks so you don’t even have to stand up or queue to get anther glass. This looks as though it could get dangerous.

The boys sit around smoking cigars and there is much hilarity as everyone has a go trying on the wig. The food here is Ruth Pretty Catering and includes gourmet steak and kidney pies which look extremely tasty and, although pies may not be particularly exotic, they go down a treat. Apparently the white chocolate and blackcurrant crème brulee is pretty good too.

We spot the staff having a lunch break round the back when we stray off the beaten track. This isn’t so easy to do, as the areas where you are meant to go are very clearly directed.

We are herded towards Alana Estate where a band belts out covers. Some people dance in a desultory fashion at the end of the day, while others nod off even more lazily in the afternoon sun.

The festival finishes at around six, which is probably just as well, as I think we’ve all had plenty by then (both wine and sun). Somehow we manage to have some festival money left, which is not exchangeable. Bottles are still for sale at the square, so we use up our remaining wine tokens. We roll back to our waiting coach which takes us back over the hill – as it were.


This documentary really is all those descriptive words like beautiful, moving, touching and humorous.

A group of old folk (average age 80) get together in Northampton, Massachusetts to sing in a choir. Not only is it great to see them singing and having fun; their choice of song is original and unexpected, unless you’ve seen the trailer. Their versions of songs such as Golden Years, Forever Young, I Feel Good and Stayin’ Alive bring a new meaning to old songs. I Wanna Be Sedated by The Ramones is a classic; by this choir it is hysterical.

The documentary style is so good and unobtrusive that you feel like you’re at the performance and it is instantly engaging. And how refreshing to see the director (Steven Walker) and the director of the choir (Bob Cilman) treat the singers as real people and not patronisingly.

When Bob Cilman introduces a new song to the group and they struggle with it, he is not afraid to bark at one member, ‘You’re holding everyone back’, or ‘I don’t need you to make fun of the song’ at another. One responds with a smile and a shrug, ‘Sure, he’s tough, but so am I’.

The friendships and banter among the group is gentle and genuine – you can still be flirtatious at 92 apparently. The director gives them a CD to sing along to and practice their songs, and one of them turns it over with bemusement – ‘Which side do you play?’

Their sensitivity when someone needs help is very moving. A couple of the group die during the making of the documentary but it isn’t mawkish – old people die. Others have health issues; problems with their heart or eyesight. A trio car-pool to rehearsals, joking that they would all like to drive, but only one of them can see.

Many of the ‘singers’ are fairly tuneless and they warble and waver in that way that old folk can. When Eileen Hall performs Should I Stay or Should I Go?, she speaks the words in realistic enquiry. However, Fred Knittle has a beautiful baritone and when he sings Cold Play’s Fix You as an homage to his late duet partner, there isn’t a dry eye in the cinema. Incidentally all of the bands whose songs they sing give their permission for them to use them on this documentary with one exception; no prizes for guessing that was U2.

They rehearse three times a week in the lead-up to their concert, promoted as Alive and Well. They produce videos with a twist from a fairground, a bowling alley, at a crossroads, and in a rest home. Their performance in a prison was one of the most touching scenes as they shook hands and shared hugs with the inmates. One said it was the best show he had ever seen and while I don’t doubt his sincerity – there were tears in his eyes – I wonder how many performances he has actually seen.

This choir shows the benefits of perseverance, humility, teamwork, and aging with dignity. It’s fabulous to see people doing something because they love it and each other’s company. These guys are enthusiastic without wanting to be famous or compete in one of those ghastly talent contests.

If you stumbled across this documentary by accident, you would have felt you had uncovered a gem. With all the hype that has been built up around it, it is still one of the most inspiring pieces of cinema I’ve seen for a long time. A middle-aged woman comes out of one of the performances and says, ‘I will never complain about being old again.’ I think that sums it up quite nicely.