21 November 2022

Tales of the Tuscany Tour

I woke up at 4am, filled with excitement and anticipation about the day that lay ahead of me. It was finally time for the Motet Choir’s trip to Tuscany. The air was cold and crisp as we alighted from our school coach upon arrival at the airport, sunrise lifting our moods from excitement to exhilaration in anticipation as we boarded the plane to Pisa. As the plane climbed to its cruising altitude, we watched the patchwork landscape around Heathrow falling away to a more varied and exciting new landscape as we crossed the Channel.

The excitement continued to build when we landed in Pisa in the warm Tuscan sunshine and headed to our hotel in Montecatini Terme. Montecatini was once the stomping grounds for famous visitors, such as the great composers, Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini so with that in mind I couldn’t wait to experience the surrounding city and culture.

The highlight of the first day was a trip on the Funicular to Montecatini Alto, a picturesque medieval village above Montecatini Terme. Originally constructed in 1898, it was fascinating to see all the original working of the funicular, which are still visible despite the funicular having been modernised in recent times. The two red cable-operated carriages ascend and descend the steep hill to Montecatini Alto in just under 10 minutes. The carriages run in opposite directions along the 1077 metre track passing briefly halfway along the route.

The vista of the cobbled streets of this well-preserved medieval town as well as the spectacular panoramic views over the red-tiled rooftops overlooking the stunning vistas of rolling countryside across the valley was spell-binding. Montecatini Alto spans across two hills with Rocca di Castello Vecchio, the Church of St. Peter (the original church of Montecatini) and the Tower of Campanaria on one side with the Torre dell’Orologio and the Church of the Carmine on the other side. It is said that at one time the city boasted eight city doors, however, only of these doors, the Porta di Borgo remains today along with the Benedictine Monastery. We enjoyed our explorations of this quaint town as well as indulging in authentic Italian treats including some delicious gelato!

15th October, 2022
After morning rehearsals and a quick lunch at our hotel, the choir were driven to the historic city of Florence, the capital of Tuscany. We dropped off our keyboard at the church where we would sing later in the evening and then we had the afternoon to explore the multitude of historic sites and landmarks around the city. Florence was once the centre of medieval European trade and one of the wealthiest cities of that era. It is widely considered to have been the birthplace of the Renaissance movement, becoming a major artistic, cultural, commercial, political, economic and financial centre. The splendour of Florence’s magnificent architecture and its beautiful public spaces is testament to its immense wealth and its important role in Italian and European history. The historic centre of Florence has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1982.We gazed upon the magnificent beauty of the domed cathedral of the city, Santa Maria del Fiore, also known as The Duomo which dominates the skyline with its iconic red tiled dome. We wandered through its many iconic Piazza’s which were a hive of activity adding to the atmosphere of this iconic city.

One of my favourite memories of Florence was a visit to the famous Ponte Vecchio or the “Old Bridge” in Italian which spans across the Arno river. It was fascinating to see the numerous old shops built upon its edge. Interestingly, it is the only bridge in the city to have survived World War II intact. We stopped to take many photos of this iconic bridge and its beautiful surroundings.
After a fabulous pizza dinner, we walked to the San Salvatore church in Ognissanti to perform our concert. The Ognissanti is examples of Baroque architecture with elaborate cornices and is also the final resting place of Botticelli, the famous Italian painter of the early Renaissance period. We felt very privileged to sing beneath the beautiful frescos including fifteenth-century frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio and Sandro Botticelli which are preserved in the nave.

16th October, 2022
After breakfast at our hotel, we headed to San Gimignano, a small walled medieval hilltop town. Originally an Etruscan village, the settlement was named after the bishop of Modena, San Gimignano, who is said to have saved the city from Attila the Hun. Described by the Lonely Planet as a medieval Manhattan, it is easy to see why as you crest the nearby hills and look
out over the 14 towers that dominate the skyline of San Gimignano. These towers were originally used as a look-out to avert incoming attacks but eventually they became a show of wealth as building a tower taller than their neighbours’ (there were originally 72 towers) became a popular way for prominent families to flaunt their power and considerable financial resources.

The highlight of the day was being able to explore the intact medieval streets and climbing the Torre Grossa, the tallest tower in San Gimignano and indeed, Tuscany, measuring 54 m offering spectacular views from the top of the surrounding countryside and its rolling hills, the medieval town and it many towers and vineyards.

After lunch, we returned to Montecatini Terme to attend mass at the Santa Maria Assunta Basilica. Our choir performed a select number of pieces. The mass was conducted in Italian which enhanced our rich cultural experience.

17th October, 2022
After breakfast, we headed on a short coach ride to spend the day in Lucca. The morning was spent exploring the Puccini museum which is housed in the home where the famous opera composer, Giacomo Puccini was born and raised. The rooms have been carefully restored to their original appearance. Puccini lived in many houses throughout his life, but he always had a special place in his heart for the one in Lucca where he was born and spent his early years learning music. One of my favourite sections of the museum was seeing Puccini’s Steinway piano used to compose the opera Turandot as well as signed scores of his early compositions.

We had a lovely lunch followed by free time to explore this beautiful walled town. Initially built as a defensive rampart, once the walls lost their military importance, they became a pedestrian promenade. Lucca has been nicknamed the town of a hundred churches and its easy to see why as you wander through its lively streets. However, it is the majestic medieval walls of Lucca that were captivating, especially learning about their history and how the earliest version of these walls dated back to the Roman empire. After an invigorating walk that involved finding gelato and the opportunity to purchase souvenirs for family, we returned for rehearsals at the San Martino cathedral. This was to be our final performance in Tuscany and I think, we delivered our very best performance of the trip that evening

18th October, 2022
After checking out of our hotel, we headed to the legendary city of Pisa. Pisa is best known for its world-famous Leaning Tower, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The Torre Pendente (Leaning Tower) lives upto its reputation, leaning an impressive 3.9 degrees off the vertical due to its unstable foundation. The 58m-high tower, officially the Duomo’s bell tower took almost 200 years to build. However, it was already tilting when it was officially unveiled in 1372. The tilt steadily worsened over the centuries until it was finally halted by a major stabilisation project in the 1990s which involved removing 70 tonnes of earth from the northern side of the tower. It was exhilarating experience to climb to the top of the Leaning Tower and look out over the beautiful city in the warm sunshine.

Returning to the freezing chill of London that night after 5 days spent in the glorious sunshine and warmth of Tuscany was a rude shock to the system. However, we departed the dank caverns of Heathrow Airport’s car park with many warm memories of performing in spectacular venues and visiting iconic places in Tuscany in the company of friends and peers will stay with us for a long time to come.

Ameya B (9AHJ)