A Tuscan adventure

Here’s the extended version of an account I wrote of a trip to Tuscany over the summer; a shorter version is in the current edition of ‘Teaching Drama’ magazine. This journey was taken with my great friend Tom Vallance and eight MCS 6th-formers. Together we walked 100 miles along the Via Francigena performing a silly version of Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale each evening wherever we ended up, like the strolling players of old. Enjoy!

Pilgrims and Players

Thespians on tour in Tuscany

It was a particularly dreary evening in November when the notion of a school drama tour of Tuscany was conceived. I had recently read to my own children Quentin Blake’s ‘Angelo’, a charming tale of a family of performers who travel through Italy from village to village with a theatre-cum-circus act. The water-coloured illustrations of red roofs, ochre sunsets and sprawling olive-groves induced a day-dream of leading a theatre troupe through rural Italy, busking from place to place. Over a beer or two with a friend and colleague, Tom, the idea began to take shape. Tom is a classicist, linguist and musician par excellence, as well as being exactly the sort of companion one would want on a walking trip. A little research revealed that an ancient pilgrim route runs through Tuscany: the via Francigena, originally the route taken by Archbishop Sigeric (‘the Serious’) from Canterbury to Rome to receive his pallium in the 9th Century. We were hooked.

I should explain that I had been toying with the idea of an alternative drama tour for some time. MCS performs annually at the Edinburgh Fringe, a wonderful experience for the pupils and a chance to see more theatre in a week than most of them have seen in their lifetimes. Our Edinburgh play usually has a cast of Lower 6th pupils, previewing the show in the MCS-sponsored Oxford Festival of the Arts before heading up north in August. This summer we ran the Fringe trip as usual, performing an abridged version of Shakespeare’s ‘King John’. But I also wanted to provide a new, unique challenge for some of our best actors, something which (unlike Edinburgh) no school had tried before, and which would really test their performing abilities. This year’s leavers had been a particularly committed and talented bunch of actors, some of whom have notched up around thirty plays in their time at the school. Confident they’d rise to the challenge, Tom and I tested the idea of a ‘strolling players’ tour with some of the group, receiving such enthusiastic responses that we went ahead, advertised the trip, and signed up a select eight pupils, all veterans of school productions. The school (somewhat to our surprise, but to its great credit) gave its blessing, and we began planning in earnest.

We decided to walk a 120km stretch of the via Francigena from Lucca to Siena; a fair distance, especially in the heat of a Tuscan summer, but book-ended with beautiful towns. Unlike the Camino di Santiago in Spain this pilgrim path is relatively unknown. Indeed we knew no-one who had walked the route, so my wife and I did a quick two-day reconnaissance trip in the Easter holiday which confirmed that the route was well sign-posted and – more importantly – stunningly beautiful. Tom and I calculated we would need five or six days for the real thing, walking between 20 and 30km a day, with one shorter day in the middle. Accommodation would be basic and inexpensive, making use of pilgrim hostels where possible. Selecting a piece of theatre required careful thought: we quickly decided against attempting to perform in Italian for the simple reason that none of us speak it. Our play would, therefore, need to be heavily visual by nature, for the benefit of our audience. It must be short, fun and have potential for the sort slapstick comedy which is a staple of street theatre. Given the cast were in the middle of A levels, it also needed to require minimal rehearsal before we set off in July. Most of the cast had been to Edinburgh the previous summer, when we took up a selection of ‘Canterbury Tales’, so we settled on ‘The Knight’s Tale’ as the simplest to re-work. It also seemed a highly fitting choice given we were following a medieval pilgrimage route. More fitting still, Chaucer based his tales on Boccaccio’s ‘Decameron’, a set of equally lusty stories related by a group of young people escaping a plague-ridden city. Boccaccio was born and lived in a hilltop town called Certaldo which is twinned with Canterbury and hosts an annual international street theatre festival called ‘Mercantia’. We discovered this to great excitement, and timed our trip so that our last evening in Italy would coincide with the opening night of the festival; a suitable end to our travels, we hoped.

Needless to say a good deal more research and preparation happened over the next few months. I wrote to various town and village communes, asking whether we might be allowed to perform in their piazzas. The Italians are not speedy correspondents, and despite a few hopeful leads only Siena replied with any definite affirmative. Elsewhere it seemed we would have to take our chance… Tom thankfully agreed to be the Italian speaker on the trip, so cobbled together Latin and French into a thoroughly respectable version of the native language. I meanwhile penned a twenty-minute farce based loosely on the Knight’s Tale and arranged a physical theatre workshop with Robin Colyer, the talented artistic director of Oxford-based ‘Flintlock Theatre’, who gave the actors an excellent insight into the basics of successful slapstick and worked some lovely comic moments into our script. Tom and I, on guitar and violin, provided musical accompaniment, with snippets of everything from ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ to the Benny Hill theme. The fights and chases were balanced with more tender moments, courtesy of ‘The girl from Ipanema’ and Tchaikovsky’s love theme from Romeo and Juliet. The actors, as ever, threw themselves at the task in hand with gusto. Once they’d got over the small hurdle of A Levels and we’d made it through the fortnight of artistic mayhem which is the Arts Festival, we had a single day to properly rehearse the piece before we set off on our great adventure. We would have to carry everything ourselves, needless to say, so costume and props were minimal. I had toyed with the idea of hiring a pack-donkey for the week but was talked out of it by younger and wiser heads. So each of us carried a loose white medieval-style shirt, a pair of colourful leggings and espadrilles. Short wooden swords, a smattering of small percussion instruments and the odd piece of headwear completed our kit. We’d insisted on hand-luggage sized rucksacks to keep things simple and lightweight – water would, of course, add a lot of weight once we started walking.

The journey out went smoothly: an early-morning minibus to Luton, a crossword-filled Easyjet flight to Pisa and a scenic bus ride inland, during which we secured our first audience members for that evening; a couple of English chaps who’d left their wives shopping for the day. We arrived by late afternoon in Lucca, the starting point of our walk and our first performance venue. Basking in glorious sunshine we found our hostel, a former monastery with fantastically cavernous rooms and charming staff. A stage was erected in the garden, we were excited to see, but it was reserved for a local rock band who, when we arrived, were in the middle of an interminable and unpromising sound check. We thus decided to unwind after our journey by hiring bikes and riding around the top of the massively thick city walls. Louis and Matt, two of our actors, opted for a two-seat pedal car and – despite the novelty value – were soon left trailing dismally in the distance. We suddenly noticed we’d also lost Tom who had stopped to get his camera out. He eventually cycled up bloody-kneed and sheepish, having taken a toss over his handle-bars. The first-aid kit came out, the knee was patched up and I recorded our first incident in the log-book with mingled relish and relief that it hadn’t been one of the pupils. Eventually the two-seater trundled along and Tom recovered sufficiently to deliver a ten-minute lecture on the region’s Etruscan roots as we perched on the walls. Then it was back to the hostel via a restorative gelato to change for our first performance…

The ten of us, dressed in shirts and rather tight leggings, and carrying our assorted instruments/props, gathered in the hostel foyer for a warm-up. Stevie, our ‘Palamon’ who disguises himself as an old crone, suddenly remembered he needed a walking stick as a prop. Rather than carry a suspicious-looking cudgel on the plane we had relied on finding something suitable in Italy, so carried out a quick raid on one of the hostel’s plant pots. Then, hearts thumping in our chests, we strutted our way through Lucca’s maze of streets, attracting many an interested glance and a small following of small children. We picked a spot just outside the walls of the amphitheatre, next to a restaurant whose owner spoke sufficiently little English for me to infer that he was happy for us to entertain his customers. A delivery van turned up with impeccable timing and parked in our spot while we waited nervously. Eventually it moved off and the street corner was ours.

The show began with Tom and I launching into the famous gypsy Czardas, a frantically fast number during which the actors burst onto the street from behind a market stall and quickly set up our minimal stage, consisting of a boundary rope. Matt, our narrator, set the scene in stentorian tones then it was straight into Benny Hill mode with Charlie, our jester, provoking the two knights into a chase through the audience. The audience at this stage consisted of the small children, a handful of frowning pensioners on a bench and our two English friends from the bus. To our delight, though, the audience swelled imperceptibly: we earned some laughs, a smattering of applause now and then, and several loud comments from an eccentric gentleman who hailed from Toronto and wanted to know when Count Dracula was appearing. He wasn’t. Otherwise, the performance was a very creditable one for an opening night. We celebrated with dinner at a nearby restaurant, Ubaldo’s. The owner, Ubaldo (naturally), looks like a goth-rock star of the 1970s, and probably is. The place is crammed with posters, busts and photos of the man himself, and serves good Italian food and rough Italian wine. As we were about to leave our host plonked a bottle of limoncello on the table which meant we all slept particularly well, in spite of the rock band.

The first day’s walk was one of the longest at 29km. We breakfasted early and well, then caught a quick train out of the suburbs to Altopascio, our starting point. We found, in the longest, thinnest supermarket imaginable, bread, cheese, salami and fruit for our lunch. The sun was already hot by 8am, and we were eager to start. Tom and I had harboured some concerns as to how the pupils would fare on the walk: would fitness levels differ vastly? Would the conversation dry up within the first hour? Would be find ourselves with eight cases of sunstroke and dehydration on our hands? Or would there simply be some slow-coaches who meant we had to plod slowly through the heat of the day? It is entirely to the credit of the pupils, five boys and three girls, that the answer to all of these questions was a resounding ‘No’. The group split at times, of course, with an advance guard including whichever pupil was the day’s map-reader, but at no point did cliques emerge; rather, the group dynamic ebbed and flowed like a pulsing amoeba, to mix metaphors. Conversation ranged from history to politics to Brian Butterfield to science to literature to comedy shows to Brian Butterfield to James Bond to … Brian Butterfield, if you don’t know, is the star of a series of short and extremely funny youtube spoof diet adverts, the quoting of which provided (literally) hours of amusement through the week. Games abounded: the 4-letter game, 20 questions, the one-syllable game… Along the way we sang hymns familiar from school chapel. We also sang through the whole of Grease, Cabaret, and Les Miserables. During lunch stops we invented a game involving a tennis ball and a wall which went through several variants, culminating in a three-hour tournament in Siena’s Medici fortress. This resulted in Tom’s second injury, a badly sprained ankle. Fortunately we’d completed the walking element of the trip by then, or we’d have been obliged to leave him for the feral cats. Injury aside, the complete reliance on one’s own feet for transport and one’s companions for entertainment was a thoroughly refreshing break from the motorized, electronic world back home. The pupils changed noticeably over the week. During our first day’s walk we stopped briefly to look round a church along the way, partly as a cool place to sit in the noon heat. Most of the group – as irreligious youth – were happy to shrug off their packs on the step outside. By the end of the week our stop off in a ‘church of the day’ was one of several vital rituals to be observed (cake of the day being a more transitory but no less vital feature) and at the basilica san Dominica in Siena all of the pupils spent a good half hour in silent reflection, unprompted. Our journey had assumed a spirituality of its own, something very moving to witness.

Flat river plain on the first day gave way to picture-postcard rolling hills on the second. There was blessedly little walking on large roads; mostly we crunched our way along gravel or dirt tracks. The little red and white via Francigena signs were in abundance, except when they disappeared altogether once or twice. We made one major detour which actually led us to the most stunning view of the week across a sweeping valley. The sun beat down all day every day; imagine our delight upon finding an outdoor pool hewn out of rock just as we were ready to flop on day four. Lizards scuttled across our path and farm dogs broke into feverish barking at our approach. The hum and rattle of insects was our constant companion. Lunch was always the same: bread, cold meats, cheese which sweated more copiously than us. Iced tea, sweets and nuts sustained us through long, tough stretches in the mid-afternoon when it seemed as if the temperature was still rising and the medieval towers of our next hilltop destination but a distant mirage. Small acts of kindness revived us and restored faith in humanity: the stall of cold water, biscuits and flowers on the dusty approach to San Miniato; the gentleman who emerged from his house with a packet of ten ice-creams; even the occasional friendly toots on car horns more than compensated for the blisters, aches, bites (Elle and Bekah proved particularly popular with the mosquito population) and general fatigue.

The hostels were friendly and pleasant. Breakfast was sometimes overly frugal, and in San Gimignano a large nun berated Matt for leaving a thumbnail-sized piece of butter on his plate.  This same nun had looked askance at us upon arrival – ‘these English boys, they are not to be trusted?’ We assured her that she and her sisters were safe. Upon seeing our theatrical props she raised her eyes to heaven and uttered a heartfelt ‘Mama mia!’ We were made particularly welcome in Gambassi Terme, where Franco, the owner, arranged for us to perform in his beautiful courtyard by lamplight, inviting his friends from the village. We had an appreciative audience of thirty or so, and after busking an encore we finished the evening with some of Franco’s chianti in the warm night air, the towers of San Gimignano  – our next stop – just visible through the darkness.

We continued our series of history talks each evening; Tom and I between us have brief introductions to Roman, medieval and renaissance Italy. It didn’t seem fitting to go further into the modern era, somehow. The towns we passed spoke for themselves: Frederick Barbarossa’s massive bastion in San Miniato symbolising the might of the Holy Roman Empire; the outrageously bunched towers of San Gimignano as proof of the extent of aristocratic competition in medieval city-states; the sheer splendor of Siena a testament to the good taste of the great patrons of the renaissance. The educational aspect of the trip extended beyond history: one evening Tom gave us a verbal tour of Italian wine, accompanied by a lovely selection of bottles. We ate well each night, sampling local cuisine where possible and enjoying a succession of characterful waiters.

We passed a handful of other pilgrims each day, or rather they passed us. Each evening we would arrive at a hostel and recognize a handful of the other guests as our fellow walkers. Some became loyal audience members, watching our show several nights running. A memorable performance was in the tiny hamlet of Abbadia Isola, where we gave our only indoors show. This took place in a pirate-themed pub run by a charming Russian lady called Olga who also spoke excellent English, German and Italian. We dined in the wonderfully dilapidated upstairs room which dated from fourteen-something, with swallows flying in and out of the windows while we ate. Later that evening we returned in costume and performed in the bar to a mixture of drinkers, pilgrims and summer school pupils. In San Gimignano we planted ourselves next to the main city gate with multiple escape routes as we’d been told we wouldn’t be allowed to perform. Each day saw a new code word for a quick exit if necessary… But it never was. Aggie’s parents dropped by from their holiday in Milan to watch two shows, and it was lovely to see familiar faces. Our performance in Siena was the best in theatrical terms. We had been offered a slot in the stunning Piazza Salimbeni, two minutes from our hotel, and heralded ourselves from the hotel balcony to the pedestrians in the street below. A crowd of perhaps a hundred people gathered to watch us and the actors rose to the occasion, displaying remarkable energy for people who had just completed a 120km walk.

IMG_1024 With a cerveza in the campo

After Siena we had one day of relative leisure before our flight home from Pisa. We enjoyed a luxurious breakfast and a morning of pleasant meandering before catching the train to nearby Certaldo for the start of the ‘Mercantia’ festival. We had not intended to perform this evening but it felt wrong not to have a go. So we donned our costumes for a last time and walked into the lower town square, picking a spot near the ticket queue. A last minute ‘church of the day’ was found, and then we launched into our show, competing with a good deal of local noise and colour which, on balance, got the better of us. But we had done our bit, and were now free to become part of that noise and colour, walking up the winding path to the old hilltop part of the town where the festival proper is held. In space terms it would fit into the Edinburgh Fringe several hundred times. For sheer ebullience and verve, though, it surpassed the Fringe. We ate at tressle tables in a garden, Stevie trying a manful fork of tripe before admitting defeat. Then we emerged onto the main street which had erupted into a full-blown fiesta. Musicians played in every nook; dancers abseiled with astonishing grace from medieval belfries; stilt-walkers, mimes, drummers, puppets mingled with a sea of spectators. Except the line between actor and audience was blurred, and one was instantly caught up in the theatricality of the place. We danced to a lively rock and roll band for almost an hour, Ed and Charlie acting as their unofficial backing group, then made our way up the street to a ghoulishly-lit piazza which looked like something out of Dante. An intense red light emanated from a courtyard and we were drawn closer, only to find a notice to the effect that in Hell no drinks were allowed. We went back down the street, pursued by an enormous floating red ball which crowd-surfed its way to the bottom and disappeared. Some time later we realized the magical night was coming to a close and – after an impromptu drum battle with another group – wandered back to our hotel, singing hymns and rock and roll.

The return journey was painless, parting ways somewhat less so. We said goodbye to Aggie in Pisa, whence she embarked on an inter-rail adventure. The rest of us retraced our steps to Oxford, arriving on a mildly chilly evening in mid-July, feeling somewhat unnerved by our return to the ordinary.



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