Darmstadt – Bolzano – Merano – Verona – Rome
In the Vatican with the Swiss Guards
Learning about the Russian Orthodox Church, Darmstadt
As we leave Savile Road, it is looking very much its normal self: grey tarmac and double-yellow lines. Will it look different when we return? We have the customary surprises at airport security when hitherto unsuspected quantities of liquid are discovered in the choristers’ handluggage, despite all our attempts to get them to think through their possessions. At least this time (as once in the past) it isn’t metal chains. One of the clerks arrives sans passport, but, by correctly guessing the tribe of the Ugandan security guard and telling the man on the desk that he was doing a concert for orphans, he manages to get a new one from the passport office in a record three hours. He misses the flight of course, but finds another and joins us at midnight. On arriving at Frankfurt-Hahn, I use a phrase from the St John Passion on the German bus driver, who thereafter thinks I’m completely fluent (a big mistake on both our parts). These travel days go very quickly: the next thing we know night has fallen and we are on the outskirts of Darmstadt. Darmstadt is like Coventry, largely rebuilt after being flattened by bombs, and its Best Western Hotel could be in any town, except that its manager couldn’t be more helpful in dragging in our luggage. Here it is feeling very cold. Walking back after supper we stick our nose into the Christmas market. At the hotel, the year-5s have their first experience of hanging up a few clothes, putting suitcases where they don’t impede the passage, and settling down to sleep with a colleague (who might possibly snore).
‘Continental’ breakfast comprises: several cereal options, fruit juices, scrambled egg and bacon, fish dishes, yoghurts and jams, fruits and fruit salad, cheeses, sliced meats and pastries. If only the human metabolism were different, but it isn’t, and we all know that by 11am the boys will be feeling hungry. By 11am we have walked out to a Jugendstil Russian Orthodox church, one of the few bits of the city to have survived the war. A silent Russian émigré guardian views us with some bewilderment, but sells us some postcards. We can’t get her to smile, but at least she let us in to see the extraordinary interior. It is now bitterly cold, and the thought of being warm again more than overlaps with the thought of lunch. We make it to the Zoo Bar, and from there back for our siesta. The boys are generally very co-operative about this bit of the routine. At least half of them do go to sleep. And then the weather sets in: a strong and chilling wind brings the snow racing around corners and stinging the face. It is cosy enough in the Stadtkirche, and the audience (only slightly depleted by the weather) is also very warm (we get a good mark for our German pronunciation), and practically clears us out of our carol CDs. But as we settle to bed the travel prospects for the next day look uncertain: blizzard conditions have certainly arrived, and the TV news suggests that Germany is grinding to a halt.
Concert Hall, Bolzano
We leave an hour earlier than scheduled, with a feeling that crossing the Alps might be a bit of a feat. The snow is certainly thick on the ground, but not clouding the air. Hannibal invades our thoughts. As it happens, we soon get ahead of the weather front, and the motorway is clear. We have a long way to go. Our canny husband-and-wife driving team knows just the place to stop for lunch, a fine family restaurant in a little Austrian village off the motorway. We telephone ahead our menu options. At this point the choristers are becoming connoisseurs of Schnitzel, and this one is an excellent example. Daylight fails just as we might be admiring the Brenner Pass, but we know we are in the mountains since otherwise there is no explanation for lights shining in the sky.
Arriving in the Southern Tyrol, we find the Stiftung St Elizabeth (a modern conference centre planted in the middle of an orchard). Not a flake of snow is to be seen, just the biting cold. Comfortable rooms, good amenities, and a fabulous cook. Good to know we will be here for a while, three nights in all. The miracle of the day is that the choristers have cheerfully lasted 10 hours on the road without getting rattled, impatient or sick: not once did I hear, ‘are we nearly there?’. One of the clerks magics away the last hour with a reading (‘with voices’) from Michael Morpurgo, enfolding all ages.
A text message from Oxford reports five inches of snow in as many minutes AND the BBC ‘Building a Library’ programme naming our Vespers CD as the preferred choice in the mid-price category (against formidable competition). In Nals, daylight confirms that the snow now disrupting life in the UK has made it only to the surrounding mountain tops. Nevertheless, the iceman is on today’s itinerary. He was found in the 1990s by a couple of mountain walkers, treated as a crime scene and then handed over to the archaeologists. Austria first claimed him, but in fact he belonged to the Italians, not that such distinctions would have crossed this man’s mind in 3000BC. What is truly fascinating about the iceman is the picture that emerges of his way of life from his clothing, tools and accoutrements. The Bolzano museum has put this picture together in an exemplary fashion, and our charming guide is the icing on the cake. The creative ingenuity and resourcefulness of Ötzi puts us all to shame, as well as his obvious stamina and self-reliance. The evening’s concert is the only gig we have in a concert hall. It is a good space, but far too big for the numbers that turn out: less than half the hall’s capacity. The choristers find this amusing rather than unsettling. I suppose from time to time they have looked up in chapel and discovered (on a Tuesday evening?) only so many people occupying the gloom. The cold persists as we leave the hall, but we know we are heading for a good meal.
Shopping at the Merano Christmas Market
Merano is a short bus ride in the other direction. It’s one of the well-known watering holes of the Southern Tyrol, very pretty, astride the Adige, not high itself but surrounded by an imposing mountainscape. It has the Christmas market to die for. We spend 90 minutes juggling scarves and gloves with purses and parcels. The choristers show a heart-warming concern to get something really nice for their parents. Temperatures are again below zero, and we are pleased to get into a warm restaurant (with a large and welcoming table waiting for us), not least because the Duomo has no heating. But it does have a fabulous acoustic. This and the cold incline us once or twice to sharpness, though it’s not fatal. The local radio station records the concert, and our German camera-team makes a video. We do a longer than normal encore to get over a technical hitch experienced by the radio. We come away thinking that Merano must be wonderful in the summer. We are also pleased that this and yesterday’s concert have been early calls, leaving us time to unwind in the evening. The boys are noisy over supper, and the thought occurs to me that perhaps they are far too rested. Gathered on the spacious landing, they get another instalment in their bedtime reading.
It’s a short run to Verona. Our accommodation is where we have stayed before: high and imposing rooms and a really splendid downstairs restaurant. We don’t get to see anything in Verona other than a friendly Pizzeria and a fine Franciscan church. Everything goes according to plan, including the arrival of some visitors from the UK, though regrettably others have had flights cancelled. The coughs among some of the boys are now becoming a permanent feature: they are on the chest rather than the larynx, so that’s something to be grateful for. Today reminds me of the tourist’s dictum, it’s Monday so it must be Verona. We leave after a night’s stay.
Courtyard of hotel Cardinal Cesi
Now onto the final phase: four concerts down and another to go. The choir is singing really well, and the music is very comfortably in the memory, so the challenge of performing in the capital city is one we can face with equanimity. It’s been noticeable how much years 6 and 5 are contributing to the overall effect, with plenty of attentive watching and energized singing. We have a little wiry bus driver who treats his coach as a sports car, negotiating the narrower lanes of the Italian motorway to the centimetre. We get to Rome 30 minutes earlier than scheduled, until we hit the evening traffic. Low cloud had impeded the view of the Apennines, but everything in Rome is brilliantly illuminated, including the run up the Via della Conciliazione to St Peter’s Square. The choristers’ jaws drop audibly. They (choristers and jaws) alight at the Palazzo Cardinal Cesi (100 metres from St Peter’s Square); the clerks go round the corner to the Paolo VI.
This is a taste of the high life. We are in a real Palazzo, with its garden courtyard, arcades, and sumptuous décor. Of course, the boys pretend this is perfectly normal. We owe our 5* treatment to the Fondazione pro Musica e Arte Sacra, an organisation which raises funds for the restoration of Italian churches, and makes a virtue out of presenting prestigious concerts in the best of Roman basilicas. We are to discover what this means tomorrow. Tonight the boys go to bed in their grand surroundings, and Caroline and I have a chic supper in the Penthouse of the CEO of the Foundation.
St. Peter's, Rome, in front of Bernini's baldacchino
This will be a full day. Straight down to the Castel Sant’Angelo for views over Rome and bits and pieces of Roman history from Hadrian to the modern popes. We have only the first part of the morning, since we have been invited to sing at the Angelus said by Cardinal Comastri (tipped for high office). The invitation comes from Dr Courtial, the director of the Foundation. He has the run of the Vatican, or so it seems: the Swiss guards fall back as a man; we are ushered into the corridors of power. Once in, it is very homely, with a delightful reception from the Cardinal and his staff, after our rendition of Grieg’s Ave maris stella. (A huge basket of chocolate eggs appears, whether the residue of last Easter or an early delivery for the next, we don’t know.) Then the payback: a visit to the crypt of St Peter’s and to places where no ordinary visitor may roam. The solemn highpoint is a view of Peter’s bones over which the basilica has been constructed, and on which ‘rock’ the whole of Western Christendom built. A crude inscription and the age of the bones all point plausibly to AD67, just as convincingly as Hadrian’s remains in the Castel Sant’Angelo point to a second-century emperor. What remains of Peter is set in a simple earth-covered niche behind the sumptuously decorated and embossed ceilings and walls of the earlier Roman basilica. From there, up a flight of stairs into the central space of the present basilica, and a performance of Josquin’s Ave Maria facing Bernini’s magnificent baldacchino.
Then a visit to the archive of the fabric of the basilica, a room situated at the base of the dome, with views down into the church. Where we are standing is where Bernini executed his plans and drawings. The bookcases contain the complete archive of documents relating to the construction and maintenance of the basilica over the centuries, all in their original wrappers, each inscribed with its year and category of material. It is all rather too much to take in. The archivist reverses the professional stereotype: her words tumble forth, her eyes blaze, she moves like an athlete. As we leave, Dr Courtial points out the huge restoration project on the North side of the basilica, funded by his Foundation. It becomes very obvious why he can walk into the Vatican as he would into his own house. Lunch and rest and onto St Ignatius, with a quick peep at the Gesù and the Pantheon. We get ripped off in the local restaurant which charges us 15 euros each for a plateful of pasta and tomato sauce. But the concert makes up for it. St Ignatius is a riot of baroque splendour, brilliant golds and reds against soft eau de nil pilasters. It makes a perfect setting visually and acoustically for our final concert.
The front row of the audience boasts at least one cardinal, and HM ambassador. The singing is of a very high order, and Dr Courtial is sure that we are the best choir in the world (The Gramophone just puts us in the top 20). The clerks return to their hotel terrace and a well-earned drink; we return to tend to a couple of sick children.
The final concert of the tour - in St. Ignatius, Rome
Who wants pistachio?
Bags packed and left in the lumber room, and on to the no.81 bus, which takes us the long way round to the Colosseum. As we go, the day is warming up, and on the top of the Palatine Hill some of the choristers are down to sweatshirts. Somebody mentions 19° Celsius. San Clemente is on the itinerary: it is the best of the Roman medieval and Renaissance interiors, with a glittering 12th-century mosaic apse, and marble choir stalls of even earlier date. Below the church there is another church, and below that the remains of a first-century Roman house, including an intriguing room dedicated to Mithras. All very atmospheric: here again we confront the distant past as if it were yesterday.
The Forum is a difficult space to decipher: it too easily presents as a pile of overturned masonry. We do our best to evoke the people who lived there, and the scale and splendour of Roman civic architecture 2000 years ago. The counter-intuitive moment is having an ice-cream on the Via dei Fori Imperiali two days before Christmas, a treat, mind you, that costs nearly £100.
There is no decent underground network in Rome since all attempts to build new lines are thwarted by the discovery of new archaeological sites. So back to the buses to find there is no service to St Peter’s from the Piazza Venezia. It takes us a little while to identify a service that will take us to the river. We split into two groups as we confront the Roman commuters. I have my pocket picked, but the crooks drop their booty in the scramble to get off the bus. A late lunch in our friendly hosteria and back to the hotel for cases and the run to the airport.
A round of bridge at the airport before the flight home
It’s always a relief to see everybody climb aboard for the last leg. It is a double relief to know that Gatwick is open for normal service, though we could have done without the delay which results in a very nocturnal meeting in Savile Road, this time with yellow lines nowhere to be seen, and a large snowman looming in the near distance. We think of singing a carol, but it seems more important to get to bed.