Ciao from Montecatini!
Preface to today's events: The forecast was for rain all day. While it did rain, it only did when we were inside. Every time we had something to do outside, it cleared up and stopped. It was truly remarkable and somewhat miraculous!
Today was a busy and meaningful day. We started with another early wake up at 6:00. We had breakfast and loaded to the coaches to drive to the American Cemetery in Florence. Any American who visits Florence MUST go to these amazingly beautiful and reverent grounds. As we pulled into the entrance, we were met by a 50 foot flagpole flying the Stars and Stripes. Behind that we saw a plush green hill bearing 4402 white marble crosses and stars of David where Amercian soldiers who died in the Italian Campaign are laid to rest. Our coaches weaved their way up the curvy drive to the top of the hill. We unloaded and met at the top, where there is a wall with over 1000 more names of soldiers who are missing in action from that campaign, mostly airmen who were shot down. We listened to a moving talk by a retired serviceman named Angel, who told us about the cemetery and the American involvement in Italy. He told us the average age of those buried is 22, with many of them being the same age as our seniors. What a powerful moment for our students to think about what these soldiers went through at that age. After Angel's talk, we formed up on the steps and sang the great Spiritual "Ride the Chariot". We had three of our adults who are veterans so we brought them out to sing for them. After that song, we moved amongst to the grave markers and sang the great hymn, "Abide With Me".
It was a very moving tribute to a hill full of American Heroes. We then had time to walk around the grounds. Angel had asked everyone to pick a stone, read the name, take a picture of it, and take it with them, because for some of the soldiers, it could be the first time anyone has ever visited their grave. I was so proud to watch our students spread out over the whole place and take that charge seriously. There were some that went to the farthest corners, probably knowing they were the markers least seen. I walked around for a while until I found PFC Albert H. Turner from my home state of Ohio and chose him to honor.
Then right before loading up to move on to the rest of our day, some Chamber Choir members asked if we could sing our song called "Afternoon on a Hill". It seemed very appropriate, so we ended our stay there by gathering under the flagpole to honor them one last time.
It was such a powerful visit and I'm humbled to have had the great privilege of bringing my choir there.
Our next destination was the Tuscan countryside. We had a rainy drive there, but it was still breathtaking scenery as we weaved through the hilly landscape of Italian wine country. Up near the medieval town of San Gimignano there is a winery and olive oil farm called Palagetto, where we went for a tour and to have lunch. This winery has been around since the middle ages and has always been the biggest supplier of wine in the region. We took a short tour of the grounds and the building, seeing where they crush the olives, grapes and where they ferment the wine in cement casks to keep them temperature-controlled. We then made our way in to the cellar where we had lunch at long tables between the wine barrels.
What a fantastic setting for an Italian meal! I want to commend the students on their patience, as they arrived to the meal earlier and were finished before the parents, who then took a bit of time to order bottles or cases of wine to be shipped back home.
Then we loaded up and headed toward the little town of Pisa, obviously famous for it's "Leaning Tower". On the way there our guide Lisa told us that all the rival cities in the region compared themselves by the prowess of their bell towers. They would claim theirs was the tallest, of had the biggest bell, etc. Soon after Pisa began building theirs, it start to tip. they tried to correct it by curving it a bit upward (which I never noticed in pictures, but you can easily see). They soon became the laughing stock of the area. But our guide said now they are "laughing all the way to the bank" because if the tower were straight, there would be no reason to come visit Pisa! They just recently spent millions of dollars to have a Japanese architect fortify the tower with underground cement and a series of steel supports throughout. It came with a 250 year guarantee. So they should be a tourist stop for centuries to come.
As we pulled into where the coaches parked, of course the rain stopped. We got out and walked ten minutes into the town. I will say that the square where the duomo and the tower sit is pretty beautiful! We gave the kids 20 minutes to take their standard "hold up the tower" pictures before we had to go into the duomo and sing a quick three song set.
We walked in the back door of a really pretty cathedral. It is under some construction, so the main altar area was closed off. We formed up in one of the side alcove altars and it was a glorious place to sing. And the kids did not disappoint! They sang their best yet. Our sounds rang throughout the marble rafters and surrounded us with warm, round tone. I don't think we've ever sung Sicut Cervus any better than today. And our final fortissimo cutoff of Vieni Nel Mio Cuore was breathtaking. I saw the kids start to look up and around as the sound continued long after we were finished singing. We had a little time after we sang to walk around this picturesque church and then went outside to do a "flash mob" version of "Ride the Chariot" out in the plaza near the tower.
We were enthusiastically received by the crowd out there. Then we walked back to the coaches through the souvenir market where there were plenty of guys selling genuine "Rolox" watches and "Roy Ban" Sunglasses. Several of our students took the opportunity to get a great deal on these "designer" items. We got back on the coaches, and of course the heavy rain started. We arrived back at the hotel with an hour to relax before dinner. After dinner and our nightly meeting, we carried on the choir trip tradition of singing to our terrific hotel staff on our last night in each hotel. We sang Old Irish Blessing and they were moved by our gesture.
Well, then it was off to the rooms to pack up for "moving day" as we are off to Assisi by way of Siena. (my two favorite cities in Italy)
Blog at you tomorrow!