Holidays, festivals and great people: getting to know San Leo Bastia
by Anna Battista
Green. Absinthe green. Imagine an absinthe green field. Green. Dark Green. Now imagine a hill covered with dark green trees. Then imagine more shades of green, olive green, emerald green and so on, surrounding you. Imagine more trees and plants only interrupted here and there by the roof of a house, or, on the distant hill, by an ancient tower. You got it? Well, you've just managed to evoke in your mind a small place in Umbria, right on the borders with Tuscany, a tiny place called San Leo Bastia. Here everybody seems to know each other and everybody seems to live in incredibly nice villas, which their inhabitants restored and turned into bed and breakfast inns, what they call "agriturismi" or places the tourists can simply rent for their holidays.
"Pleased to meet you", AnnaMaria's lips distend in an ample smile as if she were acknowledging the presence of a beloved relative or an old friend. This is my first time in San Leo and AnnaMaria and her family are offering me their hospitality at their house that they call Casa Vitiano. "San Leo Bastia is the last village of Umbria, it is settled at 50 km from Perugia, in Umbria, and at 20 km from Città di Castello, in Tuscany," my host AnnaMaria Tocchi explains to me, "The village takes the name from the Tower of the Bastia and has got around 500 inhabitants, but in summer the number of inhabitants grows since all the foreign people who own a house here come back for their holidays. Here in San Leo there are twenty agriturismi, then there are houses, flats and villas which can be rent."
Usually foreign tourists favour Tuscany, a part of which is literally colonised by British and American people who come to visit the region, fall in love with it and finally decide to settle there. One of them is the Scottish writer Muriel Spark, but one of the most famous writers adopted by the region was Gregor von Rezzori, who used to live in what has by now turned into the so-called von Rezzori Tower, near Florence, which has lately been the safe haven of writers Zadie Smith and Catherine Bush. In Tuscany and Umbria tourists are particularly intrigued by the Italian concept of what is commonly known as "agriturismo", that means to spend your holiday not in an expensive place, but in a house in the country where you don't pay that much and are revered by the owners as if you were part of the family.
To tell you the truth, even though the holiday in an agriturismo is usually considered a "farm holiday," it is more like spending your holidays with extremely kind feudal barons ready to help you in satisfying your desires. Casa Vitiano, AnnaMaria's house, can be defined as an agriturismo. "I always liked the idea of dedicating my life to tourism," AnnaMaria confesses, while we sip some homemade lemon liqueur. "My family had this house, which had been left abandoned for a period. So, little by little, we restored it, working on it for five years!" my host exclaims, explaining, "My family are all from here, so our house was a patronal house, which was divided in two parts. We own the ground floor, the first floor, the flower and vegetable gardens and the solarium. Those who bought this kind of houses or villas tried to change the structure using different materials and altering the structure of the building when they restored them, but we tried to respect the tradition while renovating it and we used old pieces of furniture to recreate a genuine atmosphere. Usually we rent the house on a weekly basis, though Italians prefer to rent it only for the weekend. There are many tourists every year who visit our village. As I said, there are people who own houses and come back only during the summer, then there are their friends who come with them and decide to come back alone after they've got to know the place. Most of our visitors are foreigners, usually British, American or German tourists, but also from we have had also people from South Africa or Australia. We also have a German lady who owns an agriturismo! We know most of the foreigners who come to visit us as by now they've been visiting us for quite a few years, they're regulars hence we can say that they have practically integrated in our community."
And who wouldn't integrate in such a place? The view that surrounds you is so beautiful that you wouldn't find the right words to describe it, swallows wheeze in the sky, ants run on the trunk of a wisteria and bumblebees suck its lilac flowers. Nothing moves around you and the solitary driver who comes down a hill in his car is wearing what looks like a weird spacesuit which is instead the proper outfit to protect yourself while collecting honey. But the nicest thing of this place is that people here help each other a lot "A year ago, all the people who own agriturismi got together and created an association which reunites thirty structures settled in San Leo Bastia, Montone and Città di Castello. The association was also helped by the local authorities and, while at the beginning we were only present with our stand of local products at various exhibitions to promote tourism, such as the BIT in Milan, now we have also an internet site."
"The association also organises courses of painting on ceramic, courses of how to collect honey or other activities for tourists. You can choose between expensive or cheap accomodation, but the most relevant thing is that we help each other. For example I don't have a swimming pool, but a friend of mine who also owns an agriturismo has one and my guests can go and use that structure, the same thing goes with mountain bikes, I have a couple of them and if I need others I ask them to another friend of mine who also owns a tourist structure and viceversa. In our house you can cook by yourself, but if you want you can order your meal from another agriturismo. And all the meals of course consist of local products, which are hand made pasta, such as cappelletti, tagliatelle or different kind of cheeses," AnnaMaria continues in a kind tone, which seems to be her distinctive feature, "Actually the first thing the visitors notice when they get here is the kindness and happiness of the local people. People use to tell us 'You're always smiling!' The second thing is the tranquillity of the place: you come here to relax yourself, to have a walk in the woods, to ride a horse at the horse center near us, or go for a ride with your bike to the Trasimeno Lake. On the contrary those who want to have fun can go to the local pubs or to the discos at 15-16 km from here. Anyway the thing tourists appreciate more here in our house is our vegetable garden since they can actually pick up some fruit and vegetables directly from the plant and then they like the solarium. Usually when we have visitors we have dinners and we bake some pizza in the oven in the garden or if our guests want, they can do their own culinary experiments. If you want you can collect the honey, even though it is a bit dangerous, or pick up the blackberries in the wood and prepare some jam with them. The best months to come and pay us a visit are May or June, because it is rather mild then and you can also visit the museums and churches around here as there aren't many visitors at that time of the year. Besides, at the end of June there's the Eden Rock Festival, a rock festival and it attracts young people. In July-August it is rather hot, whereas in September and October you can come and pick up mushrooms and grapes. In November we collect chestnuts and there is even a village chestnut festival. In winter it is nice, it's cold and dry and sometimes it is sunny throughout the day and the air is fresh and pure."
So you just have to choose the season that suits best to your hobbies and tastes to visit San Leo Bastia. "When we were young we wanted to leave this place because the village was small," AnnaMaria confesses, "but then the roads to get here were improved and now I don't think we will ever leave San Leo." "The family and the house" are the most important things for AnnaMaria so I ask her what happens when a tourist arrives. "The tourist is considered another member of the family! We get together, we become friends and usually when these people go away they call us, write us and keep in touch. A friend of mine once hosted in her house an American family and after two months their son went to the States to pay them a visit!" Indeed AnnaMaria and her family treat the tourist like a member of the family, actually I'm even invited to AnnaMaria's niece's birthday. And with her usual kindness AnnaMaria smiles at me and suggests, "Well, if tourists don't believe what we say, they're welcomed to come and visit us!" Just try. You won't regret it.
I'm on a mission. I'm going to San Leo Bastia to see the local music festival, also known as the Eden Rock Festival. I'm on a mission. I also have to meet a few friends of mine. I'm on a mission. "Can you please tell me when the bus to San Leo is leaving?" I ask an exhausted bus driver who promptly answers me "You missed the only bus which was going there…" See I was on a mission. I'm rambling around Città di Castello almost in despair, when instead of finding a bus, I find a nun who's waiting for her nephew to come and take her to Trestina, a village near San Leo. Miraculously she offers to give me a hand and I finally get to Trestina where a very kind friend rescues me from the boiling hot there and brings me to San Leo. The festival site is really quiet, though the local people are doing their best as one of the organisers, Luca Nottoli, explains me. The festival lasts for three days, but I got there on the second day, so I missed a few local bands--Indian Steel, Dedalo, Lumiere, DT3 and GTO--playing and the usual bunch of people having fun.
The second day looks nice all the same: a few typical festival stalls, nice people and the average tolerable bands, Necrofilia, Insetto, B-Blast. The second to go on stage are the Dunia, three girls: Angelica, the voice and guitar of the band, Silvia the bass player and a particularly energetic drummer, Elena. I never heard them playing but I've been told that they're a sensation, so I follow their set with particular attention. Well, I must admit that these girls have got a good dose of stamina: they play particularly violent guitar riffs and drums but still manage to retain the sweetness and innocence of Red Riding Hood. Angelica is far from being PJ Harvey, and yet she sings with the same aplomb, as if singing and playing were for her the most natural things on this planet; Silvia professionally plays the bass and Elena does her part without giving a bloody fuck about the audience. Passion is passion after all.
When the set is finished Elena meets me in the backstage and timidly introduces herself asking how did it go according to me. Hmm, to tell you the truth they went down pretty well, without the sheer inability that characterised a couple of the bands that played at the festival. So, in the end I decide that it is not a bad idea to have a chat with them. Angelica is the first to talk and the one who tells me the story of Dunia: "I had the obsession of forming a female band since I was a little girl. I started playing the guitar, an instrument I knew also Silvia was playing, and, when I formed a band, I asked her to play the bass. I knew that Elena played the drums and since we used to hang around the same places in Terni, it was easy for us to get in touch and start playing together. Elena is the youngest, she's seventeen, Silvia is twenty and I'm eighteen." And then Silvia continues their story: "We started playing in October 2000 and in November and December of the same year, after around two months we played our first gigs. At first we did PJ Harvey and Hole's covers, but then Angelica started writing some stuff and we consequently started working on that material. She wrote practically everything, except one track in which I made up the bass line." "We sent a demo CD to Tutto, an Italian magazine, which uses to review demos from unsigned bands and they gave us the best mark," Angelica remembers, "from then we were called to do a radio interview and you know, sometimes when we said that we had started playing together for a short time before doing a proper gig, people didn't believe us. So we had to say that we had been playing for a long time. That was what happened at the selections to play at the Arezzo Wave Love Festival. We didn't pass, but we'll try again next year!" Angelica concludes.
"But we passed the selections to take part in this festival in San Leo Bastia. And it was great to play here," Silvia enthuses, "it went down really well, we played well. When the audience answers positively to your music, that gives you good vibes." Dunia might be young but their inspirations to make music are manifold: "At first I used to listen to punk and grunge," Angelica confesses, "but then I moved on, getting to know also different kind of music, such as Ben Harper's. Though my idol is PJ Harvey: I like her a lot because she's not only a good musician, but she is an actress and also a good singer." Then Elena chirps in, "I started listening Nirvana, then I passed to Pearl Jam and I like Hole a lot, but I don't have a role model for my drumming." Silvia seems to have different inspirations: "I grew up listening to the Beatles, I passed to Nirvana, but lately I've been listening to Blonde Redhead, At the Drive-In and Linea 77. My model bass player is Red Hot Chili Pepper's bassist."
Dunia also had an Irish musical experience: with other unsigned Italian bands they went, with the help of the EEC, to Derry, in Ireland. Here they visited the Nerve Center, a recording studio with state of the art equipment, where they followed a music seminar which allowed them to improve playing guitar, bass and drums and to learn how to use a recording studio and how to DJ. Of curse Dunia also played inside the Nerve Center and in Belfast together with a few local bands. The girls were naturally shocked by Belfast and the fights between Catholics and Protestants, but Silvia also states that this experience helped them a lot, since they had the occasion to compare their way of making music with the local bands', but above all because they realised that even in a particularly difficult situation on a social political and religious level like the one in Belfast, music can still be the cohesive element among young people. Amazingly, Dunia were really welcomed in Ireland and they even managed to have a discreet success in Belfast. And yet, Dunia haven't got a proper album out or a proper contract. "We did a demo with three tracks, we recorded it for the Arezzo Festival selections, but it contains stripped to the bone tracks." Elena explains, adding "As time passed we grew up and found our own sound, we feel we have grown up since then." "Now we're ready to face a lot of work and we're also ready to accept any offer from a producer or a record label!" Angelica positively concludes.
So, while I leave the girls rambling around the festival site I meet somebody else, Davide Toffolo, I Tre Allegri Ragazzi Morti's lead singer. His band has just finished playing, actually they were today's headliners. Tonight's set was a very rock'n'rollish thing and, as usual, the band played the set wearing masks. Toffolo is in fact in his life a comic writer, better known for comics such as the magazine Fandango (Marvel Italia) in which the main feature was a comic entitled I Cinque Allegri Ragazzi Morti (The Five Happy Dead Boys), narrating the vicissitudes of a band made up of teen-zombies. Toffolo's band takes the name from his comic, besides him and his band members have practically taken to removing their physicality every time they play, so, to annihilate their own personalities, they just wear skull masks.
In a certain way I Tre Allegri Ragazzi Morti's existence is mixed up with Toffolo's comic characters. Which makes us think that there is another band doing the same thing in the UK, the overestimated Gorillaz "We started wearing masks four years ago," Davide explains, "and I think the difference between us and them stands in the fact that they're called Gorillaz and we're called I Tre Allegri Ragazzi Morti, but the basic idea of communicating something is different. I personally think that the hypothesis of working on a project which doesn't include the actual physical presence has always been something really strong in us, perhaps we've been the first ones to understand that, but now a lot of musicians are doing it. You know, there's this physical place which stands between being asleep and being awoken in which all comic writers meet and are linked together, as also Aleksandar Zograf says. Perhaps for what regards Gorillaz we might even say that we met there, probably something of this kind happened! Anyway, I think that in Italy it is better not to have any ideas, because it is a place in which you can't really put into effect your own ideas. If there are bands who have some kind of idea, better ideas than anybody else's, they end up having very difficult problems to face since they are in the wrong place to do the right stuff. Anyway, we have been understood in the end, we have good fans and we're having great fun in doing what we do."
Davide claims of having different influences when it comes to music and comics: "But I'm old, so I think that those who are as old as me can like the same bands I like such as The Velvet Underground. They're part of my adolescence and these are the kind of bands that stimulated me. I don't really listen today's music, at present I'm listening to beat stuff, stuff from the '60s. I think that the Italian bands who keep on playing right now are heroes, I think that Italy is the worst place to play music right now. We've just released our album, which I'm proud to say has got a dated sound, actually it sounds as much dated as possible. It is called La Testa Indipendente, The Independent Mind, that is my mind! For what regards comics, well, there are a lot of important comic writers in my life such as the Italian Andrea Pazienza, but they're all from the end of the '70s or the beginning of the '80s, but I'm also influenced by American comic artists. My style is formed by these two influences and it is an elaborate style. On the contrary, for what regards music, well, I play rock'n'roll. My music is actually stripped to the bone, also because I started playing late in my life, so I tend to play in a very simple way without using a lot of riffs."
Toffolo might claim of being old, but he likes a young and hip comic writer, "The greatest comic artist at present is called Daniel Clowes, he's the greatest writer alive, not only the greatest comic writer. Ghost World is a nice comic, but I'm not interested in the affinities I can have with his type of writing or his stories. He's got a different way to communicate, he communicates differently with his readers if he's compared to me and surely he's got a more adult way of communication than mine. He's simply a genius, and he's new, you can see in his tract the influence of the American underground comic scene, but he's got an absolutely new way of writing." At a certain point of the comic Ghost World, Enid tells Rebecca that she is going to meet a comic writer she likes a lot during one of his appearances at a comic shop. Enid ends up having a great delusion after realising that she's actually idolised her star too much. Apparently this kind of delusions never happened to Davide: "I never had such delusions because fortunately my idols were all incarnated by the people I was surrounded by. A lot of people used to idolise David Bowie, Lou Reed or somebody else, but my idols were the people who were really close to me, such as the people of Il Complotto di Pordenone who in the end were the people I always saw and used to hang around with."
Davide has got new projects going on for what regards his comics "A lot of people are asking me to release the magazine Fandango more often, but I think I'll change my direction. Fandango was a very very important experience in my life because it showed me a limit in my possibilities of production. The next thing I'm going to work on is a biography of an Italian boxer or the '30s, Primo Carnera. Besides I like dynamic situations, I like working with other people, I like working with groups of people, and when I did Fandango I was practically working alone. The problem at present is that I'm becoming a grown up and I'm going to turn my efforts into releasing comic books. I've been working for Marvel in Italy and you get in such big publishing houses only if you have a past. It is rather easy for them to get an Italian cartoonist, also thanks to their hard currency, but their investments are limited as there is a limited possibility to move the material actually produced in Italy." After obliging Davide to do a little drawing for San Leo and sign it, I let him go to have his dinner.
The air is chilling and it is almost freezing in the field where the festival is taking place, yes, because another nice thing about this festival is that it is practically immersed between the green hills of Umbria. Very nice place and very nice day also the third day of the whole thing, more bands arrive, bands that verge between rockish and trashy cabaret music, Suoni Liquidi, Violet Revol, Situazione Senza, Bonacrianza and finally the headliners Reggae National Ticket, a reggae band as their name suggests. All the people are dancing and having fun while they're playing, but trying to have a chat in the backstage with Reggae National Ticket is practically useless as they are lost between groupies and joints. Hmmm, too many distractions, but that's what happens when you're at a festival, isn't it?
Rambling around the festival area I give a look at the stalls and get to know Daniela who's behind the Volafrica project, a program to gain funds for Africa. She explains me a lot of stuff about missions in Africa, about health and education there and about her work. Then she draws my caricature on a balloon which portrays me with a microphone in my hand asking everyone "Can I interview you please?" and sticks it to my rucksack. Well, it looks like she's just found one of my obsessions: interviewing people!
When the festival ends and the moment comes to go back home, it is a bit sad to leave all my old and my new found friends and it is traumatic to leave those beautiful green hills and AnnaMaria's little castle, Casa Vitiano. Oh well, I'll have another chance to go there. Meanwhile I can proclaim I've finally found a nice place where you can have great holidays, hear nice music and make new friends. It is called San Leo Bastia.
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Special thanks to:
- Luca Nottoli for getting me to San Leo and for sorting my passes - that
was really appreciated, thanks mate,