This weekend was the San Michele Festival. Sounds grand, doesn’t it? But San Michele is a chapel the size of the average bathroom, at the top of a mountain nearly 2000 feet above sea level and only reached by five miles of winding rough track interspersed with stretches of concrete. Whoever built it certainly wanted the faithful to do some work getting there for services. Anyway, every year they have a “festa” where the locals turn up with food and wine, a bonfire is lit and everybody eats and chats, first for Saturday night and then most of Sunday, with a Mass thrown in during the afternoon.
We knew little of this beforehand, and our neighbour Anna was little the wiser having never been before either. So we set out on Saturday evening just about at dusk, fairly poorly equipped for a night out on a mountaintop. The drive up from the valley is serious punishment for the average car, especially the last part, which gives even 4x4s a hard time. We left our car before that point and were taken up from there by someone who knew the way, the local electrician Patrizio, bouncing about in an ordinary Citroen Berlingo. At the top is a clearing, part of which is used as a car park, then there’s a circle of cement used as a dance floor and a slope up to the chapel itself, a three-sided affair (like a kind of large bus shelter) which has recently been rebuilt by one of the locals, Renato, who wears many hats including those of builder and water diviner. By the side of the ‘dance floor’ a two-piece band was setting up; the place has water and electricity laid on and a proper toilet out the back, albeit in an old ruin with just four walls and no roof. The bonfire was well under way and next to it was a large grill set above hot ashes, loaded with sausages and mutton chops. About 50 people turned up in all.
After some of the food and wine had been consumed the dancing started, the band playing a rather limited selection of mainly Italian numbers but some where at least the tunes were recognisable if not the words. Everybody – young and old – joins in with no apparent shyness and the people are very friendly. Most of them come from Apricale itself, though San Michele isn’t particularly close to our village. By 11pm we were getting a little tired, with sore rears from sitting on sloping planks set on logs, but there was no sign of proceedings coming to any kind of a close. The night was pitch black and we hadn’t brought a torch (note: two wind-up torches required) so walking the kilometre back down to our car was out of the question, but eventually we managed to cadge a lift in a 4×4, then we transferred to our own car and bumped the rest of the way down to the main road. We finally arrived back at the house at 1am.
On Sunday Anna asked if we’d like to go back for the rest of the festival. She had to go as she’d baked apfel strudel for the refreshments but Frances had had enough and wanted a quiet day in. I decided to go on the scooter, which turned out to be better suited to the mountain track than was the car, and I was able to get to the top without too much trouble, though the last half mile was hairy. It turned out that things yesterday had finally quietened down at 4am; some of the younger people take tents and sleep over. The day was much the same combination of chatting, eating and drinking; good for my Italian practice. In the mid-afternoon Mass was held in the chapel; that’s to say the priest was in but the congregation were all gathered outside. It had been cloudy all day and it started to rain, but umbrellas appeared from nowhere including a huge one erected next to the chapel to keep the faithful dry.
To amuse the children someone organized a contest where they were paired up and dressed in black bin-bags. A supply of fresh eggs had been brought up and the idea is to play catch with an egg, the contestants moving a step further apart after each throw. At some point someone misses and there’s a broken egg, hence the bin bags. The kids all seem to love it and they get plenty of encouragement.
I have a new name. Renato (who is apparently a figure of some importance in the village) decided that I should have not just an Italian one but a local (Ligurian) one, and I am now not only Giovanni but Guá, pronounced Jew-ah with the emphasis on the ah. It’s apparently an old Apricale name and I believe I should consider it something of an honour. How about that for only a week! And it’s possible I’ve volunteered us to help with the local grape harvest; we’ll see if anything becomes of my casual enquiry if any help was needed.
So here we are, seven days in and already pillars of local society. Well maybe not quite that but we’ve certainly had some exposure this weekend and we know the names of at least eight people.