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Syracuse Shenanigans

A very good day everyone! As I write this it is the afternoon of Monday 20th April 2020 and it is a pleasant, if overcast, 18°C (64°F) here in Syracuse, Sicily. We have had a very enjoyable overnight stay in this beautiful Sicilian city and will not be departing until later this evening, when we will amble up the coast to Messina on board the delightful ‘Serenissima’. Well – that is what I would have been writing if the world had not completely changed in the last six weeks. Instead, I am here at home in Hythe, Kent, and it is 14°C (57°F) with strong winds but sunny skies. “A good drying day”, as my auntie would say.

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First and foremost, I hope everyone who is reading this, and their friends and relatives, are all doing well in these troubled times. I live on my own. My parents live a two hour drive away in West Sussex, and my grandmother is a three hour drive away in Suffolk. However, I’ve done my best to keep in touch with them, via letter and telephone, and all are well. Some of you were on the most recent cruise with me (from Aqaba to Alanya in March) and will recall that my parents were on board. In hindsight, I am grateful that they were sailing with me as I have obviously not had the chance to see them since we went our separate ways at Heathrow.

I have been asked by Noble Caledonia if I could write a weekly column on anything that springs to mind whilst this crisis continues. Naturally, I am very happy to do all I can to assist, and I am grateful to be asked. I was on the phone to Laura Cochrane this afternoon and said that I would write about the most recent cruise and the fun and games that we had as various countries started to close their facilities and ultimately their borders. However, I think I’ll save that for another time. Starting this column by mentioning that I should be in Syracuse today has immediately brought back a favourite memory which I hope you won’t mind me sharing with you…

 Syracuse is always a highlight of any trip to Sicily. I have been fortunate enough to circumnavigate the island a few times with Noble Caledonia, and any visit is always one I look forward to. Every civilisation has left its mark on the island, and the variety of places to visit are splendid. From the cable-car ride up to Erice from Trapani, the numerous temples at Agrigento, the incredible mosaics at the Villa Romana del Casale, the views across a turquoise sea from the cafés of Taormina, skirting Stromboli in the hope of volcanic activity – I could continue for many pages about the attractions of this island. However, in terms of visiting somewhere for the city itself, there is no better than Syracuse. The beauty of our small ships is that we can dock close to the city centre and stroll to the many sights. With previous companies I worked for, we would have long queues for the tenders to take us back and forth, which would severely restrict your time ashore. You can never have enough time in Syracuse…

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 The particular visit I want to mention was whilst on board ‘Hebridean Sky’, on Thursday 29th September 2016. It was billed as the 25th anniversary cruise of Noble Caledonia, and I had been honoured to be asked to be the Cruise Director. Noble Caledonia legend Chantal Cookson was part of the on board team, and we had set off from Malta two days before with great hopes for this special cruise. We were also delighted that a quintet (four singers and a pianist) from the renowned London Festival Opera, led by Philip Blake-Jones, were sailing with us.

 The day in Syracuse included our regular visits to the highlights of this beautiful city. First stop had been the Archaeological Park of Syracuse, with the chance to venture inside the Ear of Dionysius, view the Roman and Greek theatres, and try to imagine how the area must have been a thriving cityscape two millennia ago. The second part of the morning had been a walking tour of the city itself, including the sixth-century Temple of Apollo and the Cathedral of Syracuse, whose original structure was a Greek Doric Temple. The Cathedral sits in the appropriately named Piazza del Duomo, and we would be returning there in the evening.

As part of the 25th anniversary celebrations for Noble Caledonia, the idea had arisen that we would have London Festival Opera perform in the Palazzo Beneventano del Bosco, opposite the cathedral in Piazza del Duomo. The ornate palazzo dates back to the Middle Ages but the version we see today mostly stems from the late 18th century.

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 We had a free afternoon for the passengers to siesta, relax in the sunshine on deck, or stroll around Syracuse. There was then due to be an early dinner before we meandered across to the palazzo for an evening concert. What could possibly go wrong?

 Our local agent on the east coast of Sicily is a wonderfully flamboyant chap called Sergio. We have worked together on many visits to Sicily, with different companies, and he assured me that all will be fine with the evening concert. He then casually mentioned, towards the end of lunch, that he “hopes the piano will arrive before the evening”. After nearly choking on my cannoli, I asked him to repeat himself. I had presumed that the palazzo would already contain a piano and it would simply be a case of laying out enough chairs for the passengers to enjoy the performance. It transpired that the palazzo did have a piano, but that it was a prized antique and not to be used, touched or even looked at. Sergio was however confident that the piano would arrive soon, complete with two men to move it to the first floor room where the concert was to take place. I was reassured when his phone rang and it was the delivery men who were approaching Syracuse, and that he had a piano tuner on standby. Safe in the knowledge that all was in hand I finished my cannoli and wandered back to my cabin to write the following day’s programme. I should have known better.

 Late-afternoon comes and the leader of London Festival Opera, the baritone Philip Blake-Jones, is asking me to urgently come to the gangway. Philip is one of the most calm, professional and delightful people I’ve ever met. A gentleman in the true sense of the word. For him to be urgently seeking me meant it must be something serious. I reached the gangway and found him there, looking nervous. “We’ve got a problem with the piano”, he said. “Surely it’s arrived by now?” I replied. “Yes, we can’t get it up the stairs”, came Philip’s response. Naturally this puzzled me – they had the local agent, the delivery men, the staff from the palazzo, surely that’s enough people? What transpired was that the Baron had been at home when the piano arrived and had noticed that the system they were planning to use to transfer the grand piano to the first floor venue was to more-or-less drag it on its side up the stairs. The stairs at the palazzo were made from beautiful marble, and he was understandably not having them potentially damaged by a grand piano. Philip and Sergio asked me to come to the palazzo and assist, but with no knowledge of Italian and the Baron speaking little English I wasn’t sure what use I would be. I could see the concern on Philip’s face so I walked over to the palazzo to investigate – saying a cheery “hello” to many passengers as we passed, all oblivious to the bizarre situation we were facing.

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 Sure enough, there was no way we were going to be able to move the piano up the stairs. Knowing that we had future visits to Syracuse in the pipeline, I didn’t want to upset the Baron. Since that evening, I have visited him several times and he is clearly very highly thought of in Sicilian circles and I always enjoy his generous company. The only option we could think of was to install the piano where it currently was, in the open-air courtyard. With some additional lighting, and utilising the grand staircase and the first floor windows, perhaps we could pull this off. With a Sicilian shrug of the shoulders the staff in the palazzo set about moving all the previously laid-out chairs from the first floor to the courtyard and I left Philip to rearrange how the concert would be performed whilst I returned to the ship and checked the weather forecast every thirty seconds, praying that it wouldn’t rain in the evening.

An early dinner was completed and the passengers made their stately way off the ship and over the bridge into Syracuse for the concert. Chantal led the way, with me bringing up the rear and continuing to pray for dry weather. I had also realised earlier in the day that the walk to the venue (about half a mile) might be a little challenging for some of our guests, particularly after the complimentary wine at lunch and dinner! I had spotted a local tourist land-train doing the rounds of the city earlier in the day, and asked Sergio to come with me to chat with the driver. After much passionate debate, complete with waving arms and raised voices, it was agreed that, if I paid for everyone who used it, then the train driver would return in the evening to transfer those passengers that wished to use the train to the venue. I can still remember the surprise on the passengers’ faces when I said they had a choice between walking and taking the train!

 When we arrived, Chantal turned to me and said, “What a fabulous idea to have a concert in this gorgeous open-air courtyard”. I didn’t have the heart to tell her then that it wasn’t meant to be like that! The only thing I hadn’t thought of was noise pollution. Two towering gates closed the courtyard off to the Piazza del Duomo, but on a balmy Thursday evening in late September, the square was still busy with tourists, locals and buskers. One busker, complete with accordion and upturned flat cap, took the unfortunate decision to stand outside the palazzo’s gates and perform for the passing public. I was standing next to the Baron, at the back of the courtyard by the gates, whilst one of the London Festival Opera sopranos was launching into a beautiful aria. In slow English and made-up sign language (which is always the best way to pretend to speak a foreign language) I quietly said to the Baron that it was a shame that we could hear the accordion outside his gates. He raised his right index finger and, in the style of Arnold Schwarzenegger, said “I’ll be back”. To this day, I have no idea what happened, but the gates opened just enough for the Baron to pass through, and a few seconds later, with an ear-piercing squeak, the accordion music stopped. Moments later the Baron re-appeared by my side, smiled, and said, “No problem”. The concert continued, the London Festival Opera cleverly utilised their unexpected venue by having performers enter via the staircase and, occasionally, the sopranos sing from an opened first floor window. With the concert finished we went inside the palazzo and a vast spread of canapés and a seemingly endless supply of fine Sicilian wines was laid out before us. Seeing the piano so beautifully illuminated in the corner of the courtyard, I couldn’t help but play one tune, and was grateful that Chantal happened to take a photograph, which I will forever treasure.

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At the end of the evening, the passengers meandered back the ship and I was left to survey what remained of the canapés and wine. Philip and Sergio came to me and we all smiled and agreed it was one of the most fraught events we had ever set up, and yet it had turned out to be a complete triumph. The three of us walked back to the ship and I spent the night dreaming of palazzos with lifts and wondering what had happened to the accordionist.

 

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