Thursday, 2 June 2016

An Italian Accordion-hunt

Finding the recent French weather a little on the inclement side for a full enjoyment of life, I decided to realise a long-held ambition and go travelling in northern Italy. As my focus, I decided upon two accordion museums, one in Stradella, where the standard left-hand fingering system used on the majority of modern accordions was invented, and the other in Castelfidardo, the "town of accordions" where my piano accordion was born in the workshops of the maker Borsini.

After two or three hours driving along the autostrada that winds down out of the mountains, along the Aosta valley and out into the plains beyond, I found myself driving along a cosy tree-lined avenue and into the backstreets of a small town. Having found a place to park, I wandered through the narrow, Sunday-afternoon streets, and eventually found, on a rather unassuming functional library building, a plaque reading, "Museo della Fisarmonicha". Being a Sunday, the library was closed, but the building was open. Along a dingy corridor, sitting at a trestle table were two ageing men who seemed altogether surprised and excited that anyone had come to the museum at all, let alone someone all the way from England! They spoke no English, but in a mixture of not-quite-English and not-quite-Italian (gleaned mostly from my phrasebook and dictionary that I had taken along) they found out a bit about me, including that I play the accordion. Brimming with excitement, the older of the two gentlemen led me back along the corridor and with a gleeful, "Andiamo!" beckoned me up the stairs. From a locker in the roped-off library area he produced a key, with which he opened a glass door leading to a small suite of smaller rooms, in which was an exhibition outlining the local and contextual history of the accordion. I didn't have much time to look at the exhibition, however, because for the next hour or so, the excited man plied me with a stream of Italian constituting a verbal version of what the museum had to say. From the occasional familiar-sounding word amongst the Italian, and the photos he was referring to along the way, I gleaned that I was being told the story of an Austrian who had settled here in the early 19th century and had found the local standard of craftsmanship ideal for developing the squeezebox into something resembling the instrument we know today.

A while - I could not say how long - into this personalised guided tour, the other gentleman appeared in the exhibition room, followed by a group of about 15 Italian tourists. He interrupted my guide, and said to me, "you play the accordion, don't you?" I nodded yes, and he immediately announced "we need someone to play for this group: will you do that for us?" Wow! I had assumed that everyone in this town would be an accordionist, but that did not seem to be the case. So, being the only box-player in the house, I unwittingly became the star of the Stradella accordion museum! They handed me a full-size piano accordion, and while the two gentlemen showed the tourists around, I sat and played the accordion to the best of my abilities, despite it having a rather different feel to the one I am used to. I received many encouraging comments from the captivated crowd, and when I played Il Mio Sono they erupted in applause (that one always goes down well with Italians, even with a few wrong notes!)

The group eventually left, satisfied with their experience, and my guide resumed my tour, showing me around the various examples of different types of accordion, prototypes and attempts at different forms of accordion, including a table-top synthesiser with Stradella-system fingering on the bass.

He also felt I should have a go on one other accordion, in particular to see the difference in sound quality with the one I had played before. Between us we lifted the perspex dust cover off a plinth, and I picked up the accordion housed within and strapped it on. Indeed the quality was different, much more mellow and melodious…. It was explained to me that on this particular instrument, the reed housings were made of copper, rather than the usual aluminium. I'm sure this makes for a difference in price as well as sound quality!

Eventually satiated with local accordion knowledge, I thanked the gentlemen and bade them farewell.

I thought that I would go and visit Florence, as I had been there on a school trip in 1998 and was curious to see if it had changed in my mind since then. In Florence, there is a bronze statue of a boar. You are supposed to rub the boar's nose, and this means that at some point you will return to Florence. In 1998 I had not rubbed the boar's nose, so part of me wanted to go back to the city and rub it to guarantee a third return - and perhaps I wanted the opportunity of an Arthur Dent - style insurance policy (Arthur Dent knows that he cannot die until after he has been to Stavromula Beta, so he simply never goes there). So I phoned up Florence Youth Hostel, made sure that they had space, and drove straight there, which took about 3 hours. The magic boar had other ideas, however: I never made it to Florence, as the youth hostel is not in the city, but beyond it, in a small town in the Tuscan hills, on the way to two other places I had visited before, San Gimignano and Siena.

After a night in a dormitory full of snoring Americans and Chinese, I drove over the hills to San Gimignano, a hilltop town which has a number of skyscrapers dating from the 13th and 14th centuries! Apparently a lot of Italian towns and cities used to have towers like this: they were status symbols erected by rival families.

San Gimignano is perhaps the best preserved concentration of such towers in a small town. I wandered the streets, enjoying the ways the geography of the place had shifted in my mind over the years, and had a truly awful slice of doughy tourist pizza, topped with floppy canned mushrooms. After a bit of busking in a non-obvious side road, I got back on the road and went to Siena. This is a bustling student/tourist town, with perhaps the most picturesque town centre imaginable, centring on a sloping semicircular piazza around the huge tower of the town hall. Again, the scale and geography of the place had shifted in my mind, but it was truly pleasant to while the balmy evening away sitting in the piazza, as I continued my fruitless search for a decent pizza (the one I had here had nothing on but pesto, and burnt the roof of my mouth).


I had found an out-of-season rate on a lakeside hotel in the middle of Italy, so after my pleasant Siennese evening, I drove to the village of Passignano sul Trasimeno. Although it was late when I arrived, I couldn't resist a saunter around the village before bed. The old town was near the hotel, and consisted of ancient streets winding steeply up a hill to a castellated high point. It reminded me somewhat of how I imagined Cittagazze in His Dark Materials and was also rather a lot like Minas Tirith as depicted in the Lord of the Rings films.

The lake itself - Lago Trasimeno - is somewhat interesting, as it has no outflow: the water escapes from it by evaporation. This was part of the reason it was one of the last areas in Italy to eradicate malaria. Although I only got one mosquito bite while I was there (hopefully malaria is still eradicated!), there were copious swarms of other kinds of flies, and I had to keep my hotel windows shut as the one time I opened one of them briefly, at least 10 of the critters got in.

In the morning, I played my accordion on the lake shore and then drove right across the middle of Italy. The landscape and infrastructure reminded me very much of Japan: roads have a habit of being unfinished, in the sense that a multi-lane highway will just stop and become a winding mountain road, and perhaps then turn back a few miles later. The road which was marked being built on the map I had ("due for completion in 2008") had still not been finished, and yet another road, which had not even been thought of in 2008 had been completed and in use for several years. Eventually, I saw the Adriatic sea, and found my way - despite a SatNav battery failure - to another hilltop town: Castelfidardo.

This seems to be an accordion town to a much greater extent than Stradella: there is an accordion shop or maker on almost every street corner, and accordion designs are worked into the very fabric of the town on railings etc.

The accordion museum here is bigger and self-described as "International" and by the blasé welcome I got, they seem to be much more used to people coming to visit (even people from as far away as England!) So I did not become the star of any particular show, but there were a few interesting things to see: such as an accordion-type-instrument built based on a design by Leonardo da Vinci who pre-empted the accordion by more than 300 years;

 an accordion chess set, and a huge collection of accordion tat: little ornaments depicting all manner of creatures and characters playing accordions.

There were also 3 different types of accordion "for tourists to try playing if they want a go", so of course I had to have a go. The museum attendants neither seemed overly impressed nor particularly condescending about my accordion playing ability.

I then braved the intense rainstorm and moved to a different place - a tiny "museum" in the back of an accordion shop, where I saw and "played" the two largest accordions in the world. These are both a few metres high and have special automated mechanisms for operating the bellows.

A bit of a tourist gimmick, really, but I hung around in the shop and had a go on some of the real accordions that were there as well.

My final port of call in the town was the headquarters of "Borsini" the manufacturer of my piano accordion. The factory seemed very shut up and unapproachable, but I got the necessary photo and briefly played the accordion within earshot of its birthplace.

It's probably a good thing that no accordion manufacturers were present, because to be honest they would probably cry if they saw the state of my bellows…

That evening I stayed with Barbara, an Italian friend from way back in my English-teaching days in 2003, who cooked me a wonderful pasta dinner and we caught up on the last 13 years.

The next day I returned to France, but not without a brief stop in the city of Bologna, which has one of the oldest universities in the world, and a number of towers, one of which leans more impressively even than the Pisa Campanile. I then drove through thunderstorms and Milanese gridlock, and headed back towards the Alps. In the evening, in the town of Ivrea at the entrance to the Aoste valley, I finally found my pizza: a thin-crusted quattro formaggio from an unassuming wood-fired pizzeria in a non-touristy part of a non-touristy town.

Half way up the winding alpine road on the way out of Italy, I came across a bus, teetering, half on the road and half over a cliff. There seemed to be something heavy in the end of the bus that was over the cliff, because the group of men that were on board were all gathered in the cab, trying desperately to keep the vehicle balanced. I would have stopped to offer my help, but the guy who seemed to be the leader of the group was talking rather loudly and seemed to have a pretty good idea about what he was going to do to get out of the situation…

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