Posted by Matthew Daub – Arts Soujourn
My wife Barbara and I were not well-traveled, but we approached our new adventure with enthusiasm and an open mind. The director of our program was a wonderful man, but did not do much to prepare us for what we would encounter once we hit the ground. Our large group ate dinner together and there were evening concerts – opera performance was the group’s main focus, but beyond that we were on our own. My responsibility was to lead approximately eighteen students of varied ages and backgrounds up to Montecatini Alto, a nearby Tuscan hill town, for painting sessions. I was shown where the bus stop was.
It was only my second day in Italy and my first time using public transportation. I was nervous and clueless. As the bus snaked its way up the switchbacks, the narrow road momentarily leveled off. When we passed a small group of houses and a cemetery I saw the sign – Montecatini Alto – and quickly pulled the stop cord. “This is it!” I called to my group; “Let’s go.” As we emptied out of the bus I looked around, trying to disguise my growing panic. Something was definitely not right. I knew that Montecatini Alto was small, but not THIS small! I stopped an old woman who had exited the bus with us. I knew only a few Italian phrases. Fortunately, “Dove’?” – “Where is?” was one of them. “Signora, dove’ Montecatini Alto?” “No, No, signore.” she said, emphatically gesturing up the mountainside – way up the mountainside – “Montecatini Alto!” Italian logistic lesson number one: the signs that announce entrance to and departure from every Italian city and town are usually located miles from the town center. In this case about a mile or so up a very steep path that we proceeded to hike with our art supplies in tow. On our climb up I saw the little orange bus that I had just ordered my students off of heading back down the hill with the few passengers it had picked up in Montecatini Alto.
One afternoon during the first week of our daily visits I was conducting an informal critique of my students’ paintings. We were standing in the shade just beyond the center of town. A blonde woman of about sixty years of age passed us as she was walking her little dog. She stopped to admire our work and then tried to strike up a conversation; difficult because of the language barrier. From what I could gather she was telling us about her house in the village. “Molto antico,” she said. I also thought that she wanted to show it to us: all eighteen of us, and that she would be waiting in the piazza. I did not think much more about this encounter and we soon went back to painting.
Towards the end of the afternoon we headed for Piazza Giusti on our way back to the bus stop – the correct bus stop this time. Piazza Giusti is the heart of Montecatini Alto. It is compact and intimate with restaurants, cafés, and a few shops fronting its steeply sloping cobblestone streets. I have been in many piazze over the years since that first visit, but it is still hard for me to imagine a more perfect little piazza than this one. If there is one place I feel most at home in Italy, it is probably in Piazza Giusti; most likely because of Claudia Maccioni.
As we entered the piazza there she was, waving to us from a table outside Ristorante La Torre. Claudia rushed over and took my arm. She led us down Via Ser Naddo; one of the little side streets that branch out from the piazza. With my students following, we quickly came to an ochre colored house. She pointed to the patches of ancient stones that were intentionally left exposed when the colorful exterior stucco was applied. I am sure her explanation was very interesting, but we understood little of it. I did understand the word bagno, however and Claudia’s invitation to use it sounded very good. We entered the immaculately clean, but dimly lit interior; older furniture, walls hung with small paintings and photos of relatives. My first impression was that it was a somber and gloomy place. Claudia pointed to this and that as she guided us in. First stop for me was the bagno, and Claudia smiled with a certain pride as she opened the door to the stylishly modern tiled room. She threw open the shutters and suddenly the room; really the whole interior of the house was transformed; flooded with light. The view from the open window literally made me gasp.
In the following days I began spending more time with Claudia. I discovered that language is not the greatest barrier; that affection, emotion and caring need no translation. My wife Barbara began meeting me in Montecatini Alto in the late afternoon so that we could both spend time with Claudia. As we grew closer, Claudia urged us to stay at her house for the rest of our trip; “Non in albergo!” she said. I explained as best I could that we had responsibilities with our group and could not accept her kind offer, but we continued to spend a small portion of almost every day with her. When it came time to leave, Claudia cried. We exchanged addresses and I gave her a little painting that I inscribed to her. She gave me a shirt that belonged to her late husband, Leo.
We have returned to Montecatini many times over the years, often detouring from our real itinerary just to have even a short visit with “Nostra Mamma Italiana.“* We have made other friends in Montecatini too.
None of this could have happened from behind the insulated window of a tour bus or while being led down the street by an English speaking guide on a timetable. That is why I am almost fanatical about slow travel and that is why we structure our Arts Sojourns the way we do. I want our participants to experience Italy the way we have experienced it – as a real, living place. At the end of a Sojourn I want them to return home with more than just an album full of snapshots. I hope they will feel homesick for a place that they have come to know and love.
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Matthew Daub is a professional artist and university professor with works in major public and private collections throughout the United States and Europe. He has been leading plein air painting workshops in Italy since 1994. In 1999, Matthew and his wife Barbara formed Arts Sojourn, as “a vacation for artists and their friends.” The program is designed to appeal to artists of all levels as well as non-artists who enjoy the company of creative people in a slow travel format.