40th ‘Castagna d’Oro’ International Folk Festival, Susa, Italy September 1st – 5th, 2005
On Thursday 1st September, a mini-band of seven pipers, four drummers and a Highland dancer flew to Italy to participate in the 40th ‘Castagna d’Oro’ International Folk Festival, a four-day festival of folk dance and music in and around the small town of Susa, 53km west of Turin. We were joined by the local folk group and musicians and dancers from Mexico and Senegal.
The Roman town of Susa is located 500m above sea level, in the mountains close to the French border in the Piedmont region of Italy. For the Romans, Susa was a main trading centre, and several impressive Roman monuments remain, including the Arena, Arco di Augusto and Porta di Savoia.
Thursday SEPTEMBER 1ST
Leaving exceptionally early from Edinburgh airport, we arrived in Turin at lunch time and met our hosts, who drove us across the Piedmont plain towards Susa. Upon arrival we were shown to our billet, two classrooms in the local primary school, and given a good home-cooked lunch.
At 5:30pm we tuned up and, whilst two band members exchanged gifts with the Mayor in the town hall, the band played throughout the town’s medieval quarter.
After dinner at the school, instead of our scheduled free evening, we were asked whether it might be possible for us to play at a local Beer Festival. What? A pipe band play at a Beer Festival? Tough call!!
And what a night that turned out to be! After driving through the dark in assorted cars we arrived at a massive festival-sized tent. After a quick tune up in the dark, we played into the central arena and formed up in front of the stage for a couple of sets. We were then asked to go to each of the beer stalls arranged around the tent and play beside them, and in return we’d be given free beer!! The place got busier as the night wore on and we continued playing at each stall until finally we were asked to do one last turn in front of the stage before the main act, a band called ‘Disco Inferno’, came on.
So, with a 2000-strong merry crowd and an equally merry band, we played a 20-minute set mixed in with some Highland dances for a curious but appreciative crowd. Then Disco Inferno took over and played a blinding 2½ hour set, including every disco hit you’ve ever heard.
And, despite being warned about the side effects of mixing beers, in particular the exotic flavours of Tennant’s Super which was available in litre glasses, several band members were spotted across the crowded dance floor during ‘YMCA’, waving their arms wildly in the air in a desperate attempt to spell this simple abbreviation!
Peter Sharp, Murray Shepherd and Gary Lodge! Shame on you!!
Friday SEPTEMBER 2ND
After a late night for those who had stayed to dance to the Inferno, we enjoyed a leisurely day during which most of the band explored Susa, taking in the historic sights of the medieval quarter and enjoying the blazing sunshine.
In the evening we were taken by coach to play at the annual Pepper Festival in the town of Carmagnola, 30km south-east of Turin. Each year the town celebrates the many varieties of capsicum grown locally with a food and produce fair and a series of concerts, shows and competitions across the town. The folk groups attending the Castagna d’Oro festival are invited to entertain the crowds outside the town hall.
After dining alfresco in the evening sunshine, we had time to grab a quick beer before forming up and leading a parade across the town. Through streets and lanes, across squares and plazas and even through tented stalls and exhibition halls we marched before eventually arriving back at the square from which we’d started.
Then, with only five minutes to catch our breath and re-tune, we were up in front of a sizable crowd for a 25- minute set before marching off through the crowd to the local Birreria for refreshments. The Senegalese were next on stage with some energetic songs and dances before the Mexicans rounded off the evening with a colourful display.
Saturday SEPTEMBER 3RD
We had most of this day free, so our hosts kindly organised a trip to Turin.
With them as guides, we explored this beautiful city, taking in the Piazza Castello with its castle and wandering down baroque colonnades to the Piazza Vittorio Veneto to gaze out over the River Po. We also stopped off at the Mole Antonelliana, a 167m high domed structure, which, by means of a great glass elevator, offers stunning views over the city below. After a relaxing lunch we headed back towards the Piazza Castello to admire the Palazzo Reale and visit the Duomo where the fabled Turin Shroud is housed.
Saturday evening followed a similar pattern to Friday. This time we were taken about 20km north of Turin to Castellamonte, famous for its terracotta and pottery since the 13th century. Again, an excellent alfresco meal was served up accompanied by flagons of local wine. Feeling very relaxed, we got our kit on and tuned up before marching on stage and playing to a large crowd.
The setting was very impressive; a stage was set up within a circular Roman or medieval fortress with massive 8–10m high walls of terracotta brickwork. We were first on again, so after watching the other groups for a while, most of us headed towards the main square to sample the local tipple, managing to drink one of the bars dry of beer!
Sunday SEPTEMBER 4TH
Sunday was the climax of the Festival. We were up early to play through the beautiful medieval streets of Susa in the glorious morning sunshine, arriving with the other groups at the Cattedrale Di San Giusto for Mass. Once inside, each group said a few words of thanks and played a short piece.
Then it was back outside for another parade through the crowded streets of the medieval town, this time in procession with the other groups, before heading back to the school for lunch.
Once we were fed and watered, we were taken up to the ancient Roman amphitheatre (Arena Romano) where, in the blazing sunshine, we performed to around 2000 people from a stage set out on the floor of the arena. Most of the spectators took advantage of the arena’s stone seating and it was a truly magnificent experience to play in such a historical and dramatic setting.
Having finished playing, we sat over a few beers and watched the other groups perform. We were then ushered back onstage for a prize-giving ceremony to mark the end of the Festival and presented with a trophy.
After the crowds had thinned out, and probably as a result of too many beers consumed in the sunshine, we decided to march the whole way back through the town to the school, leading a mixed pack of curious on-lookers and merry revellers as we went.
Full marks go to the Italian traffic cop who, upon our approach to a main junction, tried to stop us, but gave in as we persisted in moving forward, and finally took it upon himself to lead the band through the town, stopping everything in our path!!
Once back at the school, our hosts treated us to a magnificent feast complete with wine which, coupled with the earlier festivities, led to the outbreak of a marathon ceilidh during which the lungs and fingers of our intrepid ceilidh pipers were tested to the max as they played dance after dance for our Italian hosts!
This was, once again, an excellent trip, helped a lot by the sunshine and beer, but also due to the good nature of everyone involved. Our thanks go to Gary Lodge, who joined us to play Bass and provide non-stop hilarity, and to Keri Pretsell, who did an excellent job as Highland dancer. Thanks also to piper Dr Marcus Davidson from Inverurie who stepped in at relatively short notice to boost the pipe corps.
Many thanks to Salvatore, Festival organiser and host, for making us feel very welcome. Grazie also to our guides, including Susie, Walter and Diego who looked after us on a day-to-day basis and joined us several times for just one more beer!