52nd International Folk Festival, 62nd Flowering of the Almond Festival, Arigento, Sicily
On Monday 5th February, 20 band members flew to Sicily to participate in the 52nd International Folk Festival, part of the 62nd Flowering of the Almond Festival, a nine-day festival of folk dance and music performances in the city of Agrigento. The city, situated on the southern coast of Sicily, is still most famous for the ruins in the ‘Valle dei Templi’, a series of Sicilian Greek Doric temples along a ridge to the south of the city, which date from the 5th century BC. Once again, we stayed in the excellent Hotel Akrabello, enjoying its clean en-suite accommodation, traditional Sicilian cooking, and also the slightly chilly, but nonetheless refreshing, outdoor pool.
Monday FEBRUARY 5TH
We booked our flights with BA and, despite last minute worries that our flights would be cancelled due to industrial action, we experienced a straightforward journey from Edinburgh to Catania via Gatwick. We arrived in the early afternoon, where upon the local baggage handlers proceeded to misplace our Leading Tip’s drum and uniform. Despite the luggage actually being at the airport, it took umpteen phone calls and three days for Andrew to receive his missing possessions, during which time he took up the lofty mantle as flag carrier at the front of the Band!
We weren’t due to play until Tuesday morning, so everyone relaxed and enjoyed a few beers at the hotel bar. And it wasn’t long before the lure of the pool outside proved too tempting and our Leading Tip, who had recently undertaken this role at short notice, was unceremoniously thrown in the pool by his fellow drummers.
Tuesday FEBRUARY 6TH
Mid-morning we kitted up and headed off to the old town area of Agrigento for a short parade up through the city to the City Chambers. After a short performance outside it was back to the hotel for lunch and a quick siesta before heading to the Temples for the Opening Ceremony.
Denied the opportunity to re-live the drama of two years ago, when the band led the torch-lit parade down an old Roman Road, across single file bridges, over ditches and around cacti, we were positioned upon the hilltop next to the Tempio della Concordia to play as the procession made its way across the valley. The procession arrived, and TV cameras, dignitaries and local spectators jostled for the best view, whilst the Festival was declared officially open!
Wednesday FEBRUARY 7TH
Wednesday morning saw the Band undertake the same parade through the old town to the City Chambers before a short performance in the square outside. After lunch back at the hotel, most of the Band took advantage of the good weather and sunbathed by the pool. Some more adventurous individuals braved the icy clear water but most beat a quick retreat to the poolside after a quick dip leaving only the real hardcore to power their way up and down the pool.
At about 5pm we set off for the heart of the city’s old quarter where all the groups participating in the Festival were assembled prior to parading through the old town. It was a lovely evening and the crowds were several people deep as we played through the cobbled streets but we were glad to reach the end of the 3km march and head back at the hotel for dinner and a beer or two. The parade was televised live across Sicily and repeated several times daily on a local channel along with other footage filmed during the festival.
Later that night we ventured back to our old haunt Murphy’s, an Italian-Irish bar just along the road. The familiar Heineken pitchers were still on offer and, after Angela surprised us all with her vocal talents on the pub karaoke, the night soon turned into a good session with members of the Irish contingent from Musselburgh and Spanish group joining in the fun.
Thursday FEBRUARY 8TH
We weren’t due to play until late in the evening so most people headed into the city to explore the old town, sample the local pizza and wander around the complex of ruined temples. It was another beautiful day and wandering through the orange and lemon gardens beside the temples brought a smile to our faces as we thought of all our friends back home busily working away!
After dinner we walked the couple of hundred yards up the road to the local Palacongressi, a local government building and concert hall, where we were scheduled to open the evening’s entertainment. The 1000-seater venue was packed full as we marched from the back down the aisles and up onto the stage for a 10 minute performance. It was good to be up on stage again and gave Glenn a chance to air his guitar skills once more.
Afterwards we watched the rest of the two-hour show which featured performances by groups from Senegal, the Philippines, Bulgaria, Romania and elsewhere before heading back to Murphy’s for a quieter drink.
Friday FEBRUARY 9TH
An early start as two representatives from each group attended presentation ceremonies at the City Chambers, meeting local dignitaries and exchanging gifts. Meanwhile, the rest of the band paraded from the station up through the old quarter before a short performance outside the City Chambers. Once again, a free afternoon gave people the opportunity to explore the city and do a bit of souvenir shopping before heading back to the hotel for dinner.
In the evening, after a short practice, we paraded once more through the old quarter to the City Chambers followed by the customary short performance. After dinner, we then headed along to Murphy’s, where we had been ‘booked’ by the owner to play a short set and introduce the local Friday crowd to Ceilidh dancing. A pretty lively evening followed with the band returning to the dance floor for a second round of dancing, drumming jam sessions taking place and even the most reserved and responsible members letting what remaining hair they have down and bopping along to Sicilian pop music.
Saturday FEBRUARY 10TH
Luckily, we’d become used to the early morning parade and everyone managed to make their way up through the old town towards the City Chambers. We then undertook the customary 15-minute performance and meandered back through the town, stopping for a bit of souvenir shopping along the way.
It was another beautiful, sunny day so after lunch we took the opportunity for a Band photo by the Hotel pool followed by a short practice. Then it was back along the road to the Palacongressi for a Matinee performance of Thursday’s evening show. Once again the venue was full and we settled in to a solid show opener before heading back to the hotel. We were fortunate enough to have a free evening so the majority of us headed into the city for a meal at one of the local restaurants before returning to the Hotel for a couple of beers and a sensible early night. Those of us who had been here previously knew what was in store the next day…
Sunday FEBRUARY 11th
Sunday is the biggest day of the Festival, with a lengthy early morning parade by all groups through the city followed by an afternoon stage concert at the Valle dei Templi.
It took about two hours to make our way from the City Chambers, through the old town, down into the suburbs and on to the sports stadium. The march, at about 5km, isn’t too demanding but with each dance group stopping every few hundred yards for a demonstration, the parade soon began to look never-ending. However, we all managed to keep our strength up and playing through tightly packed crowds, past the various TV cameras and down into the cooler shade of the high rise suburbs.
After a quick picnic lunch we drove up to the Temples. A large stage had been set up hill and, in the afternoon sunshine, a crowd of several thousand people assembled to watch the final show. After our performance, the local café bar provided the ideal shaded location to watch the two-hour show before jumping back on our bus.
In the mêlée after the concert, with the audience and performers all making their way away from the stage, we were joined on our coach by Angelo, nephew to Nino Lauretta, the Festival organiser. We were all in very high spirits and, as we headed back to our hotel, singing and general merriment prevailed throughout the bus. Caught up in the spirit of the moment, Angelo kindly offered to commandeer our bus and take us to the beach to watch the sunset.
And what an end to our trip this proved to be! Twenty merry Scots piled onto the beach in full kit. The normally responsible PM pulled his Gillies and hose off, hoisted his pipes up and headed into the surf for a few tunes. Soon he was joined by the Pipe Sergeant in similar fashion, then a couple more pipers followed suit. And before we knew it half the band were splashing about in the swell to the sound of the pipes as the sun set on the Tyrrhenian Sea. After sundown, Angelo led us to a local bar where we played a few tunes for the slightly bemused locals and shared a beer with our new companion.
Still buzzing from our surreal experience we headed back to the hotel and, obviously keen to keep our feet wet, took to the pool, much to the amusement of all who looked on. It was a fine end to a great trip and, after packing in preparation for our return home, we had a few beers and said goodbye to our friends.
Many thanks again to Nino Lauretta who organised our visit and ensured that we had an excellent time in Agrigento and thanks also to his nephew, Angelo, for giving us a fantastic end to our trip. Thanks to our chaperones during our stay, especially Gabriele, and to the Hotel Akrabello for excellent accommodation and meals.
Once again we met up with Luca, our guide from our previous visit. Having kept in touch over the past two years it was great fun to spend time with him and we sincerely hope to see him over in Scotland soon.
Thanks also to Julia Gerken who joined us to play tenor from Lothian & Borders Police Pipe Band and Angela Chalmers who joined the snare section from the Edinburgh Postal Pipe Band. And finally, many thanks to Calvin McFarlane who returned for the week from the Clan Gregor Pipe Band. We knew you’d be back!!