It’s Saturday night and there’s a wine festival going on. We teachers don’t need asking twice. Roping in Liv and Meg’s (perpetually far more sober) Italian boyfriends to drive us there, Olivia, Megan, Alice and I pile into cars and turn up the music for the 90-minute drive. We’re heading for Bova, a town in the southern Calabrian mountains, so we’re wrapped up warm, as it’s likely to be cold that high up. We’ll realise the error of our ways when we start dancing the tarantella, but for now we’re congratulating ourselves on our foresight.
Disaster strikes before we’ve even left our town. Alice and I are in Alby and Meg’s car. I’m aware of some rapid, worried-sounding conversation going on in the front, but I’m not paying much attention. Alby pulls into the petrol station, where Marco and Liv are already filling up, and shouts out of the window to Marco. He then turns to Alice and me in the back, with an apologetic shrug. You need to go with Marco. I must go home and change the car. There’s a problem with the engine. Well, that doesn’t sound too good. Alice and I gather up our coats and scarves and scamper across the forecourt. We’re greeted by a chair-dancing Liv, who is grinning like a loon. She turns up the music as we climb in, causing Marco to duck his head and floor the accelerator – god forbid he should be heard listening to Lou Monte. Olivia! You embarrass me! He’s smiling as he says it, but it’s noticeable that he doesn’t slow the pace until we get onto the motorway and are clear of anyone who might hear the mortifying music blaring from his car.
Because of the car problems, Alby and Meg will be about 20 minutes behind us. This worries Marco who, as an Italian, is programmed to only ever travel in convoy. He throttles back. Alby, in contrast, will no doubt be flooring it behind us. By the time we reach Bova we should be back together again, and all will be right with the world. True enough, as we reach the base of the mountain Marco’s phone rings. It’s Alby, finding out where we are. It turns out he’s caught up the deficit and is only about two minutes behind us. We therefore stop for coffee and reunification in Bova Marina. The man behind the bar isn’t too impressed with us girls asking for directions, but unbends a little when he realises that we have, not just Italians, but Italian MEN with us. We females, suitably dismissed, stuff our faces with cake and leave the boys to do the direction thing. Women’s Lib hasn’t yet reached Calabria and now is not the time to start fighting for it. We have a wine festival to get to, dammit!
Fifteen minutes later (the boys having been given directions by every single male in the bar while we girls waited, champing at the bit), we are back on the road. We swing off the main road and immediately the incline steepens, and the potholes become less ‘holes’ and more ‘trenches’. Marco’s shiny town car isn’t built for this kind of road. As this is bandit country, it’s not the best place to break down. We therefore creep along slowly, doing our best to avoid the deepest crevasses in the road. Suddenly, there is beeping and flashing from behind us. A 4×4 filled with menacing-looking young men roars past us, impatient at our slow progress up the mountain. We continue, somewhat more sedately than them, on into the darkness.
Finally, we see two men in fluorescent jackets looming up ahead. They wave us into the side of the road. We don’t appear to be anywhere near civilisation, but they’re not going to let us drive any further, so it looks as if we’re walking from now on. Thanks for talking me out of wearing heels earlier, Alice mutters in my ear. I splutter with laughter and concentrate on powering up the mountain. Just think of the wine!
Ten, exceedingly breathless, minutes later, we arrive in the town. It’s heaving and, bizarrely, there is a steam engine parked in the centre. God only knows how it ever got up here – this mountain is far too steep to have ever had a railway – but it all adds to the quaint atmosphere of the place. We join the scrum for tickets. In true Italian fashion, there isn’t really a queue, and nobody knows quite what’s going on. No matter: we all join the fray, elbows working overtime, until Alby and Marco manage to get to the front. Once they get there and manage to talk to the ticket sellers, we find out that the entrance fee is a princely €3. This includes food and your very own commemorative wine glass. OK, so it’s engraved with last year’s date, but still. It’s a free wine glass, which you can refill as many times as you wish. This is going to be an excellent night.
Squeezing through the crowds, we make our way to the main piazza. There is a tarantella band in full swing, and food stalls aplenty. We grab our tickets and push our way to the front for panini filled with cheese and cured meat. Delicious. Liv, however, has more important things on her mind. Girls. We have empty glasses. Follow me! She launches herself into the crowd, scarf flying, and we all race after her. She’s heading for the south side of the square, where there is a barrel of wine fitted with a tap. Fluttering her eyelashes and grinning disarmingly, she manages to work her way to the front, queue-barging with glee. Pass your glasses, ladies! One by one, we pass them in, chain style, and she fills and passes them out, before squirming her way free and joining the rest of us.
Salute! The wine continues to flow and the music continues to play. It’s impossible to resist the lure of the tarantella, and before long we are all dancing like pixies, coats unbuttoned, bags whirling, and empty glasses aloft over our heads.
After a while, we notice that there is a group of old men whispering next to us. There is clearly going to be an approach. We carry on dancing. Finally, one of them, bolder than the rest, plucks up courage and strides forward. He has a bottle of wine, with which he tops us all up. He then draws Meg into a dance which, given that she’s wearing heels in a cobbled square and has been drinking all evening, is a very brave move. He’s a good dancer, though, and manages to avert disaster. They dance for a while, before he bows courteously to her and starts to chat. You’re all English? Meg starts to answer in the affirmative, but is interrupted by a discreet cough from her Calabrese boyfriend. Suddenly the old men’s mood changes. When we were merely stupid tourists it was fine for us to be drinking, and for them to encourage that by pouring more wine. However, now that we have Italian links, it is seen as utterly disgraceful. Women? Drinking? In public? Che brutta figura.
We leave the old men to their tutting and scolding. Diving away from them, we wriggle our way through the crowd to the prime spot in front of the stage. No-one here is worried about appearances. Everyone is just there for the dancing and for the fun. When the band tries to stop playing, the crowd chants, ‘An-co-ra! An-co-ra!’ until they give in and play one final round, the music getting faster and faster and the dancers whirling ever more madly until finally no-one can carry on and we all double over, out of breath and helpless with laughter.
These are the times that I really love Italy.