Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Festivalito Montecatini Terme

Antonio and Francesca
[Scroll down for year-two update]
This is an all-weekend event organised by Francesca Bertelli and Antonio Martinez, at Montecatini Terme, Tuscany. This was the first one, but it's intended to be annual. It won't necessarily be on the same date every year, but the first weekend of April was a good choice since it's not the main season there, and there are very beautiful venues and excellent hotel deals available.

The Class: Melina Sedó and Detlef Engel gave some workshops during the weekend, intended to contribute to attracting the right sort of dancers. You normally need a suitable partner you can travel with to book any of their workshops, which in my case I have not got.

Layout and Atmosphere: Montecatini Terme ('Montecatini Springs') is a beautiful 19th-century spa town in Tuscany. It's full of gloriously bonkers buildings (see pictures), designed for people to come and take the thermal waters for their health, either by immersing themselves or by drinking the stuff for its alleged benefits to various organs. In one of these buildings, the magnificent Stabilimento Tettucio, they had the main event. The room, referred to by several guests as the 'Lothlorien Room' but actually named the Salone Portoghesi, was absolutely stunning, with a beautiful tiled floor, but not perfect as regards layout; the giant tree-like pillars got in the way and made it difficult to get dances from your table. It was well lit, everyone cleared the floor for the cortinas, and cabeceo would have been easy but for the trees. It was much easier on the Sunday afternoon when I could sit back from the floor a bit, circulate more easily, and control my line of sight. Other events took place in the surprisingly ugly Porticato del Kursaal and in a fascinating restaurant called Le Maschere in Montecatini Alto, up the hill.

I won't describe the venues in detail as they will probably change next time - several of the hotels and the other spa buildings have suitable rooms. Hopefully they can get permission to keep going later than 2am - I think the milongas at these weekenders need to go till 4, really. The atmosphere generally was happy, the town feels safe and it's the kind of place where whole families go out for a walk and eat icecreams after dark.

All of the venues had tiled floors - smooth, but hard. Probably most future venues will, too, as that's what suitable buildings generally have here. So choose your shoes accordingly.

Hospitality: Good, if a little hit and miss. There was cheap food and drink available at the Saturday and Sunday milongas, and a very reasonable sit-down meal as a welcome. They went to a lot of trouble to make sure people had a good time, including arranging a discount with a new spa building and putting thought into the seating at the Friday dinner and the reserved tables on Saturday (you automatically got a table if you booked in advance). The spa had either forgotten all about the discount or got confused about what it was actually for, or both, but my companion assured me this was par for the course in Montecatini, and we still got to enjoy it and had a lovely bubble session which I'd thoroughly recommend. The loooong and lonely trek to the cavernous loos from the Lothlorien room was a bit disconcerting if you didn't know that the building was secure. But it was all up to standard.

Clearing the floor for the cortina
Anyone or anything interesting that turned up or happened: It was really just social dancing, but on the Saturday night Detlef and Melina gave a brief performance in their usual style. It's not so much a performance, really, more a demonstration of the kind of thing they teach, to emphasise what kind of dancing the weekend is meant to be about. She explained that she chooses the music and doesn't tell him what it's going to be. I knew that already, so didn't think about it, but it struck my companion as a good idea.

What I thought of the DJing: Very good. Andreas Wichter did the Friday night, Al Porteño the Saturday night, and Melina did the Sunday. Antonio Martinez DJ'd for the afternoon mini milonga on Saturday. All played 100% traditional dance music, tandas, cortinas, their choices and reasoning vary but it all made sense and made me want to dance; at any rate it was never the music that limited my dancing.

Ceiling painting
Getting in: The pass for all the milongas was €35, the most expensive individual price was €15 and the Saturday afternoon milonga was free. The sit-down three-course meal at the welcome milonga was €20 including wine - it wasn't very good, in my opinion, but it was very reasonably priced and fun and convivial. Because the season hadn't started yet, (when the town fills up with people taking the waters) we got an outrageously good deal on the hotel we stayed in; under £150 in total for a nice twin room and breakfast for four nights.

Getting there and getting home: I travelled with a friend. We flew to Pisa and hired a car - my friend used to live nearby, and was used to driving in this area. If I'd been alone, I could also have taken a train from Pisa airport to Montecatini Terme, and finished a very short walk from my hotel and the main venue - station, hotel and venue were practically on the same street. It all felt very safe at 2am. The only place I would have had problems getting to on my own was the restaurant in Montecatini Alto where the Friday welcome milonga was. I could probably have got a taxi or arranged a lift with someone.

Detlef catches some rays
The website: Tango Tuscany. Francesca lived in New York for a long time and does events there too.

How it went: Very well for a first attempt, I thought. We had different results from each other on each day in terms of how much we danced, but neither of us had any bad dances at all. I recognised fewer people than I expected, and I wasn't entirely in the right frame of mind, for some reason; I think I needed the milongas to be longer. But I did have many lovely dances with people I knew, people who were completely new to me, and people I remembered vaguely from other events. My best milonga was the Sunday brunch, my companion's the Saturday night. I think most of the people there were Italians from the surrounding area, which is great, and they were lovely, but a good number from all the usual places in Europe, too. And some friends of Francesca's from New York!

There were a few individuals in the milongas who were charging around or otherwise creating stress, but this wouldn't stop me going back as I think it will develop its own crowd over time and get a stronger personality. People will know what it's all about and will be less tempted to speed, show off, pose, teach on the floor, or do other things that don't make sense at this kind of festival.  [Edit: also, next year they'll probably avoid the scheduling conflict with the thing in Sicily that a lot of the target audience probably went to instead. I'd forgotten about this till Melina mentioned it.]

More Stabilimento Tettucio
In any case, I think this would be a pretty good choice for your first festivalito of this kind, based at least on my friend's experience; she was completely new to this kind of event, made new connections and had a wonderful time.

We were ridiculously lucky with the weather, and spent a chunk of our time on the beach about 40 minutes drive away. We also availed ourselves of a special deal at a newly-opened spa building, soaking ourselves in a delicious salty hot-spring bubble bath and getting a deep tissue massage from a fast jet of water. It was delicious and we slept like logs for about four hours afterwards. I don't know what it did to my dancing.

[Edit: After drafting (late, sorry) and before publication, I see Melina has written this one up as well - she gives more detail about the DJs, and more background.]

[Year two update, 2012: we went back, and the absence of direct scheduling conflict took the average standard of dance up very noticeably. Lots of lovely Italians in the milonga, and lots of lovely bubbles in the spa. I could have done without the Saturday night performance in this case, but it was brief. The DJing was generally outstanding, if not all to my personal taste. Lampis Zalavras (a genius IMO),  Mirco Baldoni (good, a bit different, enjoyed it), Al Porteño again (rhythm-heavy, not so much my thing) and Céline Deveze (beautiful, and a Canaro tanda en version francaise!). The Saturday night Lothlorien Room is gorgeous but impractical; the Sunday milonga took place in the extremely beautiful café with the ceiling paintings. Lovely, highly recommended; but, as usual in the mediterranean, the floors are hard. Choose your shoes with that in mind. Contact Francesca to get on the mailing list.]

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