Let’s face it. Who are we kidding? This is why we’re all here. Italy. Except for the transatlantic flight, this is the worst travel day of all. More buses, planes, whatever. I don’t want to talk about it. You don’t want to hear about it. Many hours later we land at Malpensa airport in Milan. We’re met by Angelo, our Italian bus driver.
The difference between the Italian bus driver and the German fellow is style. Angelo gets just as lost. He’s got a damn cell phone and still doesn’t call for directions. But he laughs amiably when chatting with the locals and doesn’t go around in endless circles; he backs up, or goes down one-way streets the wrong way, daring the carabinieri. We’d probably move parked cars out of the way for him if we had to (we’ve actually done it twice—don’t try this at home).
We’ve been in Brescia, today’s destination, for a while now, doing nearly all of the above. A giant banner hanging over the street announces a Scientology convention at our hotel that ended yesterday. Once again, I missed my chance to get “clear” by just hours. The city itself is really old. Vespasian slept here around A.D. 73. For some reason it’s considered a kind of ugly stepsister to Milan and barely makes it into the tourist guidebooks. In Italy, those are often the best places to hit.
The Hotel Victoria is smack in the center of town, wedged in between a bunch of 16th-century buildings. It’s a classy old five-star affair. Next to the front door there sit two pristine Mercedes roadsters from the ‘30s. Just for decoration. The lobby is grand, too. Venetian style, with just a “touch of Byzantium” (Christopher Lowell would plotz). The individual rooms, however, have this country-inn thing going. The furniture seems to have come from some upscale garage sale, and the beds … oh, the beds … are filled with the best horsehair money can buy. Does the word “swayback” get you there?
Within 10 minutes of our arrival, the electricity blows out on the entire fourth floor (I’m in 414, of course). It was probably my computer. “Sì, sì, we are working on it, Signore.” I venture out looking for food knowing full well that I’m destined to fail. The problem is, in most countries outside the United States and especially in Italy, restaurants close down around 2 p.m. and don’t open again until 7. If you pull into town, like we did, at 4:30 p.m. and have to leave for the concert hall at 6:45, you are, in a word, screwed. Mercifully, our excellent tour manager, Valerie Guy, finds us a place that will stay open late.
Did I forget to mention we have another concert tonight? Twenty-six miles of Bach in just under three hours at the Teatro Grande. Virtually every town in Italy has an opera house. Classic 18th- and 19th-century mini “La Scalas” with small parquet (downstairs seating) areas and rings and rings of red velvet reserved boxes piled high to a dazzling, bejeweled ceiling. Looks good, sounds dead. We’ve played ‘em all and Brescia’s is no different. Tonight’s concert was going along swimmingly, when suddenly it was interrupted by the hideous ring of a cell phone. The audience response was swift and punishing, but to me, given the venue, this clearly signaled the end of civilization as we know it.
After the concert, the orchestra just streams into Ristorante Al Frate. Considering the brutal day we had today, I’m shocked by the turnout. I clearly misread the level of pent-up gluttony. It’s really late and the restaurant staff is tired and overwhelmed. They’re expecting 15 and 25 show up. A valiant attempt is made to ignore us, but, realizing we’re not going away, they eventually ply us with first-rate tagliatelle with fresh porcini mushrooms, fusili with olives, capers, and fresh tomatoes, spaghetti with caviar, carpaccio, smoked salmon, grilled swordfish, snails in spinach, herbs and garlic along with bottles and bottles of Pinot Bianco and Chianti Riserva. The tour has now officially begun.
Craving a little solitude, I skip dessert and hit the street again. It’s after 1 a.m. now and “downtown” Brescia is pretty quiet. I pause in the Piazza della Logia to meditate on the splendid marble Palazzo (Palladio and Sansovino, for you architecture buffs). I don’t want to sound like another Tuscan wannabe, but the Italians really understand the space thing. A young couple walks slowly through the flickering lights. The image stays with me as I head to my room.