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Red Poppies for remberance

The bus chugged up the dusty mountain road, loaded with local passengers, one or two tourists and a few back-packers. Our destination was a little village in the Tuscan hills, a sought-after tourist spot recognized for its spectacular scenery that had featured in many tourism magazines and scenic calendars. On either side of the road were fields of grapevines in their autumn foliage, dusty olive groves heavy with green and purple fruit and wheat fields sprinkled with red poppies. I mentally pictured the illustrations that I could include in my next book; wonderful scenes of the olive groves, wheat fields and road-side splashes of red poppies. Wonderful! I thought. Should make for great reading, and my agent would be simply thrilled with the tourism angle.
The bus made the final ascent to the gates of the village and passengers alighted. I picked up my baggage and walked in the direction of the main gate to find the bed and breakfast accommodation that had been booked by my travel agent. The view of the village from the gate was a step back in time, with cobbled roadways, narrow lanes and charming little shop-fronts displaying local wares. Following her directions I soon found the big wooden door at Via Romano No. 36 and pressed the bell. The door was flung wide by a small lady dressed in a floral wrap-around apron and black dress, black stockings and with a head-scarf over her hair.
?Buon giorno Signorita,? she said, reaching to take my biggest bag, and bustled before me, leading the way into a cool hallway, and then on to a large tiled room with dark wooden furniture; the establishment?s dining-room. She put my bag down and pointed to chair at the nearest table, then shuffled off to call the owner. Having checked in with my hostess, Signora Pucci, who was very pleasant and helpful with information about the village, I was taken to my room, a very plain but comfortable little one with its own tiny bathroom facilities attached. A warm shower in the ceramic tiled bathroom was the most relaxing thing, and when I was dry the bed welcomed my tired body. I woke at dusk and looked out of my window to see the rooves of the village turned to gold in the early evening light as the sunset poured over the hills in the distance.
Dinner was eaten by candlelight, a fine meal of braised rabbit and spinach with pine-nuts, accompanied by a glass of good red wine. My fellow guests, two couples, one of whom were obviously honeymooners and the other middle-aged, as well as a lone male seemed to be pleasant companions. At breakfast, Signor Trevigno told me that he was familiar with the village and offered his services as my guide. His enthusiasm for the task wouldn?t allow me to refuse.
Armed with a village map, my camera, water and fruit we strode out onto the cobbled street after breakfast. Strolling through the narrow, shaded streets I was struck by the thought that these buildings were medieval, and had seen more history than I could even begin to absorb. High windows overlooked the narrow twisting lanes and stone steps, sometimes three and four stories above our laboured footsteps. Along the way Signor Trevigno told me about the first time he had come here, as a foot soldier in Mussolini?s army, and how he had fallen in love with a local girl, the daughter of the town?s butcher.
?She was beautiful,? he said wistfully, ?I can still remember how she looked when we said goodbye on the steps of the church, as we were loaded onto open trucks and driven off to fight. I had picked her a bunch of the red poppies from the roadside, and she was holding them close to her heart as we drove away.?
?Did you ever see her again,? I asked, hoping that he would give me some material that I could use in my book.
?Yes,? of course, he said, ?I married her. My Maria was the loveliest girl in the village. She said she would wait for me until the war was over, and she did. We married in 1946, and had two children, a boy and a girl; we were so happy.?
I began to get a sense that perhaps Maria was no longer alive, but didn?t like to ask.
?Come,? he said, ?I will show you the Collegiata, which once was a cathedral, where we were married.?
We stood at the bottom of two huge flights of stone steps leading from the large open piazza to the heavy studded doors of the church, and I could visualise that the young couple, even dressed in post-war outfits, would have looked as they stood triumphant at the door, looking happily down over their family and friends whilst rose petals were thrown onto the flag-stones beneath their feet. Inside, the church was simple and yet magnificent. Our footsteps echoed as we made our way across the flagged floor to the front with its glorious marble altar, gold candlesticks and hosts of angels flying from the ceiling frescoes.
?What a beautiful place for a marriage,? I whispered, ?I think that it would have been quite extraordinary.?
?Si,? he replied. ?It was magnifico.?
?Now we go to the Piazza of the punishment.?
?I don?t see that on my map,? I said curiously.
?You won?t see it, because the village would rather forget that it happened,? he replied and led me onward.
The narrow lanes opened out on a large cobble-stoned square with wide streets leading from it, and unlike many of the other streets in this village, wide enough to take a vehicle. Then he pointed to the twelve heavy wooden posts, set into the cobble stones and the wall behind them, chipped and pock-marked by what could only have been bullets. At the base of each post sat a small red flower.
?You see this,? he said sadly, ?this is where the Nazis executed many of my country-men who did not wish to fight for them. The villagers secretly tried to undermine the German war effort, helped by us where we could, and when the tide of the war turned against them they took twelve of our men at a time, lashed them to these wooden blocks and shot them.?
?I am sorry,? I said, ?It must have been a dreadful experience.?
?It was truly awful,? he said. ?I come back every year to place a bunch of poppies here in memory of my friends who did not live to see the end of the war. They were young men, with their lives to be lived, but they did not get the chance. I am one of the few lucky ones.?
Sitting in the shaded Collegiata square that afternoon, and enjoying a truly delicious Italian coffee, Martino Trevigno was able to paint a picture for me of the village as it had been in war-time; the roar of the machines, terrified villagers, frightened Italian farm boys from poor towns and cities, who in most cases, were forced join the army and fight a war that was not of their making, one they didn?t even believe in.
Then he told me about Maria, their happy life with their children and grandchildren, and finally of her death five years ago. He painted a tragic picture of a village, destroyed by war and poverty, but I could hear the pride in his voice when he spoke about the re-building of the village, how tourism had helped with the rebuilding of the regional economy including the success of its olive industry and the superb world class wine made in the surrounding hills.
?Martino, I cannot thank you enough for sharing your experiences and your village with me. I feel that hearing your stories has made me a part of it too. I shall go home with some wonderful memories from my stay here.?
?It was my pleasure,? he replied in his gentle manner.
Several days later I made my way to the village gate to catch the bus for Pisa and the International Airport, my note-books full of wonderful stories, my camera having worked overtime on terrific photographs, some beautiful, some very sad. My short visit had been life-changing, and although I had come with the intention of writing a tourist guide, I now had material for a wonderful love story as well.
As I left, I saw Martino, a bunch of red poppies in his hand, walking up the steep little path to the back wall of the village. I knew where he was going, because poppies are for remembrance.

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