There’s an air of irritability in Vasto Marina, as rain lashes the palm trees – the ones that are clinging on despite the ravages of the punteruolo rosso (Rhynchophorus ferrugineus) bug – and tears at the bougainvillea straggling up the ugly seaside apartment blocks and indistinguishable, undistinguished beach hotels that blight so much of Italy’s coastline.
It’s the kind of place that families save all year to come for their settimana al mare (week at the sea), dragging stroppy children with plastic toys to crowd beneath tip-to-tip beach umbrellas in interminable rows, each stabilimento its own slightly faded colour. Already far from uplifting, take away the sun and the place has no raison d’etre: there’s nothing at all to do here that isn’t related to the seaside. Confined to pokey hotel rooms with tiny televisions, the kids are stroppier, the parents are at each others’ throats and the sadness eats into people’s souls.
We’re here because this was where we found cheapo accommodation for the Siren Festival in Vasto’s rather lovely old town, and specifically to see John Grant. Into the package goes The National (yesterday evening) and Mogwai (this evening, after JG) and various other unknowns (by me at least) and unmemorables. If the Key Largo scenario outside doesn’t blow itself out, it’s difficult to imagine tonight’s entertainment going ahead.
Last time I was in Vasto was many years ago. I was working for the Sunday Telegraph, or perhaps the Independent. A Brit had contacted me: his priceless, peerless collection of books on the two world wars in Italy was going to have to be dispersed because he couldn’t find anyone to sponsor him in those pre-crowdfunding days. Could I write about him, perhaps, and help him find some generous patron?
When I turned up I found he hadn’t told me the whole truth. In the midst of an acrimonious divorce, his wife had changed the locks on the house and library and he had no way of getting into it – something he had failed to mention previously. I can’t remember how the story ended – in fact I can’t remember whether I ever found out. He was a strange, shifty, unplaceable character. But he was interested in the fact that my grandfather had been gassed in Gallipoli in World War I. Gallipoli Italy, my grandmother always used to specify: not Gallipoli Turkey which was the only Gallipoli that most of the non-Italian world was aware of. He must have been in intelligence, this character told me, or he wouldn’t have been there then. And he had heard of mustard gas being used on Italy’s Adriatic seaboard though rarely and inexplicably. For I while I played with the idea of following this up with a visit to the Imperial War Museum to see what I could discover. But that came to nothing. One day…
I can recall nothing of Vasto from that visit, except glimpses of sea down below and echoing emptiness. But the town’s centro storico seems lively now – or did before this storm blew in – with boutiques and well-tended gardens in pedestrianised squares and a charmingly old-fashioned belvedere with views across the sweep of bay below. It has that air of rocky toughness that marks places where raids by Saracen pirates were commonplace, and that Spanish feel you find in many areas of southern Italy where the Aragonese held power.
At last night’s concert in the central piazza del Popolo, an elderly lady followed the whole thing from her wrought-iron balcony railing – far more curious about these untoward goings-on (this is the first edition of the festival) than her husband who put in a brief appearance, his hands clamped over his ears, then fled. She was rewarded with a serenade from The National’s Matt Berninger, who clambered through the crowd, trailing mic wires and furious security staff, on to the table of a stand selling beer beneath her window, and directed his song to her as she fluttered and looked coquettish: somehow operatic, and fitting given the surroundings.
Beyond the centro storico, however, the seaside straggle to the south and the light-industrial and retail parks to the north are ghastly and soulless. Thinking there might be scenic rustic eateries in the national park area just beyond the industry, we drove out that way at lunch time. But it emanated dejection, though the mix of stubby, spreading olive trees, and vines trained up concrete props and stretched over wires to form a thick canopy dripping grape bunches, made the gently ondulating land on the plain above the sea picturesque in its way.