Monday, June 4, 2012

Fire, Fondue, & Flash Mob

Off we go to Lucerne. The bus is crowded as usual, but the scenery makes up for much of the discomfort. We stop after a couple of hours at the roadside mini-mart/mini-restaurant. Access to the WC costs 1 Swiss Franc, which is equivalent to a dollar, and no the facilities are not gold-plated, though you would think there would certainly be enough funding at that access rate.

We arrive at our hotel with plenty of time to tour the city. The streets are just as crowded as the streets in Venice were. There's a curious mixture of "touristy" spots with local stores. We think the main shopping streets draw the crowds as well as the locals because that is the only place to shop in town. We see our first Starbucks since arriving in Europe; Starbucks stores aren't allowed in Italy. We don't go in as there is fabulous coffee just in the lobby of our hotel.

We spend several hours exploring the city. We are particularly taken with the city wall and the clock tower, though the stairs were built for someone of greater height than myself (each step was like climbing a mountain for me). When we stop for coffee in the afternoon, we find out just how expensive things are here...about twice the price of things in Italy and farther south in Switzerland. We decide to go the typical tourist route and have fondue for dinner. We go to the "Fondue House," which is well known in the guide books. Cheese fondue for two, with salad and water is about $100. Worth it though, for the experience.

We're told one of the best excursions in Europe is to the top of Mt. Pilatus. For us it involves a boat ride, a ride on the funicular, a gondola ride and finally a bus ride. Though the weather is not exactly cooperative (it's partly cloudy and pretty windy) it doesn't snow or rain on us. The views are somewhat obstructed, but impressive nonetheless. The mountain has a couple of tales that go along with it. Supposedly, Pontius Pilate is interred in a lake on the mountain.The town of Lucerne cautioned residents not to climb the mountain as bad things would happen to the community. There is also the story of the firebreathing dragons, who it is said resided in the caves of the mountain. As one tale goes, a hiker fell into a hole in the mountain and wound up in the dragon's lair. He saw the dragons survived by licking the stones. So he licked the stones also, which it turned out contained moon milk. The hiker stayed with the dragons all winter. In the spring, the dragons rescued the hiker by flying him out of their lair. It is not clear whether or not he got a ride down the mountain or if he had to walk...not much of a rescue if he had to walk down, though!

We had no performances scheduled in Lucerne as we weren't able to secure a formal we reverted to the flash mob tactic that has been working in other venues. Even the weather cooperated as the sun came out just as we gathered. The singers stood in front of the church in which they really wanted to sing, in the hopes of being invited inside (which worked, actually). The group was dressed in street clothes, not performance clothes, which I observed created a more relaxed and confident aura about them. As they began to sing, a crowd gathered and delighted in the performance. Many of the songs took on a more lively energy in this locale. Hear the group sing Battle of Jericho.

After a few songs we were allowed to go inside the church. This church is a stark contrast to those in which we've previously's bright, and more ornate. The style is called Rococco, I'm told. Though I don't have still photos of the inside, you can get a sense of the ornate decor as you watch and listen to the choir sing, "Alleluia."

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Bicycles for Three

From Venice, we're off to Lugano, Switzerland. It's about a four hour ride on the bus. We discovered that though the view is unobstructed from the seats in the front of the bus, the ride makes it nearly impossible to write on my iPad. Why, you may ask is this a problem? Well, were it not for these looooooong bus rides, I'd never get caught up on the blog. We are non-stop the moment we set foot in a city and ready for the sack when we finally get home at night from our daily adventures.

As you may imagine, it's quite a production getting the luggage of 60 travelers offloaded each time we stop, so this patio in front of the hotel was a welcome feature. Our last three hotels were pretty minimal...the one in Venice actually brought to mind an old dorm room I once had. So it was with veritable delight that we learned that each room had a terrazzo. We loved our room and like our fellow travelers declared that we could stay here for a month and would definitely book the place if traveling on our own. An added feature with our room was the window to our neighbor's toilette. I think this could be quite a shocking discovery if one were not traveling en masse and didn't know practically everyone staying in the hotel. As it was, we knew the couple next door who took advantage of the feature to "borrow" our chairs for a get together they sponsored. 

The staff were extremely friendly.  Breakfast featured homemade applesauce, melone, petite omelettes, and Prosecco (which I understand is an Italian version of champagne). Around the corner, the small grocery store proprietress helped me with my Italian as I ordered some bread, cheese, olives, and red peppers stuffed with raw mozzarella cheese

We had a good amount of free time in Lugano, which was fabulous because the weather was beautiful. The great discovy we made was the bike sharing system they have (I've also seen this in D.C.). We purchased a day pass with one of our fellow travelers for 7 CHF good for 24 hours. Then we just rode around the lake and the city checking out the sites.

The next day, we decided we wanted to ride the funiculore before we had to leave for rehearsal and performance in Bellinzona, so we grabbed bikes form the very convenient sharing station about 100 ft. From the hotel and took off for the base station.

Unfortunately, we found out that we couldn't take our bikes on the car to the top, so we left them below. The ride provided great scenic photo opps. I spent several minutes up at the top snapping photos, meanwhile, Husband was off doing some exploring on his own. Apparently, he saw bikes in the WC ??!?? (which seems to double for storage at this facility), so he set off to find out about them. He was directed to speak to the tram driver whom I can only describe as absolutely adorable. He spoke no English and I couldn't figure out how to ask the questions I wanted in Italian. He did, however understand French, so I spoke in French while he answered in Italian and that's how we communicated.

Turns out using their bikes is free. We just had to fill out a short form with my name and place we were staying. Then we grabbed the bikes (which were not in the WC, but another storeroom), and off we went. The ride down the mountain is marked on the map. You can see it was can't see how steep it is..just trust me on that one. After dropping the mountain bikes at the tram base, we picked up our rental bikes and jetted back to the hotel so Husband could get ready for the performance that night.

Bellinzona is just a 45 minute bus ride from Lugano. The performance is in a beautiful church whose stunning marble work cannot possibly be captured in photos. We are allowed a few hours to explore the town and it's various castles before rehearsal starts. 

We walked up to Castelgrande, from which we could see all over the countryside. I kept wondering what it might be like to grow up visiting these kinds of historical marvels and what kinds of games the kids imagine while looking around. We adults imagined aiming our arrows at the enemy through the slots in the wall and appreciating the fine design of the defense stations.

It is a pretty hot day, but there is a nice breeze blowing and we are glad for that. There is a curious mixture of modernity with history as one comes across the outdoor cinema. Think about what great weather they must have here to be able to count on an outdoor screening of a film. 

After we partook in our daily ration of gelato, the singers rehearsed inside the church, then dressed for the performance. They sang a song on the steps of the church, which served to drum up a little business. The church acoustics allowed for enormous reverberation within. Hear the choir sing, I Wish You Love.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Missing the Boat

You can probably tell by the sign, we're in Venice, now. The choir will be singing at Basilica di San Marco. We were in Venice about 5 years ago so we were intent on doing some of the things we missed last time. Thank goodness that did not include touring the Doges Palace, or the Basilica, or anything at all that required being near Piazza San Marco. I read May was the shoulder season for tourism in Venice...if this is the shoulder, I'd hate to be here during the body! The fun thing is that you can walk several hundred yards and hear a festival of languages, the limitation is that you have to be really careful about pickpockets. We already had one of our group fall victim this trip. You also have to be pretty good at shoulder's a tough crowd and no one gives up their chosen path easily.

We take a tour trip to the islands of Murano, Barano, and Torcello. We're on a tour boat, but you can take one of the vaporetto as well. This tour includes a demonstration by one of the master glass blowers and of course the obligatory trip through the gift shop. After the first stop, Husband and I are wondering how bad it would be if we just missed the boat when it was ready to leave. We just didn't get to see much of Murano, really just the gift shop. 

Before we know it, we're on our way to Barano. It's early in the morning, so hardly anyone is there. None of the shop keepers seem to speak English, which I find me a chance to practice my Italian. Also, I'm finding more and more that I'm being addressed in Italian...must be the recently acquired tan; the result of the past several sunny and above 70 days.

After Barano, we're off to Torcello, a small island with a population of about 15, according to the tour guide. The island is really small and there is just one main attraction, a church that has served the community for several hundred years. Apparently, several celebrities frequent the island during the year and stay at one of the hotels. We walked by two facilities that looked like something out of an old Sophia Loren/Gregory Peck movie. 

After a visit to the church and a bit of a rest under the trees, we make our way back to the boat. The path is fairly long, and just about 50 yards short of the dock, we hear the boat whistle sound and watch the boat pull away from the dock without us.Was it in our subconscious to just miss the boat? I don't know about that...I do know that we grabbed the vaporetto that pulled into the dock not 30 seconds later and headed back to Barano to have lunch. We had a lovely picnic under a tree before leisurely making our way back to the hotel so Husband could get ready for that evening's performance.

We take what amounts to a limo across the Grand Canal to Piazza San Marco  while the sun continues to shine and a gentle breeze begins to blow. Just like a limo, we find a sunroof that allows one of our troop the best headroom he's found in any of our transportation options so far.

We arrive at the dock and make our way to the piazza. Once again, we look like a line of penguins, but interestingly, this doesn't seem to cause the rumble of curiosity it did when we made our way to our venue in Roma.

Oops, we can't get into the Basilica to practice! There we stand at the edge of the piazza and Byron, the conductor, basically directs the group in what I suspect is Piazza San Marco's first flash mob. It didn't take long to attract a crowd. In fact, the crowd grew exponentially the longer the group sang. It was fun to watch the faces of the crowd as they marveled at their good luck for being in just the right place to catch this impromptu performance. They all have quite a story to tell when they get home!

No pictures allowed in the Basilica; this was a full Mass. The Rosary was said prior to the Mass and I found that I had learned the second part of the Hail Mary in Italian by the end of the recitation...Santa Maria, Madre de Dio...etc. Oh, the sound! The voices just reverberated off the walls. It took my breath away and once again brought tears to my eyes. 

We ended the evening on the quai and waited for the arrival of our "limo" while most of us took the opportunity to indulge in one more gelato for the day.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Firenze Frenzy

On to Firenze! This is just like touring with a rock band. Well, except the music is different, we are our own roadies, there is no fan base, and the accommodations are hardly star quality. None of us were sorry to say goodbye to that hotel. The air conditioning on the bus got fixed overnight (miraculously), so that was a plus. We are feeling a bit like sardines...there is no room to spare.

A little while into the trip we find out two singers got left at the hotel. This has got to be every tour manager's nightmare. The bad news is that no one knew they were missing. The good news is that this is Europe and the train system rocks, so they actually beat us to the hotel!

We dropped our bags at the hotel (another one geared for tourists, but quite a cut above) and hopped the city bus to town. Good thing we got to sit and not stand on the bus, because it took an hour to get to town...that's how far out of town we were. 
We were off to l'Academia, home of the famous David by Michelangelo. They control how many folks can enter at a time, so you either wait in line for your ticket, or make a reservation ahead of time. We had reservations and got to bypass that line. By the time we were finished, the sun was setting over the Arno River., which we enjoyed prior to hopping back on the bus for our one hour ride home.

Our only full day in Firenze has a rehearsal scheduled just prior to the performance. We are on the Husband Museum Express, so we're off to Uffizi. Same deal with the reservations again, only this time you have to wait in the line for reservation holders (which is much shorter than the line for non-reservation holders) to get your time-stamped ticket to enter. We're a little bit rushed because rehearsal is early afternoon. We did take a detour in the morning to see il Duomo. More 15th century intricate carvings, paintings and mosaics (ho hum)... ;) oh, and the ultimate Course Marshall's, pictured here in their golf cart for all of you golf fans.

We had talked the tour manager into being able to leave performance clothes on the tour bus to pick up when the bus was scheduled to come into town later in the afternoon. That was the good news. The bad news was the bus had to park about a mile away, so we had a parade of garment bags through the middle of town that afternoon. It was about 20 celcius, so it was hot. (Husband tells me I can figure the conversion to Farenheit by doubling the Celsius temperature, then adding 32; so 20 = 72.)

St. Marks English Church was nice and cool after the long walk and the choir was happy to be inside to sing for awhile. The audience for performance was mostly made up of "choir boosters" even though several singers tried to draw in a crowd by singing outside the church for awhile. Hear the choir sing, "Prayer of the Children."

After another fabulous dinner (it's hard to find bad pasta in Italy), we grabbed the city bus with a couple of other singers to go back to the hotel. We were chatting away when all of a sudden we noticed everyone had evacuated the bus! There was a terrible smell of burning rubber, and smoke coming out of the back of the bus! I'm not really sure what was on fire, but notice the man wielding the fire extinguisher...with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth! As is the Italian way, the event was exciting, but not a particular crisis. We just waited around for the next scheduled bus and hopped on board to continue our trip.



The day began with a one hour trip on the bus into centro Roma (this same trip takes about 15 minutes by metro--which gives you a bit of an idea as to the amount of traffic in the city). We happened to be sitting in the front seat of the tour bus for that trip. Holy Moley that was some crazy driving! Twice I thought we had made Flat Stefano (Italian version of Flat Stanley) out of a couple of Vespa drivers. About 20 of us were taking a tour of the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peters, apparently with several thousand other tourists that day. It was shoulder to shoulder during the entire tour. Though we wore earphones and had a receiver, hearing what was going on was somewhat problematic. Didn't matter, we were swept up in the flow of humanity and didn't have much of a chance to immerse ourselves in the works of art around us. We're surrounded by statues and paintings completed by "the masters" and what amazes me to no end is that we are actually allowed to touch many of the works! The museum has 1400 rooms; I think we power walked through three of them. Our guide was usually several hundred people in front of me, so her expertise was a little lost on me.

The only place we can't take pictures is the Sistine Chapel. When we entered, it was another sea of people, so we also got swept through there. Some lucky people not on tours got some quality time sitting and contemplating just how Michelangelo got those scenes painted. We have a good excuse to go back and hope to do the tour at a more suitable time when the crowds are a bit smaller (that seems to be late in the day).

St. Peter's is just immense. Again, the theme of lots of people continues. There are some amazing pieces in here...some of the robes on the carvings look so real, we had to touch them to be sure they actually were marble. We kept trying to guess where the singers would be set up that night, then found no one was allowed into the forward area due to set up for a service...the service our singers would be part of that evening.
Back to the bus for another one hour ride back to the hotel, because people have to change for the concert. 30 minutes for the quick change, then back on the bus for the one hour ride back to St. Peters ( no you aren't imagining it, we are spending a lot of time on the bus). 

The singers, clad in their black performance garb, gathered in the hotel lobby/cafe. There's a lot of people in this group, and it takes awhile to get everyone assembled. Once gathered, a little warm up takes place. I loved seeing the hotel staff recording it with their iPhones and breaking into applause at finish. Then onto the bus for the trip back to town again. It was a beautiful day outside, which made the bus warm to begin with. Even well into the trip, there was no relief. Thought we would lose a couple of singers to fainting from heat, but these are Alaskans and it takes more than a little heat stroke to get one of us down!

Arrival at the Piazza brings on an air of excitement. They were quite a site all in a line in black formal wear, walking to the entrance. Those of us not singing were designated "alternates" so we were able to enter at the same door as the singers. We were whisked to the very front of the Basilica, in an area we had not been able to enter earlier in the day. As the singers lined up, we alternates kept busy snapping a lot of pictures. 

Soon the two priests arrived and mass began. The singers sounded wonderful against the backdrop of the powerful images within the Basilica. I could not help but be powerfully moved by the whole experience. Though the sermon was in Italian, easily understood was the heartfelt message of the priest and the descriptive way he moved his hands. I could make out that he was speaking about Christianity...that was about all I picked up. The singers sang the rest of their numbers to the delight of the rest of the mass goers. None of us could figure out how one signed up to attend the Mass, but I imagine all that's online, along with getting an audience with the Pope.