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.

Do Re Mi

The next day we're off to the real reason we made this trip in the first place. It's time to meet up with the rest of the singing group on the other side of town. Actually, the change in abode took us from one end of the metro line to the other end. The map said we could just walk to the hotel, it was only about 1 km. Non problemo...HA! The problem was that there was no walkway to use. We wound up dragging our rolling duffles on the roadway (and part of the time across the highway on ramp). I kept waiting for La Polizia to stop us and cart us off to jail Roma style. However, that didn't happen, and despite the somewhat heart-stopping jaunt, we arrived at the hotel in one piece.

Envision what you think of as a "cater to a large group" hotel and you've got this one down pat. Decor= minimalist. It had some interesting high tech features, though. For instance, you just waved your key in front of the door sensor and you entered...after putting your shoulder into it, that is. The lights work for a little while, then all turn off unless you have inserted your key in the corresponding slot inside the door. This is a pretty cool concept, but would have been more appreciated had we been told that when we checked in. We only found out because we reported that our lights didn't work. So as to keep the rest of the group from experiencing that same DOH moment, we were careful to tell folks as they checked in. The hotel did have a WiFi connection and it cost 7 euros for 24 hours. That's not bad, but we saw a McDonalds next door to the hotel ( this also gives you an idea of the type of hotel we're in) and we figured it would be free there. Well yes, it is free, IF you have an Italian  SIM card in your phone. Otherwise you "non ha fortuna. "

 Check in was like witnessing a family reunion. Some folks had been in and around Europe for several days prior and were just happy to see a friendly face that also,spoke English. Others were fresh off the plane and just happy to have their feet on the ground. All were looking forward to singing.

Though called the Alaskan Featival Singers this group is made up of folks from several different locales. The most folks are currently from Juneau and another handful are formerly from there. Others hail from various cities in Alaska and a few more from Washington, Texas and Colorado. None of these folks have sung this music as an ensemble before the first rehearsal they have on the first day. I know that Husband took advantage of several you tube videos to practice...As did others. Chalk one up for technology! 

We all loaded up on the tour bus to go to rehearsal in a local church. Set in a somewhat downtrodden neighborhood, "la chiesa" was beautiful. The windows were amazing and the acoustics gorgeous. Though there was plenty for the group to work on, they really did sound amazing, more so because they hadn't sung together before. After about an hour and a half, we were released to spend the evening on our own. 

Friday, May 25, 2012

Segway To Go!

Roma is a big city. I state the somewhat obvious so you will know we really don't think we can take it all in, in the traditional way, in just three days. Think about it, there are more people on one subway train in the morning than in all of Barrow at any given time.   It takes us longer to get from the Basilica di St. Pietro to the Trevi Fountain on foot than it takes us to walk across the whole of Barrow. With this in mind, we found a great solution to seeing much in little time...we took a Segway tour. Have you ever seen one? They are cool, but when you look at someone riding one, it's hard to see how it's being steered. It's all in the balance. You lean forward to move forward and lean back to stop, but don't lean back too far or you'll go in reverse!

We got lots of time to practice. Those guys want to make sure you know what you're doing on a Segway before you get out on the streets of Roma. Just walking here can be fatal, imagine the potential danger once you are powered up! As one of our guides put in, "when you want to cross the street, you need to let the drivers know you are serious about crossing, otherwise they won't stop for you!" I wound up using blockers to cross a little ahead of me; like football, someone has to pave the way in order to make yardage!

So off we went on our three hour tour. Our guide has a masters degree in archeology. Out of a full time job because of the economy, we get to benefit from his expertise. Wow, did we get a ton of info on all of the historic sites, from the Coliseo to Circo Massimo...all while zipping along on our Segways. The machine puts you above the crowd as well, a great feature for those of us who are vertically challenged.

We liked that tour so much we decided to also do the night tour. The difference is that the night tour takes in things like Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps and the Pantheon (outside views, of course). That night, the weather was a little dicey, so I had my rain pants in my backpack, but when we arrived at the shop, it wasn't raining, so we figured we'd be good to go for the evening. Our guide, Marco, was fabulous, very personable and raring to show us everything. His tour was a little "zippier" in terms of how quick
ly we moved on the Segways, but just as detailed in the information he gave us. About 30 minutes into our two hour tour it began to rain a little, so I put on my rain jacket. About an hour into the tour it started to pour. Did I put on my rain pants? Didn't even think about it. It wasn't cold, but once the rain started dripping down my arms, it was quite uncomfortable. Nonetheless, Marco stayed upbeat and intent on giving us the best possible tour he could. Thank goodness he also gave us a tip at the end on the quickest way to get back to the metro, our abode, and subsequently dry clothes!