Archive | March 2014

Through My Lens: Basilica di San Domenico

San Domenico

Today we’re leaving Florence and moving on to Siena.

This is the Basilica di San Domenico. I’ve written before how I whiled away a summer afternoon on its stone steps, people-watching. But, to the best of my memory, I didn’t go inside the church on that afternoon or any other. That’s kind of sad, on one hand, but it gives me a reason to return to Siena, on the other.

I took this photo in October 2007. I’m not sure why I was shooting in black and white that day, but I was, and so, here it is, a black and white photo of one of Siena’s largest churches for the Fourth Sunday of Lent.

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Royal Opera House

Regular readers of this blog may have figured out by now how much I enjoy listening to live music. And that I especially enjoy seeking out opportunities to hear live music whenever I travel.

I have my mother to thank for that. She took my sister and me at the tender ages of twelve and thirteen to hear a recital of Bach organ music in the Bovenkerk of Kampen, the Dutch town where we happened to be living at the time. The sounds of the organ’s principal pipes reverberating in the centuries-old Gothic arches high above us made quite an impression on me (as did how cold we got sitting in an unheated stone church on a crisp evening in late November).

Something about that night stuck with me and, to this day, Bach remains my favourite composer. So much of a favourite that I even named my cat after him. Upon our family’s return to Canada, I was motivated enough to continue my music studies for another six years, soon switching from piano to pipe organ. I doubt my mother had any idea what a couple hours of Bach organ music could do to me.

But enough about Bach. Let’s get back to the other guy. You know, Mozart. My post the other week on Mozart in Prague reminded me of another memorable opera experience I’ve had, this one of hearing Rossini’s The Barber of Seville at London’s Royal Opera House (aka Covent Garden).

I’ve written before how the opera at Covent Garden is completely within reach of the budget traveller, so, unless you really cannot stand opera (and I won’t hold that against you), there is no reason not to go. The website for the Royal Opera House is easy to use and the nifty thing about ordering tickets online is that you see the view of the stage you will have from the exact seat you’ve selected before you commit to your purchase. How cool is that?

What’s particularly fun about the cheap seats (once you’ve caught your breath from climbing waaaaaay up into the rafters of the building) is what a terrific view you have of a truly remarkable building. And ― bonus ― you have a bird’s-eye view of the performance. I witnessed the dramatic entrance of the barber (that would be the Barber of Seville) as he ran all the way down the aisle from the back of the auditorium to the stage ― something the people sitting at the front of the orchestra level missed because all the action took place behind them.

Sadly, I have no photos of the interior of Covent Garden ― that will have to wait until my next visit to London. Here, though, is a picture of its exterior, which dates back to 1858. I took this photo after stopping by the box office to pick up my ticket that I had purchased weeks earlier before leaving home. It was the last time I saw the beautiful, Italian-made leather wallet I had bought a few years earlier in Rome ― less than a half hour later, I would reach into my bag to realize it was gone.

But that’s a story for another post.

Royal Opera House

Through My Lens: Basilica di San Miniato al Monte

San Miniato al Monte

My experience visiting this church, the Basilica di San Miniato al Monte, was probably the most unique of any visit I have ever made to a European church. It was late in the afternoon, and my friend and I stumbled upon the basilica almost by accident after taking dozens of photos of the amazing view over the city of Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo. (Go back to the First Sunday of Lent if you want to see one of those photos.)

Basilica di San Miniato al Monte is located just a few steps further up the hill from Piazzale Michelangelo. We wandered in and were immediately overwhelmed by the music. Gregorian chant, to be precise. It was mesmerizing, and took all of our attention during our entire visit. The monks were singing in the crypt, located below the raised choir, and there were maybe a dozen tourists scattered about, listening to them.

I had read how the monks who live in the monastery next door sing each afternoon during Vespers, but had completely forgotten about it until we just happened to enter the church at precisely the right hour. If you’re wandering about Florence in the late afternoon and want a once-in-a-lifetime musical experience, go listen to these monks.

Basilica di San Miniato al Monte is my photo choice for today, the Third Sunday of Lent.

Through My Lens: Detail of Il Duomo di Firenze

Duomo Detail

For the Second Sunday of Lent, here’s a detail of the colourful stonework of the Duomo in Florence.

Mozart in Prague

I was at the Vancouver Opera again last weekend, enjoying a superb performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. This opera premiered a couple of centuries ago at the Estates Theatre in Prague, a city that loved Mozart and that Mozart loved in return. He was treated like a rock star whenever he came to town. Don Giovanni was commissioned by an Italian living in Prague when he saw how popular Mozart was in that city.

The Estates Theatre also happens to be where I first saw Don Giovanni. In fact, seeing Don Giovanni at the Estates Theatre in Prague was my first ever live opera experience. My friend and I treated ourselves to box seats because they set us back a mere $20 ― it was quite the introduction to live opera. If you enjoy music and you happen to be in Prague, I highly recommend checking it out.

I don’t have any photos of the Estates Theatre, but if you were to walk down the street in the photo below, the theatre would come into view just as you round the corner. Can’t you picture this street on a clear, crisp October night in 1787, with gown and cape–clad Praguers arriving at the Estates Theatre in their horse-drawn carriages? Then, with a little imagination, picture them sweeping en masse into the newly built theatre to witness a grand spectacle: the newest (some say best) opera from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, directed by the Maestro himself.

Go on. Imagine.

Ovocný trh

Through My Lens: Il Duomo di Firenze

Il Duomo

Once again we’ve arrived at the Season of Lent. It’s much later than usual this year (which also seems to be the case with the arrival of spring in most parts of Canada).

As is my tradition, I’m going to take you on a photographic tour of some European churches. This year it’s Italy’s turn.

First up, for the First Sunday of Lent, is the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. In English, that’s the Basilica of Saint Mary the Flower. In Florence, it’s referred to simply as the Duomo, which is Italian for “cathedral.”

I took this photo of the Duomo from Piazzale Michelangelo, which overlooks the city of Florence and the River Arno. At the far right, you have Brunelleschi’s dome and then, to the left of the dome, is Giotto’s Campanile. The smaller dome to the left of the Campanile isn’t part of the Duomo ― that’s the Medici Chapel.

A Book Smuggler, er, Travel Blogger Goes Through U.S. Customs

You know how sometimes you have really odd conversations with customs officers? Like, right-out-of-the-twilight-zone odd?

The one I had with the American customs officer at Pacific Central Station (aka the Vancouver train station) last week, while I was en route to Seattle, was one of the oddest I’ve ever had. It went like this:

Customs Officer: And what do you do for a living?

Me: I’m a book editor.

Customs Officer: Oh! That must be an interesting job.

Me [pause]: It can be.

Customs Officer: Are you bringing any books to Seattle with you?

Me: Yes.

[confused look on customs officer’s face as he turns back to my declaration form to see what goods I’m declaring (none), at which point I realize he means am I bringing books to … sell? to … distribute? to … oh, I have no idea for what purpose he might think I want to bring books into his country, so I decide I better clarify the situation for him]

Me: I have books with me to read. I’ll be bringing those same books with me back to Canada.

Customs Officer [frowning]: We ask these questions for a reason, you know.

Me: You asked me if I had any books. And I do.

[customs officer doesn’t say another word, gives me back my passport, and waves me on through]

Since I was at a writing conference, I bought one or two (erm, six) books, as one would expect. And, since I don’t want to be arrested for book smuggling, I declared them to the Canadian customs officer upon my return to Canada after the weekend was over. As one would expect.

The Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle

The Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle