Dorsoduro, Venice

Posted on August 24, 2013

Dorsoduro. Photo courtesy of Ramón Cutanda via Flickr.

Dorsoduro. Photo courtesy of Ramón Cutanda via Flickr.

In the high season, Venice’s population doubles and the log jam on the main thoroughfares becomes almost unbearable, as thousands of tourists clog the alleyways between the Rialto Bridge and Piazza San Marco. A short walk over the Ponte dell’Accademia crossing the Grand Canal, however, provides an escape route into one of the most enduring and increasingly fashionable districts of La Serenissima, Dorsoduro. Somewhat euphemistically translated as ‘high ridge’, it juts out from San Polo and lies to the South of San Marco with its tip almost opposite the Doge’s Palace. It also embraces two islands across the canal to the south, Giudecca and the less fashionable, Sacca Fisola.

Cantine del Vino gia Schiavi. Photo courtesy of timsackton via Flickr.

Cantine del Vino gia Schiavi. Photo courtesy of timsackton via Flickr.

Ambiance

What I adore about this district is its bohemian atmosphere, its relative tranquillity and its mix of students congregating around the campos near the University at Ca’ Foscari and locals relaxing outside the osterias and wine bars in the early evenings. Restaurant prices are much lower than those across the Grand Canal, service is much more cordial and the ambiance is friendly and unassuming. Stroll along the Fondamenta Nani next to the Rio di San Trovaso in the early evening and you will find locals and tourists congregating around the Cantina del Vino gia Schiavi and the smaller Al Squero sipping prosecco or spritz and sampling the crostinis, cichettis, rosettas and paninis. Nearby the Gelateria Lo Squero serves up its speciality pistachio gelato; recently Angelina Jolie herself was seen sampling the local ices there.

Near Santa Maria della Salute. Photo courtesy of Old Fogey 1942 via Flickr.

Near Santa Maria della Salute. Photo courtesy of Old Fogey 1942 via Flickr.

The Waterfront

A short walk away is the waterfront, Fondamente Zattere stretching all the way from the Maritime port to the church of Santa Maria della Salute (La Salute) at the tip of Dorsoduro guarding the entrance to the Grand Canal. Fish restaurants, bars and cafes look out over the Canal de Giudecca and the luxury hotels, home to the rich and famous on the island opposite during the Venice Film Festival. Vaporetti crisscross the canal and occasionally huge cruise ships ply their way slowly towards the lagoon towed somewhat precariously by fleets of tugboats. If you are in need of refreshment, sample the gianduiotto ice cream with its lashings of chocolate and cream in one of Venice’s oldest and most famous gelateria, Nico’s near the Ponte Lungo.

Nearby, at Santa Maria della Visitazione, look out for the lion’s head, bocca di leone, embedded in the church’s wall. The Doges wanted to encourage Venetians to denounce people who had committed crimes without fear of retribution and letters were signed in front of a witness then placed in the lion’s mouth surreptiously. If the crimes were deemed serious enough, the accused was arrested and tried. More often than not, however, it led to wrongful imprisonment and endemic paranoia and suspicion especially at times of plague.

San Travaso. Photo courtesy of dalbera via Flickr.

San Travaso. Photo courtesy of dalbera via Flickr.

Gondolas

Dorsoduro is also the home to last remaining boatyard for gondolas in Venice and you can watch the squeraroli plying their centuries-old trade next to the San Trovaso church in Lo Squero. Gone are the days when some 10,000 gondolas monopolised transportation in Venice and today only 425 licences are issued for the whole network, with many handed down from father to son and new recruits having to pass an extremely arduous exam. The gondolas are built to precise specifications, painted the regulation black and made from 280 pieces of eight different types of wood. At the prow is an iron stabiliser, made of six metal combs (pettini) that represent the six sestieres, or neighbourhoods, that comprise Venice. The posterior pettini represents the island of Guidecca.

Until recently, the gondoliers were all male but in 2010 a mother of two, Giorgia Boscolo, became the first female to take up this trade. If you fancy a gondola ride, however, beware since they do not come cheap and cost €80 for 40 minutes (€110 after 19.00) and €40 to €50 for every twenty minutes after that. It pays, therefore, to go in a group.

Campo San Barnaba. Photo courtesy of Nick Bramhall via Flickr.

Campo San Barnaba. Photo courtesy of Nick Bramhall via Flickr.

Churches

Dorsoduro also has some of the most beautiful but less frequented churches in Venice, which allows you to enjoy their solitude and charm far away from the crowds that swamp the churches around San Marco. In San Sebastiano, Veronese spent 10 years of his life painting almost every wall, the ceiling and even the organ and was eventually buried there. It is worth the visit just to see the wonderful sacristy and the magnificent paintings around the altar. You can also watch the painters meticulously and delicately retouch the wall paintings as part of the restoration programme funded by the New York-based Save Venice Inc.

Nearby, Chiesa dell’Angelo Raffaele, was immortalised by the British novelist, Sally Vicker in Miss Garnet’s Angel; and San Nicolo dei Mendicoli was used as the setting for Nick Roeg’s 1973 thriller,Don’t Look Now, starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. San Barnaba was used as the exterior of the library in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade;  and in the 1955 film, Summertime,starring Katherine Hepburn who insisted on falling into the canal herself rather than use an understudy. Unfortunately, she contracted an eye disease as a result, which affected her for the rest of her life.

Ponte di Pugni

In contrast to the solitude and reverence of the churches, however, the Ponte di Pugni stretching over the Rio de San Barnaba, has a much more infamous past and was the site of the War of the Fists that took place between rival gangs in the 17th and 18th centuries. These were huge fist fights numbering hundreds of fighters that were watched by thousands of spectators and supported financially by the nobility and church. They were principally between the Castellani who were shipbuilders from the Arsenale close to San Pietro di Castello and the Nicolotti, who were fisherman from the Western end of Dorsoduro near San Nicolo dei Medicoli. Although they started out with referees and some semblance of order, they soon disintegrated into all out battles where people were crushed to death or drowned in the canals. They were subsequently banned in 1705 when contestants and indeed spectators joined in with all manner of weaponry.

Entrance to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum. Photo courtesy of TracyElaine via Flickr.

Entrance to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum. Photo courtesy of TracyElaine via Flickr.

Peggy Guggenheim Museum

The Peggy Guggenheim Museum sitting by the banks of the Grand Canal, however, blends beautifully into its surroundings and provides an oasis of calm serenity that belies the wonders of its art collection. The gardens of the single storeyed Palazzo Venier dei Leoni are filled with sculptures yet nevertheless remain unassuming and a place to relax or even write a message to a loved one and post it on a tree donated by Yoko Ono. Inside, you can wander around galleries filled with priceless collections of cubist, surrealist and abstract art including works by Picasso, Salvador Dali, Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon, Jean Metzinger and Hans Arp; or eat in the wonderful cafeteria overlooking the gardens.

Galleria dell’Accademia

Whilst Dorsoduro’s attraction is its ambiance, it nevertheless does possess some very important tourist attractions. The Galleria dell’Accademia, just over the bridge across the Grand Canal, is one of the principal art galleries in Venice and in Italy. Despite its somewhat unglamorous appearance, it hosts major works by Bellini, Tintoretto, Veronese, Titian, Carpaccio and has Giorgione’s pricelessTempesta. Only 180 visitors are allowed at one time, so either go early or be prepared for very long queues. Further north is Ca’ Rezzonico, built in 1648, where Robert Browning spent his last days until his death in 1889 and was also rented by Cole Porter. This is a very grandiose Baroque Palazzo housing the museum of 18th- century Venice and worth the entrance fee just to view the lavishness of the interior.

 ‘La Salute’

‘La Salute’, itself is also well worth a visit. Built to commemorate the plague that swept through Venice in 1630 and took 80,000 lives, it was designed by Baldassare Longhena when he was only 26, and took 50 years to complete and required some 100,000 pinewood logs to be driven vertically into the ground to support it. Quite apart from its immense structure its interior hosts two magnificent pieces of artwork, Tintoretto’s Wedding at Cana and Titian’s St Mark Enthroned with Saints Cosmos, Damian, Roch and Sebastian.

La Salute via Wikimedia Commons

La Salute via Wikimedia Commons

Festivals

If you happen to be there on November 21st, prepare yourself for the Festa dell Madonna della Salute when a bridge is constructed from San Marco to La Salute and the whole city turns out to celebrate the end of the plague and the survival of La Serenissima.  In the third week of July, a similar festival takes place when a bridge is constructed from Zattere to La Redentore on the island of Guidecca to celebrate the end of the plague in 1576 and culminates in a huge firework display that illuminates the whole city.

Dorsoduro. Photo courtesy of Toni Rodrigo via Flickr.

Dorsoduro. Photo courtesy of Toni Rodrigo via Flickr.

Dorsoduro is one of my favourite districts in Venice and one that I love to explore. Its magic is its variety, its vitality and its mixture of young and old, pensioners and students, locals and tourists, workers and art aficionados. We should also not forget, however, that it also plays host to a major prison, and the inmates’ voices can be heard resonating around the alleyways near the Venice University of Architecture faculty not far from the waterfront.

 

Mallorca, Spain

Posted on August 24, 2013

Mallorca

Mallorca

I had only visited MAJ-ORCA once before in 1988 in the company of our five teenage children, foolishly believing that we would have a quiet family holiday by the sea. Was I mad? The holiday turned into a nightmare with the flight overbooked and packed to the gunnels and the resort resembling Stalag 7 with the family scattered around clay huts that would not have been out of place in rural Africa. The sound of karaoke every night, evening meals of fish and chips, chicken and chips and the occasional spag boll did little to endear me to the island and I swore I would never return again.

In search of rest and recovery after an operation had gone seriously wrong, I was therefore, somewhat apprehensive about returning there twenty years later, although I was assured that Northern Mallorca was much more demure and attracted a different class of holiday maker to those who seemed to have a penchant for falling off balconies in Magaluf. My holiday, however, did have a somewhat inauspicious start with my private taxi failing to turn up at the airport and my luxury room at the back of the hotel resembling. A small cupboard. I slept fitfully, cursed myself for returning there and eventually succumbed to overwhelming tiredness.

In the morning, however, Puerto de Pollenca unfolded in front of my eyes. A broad, sweeping bay, a backdrop of green mountains and a clear, blue sea lapping against sandy shores. A small, town hugged the shoreline and the smell and fragrances of bougainvillea and pine trees filled my nostrils.  Fishing boats chugged out to sea and my fellow guests scattered their towels and lounged on the veranda, soaking up the morning sun. I was to discover a region of untold beauty, of dramatic scenery with some of the highest peaks on the island and a coastline dotted with small bays and villages. No wonder it was the favourite haunt of writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Agatha Christie, Robert Graves and the notorious George Sand who wooed Frederic Chopin in Valdemossa.

Puerto de Pollenca

Puerto de Pollenca

Mallorca is essentially an island of two halves. The South dominated by a flat plain called Es Plastretching from the capital, Palma, which is the island’s prime agricultural centre; and the North and West, which is dominated by the magnificent mountain range, the Serra de Tramuntana, with peaks rising as high as 1463 metres at Puig Majo and stretching from the Southern shores to the dramatic Cap de Formentor, which is the northernmost spur of the mountains, jutting out towards the smaller island of Menorca.  It is a hiker’s paradise, with the long-distance hiking trail-Ruta de Pedra en Sec running from Soller all the way to Pollenca.  The route is one of the prime walking areas in Spain and is well served with hostels en route. For those feeling more energetic, it is also fabulous cycling country especially if you are fit enough to climb to the top of the peaks and savour the twisting and winding descent round hair-pin bends.

Monument on a cliff of Palma de Mallorca

Monument on a cliff of Palma de Mallorca

For those of a less energetic disposition, it is worthwhile hiring a car and taking the Ma-1110 west of Palma, which takes you through stunning countryside and beautiful, picturesque villages. It’s one of the best day trips from Palma de Mallorca.

Only 15 kms North of Palma is Valdemossa, famous for its Monastery, bequeathed to Carthusian monks and now one of the island’s most popular destinations, not only because of its beauty but because it was home to the notorious, trouser-wearing, cigar-smoking George Sand who lived there with Chopin in 1838-39. A visit to the cells is a must if only to view Chopin’s piano. The village has a wonderful ambience, with winding streets, art galleries, chic shops and cafes and restaurants crowded with visitors.

To the north of the town, the road passes through the picturesque village of Deia, immortalised by the writer, Robert Graves, who lived there in the 1930s and after the Second World War and penned many of his most famous works including I Claudius.  The village was to become a centre for writers and artists and owed much of its fame once again due to the notoriety of Graves’s partner, Laura Riding and their mystic group, the Holy Circle. His house has been beautifully restored at Ca N’Alluny just out of the village.

Deia Village. Photo courtesy of Random_fotos via Flickr.

Deia Village. Photo courtesy of Random_fotos via Flickr.

From Deia, the road twists and turns along the coast before descending rapidly to Soller, almost enclosed by the dramatically high peaks of the Serra de Tramuntana. A picturesque town, with activities centred around the Placa Constitucio, its main claim to fame is that it is connected to Palma by a 28 kms railway and is then linked to the seaside resort port, Puerto de Soller, by a tram, which shuttles regularly between the town and the resort. The train ride from Palma is well worth the €10 price just to experience the climb through the tunnels and the steep valleys.

Puerto de Soller is also one of the most popular spots on the coast with a beautiful, secluded horseshoe bay, clear, blue seas and a backdrop of verdant mountains. In May, it is also host the famous Sa Fira I Es Firo, commemorating the victorious battle of the Mallorcans against marauding pirates.

From Soller north, the Ma-10 traverses the highest point in the mountains and the views are dramatic if somewhat unnerving to the novice driver. The road twists and turns round hair pin bends, through tunnels, passing Puig Major before emerging into the Gorg Bleu, the Blue Gorge, where three reservoirs have been created by the construction of a hydro-electric power scheme. At the Embassament de Cuber, a footpath winds its way around the lake teeming with birdlife. Dominating the reservoir is the Puig de Massanella (1365 metres).

Puig de Massanella. Photo courtesy of hugoundoliver via Flickr.

Puig de Massanella. Photo courtesy of hugoundoliver via Flickr.

The road continues its ascent to its maximum point before eventually turning downwards and heading through beautiful countryside to the picturesque town of Pollenca.  Built inland to avoid attacks by pirates, its main tourist attraction is the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross), a steep, 365-step stone stairway from the centre of the town climbing up the Puig de Calvari (Calvary Hill) with its magnificent views of the surrounding countryside. Again, a certain amount of stamina is required to make the climb but it is well worth it. Pollenca also has its own thirteenth century church, Nostra Senyora dels Angels just off the Placa Major with a beautiful rose window and painted ceiling, a welcome respite from the midday sun. It is also host to the Museu Dionis Benassar, which has a collection of the artist’s famous paintings, with beautifully coloured landscapes that capture the beauty of this region.

Whilst the mountains provide a sanctuary from the high-rise buildings that still litter the southern coast, Puerto Pollenca itself offers something unique with its stillness and tranquillity and its absence of cars. An ideal location for families with shallow waters and sandy beaches, it also offers links to even more secluded beaches such as Platja de Formentor, which can be reached by road or preferably by sea with the catamaran only taking thirty minutes. Here, the one kilometre of sandy beach is a haven from the town across the bay. Turquoise blue waters, the backdrop of pine trees and freshness of the sea breezes induces a state of almost total relaxation. Such was the appeal of this area that a wealthy Argentinian, Adan Diehl, purchased the whole peninsula in 1928, built himself a hotel, Hotel Formentor, and used it as a retreat for the wealthy and famous including Charlie Chaplin and Agatha Christie who wrote Problem at Pollensa Bay there. His intoxication with the area has had some very positive effects in that there has been scarcely no development there despite the fact that it is now owned by the Barcelo chain.

Cap de Formentor. Photo courtesy of Andy von der Wurm via Flickr.

Cap de Formentor. Photo courtesy of Andy von der Wurm via Flickr.

No visit to this area is complete, however, without a drive to the very end of the island at Cap de Formentor but be prepared for cyclists training for the Tour de France hurtling round the bends. The drive is however, worth every penny with dramatic viewpoints down the sheer cliffs with a twisting, winding road up to the lighthouse dominating the headland. From here, you can see Menorca in the distance and the mountains behind Puerto de Pollenca.

I left Mallorca overwhelmed by the scenery and the amazing contrast between the mountains and the coastal towns. Gone were my apprehensions about lager louts, fish and chip shops and high raise hotels. Instead I was left with a memory of turquoise blue sea, soft white sands and the magnificent backdrop of the Serra de Tramuntana.

 

Island of Giudecca, Venice, Italy

Posted on August 24, 2013

Isola della Giudecca. Photo courtesy of  Necrothesp via wikimedia.

Isola della Giudecca. Photo courtesy of Necrothesp via wikimedia.

If you’re a backpacker and want to savour some of the most iconic views in Venice, then there’s no better place to stay then the Ostello Venezia on the Island of Giudecca, For the price of a small meal at the nearby luxury hotels you get the same magnificent views over the canal to the Doges’ Palace, the Campanile towering over St. Mark’s Square and the cathedral of La Salute guarding the entrance to the Grand Canal. If, however, you are feeling very flush and really want to have a momentary bit of self-indulgence, then you can sample the world famous Hotel Caprice with its Olympic-sized swimming pool and hobnob with De Niro, Angelina Jolie et al during the annualVenice Film Festival, held in the nearby Lido in August every year.

Nicknamed the ‘spinalonga’ or long spine, Giudecca is only a ten minute vaporetta ride from Zattere across the canal but its proximity belies its tranquillity and simplicity. Here, you can stroll aimlessly along the Fondamenta, sample the seafood in the many restaurants scattered along the waterfront or just relax in the bars and cafes as the speedboats, vaporetti and the occasional cruiser float by. There is no sense of haste, no crowds; just an unhurried ease and a place to relax far away from the summer mayhem around the major tourist haunts across the canal.

No one is really sure of the origin of the name of the island; some say that it comes from the settlement of Jews there following their flight from the pogroms in Europe.  A more plausible view is that it derives from ‘giudicati’ meaning the judged and refers to the banishment for 9th century aristocrats who had fallen foul of the law in Venice and earned the displeasure of the Doges. Michaelangelo took up residence there for nearly a year in 1529 to escape the wrath of the Medicis and there is a street named after him at the western end of the island. Certainly, the space, the light and the distance from the crowds on the mainland would have been inspirational.

Until the 18th century, Giudecca was home to wealthy Venetians and numerous lavish houses were established there with extensive gardens. A number of churches were also built, two of which were designed by one of the world’s most famous architects, Palladio. Il Redentore was built to celebrate the end of the first great plague, which killed 50,000 Venetians in 1575-76.  If you happen to be there on the third Saturday in July, be prepared for a sudden end to the peace and quiet when a pontoon bridge is constructed across the canal from La Salute to Il Redentore and the whole of Venice turns out to cross the bridge and back to celebrate the end of the plague. The evening culminates in a gigantic firework display that illuminates the whole waterfront and the revellers on the hundreds of boats stretching across the canal. Sante Maria della Presentazione, known locally as Le Zitelle, was formerly part of a complex that gave shelter to young maidens who were considered to be at risk of becoming prostitutes and were taught music and lace making. Acquired by the Bauer group, parts of the former convent have been converted into a 50-room luxury hotel-the Palladio. Not for those on a modest budget.

The onset of Venice’s industrial revolution in the 19th century had a dramatic effect on the island. Not wanting to see La Serenissima overwhelmed by factories and pollution, the authorities moved industrial activity to Giudecca and it became famous for boatbuilding, textiles, flour milling, brewing, matting and rope making. One of the earliest film studios was even established there behind the current Hilton.  The whole social mix of the island changed with the influx of workers and their families and tenements stretched along the spine of the island. The subsequent decline in the post-war period had a dramatic effect on the island, descending into a poor backwater with a few isolated islands of prosperity. Two of the city’s jails were located here and the island became synonymous with poverty.

In recent years, however, there has been a major resurgence and huge efforts are being made to revive tourism and foster industrial regeneration. The former flour mill/vaporetti factory/power plant at Molino Stucky fell into disrepair following the murder of its owner, Giovanni Stucky the biggest employer in Venice, in 1955 but has been transformed into a 250 room Hilton hotel with a rooftop swimming pool.  Its Skyline bar is a must for anyone wanting to sample some of the best views in Venice and is well worth the prices charged- €14 for a spritz. It also has one of the best health clubs in Venice. The Judeca Nova complex built on the site of the former Junghans watch and clock factory has been converted into modern apartments, many of them available to let in the summer months; and the area behind the church of Santa Eufemia on the Fondamenta is also being developed into a modern business centre. There has also been a revival of the Fortuny textile factory, located next to the Molino Stucky Hilton. Originally established in 1922, the factory almost closed until its revival by its American owner, and there has now been a resurgence of interest in the unique fabric designs- carnavalet, lucrezia, de medici and moresco- and visitors can view these in the showrooms.

Even the prisons have embraced the island’s new status. Le Convertite, the women’s prison, descended into notoriety in the 16th century when Fra Giovanni Leon used it as a refuge for prostitutes only to be beheaded for using the 400 nuns as his personal harem. Until recently, the inmates had resigned themselves to a life of relative solitude and limited exposure to the outside world. If you turn up at the prison gates on a Thursday morning, however, you will see stalls set out and prisoners selling some of the best quality organic vegetables in the city. Take care if you go, however, since the locals feel that they have a monopoly of the fruits and vegetables and woe be tied intruders especially foreigners who try to usurp them. The prisoners also produce a range of toiletries ( soap, gel, shampoo, lotions) under expert supervision, market them through a co-operative and also supply the Bauer hotels. They also produce a range of clothing. Such has been the success of these ventures that the prisoners recently appeared on TV in the UK in Jamie Oliver does Venice, where the famous chef served up minestrone soup to somewhat disgruntled inmates.

Near to the Bauer Palladio hotel, the Casa de Trei Oci built by the famous Spanish painter, Mario de Maria, has been transformed into a multi-purpose venue and recently hosted a major photographic exhibition by the eminent American photographer, Elliot Erwitt. With its distinctive gothic architecture, its iconic pinnacles made from istrian stones and its unique ‘three eye’ windows, it is a venue that aptly serves the arts very well.

Venice can be an exhausting city at the best of times and the peak season in July and August can be unbearable. An escape to Giudecca, even for just a few days, can be a welcome relief where you can stroll along the waterfront, indulge in one of the local delicacies or have a leisurely meal in one of the many restaurants lining the waterfront. If you want to splash out to eat, there is Harry’s Dolci, between the vaporetto stop at Palanca and the Molino Stucky Hilton. Whilst somewhat cheaper than its namesake near San Marco, prices are nevertheless in the range of €55 per head excluding wine for the set menu. Alternatively, if you are a on a more limited budget, there is the Trattoria do Mori and the snack bar  ‘La Palanca’ serving reasonably priced meals. There are also numerous local shops including an extremely good fishmonger, an excellent baker and a wine shop serving directly from the barrel.

Alternatively, if you find the heat suffocating, the public baths on Sacca San Biagio just over the bridge from Sacca Fisola offer a respite and allows you to sample the markets nearby in San Gerardo Sagredo. Failing that, it is a short vaporetto ride to the beaches of the Lido and the Adriatic; or to the nearby island of San Giorgio Maggiore with its magnificent cathedral and campanile, where the views over Giudecca and La Serenissima are magnificent. Fortunately, there is a spacious lift to the top.

- Graham Walker

A Night at the Opera, Verona

Posted on June 21, 2012

Verona is famous for its music and especially its opera, which takes place in the former Roman amphitheater, L’Arena, next to the Piazza Bra in the center of this beautiful city. A venue more renowned for gladiatorial combat and games (ludi), it has been transformed into one of the wonders of the world, with over 50 performances every season running from June to September. The 2012 season includes Don Giovanni, Aida, Carmen, Romeo and Juliette, Turandot and Tosca. 

L’Arena in Verona, Italy

L’Arena in Verona, Italy

Here are some tips that will help you in preparation for the performance you might attend.

Read about more things to do in Italy

Arriving to the opera performance

The sheer vastness of the setting in the huge circular amphitheater packed with 14,000 spectators, all sitting in the open air, creates the most mesmeric of atmospheres. It’s not just the opera itself but the ambiance outside in the piazza and surrounding streets prior to the performance that makes this an unforgettable experience.

Crowds form a line outside the entrances for the unreserved seats, jostling to get the best positions; those who can afford the reserved seats indulge in the expensive restaurants around the piazza while there is a constant throb of excitement as the rich and glitterati arrive in their limousines. Actors dressed as Roman soldiers, Egyptian Pharaohs and Mummies stroll amongst the on-lookers trying to exact a few euros to have their pictures taken.

Warm-up before the show

As 9:00pm starts to approach, everyone moves towards the entrances. Entering the amphitheater is like going to a football match, except that there is no pitch below. Instead, there are rows and rows of seats facing the stage, only for the rich at nearly 200 euros a person. The whole arena is shrouded in light and there is a constant cacophony of noise. Searchlights move amongst the crowd, small candles are lit everywhere and the orchestra in the pits below the stage go through their warm-up routines.

As the magic hour approaches, a figure walks onto the stage with a gong. He is dressed in a top hat and tails and bangs it three times to indicate that the performance starts in three minutes. Everyone quietens down, switches off their phones, turns the anti-flash on to their cameras and waits expectantly for the performance to begin. I had chosen La Traviata, Giuseppi Verdi’s masterpiece.

L'Arena in Verona, Italy. Photo courtesy of walnuthillarts via Flickr.

L’Arena in Verona, Italy. Photo courtesy of walnuthillarts via Flickr.

The beginning of the show

The lights dim, silence descends and the conductor struts across the stage and bows to the audience and everyone claps loudly. Then, the music starts, shadowy figures move into the background and the stage is suddenly covered in light. A huge picture frame fills the stage with men in dinner suits and lavishly attired ladies enjoy a party thrown by the famed courtesan, Violetta ValeryThe suspense is enormous as the sopranoVioletta, emerges and starts to sing. Act I gathers momentum and builds to a crescendo and Violetta lies prostrate. The whole audience cheers, claps and shouts ‘Bravo’ as she bows graciously and exits.

The first of two intervals arrives, people stand and stretch their legs, some disappear quickly in search of the toilets and ushers direct people to the exits.  The opera continues for two further acts with one more interval before midnight arrives and the finale finally comes. Huge roars resound around the amphitheater, Bravo‘ echoes off the marble staircases and everyone stands and applauds. We leave in droves, some for the bars and restaurants in the piazza and others like myself dashing to the hotel on the outskirts. This was a memorable experience and one that I will never forget.

L'Arena Stage in Verona, Italy. Photo Courtesy of Jon Shave via Flickr.

L’Arena Stage in Verona, Italy. Photo Courtesy of Jon Shave via Flickr.

The duration of the performance

If you are thinking of going to the Opera, there are certain things you need to remember. Firstly, if you leave your seat in the middle of the performance to go to the toilet, you will not be allowed back until the next interval. Given that there are only two breaks in the three-hour performance, this can be an expensive way of spending your time. It’s a good idea, therefore, not to over-indulge before the performance. If you do need to go at the interval, remember the toilets are limited and hundreds of spectators descending on them at once can cause a huge logjam.

Secondly, the performance goes on from nine to midnight and the temperature can drop substantially, so ensure you have something warm to wear. Thirdly, indulge in the cushions. Three hours is a long tie to sit on a hard seat and 3 euros will spare you agony. Choose your seat wisely. If you can, avoid the cheap seats at 25 euros and buy the 73 euro reserved seats on the steps. It is a long haul and some comfort helps.

L'Arena in Verona, Italy. Photo courtesy of AroundTuscany via Flickr.

L’Arena in Verona, Italy. Photo courtesy of AroundTuscany via Flickr.

What you can expect

Finally, be prepared for anything. This is an open-air opera after all, and the amphitheater is exposed to elements. in the atmosphere. In my performance, in the middle of Act II, a sudden gust of wind lifted the huge tapestry draping the stage, knocked the table over and almost decapitated the lead tenor with the umbrella stand. Of course everyone laughed, including the lead tenor, but a few minutes later the whole tapestry collapsed in a heap on the stage. To the credit of the performers, they made light of it and carried on as soon as the set had been restored.

It can rain in the performance and often this is torrential. It’s good to keep an eye on the weather reports and be prepared if necessary. You should also bear in mind that there is a predominance of rich, old people in the audience and the incidence of heart attacks, I am told, is quite high. Again, we were treated to the sight of an old man teetering, then falling over and being whisked away by a team of red clad medics.  It was like something out of a Marx brother’s film, but had much more poignancy.

So, treat yourself to a lifetime’s experience. Remember the golden rules and it will be something that will stay with you forever.

© Graham Walker 2012

Originally published by Viator

Olympic Park, London

Posted on June 20, 2012

In the summer of 2012, London will be awash with visitors from all over the world as the capital hosts the XXX Olympic Games from July 27th to August 12th and the Paralympics from August 29th to September 9th. While events will be scattered over venues throughout the southeast of England, the centrepiece of the Games will be the Olympic Park situated in Stratford in East London some six miles from the city centre.

Nine of the key sporting venues will be located here including the Olympic Stadium (opening/closing ceremony and athletics), the Aquatics Centre (diving and swimming), the Velodrome (cycling), the BMX Track, the Water Polo Arena, the Basketball Arena, the Riverbank Arena (hockey), Eton Manor (wheelchair tennis) and the Copper Box (handball, goalball and modern pentathlon).

Aquatic Centre

Aquatic Centre

It will also play host to the Olympic and Paralympic Village catering for some 10,500 athletes in 2818 apartments on 11 residential plots and the International Broadcast Centre/Main Press Centre providing state of the art facilities for some 20,000 journalists, photographers and broadcasters bringing the Games to an estimated 4 billion people worldwide.

While VIPs will have preferential access to the Park on 48 kms of special Olympic Lanes and 4000 cars and 1500 coaches at their disposal, it is estimated that some 270,000 visitors will travel to the site each day placing enormous demands on the existing transport system and catering facilities. This will be compounded by the heightened security arrangements and the prospects of extensive delays.

Here then are some essential tips to make your visit a once in a lifetime experience.

Read about more things to do in London

Getting to the Olympic Park

Despite the fact that the government has invested over £6.5 billion in modernising the transport network, the sheer volume of daily visitors to the site will inevitably create congestion and delays. Given that the Park opens 2.5 hours before the events start, it is a good idea to get there early and to go to the gate nearest to your designated venue. The site is spread over 2.5 square kms, so leave plenty of time. With two turnarounds of spectators each day, there is likely to be congestion when these take place.

If you are coming from central London, the quickest way to reach the Olympic Park is on the Javelin, a specially designed bullet train that takes just 7 minutes from Kings Cross St. Pancras to Stratford International next to the stadium. There will be 8 to 10 trains per hour each with a capacity of 340.

Alternatively, there are direct links to Stratford on the Jubilee and Central Lines on the Underground. If you want to avoid the crush at Stratford, however, you might consider taking the District or City Line to West Ham station and making the 15-minute walk to the Park. National Rail also provides direct train services from East Anglia to Stratford, from Essex to West Ham and from London and Ebbsfleet to Stratford also using the Javelin.

If you are feeling energetic, however, there are six greenway walking routes to the site as well as cycling routes where you can use the Barclays Cycle Hire facility (Boris Bikes) which allows you to rent bikes from sites all around London. Remember that the purchase of a ticket includes free travel on the specific date, but for travel outside of this, it is well to purchase an Oyster card, which gives a discount of 40%. The Docklands Light Railway (DLR) also provides access, as does the North London line from Richmond and the East London Line. A much enhanced bus service will also be available.

Security

Expect airport-type security with scan and search for all people entering the Park. Only one soft-sided bag is allowed per person (medium-sized handbag or small backpack (25 litres) and spectators are not allowed to take drinks or liquids in more than 100 ml containers, including sunscreen. All food except baby food and essential dietary food is forbidden as are alcohol, soft drinks, bottles, flasks and thermoses and large umbrellas, horns, whistles, drum, fireworks and weapons. To avoid any protracted delays it is, therefore, essential to travel light. Fresh water will be provided throughout the park free of charge. There will also be heightened security at all stations and on the trains themselves.

Food hall Westfield Stratford City

Food hall at Westfield Stratford City

Dining and shopping

McDonalds, being the major sponsor, has a monopoly of all catering outlets and is building four new restaurants at the Park. Its flagship will seat over 1500 persons and one sited somewhat contentiously in the Olympic Village. It is estimated that they will sell some 1.75 million meals and that 1 in 4 visitors will buy one of their products. Other caterers will, however, be operating in the fan zones outside the major venues and these have all signed up to the 2012 Food Charter, committing themselves to local, seasonal and healthier foods. Remember that payment will only be accepted in cash or by Visa, again one of the major sponsors. For American visitors, it is worthwhile remembering that Britain has a different banking system and the chip and pin mode is used not the swipe cards.

Stratford Centre

Stratford Centre

If you don’t want to pay what will be inevitably inflated prices within the Park, then the Westfield Stratford City centre located right next to Stratford station is the largest urban shopping precinct in Europe with 1.5 million square feet of space and home to 70 restaurants, 300 stores (John Lewis, Waitrose, Marks and Spencer), a 17 screen all-digital Vue cinema as well as two hotels (Premier Inn and Holiday Inn). There are some very good low budget cafes within the complex including Franco Manca, which has wood- burning brick ovens and excellent pizzas from £4.50; Wahaca, offering burritos from £6.40; Busaba Eathai with main courses from £5.50, and PastaRemoli with handmade pastas and sauces from £7. Good beer can also be had in the Tap East on the lower ground floor.

There will also be street vendors on the routes to the Park and local cafes, pubs and restaurants. Again, there are likely to be queues at lunch and dinnertime.

Read more about eating and restaurants in London

Accommodation

If you haven’t already arranged accommodation, a range of hotels is available, and LOCOG (London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games) have recently released an additional 120,000 hotel nights previously reserved for dignitaries and athletes. At the upper end, prices will tend to be high around $500 per night, although guesthouses offering bed and breakfast offer lower rates. Alternatives to hotels include the 5 campsites located around London and charging $25 per night; houses and flats which are being rented out (HomeAway.comAirbnb.com) or moving out of London altogether and travelling in for the Games.

Other attractions and things to do at Olympic Park

ArcelorMittal Orbit

ArcelorMittal Orbit

Apart from the various venues on the site and their unique architecture, there are other attractions. The most iconic is the ArcelorMittal Orbit, a 115-metre high observation tower, designed by Anish Kapoor in collaboration with engineer Cecil Balmond. This is situated between the Olympic Stadium and the Aquatics Centre and allows visitors to view the whole Olympic Park from two observation platforms. Costing over £19 million, this steel structure is Britain’s largest piece of public art.

The southern part of the Park will focus on retaining the festival atmosphere of the Games, with riverside gardens, markets, events, cafes and bars. The northern area will use the latest green techniques to manage flood and rain water, while providing quieter public space and habitats for hundreds of existing and rare species, from kingfishers to otters.

Read more: What to Do With Two Weeks in England

Freebies and non-ticketed events

If you don’t have a ticket and still want to enjoy the Games, there will be giant screens erected inHyde ParkTrafalgar Square and Victoria Park where spectators can watch for free. There are also some events that are free to watch, including the marathon, which starts and ends in The Mall and winds its way through the City of London, passing St. Paul’s, the Guildhall and Leadenhall Market; the cycling time trials that start and finish at Hampton Court Palace and pass through Richmond, Kingston and Bushy Park; and the Triathlon, which starts and finishes by the Serpentine in Hyde Park and weaves its way through Kensington and Knightsbridge and passes Buckingham Palace.

London has spent some £9.3 billion on the Olympic Games including £1 billion on security. In addition over £6 billion has been injected into improving transport infrastructure in the region. All this is designed to produce a Games that will thrill competitors and spectators alike and leave a lasting legacy, not only for those who attend the Games but also for the local community once the Games are over!

© Graham Walker 2012

Originally Published in Viator.com

Marbella and Puerto Banus

Posted on March 18, 2012

Mention Marbella to anyone and they immediately think of money, the rich and the famous. This is the Costa del Sol’s quintessential Monte Carlo, a place to hang out with the glitterati and to be seen by the paparazzi hunting their little bit of sleaze. Stroll along the Passeo Maritimo from the Parque de la Constitucion near the main tourist office and gaze on the multi-million dollar apartment blocs dominating the skyline. Watch the rich walking their poodles and shih tzus or relaxing in the up-market health cafes near the Puerto Deportivo Marbella.

Puerto Deportivo Marbella

Puerto Deportivo Marbella – photo courtesy of Tomas Fano via Flickr

Alternatively, if you have a sudden urge to recapture your youth and have scant regard for that sudden hole in your bank balance, you could indulge in one of the many clinics overlooking the sea offering cosmetic surgery, body re-sculpting or a simpler spa therapy.

Looking for a less expensive solution? Then the coastline is festooned with public and private beaches offering a welcome relief from the intense midday sun and free hydrotherapy.

Casco Antiguo

But Marbella isn’t all about money and a visit to the Casco Antiguo (Old Town) just behind the waterfront and Avenida Ramon y Cajal is to step back into a time before the Porsches, Prada and Armani. Marbella is steeped in history and was one of the most important Moorish towns in the region rivalingMalaga and Gibraltar. Recaptured by the Christians in 1485, much of the city was rebuilt; although the remains of the Moorish walls still stand near the Castillo and the area is covered in a labyrinth of alleyways leading to beautiful plazas filled with cafes, restaurants and churches.

At the heart of the Casco Antiguo is the Plaza de Naranjos, a beautiful square surrounded by medieval buildings and filled with restaurants covered in leafy orange trees. As you approach from the south, you’ll see Marbella’s oldest church, Ermita de Nuestro Senor Santiago, dating back to the 15th century. On the left of the square is the Casa Consistorial with its wonderful wrought iron balcon–a testimony to the dominant industry that survived here until the mid-1930s when the ore ran out. Close by is the Casa del Corregidor with its 16th century façade and coat of arms.  At the top of the plaza is the town hall, the Ayuntamiento, its flags fluttering above its ornate 16th century baroque doorway and a blue plaque signifying its membership of the European Union,which is so important for the region’s economy.

Moving out of the northeast corner is a narrow street dominated by a restaurant with a magnificent blue Virgin Mary over the entrance, the El balcon de la Virgin Restaurant. Jacoranda and bougainvillea provide a wonderful backdrop. Work your way through the twisting alleyways and you arrive at the small church of Hermita del Santa Cristo in the Plaza Santa Cristo that has a fountain spewing out refreshingly cool water.

Plaza de Naranjos

Plaza de Naranjos – photo courtesy of Corma via Flickr

Move to the right and you reach the Museum of Engraving, then twisting back by the walls, there is beautiful Church of Santa Maria de la Encarnacion built in 1618. Free to enter, it offers a wonderful place of solace. There’s also a beautifully ornate altar in gold that provides a backdrop to multi-coloured windows and ornate naves. The image of San Bernabe, the patron saint of Marbella stands high above the altar. If you are culturally inclined, don’t miss the Museo del Grabado Espanol Contemporaneo housed in the Palacio de Bazan a few streets away, home to many of Picasso’s finest pieces, and the Hospital Real de San Juan de Dios with its wonderful chapel and cloisters.

The Golden Mile

Having savoured the history of the town, you can now follow the coast road westwards and step into a totally different world. They call the area between Marbella and Puerto Banus The Golden Mile, a far cry from its namesake in Blackpool in England. This is the haunt of the ultra-rich and the famous and their multi-million dollar properties line the avenues and surrounding suburbs.

Puerto Banus

Puerto Banus

Puerto Banus – photo courtesy of John Dolan via Flickr

Named after its architect, Jose Banus, a property developer with very dubious credentials, Puerto Banus buzzes with life both day and night as the tourists stroll around marina, gazing enviously at the glitterati, languishing in their yachts the size of cruise ships, hoping to catch a glimpse of some celebrity. All along the harbour are expensive shops and boutiques and at night the restaurants, bars and nightclubs overflow with diners and late night revellers.

If you want to escape from the throngs, head eastwards towards the large statue of La Victoria that stands 26 metres high and was a gift from the Mayor of Moscow, and relax on Levante Beach or move further along the coast to Playa Puerto Banus stretching towards Marbella. Alternatively, stroll along the breakwater from Muelle de Levante, providing a panoramic view of the marina, the headland and the coastline beyond. If you want to avoid the waterfront, head inland to the Mercadillo and the bullring, the Plaza de Toros or just relax in the shade in the Jardines del Puerto.

Marbella beach

Marbella beach – photo courtesy of Pablo Monteagudo via Flickr

This is a journey of contrasts. Medieval history, Moorish culture and Catholic renaissance buttressed against everything we associate with the clamour for modernity and overt wealth. Nevertheless, it provides a wonderful insight into the quest for power in one of the most strategic, political and economic regions in Spain.

© Graham Walker 2012

Originally published by viator.com

Tower of London and River Sightseeing Tour

Posted on March 11, 2012

Step aboard the spacious River Liner outside the Houses of Parliament (Westminster Pier) and sit back as the sights and splendour of London unfold round every bend of your journey on the Tower of London and Thames River Sightseeing Cruise. Weave your way past the London Eye turning slowly and majestically, the Royal Festival Hall, the Tate Modern and the Globehome to England’s most famous bard, William ShakespeareWatch as the waterfront fills with monuments to London’s historical past: the Savoy Hotel, Cleopatra’s Needle, the Oxo Building and Billingsgate Market with St.Paul’s Cathedral dominating the skyline. Glide past HMS Belfast before disembarking in front ofTower Bridge, the most iconic of London’s landmarks.

Step into the Tower of London, home to the Crown Jewels and savour its dark and mysterious past. Wander through the Bloody Tower where the two young Princes disappeared in 1483, reportedly murdered by their uncle, Richard III; the torture chambers where Guy Fawkes, architect of the Gunpowder Plot, and his co-conspirators were subjected to the infamous rack.  Join the Yeoman Warders (Beefeaters) and follow the trail past the Traitors Gate through the White Tower to the execution bloc where poor Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey lost their heads. Visit the armoury, the menagerie and the jewel house and discover the history of one of the bastions of Britain where William the Conqueror, Richard the Lionheart, Henry III and Edward Ist reigned supreme.

If you’re lucky you might see the famous black ravens or perhaps the ghost of the headless Anne Boleyn or one of the other guests who were sent to the tower.

© Graham Walker 2012

Originally published on viator.com

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