Category Archives: Travel

Art, gardens and Mozart in Salzburg

I’m currently in Salzburg for the annual opera and theater festival (reviews here and here, with more to come). But opera and theater are generally evening activities, so I’ve had plenty of time to explore the city.

Salzburg is beautiful. There are old buildings and churches and statues and fountains all around.

Perhaps the prettiest spot is the Mirabell Gardens, full of geometrical flower beds and mythological statues. The gardens also have a great view of Hohensalzburg Castle. Continue reading Art, gardens and Mozart in Salzburg

San Sebastian and Madrid

Ah, San Sebastian! The beaches are pristine, the water is clear, and the mountains are green. I spent a very relaxing few days here recovering from my operatic adventure. I cruised on the ocean. I sat on the beach. I read my book. I ate lots of pintxos. The only sightseeing I did (on a rainy day) was visit the Museo San Telmo. It has very cool architecture—a daring, modern add-on to an old convent. It was also hosting an exhibit about the Italian filmmaker Pasolini. Among (many) other accomplishments, he directed Maria Callas is her only non-singing film role!

Honestly, though, this was mostly about the eating. I already reviewed my splurge restaurant, but I mostly ate in pintxo bars. For the benefit of future travelers, I kept track of my pintxos. So here goes… Continue reading San Sebastian and Madrid

Being Baroque in Burgos

I went to Spain to sing in an opera (Cavalli’s rarely performed Gli amori d’Apollo e di Dafne) . We had four days to rehearse. What were we thinking!? I have no clue. But there was an opera just the same! While I wasn’t entirely pleased with my performance, I had a fabulous time meeting lots of other singers (of all ages and career stages), learning how to be more Baroque (it’s all about the elegantly asymmetrical gestures), and refreshing my Spanish (many cast members didn’t speak much English). It was also very special to sing in the beautiful Teatro Principal in Burgos.

The cast on the stage of the Teatro Principal
The cast on the stage of the Teatro Principal

The opera’s plot is complicated, with two frame stories. In one, the god of sleep sends his minions to create dreams, and a homeless woman dreams of a nymph being turned into a tree. She asks her wise friend to help her understand her dream. The other frame story sets the main plot up as Venus’s revenge for a slight offered her by Apollo (he revealed her to her husband while she and Mars were practicing “military exercises” naked, and she is angry). She complains to her father Zeus, and he suggests she send her son Cupid to get revenge. Cupid wounds Apollo while the nymph Dafne is passing by. Dafne is sworn to Diana (and therefore chastity) and refuses Apollo’s advances. When he pursues her in spite of her refusal, she asks her father to turn her into a tree. Apollo bitterly repents the transformation he has caused, but it is too late.

In an unconnected but interwoven (and very important, in my completely unbiased opinion!) plot, Cefalo has abandoned his nymph Procri because he has fallen in love with the goddess Aurora. Aurora is married to Titone, who was formerly young and handsome. She managed to get him eternal life, but she forgot to ask for eternal youth. So he is now old and decrepit, which is why she’s running off to earth to fool around with Cefalo. Continue reading Being Baroque in Burgos

Restaurant review: Bodegón Alejandro

After getting through a frantic week of opera rehearsals and performances in Burgos (blog post coming soon), I rewarded myself with a trip to San Sebastian. This resort city on the northern coast of Spain is famous not only for its beautiful beaches but also for its excellent food at all levels, from pintxos (Basque tapas) to Michelin-starred restaurants. I splurged last night by getting the tasting menu at Bodegón Alejandro, a place I’d seen recommended in both the Michelin guide and the New York Times when I was planning this trip. It was definitely worth it.

The restaurant lies underground, down an unobtrusive staircase on a busy street of San Sebastian’s Old Town. It doesn’t look like much, with bare wood tables, plain decor, and a rather kitschy city view mural on the wall. But any doubts about my restaurant choice disappeared with the amuse-bouche—a shot of cold asparagus soup with paper-thin slices of crispy bread. The salty creaminess of the soup went perfectly with the crunchy, fire-blackened toast.

The first course of the tasting was also a definite hit. For this odd take on lasagna, cold marinated anchovies formed the pasta and vegetable ratatouille served as the filling. I love anchovies, and these were the freshest and tastiest I’ve had. The wine for the course, an organic local Txakoli Bengoetxe, was a new variety to me. It was smooth with a little tang, reminiscent of my favorite white (Greco di Tufo) and a good match for the dish. Continue reading Restaurant review: Bodegón Alejandro

Wallfahrt to Wahlheim

Part one of my Goethe pilgrimage took me to Leipzig and Weimar. But my love of Goethe began with Werther, and for that I needed to visit Wetzlar and Wahlheim (Garbenheim). Wetzlar is where Goethe interned at the court and fell in love with Charlotte Buff, the model for Lotte in the novel. In spite of Goethe’s admiration, she stuck to her engagement and married her fiance Johann Kestner. (Goethe actually bought their wedding rings in Frankfurt.) Goethe’s friend Karl Jerusalem also inspired the character of Werther with his suicidal love for a married woman. He lived and died in Wetzlar.

Charlotte Buff-Kestner

“I walked across the court to a well-built house, and, ascending the flight of steps in front, opened the door, and saw before me the most charming spectacle I had ever witnessed. Six children, from eleven to two years old, were running about the hall, and surrounding a lady of middle height, with a lovely figure, dressed in a robe of simple white, trimmed with pink ribbons. She was holding a rye loaf in her hand, and was cutting slices for the little ones all around, in proportion to their age and appetite.” (June 16)

“I felt myself more than mortal, holding this loveliest of creatures in my arms, flying, with her as rapidly as the wind, till I lost sight of every other object; and O Wilhelm, I vowed at that moment, that a maiden whom I loved, or for whom I felt the slightest attachment, never, never should waltz with any one else but with me, if I went to perdition for it!” (June 16)

Continue reading Wallfahrt to Wahlheim

Once in the highlands, the highlands of Scotland

From Bath (yes, that was ages ago; this post is late), I headed to Scotland. I didn’t actually start in the highlands, preferring to conquer Edinburgh first. But I spent a lot of time there, and Brigadoon songs make for excellent post titles. This was a change from my usual traveling modus operandi in that no opera or theatre was involved! This trip was all about castles and heroic battles and hairy coos. Mostly hairy coos.

But let’s start with a castle, since there’s conveniently one right in the middle of Edinburgh. It’s quite the authentic medieval castle, but apparently the Victorians thought it didn’t look medieval enough, so they put forward lots of proposals to re-design it. Some of the drawings are displayed in one of the exhibits. (I kind of love the Victorian obsession with making things more medieval. It led to the magnificently ridiculous Scottish Baronial architecture you can see all around the country.) There are a lot of buildings in the castle complex, which house (among other things) a war museum, a war memorial, a Victorian-ideal-of-medieval banquet hall, a prison, and the Scottish crown jewels. Did you know that Sir Walter Scott was the one to re-discover the crown jewels, which had been locked away in a chest for centuries? It’s hardly fair that he got to do that on top of (well, because of) being a famous author! But I think his novels are actually pretty dull, so there!

Actually, I’m not a huge fan of most Scottish literature. So of course I took not one but two literary tours of Edinburgh. The first was a pub crawl led by two actors, and it focused on Burns, Scott, and Stevenson. It struck a fun balance between the informative and the comedic, with a lot of emphasis on these great authors’ fondness for women, beer, and whiskey. There was a pop quiz at the end, and I obnoxiously answered all the questions. But I suppose my literature degree and complete sobriety (I was still recovering from Cambridge) probably helped. The next day, I visited the Writers’ Museum, which was dedicated to the same three authors. There wasn’t much new to learn, but there was lots of their paraphernalia and furniture there, which was fun to see. There was also a book lovers’ tour, which I of course signed up for. We wandered all over the city, hearing tales of Iain Banks, Arthur Conan Doyle, and J.K. Rowling. I especially loved the stories about Joseph Bell, an Edinburgh surgeon who taught Doyle and whose incredible inductive reasoning ability inspired the character of Sherlock Holmes. We also heard about William McGonagall, the world’s best bad poet (and the namesake for a certain Hogwarts professor). His poems are so bad, they’re almost good! He supposedly brought an umbrella to his readings to protect himself from the crowd’s projectiles. Yet he continued writing. Somewhat disappointingly, neither the tours nor the museum included anything about Ossian/Macpherson. I suppose it’s hard to be proud of a poet whose largest contribution was premised on a lie. Still, I would have enjoyed the Werther connection. Continue reading Once in the highlands, the highlands of Scotland

Historical Bath

Somehow, in a year of living only a couple hours away, I never made it to Bath, England. This is doubly surprising because I’m pretty fond of Jane Austen, who lived in Bath for many years and set several of her books there. So when some Facebook-friends-turned-real-life-friends suggested a meet-up in Bath on a weekend when I would already be in England, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to see this charming city.

Bath is named after its oldest and most famous attraction, the Roman Baths. Lots of Roman cities had baths, but these were special because of the naturally warm mineral spring water. Bath had the largest public bath in the Roman empire despite the small size of the town because the water didn’t need to be heated! The water also supposedly had healing powers—a belief that continued into the Regency era. There was probably some truth to this: in a time before vitamins, drinking and sitting in water with extraordinarily high mineral content could cure some infirmities. The place to “take the waters” nowadays is the Pump Room next to the baths, where an ornate fountain lets visitors taste the spring water. Most make faces at the sulfuric smell and gritty taste. I banished that taste with afternoon tea (with all the traditional accompaniments), which I ate as I listened to the delightful Pump Room Trio.

My historical adventure continued at the Fashion Museum and Assembly Rooms. The Museum was simply paradise for anyone who loves historical clothes. I’ve included photographs of a few of my favorite pieces from the collection (conveniently labelled by year) in the gallery below. I just wish a larger portion of the collection had been on display! The same building houses the old Assembly Rooms, a meeting-place for Georgian society. Concerts, balls, card games, teas—they all happened here under the careful planning and watchful eye of the Master of Ceremonies (the most famous being Beau Nash, who was “King of Bath” between 1704 and 1761). Continue reading Historical Bath