Flamenco on the Roof

Last night I saw live flamenco.

Almost unknowingly, I have carried it with me since my childhood in rural Australia.

My grandmother returned from an overseas trip with a gift from Spain – an ersatz tortoise-shell comb to add drama to one’s hair. It features a delicate painting of a pair of flamenco dancers. Their tiny, slender bodies emanate grace and drama. (As a child I couldn’t see the passion.)

Last night I saw live flamenco in a rooftop amphitheatre.

The city, dense before us, thinned as it was gathered and lifted by the hills beyond. The Alhambra, a mighty palace complex, jutted proudly on its perch across the valley. Beneath us, at street level, a tall man – muscled and gleaming, with panther-like confidence and grace – ran a fitness class. Combined, they were the perfect opening act for our evening show.

Falling darkness brought our focus to the waiting stage. Four chairs against a dark plum background. The musicians filed in: two female vocalists, two male guitarists.

Earlier in the evening I caught a few minutes of rehearsal, having been informed it was the real thing. The dancers were wearing trackie dacks (Australian for ‘tracksuit pants’). I was shocked. Had things changed so much since the days of my comb? Had flamenco been contemporised and casualised to such an extent? (I quickly realised it was not so but it was a nasty moment.)

In front of the night stage I waited for the dancers to appear…and sat back with pleasure when they did. The women wore bottom-defining, ruffled, black skirts. The men were streamlined in black pants fitted to their ribs. The dance (and comb) held true.

flamenco man and woman

I marvelled at the dancers’ ability to remember complex choreography – curlicued hands; feet working different rhythms and actions (something that doesn’t happen often in daily life); swaying hips and strutting, swinging, stamping legs. When they began, I thought of spiders – graceful, tendril-like, moving into the space around them. Then they claimed the space and the spiders were gone, replaced by scorpions, snakes, bulls.

Perhaps some of the intensity was lost in the space between us – we were 30m away. I admired the dance but it was only at the end, in something like a jam session, that I felt it.

Guitarists, singers and dancers stepped past the mikes. That simple act transformed the situation. It became them and us beneath the stars.

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The singers danced together first. Then the dancers took turns – somehow not just showing what they could do but asking the singers to call them so that the dance might be.

A woman gave her mournful, harsh, ancient sounds. A man danced. And he could only dance because she called him to it. Woman to man, person to person, longing to response, call to answer. Vulnerable. Strong. The voice requiring response in order to exist and then to be complete.

I watched an idea pouring from one human vessel to another – transmogrified from song to dance; voice and body expressing it simultaneously.

Last night I saw live flamenco. And now I crave more.

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One doesn’t have to go to Spain to experience the drama of dance or the embodiment of an idea. Last week in my ballet class, one of the attendees brought along an Indian friend who danced a story for us. As in flamenco, she was expressive face, precise hands and deliberate feet. She was prince and princess, hunter, farmer and evil-doer. Find a dance class. Find a dance show.

Be your own dancer in the moonlight. A few hand gestures and foot movements can awaken you in surprising ways.

Perhaps for you a piece of music will become not a dance but a poem, a brooch, a building, a garden bed.

one woman dancing flamenco, purple

The Gamble of Sunrise

Is watching the sunrise, mountain top to mountain top, worth a 4.15am rise? Getting up very early to experience or accomplish something is a gamble few of us make. After pondering the long list of considerations revolving around the possibility of satisfaction, one is left with good old opportunity cost, “Would I be better off sleeping?” If you can catch such a sunrise any day then maybe you would trade the early rise in summer for a later rise in another season. But, The BB and I cannot.

After we’d bought the tickets for Mammoth Mountain’s* inaugural Sunrise from the Peak in July, friends of ours advised, “It’s only sleep.” They opted not to join us. Continue reading

Fortress and Fairytale

Dear John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute,

Thank you for Castell Coch.

Of course, you were not entirely responsible for it – you inherited the ruins and employed William Burges, architect, to rebuild and embellish – but your vision and interest in history (not to mention, vast wealth – weren’t you one of the world’s richest people?) fuelled the project.

HDR+pS Continue reading

Walking and Singing

With a thrill of excitement and a touch of disbelief, we took our passports when we walked across the bridge, town to town.

Walking into another country amazes and delights me. Growing up in the south-west of Western Australia meant that travelling to another state was a huge event – one requiring more than a cut lunch and a waterbag. Going to another country was a feat. Transport affordability and border restrictions have changed since then but the novelty hasn’t worn off – memory stalks and history breathes.

Because of their speed, we expect landscape, cultural and time zone changes when we travel in vehicles. Walking is such a simple act, homely and unassuming, so it is all the more surprising to find massive, rapid change attached to it.IMG_6529

We are in the little German (Bavaria) town of Laufen, which is about 21km north of Salzburg. It was once one town spreading on either side of the Salzach River. The river was its lifeblood, as precious salt from the Salzburg mines was transferred here from small boats to larger ones. In 1816, following the Napoleonic Wars, Laufen was separated from its suburbs over the river and became German. The new town was named Oberndorf and given to the Austrians.

Salzach River, Laufen

The river commits a great U-shaped curve through the towns.

The traffic bridge is moody. In the evening sun the plaques and statues glow benignly. In the morning, mist renders it ‘Gothic crime novel’.

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On day four of our stay, after rain-filled day three, the river, which normally appears sluggish due to its width and pale grey-green opaqueness, is raised and racing. It is littered with sticks and branches and I almost expect to see a body. Waves surge up the piers but the bridge is stalwart. (It was completed in 1903 to replace its less-reliable wooden predecessor.)

Salzach River, Austria overflowing

The Salzach flows down a nearby road, misting in the background.

Laufen:

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This monastery has been added to and is now the hotel, Kapuzinerhof.

Laufen houses

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Frescoes in the cloisters of the church at the bend in the river.

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A two-way street runs under that arch. The sign at the side indicates the right-of-way obligations…or you could just drive around.

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chapel

A disused chapel in the monastery grounds.

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Across the bridge, walking the streets of Oberndorf, one treads almost hallowed ground. It is the birthplace of the carol, Silent Night, first performed in 1818. The town priest wrote the lyrics and asked a nearby organist and schoolmaster to compose the music. The latter accompanied the inaugural singing on his guitar. The church in which it was sung was demolished in 1913 due to flood damage. A memorial chapel was erected on the site in 1937. It is here that people from all over the world gather on Christmas Eve to sing, in many languages, this beloved carol.

Silent Night chapel

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Crossing cultures and times can be as easy as walking or singing.

 

Q and A on B

Q. How does one schedule three consecutive days of sunshine in one of Europe’s wettest cities, months in advance?                                                                                  A. Luck may be the most reliable method. It worked for us. There are 132 163 days a year from which to choose. Average precipitation (rain and snow) is 2250mm (89”).

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Q. What does B stand for?                                                                                                 A. Bergen. It’s the second-most populous city (275 200 people) in Norway and lies west of Oslo on the coast.

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Q. Where is the best place for coffee?                                                                               A. Native Bergensians/Bergeners directed us to two places. I do not like coffee so rely on the BB’s verdict. He told me it was superb at Det lille Kaffekompaniet . When pressed, he added, “smooth, full-bodied and convincing.” The hot chocolate (that’s me) was rich and thickish with a subtle cinnamon flavour. It’s worth drinking there simply for the pleasure of the tiny room lined with teas, coffees, chocolates and other goodies. In fact, we enjoyed it and its central location so much that we didn’t make it to the other recommendation, Kaffemisjonen, for the second cup.

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Q. Where is the best place for carrot cake?                                                                    A. Again, local recommendations: Lie Nielsen (also for traditional cake) and Café Aura. Apparently, the traditional cake to try (or not, depending who’s advising) is one made from pieces of bread. I was too full from eating other stuff* to try this.

*Q. What are skillingsboller?                                                                                            A. The Bergensian/Norwegian cinnamon bun. In days of yore they could be bought for one skilling (coin).                                                                                             Q. Where?                                                                                                                             A. Our locals recommended Godt Bread organic bakery but skillingsboller are  widespread. Those in our coffee shop looked good.

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Sheepskins are draped over chairs outside a cafe to keep the chill from customers.

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Q. In which country would you most like to accidentally leave your laptop and passport on a public bus?                                                                                                  A. Norway would be a sensible choice. In fact, this is exactly what The BB did. After he realised their loss he consoled himself with the knowledge that Norway, as other Nordic countries, is a high trust society. Forty minutes later, after numerous stops around town, they arrived back at the stop where he had disembarked.

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The cannonball in the wall of Bergen Cathedral dates from a battle between the English and Dutch in 1665.

Q. Why is wine so expensive?                                                                                           A. Beverages with an alcohol content higher than 4.75% are sold only in Vinmonopolet, shops wholly owned by the government. Lower strength beer can be purchased in supermarkets but not every day and only up to certain hours. Much of the stock in Vinmonopolet is viewable only in a catalogue. It seems there are just one or two stores in Bergen but even the monopoly itself suggests that tourists bring their own alcohol due to the exorbitant prices. Unsurprisingly, Norway is consistently in the bottom three or four OECD countries by yearly alcohol consumption per capita.

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Even rundown areas are picturesque with their kerbs of stones.

Q. What does it mean to be a member of the Hanseatic League?                              A. The Hanseatic League operated mainly in the Baltic and North seas from the mid-thirteenth to mid-seventeenth century. It was a trade organisation begun by North German sea-faring merchants. Bergen, blessed with a harbour, dried fish and fish oil, became one of four permanent bases outside the Hanseatic area.

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The Hanseatic Museum is part of UNESCO-listed Bryggen Harbour. With its wooden construction and idiosyncratic rooms (eg beds in the walls), it is informative and delightful. It was once the office around which 2000 men worked, segregated from the rest of the city by fences and their own rules and regulations. The word Hanseatic lives on in Bergen’s Hansa brewery.

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Scales with some of the region’s famous dried fish.

Q. What does EL on car number plates mean?                                                             A. Electric. The no-tax on electric cars in Norway makes them attractive financially as well as environmentally. In one day, in the small area we traversed, we saw three Teslas as well as a number of other makes. Our hosts are part of a car share group that uses electric cars. Across the country, 14.5% of new vehicle sales are electric.

Q. And what of art?                                                                                                              A. Wander the streets.

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Statues of city fathers (city mothers, much less so) and general art works plus sculptures abound.

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There are a number of galleries. I visited the Kode which is spread across four buildings. The Norwegian gallery is superb. A number of influential artists are featured, as is Edward Munch. It is informative and deeply pleasurable to have such a volume of work in one place that one can trace the development of an artist and individual pieces. (It’s rather like following a blog where one witnesses not only the changes in a person’s personal life but the changes in their photography and writing.) A special Munch treat is a preparatory drawing of the face in The Scream.

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Even the manhole covers contribute to the artistry of the city.

Q. Where is the most picturesque part of the city?                                                      A. Bryggen, the world heritage harbour is a must see…

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An alleyway between Bryggen buildings.

… but I loved the quaint wooden houses on the hill behind.

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Bergen has been subjected to many fires since it became a city in 1170. There were several large ones in the 1900s. Unfortunately, these fairytale-like houses with their jumble of narrow walkways and steps are now confined to the area near the funicular.

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The stairs are so steep the bannisters are vertical.

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A cubby house built on the rocky slope between residential roads.

More regular, colourful houses are elsewhere.

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Q. What clothes should I pack?                                                                                        A. An umbrella. Obviously. And sunglasses. At this time of year, the sun gets over the mountains (Bergen is known as the city of seven mountains. Move aside, Rome.) a little before ten. It rises valiantly but doesn’t make it much higher than the tallest building. Consequently, the sun is in one’s eyes all day.

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This was taken at about 10am.

Q. Where can I easily gain fantastic views of the city with minimal effort? And I want something for my children/me to do while there. Oh, and something to eat. Plus souvenirs.                                                                                                                      A. All that and a great ride from the heart of the city. The funicular is actually public transport with stops along the way like a bus. When we visited, the playground thrummed with children and people of all ages strode or ambled along the many trails. The restaurant serves lunches and the kiosk, souvenirs.IMG_9685

Q. Is Bergen worth a return visit?                                                                                    A. I greatly enjoyed my two days (The BB had three) in this picturesque city. A longer stay would have meant more art galleries and hikes, perhaps a cruise around the fjords. However, I if I were to visit Norway again, I would prefer to venture further north to see the Aurora Borealis.

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Even the fast food vans are charming.

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Faded elegance in the heart of the city.

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Frost lingers in the city centre at mid-morning.

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An anatomically correct unicorn in Bryggen.

 

Stumbling Upon a Country

I created our route south through Belgium based on the ‘prettiness’ ratings villages had received online. I expected (as its neighbour Germany) flowerboxes, profuse gardens around handkerchief lawns, paned windows with functional shutters and verdant verges.

The villages were almost the anti-thesis of that. There’s nothing like stretches of asphalt and stones around houses to impart a little starkness.

Belgium street

Belgium town

There were other surprises in store.

The roads were lined with youthful walkers toting maps, backpacks, sodden clothes and cheerful smiles. It seemed the local high schools had ordered a mass orienteering exercise. In mixed-gender groups of four to twenty they trod and cycled the roads, seemingly having the time of their lives (apart from that one girl pushing her bike up the hill with everyone else sailing off into the distance).

Others had more stationary pursuits. Fisher(wo)men huddled around a pond, stoic in the rain. Belgium, fishing competition

I surmised this was a competition: Who can sit the longest in unpleasant conditions? Who has the largest number of blue, fishing-related articles? Whose lure will a fish happen to swim past and find enticing enough to bite?

Belgium, fishing competition

In another town a policeman barred our way, directing us down a side road. A marching band, complete with several heraldic banners but virtually no audience, finally lead us to realise that this was a national holiday. This revelation also gave context to the closure of some town high streets for markets and festivities plus the previous night’s stunning fireworks. The former necessitated some quite lengthy and scenic detours.

Belgian marching band

In this vein, we meandered south and the country transformed our straightforward drive into an exploration of its traditions and past-times.

What If? Exploring a Town While Not

We are in Belgium in the Ardenne, a hilly region in the French-speaking area. I chose La Roche-en-Ardenne as our overnight stop because it was proclaimed by several people on travel advice sites as one of the loveliest villages in the area.

The river Ourthe bends through a narrow flat-bottomed valley and the village nestles along its banks. Above, a medieval castle rises from a crag as though hewn from it.

La Roche-en-Ardenne castle

At first glance, the river appears brown but I see from the 100-200m elevation of our hotel that it is crystal clear; it is the rocks beneath the water that are brown with the silt of ages.

The banks are lushly wooded with dark deciduous trees, pines, a pale willow and smudges of burgundy, greys and browns. They are studded with the sun-bright whites of houses.

In the park ponds beside the river, six fountains spurt in changing heights like synchronized swimmers.

A youth with bare torso stands knee-deep in the middle of the river. In his hand is a long, thin stick. He is poking around beneath stones, as though concerned about lifting them. I wait for him to find something, to expertly stab a fish or pick something thrashing from the water but he does not. Quietly he walks back to the shore, past the bikinied girl lying with her dog on a blanket, up to the houses. Downstream, a younger boy wades with his fishing rod. The water skims past his thighs. Eventually, he too leaves empty-handed.

I am sitting next to a large, wooden-framed window swung open horizontally along its centre. The summer town rises through it to me. Voices carry over the water. Away to my left, Edith Piaf has replaced someone reminiscent of Dolly. Aeroplanes fly overhead. (The window as sound system.)

I think I must rush off and explore. That is the temptation. I am travelling so I must travel! I must walk. I must view. I must photograph and record.

But what if?

What if this listening and watching through a window on the outskirts of town, this ‘allowing’, is the exploration – of myself, my values, the town and the moment?La Roche-en-Ardenne

The waiter replies to my order by saying, “A glass of rosé for Madam,” in a most delightful and film-worthy accent. I feel as if I am here to write a novel. I feel as if I might saunter down to the promenade alongside the river. I might wander into town. And, if I did, I might encounter English guests with parasols ‘taking the air’.

I am offered first a small dish of peanuts and savoury rice tidbits. This is followed by an angel on horseback that is somehow the most delicious of the stuffed-prune genre I have ever tasted. (The word ‘Michelin’ on the front door is starting to make sense.) Next, a portion of quiche with feather-light pastry arrives. It is as though the chef is playing before dinner and sharing with whoever happens to be around. I have a lovely sense of inclusion and intimacy.

I save this post in my blogging folder under “Europe 2014” and feel profound gratitude that a) I am here and b) I have to differentiate between the years. The blessing of so much travelling brings with it the possibility of familiarity, not breeding contempt but bringing with it a dulling – of senses, of gratitude, of anticipation, of delight, of recollection of times when this was all a seemingly-impossible aspiration.

The velvety voice of a waiter in a foreign country is enough, however, to bring all these welling up. It is a rich and profound moment when even my physical body fills.

These moments are perfect; utter perfection.

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Our hotel was Les Genets.