Choir Tour: Lodi

IMG_8720Renaissance Singers hadn’t gone on tour for years, but we went in 2013 to Lombardia in Italy. We were based in Lodi, staying in a Catholic boarding school, and had concerts in Lodi, Milan, and Crema. During these six days we rehearsed our repertoire, sang in concerts and in Mass, and wandered the streets, eating lots of pizza, drinking Prosecco, and simply enjoying ourselves.

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The school we stayed in had its own church, San Francesco. We held our rehearsals there and one of our concerts. How can I say how beautiful it was? It was just stunning.

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Our rooms were basic, but homely enough. I enjoyed having an en suite bathroom and a balcony. I would sit on the balcony in the mornings, brushing my hair to dry, watching the swallows and listening to the bells. The bells ringing out across the city were one of my favourite things about Lodi. I could never tell the time by them, or what was going on, because there were so many and at odd times. But they were melodic and lovely.

The view from my window.

The view from my window.

Lodi was far enough from Milan to not be touristy at all. That is another thing I appreciated about where we were staying. I was so proud of myself and F. when we were able to buy allergy medicine, paracetamol, and contact solution (preservative free!) by speaking a mix of Spanish, Italian, and English, and when I was able to order a salad with the vegetables I wanted and ‘sine tonno’ — no tuna!

I for one wasn’t expecting to get as much publicity as we have. Not only did we make Italian television, but you can also watch our first concert in full on Youtube. (If you don’t want to watch the video, and miss hearing our lovely voices, you can still see pictures from our first concert here.) Our first concert was at Università Cattolica in Milan – it wasn’t our best, but it’s still pretty good. Our absolute BEST concert was held in San Francesco church in Lodi. It was amazing. I remember cameras recording that one as well, so I hope the video is uploaded soon!

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Whirlwind holiday

My holiday in the U.S. was a month long, but spent in four states. Below are a few highlights from my whirlwind holiday:

San Antonio, TX
Sunny and warm (20s C/80s F) and Christmas with my parents. I got to see old friends from my home church, high school, and the Fun Day Group.

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Charleston, SC
A cross-country drive took us to spend second Christmas with my brother and his family and I met my youngest niece and nephew.

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Prosperity, SC
Then my parents and I spent a couple of days in the serenity of the Old House.

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McKinney, TX
Another cross-country drive took me back to Texas, where I watched lots of Star Trek and lost three games of Scrabble to Kelly.

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Ft Worth, TX
Then a couple of days spent with Megan, where her young neighbours had fun playing with my hair.

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Oklahoma City, OK
I took the train north to Oklahoma, where I hung out with Felicity and Thomas, and Felicity sewed a lining onto the hat I crocheted at Kelly’s.

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Los Angeles, CA
A jet plane took me to California, where I spent my last few days in the States with Sarah and David and my buddy little Isaac.

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As you can see, it was busy but very fun trip. I stocked up on lots of sunlight, Mexican food, and root beer, and had a very good time catching up with friends and family.

Eat your vegetables

Since being in the States for the past three weeks, I’ve eaten out a lot — Saltgrass Steakhouse, Alamo Cafe, Cracker Barrel (2x), Ruby Tuesday, Rising High Cafe, Olive Garden, El Fenix, La Madeline, Panera Bread (2x), Cattleman’s — and I have noticed something about their menus. Only two of these fine establishments featured little “V’s” to indicate vegetarian options: Rising High Cafe and Panera Bread. What a difference from restaurants in the UK where you can usually find at least one option that is vegetarian if not vegan (even if it is always risotto).

Instead, those other restaurants (the steakhouses excluded) had other symbols in their menus to indicate low-calorie or low-fat or even “healthy heart” options. But I am somewhat confused why none of these restaurants, save the two soup, salad, and sandwich lunch cafes would offer meals for vegetarians. Most of these are chain restaurants — and I mean, really? Olive Garden, an Italian restaurant, doesn’t offer any meat-free pasta dish?

I’m not vegetarian, but I do eat a mostly vegetarian diet at home. Partly because meat is expensive, I just prefer vegetables, think that it’s a healthier lifestyle, and because my boyfriend is vegetarian. I’m used to eating meat maybe once a week and this meat-heavy diet the past three and a half weeks is feeling very heavy indeed. I’ve found myself ordering only sides, asking for chicken or prosciutto to be left off the salad, ordering broccoli and cheddar soup only to be annoyed that it had bacon in that wasn’t in the description.

I am still baffled that these restaurants would go through the trouble to mark “healthy” or “low calorie” entrees and forget that purely vegetarian meals might be the healthiest and lowest calorie options of all! And those people who are trying to lose weight or feel healthy by choosing the “healthy” but still meat-heavy options might need to revisit the adage to “Eat your vegetables”.

Granted, I know I have one of those frames and metabolisms that sheds pounds more quickly than it can gain them, but I will be glad to get back into being once more mostly-vegetarian and live in a country that accommodates such eating choices.

#chestnutfail

Lola and I had observed several Polish people in the parks in Warsaw gathering chestnuts. Curious, and feeling adventurous, we decided to experiment.

So I climbed a tree, shaking a couple of the branches to rain down chestnuts to the ground, where Lola gathered them up.

 

Later, we looked up how to roast them. When Lola pulled them out of the oven, I set to peeling them. Then popped one of them into my mouth… and spat it out again. They were incredibly bitter. We decided that maybe roasting chestnuts wasn’t for us after all…

(More about Poland when I’m back in Scotland and have uploaded my own photos, instead of cheekily using Lola’s!)

Isle of Skye

For our family holiday, my parents and I went to the Isle of Skye. (I’m late posting this. I know.) We took the bus to Dundee, another bus to Perth, the train to Inverness, and a bus to Portree, on Skye. The Highlands were all green and covered with heather, wreathed with cloud and bathed in sunlight. It was raining as we arrived on Skye, and the water rushed down the hillsides, cascading waterfalls everywhere you could see. My first impression of Skye was that it is a land abundant with water.

The next day we took a short boat trip from Portree to go wildlife spotting. We saw a sea eagle and some porpoises, as well as some wonderful views.

We went for a walk after lunch. First we found a hidden waterfall, up which I clambered and found a swing…

 

And then we eventually made it to the Scorrybreac circuit, which may or may not have included climbing up a very steep hill. (And involved more clambering out to the Black Rock, a tidal island.)

 

For our second day, we went to Dunvegan Castle, home of the Chief of Clan McLeod. We spent much of the day exploring the extensive gardens around the castle, as well as the castle itself. Most of the plants in the gardens were labeled. I think our favourite tree was the Monkey Puzzle Tree, or ‘the swingy ouchy tree’, because the branches were spiky and fun to swing. (I probably wasn’t supposed to tug on the branches. But it was fun.)

   

Our last full day in Skye, we went to the Faerie Glen, but I’ll post about that later…

Summer holiday: Istanbul

** Warning: This post contains a lot of photos! Click each picture to enlarge. **

At last, the final instalment of Joanna’s and my whirlwind holiday. By lucky chance, the our flight from Zagreb to Edinburgh went via Istanbul — with a 19-hour layover. In the airport, we got our visas, asked the airline to book us a hotel (which Turkish Airlines will do if your layover exceeds 10 hours, by the way!), and then the airline provided us with a lift to the hotel. Upon checking in to our room, we were served cooling cloths and cold mint water. Already this hotel was posher than anything we had stayed in for the rest of our holiday.

We had an afternoon, and we made the best of it. What can you do in Istanbul in an afternoon? We hit Sultanahmet, the neighbourhood that is home to the Hagia Sophia, Tokapi Palace, the Blue Mosque, and more. First things first, of course. The Hagia Sophia.

         

Pictures just can’t do justice to the magnificence of the Hagia Sophia. I’m fairly certain I spent most of my time there open-mouthed in wonder. The architecture defies physics. The arches, the light, the colour… How can one begin to share such an experience?

         

We were short on time, so we had to tear ourselves away from the Hagia Sophia if we wanted to see anything else in Istanbul before things closed. So, with a very small map and the occasional road sign, we headed for the Egyptian Bazaar, or Spice Market. Because it was hot and because we were in Istanbul, we bought fresh watermelon from a street vendor. Never has watermelon tasted sweeter.

   

Joanna and I both wandered back and forth down the aisles in the bazaar, overwhelmed and in awe at just how colourful, busy, everything was. So many sights and smells. So much stuff. How could we choose what we wanted for our souvenirs? Joanna eventually chose a handpainted teacup. I chose an evil eye talisman in the Hand of Fatima, and haggled for it, too. We also bought a few snacks — how could I pass up dried strawberries or apricots stuffed with hazelnuts? The dried strawberries are the most wonderful thing I’ve ever tasted. The sweetness of a strawberry, intensified.

When the bazaar closed, we raced back to the main square to get to the Blue Mosque before dusk prayers. We took off our shoes, donned headscarves provided by the mosque, and entered. Already people were there praying; as visitors, we stayed in the back. The walls and ceilings were covered in intricately painted tiles and a giant chandelier hung from the ceiling just above our heads.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We left the mosque just before dusk prayers, but lingered in the courtyard while the muezzin called to prayer. Then we wandered back in the direction of our hotel. We ate kebabs for dinner, sitting outside, drinking apple tea until the muezzins called again. We must have been sitting between two mosques, because the calls were just a few seconds off, resulting in a call and response, an echo, between the two mosques.

Then, after a short night’s sleep, we were taken back to the airport early the next morning. When we landed, we were back in Edinburgh. Back home.

Summer holiday: Zagreb

Yes, another instalment in my Summer Holiday posts! I’m almost finished documenting Joanna’s and my whirlwind trip from Italy to Croatia to Turkey. This post is about our final day in Croatia, when we went to Zagreb, the capital.

The city of Zagreb’s coat of arms in flowers.

The hostel we checked into gave us a map that had marked out a walking tour of the Upper and Lower towns of Old Zagreb. The map had helpful miniature illustrations of the major sites, but unfortunately did not say what they were! So it was an adventure walking around the Old City.

First we went to Zagreb Cathedral, which is currently undergoing restoration (and has been for some time). The inside was beautiful and quiet.

At the back of the cathedral was an incredible sculpture of the crucifixion. It took up the entire wall, and above it was what I presume to be a passage from the Bible written in ancient Croatian. Beside it was a shrine to the Virgin.

   

As we continued on our walking tour, we also took a little detour. While chatting over steaming mugs of Turkish coffee, the hostel receptionist asked us if we were religious and then told us about a shrine in the Old Town Gate. Inside the gate is a shrine to the Virgin and to St Anthony. The painting of the Virgin is said to be holy because it was the only thing to have survived a large fire that destroyed most of the area, even though it is made of wood. People pray there, lighting candles, and the walls are covered with plaques of thanksgiving for answered prayer. (Hvala is ‘thank you’ in Croatian.) It was beautiful.

   

What struck me most were the plaques: not only did people come here to pray, but they came back to give their thanks. The walls were covered with the testimonies of answered prayer. I, too, lit a candle in that special place.

Outside the city gate was a statue of St George and the Dragon. Several countries claim St George as their patron saint (England included). I’m particularly fond of depictions of St George and the dragon, though ever since I used the painting by ___ as my writing totem for The Faerie King, I’ve felt sorry for the dragon. I was glad to see that this statue showed St George and his horse looking particularly sorrowful.

We finally did go to a couple of museums — the Croatian Naive Art Museum and the Museum of Broken Relationships — but not without first passing St Mark’s Church. This church probably has the most colourful roof I have ever seen on a church:

Neither Joanna nor I knew anything about Croatian Naive Art, so we went to the museum to find out. From what we could gather from the leaflet and the labels of the paintings, Croatian Naive Art is a type of modern art. A couple of my favourites were Zima s velikim nebom (Winter with a Big Sky) by Mio Kovačić and Velika Jesen (Big Autumn) by Ivan Lacković.

As for the Museum of Broken Relationships — that is one of the weirdest museums I have been to. The concept behind the museum is that society has events and ways to mark the beginnings of relationships, but not for the endings of them, even though the ending of relationships can be just as emotional. The museum’s collection consists of items that people from across the world have donated to the museum, often with a little anecdote, which is put on display next to the item. The galleries are arranged by theme. The first gallery was funny, with humourous anecdotes and really quirky items, but it quickly became depressing, making the visitor take part in some sort of odd voyeurism. Joanna and I left the museum somewhat downhearted, and, vowing never to receive gifts, especially of the plush toy kind, went to get ice cream.

Having had our spirits lifted by ice cream, we continued our tour. We went by the Croatian National Theatre:


‘Alas, poor Seamus! I knew him, Joanna.’ *

Outside of which was yet another statue of St George and the Dragon. This one is by K.K. Kunst-Erzgiesserei and it’s of George fighting a rather vicious looking dragon.

The horse looks particularly terrified. I don’t blame him!

With the light quickly fading, we ate dinner and went back to the hostel to pack and prepare to leave Croatia. The next day we would be flying home, taking a rather circuitous journey…

* Who is Seamus? Only Seamus the Traveling Duck, of course.

Summer holiday: Zadar

From Pula, we took another ferry to Zadar. I caught this last photo of Pula on our way to the port. Someday I want to go back there and sit in that bench when I’m not so much in a hurry!

Pula is in Istria and Zadar is in Dalmatia and the ferry between the two went out to open sea and was five hours long. This ferry was even larger than the one we took the day before; the inside looked a bit like a large transatlantic airplane. Unfortunately, on this trip neither Joanna nor I got seats by the windows but sat in the middle of the ship. I promptly fell asleep once we left the harbour and missed most of the excitement. According to Joanna, when we were between islands, the sea was really wild and the ship rocked a lot. She and most of the passengers were seasick. Meanwhile, I slept blissfully unaware and the sea was calm when I woke up again. The sea got a little choppy later on, but I thought it was fun. 🙂

It was so deliciously hot in Zadar that we went first to the beach to wait out the hottest time of the day. We had to go out the Land Gate to get there. Again it wasn’t quite like a beach: this time it was a little wooded area that dropped off into the sea. There weren’t any waves and an area was roped off for swimming, so it felt like swimming at a lake, only it was the Mediterranean.

We spent most of our time wandering. A lot of places were closed, or cost money, or we weren’t terribly interested in going inside (or were turned away, because, gasp, our skirts were too short! Probably a first in my life…). One place we did go inside was the Ancient Glass Museum, in which Joanna and I learned that glass blowing was developed far earlier than either of us had thought, and that medicinal and toiletry bottles in the Roman period were far more attractive than our plastic bottles.

Fortunately there were plenty of things to see from the outside, like St Donat’s Cathedral.

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As the day waned, we made our way to the harbour to watch the sunset. There we walked along the Sea Organ, an amazing work of musical art. Wide steps lead down to the sea and holes are cut all along the top step. Under the pavement are pipes, and as the wind blows in from the sea it goes through the holes into the pipes. The resulting music is beautiful, eerie. We sat, watching the sun sink into the water, hanging our feet over the waves and listening to the music of the sea.

 

That was our last evening to watch the sunset over the sea. The next day, we went to Zagreb…

Summer holiday: Pula

From Trieste to Pula we took a ferry and a bus. We passed by Slovenia on the ferry before landing in Croatia.

We landed in Rovinj; from there, we took an hour and a half bus to Pula. After checking into our flat in Pula, and receiving a map and suggestions of places to go from our host, Joanna and I set out for exploring. Of course, the first place we went was the Roman amphitheatre:

That week Pula was having an open-air film festival, called ‘Under the stars’. The venues for the festival were both the amphitheatre and the castle. A huge screen was erected at the front of the amphitheatre with chairs filling the open space in front of it (seen above in the lower right photo). It was neat to see the space still being used as a venue for entertainment.

And, of course, I couldn’t miss out a photoshoot with The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner. It has become a tradition of mine to take one of Turner’s books with me whenever I go to the Mediterranean. I thought this shot of The Queen of Attolia would go well with the ones that I took of The Thief in Cyprus. (I also took a moment to pretend to be a thespian.)

The chambers underneath the amphitheatre held a small olive oil production exhibit. We learned that Istria — the area of Croatia that we were in — was second to Italy in producing olive oil in the Roman empire.

After wandering around the town, passing by the medieval town hall, the temple to Augustus, and stepping into a Franciscan church, we went out to one of the beaches. ‘Beach’ is a bit of a misnomer, as it was rocky cliffs that suddenly met the sea, not sand. Joanna and I clambered down to one of the tide pools where we could watch the waves crash mere feet away from us. The sea was so warm and so salty — enough that my hair was stiff after it dried. It was wonderful to sit on the rocks in the sunlight, reading and watching the sunset.


We turned in early because our ferry the next morning left very early in the morning…

Summer holiday: Trieste

As promised, the Travelogue.

My friend Joanna had a conference in Trieste, a port city in Italy on the Slovenian and Croatian border. I joined her in Trieste on the last day of her conference, arriving from London in mid-afternoon. It was so hot that the first thing I did was drop my things off at the hotel and change into a skirt, t-shirt, and flip flops. I was on holiday!

In our afternoon in Trieste, we decided to go to the Castle of San Giusto. On our way there, we passed through the Parco della Remembranza, one of the most fascinating World War memorials I’ve seen. Instead of being a single monument, the memorial was a park, an entire landscape. Scattered among the trees and underbrush, between paths, were large, uncut stones, with the names of the fallen.

There wasn’t too much to see in the castle itself, beyond the armoury and a really cool, if somewhat random, exhibit on carved gemstones. But the castle was high in the city and offered a beautiful view of the city and the harbour. On one of the towers where the battery used to be were chairs with very large blue cushions, where we sat and looked out to sea and enjoyed the sunshine.

We left the castle when it closed, which meant most other things were closed as well, so we wandered down to the harbour, eventually reaching the Piazza Unità.

The sea was so warm and so refreshing. We watched the sun set over the sea — the second time only in my life I think I have been positioned facing west while standing on the shore at sunset — which we would do a few more times during the course of our holiday.

Thus ended Day 1 of our summer holiday and our time in Italy. Tomorrow: Croatia!