5 countries and 5 overnight trains, 4 weeks, 3 suitcases, 2 singers, 1 Spanish Revolution, and zero instruments!
Chapter One – Italy: La Dolce Vida and Mother’s Day
It’s always exciting to meet up with old friends in exciting new places. Last year, we spent time with our dear friend from the Swingle Singers, Kevin Fox, in Venice. This year, we learned that Dylan’s Mom and her husband, Sue and Joe Bawden, would be travelling in Italy around the same time as our tour. So, we decided to leave a few days before our first workshop-day and meet them in beautiful Sorrento, Italy. We landed in Italy on one of the most appropriate days possible: Mother’s Day.
L-R: Joe and Sue Bawden, Dylan and Suba
We spent the next day visiting the beautiful island of Capri: playground of movie stars and Roman emperors alike. We got our exercise climbing to the top of the island to visit Villa Jovis, home of Emperor Tiberius and temporary capital of the Roman Empire.
The next day, Sue and Joe left for Florence. We stayed and enjoyed Sorrento. We’ve learned that, over years of touring and travelling, the real experiences don’t come from the sites you see, but the little moments that happen unexpectedly. Here’s what happened in Sorrento…
Sorrento is famous for its lemon trees, and for the famous liqueur limoncello. One day we “accidentally” snuck into a private lemon grove, and the gardener, rather than kicking us out, showed us a case of “natural genetic engineering”. The skilled arborists managed to graft branches from orange trees onto the lemon tree, allowing one tree to bear two different kinds of fruit!
We found a windfall orange on the ground, and ate it later in our hotel room. Possibly the juiciest orange we’ve ever tasted.
Later the same day, we stumbled on a well-known “gentlemen’s club”, held in a former Renaissance governor’s building. It’s a true Boy’s Club: women aren’t allowed in the building. Suba tried to take some “spy-shots” of the bouncer at the gate.
He caught her taking pictures, but instead of disapproving, he nodded to her, and invited us in. When Dylan asked (in painfully-broken Italian) if it was only for men, he invited us both in anyway. I guess with perfect weather, a beautiful town, and a relaxed vibe everywhere, it’s no surprise that people are so friendly.
A bus… coming the other way.
We were close enough to reach across and shake the other bus driver’s hand if we wanted to.
the heights dizzying…
See that tiny little grey spot in the lower right-hand corner? That would be the guardrail,
the only thing separating us from the ocean, directly below.
and the scenery breathtaking.
The next day saw us in Florence for a whirlwind 36 hours. Like most of Italy, the pictures say it all, so here’s a photo-synopsis of our time in Italy.
Chapter 2 – Germany Part Eins: Good Friends, Some Rain, and a Wandering Journeyman.
Our next several stops were all in Germany. Germany has the strongest a cappella scene in all of Europe, so we find ourselves here on every trip. We’ve made a lot of long-lasting friends along the way, and we visited a few of them on this leg of the journey.
First, we did a fast-and-furious run of workshops with choirs directed by our friend Ulrich Diehl. Uli runs ten (count ‘em, ten) choirs, and we worked with three of them in two days. Uli has some great choirs, and we enjoyed working with them.
“Crescendo” (click here for website)
“20vor8 Chorisma” (click here for website). Uli the director is centre, in the back.
“Tonikum” (click here for website)
Uli is also a excellent host. We got to catch up with him and his lovely wife Helga, his good friends Bruno and Peter, and Britta, a soprano in his own group (and also a flight attendant) who graciously lent us her apartment while she was on assignment in, of all places, Chennai (where Suba’s family comes from).
Our next stop was Hamburg, home to our friends Martin and Kathrin Carbow, and their kids Titus and Mia. But on our way, we stopped in Ahrensburg for a workshop with Take Four …
“Take Four” L-R: Georg, Joern, Patrick and Thomas (Click Here for website)
… and a brief stop in Lubeck. On our way there, we learned a few things about German trains. Overall, Germany is known for promptness and efficiency. This is true… except when it comes to the local trains. They’re known for occasionally running, well, a little slow. Uli’s friend Peter told us that he had missed a connecting train when the first one ran late. It turned out to be a foreshadowing tale for us…
We’ve developed quite a collection of photos like this…
When our train ran late, we found ourselves stranded in a tiny town called Bad Oldsloe. At 11pm. With the next train due in 90 minutes, our stomachs grumbling, a sky full of rain, and the town closed down for the night. We broke down and took a cab to Lubeck. Twenty minutes and 50 Euros later, we were tired, but warm and dry, and eventually fed.
Up next, Hamburg. This was an even-faster trip: we arrived at 8pm, spent a great night catching up with Kathrin, spent the next day giving masterclasses to Kathrin’s students at the Marion-Dönhoff Gymnasium, gave a concert that night, and had a late-night dinner.
While out for dinner, we saw a guy who looked liked this:
This is a stock photo. Our guy said he was “allergic to cameras”.
He banged his stick on the floor a few times and gave a little speech in German. Everyone applauded, and gave him a few Euros, as if he were a musician passing the hat at a club. We were mystified. Kathrin explained to us that he was “Auf Der Walz” (on the waltz): a carpenter’s apprentice, bound for three years to wander the countryside and work only for food and shelter. The tradition has existed since the Middle Ages, and it’s considered an honour for someone to house one of these journeymen.
After this incident, and great meal, we jumped on a midnight train to…
Chapter 3 – Spain
But before we get there, some thoughts on the Train to Spain (far away from the Rain).
When booking this tour, we decided that, once in Europe, we would only travel by train. There are advantages and disadvantages to this.
Planes take hours. Trains can take days. If you’re in a hurry, just fly. And surprisingly, flying is about the same price as the train, for a fraction of the travel time.
If you have time between destinations, there are plenty of advantages.
First, no expensive cab rides to a remote part of town, arriving two hours ahead, checking in, customs, and endless standing in line. With the train, you walk to the centre of town (where you’re likely staying anyway), show up half an hour ahead, find your train, and get on. It’s that simple. Second, it’s spacious and civilized. Instead of being crushed-in like cattle, you can (with a few extra Euro) get your own compartment, stretch out, and enjoy the beautiful countryside (or watch movies on your laptop). No crappy plastic airplane food. You can make your own picnic with food from a nearby market, complete with a bottle of wine. And for anyone with an environmental conscience, it’s a much better choice: flying creates about eight times the carbon emissions as the train.
Of course, since the trip is longer, you may wish to take a night train… or two. Even better: instead of losing a “travel day”, you can enjoy a full day of working (or sightseeing), get on a train that night, and wake up the next morning at your destination.
Hamburg to Barcelona takes nineteen hours by train. A helluva day… or two night trains, with a daytime layover in… Paris, the half-way point. Sign us up.
It sounds great on paper, and overall, we enjoyed it. But there were a few snags here and there. First off, since we had a concert that evening in Hamburg, we couldn’t get directly to Paris. We took a 12:30am train which arrived in Koln at 5:30am…
The night train, rolling away in Koln
… then had to change again in Brussels at 7:00am…
Just enough time for a quick yawn-and-stretch
… then to Paris. (Oh, yes. Let’s not forget that the Spain Train left from another station, a half-hour subway ride across town.) By the time we arrived for our Grand Sightseeing Day in Paris, our bags safely stored at the next train station, we were underslept, overtired, with the ground beneath us still rumbling and rattling thanks to our “train legs”.
So, instead of traipsing through the Louvre and the Champs Elysees, we did what most good French folks do on a beautiful sunny Paris afternoon. We found a nice park along the Seine, and had a nap.
(Fortunately, we’ve been to Paris a few times. We earned the nap.)
Then we spent some time wandering the city. Still no Louvre.
Then, back on the train for the Paris-to-Barcelona leg, complete with wine, cheese, bread, and a good nighttime laptop movie. No early-morning changes, and the train was an hour late, meaning an extra hour of sleep. It’s the first time we actually wanted to arrive late somewhere.
Chapter 3 – Spain: Spanish Barbershop, Catalunyan Indie-Rock, and the “Spanish Revolution”
We had finally arrived in Barcelona. After several nights moving from hotel rooms to guestrooms, and two nights of sleeping on the train, we were thrilled to finally settle in somewhere, even for just a few nights. And in Barcelona, we had our own apartment.
Anytime we’re in a place for more than a couple of nights, we tend to rent an apartment rather than stay at a hotel. It’s more common in Europe than in North America to do so: many people have “vacation apartments” that they rent out privately. There are lots of good reasons for this. First of all, it’s a good value. For the same price (or often cheaper) than a hotel room, you can get a 1-bedroom apartment with your own kitchen, a nice terrace, and – a blessing for road-weary travelers – free laundry. But more importantly, you have your own “home”, and for a few days, you can pretend that you actually live in this new place. You can check out the neighbourhood, buy food in the local markets, enjoy a home-cooked meal instead of yet-another-restaurant. It provides a nice break from the tiring on-the-move, living-out-of-suitcases side of travelling.
It also suits the way we like to see the world. Museums and monuments are good, but we get as much out of seeing the everyday world of a new city: a food market is just as exciting as a museum for us. If you’re of the same mind when you travel, we totally recommend renting an apartment.
The view from our terrace. Yet another reason to get an apartment!
The Hanfris Quartet (L-R): Jordi, Gener, Adria and Juan
The next day was for sightseeing. Barcelona is a beautiful walking city, and after rainy Germany, we were glad for the nice weather. On our walk we saw the famous La Sagrada Familia church, designed by Gaudi.
We also saw the famous concert hall “Palau de la Música Catalana”, considered a tourist site on its own, and possibly the most beautiful concert hall we’ve ever seen…
(you need to few pics to truly see this, so check out the Spain Photo Gallery)
… and found out that we were there for the last night of the “Calalunyan Guitar Festival”. We decided to take a chance and buy tickets for the concert. What would we hear… flamenco guitar? Jazz? Classical? We’d find out later that night. The answer was:
The group is Mazoni, and they are well-known in Catalyuna, the part of Spain that includes Barcelona. They also recently played Canadian Music Week! They sound a little like the Canadian group Blue Rodeo, with a little surf-guitar thrown in. Though it’s not our first-call type of music — and we couldn’t understand the words – the music was great, the songs catchy and well-formed, and we had a great time.
It also got us thinking about the differences between European and North American audiences. In North America, when people go to a concert, they see what they know: if they haven’t heard of the group, most people won’t buy tickets for it. In Europe, where the arts are arguably more respected and audiences more open, people will go to a concert not knowing who they’re going to see, trusting that the presenters will give them a good show. That’s the approach that we took with this concert, and when you take a chance, you open your mind and, since you already paid for the ticket, you commit to enjoying the show. Take a chance, open your mind: this is an approach we hope that Canadian audiences and presenters will take more often.
Up next, Madrid. Madrid has a very different feel from Barcelona, but is equally beautiful: a combination of wide, modern avenues, filled in with charming medieval-style streets and neighbourhoods. Our next apartment was right in the middle of one of these neighbourhoods, and we loved it.
Our trip to Madrid was done “on spec”: with a few days between our Barcelona gig and our next dates in Germany, we made contact with some Spanish singers at the last minute and hoped that some workshops or shows might happen. Though we couldn’t make them happen this year, we made new friends with our Spanish contacts and laid a solid groundwork for next year. Even better, they taught us all about the Spanish Revolution.
The day before, we walked though Puerta Del Sol, Madrid’s main square and the symbolic heart of Spain: it’s considered “mile zero” for all the roads around the country. It’s also the scene of many protests and uprisings throughout Spain’s history. As we walked through, we saw this:
… and this …
… and realized something big was happening. But when you’re on the road, it’s like a media blackout: you easily lose touch with the news at home and abroad. The next day, Dylan’s relative Katie Arnup posted this link on Facebook:
Ironically, it was sent from Canada, and Katie had no idea we were in Spain!
That night, we met up with our new friends, Spanish a cappella singers Javier Gallego and Inigo Sanchez. Inigo is a passionate supporter of the Spanish Revolution, and he took us on a tour of the site at Puerta Del Sol. It was amazing. The Spanish have a tradition of leaderless protest, and seeing it in action was impressive. For a non-top-down grassroots movement, it was very organized, with stations for food, water, medical help, and even legal services and advice. The whole atmosphere was peaceful: even the soldiers, who had tried to forcefully evict the protesters the week before, were relaxed and nonchalant. For all we knew, they supported the cause!
Here is Inigo explaining the Spanish Revolution, in his own words:
After the tour, we all went out for beer and some streetcorner singing. Inigo’s friend Santiago, a Cuban writer in self-imposed exile from Castro’s regime, took us home. On our way, we stopped in to hear his friends from Cuba play — a fantastic Latin-jazz dance band.
All in all, it was a spectacular time in Spain.
We left Madrid for another round in Germany. This included, again, a couple of night trains with a daytime stopover in Paris. Thanks to some track-work in France, we arrived no less than four hours late! Not much time for sightseeing in Paris, so we did what most good French folks do: we walked around the city for a couple of hours, traipsed down the Champs-Elysees… and saw a movie.
Still no Louvre. This was Dylan’s 6th visit to Paris (Suba’s 4th), and we still haven’t seen the most famous museum in Paris. Next time!
Up next: Chapter 4 – Germany Part Zwei
An 86-year old grand dame singer, and an “unexpected” extra day in Berlin.
rom Sunny Spain, we found ourselves in cold, Hanseatic Kiel, where we did a concert with our good friend Torsten De Winkel, a fantastic jazz guitarist. Torsten is a very generous performer and often invites guest musicians to play with him. One of these performers was María Mérida, from the Canary Islands. She is eighty-eight years old, has an amazing voice, and owns the stage like no-one else.
Maria Merida and Torsten De Winkel
The next day, we were invited to join Torsten at the prestigious Elbjazz Festival in Hamburg. We were on our way to the gig when Suba realized that she wasn’t feeling well, and we decided we’d better get home. Suba’s normally a trooper, so we figured this meant trouble. Then we learned about this:
Fortunately Suba wasn’t too badly hit, so it only took a few days for her to recover.
The next day, off to Berlin for a concert with two fantastic groups, MuSix and Peter and the Wolvettes. MuSix is one of Germany’s best male vocal bands, and Peter and the Wolvettes… well, they have to be seen to be believed. Three women, dressed to the nines, singing nothing but the music of Abba. The guy was a one-man rhythm section, doing bass and drums simultaneously with his voice. We were exhausted just watching him! The following day we gave a workshop to MuSix, and it was very exciting for us to work with a group of their calibre.
MuSix (L-R): Till, Stefan, Andre, Patrick, and Bjorn
After Berlin, our final stop was Istanbul… which ended up starting later than we planned. Why? After years of organizing tours and booking flights, we made a rookie mistake. We were about to leave our hotel, nice and relaxed from a good night’s sleep, for our 1:55 flight. Dylan decided to check on the final details… and froze in place. Suba watched him, and just sighed.
1:55. In Europe, they use a 24-hour clock. 1:55PM would be 13:55. 1:55? Yup, you guessed it.
The flight left last night.
Fortunately, Dylan and Suba know how to take things in stride. After a few minutes of head-smacking, and some delirious giggling, we rebooked our tickets, and enjoyed an unexpected “bonus day” in beautiful Berlin. We visited a few key sites…
Alexanderplatz, and the iconic East German TV Tower
… and when it started to thunderstorm, we did what all good Berliners do: we went to Potsdamer Platz, and watched a movie. And since our flight didn’t leave till 1:55 (AM, thank you very much)… we watched another one.
Movies in Berlin: reserved seating and beer. Civilized!
After crisscrossing the continent, it was time for a little R+R, so we decided to spend a few days in Istanbul. Beautiful and historical, it’s one of the most amazing cities on earth. Most of the stories are in the pictures, so please check out our photo gallery. But here are a few highlights:
– Getting fleeced by a cabdriver. He charged us a flat rate, which turned out to be about four times what we should have paid. He got his comeuppance, though… he got lost trying to find our apartment, and what should have been a five-minute payday for him turned into a half-hour scenic tour for us.
– Visiting the famous Spice Bazaar… and bumping into a friend from Toronto. It turns out that Andrew Downing’s partner grew up in Istanbul. We even met his mother.
– Jumping on a ferry boat, not knowing (or caring) where it was going. We ended up on the Asian side of the city, in a cool neighbourhood called Kadikoy… and stumbled upon a political rally. Naturally.
– Hunting for live music, and ending up in the middle of a rowdy Turkish Saturday night restaurant-party.
For the rest of the trip, please visit the photo gallery. It’s a visually-stunning city.
And thus ends the FreePlay Duo 2011 Europe Tour. Many thanks to all those who made it possible: the Ontario Arts Council; Uli, Helga and Britta; Patrick Scharnewski and Take Four; Martin and Kathrin Carbow, Gener and Hanfris Quartet; Inigo Garcia Sanchez, Javier Gallego and Santiago; Torsten de Winkel; Till and Karin Kindchus; Patrick Hirche and MuSix (and Pegasus Air for so promptly rebooking our flight!).
We look forward to working with you and seeing you again next year.