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Archive for the ‘Cultural Affairs’ Category

Death Valley Junction, California, is a very tiny town located near the border with Nevada. It’s surrounded by the Mojave desert and contains more abandoned buildings than people. A hotel and restaurant display the only signs of life should you happen to drive by it on the highway.

I stopped here briefly on my way to Death Valley National Park, and this speck on the map was the highlight of my day thanks to the Amargosa Opera House and the inspirational story of Marta Becket.

Once a busy location for borax mining operations in the 1920s, the town was in full decline in the late 1960s when Becket, a dancer from New York City, stopped in Death Valley Junction to fix a flat tire. Seeing possibility in a run-down meeting hall, she rented the space and began performing her own one-woman shows there.

In the beginning, audiences were small, but Becket performed three shows a week whether there was anyone there to watch her or not. She painstakingly repaired the theatre with the help of donations and painted permanent audience on its walls, albeit one that would fit better in Shakespeare’s time than modern-day California.

The king and queen sit in a royal box at the back, surrounded by courtiers. Nuns attend the same performance as the ladies of a bordello. Actors and dancers wait in the wings for their turn to join the action onstage.

In time, word of this unique theatre and the entertainer whose vision transformed it spread and seats began to fill up on a regular basis. In 2009 when I visited, more than 40 years had passed since she first settled there, and Becket was still dancing for sold-out audiences, many coming from long distances just to see her.

Stepping into the opera house for the first time is an experience, as you come face-to-face with what one person can do with an idea and some determination and guts. Becket created a space for herself to do what she most loved to do in the craziest location.

Death Valley Junction is even now practically a ghost town, but the Amargosa Opera House saved it from its inevitable fate. With Becket now in her late 80s, I hate to think of that charming little building left to crumble in the sand and wind of the desert. Here’s hoping her vision lives on.

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It’s winter – cold, snowy, and grey – and I am longing for the return of patio season. After six months or more cooped up inside, nothing feels better than to spend time outdoors and restaurant patios here in town are packed full of people on warm summer nights. I love a good patio, and Dubrovnik was the ultimate place to hang out outdoors with a coffee or gelato and soak up the sun. But Dubrovnik at night is the main reason I hope with all my heart to go back and visit again.

We had spent almost a full day driving down the coast of Croatia and arrived in Dubrovnik in late afternoon. After settling into our rooms and cleaning up, we headed out towards the old walled city to find somewhere to eat. It had fallen dark at this point, and we could see a part of it, all lit up and looking gorgeous, out our window. It’s always very exciting to arrive at a new place and discover its charms, but I swear when we walked through the gates and into main square, I was blown away. I felt as if I had stepped into a fairytale world.

The city has a long and storied history, and between earthquakes and wars, it’s amazing that so much of it is still preserved. The stone streets are worn smooth from years of pedestrian traffic, and the architecture is typically Old Word, classic with ornate touches, all topped with those iconic red tile roofs. Hanging from every building are electric lamps shaped like lanterns that give off a bright warm glow.

For me, coming from a much newer city with not many buildings older than the 1930s and asphalt streets which are flooded with fluorescent lights, the effect was breathtaking. Great effort has obviously been made by the city’s caretakers not only to preserve this piece of history, but to ensure that it still has life. People still live and work and hang out within these walls, much as they did 500 years ago – some things have changed, of course, but the rhythm of life continues on in Dubrovnik. A modern city has sprouted and spread out around the walls, but the heart definitely still beats within.

And so we found a place to rest, drink a little wine, and have a bite to eat – the only soundtrack was the chatter around us. It was a perfect evening, and though we could not wait to explore the city the next day, nothing could quite top our first glance of the square, glowing and full of history and magic.

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So much of my time travelling is spent as an observer, whether with my own eyes or through the view screen on my camera: I pause and I look, but then I move on. So it is a visceral thrill for me whenever I get a chance to touch as well.

Grgur Ninski (Gregory of Nin), Split, Croatia

By that I mean the kind of things that look like they should be behind glass or a velvet rope, but the point is to reach out and touch them. Or specifically, rub them for good luck.

Picture it: Salt Lake City, 2002: a loonie was buried under centre ice at the Olympic hockey venue (for totally legit reasons), and both the Canadian men’s and women’s hockey teams went on to win gold medals. A nation goes nuts. The great Wayne Gretzky himself had this lucky loonie dug up from the ice and donated it to the Hockey Hall of Fame where it went on display. I, who had never had any desire to step foot in the Hall of Fame before, found myself making a pilgrimage to see this fabled coin and, even better, touch it. Together, thousands of Canadian hockey fans had rubbed this coin for good luck to the point where you could barely make out the loon usually in relief on the face; it had been worn practically smooth.

For me it was one touch, but it was one among countless and we live in a world where everyone is looking for a little piece of luck, because good luck charms are everywhere – and I rub them all any chance I get, just like everyone else.

La Chouette, l'Eglise Notre-Dame de Dijon

Have you laid your paws on “La Chouette”, the owl carved in stone on the corner of a church wall in Dijon, France? If you haven’t, you might want to go soon before it’s completely unrecognizable.

How about the vaguely Dumbledore-ish statue outside the gates of Diocletian’s Palace in Split, Croatia? If you rub his big toe, it’s good luck – his toe is currently about 5000 times brighter than the rest of him thanks to the regular polishing it gets.

On a more spiritual note, Catholics can pay their respect to the Virgin Mary and Jesus while at Montserrat in Spain. The basilica on the mountain holds the famous La Moreneta, the Black Virgin statue. She is mostly contained behind glass, but one of her hands (holding a sphere) is exposed for pilgrims to touch and people have been making the trek to Montserrat for centuries to do just that.

In fact, I often can’t help myself from reaching out and touching things I’m probably not supposed to. At Parc Güell, I couldn’t resist giving the mosaic lizard a light pat on the head as I passed him on the stairs. Just be careful if you follow my lead – that poor lizard has been through enough.

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I’ve been accused of being a magpie when it comes to anything sparkly (I can’t resist), and I think that could be easily extended to include things made of coloured glass, particularly stained glass windows.  The colours used in glass are usually vivid and bright, and when light shines through, it can be a stunning sight. The artistry involved in creating such windows or sculpture or even jewellery is something I’ve long admired.

The Bellagio Las Vegas at night.

The Bellagio Las Vegas happens to be home to a gorgeous display of glass sculpture that I was overjoyed to see with my own eyes. Created by the world-renowned Dale Chihuly, Fiori di Como is a chandelier spanning 2000 square feet of the lobby ceiling, comprised of 2000 vibrantly coloured hand-blown flowers. There is a constant group of amateur photographers, heads tipped back and gawking upwards, in the hotel daily thanks to these beautiful flowers.

Las Vegas has the reputation of being tacky, and not undeservedly so; however, hotels like the Bellagio have made efforts to inject some class into to this blinged-out wonderland. Today, Vegas is a unique blend of over-the-top glitz with luxury living. Among the glittering, flashing lights and ringing slot machines are gourmet restaurants run by some of the world’s finest chefs, designer boutiques from every top brand you can think of, and spas offering menus of treatments and therapies, all in the service of pampering yourself. The Vegas of 25 years ago could only brag of the world’s biggest gold nugget (though, I did see that nugget too and it is pretty awesome); luckily for us, visitors today can experience both sides of the city.

I encourage you to use Google Images to explore more of Chihuly’s incredible works of art, and you can visit his website for more information on the artist.

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All of the media saturation surrounding the royal wedding this last week or so has reminded me of my one and only royal sighting. The Queen has come to Toronto a couple of times in my lifetime, but I’ve never made any attempt to be a part of the crowd at any of her public appearances. I’m not anti-monarchist per se, just anti-crowd. Of course, I had to travel all the way to London to find out for myself that the Queen is actually a real live person and not just a figure who appears on all the money in my wallet.

I was in London for a short layover on my way home from another country. I had one day to tour around and see what I could of a city I’d never been to before, but always wanted to. I was travelling with friends who had lived in London previously, and they graciously took me on a walk they’d given many times before, which took us to most of the famous sites in the city.

As we were walking down the Mall toward Buckingham Palace (and that is a long driveway, my friends), we noticed a lot of activity and people around. I seem to remember hearing “God Save the Queen” at some point as well. It occurred to me as we were walking that we were in London on the day of the 10th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death, and I’d heard on the news that the royal family would be attending a service at a nearby chapel to commemorate this.

Sure enough, as we got up to the Victoria Memorial at the gates of the palace, we could see people lining the street, in anticipation of the royal family’s return. We had no idea when they were supposed to be coming, but we thought we’d wait a bit and see if they came.

Much to my delight, maybe ten minutes later, two policemen on motorcycles zoomed around the corner. I whipped out my camera and got the shot of my day: The Queen in her Rolls Royce with Prince Phillip beside her.

Prince Charles was right behind her in his own car, and I quickly snapped one of his car as well. I didn’t have great timing with that one, as the photo shows more of his driver and only a vague shadow in the back that I know is Charles, but his mother wouldn’t be able to tell. More cars sped by: Princess Anne, Prince Edward, Beatrice and Eugenie, and others I didn’t recognize. I didn’t see Princes William or Harry, but a large bus with dark tinted windows flew by, and we wondered if maybe they were in there, in order to be protected from public eyes on such a day.

I was in town for basically a day and was lucky enough to catch sight of the city’s best known residents. I’d had a brief, sweet taste of London and I can’t wait to go back again for more.

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Though I do enjoy classical music, I’ve never taken to opera much (Bugs Bunny excepted). It’s always seemed overwrought and the singing is unnatural sounding to me, though this is only my opinion – I know it has rabid fans out there.

So it happened that I was in Lucca, Italy the summer they were celebrating 150 years since the birth of  the composer Giacomo Puccini (Lucca is his birth place), and they had a huge months-long festival planned to commemorate this. Opera lovers could partake of performances of works by Puccini and other composers by various singers.

We were only in Lucca for four days, but we decided to partake of one such performance – a night of Puccini and Mozart at a local cathedral, sung by two performers (a man and a woman, don’t ask me if they were sopranos or contraltos or if that’s even a thing in opera).

If a similar thing had been mounted in Toronto, I’d never have gone – it just wouldn’t have interested me. But in Italy, how could I resist?  Opera and Italy go together like chocolate and peanut butter.

I have no idea what was sung, I just remember it was such a surreal moment for me – sitting on a wooden pew, surrounded by Catholic iconography, listening to these amazing singers perform, defying normal auditory range. I’m in Italy! Listening to opera! In an old church! Could I be any farther away from my regular routine?

I highly recommend dipping your toes into any of the cultural events offered in the tourist season of many countries. The world is small enough now that many troupes will tour so it’s not hard to see Russian ballet or Japanese kabuki or whatever in your own backyard. But nothing compares to watching a performance in the country of origin, where the cultural impact of these art forms is woven into the history of the people. It’s an experience well worth indulging in. Even if it’s opera.

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Every Barcelona guide book will discuss and rate Parc Güell, and will tell you it’s a must-visit site – and they would be right. In a city with so many wonderful things to see and do, it’s no exaggeration to say this was the highlight of my time there. This park is like nothing I’ve seen before or since.

It’s like someone on an acid trip was flipping through a children’s story book and got inspired to design this park (to be clear, it was architect Antoni Gaudi who designed it, and I have no idea where he got his ideas from). There is so much to look at, so many details to discover, and the whole place is dripping with whimsy. Gaudi had a unique vision, and many examples of his aesthetic can be seen around the city. Actually, one of the best views of Barcelona is from the terrace at the top of the hill within the park.

There isn’t much I can say about it, when pictures tell the story so much better than I ever could. If you are ever in Barcelona, you must take the time to visit – it’s a bit of a trip away from the usual tourist haunts, but it simply must be seen with your own eyes.

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