Tuesday, July 19, 2016

My Life As a Tourist


Time for another confession. When I travel in Europe (or anywhere), I really don’t need to visit any more churches or cathedrals. I’ve seen a lot, pretty much got the basic theme of the paintings, sculptures and stained glass and it’s not a story that holds much interest for me these days. Archeological sites are mildly intriguing, but at the end of the day, they’re just a heap of rocks. I’ll still put up with a museum or two, but truth be told, often find myself looking more at the women looking at the paintings then at the paintings themselves. Stores don’t attract me, unless there are some offbeat toys or clothes for my grandchildren. So what do I like?

Wandering down twisty, narrow streets and alleys with clothes hanging out the window. Stopping at doorways, camera out and ready. Any park with an empty bench under a shaded tree, sitting with pen and journal in hand. Strolling along a river’s edge or walking by the sea. Enticing stairways, going up or down, doesn’t matter. Watching children play or men sitting together watching the world go by. Savoring a gelato on a hot day or a cool drink at an outdoor café. Running full-speed toward any distant sounds of live music, especially if they involve bagpipes and drums.

It’s fine to have my hotels pre-booked and an occasional restaurant reservation, but I still love surprise, serendipity and a bit of adventure. Not knowing exactly where I’ll go or where (or when) I’ll eat and sometimes not knowing at the beginning of the day where I’ll spend the night. Like today.

Karen and I left Siracusa with a rough itinerary of stopping to visit Noto and Ragusa on our way to…well, we didn’t know yet. Had no hotel reservation anywhere and were still discussing about aiming for the town with the ceramics (Calta Girone). Stopped in Noto, parked and walked the main drag, cathedrals on the left, churches on the right, the blazing sun above, same old, same old and still kind of charming. But that sun! We were more thrilled with the fresh hazelnuts and almonds we bought, a fresh-squeezed orange juice and then the piece de resistance, trying to judge whether, as the guidebook says, Café Siciliano and/or Corrado Costanzo made the best ice cream in the world. (A prize my music teacher in 1973 gave to Perche No? and Vivoli in Florence, two places still thriving!) It was a hard contest to judge— I think we’ll just have to go back. Both were exquisite.

Back to the car and our first parking ticket in Italy (oops!) and on to Ragusa some 35 miles down the road. Found a free (we think) parking lot at the foot of this hill town and began the walk into yet more churches and charm, hugging the walls for every spot of shade available. Made three half-hearted attempts to see about rooms at B&B’s we passed by, but it was the mid-day siesta time and hard to get the right people with the right answers. But voila! Without reservations or an i-Phone, we found one, booked the room, Karen lay down to nap and I had the pleasure of a solitary stroll to a park with—yes, an empty bench under a shaded tree with a cool breeze. Heaven.

Not only does the old mode of travel, improvising as we go along, still work, but it opens the door to serendipity. Nearby the hotel was a piazza with two grand pianos on a stage and some sign about a competition. At first, it seemed it was a casual affair and anyone could play and I was ready to jump in. But it turns out to be a relatively known and serious classical music competition (the IBLA) and after yet another outdoor dinner, I sat in the piazza and listened to three hours of high-level music of all sorts. Piano solos, duets, opera arias, marimba and percussion, classical guitar, piano and saxophone, piano and accordion, from Bach to contemporary compositions. Performers came from Ukraine, Belaruse, Slovenia, Italy, Korea, Japan, China and beyond. The highlight was a young man playing Liszt’s Waltz from Faust, a monster of a piece, with such remarkable technique and sensitivity. At the end, I asked him how old he was. “!4,” he replied.

Have I mentioned how much I’m loving being a tourist on vacation? More tomorrow.

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