Italian Odyssey 2008
Wednesday, 8 October 2008
The 24th. ‘Music at Sea’
An Italian Odyssey onboard
September 13 – 27, 2008
Italy is the spiritual home of so many of the arts that, as I flew between London and Rome, I could not help wondering why we hadn’t taken ‘Music At Sea’ on a ‘Round Italy’ cruise before. The Italians venerate the arts, their media giving the same prominence to them as to world events and sporting news. Their airports carry the names, not just of politicians and pop stars, but also great artistes, and thus it was that as I left Roma Leonardo da Vinci airport I immediately felt a frisson of excitement. This country is the birthplace of so much we musicians cherish. The language of music is Italian. Opera and the Piano were first created here and for the next two weeks we would be immersed in the best that Italy could offer.
Azamara Quest was docked in Civitavecchia and to reach her I would follow the path that Roman legions, on their way to the sea and overseas conquests, had marched two thousand years previously. They measured distance by every thousand steps, the Italian word for ‘thousand’ is ‘mille’ and thus we have our word ’mile’. (OK, I know you learned that in 3rd. grade – just testing!) Today I was not marching but in the back of a limousine - the driver enquired whether I liked music, inserted a CD into the sound system and to the soothing sounds of George and Ira Gershwin we glided towards our destination, the road cutting a swathe through peaceful rolling hills and gently undulating countryside basking in the September sunshine. Then we sped through a tunnel, rounded a colline, and there glistening beneath us was the Tyrrhenian sea with the Michelangelo fortress solemnly guarding the ancient city (Civitavecchia means Old City) as it has for centuries.
Tourists often pass through Civitavecchia with hardly a glance, en route from Rome to board a cruise ship but, for those with more time, there are 2 ‘must sees’. Firstly the Unique Church of the Holy Japanese Martyrs (dedicated to 26 Franciscans who suffered martyrdom at Nagasaki in 1597), decorated with frescoes and mosaics by the Japanese artist Lucas (Luke) Hasegawa and secondly the Weeping Madonna. The latter hit the headlines in 1995 when a child noticed a 17 inch statue of the Virgin Mary crying tears of blood. Thousands flocked to Civitavecchia. An investigation was held including a CAT scan and X-ray examination which revealed that there were no cavities in the statue which could hide a device to squirt liquid. To this day no earthly explanation has been found for this occurrence and many attribute the phenomena to the supernatural.
Staircase on 'Azamara Quest'
Fireplace on 'Azamara Quest'
Recessed Ornamental Ceiling, Drawing Room, Azamara Quest
Azamara Quest was waiting. She is a honey of a ship whose creation was clearly a labour of love – imagine you are the sole guest in a floating version of the traditional English Stately Home, an atmosphere of serene tranquillity wafts in the air along with perfume from fresh flowers. You are divorced from the real world, surrounded by works of art, cocooned in comfortable chairs in wood panelled rooms with ornamental fireplaces. In addition, your food is top quality and superbly presented with the unobtrusive, attentive service which is the hallmark of legendary hotels. (Writing this after two weeks onboard my opinion is unchanged – if they can keep this up Azamara Cruises will be in same league as Royal Viking, Seabourn and Crystal)
Our group is safely onboard, a mixture from the USA and UK, and within our number Wally, from the USA, but of Italian descent and fluent in the language, tells me his doctor has put him on a diet for the cruise - no wine, limit his pasta intake, and avoid desserts! Ouch! Change your doctor Wally! - but he assures me that this will not affect his enjoyment and his wonderfully positive attitude is typical of us all. I know I’m repeating something I’ve written in previous blogs but one of the hallmarks of an MAS group is the determination of us all to experience life to the full for as long as we are able. It is uplifting to be in this company. In the absence of Rosemary and John – detained in California by the demands of their busy agency - we are to be escorted by Patricia and Dave, two popular alumni and the very personification of efficiency and charm. I can relax in the knowledge that, for the next two weeks, they will cope with any eventuality and that all the ingredients are in place for a marvellous fortnight.
Italy is shaped like a boot – toe to the left, heel to the right, leaning around twenty degrees forward. Our itinerary began half way up the boot’s front, went underneath the toe (where it looks as though it is kicking Sicily!) and heel and rose to the top of the back before we retraced our steps to our starting point. En route we stopped in Sardinia, Croatia, and enjoyed overnights in Venice, Sorrento and Livorno. (A cruise package is a stress free and VERY smart economic way to do this. You come back to the same bed every night! A land trip, with the constant packing, unpacking, rushing for coaches, is far more exhausting and, paying separately for hotels, transportation and meals, far more expensive.)
I love an itinerary which allocates the first day to being a full day at sea. It gives the guests time to unpack, unwind, and generally settle into their new surroundings. We took full advantage of this by holding our Welcome Party in the morning followed by our inaugural concert in the afternoon. Afterwards I had a bizarre experience. I had gone to the onboard launderette and a lady (NOT one of our group) engaged me in conversation. Was she excited by Italy, the ship, the world situation? No, what she was BURSTING to tell me was that one of the washing machines – supposedly operated by pushing 8 quarters in 8 slots – would still work if she pushed 4 quarters in 4 slots!!! Her cup of joy positively overflowed when she got to the dryer. This one completely rejected her money and worked for free!!!! She couldn’t contain her happiness. I resisted the impulse to direct her to the Casino – if her winning streak continued it would have been too much for her!
Our first stop was Bari where some of the older fishermen speak a dialect more akin to Greek than Italian and the city’s patron saint is Santa Klaus! (Would the locals be sporting white beards, red cloaks and handing out gifts – Unfortunately NO!) One of our members (who will remain nameless as she is a married with an impecable reputation!) confided that, as a single student many years ago living in Bari, a local young man, overcome by love, lust, and a passion to obtain a USA passport, ardently wooed her. He must have been extraordinarily persistent because, even though the event was some 30 years ago, the aforesaid lady refused to venture ashore – even with her husband!
On a more serious note we were reminded of the violence which can simmer beneath the surface in Italy. Piazza Aldo Morro. A monument to the great statesman and Prime Minister whose early life was spent studying and teaching at the university here but who, in 1978, was kidnapped and murdered in Rome by the Red Brigades.
From Bari we sailed to Split, the second largest city of Croatia. Historically the big attraction is the Palace built by the Roman Emperor Diocletian around 300 AD. For those of us whose favoured reading is more ‘National Enquirer’ than ‘New York Times’ the ‘must see’ was a more recent building. The Split villa of the tennis star Goran Ivanisevic up for sale following his highly publicised liason with a local model turned TV presenter - yours for only €8 million!
And then to Venice. Affectionately known by Italians as ‘La Serenissima’ but today a more appropriate description would have been ‘La Hysteria’. Hordes of passengers from the mega ships in port - Costa, Cunard and Holland America – descended on St. Marks Square, transforming an area once described by Napoleon as the ‘Drawing Room of Europe’, into a noisy, overcrowded, rather manic house party. Have we reached a point when a cap might be considered on the number of ships allowed into port at any one time? I returned to the Quest to find solace in the piano until the evening when I ventured out with a walk before dinner – an Italian tradition called ‘Fare una passegiata’. My ‘passegiata’ took me through the bus terminus at Piazzale Roma, across the Grand Canal’s splendid new bridge, Ponte di Calatrava, and thence to the railway station thronged with bustling commuters. Then I noticed a different group of people, waiting patiently in silent anticipation. Men in blazers and straw hats. Elegant women carrying Louis Vuitton bags, shielding their eyes behind Prada and Gucci sunglasses. Their special train awaited them. The unmistakeable blue and cream carriages of the ‘Orient Express’ freshly polished and positively exuding excitement, mystery and romance. (One day we might offer this as a MAS option). Oh well – back to reality and on to my usual restaurant.
If you travel as much as I do you will relate to what I am about to write, which is that when I am in a ‘foreign’ place, once I have found a restaurant which is good I go back rather than try somewhere new. Moreover, although I order different things in different restaurants, I generally order the same thing in the same restaurant – if you understand what I mean. BORING! I here you scream. No dear reader, believe me, its strangely comforting to enter a restaurant in a foreign land, miles away from home, and be greeted by a familiar waiter who doesn’t bring a menu but says ‘Welcome back - the usual?’ At ‘my’ place in Venice (No, you don’t get the name!) I am treated as one of the family, and after eating, was invited into the inner sanctum where the owners, Antonio and Olga, were watching football on television. Turin were playing Zenit, St. Petersburg. Antonio disappeared in the direction of his private fridge and reappeared with glasses and a bottle of Elixir Gambrinus. As he filled my glass his eyes met mine. ‘And who will you support tonight’ he enquired! Oh NO! Antonio is Italian and Olga is Russian. This would have taxed even the diplomatic skills of Machievelli. ‘Manchester United’ I replied. ‘They aren’t playing’ they chorused accusingly. ‘And neither am I’ I replied, raising my glass.
As we watched the match together I cheered both teams on with a loyalty that only repeated glasses of Elizir Gambrinus can instill! Later, walking back in the darkness to the accompaniment of the water lapping on the canal side, I ruminated on the day: The news had been full of financial doom. Lehman Bros – collapsed; AIG - rescued by the government; the Russian stockmarket; suspended; Alitalia - close to bankruptcy, but in a small corner of Venice all that really, really mattered was a football match! It was strangely reassuring. God Bless Italy!
The next morning I was up early to feed a few pigeons in a much quieter St. Mark’s Square. As they pecked away I envied them their private world. What do they know or care about world events? I tried opening a conversation with one of them. ‘What do you think of the financial situation?’ A beady eye swivelled at me, and from a beak mounted in a ball of white feathers there emitted a soft, contented gurgly ‘Cooooooooo’. I suspect that when you mention ‘credit crunch’ to a pigeon it thinks you’re offering a new brand of bird grain!
Italy is a shopper’s paradise and two of our group – Linda and Fred, celebrating 40 years of marriage - visited Murano where they commissioned a glass centrepiece for their dining table back home. It will be inscribed with their names and shipped to the USA. Later in the cruise this sparked an interesting discussion on ‘how to get purchases back home’. I had no idea our members were so resourceful. Bob and Ron, (keen fishermen) confessed that after a trip to Alaska, keen to get their catch home and mindful of airline baggage restrictions, they threw away their clothes and suitcases, bought containers at Walmart, and filled each with 50lbs of frozen halibut! Another of our guests had previously travelled with Italian sausages tied around her waist – and was currently pondering the logistics of getting a cheese home (This is one you DON”T want to sit next to on a Long Haul flight!) while Wally, ever resourceful, confided that he once had some suits made and shipped to him from China. 3 weeks later the package was delivered to his door in the USA. He checked the wrapping, curious to learn why no import duty had been paid. On the front the wily tailor had written “Clothes left in Hotel – please return to ……….” !
From Venice we sailed to Ravenna. City of Dante and mosaics, like Venice, built on a series of islands in a lagoon. It was here that the cobalt-blue sky and gold star mosaics in Mausoleo di Galla Placidia are said to have inspired Cole Porter to write his classic song ‘Night and Day”. On our visit ‘Singing in the Rain’ might have been more appropriate for it poured down. Thankfully the rain had disappeared the next morning when we reached Sicily.
Anchored in the bay of Naxos we looked across the shimmering sea to the shoreline of houses with their backdrop of mountains which themselves were dwarfed by the silently brooding Mount Etna. The noise from the busy traffic on the viaduct carrying the Catania/Messina autostrada did not spread across the water so the scene resembled an eerily silent moving picture postcard. I went ashore and was made aware of the sense of community which pervades the smaller Italian ports of call. A van selling fresh peaches, lines of washing on balconies, the fishing boats resting on the beach, doors left open and neighbours cheerily greeting each other. Life has been the same here for hundreds of years and everyone knows everyone else. Suddenly I realised what we miss by always visiting the big cities. Certainly there are works of art, famous architecture and historical monuments in Venice, Florence and Rome but it is in the smaller places that one feels a sense of ‘community’ and breathes the very soul of Italy.
I wandered along the shore line past the Church of Saint Pancras with a statue of ‘Himself’ in front According to the plaque nearby Saint Pancras was born in Syria but had travelled to the Holy Land and, witnessing Jesus’s teaching at first hand converted to Christianity and journeyed to Italy, making landfall at Naxos. And guess what happened dear reader? At the exact moment his feet touched the ground, all the pagan monuments of Sicily collapsed! Nothing so momentous happened when my feet touched the soil of Sicily (That’s why he’s a saint and I’m not) but, (and this is an example of how travel broadens the mind) until I read that inscription, I had only associated St. Pancras with the eponymous railway station in London – home to both Eurostar and the best champagne bar in the Capital!
Coincidentally, the area (around Sicily, not London) is home to three of the most fearsome volcanoes on our planet, Etna, Vesuvius and Stromboli. No, dear reader, don’t tell me you thought Stromboli was a form of pizza. Stromboli is MORE than a pizza. It’s a whole island and an active volcano to boot – we passed at night with flashes emanating through the darkness like bomb explosions – hard to believe people still inhabit its lower slopes – but they do, and Stromboli wine is highly prized.
Next was Sorrento. Every gondolier and Italian waiter knows the song! But the roll call of visitors to this picturesque gem, precariously perched on the cliffs above the Amalfi coast, sheltering from the glare of Vesuvius across the bay, reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of the arts. Lamartine, Stendhal, Byron, Ibsen, Rossini, Liszt, Goethe, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Caruso, Casanova (how did he get in?). Charles Dickens, Helman Melvill, Friedtich Nietzche and Axel Munthe came here as part of the ‘Grand Tour’ so beloved of European intellectuals who wanted to study Italian history, art and culture. We had the luxury of only two days here but it was enough for Sorrento to entwine us in its mystical web. When we parted we all were hoping, like so many before, that one day we would indeed ‘Torna a Sorrento’.
Our next stop was Sardinia, millions of years ago joined to Italy and home to the dwarf elephant. Today the elephants have gone and the sea has rolled in, turning Sardinia into an island. We had a wonderfully relaxing day, giving us the chance to recharge our batteries before our eagerly anticipated MAS shore excursion from Livorno the next day. A day in the Tuscan countryside, visiting Volterra, lunch at a typical farm (the wines and food all produced on the farm) and then to the highlight (literally – its way up in the mountains!) San Gimignano, designated by UNESCO a World Heritage centre (along with the Pyramids of Egypt and the Great Wall of China) and where I am to perform a private concert in the historic ‘Teatro dei Leggeri’ just for our group.
My thoughts turned to what type of piano I might expect there. Over the years I have had horrendous experiences with pianos. (And a cruel reader might opine that some pianos have had horrendous experiences with me!) My first experience of performing onboard a ship was the ‘Stella Solaris’. The ship was sailing out of Galveston and did not have a theatre piano, so prior to my arrival the owners acquired one in Houston. It had all the requirements an accountant looks for in a musical instrument but none that musicians would prefer. In other words it was the cheapest in the store and, for cash, there was a further 30% discount! During the first concert I noticed a ‘buzz’ on certain notes so, after the audience had left, looked inside. The tuner had left chewing gum stuck to some of the strings!
On another occasion, as a young ‘hopeful’ in my ‘variety act’ days, I had the horror of going on stage and finding the piano would not play! It was a quick stage set from the previous act and the stage hands had pushed the piano on by putting their weight behind the strip of wood which protects the front of the keys. The pressure had forced the wood against the keys and locked them into the up position. Only a sledge hammer could have depressed those keys. But the incident which will remain in my mind long after all this has been erased – and one ‘for the book’ when I eventually write one – occurred onboard ‘Cunard Countess’ years ago. I had arrived from ‘QE2’, where I was practically resident, to be greeted by a worried John Butt – the executive Cruise Director for Cunard Line. “Brooks, we have a problem - but we’re working on it” They didn’t have a piano! Necessity is the mother of invention and John had a brain wave. True, there was no piano in the passenger area but he remembered a derelict instrument in the Crew Mess - and around this decrepit lump of abused furniture he sought solution and salvation. The deck hands were summoned and with much heaving of shoulders, deep breathing, gnashing of teeth and ‘expletives deleted’ the sorry object was hoist into view. This piano was not sick – it was terminally ill. Its innards used as a repository for beer cans, cigarette butts and general crew detritus. The woodwork was a mass of stains, chips and scratches. The piano from ‘Titantic’ would have been in better condition.
Those were the days when problems were solved onboard and Head Office were kept out of the paper trail until all was well. John went into conference with Douglas Ward, now the highly respected editor of ‘Berlitz Guide to Cruising’ but then the onboard manager of Shore Excursions. Together they were an unbeatable team. Douglas looked at the piano as a plastic surgeon might survey a 90% burns victim in need of skin grafts. ‘I have a solution’ he smiled. And he did! Next time in Puerto Rico he returned to the ship with a role of Fablon. (this is a shiny, resilient wallpaper-like covering used to line drawers and even cover floors) By the time they had finished ‘fabloning’ the piano, Liberace could have lent his name to it. Following the performance the audience stood and cheered and a lady came up looking inquisitive. ‘Tell me’ she said thoughtfully’ What type of piano is that”? I was about to say “A load of S**t” when Douglas, standing nearby interrupted, ‘Oh Madam’ he said, pride choking his voice, ‘Madam, I’m SO glad you noticed, that piano is one of our hidden jewels – it’s a GENUINE FABLONI”. I was petrified, stunned into nervous silence, surely he’d gone too far? But No, the lady was smiling happily! ‘How wonderful’ she murmured, ‘You know – I thought it was”! I was reminded of advice I received from an old pro when I mentioned I was going to try showbusiness. “Brooks, always remember that in in showbusiness people listen with their eyes’!
Interior. Teatro dei Leggieri, San Gimignano
So what type of piano did I find in San Gimignano? Answer: A Concert Grand Bösendorfer!! Oh joy of joys, the Rolls Royce of pianos. You just don’t expect to find two hundred thousand dollars worth of superbly maintained musical instrument in a tiny theatre, (seating for 120) perched on top of a mountain. It would have been more at home in Carnegie Hall. The Italians have a propensity for glorious gesture and complete lack of practicality – and I love them for it!
Needless to say, our MAS private tour was a major success. One of the best EVER. – All thanks and credit to John and Rose who came up with the idea and planned it meticulously from their home in California. (editorial comment: John and Rose had been to San Gimignano and Voltera on several occasions and love this area of Tuscany. John scouted out the venue for this Music at Sea concert on our Sept. 2007 Music at Sea cruise.) We were blessed with a fantastic guide, Prisca, a mine of information who, as we drove through the Tuscan countryside on that crisp clear day with flocks of birds flying over vines bathing in the early morning sunshine, taught us that the leaning tower of Pisa was leaning because it was built on marshy ground (there are leaning towers in other parts of Italy including 2 in Venice). She commented that anyone seen drinking cappuccino after 11 in the morning is clearly identified by Italians as a tourist and that the Tuscan olive trees, although smaller than their counterparts in Spain and Greece, produce the best oil in the world. Her tip: read the bottle label. It should state ‘Extra Vergine’ and ‘Produced in Italy’. Don’t fall for ‘Bottled in Italy’ as that’s produced outside the country. If you see IGP on the bottle you will know the olives were picked from the tree by hand (not swept up from the ground) and cold-pressed within 24 hours. So that’s the one to go for!
We were in Livorno overnight so Dave, Patricia and myself went to sample the local cuisine. ‘My’ restaurant was shuttered but we struck lucky in that we found a place that had been in the same family for 80 years. Once more we were aware of the differences in food and food names between regions. Dave ordered a marinara sauce with his pasta expecting the fish and tomato puree variety served in the USA. Here it came without the tomato but with oil. Dear reader, I don’t wish to bore you but this reminded me of my experiences with Italian doughnuts! In Livorno a doughnut is called a ‘bombolone’ in Naples it’s a ‘graffa’, in Civitavecchia something else and once, when I ordered ‘bombolone’ at our hotel in Merano – the waiter served 2 fried eggs! Be warned!
And thus we came to the end of our Italian Odyssey. As we left Livorno we gathered to say our ‘Farewells’ and eagerly discussed when we might next say ‘Hello’. The loyalty and enthusiasm from the group towards ‘Music At Sea’ makes me emotional. Two of our members were on their third MAS cruise this year! Many of us will be reunited in January for a Caribbean/Panama cruise and also next March when we revisit ‘Azamara Quest’ for a China/Japan voyage. Future MAS voyages (shown elsewhere on MAS website) will take us to Egypt, Israel, the Mediterranean, Russia, Scandanavia, New England and South America. Dear reader, why don’t you join us?
I’ll leave you with an observation. The day we left Livorno we awoke to find the legendary yacht, ‘Sea Cloud’, moored alongside. Constructed in 1931 by the Wall Street tycoon E.F. Hutton for his wife the cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, ‘Sea Cloud’ - a four masted barque with 30 sails, most of them square-rigged, and a main mast 120 ft. high - is the largest private sailing yacht ever built. The interior has carved panelling, antique furniture and original oil paintings of old sailing vessels. The Posts and just six guests were looked after by a massive crew of 71 as they sailed the seven seas cosseted in luxury. I venture to suggest that if they were alive today and had been with us onboard Azamara Quest they would have been just as happy.
With warmest thoughts
London. October 6th. 2008.