Guided visit to the Colón Opera House in Buenos Aires

What do vanilla wafers and Teatro Colón have in common?

Opera!

Teatro Colón seen from 9 de Julio Avenue
Teatro Colón seen from 9 de Julio Avenue

Teatro Colón is Argentina’s leading opera house, opened in 1908. Opera is also a popular brand of vanilla wafers made by a company called Bagley. They were launched in 1906 under a different name but the manufacturer decided to change it to Opera to honor the magnificent new opera house. Both have delighted generations of Argentineans to this day.

My mother and I took three of my nieces on a guided visit of “el Colón,” as it’s affectionately known. Our guide, Javier, was a delight. The tour started at the main entrance hall, on Libertad Street. This is where the other half makes a grand entrance. The more humble ticket holders go in through the Tucumán and Viamonte side entrances. It’s been this way ever since the opera house was opened in 1908.

Main entrance hall
Main entrance hall

The main focal point of the hall, the grand Carrara marble staircase, symbolizes the link between the mundane and the world of the arts. The columns that support the ceiling are covered in different kinds of marble: red from Verona, yellow from Siena and pink from Portugal. The stained glass window is from Paris. The building, eclectic in style, was inspired by the great opera houses of Europe.

We mounted the stairs, worthy of the scene where Cinderella loses her crystal slipper, towards the Hall of Busts. Theatre-goers use this area during the intermission to stretch their legs, have drinks, chat, while Bizet, Beethoven, Rossini, Gounod, Mozart, Bellini, Verdi and Wagner look down from high up.

Classical composers keeping an eye on the public
Classical composers keeping an eye on the public in the Hall of Busts

Javier told us that, in the past, the season was very short; it lasted for the winter only. The reason was that only time the European companies were able to travel to South America was during their summer. When the season finished, the Teatro Colón was closed until the following year. All this changed in 1920, when the Colón’s orchestra and ballet company were created and the season lasted from March to December. However, the Teatro Colón hosted a number of internationally renowned artists like Luciano Pavarotti, Igor Stravinsky or Maya Plisetskaya.

The lavish Golden Room sparkles, glitters and glimmers. Every surface is covered with gold leaf, gold dust paint and big mirrors. The floor is Slavonian oak. Thanks to the restoration undertaken between 2001 and 2010, the name of the artist that painted the linen ceiling was discovered. It was a Monsieur Romieu, forgotten or unknown for decades. The Golden Room is used for master classes, auditions and more intimate concerts.

All that glitters is gold
All that glitters is gold

We then moved on to the splendid concert hall. Our guide asked us to be very quiet. There was an audition going on and we didn’t want to disturb the candidates. We silently filed into one of the boxes, sat down and enjoyed part the audition. It felt like a privilege.

We were in an official box used by various authorities on special occasions. The President and the Mayor have their own boxes at either side of the stage, in a location called avant-scène. In the past, the widows could not be seen in public, so if they wanted to enjoy the ballet or the opera, they had to sit behind black railings inside enclosed boxes. Of course, widowers had carte blanche to have a merry old time.

Concert hall
A candidate belting out during the audition. The widows’ boxes can be barely seen in the bottom right-hand corner.

The hall can seat up to 2,400 people. 300 more people can stand in the upper levels. Its horseshoe shape and open boxes mean that the sound can travel freely, making for almost perfect acoustics. The giant chandelier weighs a ton, literally. The renowned Argentinean artist Raúl Soldi painted the inside of the dome. There is a narrow corridor around the dome, well hidden from view, where musicians and singers can create special effects, like a chorus of angels coming from above. I wouldn’t be able to climb up there, let alone carry an instrument!

And for good measure, an old Opera commercial. I shouldn’t say old because I can remember watching it! The quality isn’t very good, I’m afraid, but the sentimental value is there.

Go to Teatro Colón website for more information.

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One Trip EVERY Month Challenge: Reunion Tower, Dallas

Marianne, over at East of Malaga, came up with a new challenge. It’s called “One trip EVERY month” and it’s about sharing a trip. It can be an international trip or a local one, that place in your hometown you’ve been meaning to visit but never got round to going.

For the February challenge, I chose the Reunion Tower in Dallas, the city where I live. The Reunion Tower was built in 1978 and is part of the Hyatt Regency Hotel. There is a fine-dining restaurant at the top but, although we said we should go sometime, we never did, as well as an observation deck.

Follow the arrows to the tower
Follow the arrows to the tower

Now my sister and my nieces are in town for a visit. The other day we were driving around downtown Dallas. Actually, we were planning to go to a park and I missed my exit on the highway. I took one exit at random and made a big loop back to where we were supposed to go. We happened to drive past the Hyatt and I said “Forget the park and let’s go up the tower!”

It was an exciting experience for all of us. For them, because they’ve never been to Dallas before and for me, because it was my first visit to the Reunion Tower.

Hyatt Regency @ Reunion Tower
Hyatt Regency @ Reunion Tower

We bought our tickets ($16 for adults and $8 for 4-12 year olds) and had our handbags inspected by a security guard. Then the photographer took a group photo and gave us an Access ID. With the ID we were able to see our photo on a computer upstairs, play with the background and email it and share it on social media for free.

Downtown Dallas
Downtown Dallas

The 360 degree of downtown Dallas is spectacular. There are interactive touch screens all around it with information about landmarks, the city and so on. The girls had a great time playing with the real time cameras and my sister and I enjoyed seeing them have fun.

The Margaret Hunt Bridge over the Trinity River is behind the jail.
The Margaret Hunt Bridge over the Trinity River is behind the jail.

We went outside but the wind was bitterly cold, especially at that height (158 metres-over 500 feet.) we lasted long enough to take a couple of photos and then rushed back inside.

Way too windy and cold outside!
Way too windy and cold outside! I should have wrapped my pashmina round my neck and put gloves on.

There’s a café called Cloud Nine one level above the GeoDeck (the observation platform) and the restaurant is one more level up. It rotates every evening so all diners can enjoy the great views of the Big D.

Having visitors to entertain and show around makes me think like a tourist in my own home. I enjoy exploring where I live and finding new places to see and activities to do. The excitement of exploration also helps stave off homesickness for a while.

Looking out the window at the Cloud Nine cafe
Looking out the window at the Cloud Nine cafe
300 Reunion Boulevard East- Dallas TX 75207
Hours:
Sundays to Thursdays 10 AM-10 PM
Fridays-Saturdays 10 AM-11.30 PM

My Istanbul: Hagya Sophia

It was a 15 minute walk from our hotel down Ordu Caddesi (Turkish for street) to what became my favourite place in Istanbul: Sultanahmet Square. There’s so much history that my head was sent spinning a few times. Where else can you sit down for a rest next to a column built in AD330 to celebrate the inauguration of Byzantium? Constantine Column is located in Ҫemberlitaş not too far from the Grand Bazaar.

Haghia Sophia bathed in winter sunlight
Haghia Sophia bathed in winter sunlight

Istanbul has a long and interesting history. According to legend, Greek colonist Byzas founded a colony in 667 BC known as Byzantion. In 64 BC it was incorporated into the Roman Empire as Byzantium. In AD 324 Constantine the Great became emperor and moved the capital from Rome to Byzantium, which became known as Constantinople. On May 29, 1453 Sultan Mehmet II the Conqueror invaded Constantinople after a long siege. He later rebuilt the city, which was from then on known as Istanbul.

Further along the street from Constantine Column is Sultanahmet Square on the right and Hagia Sophia on the left. I had been looking forward to seeing Haghia Sophia for a long time. Luckily for us, there were relatively few people queuing up outside (it was late December). We bought a museum pass (MüzeKart) for 85 Turkish liras, which is valid for 72 hours at all public museums and, most importantly, helps you avoid long lines.

The imam used to preach every Friday from the minbar. To the left of the minbar is the mihrab that points in the direction of Mecca
The imam used to preach every Friday from the minbar. To the left of the minbar is the mihrab that points in the direction of Mecca

The interior of Hagia Sophia (first a Christian church, then a mosque and now a museum) is striking. There are so many amazing things to look at: the calligraphic roundels in golden Arabic script, the upper galleries, the upper galleries, the mosaics, the painted ceilings, the marble columns and the light. It was a sunny day –the only sunny day of our week long stay- and beams of sunlight shone through the windows creating a magical effect.

Hagia SophiaIMG_3598

Haghia Sophia, the church of Holy Wisdom, was built in the 6th century AD and inaugurated by Emperor Justinian and used as an Orthodox Christian place of worship. In the 15th century, the invading Ottomans converted it into a mosque. They added the minarets, fountains and mausoleums. In 1935, President Atatürk decided to convert Haghia Sophia into a museum. 14 centuries of history, art and religion are contained within these walls.

I am thankful that the Ottomans decided to conserve the mosaics –or at least they didn’t set out to destroy them- although they are Christian symbols. Despite the ravages of time, these mosaics are still beautiful.  I find it bewildering that someone had the ability to paint such stunning images with small colourful tiles: Byzantine emperors and empresses, Christ, the Virgin Mary. On a personal note, these mosaics reminded me of art class at school. The teacher had taught us the Byzantine mosaic technique using tiny paper squares. We had to draw a picture, cut up the paper squares from magazines and paste them onto the picture to colour it. It made me appreciate the Byzantine artists a lot more.

Mosaic depicting Jesus
Mosaic depicting Jesus
Haghia Sophia (Ayasofya,  unesco World Heritage Site) is located across from Sultanahmet Square, a few hundred feet from Sultanahmet tram station.
Summer hours (15 April – 1 Ocotber) 9 am to 9 pm
Winter hours (1 October – 15 April) 9 am to 5 pm
The ticket booth closes an hour earlier. Entrance fee: 25 TL
There is a café and public restrooms on the grounds.

Free SIM cards from O2 – all that glitters is not gold

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We arrived in Heathrow, London, two days ago for a family visit.

As we were making our way to the exit of Terminal 3, a young girl offered us free SIM cards from O2. I hesitated but then took one. She explained to me how to use it (stick it in your phone and top it up.)

I did exactly that. I inserted the SIM card in my phone and dialled 4444 to top it up. I entered the phone number and the credit card number. Then they asked for my postcode. I entered my Texas one because I was using an American credit card but was rejected.

I then tried online. This time, I entered my in-laws address and postcode. Rejected again.

I wonder if you need a British card only. In that case, it’s a really stupid idea to give out free SIM cards to foreigners at the airport since they will not definitely have a British credit card.

Beware of freebies. I should have known. I’m not the world’s greatest fan of Telefonica…

Rant over.

Colonia del Sacramento [Uruguay]

A potted history first

The tiny historic town of Colonia del Sacramento has a long and interesting history. It was founded on the shores of River Plate in modern-day Uruguay by the Portuguese in 1680. According to the official version, the idea was to stop the Spanish advances into Portuguese territory, but many historians think that, in reality, their aim was to take advantage of the lucrative smuggling activity that was taking place across the river in the town of Buenos Aires.

This didn’t sit well with the Spanish, who attacked the new settlement. And then they razed it to the ground during the war of Spanish Succession. The Portuguese eventually imposed their sovereignty, only to resign it in 1762 to the Spanish (who else?). Colonia became part of the Spanish Empire and then of Uruguay when it declared its independence in 1828.

A day trip to Colonia

Colonia sits across the river from Buenos Aires, only an hour away if you take the fast ferry or three on the slow one. I have to confess that I’d never visited this lovely place until our friends from Dallas said they would like to see it.

We sailed at noon from the Buquebús terminal in Buenos Aires (on the intersection of Avenida Cordoba and, well, the river). Buquebús is one of the ferry companies that offer daily crossings to Uruguay. What with the voyage and the time change (Uruguay is one hour ahead); we got there at about 3 pm in time for lunch. We chose a lovely restaurant but unfortunately, the parrilla (grill) was closed for the day so we had a chivito (a huge beef sandwich with lots of trimmings). We washed it down with a bottle of tanat, Uruguay’s flagship wine.

After lunch, we wandered about the historic centre. The older the street, the more irregular the cobblestones. The Calle de los Suspiros (Sigh Alley) is probably the prettiest and cheerful. Its low buildings are from the first colonial period and the river makes a beautiful background. I could almost see Portuguese galleons patrolling the waters, on the lookout for the Spanish enemies. Or drunken sailors taking a tumble on the big stones while trying to find their way back to their ship.

There are a handful of museums (Municipal, Portuguese Tile, Regional Archive, First People, Spanish and so on). We didn’t have enough time to visit them but I was told at the Tourist Information Office (located outside the port) that you can buy one ticket for 50 Uruguayan pesos, which gets you into all of the museums.

We did climb up to the top of the lighthouse, which dates from 1857. The views from the top are spectacular but it was quite windy. That and my fear of heights meant that I didn’t stay very long, only long enough for a photo. Below the lighthouse are the ruins of an 18th century Franciscan convent.

Colonia was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. It is a great place to wander about, enjoy some fresh air, and escape from the hustle and bustle of the big city. There is a photo opportunity everywhere you look.  The wide river, the colorful colonial houses, the flowers on the window sills, the typical streetlamps. Find a place to sit down and enjoy the peace and quiet. Granted, we were there on a weekday, however, I understand that weekends are more hectic. The locals are super polite and friendly and have that small town warmth that makes you want to stay forever.  I fell in love with our neighbors – I mean, with Uruguay. I want to go back for more.