Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Review: King Roger Opera, Melbourne

Having a happy life is all about balance, it seems. But that’s not as easy to achieve as it sounds, especially when it comes to balancing intellectual impulses against carnal, pleasure against self-control.

That’s the issue at the core of King Roger, a Polish opera from 1926 (Król Roger its original Polish title).

Its composer, Karol Szymanowski, knew well the tensions caused by extremes: as an aristocrat in an age of revolution, and a gay man in a time of sexual repression, he lived the conflict that’s played out on the State Theatre’s set.

And what a set. For the first two acts, the stage is dominated by a huge model of a head, perhaps representing the human mind that’s about to be subjected to psychological turmoil.

For into the rationally-ruled kingdom of King Roger comes a shepherd who is also a holy man, preaching a new doctrine of free love and sensuality, prioritising the pleasures of the body over the stimulations of the mind.

I couldn’t help but be reminded here by Rasputin, that contemporary of the composer who bewitched the Russian royal family and helped bring about their downfall.

The king is torn, condemning the preacher at the same time he is swayed by his all-too-human lust, represented on stage by athletic, writhing near-naked men performing an erotically charged dance on the lower levels of the head’s multi-storey interior. It’s a salacious nod perhaps to Szymanowski’s own conflicted sexuality.

It all ends in tears, of course. By the start of Act III the preacher has seized power, the head has been burnt to the ground, and Roger has been cast out without his beloved queen.

The revolution of pleasure is out of control, books are being burnt, and it’s only by baring his soul to the rising sun that the deposed king is able to seek redemption.

The Opera Australia performers do a fine job in what must have been a difficult production to master. I speak some Polish and I find it difficult enough to pronounce it correctly in everyday speech, let alone in song.

The set, with its giant head and symmetrical galleries, is a clever way to portray a psychological struggle in physical form, and the 1920s-era costumes are simple but effective.

As for the story, I suspect we all feel a little like Szymanowski in these difficult times – as if it’s easy to give in to excess, and balance is near-impossible to achieve.

King Roger continues at Arts Centre Melbourne until 27 May 2017. Click here for more info or to make bookings. [Credit: photos provided by Opera Australia, taken by Jeff Busby.]

Friday, 19 May 2017

Eastern Sleeper: Night Train from Kiev to Warsaw

I paid for my own train fare from Ukraine to Poland.

In June 2016 I caught the night train from Kiev, Ukraine to Warsaw, Poland.

This was a full overnight journey (and then some). I boarded at 16:48 at Kyiv-Passazhyrsky station and alighted at 09:10 the next morning at Warszawa Centralna.

It was what you might call old-school European train travel. I'd paid extra to have a 'single', ie the whole compartment to myself.

My bunk was in a sealed sleeper car (with no connection with the rest of the train, and no dining car). My carriage attendant was an impressively tall Ukrainian woman with no English who made me a cup of tea while I dined on sandwiches bought at the station in Kiev.

Then there were the theatrics along the way. A couple of hours waiting at the border in the dim pre-dawn light while Ukrainian border guards searched for smuggled cigarettes, and loud clanking sounds accompanied the adjustment of the train's wheels from the Ukrainian to Polish gauge. Loads of atmosphere!

Despite all this I did get some sleep, and attendant Natasha as I came to think of her (I never did get her name) happily posed for a photo on the platform at Warsaw.

I heartily recommend the Kiev-Warsaw sleeper or its shorter Krakow-Lviv counterpart if you yearn for a little of that old-fashioned night train travel with a dash of intrigue.

Here's a selection of photos I took on the journey:



As it's not possible yet to book these trains online, a reliable service I'd recommend to book these services ahead on your behalf is Polrail. Bon voyage! Or as the Ukrainians say, Щасливої подорожі!

Friday, 12 May 2017

The LA You Don't Know

This article was originally written for the magazine of a travel agency, which was later bought out and never published it. So here it is, for your enjoyment (Disclosure: I've generally been assisted by the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board when visiting LA).

If you ask travellers what they know about Los Angeles, they’ll mention some obvious elements off the top of their heads. There’s Disneyland, of course, and the Pacific coast. Hollywood, the home of the movie industry. And linking them, plenty of spaghetti-like freeways.

These are all there, of course, but there’s much more to LA once you take the time to explore its lesser-known districts and its quirkier attractions. Here are several things to try when you’re next in the Californian city.

Eat a French Dipped Sandwich

This classic sandwich has been a popular LA treat since 1908, and the best place to eat it is Philippe the Original. An old-fashioned diner on the edge of Chinatown, it boasts retro decor, sawdust on the floor, and an old-school candy counter.

Its famous French Dipped Sandwich was created when a roast beef sandwich was accidentally dropped into a roasting pan. The customer who ate it loved the result, so since then the beef-and-gravy sandwich has been on the menu.

Nowadays it’s prepared with a rich jus which has been rendered from roasting pan drippings and beef stock over two days. Eat it with pickles and potato salad at one of the long timber tables, maybe with a beer on the side.

Soak Korean-style

West of LA’s Downtown is Koreatown, a sprawling neighbourhood populated by migrants from South Korea. It’s a great place to try Korean food, of course, but also to immerse yourself in a jjimjilbang.

The main attraction of this traditional Korean bathhouse is its series of heated baths. They’re segregated by gender, and it’s an all-nude experience – no swimming costumes allowed. After soaking, patrons get dressed in the provided T-shirt and shorts, and head to the communal relaxation areas which offer dining and entertainment options.

One of the best places to experience the Korean bathhouse in LA is Wi Spa, located near MacArthur Park.

Stroll along Broadway

In past decades the Downtown district was a dodgy part of Los Angeles, and best avoided. Now it’s returning to its past glory as gentrification takes hold, and is worth visiting for the impressive old cinema facades along Broadway.

Owned by the city’s famous movie studios a hundred years ago, these picture palaces were once the showcases of Hollywood’s finest output. Now they fulfil a variety of uses, from shopfronts to live music venues, and some still screen films.

At 10am each Saturday, the Broadway Historic Theatre and Commercial District Walking Tour heads along this street, showing off its architectural highlights.

Meet a Different Kind of Star

There are plenty of stars in Hollywood, but you can raise your eyes to the original stars at Griffith Observatory. Situated on hills overlooking Los Angeles’ busy sprawl, this scientific complex is a beautiful example of art deco architecture.

Acting as an astronomical museum, its interior includes exhibits both old and new, along with a planetarium. From the outdoor terraces there are great views over the city, and you can also spot the famous Hollywood sign.

Carry a Tune in a Music Hub

On the western edge of the Downtown is LA Live, a complex of entertainment venues and restaurants. Within its contemporary architecture you’ll also find the Grammy Museum, dedicated to every aspect of music.

Over several levels, visitors learn about music genres from rock to soul, via interactive displays and audio recordings. There are also exhibits dedicated to particular singing stars.

See a Real Spaceship

The California Science Centre is the home of many fascinating exhibits involving science and nature. The most impressive of these by far is the Space Shuttle Endeavour. This enormous real-life spacecraft is suspended above the heads of visitors, allowing for a sweeping view of its sleek exterior.

Beyond this spectacular sight, it’s also possible to get up close with the early years of space travel. Encased within transparent shells is a Gemini 11 space capsule, and an Apollo capsule similar to the one that first took men to the Moon. For some hands-on excitement, you can also experience a mission within a Space Shuttle simulator.

For more details of LA's attractions, visit DiscoverLosAngeles.com.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Poutine! The Best in Montreal & Quebec City

For my 2013 visit to Quebec I was hosted by the Canadian Tourism Commission.

On my most recent visit to Montreal and Quebec City with Narrelle Harris, I had a bright idea.

Poutine! Visit a number of places serving the classic Quebecois dish comprising chips, gravy and cheese curds, and rank them according to highly scientific categories.

So I did. These were the results.

1. Méchant Boeuf, 124 Rue Saint-Paul Ouest, Montreal

Decor Wannabe nightclub
Vibe Loud and energetic
Fill factor Far bigger than expected for a side
Score 3 (out of 5)

"Wicked Beef" is a noisy lively place with a dimly-lit restaurant area and a bright bar lit from beneath, with people rushing around and lots of loud conversation. Not a great place for a first date, but a great place to eat a burger, or seafood from the raw bar.

It doesn't specialise in poutine, instead it comes as a side to the burgers and other dishes. We order a burger with poutine as a side, expecting it to be something small. Instead we get an excellent tasty burger done medium, with a large plate of curds, chips and gravy in the classic style.

We feel we have to eat it before the burger, or it will go cold – and it looks like the kind of dish that shouldn't be eaten cold. It's tasty though not quite as hot as could be, topped with a non-conventional serve of pulled pork.

The only problem is, once we tackle the poutine, it's difficult to eat a whole burger.

2. Montreal Pool Room, Boulevard Saint-Laurent 1217, Montreal

Decor Minimalist diner with a long steel counter and photos of famous Quebeckers who've dropped in
Vibe Trucker stop
Fill factor Perfect late-night drunken fill-up
Score 4 (out of 5)

This century-old institution in the former red light district (actually still somewhat red light - there's a strip-teaseur joint across the road) serves up simple fare. Its highlight is the hot dog steamé, a steamed sausage in a bun with toppings including chopped cabbage and onion, and relish.

It comes, of course, with an optional serve of poutine. I order the combo of two dogs (they're fairly small) and poutine with a drink [see photo above], and focus on the poutine first.

Served in a polystyrene container, it's a sizeable serve of chips, gravy and curds. The curds are nicely firm, the chips aren't too soggy and the gravy is hot; so hot that I burn my lip, a hazard for the novice. On the counter are shakers of cayenne pepper and salt, and I apply the hot stuff to pleasing effect.

After that, the dogs are almost an anti-climax, plain-tasting in soft buns. It's a good combo; but I think the poutine upstages the dogs.

3. La Banquise, 994 Rue Rachel Est, Montreal

Decor Colourful tables and jumbled architecture
Vibe Cheap and cheerful
Fill factor Good way to refuel before hitting the Le Plateau district's very walkable streets
Score 4 (out of 5)

We hit this 24-hour poutine emporium about 9am on a Sunday, when it's nearly empty except for a steady stream of taxi drivers pulling in for a post-shift feed.

What else to order but a breakfast poutine? There are several options including one with the kitchen sink, Le Cassoulet, but I order a version called L'Ensoleillée involving chopped up bacon and sausage mixed in with the poutine, and a serve of scrambled egg on top.

It is, as you'd imagine, even more filling than a standard poutine (if that's possible), with the full, comforting flavour of bacon and sausage clearly evident. It's like a full English Breakfast has been broken down to its constituent parts and added to chips, curds and gravy.

Narrelle chose La Savoyarde, poutine with bacon, onion, Swiss cheese and sour cream. She said it reminded her quite a lot of her Dad's version of bubble and squeak.

4. Chez Ashton, 54 Côte du Palais, Quebec City

Decor Reinvented '50s diner
Vibe Colourful but quick
Fill factor Filling and nominally healthy
Score 4 (out of 5)

Quebec City is often visited after Montreal, and so many locals have told me to try Chez Ashton that we give it a go when we drop into town. Some say this place is the best poutine in Quebec, or at least the best in the provincial capital.

I'm confronted with a poutine menu offering just three choices: standard poutine, Galvaude (with chicken and peas on top) and Dulton (with spicy mince).

I go for the Galvaude, reckoning that the peas will allow me to regard it as a health food. It's actually very tasty, and the combination of chicken, peas and gravy, along with the chips and cheese curds, makes it taste not unlike a Sunday roast chicken and pea combo that your grandmother might have cooked up.

The gravy is particularly tasty, not too salty or thin, and it's a satisfying end to my poutine adventure.

As much as I enjoyed it, I don't feel the need to eat poutine again for a very long time. Or at least not until I next visit Canada.