discovering the hidden worlds of women composers

Archive for the tag “travel”

Goodbye Cambodia

Time to pack my bags. But first, some images from my time here, in no particular order.

The railway line at Kampot (no passenger trains, sadly, in Cambodia – and no gears on the bike); two margaritas (Happy Hour when travelling solo…); buffalo near Kampot; the requisite grainy, mis-shot image of Angkor Wat at sunrise; an Angkor queen who took my fancy; chilling at the Peace Café, Siem Reap; and last, but not least, three pictures from daily life in Phnom Penh: the man who sells breakfast pastries; National Road 1 at sunrise; and finally, Cambodia, land of contrasts.

Barbara di Santa Sofia

It’s been a busy couple of months, working through the suggestions of my editor, Sam Carter, at Oneworld – which can be satisfying (‘God, that bit was clunky – thank goodness he spotted it’); humbling (Sam suggested a bonfire of the howevers, and he was right – it’s an academic tic that is, nine times out of ten, completely unnecessary); and anxiety-inducing (every time I change a phrase, I sense that the whole book, or at least the whole paragraph, has lost its coherence). But it is done.

Leaving a gap in life, of course. I promptly filled it by heading, with my rucksack, to a dirty, beautiful city: this time, Sarajevo – more of which another time. Getting there took around three days by train – broken by a pastoral idyll in Slovenia at Lake Bohinj – but any journey which starts with the night train to Venice is a good journey in my book. Passing through the city, and indulging in my favourite Venetian past-time (sitting at the back of a vaporetto) I snapped a picture of Santa Sofia, the church in Canareggio which Barbara Strozzi was christened back in 1619. On my return to Oxford, there was just time to add in a few more sentences to the book, sentences which simply could not have been written (at least by me) unless I had been to the place itself.

Santa Sofia’s date of foundation is hazy, perhaps as early as 886, perhaps not, no matter, myth is powerful in Venice, but by Strozzi’s own lifetime the records show that it had already been rebuilt twice, first in the early thirteenth century, and then again in the composer’s great-grandparents’ generation. Now, in the late seventeenth century, Strozzi saw her baptismal church once again restored. Santa Sofia would then burn to the ground; be rebuilt; suffer suppression under Napoleon; be sold to the Jewish community; and re-open as a church. Despite or because of all the re-buildings, the church’s façade remains unfinished. Not only that, it is hidden, now by the priest’s house, but as early as 1500 by the encroaching buildings. The campanile, once taller and more elegant according to the evidence of a woodcut of 1550, is now chunky and the interior is plain by the standards of Venice, not least because on its suppression most of the church’s riches were dispersed, amongst them a Veronese Last Supper. Santa Sofia, half-hidden by the buildings that crowd around it, stripped of its glories, such as they were, and with little obvious beauty to it, is hardly a tourist magnet, but it endures, rising from the ashes again and again.

santa sofia 1550 santa sofia june 2015

Then again, I suppose I don’t really need to travel to see the past. There are other ways to get that sense of lived experience, to catch glimpses of the environment in which writers and musicians and artists do their work. In recent weeks, I’ve been searching for illustrations that would bring this out, and, when it came to the chapter on Francesca Caccini, I didn’t want another classic, ostensibly timeless view of Florence – although the terrace at San Miniato happens to be one of my favourite places on the entire planet, and when one is tired of looking down on Florence, and beyond to the Appenines, one is tired of life. I wanted an image that would act as a reminder of a living city, in which music, amongst other recreations, happened on the streets, just as much as behind closed doors. I came across a painting of a calcio Fiorentino (Florentine kick game): a early form of football (still called calcio of course in Italy) being played in the square of Santa Croce in Florence, just a few days after the performance of Caccini’s opera up at Poggio Imperiale.

calcio fiorentina

The most striking features of the sport (gleaned from Wikipedia – where it is somewhat unclear as to whether this is how the game is played now, or was played then, but so be it) is that it is/was played on sand, had a narrow slit for a goal which ran the width of each end, and that each team comprised 27 – twenty-seven?! – players who were allowed to use both feet and hands to pass and control the ball. Goals (or cacce) are scored by throwing the ball over into the netting at the end of the field. (I cannot resist, at this point, linking to a quite brilliant piece of satire produced by Norway Women’s Team – 2:30 mins is particularly relevant…)

I love this image of seventeenth-century street sport because it’s a reminder of just how blurred the boundaries between everyday life and sport/games were all those years ago – and I think the same was true for music-making.

Next stop: Sarajevo.

The Search for the Modern Explorer

Expedia are looking for The Modern Explorer ( – and sorry, people, the competition is now closed…) and they’ve asked me to be one of the judges. The winner will retrace the journey from Portugal to India made by Vasco da Gama some five hundred years ago. One of the ideas behind Expedia’s competition is that the reasons we travel, and what we (and others) gain from travel has not changed much over the centuries – it’s just that we communicate in different media these days.

It’s my long-term relationship with this guy Image that has got me on to the judges panel, I think. In the words of the interviewer on Woman’s Hour, ten years ago now, I’m a Sir Walter Ralegh groupie, not least because he was not only an explorer – and supporter of explorers – but a superb writer as well. Thinking about Sir Walter, which is no hardship, one of the many things that made him exceptional for his time was his realisation that new media – in his case, print – was his friend. He, in effect, created a PR campaign for his quest for El Dorado – no matter that he completely failed to find the golden city (he didn’t even find a workable gold mine), his inspiring, eloquent account of the expedition up the Orinoco was designed to finance the next expedition – and the next. Compared to Francis Drake who did, I acknowledge, circumnavigate the globe (but couldn’t and didn’t write anything worth repeating about it) there’s no contest. Sir Walter may have failed to finish pretty much every project he turned his hand to (from finding El Dorado to completing ‘The History of the World’ – incomplete, but still 1400 big pages long), but, not only did he travel hopefully, he had vision and the ability to communicate that vision to others.

What of the prospective Modern Explorers? I’ve been enjoying learning more about the finalists – it’s quite interesting to see that the vast majority are female, even though the publicity for the competition focuses on the male explorer tradition (as does this post – and what follows…so, just for the record, I’m not throwing stones from my glass house here, just noticing…) and it’s exciting trying to find the perfect mix of engaging personality, great communicator, and intrepid traveller.


Judging the entries has made me think about the writers who influenced me when I was younger. The single most important book was Full Tilt by Dervla Murphy. It redefined the art of the possible for anyone reading it – but particularly a girl from the London suburbs. You could just get on your bike and keep going. On your own. And rely on the kindness of strangers. I have continued to read Dervla Murphy over the years, but it is an earlier writer (more writer than explorer really, although with a huge courage all of his own) who, in one of his earliest books, articulates what, for me, are some central truths about travel. This is Robert Byron, in First Russia, then Tibet, recording journeys made in 1931-2.

As a member of a community, and an heir to a culture, whose joint worth is now in dispute, I would discover what ideas, if those of the West be inadequate, can with greater advantage be found to guide the world.

It’s a far cry from Vasco da Gama’s motives for exploration – one recent book about him is simply called Holy War. Byron continues:

And to this end, I would also know, in the language of my own senses, in whom and what the world consists. […] it is only from the sum of isolated journeys that even the shadow of an answer to [these questions] can ever be expected.

Byron knows that most of us are unlikely to gain much insight from our travels – his cynicism fuelled by being an adolescent in the first world war, and witnessing as an adult the slide into the second. But he has hope. To those who say that travel is pointless

the traveller can only reply that at least he desires to know more and more about more and more.

And he also knows that travel is not all about gaining profound insights and stopping wars – it’s about travelling with your friend on ancient roads – although they are new to you – in a beat up old car with that all-important crate of whisky at your side. Inspirational.

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