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Saturday, January 17, 2015

How many of the "World's Best Places for 2015" do you plan to hit this year?

Pretoria Square, Palermo
Recitative, Giovanni da Procida
Palermo! O my country!
Country so regretted!
The exile greets thee after three years of absence!
On thy enchanted shores I had my birth.
I discharge my debt toward thee.
Here is liberty!
Aria, "E toi, Palerme!" ("E tu, Palermo!")
And thou, Palermo, o beauty that's outraged!
Thou, always dear to my enchanted eyes,
ah! raise thy face, bowed under servitude,
and become again the queen of cities!
Everywhere on foreign ground
I went seeking avengers for thee,
but, insensible to thy misery, each said:
"Rise up against your oppressors,
and you will be supported: Rise up!"
And I come -- there I am!
And thou, Palermo, etc.

Samuel Ramey (bs), Giovanni da Procida; Munich Radio Orchestra, Jacques Delacôte, cond. EMI, recorded April 1988

[in Italian, as "O patria! O cara patria" . . . "E tu, Palermo"] Nicolai Ghiaurov (bs), Giovanni da Procida; London Symphony Orchestra, Claudio Abbado, cond. Decca, recorded January 1969

[in Italian, compressed to fit one 78 side] Ezio Pinza (bs), Giovanni da Procida; orchestra, Rosario Bourdon, cond. Victor, recorded Feb., 17, 1927

[in Italian, compressed to fit one 78 side] Tancredi Pasero (bs), Giovanni da Procida; orchestra. Odeon, recorded 1936

by Ken

Okay, it's possible that I was motivated to share this feature from AARP, "World's Best Places for 2015," because two of the designated places have inspired such memorable musical effusions, starting with the one we've just heard, the emotional return of the exiled Sicilian patriot Giovanni da Procida to the Sicillian capital of Palermo, his hometown (No. 6 on the list) at the opening of Act II of Verdi's Les Vêpres siciliennes" (The Sicilian Vespers).

Our other musically rhapsodized destination is China's Hunan province (No. 10), the much-missed home of the imperial lord chancellor Ping in Puccini's Turandot, who sings so rhapsodically about his house there on "a little blue lake all surrounded with bamboo." I suppose I might have tried to slip in something from Bizet's La jolie fille de Perth (The Pretty Maiden of Perth), except that the Perth there is the original one, in Scotland, not the namesake capital of Western Australia (No. 3).

No guidance beyond the individual recommendations is provided as to what makes these places in particular the 11 "best places for 2015," but it's certainly an, er, interesting assortment. The number is convenient -- you can hit all 11 and still take a month off from vacationing. And of course you'll want to hit all 11, because while these may be the "world's best places for 2015," who can say they won't suck for 2016?

1. Albanian Coast

Albania, tucked between Greece and Macedonia, offers a European feel at palatable prices. Sunbathe on limestone-ringed beaches on the Adriatic Sea, explore ancient ruins and abandoned forts, and kayak past Cold War submarine tunnels. Dine on fresh fish as you watch the tide come in.

2. Faroe Islands

You're in for a treat any time of year when you visit these beautiful islands northwest of Scotland and halfway between Iceland and Norway. Boating and hiking are stellar; wildlife abounds. And here, on March 20, is one of the two places on Earth where you can witness a full solar eclipse.

3. Perth, Australia

Perth, the capital of Western Australia, is known for its beaches and aboriginal heritage. But now it's catching up, with trendy cuisine brought by international chefs to repurposed venues such as stables and cottages, and neighborhoods filled with cafes and boutiques. A riverside project is infusing the eastern side of the city with parks, shops, housing plazas, posh hotels and restaurants.

4. Yorkshire, England

England's largest historic county is well wortha visit these days. There is the state-of-the-art National Media Museum in Bradford, the sumptuous Victorian spa town of Harrogate and Haworth, of Brontë-famly fame. News flash: Yorkshire has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other English county outside London.

5. Istanbul, Turkey

As one of the few cities in the world to span two continents, Istanbul has always been a place where myriad cultures mix. What's more, its colorful history stretches back so far that even the ancient Greeks considered it old. Today, it's also one of the most affordable cities to visit, with amazing shopping in bazaars -- where bargaining is a must -- and reasonably priced, authentic accommodations and mayhanes (traditional restaurants). It's also become known for its cutting-edge fashion, art and nightlife.

6. Palermo, Italy

Been to Rome? Perhaps it's time to sample Sicily's capital city, Palermo. It's a European destination on the rise, with sophisticated wine-tasting venues, markets with some of Italy's best street food, the idyllic seaside village of Mondello and many low-key, independent hotels. You can get around the rest of the island by rail, but the best way to explore is by car -- to sample fragrant orange groves, majestic ruins, incomparable blue skies and moonrise over Mount Etna.

7. Bangkok, Thailand

Its reputation as a booming, bustling capital sets this Asian city apart, as does its delicious, wildly inexpensive and remarkably fresh food. Transportation and glorious Thai massages are consistently cheap -- and usually high quality -- enabling you to explore Bangkok on a shoestring while still enjoying the high life.

8. Tulum, Mexico

Mexico is a large country with many wonderful cities and towns worth visiting, but there's something about this small beach community that makes it especially appealing. Mexican culture and laid-back attitudes abound, as does deliciously simple food. It's hard to imagine the rustling palm trees, warm breezes and calming Caribbean waves not leaving visitors enchanted and renewed.

9. Cordoba, Argentina

For those taking a new interest in Jesuit history with the election of Pope Francis I, there's no better place for an exploration than in Argentina, his birthplace. And the center of the city of Córdoba, named a UNESCO World Heritage site, is splendid with 17th-century Jesuit structures, including Argentina's oldest university, and the tolling from more than 80 bell towers and churches. When you're done with history, take tango lessons or slip into the student scen in a lively bar or two.

10. Hunan, China

A river town in Hunan
At the start of Act II of Puccini's Turandot, the trio of Chinese imperial ministers -- the baritone Ping (the lord chancellor) and the tenors Pang (the major-domo) and Pong (head chef of the imperial kitchen) -- prepare yet again for the latest in the endless series of suitors for the hand of the beauteous Princess Turandot, subjecting himself to her infamous trial-by-riddles, meaning a feast if by chance the latest victim succeeds (which, if history is any guide, he won't) or more likely a funeral. Lamenting the draining nature of their imperial service, Ping longs for his house in Hunan "with a little blue lake all surrounded by bamboo," prompting Pang and Pong to dream of their home turf.

PING: I have a house in Honan
with a little blue lake
all surrounded with bamboo.
And here I am, wasting my life,
wearing out my brain
over the sacred books.
When I could go back there
to my little blue lake
all surrounded with bamboo!
PONG: Go back there!
I have forests, near Tsaing,
than which none are lovelier,
but their shade is not for me.
I have forests
than which none are lovelier!
PANG: To go back there!
I have a garden near Kiù,
that I left to come here,
that I’ll never see again!
THE MINISTERS: And here we are,
wearing out our brains
over the sacred books!
PONG: And I could go back to Tsaing . . .
PING: And I could go back there . . .
PANG: And I could go back to Kiù . . .
PING: . . . to enjoy my blue lake . . .
PONG: Tsaing . . .
PANG: Kiù . . .
PING: Honan . . .
all surrounded with bamboo!
PONG: . . . and I could go back to Tsaing!
PANG: . . . and I could go back to Kiù!
-- English translation by William Weaver

Mario Sereni (b), Ping; Piero de Palma (t), Pang; Tommaso Frascati (t), Pong; Rome Opera Orchestra, Erich Leinsdorf, cond. RCA-BMG, recorded July 3-11, 1959

Mario Borriello (bs), Ping; Renato Ercolani (t), Pang; Piero de Palma (t), Pong; Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala, Tullio Serafin, cond. EMI, recorded July 9-15, 1957

Fernando Corena (bs), Ping; Mario Carlin (t), Pang; Renato Ercolani (t), Pong; Orchestra of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia (Rome), Alberto Erede, cond. Decca, recorded 1955

Vicente Sardinero (b), Ping; Rémy Corazza (t), Pang; Ricardo Cassinelli (t), Pong; Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg, Alain Lombard, cond. EMI, recorded 1977
The Chinese government is planning Sky City, the world's new tallest skyscraper (almost 33 feet taller than Dubai's Buri Khalifa). A network of superhighways, high-speed trains and a host of direct flights all bring the cities of this province, the birthplace of Mao Zedong, within easy reach of travelers. Take in the stunning scenery, rich cultural attractions and fine food.

11. Cape Town, South Africa

The Mother City of South Africa has gradually been cultivating its cosmopolitan side. it underwent a major makeover in time to host the 2010 World Cup but has since seen a dip in its tourist trade -- making it a great destination for travelers keen on bargains and real-deal local experiences, And worth any traveler's time, a ferry to Robben Island to pay tribute to the late Nelson Mandela.


AARP has also offered "15 Under-the-Radar Vacation Destinations" chosen by Michael Alan Connelly of Fodor's Travel. You'll have to double up on these if you want to get to all 15 of them this year, but again, who knows if they'll be any good for 2016?

1. North Stradbroke Island, Australia ("less than 20 miles from Brisbane")
2. Hainan Island, China ("popular with Chinese and Russian tourists, but mostly unknown to other travelers")
3. Hocking Hills State Park, Ohio ("most notable for its waterfalls and dramatic rock formations")
4. Koh Lipe, Thailand ("island paradise in the Andaman Sea")
5. Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska ("home to the Brooks Range and six rivers")
6. Kobarid, Slovenia ("picturesque town in the Soča Valley . . . surrounded by majestic mountains and green pastures")
7. Schönau am Königsee, Germany ("popular for health resorts and winter sports")
8. Rangiroa, French Polynesia ("essentially a strand of coral surrounding a beautiful lagoon")
9. Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia ("approximately 20 lakes plus breathtaking caves, forests and waterfalls")
10. Ulan Bator, Mongolia ("a good place for exploring one of the world's most beautiful and hospitable countries")
11. El Djem, Tunisia ("well-preserved architecture from the days of the Roman Empire")
12. Anguilla, the Caribbean ("a decidedly low-key escape")
13. Sanliurfa, Turkey ("Turkish legend has it that Abraham was born in a cave here")
14. Virunga Volcanoes, Rwanda ("acive eight-volcano chain . . . with incredible views and . . . wildlife")
15. Lombok, Indonesia ("the splendor of Bali without all of the crowds")

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