Music. I just love the stuff. If there is one recurring theme that tends to dominate my travels, it’s the quests to root out live performances. Much like the art of travel itself, music is an infinite source of adventures and new experiences, the range of what’s out there being so vast that nobody will ever discover all of it. In all the concert halls, live music bars, genre-specific clubs and other types of venue I’ve been lucky enough to encounter, there are a few that stand out in the memory for one reason or another. Encompassing several European countries and various contrasting genres, here are some truly unforgettable music venues that are unlike anything else you are likely to find.
L’Arena di Verona (Italy)
Ask someone to name an ancient Roman amphitheatre, their answer will probably be the Coliseum. Ask them to name an opera venue in northern Italy, they will most likely come up with Milan’s super-expensive La Scala. Having visited the two much-hyped attractions (the latter only for a wander in the museum and a wistful look at the empty stage, my wealth insufficient to take in a show there), I can honestly say that as an amphitheatre and venue respectively, both are trumped by the spectacular Arena di Verona.
Still standing after all these years, Verona’s amphitheatre makes for a fascinating visit and photo opportunity during the day, but its real appeal lies in its ingenious adaption to a more modern and less bloodthirsty form of entertainment than that for which it was originally intended. With a small portion of the pit and a large section of the original viewing area now functioning as a colossal stage, the majority of the circular arena in which lions once tore people limb from limb is now given over to the priciest seating area. Those looking to enjoy a concert or opera on a budget will still have a superb view from the stone seats, although it is highly advisable to bring cushions if you want your bum to come through unscathed!
My three visits to L’Arena di Verona include a collaboration between Lang Lang and Herbie Hancock, piano-playing giants of the worlds of classical and jazz respectively, backed by an orchestra. The phenomenal acoustics reaffirmed that these ancient Roman architects really knew what they were doing, while the rapturous applause and thunderous foot-stamping was testament not only to the excellence of the musicians on display but also to the exuberance of present-day Italian audiences.
The other two occasions on which I’ve ascended the stone steps of Verona’s amphitheatre have been enough to make me understand why, despite a varied programme ranging from orchestras to rock bands, opera is what the Arena is primarily known for. With a splendour that simultaneously causes jaws to drop and neck-hairs to stand to attention, showings of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida and Georges Bizet’s Carmen left me unable to imagine anything more gripping than witnessing an opera in this venue that so magnificently combines grandeur and authenticity. And if any proof were needed that the vast majority of the audience were similarly enthralled, the semi-conscious humming-along to Aida’s ‘Grand March’, the deafening silence which followed Carmen’s stabbing scene, and the long-lasting standing ovations punctuated with ecstatic roars of ‘Bravi!’ are just a few examples.
Farock, Faro (Portugal)
Of all my unusual travel experiences, none have been more surreal nor more absurd than my overnight stay in Faro on Portugal’s south coast. With a morning flight to England to catch, my only option in terms of getting across the border from my current home in Huelva, Spain was to board a bus that travelled through the early hours of the morning. Arriving at about 2am, the best way to keep myself amused until the airport buses made a start to the new day was to pull an all-nighter, with the Algarve city’s nightlife providing an extremely welcome surprise in the shape of a very dark and cavernous rock bar.
A sign outside Farock advertising it as a venue for live rock and blues caught my eye instantly, giving me the impression that there was something here for me in the midst of all the booming nightclubs (the latter never having been my cup of tea). Despite the hour being somewhat on the late side for live music, when I entered and availed of a cheap beer there were two guitarists having a jam in front of a handful of friends and intrigued onlookers. One made a one-way trip from the stage to the bar before too long, but the soloist continued to play, totally engrossed in his electric guitar. And as I sat there admiring the power and fluency of his playing, another instrument lying on the stage started to dominate my attention…
For quite some time I sat there, thinking it would be great to pick up that bass lying unused on the stage and have a jam. Realising that wistful thinking is not what special memories are made of, I decided to stop wishing I were on stage and actually do something to achieve this impulsive goal. Picking up the bass and having a brief play with it, the guitarist stopped, turned to me looking only slightly puzzled, and asked ‘¿tocas?’, which I took to be the Portuguese for ‘Do you play?’ With my almost complete lack of any of the local language, I tried to explain in a combination of Spanish and hand signals that being a lefty limited my capabilities on a right-handed instrument, but that we could jam some blues. That we did, my clumsy navigation of strings which were upside down compared to what I’m used to (I play guitar and a bit of bass, but with the strings especially arranged for a left-handed person!) just about sufficing to accompany his virtuosic improvisation.
With the thickness of its walls, and their close proximity to each other, Farock struck me as great place to have raw, powerful rock music send energy pumping into its tightly-packed audience. Its size, or lack thereof, will undoubtedly result in it filling up quickly, but the way in which the music carries on after it has officially stopped really gave me a sense that is both run and frequented by people with a deep passion for what they do. For my next visit to Faro, checking out this bar in full action, with a live band, is the number one priority.
Peña Flamenca la Orden, Huelva (Spain)
If you’re a foreigner in Andalucía, trying to find a genuine, authentic flamenco performance can sometimes feel like searching for the crock of gold at the base of a rainbow. With the region’s bigger cities hardly lacking in watered-down, priced-up flamenco clubs that will leave tourists with regrets about how their pockets have been lightened, the real thing tends not to be as well advertised, relying on loyal locals rather than those who flock from afar.
However, by no means have strong, raw performances honouring the southern Spanish tradition been replaced by bland imitations. Peña Flamenca La Orden is one of several venues in Huelva city, and one of many throughout Andalucía, in which the music on offer will send shivers down one’s spine. With its long tables, sizeable stage and walls adorned with paintings of many of the genre’s icons, the intimacy of this peña (a Spanish word for an association or club dedicated to a particular field) truly makes visitors feel as if they have joined the club.
What’s more, appetising tapas and drinks are available at a price that is not only staggeringly cheap but often the only fee to be paid, with many performances not insisting on ticket purchases. With differing combinations of singers, dancers and guitarists filling the stage on Friday nights, the intense passion of the audience is matched by the friendliness of many of its members, who are delighted to engage in conversation with any outsiders sufficiently capable in the local language.
The larger, more centrally-located but less intimate Peña Flamenca de Huelva also has Friday night as its regular slot, while some excellent shows also take place at the nearby beach town of Punta Umbría. The peñas’ respective Facebook pages are usually the best way to ascertain whether or not there are any upcoming events, although La Orden’s page is frustratingly inactive. One word of advice is not to take start times too seriously; it’ll start when it starts, and the experience will make the lack of punctuality worthwhile!
Hohensalzburg Fortress, Salzburg (Austria)
If chamber music is your thing, here you can combine it with stunning views over the city eternally famous both for the filming of The Sound of Music and the birth of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The fortress itself is well worth the uphill walk – the arduousness of which shouldn’t be underestimated – and can also be reached by cable car. Anyone ascending for a concert should get there early in order to explore the fortress and take in the panoramic sights before grabbing a seat in the charming Golden Hall.
With nightly performances from various types of chamber ensemble, the emphasis is very much on late eighteenth and early nineteenth century repertoire, Mozart ironically featuring far more prominently in his hometown than he ever did during his lifetime. Having ventured to the top of the hill myself one July evening, I was rewarded for my walk in the baking sun with a programme of Austro-German classical masters Beethoven, Haydn and the local boy as well as turn-of-the-twentieth century Czech nationalist Antonín Dvořák.
The performers tend to be of the young and up-and-coming variety, their proficiency a testament to the continuing strength of the classical music scene in these parts. The regularity of the concerts is likely to make their playing occasionally drift into a going-through-the-motions exercise, but in general they maintain the required energy to keep the listeners engaged.
Many readers will probably wonder why the Hohensalzburg Fortress is so special. After all, string quartets, piano quartets and various other similar combinations perform everywhere. There probably isn’t a city or large town anywhere in Europe these days in which the music of Beethoven, Mozart, et. al isn’t brought to life on a regular basis. That being said, having attended many classical concerts in many different venues, this one sticks out in the memory for its combination of intimacy, a sense of adventure, historical interest and the feeling of being close to the source of so much music. Above all, there is something refreshing and invigorating about the way this source continues to thrive and that the music continues to grow, flourish and blossom.
Vienna is known the whole world over for its waltzes, operas, lavish orchestral concerts, and for being the adopted home and city of opportunity for just about every renowned composer of these repertoires. During a three-day stint in the Austrian capital I made the most of the opportunity to immerse myself in its famous classical music scene, sacrificing financial frugality in favour of extravagant feasts of Strauss, Vivaldi and Mozart. However, the surprise package of my stay, and arguably the most memorable experience came under the ground in a cave-like bar filled with music of a different genre.
Given its name, there’ll be no prizes for guessing what kind of club Jazzland is. Its small size and its evident popularity mean that getting a seat is no easy task, but the chance to sit mere feet away from some sublime musicians giving it their all makes it more than worth the effort. With admission fees and drink prices that couldn’t be described as cheap but are very reasonable for this flamboyant city, any who descend the steps and squeeze themselves into the crowd somewhere are likely to see Jazzland as a prized find.
I was lucky enough to attend during the Vienna Jazz Festival, which takes place in the middle of summer and draws in some big names from overseas. The African-American singer who took to the stage on that particular July evening was superb, as were her accompanying trio of a drummer, bassist and pianist, the latter’s solos being particularly noteworthy. The acoustics being sufficiently excellent to make the entire room shimmer with every note, this jazz club is the type of venue that makes its spectators feel as if they are not simply witnessing a musical performance but truly feeling, experiencing and living through one.
Be it jazz, rock, folk, classical or any other style, music exists, lives and breathes on every part of the planet. Wherever you are, there will undoubtedly be countless chances to enjoy a live show of one kind or another, some of which will leave permanent marks within the memory. With the magnificence of Verona’s amphitheatre, the raw adrenaline which flows through Faro’s rock bar, the passion to be felt in Huelva’s flamenco peña, the graceful beauty of Salzburg’s hilltop fortress and the magical ambience of a Viennese jazz club, the five venues described have all created memories that will neither be replaced nor superseded. Despite the multitude of live venues in the world, some just have something extra.