Pleasant travel surprises (Part 7)

This item appears on page 18 of the October 2021 issue.

Ron Carlson of Lakeland, Minnesota, asked ITN subscribers to write in about serendipitous experiences that they had while traveling outside of the US. We’ve been sharing a few stories each month since the April issue, and this time we’re presenting a few more about being in the right place at the right time.

On our June 1991 tour of Spain, my husband, Carl, and I stayed in Salamanca in a hotel with a view of the Plaza Mayor. It was a Saturday night at the end of a long week of touring, so we went to bed early.

The plaza soon filled with people eating and visiting. At about 1 o’clock in the morning, we heard male voices singing “Guantanamera.”

Rushing to our window, we saw university students, dressed in the traditional black capes and leggings and playing mandolins and guitars, circling the square and serenading the public, a tradition called “tuna music.” (The name “tuna “refers to a vagabond student lifestyle and was later applied to the music these students sing.)

Hanging out our hotel window, with tears in our eyes, we listened to the serenading for several memorable hours, even though we needed our sleep.

Lorna Tjaden
New Hope, MN



In February 2015, after traveling 32 hours from our home in Florida, my husband and I arrived about midnight in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The first day of our 6-week trip was scheduled to be a rest day, so we stayed close to our hotel, walking only a few blocks, in order to acclimate to the 12-hour difference in time zones.

We were resting in a park when a gentleman came over, introduced himself as Phuc and offered to buy us a cold drink. We were a bit apprehensive about his intentions but came to realize he just wanted to practice his English.

While communication was a challenge, we were able to determine some facts about him and relay some about ourselves. Phuc was a musician who was teaching at an academy we had passed on our walk to the park. He played a couple of his compositions on a guitar for us before pulling out a wooden flute and playing some more-familiar Beatles tunes.

Having the cold drink necessitated a potty break, and he escorted us to the public toilet and even paid the fee for us.

There was another park across the street that was set up for a big Tet celebration. Phuc talked our way onto the grounds without our having to pay because he was in a band that would be playing later that night. We were able to see the exhibits there without a crowd.

Before we bid him farewell, he invited us to his concert later. We were too tired to attend but thanked him for his kindness.

Libby Cagle
Homosassa, FL



Elton John and David Furnish in Venice. Photos by Sally Kevers

My husband and I were exploring the backstreets of Venice during an Italy visit in mid-May 1996. After a while, we decided to head back to Piazza San Marco for a glass of wine and some relaxing music. On our way there, we entered a small square that was packed with people. There was a buzz in the air. Something clearly was about to happen.

Most of the people were Italian, and everyone I tried to converse with spoke little or no English, so I couldn’t determine the reason for the crowd’s being there. My husband doesn’t suffer crowded spaces, and after about five minutes he said, “You’ll know where to find me with a glass of wine in St. Mark’s Square!” But I decided to stay and see what all the excitement was about.

Soon the doors to a building opened and an entourage of people came out. They formed a line, and one elegantly dressed man began to greet a stream of other elegantly dressed Italians as they entered the building.

The buzz increased as a fancy, canopied gondola slowly came up the canal and docked. Out stepped Elton John, resplendent in a neon-yellow silk suit with red, blue, magenta, green and white accents scattered all over the material. He and his companion, David Furnish, made their way to greet the host and go inside.

By this point, I had realized that this was the grand opening of a new Versace store, and the host was Versace himself.

I took a lot of pictures that afternoon.

Sally Kevers
Roswell, GA



My late husband, Bill, and I always preferred independent travel because it gave us wonderful opportunities to have lagniappe experiences. These “little something extra” occurrences contributed many lasting, poignant memories.

• Many of our special surprise events were centered on music. Our first trip to Europe, in July 1993, was made magical when we exited Restaurant zum Eulenspiegel (Hagenauerplatz 2, Getreidegasse) in Salzburg, Austria, and heard a beautiful a cappella choir singing in front of Mozart’s birthplace nearby.

The blended voices echoed through the almost deserted Old Town streets, quickly drawing a large crowd of admirers, who soundly booed the police who eventually came to stop the performance because of complaints by nearby residents. (It was sometime after 10 p.m.)

The police relented and allowed the choir one more song, which was a lively rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The audience and choir finished this joyous song together as one voice, with much applause and many smiles.

• In Prague in July 1998, we were eating at a small outdoor restaurant when eight ladies, who were visiting from Germany, gave us all a free concert. They also were practicing for a performance to be given later.

• In October 2002, while in the Church of Our Lady in Bruges, Belgium, to see Michelangelo’s sculpture “Madonna of Bruges,” the church was suddenly filled with beautiful music performed by a choir of young men. They were a German group, and their leader was eager to test the acoustics of the old church and hear how the group sounded. Their music was perfectly performed.

After the older boys finished, they were replaced by a group of very young boys, maybe 8 or 9 years old. Their younger, higher voices were equally inspiring. The two groups then united and sang several moving, thrilling songs. The entire group ended with a lively American spiritual tune that brought smiles to all who had attended their impromptu concert.

• On a trip to the French Riviera in October 2010, upon exiting the Matisse Museum in Nice, we were treated to another concert by a men’s choral group practicing for a concert. The area around the exit formed a sort of bowl, with high curving walls, and they wanted to hear how their voices blended in such an atmosphere.

• In May 2015 at our timeshare in St. Johann im Pongau, just south of Salzburg, we were awakened by loud explosive sounds. Upon opening the window, we were startled to see beautiful fireworks spreading brilliant colors in the distant mountains. We were mesmerized for over 30 minutes as the sound-and-light display filled the seemingly deserted mountains. We were told later by the hotel staff that this was a customary way to celebrate a wedding in the area.

It is possible that we might have had these extraordinary experiences while on group tours, but it would not always have been possible to linger and talk with the locals and hear their stories or sit and drink with them and, for example, learn old German drinking songs.

We may have missed historical details while traveling on our own, but we were able to see the great art in the world’s finest museums at our leisure and always could stay as long as we would like, without having to hurry to catch the tour bus.

Phyllis Harlan
Oklahoma City, OK



On a walk around Sofia, Bulgaria, in 2018, my husband, Richard, and I decided to follow a few people into an old Eastern Orthodox church for a cool respite, the weather being warm for late September. As we wandered closer, we noticed we were in the middle of a wedding ceremony. We tried to leave, but others had crowded us in, so we stayed to watch.

The bride and groom, wearing gold crowns, received a blessing from the priest. Then they each slowly walked three times around the altar, finishing by kneeling together and leaning their heads toward each other — a romantic sight.

After the priest gave them his blessing, they stood, turned around and bowed to the assembled guests. Everyone applauded, the doors were thrown open, and the newlyweds pranced down the aisle.

We tried to make a hasty retreat, not wanting to intrude any further, but at the door we were shunted to one side with other guests, since the exit down the steps was entirely blocked by onlookers and photographers.

The bride and groom stood at the top of the steps and opened a large cage to release a dozen doves into the air. The doves fluttered around, landing on the grass and bushes or perching on people’s heads. One landed on the bride’s outstretched hand.

Children laughed in delight, and everyone was charmed. It was a beautiful and joyous occasion that, by chance, included us.

Kitty Chen Dean
New York City, NY



It was August 1960 in Palamós, on Spain’s Costa Brava, at that time still a rough fishing village only beginning to morph into today’s collection of upscale seaside condominiums.

I wanted to find an interesting way to return to London, where I had a teaching job about to resume after the summer holidays. I wandered into the only travel agency in town and appended myself to the line of folks, most buying tickets for a popular sound-and-light program nearby.

In halting French (I did not speak Spanish), I asked about trains from Palamós to Carcassonne for the following week. As the overworked travel agent pored through her train schedule, a voice from the line behind me said, “I’m driving to Carcassonne that day and will be happy to give you a ride.”

The man was tall, handsome and, like me, American. We met later for coffee and made plans about times to depart.

To make a long story short, I not only rode to Carcassonne but stayed aboard his VW bug for a week, all the way to Paris via Avignon, Grenoble, Annecy, Geneva and Troyes.

I returned to London and he to California. Telephone calls and many letters crossed the ocean. We were married the following summer, and on July 21, 2021, we celebrated our 60th wedding anniversary.

I’d call this a pleasant travel surprise, wouldn’t you?

Peggy Zeigler
San Francisco, CA