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Buen giorno, Italia: Classic Chorale tours Italy

When it rains in Florence, umbrella vendors appear as quickly as mushrooms.

That's one travel nugget documented in a journal kept by Erich Knapp, director of the Park Rapids Classic Chorale. Thirty-two members of the chorale and their guests recently returned from a 10-day performance tour of Italy's premier houses of worship.

Knapp's journal is a richly detailed travel guide about the people, places, open air markets, wineries, basilicas, monasteries and a 1,000-year-old church the choir visited. But he devotes special attention to the food, sights, smells and acoustics of the country and buildings, especially the meticulously maintained pipe organs.

To hear Knapp tell it, the chorale ate its way through Italy, feasting on local delicacies and as much gelato as they could savor.

At one point Knapp notes: "I am too full for gelato (did I really just type those words?)"

They balanced the caloric intake with miles of walking the narrow streets daily, a concept the Food Network might want to endorse.

But their faithful guide and translator, Valerio, admonished them that "it would be a shame to visit Italy and not gain some weight."

Knapp's journal is more than an epicurean epistle. Food is secondary to Italy's vivid religious surroundings, the Roman coliseum, the Sistine chapel and the Pantheon, at which the choraliers performed an impromptu concert during a thunderstorm to cheers of "Bravo!" by onlookers.

Describing a trip to worship at the Saint Antimo Monastery, Knapp writes: "Restraint is the word of description of everything here. There is no gift shop and there is nothing that is not essential to the daily life of the Benedictine monks and worship. The altar is adorned with huge bouquets of gathered wildflowers, which are stunning in their simplicity...

"The interior pillars are a pale, creamy white. The local stone used for much of the space is partly travertine and partly alabaster, treated with an ochre-colored powder mixed with a fish derivative to help protect the stone from the wear of time, a practice popular in the Middle Ages."

There are moments of humor documented as well. Due to a scheduling mix-up, the Sistine Chapel Choir tells Chorale members they need to leave because the local singers will perform the Vespers service at St. Peter's Basilica, not the Minnesotans. More than 10,000 attended the Mass.

The Park Rapids group was worked into the schedule eventually. They now boast that the Sistine choir was their "opening act."

The Chorale did bring in several "ringers" to join them for the tour, college students from Minnesota who rounded out the chorus.

But they bonded like family during the trip. One unfortunate member discovered her passport had been stolen just as the group was departing so the chorus chipped in money to help her stay behind until she could arrange for new paperwork and a rescheduled trip home.

"We sang four concerts in various churches and cathedrals and that was exciting," said Pat Light, a member of the Chorale who went on the trip with her husband, Bob, another Chorale member.

"I enjoyed the way we all intermingled and cared for one another and became acquainted in a better way than we had before," Light said.

Knapp notes that this bonding actually enhanced the performances, and he engages in a bit of hubris in his journal. "We sounded marvelous!" and similar effusive comments punctuate each performance. But his love for his singers is infectious even to those who didn't make the trip.

Each person paid his or her own way on the tour. This is the second trip abroad the group has taken. Three years ago members performed in Prague, Austria and Germany. They're already talking about their third trip, sometime in the future.

For the Lights, the trip was special in another way. They celebrated their 55th anniversary surrounded by beautiful scenery, good friends - and, of course, wonderful food.

The 40-voice Park Rapids Classic Chorale will present its rescheduled spring concert (canceled due to a deluge of snow, not because they were galavanting abroad) on Sunday, June 8, at 3 p.m. at St. John's Lutheran Church in Park Rapids.

Knapp writes in his journal that they will be happy to discuss the trip after the concert to anyone interested in the country - or the cuisine.