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The Ship of Poles (& the Idiot Traveller)

We are a ship of Poles. 22 to be precise plus one Ukrainian, 2 Germans and one Australian.

We slip slowly down the river, in the Belgian winter fog, out of Antwerp bound for Cape Town via Porto, Vigo and Wallis Bay. Our ship, the six year old, 200 metre, 30,000 tonne, Blue Master 2.

Loading and leaving Antwerp + Antwerp port wind farm

I board the ship after two days in Antwerp, a fleeting visit to Amsterdam and a two hour pursuit of the immigration office around the port of Antwerp. In keeping with the tradition of something always needing to go wrong on every trip, the agents “Slow Travel” despite having to do little other than provide basic information in emails have clearly been unable to check that the immigration office is still at the address they have previously given.

Twas a foggy (and cold morning), leaving port, the pilot etc on the bridge

This, and the fact that they have failed to notify the security office of my passage aboard the ship, thus involving a long delay at the gate, adds $40 to my taxi fare, for which I shall seek my pound of flesh.

I cross the docks playing chicken with 100 tonne cranes, forklifts, trucks and a myriad of utes and other vehicles and board the ship. I am well prepared for my 27 day trip with 10 books loaded on my iPad, miscellaneous ideas for writing and a guitar to be learned (an exercise in wishful thinking judging by past experience). I also have Spanish, French and Italian grammar in case I find myself unable to sleep.

The security officer at the top of the gangplank summons someone to take me to wherever they plan to take me which turns out to be the ship’s office. There I am greeted by one of the engineers, who advises the crewman to summon the Captain and the Steward.

Most of the action, for those who are not working, takes place on the so-called “Poop” deck.

Aside from providing a degree of childish entertainment to passengers (aside from its English meaning, poop means to fart in German) this deck, one level up from the main deck is where the mess rooms, kitchens, and ships office are located. From here going up it’s up past “A” and “B” decks (crew quarters) and then on up to “C” where my cabin in located and “D” decks which are both accomodation for officers and elite passengers (Eduard and Renate – my German fellow passengers). Above this is just the bridge.

Further down are the four levels of the engine room and the two levels of holds and at the front the upper deck and the fo’c’sle.

Two many stairs, fixing the crane, the engine room and the engine

The fo’c’sle (otherwise known as the forecastle in normal English & formerly crew quarters) is the topmost deck right at the front. There is nothing here except for the structure for the forward radar (there are three radars of which the ship uses just one at sea, normally) and forward lighting structure, plus a few rolls of razor wire which, in certain ports are wrapped around the hawsers to prevent stowaways climbing the ropes.

From my perspective the fo’c’sle is the most important deck on the ship. Here at the front it’s entirely quiet save for the sound of the sea and wind. It’s also the best place for watching for dolphins, whales and flying fish among other things. In good weather one can make like Kate Winslet and stand meditating on the rushing water, wind and waves.

Chris trying to be karmic and the dolphin I summoned

Crossing the equator, there are thousands of flying fish and I also expend a myriad digital images trying to photograph them as they emerge from the water just in front of the bow and flit away across the ocean, effortlessly traversing 200 metres of water in a single flight.


These days, though, the ocean is a sadly empty place. We see just a handful of pilot or other small whales, two pods of dolphin and almost no birds aside from a handful of migratory swallows and a dozen or so terms and other seabirds which I don’t recognise.

Of the once mighty great albatross and the frigate birds which once used to haunt the path of all the large ships, there is not a single one. The ocean is a desert.


The ship is like a living, breathing thing. No matter where you are, except right at the bow, you cannot escape the sound or vibration of the engine, seven giant, Japanese made, cylinders powering the single prop. In addition to the engine the ship creaks and groans continually as it labours over the incoming swell.


From stern to bow the ship is 199 metres and to get to the bow one walks along the main deck five metres above water level. For me, at least, this is quite mesmeric; the rushing sound and motion of the passing water and the endless changing patterns and colours, light, dark and foam. Looking down into the water one has the sense as the dark patches swirl past of looking down to the centre of the ocean.

When not in ones cabin, the mess or fo’csle, the passengers spend most of the time on the bridge or passenger deck (deck D) soaking up the sun or sitting, on the bridge, with the watch officers watching the world go by.

Barbie on the passenger deck, the control panel on bridge, boat training

Our ship of Poles are a friendly bunch although almost all our interaction with the crew is with the Captain, Mariusz and the first (Bogdan), second (Sambor) and third mate (Kamil), the steward (Severin). Suffice to say their last names are unpronounceable, except perhaps to other East Europeans, as are almost all Polish last names. I get the sense that the passengers are tolerated, if relatively normal and not too demanding, as a sort of inconvenient added burden.

My two German fellow passengers, are Eduard and Renate. They are in their late fifties and make very good and humorous company. Eduard is a failed public servant – in the sense that he worked for the German Government for most of his working life as a senior overseas aid person in various places around the world administering and supervising German aid programs – but now sees all aid programs as largely a racist and paternalistic failure which, far from aiding developing countries actually hinders them.

Renate is a pharmacist and researcher and they are on their way to Namibia (Formerly German SW Africa) to do some research on the German history in Namibia.

The rudder control room, Renate and Eduard relaxing?, engine room

Unlike the entire rest of the world they view Angela Merkel as a German disaster story who is more interested in staying in power than anything else (they quote, for example, her decision to close the German nuclear industry which they say was not driven by good policy but to simply keep the Greens onside and thus keep her position). They think the German energy policy “Energiewende.” is a disaster and are climate sceptics.

Inevitably this produces some interesting breakfast and dinner time conversations, as we traverse the fields of politics, climate change, world wars, overseas aid, energy, human development, identity.

Eduard is quite talkative which is fortunate for him because he is able to compete with me while Renate is much quieter. They have an interesting dynamic no doubt developed over 40 or so years. As an example, Eduard, has a habit of saying to Renate at least a couple of times each meal “Correct me if I’m wrong….” which, of course she does, frequently and with alacrity. This seems to imply that Renate often thinks Eduard to be wrong.

The lifeboat with the 20 metre plunge, fixing the crane, boat drill (if we all stare at the life raft long enough it will leap over the side

Eduard and Renate have three children, Eduard II, Elsa and Marie. Eduard II lives in Luxembourg and is a currency trader or some other such activity designed to produce wealth but with no other discernible benefit to humankind. Apparently like the Americans there is something of an unfortunate tradition, in Germany, to name your first born son after his father.

I’ve always seen this as a very egotistical and patriarchal tradition that, I assumed was restricted to the US, like the vast majority of stupid practices. Leaving aside the questionable ego involved in naming your child after yourself (and the inevitable confusion involved), why does this seem restricted just to men? Why not Renate II?

I guess, once again, women are not so foolish.

Like all the best parents, Eduard and Renate are slum landlords, with an apartment in Berlin for which they extort large sums of money from their two daughters and, presumably, provide no maintenance in return.

The quid pro quo, however, for Eduard in particular, is that his eldest daughter, Elsa, is attempting to re-educate him in an attempt to make him into a good human being instead of a scion of capitalist, conservative, society. As a part of this she buys him books for his birthday which she thinks may improve his understanding of society. Currently he is reading “The Lies that Bind” – rethinking Identity (Creed, Country, Colour, Class, Culture). But it is not clear to me which of Eduard’s many failings Elsa is trying to address with this book.

Flying fish

Fortunately both Eduard and Renate appear to understand my sense of humour and Eduard takes the frequent jokes at his expense in good humour. The Polish crew members, on the other hand, seem someone bemused and, when some look a little put out, I have to assure them that I am only joking, it is just Australian humour which, frequently, relies on taking the piss. This seems not to translate well into Polish humour, however, or simply is lost in translation.

Others, less kindly, might simply argue that my humour it is not Australian humour, at all, but simply Chris Harris humour which is understandable to only one person on earth or is, perhaps, just not funny.

Aside from meal time entertainment the trip is largely taken up by sleeping, lying in the sun, reading, taking photos and writing. I started the trip with pretensions to writing for two to four hours daily and to producing, at the end, my best-selling Man Booker prize winning novel. Sadly the first week produces nothing but five or six desultory, five to ten page long first chapters, all of which end in the bin.

Porto street art

On day seven I decide that, given my inordinate success at novel writing, I will gracefully retire to writing my periodic blog based on a series of sequential events over several years. By day ten I suddenly realise this looks more like a memoir than several unconnected blogs and by the end of the second week I have written 50 pages.

Porto street art

From this their emerges, unasked a section which I, realise, would have the good makings of a novel. I then proceed to write an outline including the characters, their stories and the plot lines. Suddenly from nothing I have an accidental memoir and an accidental novel, or, at least, the first twenty pages – which is ten pages longer than I have every succeeded in getting previously. But, I caution myself, completing ten laps of a 100 lap race is no guarantee of finishing.

Porto

Aside from this the other events of note are a Saturday barbeque, a tour of the engine room and visits to Porto, in Portugal and Vigo in Spain. We get six hours in Porto which turns out to be sufficient to have a good walk around the old city and find a fine coffee shop and spot for lunch. Porto is a fine city with lots of gracious old buildings, wide streets and interesting old quarters which are decorated with good street art. But despite everyone’s ravings about it I don’t find it more or less interesting than a myriad other beautiful old European cities.

Porto

Vigo, the northeast most city of Spain, in Galicia, is the reverse. Despite being told it’s not very interesting I find it an interesting city of friendly people, wide gracious streets and people friendly boulevards. Importantly I also find a supply of organic crunchy peanut butter and six good avocados to substitute for the sausage breakfast.

Vigo

Our interesting tour of the engine room simply serves to demonstrate to me my ignorance of all things ship. This starts with the revelation that this ship, along with most large vessels, has a single engine and prop where I had always imagined they would all have twin engines and screws.

Vigo

The ship, built in China, has a Swiss designed, Japanese made engine and whereas I still had images of a dirty oily edifice, the engine and its surroundings are an immaculately clean and entirely computerised operation comprising its seven cylinder 11620 kw engine which consumes 28000 litres of fuel oil daily, a desalinating plant capable of producing 20,000 litres of drinking water daily, its own air conditioning plant, a workshop than can do pretty much anything other than repair a broken prop or drive shaft and several massive compressors for starting the engines and generators as well as other bits and pieces such as plant for separating oil from water.

The big beast (engine), Renate in engine control room, the air conditioning and the compressors

My cabin is a gracious and comfortable seven metres by six metres with ensuite, desk, table, wardrobe, TV, radio, drinks cabinet, dining table and chairs. This used to be the fourth officer’s cabin but like the rest of the transport industry crews have been downsized and have lost fourth officers and radio officers.

There is also a satellite modem connected to a piece of metal whirling around somewhere in the sky. With this I can communicate, via data, with the rest of the world for a cool 150 times what I pay for my internet ashore. So it’s limited to WhatsApp and email. A large attachment or photo, if one is so ill advised to download one, can set you back $1 a pop.

The bridge, water patterns, at sea, the crane (again)

One of the downsides of a life at sea, at least for those who are not engaged in the manual labour of constantly maintaining the ship, is that life is almost entirely sedentary with the sole exercise being that involved in climbing the endless flights of stairs between the main deck and the bridge, six floors up.

This lack of exercise is compounded by efforts to feed the entire crew into a stupor with three cooked meals a day. The food is what I would describe as canteen food. As such it is a mixture of the very good (soups for example) and stupendously awful (every third breakfast is a single Polish sausage which both looks and tastes disgusting). If you were a vegan you would surely starve. But given a single person has to cook for 25 people in a single sitting at the same time then it is a noble effort by Robert, the cook.

Walvis Bay – entry, the lagoon and some bush regeneration

In the event that 3 meals a day is insufficient, the pantry is always stocked with bread and meat which you can slip down and consume in case the late night hunger pangs suddenly hit your well engorged stomach.

One might imagine that one could do one’s daily 10,000 steps around the main deck but in reality the main deck is an obstacle course of pillars, protrusions and slippery decks that pretty much guarantee that anyone foolish enough to contemplate using it as an exercise area will quickly find themselves exchanging pleasantries with ones insurance company.

Not to be deterred we have noted that the ship’s owner has obligingly provided us with a gym and “swimming” pool.

Boat drill

It would be fair to say, however, that maintenance of the gym is not the highest budgetary priority for the vessel’s owners. The equipment consists firstly of six aerobic trainers that appear to have been purchased in a garage sale circa 1990. Assuming they were ever completely serviceable their physical decline appears remarkably similar to mine.

The rowing machine works not at all, much like my memory on a bad day. The two bikes are operational providing you have no desire to know things such as heart rate, distance, time etc. The weight resistance machines look as if Henry Ford used them to keep fit and the static weights appear to have been used for training by Dean Lukin (who won gold for Australia in weightlifting around 1980) when he was a child.

Unloading in Walvis Bay (taken from Cabin window)

Undeterred, you finish your session and look forward to a few cooling laps in the pool. Suffice to say that it’s possible that the average tadpole or small goldfish might manage to keep fit in the pool but for anyone over about a foot long swimming laps might prove to be awkward. In addition, unless, however, either of those animals had miraculously obtained lungs their ability to breathe would be somewhat constrained.

As for the crew and passengers, plunging into the plunge pool would tend to leave them winded or worse if they failed to notice that it was permanently empty. This is leaving aside the slight illogicality, in a ship traversing the tropics, of an indoor swimming pool in a windowless room below decks. Not to be deterred, however, one may pass a pleasant fifteen minutes in the sauna in the event that, the tropical heat, on deck, is insufficient. Or, that would be possible if the sauna was anything more than a lined timber box permanently at a temperature of 20ºc.

Having enjoyed the pleasures of the pool and sauna, I make a mental note to research the address of the German office of Fair Trading, or its equivalent, and write them a friendly note regarding the accuracy of the ship’s advertising.

Water patterns, on the dock at Vigo, Walvis Bay cricket pitch (all the best places have one) and my cabin

Given the situation of the gym and the main deck the Captain, Mariujs, has wisely decided that he will take his exercise on the bridge. He thus appears three or four times daily for a spin around the outer reaches of the bridge trudging his domain once every forty seconds or so in a clockwise direction.

Fortunately the remainder of our vessel appears to be in better shape than the gym, pool and sauna although, in the event of an emergency, it seems likely that, unless the emergency were catastrophic, the entire contingent of crew and passengers are more likely to be seriously injured by a prospective evacuation in the lifeboat than by the emergency.

Such an evacuation involves boarding what looks like a large orange slug perched some twenty metres or more above the ocean. On being released it hurtles uncontrolled at high speed off the ship, like some malfunctioning fairground ride, until it plunges at high speed into the sea. At which point every occupant presumably suffers severe whiplash at best, other than those with a fear of heights who will have both whiplash and PTSD as a result of being dropped, effectively, off a cliff.

Randomly: Sunet, the bow (the only quiet place), Porto and lunch in Walvis Bay

Our only obligatory task, as passengers, is to attend the weekly boat drill. The general assumption seems to be that the average passenger is a moron since, regardless of how many times one has done the drill, one is required to wait in ones cabin until the steward arrives to guide you to the muster station, 30 metres away. Here the three of us stand, among the crew, where we are instructed to “obey the Master’s orders”.

For most this might appear straightforward but, for me, it is a somewhat traumatic idea since I have spent my entire life disobeying my Master’s orders, no matter from whence they come.

In the event of a critical emergency, where obliged to evacuate, this occurs via rocket ship. One removes shoes, dons ones survival suit. Then you squat a somewhat amusing exercise if the entire crew were to do it collectively since it would look like some sort of communal bowel evacuation. All together now.

Cape Town – ocean pools and the beach

Then donning ones lifejacket you board the orange rocket ship. This particular rocket ship is not designed to launch one into space but, along with a maximum of 39 other people, so launch you semi-vertically downwards, twenty+ metres to the waters surface. Here, if it does not break apart, as the third office and safety officer, believes it is likely to do, you will hit the water surface with the impact of a speeding bullet and enable the medical world to study 40 simultaneous cases of whiplash and worse.

Alone, on the world’s oceans, far from land, in your orange rocket ship, you watch your ship go down and wonder if you will ever be able to turn your neck again which is currently lolling at at angle of 45º to port.

The likelihood of such an eventuality seems remote given the ship is just six years old and well maintained. The life of the average seaman (the ordinary seamen and the able seamen) is a never ending life of maintenance similar to the mythical maintenance of the Sydney harbour bridge where you start painting at one end and when you finish you go back to the beginning again. Everything has to be regularly sanded and painted or oiled and greased to keep rust at bay.

It’s a life of routine and, presumably, unless you have a mass of videos or a reader (I managed to read more books in a 27 day trip than in the previous few years) of some boredom. It is to some degree subject to unknown schedules determined by wind, tides and the exigencies of available berths and pilots – such that the ship can end up anchored or drifting off shore for days at a time as it once did for four days off Durban.

On day 18 we reach Walvis Bay the principal Namibian Port. This is very much a port city and pretty much everything is focused around serving the cargo ships and occasional cruise ships that call here to give their passengers access to the Namib Desert and adjacent nature reserves. From the point of view of entertainment it doesn’t have much to recommend it and pretty much comprises a single long main street and an esplanade with a bunch of good restaurants that service the tourists passing through on their way to elsewhere. Fortunately, for me, it also has a great coffee roasters and coffee shop. “xxxxxx” where I spend a pleasant couple of hours each day.

A twenty minute walk due west and one hits the Namib Desert but surprisingly, even in February, Walvis Bay is cool due to the mixture of fog and cloud created by the cold Benguala current and the cool winds blowing north from the Antarctic across the southern Atlantic ocean.

Having been both a German and, later, South African colony, when it was known as South-west Africa, until liberated in 1990 by SWAPO (the South West African People’s Organisation) it retains influences of both and there is still a significant non-Black population evident. Like Zimbabwe and South Africa it confronts similar issues with large areas of the country still owned or managed by the remnants of the former colonial powers.

We depart Walvis Bay late on Sunday night to a glorious sunset and the sight of two of the world’s largest drill rigs lit up like Las Vegas as they seek to find additional fossil fuels with which to put an early end to humankind’s current stay on planet earth or at least the existing technological society. It seems no number of calamities or warnings will stop the climate criminals.

From here it is two and a half days to Cape Town. For most of those two days we see little of anything due to the fog created by the Benguala current and the fact that it is flat calm and almost windless. Even the summer sun fails to completely burn off the fog at any time of day.

Greeted by whales, and Table Mountain

Arrival into Cape Town is a different story, however, with glorious sunshine, views of Table Mountain and a pod of whales to greet us.

Albania – Europe’s former recluse

They say that Einstein said that the sign of an idiot was doing the same thing twice (actually I think the word was repeatedly) and expecting a different outcome. This is the thesis of the Idiot Traveller. I am a world expert, while travelling, in repeating mistakes.

I command that you stop misquoting me…

I am also happy to go on accrediting the saying (in reality it was “Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results“) to Einstein, although there is no evidence he ever said it.

So having done little travelling in the last year it was important to follow the the creed of the Idiot Traveller. You start with booking your car, for pick up on arrival in Tirana, on the wrong day. Cost: an extra €30. You compound this by booking it for return two days after you leave, cost €60 (wasted). How does one do this? Buggered if I know.

Then based on these mistakes you book your car in Podgorica a day late and at the airport. Which isn’t useful when you are arriving by bus. Cost €20 (taxi fare) and €30 (extra days rental).

Then of course there is the small issue of leaving bits of my DNA everywhere. No, not in that sense. Two pairs of sunglasses, adaptor, hat, keys (requiring me to be rescued via a new set of keys sent by taxi). The list goes on. You’d think that after 55 years of travelling (yes I was first stuck unaccompanied on a plane at 8) that you’d learn to check twice before moving.

Arrival

So, our first job was to persuade the rental company to find a car a day early. This might have been easier if I hadn’t decided to try and entertain the rental car person with my witty repartee about drivers in Turkey and Georgia; asking him if Albanian drivers drove like Turks or Georgians (the thesis being that Turks are good drivers and Georgians are simply people in cars with a death wish).

That’s right. Jokes don’t work well in second languages. He looks at me strangely and replies “No they drive like Albanians. Here we are Albanians”

Panda 2 (right): cheaper to run and prettier

On finding we have a Fiat Panda and him asking if a Panda is ok for us. I tell him it’s fine. Cheap to run. Just find a patch of bamboo. That joke doesn’t work either. At which point Kaylee tells me I’m an idiot (traveller) and the car guy thinks so too.

Solitary confinement creates trauma..

Albania, was until 1991 Europe’s equivalent of North Korea. An entirely closed and paranoid society. Its long time leader, Enver Hoxha (pronounced Hodgeha) believed Albania was the only true communist society on earth and refused to even associate with Russia or China after they fell out.

Enver Hoxha – no longer able to poke his nose into other people’s business

No one was allowed to leave Albania and few people, if any, entered. The society was a police state with everyone subject to strict controls and surveillance. Any breach of the rules and everyone in your family paid the price.

If Albania were a person (Al Bania) he would be a very disturbed individual and this, perhaps, explains Albania’s many idiosyncrasies.

The House of Leaves

Albania’s trauma is well documented in a great little museum called the “House of Leaves” located in central Tirana just across from the orthodox cathedral.

Albania was, for fifty years, the archetypal police state. Every aspect of public and private life was controlled via the state security apparatus.

Tens of thousands of Albanians were recruited as state spies to eavesdrop and spy on their fellow citizens. Virtually no one was allowed to enter or leave the country. The society was completely closed. Everything was rationed. In 1991 there were a mere 3000 cars in the entire country (heaven!!)

The House of Leaves Museum tells the story of the ubiquitous state security apparatus. The walls list the thousands executed, imprisoned or persecuted by the state under the leadership of Enver Hoxha (pronounced Hodgeha).

Mercedes for everyone

One of the first things one notices about Albania are the German cars, especially the Mercedes. For a poorish European country it has a remarkable number of expensive cars. That, in itself would not be an issue except that there is a German car gene that emerges in Albanians driving German cars…it’s a sort of arsehole gene which convinces them that they can drive as they want regardless of road rules, safety or manners.

If you drive a Mercedes you may overtake where you want, when you want. You may drive at whatever speed you feel like but, most importantly, it is compulsory to treat every other car driver as a second class citizen, cutting them off , cutting in, abusing them and generally. No level of psychopathy is too extreme for Mercedes owners.

This specific problem (call it the Mercedes syndrome) is compounded by an odd Albanian trait which essentially persuades all Albanians that it permissible to simply stop wherever they want, for whatever reason. Need to grab a coffee. No worries! Simply stop in the middle of the road, blocking all traffic, and nick in for take away. Feel like a park? Don’t worry about finding a parking place. Just stop. Need to pick your nose? Look at your phone? Think about the meaning of life? Just stop where you are. No worries.

Mercedes, yes, religion and communism, No!!

One of the side effects of 50 years of totalitarian communism (a sort of oxymoron) apart from a love of symbols of outrageous consumerism (eg Mercedes, BMWs and Audis) is that all the most obvious remaining signs of the era have been systematically erased, except perhaps in Albanians commitment to secularism (it is the least religious society on earth some say).

The giant statues of Stalin, Lenin and Enver Hoxha now hang out discreetly behind the museum, hidden from the everyday of Albanians, waiting, one day perhaps, to be restored as a part of history rather than as the open wound of the recent past, as they might currently be seen. We visited Stalin, Lenin and Hoxha, where they were hanging out, as part of the city walking tour (highly recommended) which also included Enver Hoxha’s house – also closed for now as part of the same concept of keeping the recent past hidden.

Ironically, directly across from Hoxha’s erstwhile house is a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet (apparently Albania’s first fast food outlet – as yet Albania has no McDonalds) the sign of which reflects nicely in Hoxha’s living room window – a symbol, so our guide tells us of the victory of capitalism.

The remnants of the recent past are everywhere. In the park on the corner are one of the 270 bunkers built all over Tirana/Albania from which the valiant Albanians would repel the perfidious Americans, Russians, Chinese etc. And in the middle of the park a piece of the Berlin wall sent to commemorate the fall of communism. It sits next to a replica of the entrance to the chrome mines where political prisoners were sent to mine and die.

The abandonment of the past is not restricted to images but to buildings also. On our tour we pass the Pyramid, constructed after Hoxha’s death and intended to be a massive memorial to his memory. Today, after several uses over the years, including as a Telecom building it lies empty.

The “Pyramid” now lies empty.

Despite the irreligious attitudes of Albanians, the wasteful symbols of formal religion abound. A new and, as yet, unfinished mosque donated by Turkey (a miniature version of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul) – costing billions because the Turks need to waste their spare billions on something – and a cathedral incorporated in 2014 and incorporating an impressive ceiling with the largest mosaic in the Balkans.

Speed limits and speed humps (aka sleeping policemen to the Poms)

In theory there are speed limits in Albania but everyone ignores them. There is a good reason for this as Albanian speed limits are totally idiosyncratic. You can be speeding down a freeway at 80-100 kph and next minute there is a 30k speed limit. The reason? An intersection. Never mind that only one tractor and a passing camel have emerged from that intersection since Christ was a boy. And it’s like that at every intersection. So everyone just ignores them.

Similarly most stretches of superhighway have 30, 40 or 50 k limits for no apparent reason other than either (a) a peculiar Albanian sense of perverse humour (let’s really give drivers the shits) or (b) let’s collect lots of traffic fines by imposing weird and ridiculous speed limits.

If this were not enough, Albanians have an obsessive love for speed humps. Everywhere. And often. And in the weirdest places.

That is bad enough in itself but for whatever reason the accepted speed to traverse a speed hump is apparently 0.1 kph. So everyone slows to a virtual stop even though most of the humps could be comfortably crossed at 50 kph. The reason for this excessive caution is not clear but maybe goes back to when there were only 3000 cars in the country and a car cost you the equivalent of 10 years wages.

Having said this, most of the speed humps are entirely unnecessary since traffic in Tirana makes traffic in Istanbul or Sydney look like a paragon of fast flowing traffic. The city is one large traffic jam – but nevertheless it has many redeeming features from a plethora of tree lined pedestrian streets, good markets, to great night life, good food (especially the boreks) and lots of friendly, helpful people.

Meeting the Deputy Minister for Justice

You know how it is? You rock up in your AirBnB in Divjake after going out for dinner and go to tell your host (who speaks no English) that you will be leaving very early in the morning so will not need breakfast. Not to worry. she indicates that her daughter, Fjoralda, speaks good English. So we sit on the lounge chatting about life, death, Albania etc…Eventually I ask Fjoralda about her work and life and it turns out that Fjoralda Caka is the Albania Deputy Minister for Justice. You never know who you will meet on the lounge in Divjake.

A pleasant evening with the Deputy Minister for Justice, Fjoralda Caka and her Mother

A day at the beach and in the mountains

This was the archetypal Australian at the beach experience. Arriving in Divjake – which unlike many of the ugly beachside towns find throughout the Mediterranean (see eg most of Spain, most of the Albanian and Montenegrin coastal architecture) – has made a real effort with its buildings and streetscapes.

It’s a hot day and we head for the beach – which turns out to be a wasteland of eroded dune systems – systematically vandalised by thousands of cars – dirty looking water in a lagoon etc. We dutifully pay our beach entry fee anyway and head out on the long ricketty boardwalk which had been built over the lagoon out to the ocean proper…

The boardwalk ends at a bar on the beach which, at least serves good gin and tonic and plays some good blues…while we contemplate the miles of cars and umbrellas on the beach and long for a proper Australian beach.

If you can criticise Albanian beaches (or at least the ones we saw because we heard Himare and other places are much better) – you can’t criticise the mountains which are spectacular and a welcome escape from the heat and crowds of the coast. if you are a walker or mountain lover – Albania’s alps are beautiful and rugged.

Skanderbeg and Krujë

Then there is the famous Skanderbeg. Now you may never have heard of Skanderbeg but every Albanian has. There is a statue on every second street corner in Albania. There are Skanderbeg streets, Skanderbeg parks and a giant Skanderbeg museum to be found in Krujë just outside Tirana.

But there is more. Not content with populating the country with more Skanderbeg statues than there are Albanian citizens, they are busy erecting Skanderbeg statues in every other country in the world. No Skanderbeg in your country? Don’t worry one is coming soon.

Skanderbeg mania and idolatry not withstanding, Krujë is well worth a visit. The old citadel incorporates not just the aforementioned museum, but the ethnographic museum, a great old church now converted to a mosque and incorporating some nice frescoes, among other things such as great views, the Skanderbeg olive tree….

See the full set of images on Flickr below click links):

Making In-Rhodes – more than just a colossus – on a side trip from Turkey

2018-02-27_1455I arrive in Rhodes on a slow winter’s day. The 60 kilometre journey from Fethiye, in Turkey, by hydrofoil has taken twice as long as expected due to heavy weather. The Rhodians are fortunate because, had I decided to behave like almost everyone else who has arrived for the last couple of thousand years, I would have invaded it.

Rhodes harbour at dawn

As it is, looking at Rhodian history, it seems that it was a bit like a conga line of uninvited dinner guests. They arrived sans wine or food, hung around for a while, behaving unpleasantly,  living off the hosts and then leaving when someone even more unpleasant arrived. Occasionally unable to find a better dinner party they’d return and gatecrash a second time.

This unparalleled complexity of Rhodian history has left an 80 kilometre long island full of rich mixture of fabulous archeological sites from a dazzling array of cultures all within a days drive.

Rhodes was inhabited from Neolithic times but around the 16th century BC, the Minoans came to Rhodes followed by the Mycenaeans the following century.

Later Greek mythology recalled a Rhodian race called the Telchines and associated the island of Rhodes with Danaus; it was sometimes nicknamed Telchinis.

Then from around 700 BC the arrival of uninvited dinner guests accelerated starting with the Dorians for pre-dinner drinks. The Persians arrived for aperitifs about 460 BC but left when the Greeks arrived in time for hor d’oeuvres in 458 BC. In In 357 BC, the Carians turned up from Turkey but left when the Persians returned in 340 BC, for soup. The Persians clearly didn’t get along with the Hellenes because they left again when the Macedonians returned.

By this time we are on to main course and all the uninvited guests have left and the Rhodians and their invited guests (the Romans) stayed and enjoyed themselves until the Arabs and Genoese started coming around and dropping in for the odd year or two. Finally the Knights Hospitallers turned up around 1310 AD, followed by the Ottomans for coffee in 1522. In 1912 the Italians came for port and cigars and stayed until 1945 when the British arrived for a quick pre-bed time snack before finally handing the entire place to the Greeks in 1947.

Rhodes map

Most visitors I talked to seemed largely unaware of this history and for them Rhodes is just famous for the Colossus and for the fabulous medieval city left by the Knights Hospitallers of St John.  Apart from that all they know is that it is just another Greek Island.

But Rhodes (Ρόδος to the Greeks, Rodi in Italian, Rodos in Turkish and Rodi in Ladino) is anything other than just another Greek Island. To begin with it’s also Turkish in the sense that it is one of the few remaining large Turkish communities in Greece. Around 2000 Muslim Turks live in Rhodes, a historical anomaly due to the fact that Rhodes was under Italian rule when the population exchange was done between Greece and Turkey in 1923. It also had one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in Europe until the Germans sent most of them, except a few dozen rescued by the Turkish Consul, to Auschwitz.

Jewish memorial

Memorial to members of the Jewish community murdered by the Nazis

The city of Rhodes is also the largest remaining intact medieval city in Europe, with the old city being a world heritage property. And like everywhere else in Europe if you visit in winter you can have it almost entirely to yourself with just the small disadvantage that three out of every four cafes, restaurants and bars are closed and that most museums and archaeological sites close at 3 pm.

This has both advantages and disadvantages depending on your preparedness to get arrested and left to rot in some Greek jail. Essentially almost all closed archeological sites are, simply, open archeological sites with a closed gate and no security. Walk around and, generally, somewhere, there will be a gap in the fence, steps up the wall or a combination of both, thus inviting you to have a very personal, free and uncrowded tour,

Given that security costs money there is rarely security and, if there is and you are caught, indulge in the Gallic shrug and explain that you actually got locked in when the site closed. Regrettably if you are not prepared to take this risk and you arrive too late, well tough. And, yes, yes, we all know the “but what if everyone did that argument?”. Well they won’t.

A quick visit to a deserted Ialysos courtesy of dodgy fences

Time was, when arriving in a strange city, you’d simply jump in the nearest taxi go to your hotel, check in and sort yourself out. Said hotel had a reception and someone awaited to, at worst, let you in or, alternatively, you just stayed at one of a plethora of hostels which were also permanently open.

Today, however, in the epoch of mobiles and AirBnBs one may well arrive to a locked door and, in the event that you do not have a local sim card, you end of standing by the front door in a form of limbo. Do you wait and hope that someone turns up? Or leave and try and find a wifi connection? Is so where? And can you justify investing in your 26th coffee of the day just to have a wifi connection? Or just go and get a coffee and hope someone turns up by the time you get back? Will the host arrive and leave again before you return?

Normally, in these circumstances, it will start to get dark, the rain will start to come down, you will realise your parka is at the bottom of your pack under 10 other items. If you go for a coffee, the nearest cafe is closed and, if not, you only have a 100 Euro note to pay for a 2 Euro coffee.

By now your bad knee is hurting walking around town past past ten other closed cafes and, as you realise you are finally and completely lost, you notice standing, on the corner, in the shadows, a group of 5 large tattooed bikies. It’s no good appealing to God or Allah because you are an atheist and you prepare to hand over your computer, camera, wallet and passport. So, wishing for something good to happen, like the death of Donald Trump you walk on in hope.

As you approach the only bad thing that happens is that you realise your prejudices and cowardice are as rank as the next persons, as one of the five heavily tattooed female soccer players greets you pleasantly in broken English…then as you turn the corner you see your AirBnB with the light streaming through the open door. Still, life was simpler when you either booked into the local Hilton or you couldn’t afford to travel at all.

There is little about Rhodes that is not to like. Stunning coastal scenery, friendly locals, one of the most beautiful medieval cities in the world, the three ancient Dorian/Roman cities of Lindos, Kamiros and Ialysos, plus an incredible mixture of Greek, Turkish/Ottoman and Jewish cultures, among others. Not counting of course the indelible traces of 200 years of occupation by the Crusaders.

A couple of hours to the south are the remains of two of the six great Doric cities, Lindos and Kamiros. Of the third Ialyssos, just above Rhodes City, little remains apart from a temple and some stairs and fortifications. All of these ancient sites sit in stunning locations above the water and for hundreds of years during the Dorian and Roman eras were the most important Rhodian cities.

Lindos

A winter trip to Lindos down the highway takes just an hour, followed by a further fifteen minute walk from the empty car parks through the winding white-washed deserted streets of the modern day Greek city and up the ancient stairs to the fortress. This is a place of four ages, first the Dorians, then the Romans, the Crusaders in the form of the Knights Hospitallers and the modern Rhodians.

From here the inhabitants were masters of all they could survey and that, perched in their fortified eyrie, was a large slab of Rhodes.

Rhodes, though is far more than the grand gesture. The real beauty of the old city of Rhodes are hidden lanes, gardens, the lights, the fountains, the footpaths, the doors and steps and a myriad other bits of the city that in other places are simply sources of light or places to walk but in Rhodes are works of art.

Around the streets of Rhodes

The most famous building and street on Rhodes is, arguably, the Palace of the Hospitallers and its adjacent road. Certainly it and its surrounding defensive network of moats and walls are impressive and as the Ottomans found, initially, an attackers nightmare. But while it’s certainly worth investing time in visiting it, for me the surrounding laneways, alleys, ruins, mosques, synagogues and the hospital etc are equally if not more impressive.

The palace in Rhodes

One of the features of the palace are the mosaics, a number of which came from Roman ruins in Kos. In the absence of almost any interpretive signs – the Greek custodians, presumably, believing that if you don’t provide signs then visitors will be obliged to buy guidebooks – you are required to guess at the use of most parts of the building.

This includes guessing whether the mosaics were stolen from Kos by the Hospitallers (which given the propensity for the Catholic Church to steal most things it owns is highly likely), or later by the Italians who decided that they knew best what Rhodes should look like.

Mosaics in the Palace

The Hospitallers hung out in Rhodes for a couple of hundred years having returned from killing Muslims on the crusades and, following a four year campaign ending in 1310, they made Rhodes their headquarters and their private domain until evicted by the Ottomans. What goes around comes around. From there they went to Malta after their defeat by the Ottomans.

The Knights were structured  into eight “Tongues” (languages) or Langues, one each in Crown of AragonAuvergneCrown of CastileKingdom of EnglandFranceHoly Roman EmpireItaly and Provence  each of which occupied a property on the Street of the Hospitallers.

The Street of the Hospitallers

At the bottom of the Street of the Hospitallers is the famous hospital, now a museum. Here the victims of the church, the dead and wounded from numerous campaigns were bought to recover or die having been sacrificed for God or King. The knights were well known for the medical practice, ironically enriched by their contacts with the Arabs, with significantly improved hygiene practices.

My departure under a beautiful winter sky heading out on the next stop on my mini circuit of southern Turkey and adjacent Greek islands. Next stop Kos, via Symi.

The complete archive of Rhodes images can be found below:

Images of Rhodes city and surrounds

Images of Lindos

Images of Ialysos and surrounds

Previous post: Ai am the Wei and the truth and the life -inside Ai Weiwei’s Istanbul exhibition.

The Art of Nothing

Nothing: nothing to do, nothing to fix. No work to go to, no garden to tend. No meetings to go to, no dance classes…absolutely nothing to do except watch the world go by.

It’s perhaps the greatest indulgence of travel, especially travel where you hang out in a place or places for a long time. Sit on the great meeting place of the Bosphorus, the great melting pot of Istanbul and watch the people and the ships go by.

Such is my pleasure, at least for now. I can stand or sit in the autumn sun and watch the leaves fall. Watch the gardeners in Emirgan Park planting the bulbs for the Spring Festival. Just ahead a single worker is marking out into which areas which colour bulbs will go.

Planting out bulbs for Spring

Up the hill a couple are practicing for their wedding day, this coming weekend and the photographer is taking a few pre-wedding photos. Other wedding couples walk the paths.

The fishermen cast their lines as they do every day along the Bosphorus, hundreds of them line the water catching God knows what from the murky waters below.

Into the distance a line of ships shimmies up the Bosphorus heading for the Black Sea just an hour away. At this time of day they are all heading north. In a few hours the line will reverse and head for the Mediterranean. Oil, bulk carriers, containers.

The cafés are full. The men play backgammon. Families pass, soaking up the autumn sun. The call to prayer starts, the sound flowing up the hill from the minaret framed by the Bosphorus Bridge.

Just nearby a group of older homeless men are listening to four young Turks playing guitar and singing

Each five minutes a ship from a different country passes along the Bosphorus and under the bridges linking Europe and Asia while, if you stand and listen carefully, you will hear a dozen different languages in 30 minutes. The main road is a melee of traffic, Mercedes and BMWs mixing with the ubiquitous scooters. Traditional Turkish cafes sit just up the road from a mess of McDonalds and Starbucks. Across the road Ai Wei Wei is hanging out his latest exhibition in the local museum.

The park is a blaze of autumn colours and sunlight peopled with walkers, sitters, basket ballers and the emptiness of the off-season, absent of tourists.

Turn left out of the park entrance and head down past old Ottoman buildings.

Just on the left part of that past is being redeemed – an old Ottoman building – forbidden from being knocked down is being renovated at huge expense. Right takes you up the cobbled street past the car wash and the hairdresser, along past the giant old plane trees and past a bit of the old Ottoman past boarded up and yet to be redeemed.

Finally the last 100 metres and it’s back to the flat. All in a walk of just a kilometre, easily strolled at quarter pace in just 30 minutes.


97 Days Adrift in Europe (part 15) – Rome

After 93 days, this is the last stage of my short European trip. I will hop on the ferry from Dubrovnik to Bari and then by train on up to Rome for my first visit to the Eternal City.

First, however, I must survive the trip to Bari, deck class. Travel terms are a bit like those used by real estate agents. When you buy a house (not that most people will ever be able to), you go out on the deck/verandah, tie yourself to the handrail, stand on it, peer through your binoculars at the tiny window of blue ocean and ask “Is that what you mean when you say ‘ocean glimpses'”. To which the real estate agent replies, “No that is what we call expansive ocean views”

Leaving Dubrovnik for Bari, Italy

So it is with travel. Take the term “economy class”, on airlines. First there is, mostly, nothing economic about it. For the $2000, odd, it takes to fly to Europe you could buy 444 cafe lattés. 444. And think how much more pleasure you would get from 444 cafe lattés than you will get from a flight on a flying silver cigar tube. It’s more fun poking your own eyeball out than it is flying.

Secondly, it’s definitely not classy. No, the words “airline” and “class” should never be uttered in the same breath. Similarly with “first class”. I mean, first? This is like offering someone a Big Mac and calling it gourmet food. It would only be gourmet if the only other choice were a turd sandwich.

Random Rome – 1 – round every corner a little treat

So it is with first class on airlines. It is only “first” in comparison with “economy” which, if we had truth in advertising, would be called “jail class”. You are effectively locked in for the term of your flight (life if you crash) and fed pigswill. Once imprisoned the jailers come around and give you orders in return for your $2,000. Seat upright, blinds up (or down), you can’t listen to that now, put that under your seat, do not leave your seat, don’t breathe out, prepare to die etc.

Whichever way you look at it flying is a turd sandwich, uncomfortable, evil smelling, bad for your digestion, your health, your wallet and your temper. And that’s before you board the plane.

Which, in a roundabout way brings me to “Deck Class” on ferries. In theory this means that you get a nice comfy reclining seat in which you can sleep. But, no. You get an unpleasant, uncomfortable, narrow, plastic lined seat, hard as rock which smells of the vomit from the last 20 passengers that had the misfortune to sit in that very seat.

Random Rome – 2 – No Roman was ever too tiled to build a fountain

So every passenger who is in “Deck Class” knows they have two choices. They can literally sleep on the deck or they can compete for the ten comfortable spots in the bar where you can stretch out and there are cushions. Even here, the ferry owners have attempted to ensure no one gets a good sleep by putting up little separators on each lounge just where your knee or shinbone would be if you were to fully stretch out. So you are forced to sleep partially in foetal position.

But before you get to enjoy this luxury seating, however, you must race up the boarding ramp and fight off your fellow deck passengers who, when you beat them to the spot, will spend the rest of the trip trying to work out how they can pay you back by stealing your camera, iPad etc or by by infecting you with the Ebola virus they contracted in West Africa. Nevertheless anything is better than real deck class – unless you are carrying your own mattress around all of Europe, of course.

Unexpected explosions of old buildings on the new

It is a beautiful full-moon lit night as we leave Dubrovnik for Bari and we enjoy a smooth crossing to Bari arriving at 8 am. Bari is a well designed port, if you are a long distance walker.  The ferries come in approximately 2 kilometres from the entrance to the port and the ticket offices. This makes a lot of sense to foot passengers with plenty of luggage who have to lug it the entire 2 kilometres. I am later informed that there was/is a shuttle bus – but in the form it appeared it was clearly wearing an invisibility shield.

I start walking but it’s already hot and after 500 metres I find myself opposite the street which goes to the train station – which is my destination. I can either walk the remaining 3.5 kilometres up and back to the street which, as the crow flies, is just 40 metres away or I can jump over the fence and risk getting either impaled or shot by trigger happy Italian Carabiniere.

The Pantheon. A little old building just around the corner from the……

This is Italian humour at its best. “They” made jokes for 20 years (until it became politically unacceptable) about Italian tanks with one forward gear and ten reverse gears. So we, Italians, will make the foreigners unnecessarily walk for kilometres with a 20 kilo bag.

I examine the 3 metre high metal fence with a view to climbing it. It appears that someone has filed ever point on fence to a razor tip, presumably anticipating just such a plan.

“Luigi, what are you doing, today?”

“Nothing Paolo”

“Please go and sharpen our fence”

“But Paolo, I only did that yesterday”

“Yes but the three tourists who were impaled yesterday, on one of them the points didn’t penetrate entirely through their body”

Around the corner from the….Largo de Torre Argentino & the Fountain of Trevi

Nevertheless I find a relatively hidden spot where the columns and adjacent trees make climbing and descending relatively easy and not withstanding the imagined fusillade of shots from the guards, two minutes later I find myself on the other side of the fence.

Two hours later I am on my way to Rome on high speed train. I shall be staying with my friend, Mike Krockenberger, from day 2 onwards, but the first night I at an AirBnB about 15 minutes from the station. Because I am much later than anticipated, mine host has taken himself off to work at his restaurant.

I am stranded outside the flat, Idiot Traveller, style. I have no way to contact him because my phone has gone flat. My only option is the grocer’s opposite. It turns out, in due course, that the shop owner has a highly honed skill in deduction. Strange tourist comes in pointing at the phone and gesticulating at the tower block opposite but he does not deduce that this is the person for whom his mate Alessandro has left the keys.

…….Which are around the corner from the Italian Parliament, the Egyptian Obelisk of Montecitorio (every city must have one) and Aurelio’s Column…and just before you get to…..

Eventually I get to make a call at which point mine host tells me he has left the keys in the grocery shop opposite and asks to speak to the owner. Now, I’m not one to judge but I feel the shop owner was lacking a little in his use of grey matter.

Day 1 in Rome starts with a 3 kilometre walk up the banks of the Tiber, crossing at Garibaldi Bridge, and then on a standard tourist track up around the Largo di Torre Argentina, the purported site of the assassination of Julius Caesar, , then on to the Pantheon, passing in front of the Montecitoreo Palace, home of the Italian Chamber of Deputies. Immediately adjacent is the Marcus Aurelius Column dedicated, of course to yet more wars waged by the powerful using the bodies of the poor as cannon fodder. From here the Fountain of Trevi is a mere 200 metres away.

The fountain was originally the “terminus” of the Acqua Vergine one of the aqueducts that supplied water to ancient Rome. Nowadays it is the home of a never ending infestation of tourists who come not only look at, to give it its due, what is a pretty spectacular fountain  but also to throw coins into the fountain. The Fountain is best avoided except at quiet times.

Trajan’s Market and Trajan’s column

An estimated 3,000 Euros are thrown into the fountain each day. In 2016, an estimated US $1.5 million was thrown into the fountain. The money has been used to subsidise a supermarket for Rome’s needyhowever, there are regular attempts to steal coins from the fountain although it is illegal to do so. The coin throwing is based on two myths. The first is that the throwing of a coin from the right hand over the left shoulder will ensure that you will return to Rome in the future.

The second legend was the inspiration behind the film ” Three Coins in the Trevi Fountain“. This legend claims that you should throw three coins into the fountain. The first coin guarantees your return to Rome, the second will ensure a new romance, and the third will ensure marriage.

This is, of course, another Italian joke because you will, for certain, be required to return to Rome when your romance has ended and your marriage has crashed and burned. All you will get for your coin is heartbreak and having to endure the crowds in Rome for a second time.

From the Fountain of Trevi it’s less than a kilometre down to the Roman Forum and Trajan’s market which was the Roman equivalent of Walmart with over 150 shops.

The world renowned symbols of ancient Rome are, of course, not to be missed but for me the real charm of Rome are the myriad and random bits of ancient Rome on which one stumbles in places one would least expect them. Columns emerging from the side of modern buildings, bits of ancient wall tacked onto apartment building, Roman era drinking fountains still operating today and a thousand other surprises.

Random Rome – just outside Mike’s flat someone scattered an old arch and a bit of wall

It’s around these areas too that you get to enjoy many of city buskers – most of which or whom are incredibly talented such as the Cocktail Band who were playing next to Trajan’s column.

In the afternoon I head over to Mike Krockenberger’s flat. He has spent the last two summers here having found that his health is much better in Europe than it has been in Australia. His flatmate is away working so I get to stay in the spare room. In hindsight this turns out to be a mistake since my minor cold turns into major health trauma for Mike and pretty much knocks him out for a week – including his planned trip away.

Mike spends two days chaperoning me around Rome before I nearly kill him with the dreaded lurgy.  I am as always a grateful guest.

Our first walk takes us around Rome by night. As mentioned, in other posts about this trip, night time tourism is always a good choice in busy tourist spots. The floodlit buildings are beautiful, the other tourists have dematerialised, it’s cool and you can enjoy the beauty and culture unhurried and un-harried.

Rome by night: Capitolini Hill, museums and steps and Septimus Arch

We descend via the remains of Nero’s Palace and then on to the Colosseum. Nero’s Palace stands on the ancient Palatine and Esquiline Hills. Here my erstwhile tour guide informs me that these giant mud brick remnants of Nero’s Palace and the stone exterior of the Colosseum were not always so. He also tells me that the Colosseum is not named the Colosseum because of its size but because it originally stood next to a giant statue of Nero – the area being named after the statue.

Originally most Roman palaces and the Colosseum were covered with marble and/or mosaics etc. But Nero’s successors and, later, the Catholic Church stripped all these buildings of their marble for use elsewhere. Because Nero was so hated his Golden House was a severe embarrassment to his successors. So after his death it was stripped of its marble, its jewels and its ivory within a decade. As for the Colosseum, you can see the holes on it where the marble was removed.

It’s very appropriate of course that some of the major Catholic buildings in Rome utilised stone stripped from the buildings of one of the bloodiest of emperors. From the butchers of empire to the butchers of religion.

Some old building from which the Catholics flogged the marble fascias – you can see where the marble fascias were, allegedly, attached as shown by the holes in the stone at right

The palace and grounds, encompassing 2.6 km², were filled with earth and built over: the Baths of Titus were already being built on part of the site in 79 AD. On the site of the lake, in the middle of the palace grounds, Vespasian built the Flavian Amphitheatre, which could be re-flooded at will, with the Colossus Neronis beside it.

The Baths of Trajan and the Temple of Venus and Rome were also built on the site. Within 40 years, the Golden House was completely obliterated, buried beneath the new constructions, but paradoxically this ensured the famous wallpaintings’ survival by protecting them from dampness.

For centuries, so well did the later Emperors obliterate all sight of Nero’s Palace, most of it was buried and remained “undiscovered”. It wasn’t until the 15th century when a young Roman inadvertently fell through a cleft in the Esquiline hillside and found himself in a strange cave or grotta filled with painted figures that the rooms of the ancient palace were rediscovered. Soon the young artists of Rome were having themselves let down on boards knotted to ropes to see for themselves.

Building on the left: home of some mystic whose followers have been stealing and buggering children for centuries; on the right home of some old emperor (artist’s impression of Nero’s Palace) – who did the same to half the citizens of the ancient world, if not always literally.

Today the site is a part of an extraordinary effort at restoration involving the removal of thousands of tonnes of covering earth and replacing it 3 metres above where it is now, with a subsurface infrastructure designed to seal off the underground architecture from moisture and regulate temperature and humidity.

The ultimate aim is to conserve the Domus Aurea and its ornamentation, removing salts, mineral deposits, fungal growths, and pollutants that are destroying the frescoes that still cover more than 300,000 square feet—the area of 30 Sistine Chapels.

From here we go up over Capitoline Hill where you can check out the square and buildings, including the Capitoline Museums which are, in fact, a single museum containing a group of art and archeological museums in Piazza del Campidoglio, the designs for which were created by Michaelangelo.

Rome by night. The Roman forum (top), Trajan’s market and the wolf with Romulus and Remus

From here it is down to the Roman Forum, up past Trajan’s column and Market and back to home. This little walk which takes little more than an hour or two passes not only those buildings but Constantine’s Arch, the Circus Maximus and the Roman Forum including Septimus’s Arch. A quite extraordinary circuit of some of the Europe’s greatest antiquities in just four kilometres.

The following morning I repeat my trip around the area we visited past Nero’s little pied-à-terre and round the Colosseum. At 7 am there is already a queue 30 metres long in front of the Colosseum even though it doesn’t open until 8.30 am. The entrance to the excavations under Nero’s Palace are closed but it’s easy to climb over for a quick look around the area above the work area. Not a lot to see but important to look just because they don’t want you to (yes I know, what if ALL tourists did this. Well they won’t).

Mike joins me later in the day for a visit to the Vatican, the source of a quarter of the world’s suffering, with the remaining 75% of its suffering emanating from Mecca and various political capitals around the world. Mike and I decide not to go inside since a goodly proportion of the population of Rome is already resident in long queues in their desire to see how the church of the poor and oppressed has transformed itself into a symbol of wealth, corruption and oppression.

Amen.

This is the 15th and final part of the blog series “97 Days Adrift in Europe”. Links to other episodes and related content can be found below:

  1. Part 6 – Travelling South
  2. Part 11 – Prague
  3. Part 12 – Travelling Crazy – Banks
  4. Part 13 – Budapest
  5. Part 14 – Dubrovnik – Of Wailing Walls and Howling Trains

The Flickr Archive of images used in this post can be found below:

  1. Rome by night
  2. Rome detail
  3. Dubrovnik – Bari ferry trip
  4. Rome – General

 

97 Days Adrift in Europe (part 14) Dubrovnik – of Wailing Walls & Howling Trains

I leave Budapest on one of the few rainy days of the trip, so far. And on a day that turns out to very Australian, based on the efficiency of my transport choice.

As you head south the trains head south too. Slower, rattlier, fuller. The reclining seats, the speed, the power sockets all disappear. The restaurant car feels like a bit of an old 1950s film with the red velvet seats and the full meals for less than $10.

Beer, slow trains, rain and more rain

The south of Hungary and the north of Croatia are emptier and older, too. We pass the rail yards at slug-speed – about the speed that Australian express trains travel at. The rail yards are populated, in the rain, with old fat freight cars looking like something out of star wars.

The trains are so slow as to be 19th century, they creak and groan and as they wend their way around the never-ending bends the wheels howl on the tracks like some lost soul in Trump’s nightmare America. I could be anyway in the Great Brown Land (that’s Australia, for those unfamiliar with the term). Except maybe for the rain.

Dubrovnik, dawn

I had hoped to travel all the way to Dubrovnik by nightfall but it turns out that the timetables and routes didn’t correspond with my reality. As the rain falls I ensconce myself in the dining car – the only place with a power socket – so that I can finish the unfinished travel stories of the last week or so. Invariably restaurant cars are the best place to travel, if you can. Proper tables, coffee, relative quiet and more space. You can read, write, eat, drink and stare out at the passing landscape.

Departing Budapest, in the morning, the trip to Split requires two trains, one to Zagreb, where a two hour wait ensues, and then onward to Split arriving at night. With the velvet seats, faux wooden panelling, soft lighting and falling rain it feels, not just 1950s-like, but like some experience out of Murder on the Orient Express.

As we moan and screech our way through the mountains this sense is elevated by the pantomime when, at each successive tiny station, regardless of whether we stop or not, the guardian of the station emerges replete with uniform and signalling flags and proceeds, like some character out of a historical railway pageant, to perform a marionette-like set of gestures with the two flags he(no women were seen) carries which signal, who knows what, to the train driver.

IMG_5347

Liberated from his flags, the railway station guardian relaxes at his station

There seems to be no logic or reason for these rituals other than to provide employment to, possibly, the only remaining inhabitant of the region. It does not appear that any trains have actually stopped at most of the stations since about 1860 and there is zero evidence that anyone other than the station guardian lives any near most of the stations.

It turns out that there is a music festival on in Split, something I find out when I start a discussion with my fellow travellers across the aisle about why the train is so full and where they are going. They proceed to attempt to reduce me, without success since I have been forewarned about East Europeans bearing gifts, to the same level of inebriation as they are enjoying. They do this with the offer of an unrelenting supply of beer – which no matter how much is drunk continues to emerge, like some liquid form of the Magic Pudding.

Around lunch time we arrive in Zagreb, which for the geographically challenged, is the capital, and largest city, of Croatia. I have nearly two hours to explore in the rain. Like all European cities its outdoor sculpture reflects the long centuries of military conflict and nationalism and its squares are strewn with men on horses. European history might have been much improved had they fallen off.

Men on plinths, men on horses, men with swords, men on plinths in gardens.

Leaving aside the stone horseflesh, Zagreb offers plenty of choice if you like old buildings, churches, monuments, gardens and squares – and all within a gentle 20 minute stroll – plus, of course, the ubiquitous daily market. I undertake a sprinter’s tour of the cathedral, which is particularly magnificent as churches go, the main street, and the market and locate something approaching a tolerable coffee. Then I was able to say “my work here is done”, my tour returning me to the station with 30 minutes to spare.

Zagreb Cathedral

We arrive in Split after dark. I have two choices. Stay at an hotel in Split and take the ferry in the morning or catch the bus down the coast a couple of hours later. The former is significantly more expensive and more hassle but has the attraction of a good nights sleep and avoiding two hours hanging around in the bus/train station. The bus station has all the charm of a Russian security guard and, if you want to eat, requires one to have a worse diet.

The Dubrovnik arrival is early in the morning, at the bus station next to the port. From here it is a 15 minute bus ride to my AirBnB. The first rule of Dubrovnik in regard to finding your accommodation is that there are no rules other than ‘don’t panic everything will come to those that wait’. Do not assume there will be street names. Nor should you assume that your AirBnB will actually be on the street which it claims to be. Even if it is, the actual entrance will be down a side alley, shrouded in bushes, through an arch and around several turns.

Dubrovnik at night

Under most normal circumstances you would ring and get directions:

“Hello, Goran, this is Chris. I’m in Dubrovnik near your place. I just need some directions…”

“Ok, hello, welcome. Where are you? What street?”

“Err, the street doesn’t have a name, we’re by a large square, next to….. (you give the name of a large prominent accommodation establishment just opposite).”

“I’m sorry Chris, I don’t know that place, please tell me what it looks like..”

Dubrovnik by night

” Well, it’s a square right under the city wall, there is the hotel (previously described), there is a shop selling vegetables, a house (#15 – the same number as are looking for), with two stone steps and many pots of flowers in front, there is a person selling shawls, there is another AirBnB, there are steps up to the city walls, there is a mural of King Kong, there is a lunatic asylum, four second hand London double decker buses, a model of an A380, a French patisserie, a statue of Winston Churchill and 15 black sheep and a camel grazing in someone’s front yard…”

En route to AirBnB #2, Dubrovnik

“I’m sorry, Chris, I don’t know that place, please tell me the name of the street…? Please wait.” For what, or why, we are not told. At this point the phone goes dead leaving us abandoned and with a $20 bill for an international phone call.

The point being that no matter how detailed the description you can be sure that “I don’t know that place” is the correct host response. Nevertheless, seconds later an elderly woman will emerge from the suspected doorway, which I had described in loving detail, and will embrace you, metaphorically, (sometimes literally) like her long lost child.

On this occasion, I am greeted not by an elderly woman but by a large man with exceptionally good English. He takes me to my extremely convenient AirBnB, just spitting distance from the main entrance to the old walled city, and deposits me in my room.

Dubrovnik night

This is AirBnB Turd…as opposed to AirBnB Mango (you see here my careful and clever use of lexicographical juxtaposition to make a contrast)  which is my normal, and positive, experience of AirBnB. To be fair that is a slight exaggeration but, nevertheless, the apparently spacious and airy room/unit with shared bathroom, turns out to be a poky flat with four bedrooms each occupied by at least two people. Which, had Idiot Traveller read further down the page which gave the description, instead of just looking at the pictures, I would have known

Use of the bathroom and/or kitchen require reservations about three months ahead and don’t plan on turning around in the dining room at dinner time or you are likely to get disembowelled by a fellow guest holding a sharp cooking knife.

I spend only one of my four nights here as, fortunately, it was only available when I booked for a single night. My second AirBnB is several notches higher on the approval rating with access to a great terrace overlooking Dubrovnik, its own bathroom etc. and it’s cheaper, too.

Night falls on Dubrovnik at full moon

Exploring the nooks and crannies of Dubrovnik is a real pleasure for anyone with an appreciation of culture, architecture, history, ambience, fantastic views, good food and for a myriad other reasons. It’s not without its drawbacks as described here in my post The Balkans: Beauty and the Beast – from Dubrovnik to Sarajevo on my visit, in 2017.

Chief grumble, for me, apart from the obvious over-crowding and the fact that almost no local people can afford to live in the old city any more (thanks to people like me) is that the city walls, which in the day time swarm with a non-stop stream of people, don’t open until 8 am and close at 7.30 pm (earlier at certain times of year). Given that dawn and dusk are the optimum time to be on the walls this makes no sense at all. You can hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth of those refused access to the wall at the best times.

On the Dubrovnik walls at night

On the positive side, if you are prepared to risk life and limb, a quick shimmy up the walls in the south-eastern corner will allow you to get in free and avoid the crowds, as well as enjoying the best times of day. There is a silver lining to everything. So I found myself on top the wall, one evening, sharing the views and the soft evening light with two couples, one from Dubai and one Italian/Romanian couple.

This is one of the great places to enjoy sunset and dusk which, for me, came at the cost of just a pair of torn shorts. A slip on the pointed iron railings or off five metres of wall could have been more drastic.

Dubrovnik dawn

Dubrovnik is only a tiny part of the attraction of Croatia and, as with all of the world’s popular tourist attractions, a short trip away from the centre brings you to a largely deserted part of the Adriatic Coast.

The Adriatic Coast heading north – largely devoid of tourists (relatively speaking)

Having gorged myself on an overdose of old buildings and crowds that make Pitt St look like the Itidarod trail on a slack day,  I hire a scooter and head north-west along the Adriatic coast.

Once over the main bridge north, the traffic thins out and one has to resist the temptation, at age 60, to feel that one still has the reflexes of a young Michael Schumacher and that one is sitting on a Moto Guzzi, or similar rather than a scooter with notoriously bad cornering design. Still the curves are hard to resist as one slides down the roller-coaster road.

About an hour north of Dubrovnik is my destination for the day, Trsteno, and its Arboretum dating back to 1494. It sits just about the town’s jewel like harbour, a short walk down the road, where a handful of locals swim undisturbed by the, literally, millions of visitors to Dubrovnik less than an hour away.

Trsteno harbour and Aboretum

Dubrovnik has two million visitors a year of whom, it appears, about 75% visit in June, July and August. Each day brings a new swarm of 20,000 people to a town where the population is 28,000 and where you can walk from one end to the other in about five minutes.

Despite being well known, locally, it seems few tourists visit Trsteno even in the height of summer. This is another of the iron clad rules of tourism: more than a ten minute walk or a half hour drive and the visitation rate drops by 90%. Half cultural icon, stuffed full of old buildings and statues and half botanical marvel, the Arboretum Trsteno is one of those little gems that one should be prepared to travel for, with its old aqueduct that supplied water from the hills behind, its 150 year old trees scattered in among another 510 indigenous species.

Trsteno harbour and arboretum

I’ve seen other visitors comments complaining about the arboretum and saying that it is slightly run down. For me this is one of the attractions. The sort of down at heel, semi-neglected feel is precisely what gives it, its spirit and makes it well worth spending an hour or two.

The town features two other notable attractions: a beautifully crystal clear harbour to swim in and two of the largest old plane trees in Europe. At some 400 years old and nearly 50 metres tall they provide a great spot to sit and relax on a hot day. But take your helmet because a French tourist was killed by a falling branch a few years ago – arguably in revenge for Napoleon’s attempts to take Dubrovnik.

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By the old plane tree

From the gardens you can descend via a windy coast road to the small harbour below which is shared, largely, with a handful of locals cooling off in the clear and sheltered water of the harbour. To finish off the day you can return via some quiet inland villages which give one a different perspective to the coastal towns.

This is Part 14 of the blog series “97 Days Adrift in Europe”. Links to other episodes and related content can be found below:

  1. Part 6 – Travelling South
  2. Part 11 – Prague
  3. Part 12 – Travelling Crazy – Banks
  4. Part 13 – Budapest

The Flickr Archive of images used in this post can be found below:

  1. Croatia Coast (north of Dubrovnik)
  2. Zagreb
  3. Dubrovnik by Night
  4. Dubrovnik Dawn
  5. Dubrovnik general
  6. Dubrovnik Sunset and Moonrise

97 Days Adrift in Europe (Part 13) – Budapest

Many people will tell you that Budapest is their favourite city in Europe. Perhaps I didn’t look hard enough but it seemed less splendid than Prague and somewhat dull and jaded – that is until you look back at the photos and realise perhaps it wasn’t the city that is dull and jaded but the onlooker.

“Old Pest” – lots of beautiful buildings and street art

After a dozen cities and a myriad palaces, ancient bridges, tunnels, churches, squares and museums, one may get what I refer to as ‘Chateaux Fatigue’. It’s a syndrome bought on by travelling through parts of the world from which you would never escape were you to look at every magnificent building built between the birth of the Christ figure and about 1900. It can take other forms such as “Cathedral Fatigue”, “Gondola Fatigue” (Monty Python c. minute 9.25), “Roman Ruin Fatigue etc.

Cathedral fatigue? Too many bloody churches? St Stephen’s Basilica is better than many and has great views from the top

I first discovered this syndrome (there are myriad traveling syndromes) when passing through the Dordogne in France. To travel in the Dordogne is feel as if every person who had the money caught Chateaux OCD.

“What are you doing today, Louis?”.

“Oh, Jean-Paul, I thought I might build a chateau”

“But Louis you built four chateaux, last week…”

“I know, Jean-Paul, but the peasants are so lazy and what else can I spend their taxes on…?”

Every tiny town, village, estate, bend in the river and overblown princelet had their own chateau. Much like right wing politicians in Australia. “I feel bored with representing my constituents today, perhaps I shall start a political party. What shall I call it? Oh I know…..now what was my name?”. By the time you have been a week in the Dordogne, it’s “Oh look, another, 17th century chateau, how passé.”

I arrive in Budapest on a Sunday at Budapest-Keleti railway station. First impressions are of a very faded glory. The station is magnificent but no one remembered to brush its hair or cut its nails. It’s falling apart, grubby and has a slightly dingy feeling a bit like the surrounding part of Budapest.

hungary-budapest_keleti_station-_c_tomtsya-shutterstock_33853561-20ff9
Budapest Keleti Station

In fact Budapest is two cities “Buda” on the left bank of the Danube and “Pest” on the right bank.

My brand new (as in just renovated) AirBnB is just 400 metres from the Danube which, for those interested in relatively useless facts, passes through 10 European countries. Is the Danube blue? Is it sunny? Is the ocean blue? Let’s see, apart from the bleeding obvious, which is that at night it is not blue, yes it can be blue. If it’s not in flood, if the sun is shining etc.

Blue Danube? Or black or grey

The point about the Danube is not its blueness but its role in myth, legend, history and culture. László Földényi, probably the only man in human history to have four diacritical letters in his name, describes its place in the European psyche beautifully in this blog from 2011 in which he describes the Danube thus:

“Blue, muddy yellow or blood-red: the colour of the Danube varies according to history and geography. Never able to truly form the countries through which it runs into a single political entity, it nevertheless connects peoples and regions reconcilable only in dreams or poetry.”

From my perch near the Danube, it’s an easy stroll down to the river and then along past Hungary’s Parliament which is built in Gothic revival style and then down to the Széchenyi Chain Bridge.

Like the Széchenyi Baths, the bridge is named after Count István Széchenyi who is often spoken of as the greatest ever Hungarian. Normally in European history this means that you killed a lot of innocent people, mainly nasty foreigners, although occasionally it’s your own mob, as in Stalin, Pol Pot. To be fair to Széchenyi he does appear to have been a reformer, albeit a conservative one, if that is not too contradictory.

More statues of blokes with guns, swords and horses than you can poke a stick at

Nowadays you don’t have to do anything to kill millions of people, if you are politician. You just do nothing, as per Australian politicians such as Abbott and Turnbull, who are deliberately and consciously consigning millions to death by doing nothing on climate change. Fortunately most of the people who will die (at least from the perspective of Abbott and Turnbull) are black, yellow or brown.

Somewhat ironically, in Australia, most of those who will suffer from climate change most will be rich and white since, in our great egalitarian society, the biggest losers will be mostly “white” and wealthy.  These are the only people who can afford to live near the coast or on large farms – the areas most likely to be significantly impacted by climate change.

On the other hand since their Ponzi schemes and family trusts will ensure they are wealthy enough to move away from the effects of climate change without too much ill effect perhaps they will avoid their fate.

The Hungarian Parliament buildings are a sort of poor man’s version of the UK Houses of Parliament but, nevertheless a striking building, especially at night when reflected in the Danube. Like most buildings of this type it is surrounded by statues – of men – men with guns, men on horses, men looking important. No women. If you aren’t killing or oppressing people you are not worthy of a statue. Underground on Parliament’s Kossoff Square there is a great little museum to the 1956 uprising which initially succeeded and was then, subsequently, suppressed by Soviet troops.

The Hungarian Parliament and the museum to the 1956 uprising

The first day of the Hungarian uprising, 23 October, was declared a national holiday at the inauguration of the Third Hungarian Republic in 1989. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that it is a somewhat better choice than Australia made with its Australia Day national holiday since the Hungarian day, in effect, celebrates liberation whereas Australia Day celebrates invasion and genocide.

But this celebration of death and disaster is a good Australian tradition. We also celebrate ANZAC day to signify our memory of the slaughter of tens of thousands of Turks, who died at double the rate of the combined Allied force, and the futile death of thousands of Australians – never mind the fact that it was a dismal, failed, campaign for the ANZACS (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps). 

In Australia, in future, we will, no doubt, celebrate 7 September 2013, as National Idiot Day, when millions of idiotic Australians voted for a another complete idiot who helped to destroy our climate and environment. And that is not accounting for the damage to the entire national psyche caused by witnessing that ex-Prime Minister in budgie smugglers.

Left, Tony Abbott, idiotic Australian ex-PM, psychologically damaged the entire nation. Right, time to have a proper understanding of our history

At Széchenyi Chain Bridge you can see the famous Yoga café. This is a very special Hungarian tradition involving a combined eating area and yoga class. When you have finished dinner and feel bloated and unwell you can work off your dinner with a free yoga class adjacent. In case this makes you feel unwell buckets are provided.

Alternatively, if you do yoga first and feel hungry, rescue is at hand. In Hungary the Yoga Café chain is more popular than McDonalds. In fact the term “chain” came from this cafe which opened next to the chain bridge and were the world’s first “chain” of restaurants¹

Left the famous Széchenyi Chain Bridge and right the even more famous Yoga Chain Restaurant

My remaining three days in Hungary are taken up with exploring the the old city on the Pest side of Budapest, Buda and Pest having been two completely separate cities until the Széchenyi  Bridge was built, as well as travelling upriver to visit Szentendre which was the centre of the Serbian community in Hungary, though only about 100 Serbs remain, today. It seems that others were latterly as unpleasant to the Serbs as they have been to others.

When the Serbs fled from Kosovo and southern regions of Serbia in fear of Turkish revenge the Austrian emperor Leopold I allowed Serbian refugees to cross the Danube in 1690, and during that period, many Serbian families settled in the region around Budapest. Szentendre, known as Sentandreja (Сентандреја) in Serbian, thus became the religious, cultural and political centre of Serbs in Hungary. They were later persecuted in World Wars 1 and 2 and most fled back to Serbia.

Szentendre: lots of Serbian Orthodox church glitter plus artists markets

Szentendre is on the Danube River, north of Budapest and reached by a one hour local train ride. It’s known for its baroque architecture, churches, colourful houses and narrow, cobbled streets. The main square, Fő Tér, and the alleyways around it are lined with art galleries, museums and shops. Just off the square, the 18th-century Greek Orthodox Blagovestenska Church are worth a visit for the elaborate decor and an ornate partition screen.

The old city of Pest is architecturally stunning and St Stephen’s Basilica and the Opera House certainly give nothing away to any other cathedral or opera house…providing you are a fan of gold and glitz. The upper parts of the cathedral also provide stunning views over the Danube and the old city. Even so, Prague still has my vote.

The Budapest Opera House. Hungarians reckon no other can hold a candle to it

My last day in Budapest takes me down to Heroes Square. It’s a half an hour walk from my AirBnB. This area is half tourist trap and half locals hang-out, but is a must-visit area of Budapest. Here in the City Park, one of Budapest’s largest inner city parks, you can find not only the said Heroes, on their horses, but Széchenyi Baths, the largest medicinal bath in Europe, Vajdahunyad Castle on its lake, the Zoo and Botanical Gardens and two museums, the Kunstalle Art Gallery (contemporary art) and the Museum of Fine Art. And you can easily get there via Metro to the Széchenyi station on the M1 (yellow line).

Vajdahunyad Castle is yet another monument to nationalism, Christianity and war – and their brother, genocide and persecution. One could argue that Christianity and war are pretty much the same – or at least cause and effect. The castle was built in 1896 as part of the Millennial Exhibition which celebrated the 1,000 years of Hungary and Magyar history since the Hungarian Conquest of the Carpathian Basin in 895. In its juxtaposition with Heroes Square, built at the same time one is left in no doubt about the role of men in nationalism and the associated blood and gore.

Vajdhunyad Castle and Heroes Square. More monuments to militarism

From an egalitarian point of view the sole redeeming feature of Heroes Square (apart from artistic value) is that when the monument was originally constructed the last five spaces on the left of the colonnade were reserved for members of the ruling Habsburg dynasty. The Habsburg emperors, in a fit of democracy, were replaced with Hungarian freedom fighters when the monument was rebuilt after World War II.

The Zoo & Botanical Garden is the oldest in Hungary and one of the oldest in the world. It has 1,072 animal species. It you enjoy seeing imprisoned animals this one is for you. Although parts are fine most of the larger animals are kept in enclosures that are in poor condition and are unacceptably small.

You can spend most of the day here wandering around City park and its environs but the Idiot Traveller warning here is: keep an eye on the time. In true style I came here primarily for the magnificent Széchenyi thermal baths but reached the entrance just as they were closing.

For my sins I came face to face with a remnant of East European customer service in the person of a very large, very unfriendly, cross between a staff member and a concentration camp guard who simply shouted at me when I attempted to ask her simple questions about entering the baths.

There are 18 baths in total, their water supplied by two thermal springs, their temperature is 74 °C and 77 °C, but the actual pool temperatures vary between 18° and  up to 40°c in the “medicinal” pools.

Stirred but not shaken by my encounter with a remnant of communist era customer service I head off back to my AirBnB to prepare for my departure for Croatia. Maybe that bastion of fascism will have better customer service than the ex-Soviet Union Hungary does.


¹This is known as “fake news” or alternatively “alternative facts” and is introduced here to ensure this blog is up to date with the latest trends.

This is Part 13 of the blog series “97 Days Adrift in Europe”. Links to other episodes and related content can be found below:

  1. Part 6 – Travelling South
  2. Part 11 – Prague
  3. Part 12 – Travelling Crazy – Banks

The Flickr Archive of images used in this post can be found below:

  1. Budapest: Liberty Square
  2. Budapest: Detail
  3. Budapest Opera House
  4. Budapest: Old City
  5. Budapest: St Stephen’s Basilica
  6. Szentendre

 


			

Europe 2017 (Episode 4): A Holiday Oxymoron – Visiting Mljet – another “undiscovered Mediterranean Island”

Like military intelligence, the living dead, found missing and Microsoft Works, the concept of an undiscovered Mediterranean Island is about as near to reality as Australia being the Clever Country. So it is with Mljet – our island getaway, just over an hour from Dubrovnik. To be fair, however, the claim was “European Islands without a lot of Tourists”. Mljet could fit that definition depending on your definition of ‘a lot’.

Regardless, if you are not seeking a wilderness experience, it is a little gem, with crystal clear water, picture perfect clifftop and coastal villages, great walking and riding and spectacular scenery.

Odysseus Cave, Mljet; deep blue clear, cool water

The ferry ride from Dubrovnik takes about an hour from the modern port by the local fast cat. Coming from the north you can also, get there via the catamaran service that comes from Split.

This is the only part of the five week trip that is largely unplanned, so we arrive at Sobra, on Mljet, with no idea how we will get to Saplunara, on the southern, and quietest, end of the island.

This sort of unplanned arrival is, theoretically, the best type of holiday, where one just travels and arrives on a whim and makes the best of the opportunities that present themselves.

Saplunara; the peaceful southern end of Mljet

In this case it is just an Idiot Traveller oversight of the sort that is eminently avoidable if only I had actually given some thought to our next stop. Had we arrived on a weekend it is likely no cars would have been available so we would have been largely marooned on one end of Mljet which would have been very useful as most of what we want to do is on the other end. As it is we are able to hire a car just at the port.

This is where my instinctive reversion to adolescent tendencies cuts in and I can’t resist hiring a convertible VW Golf. Most of the cars available are, in fact, convertibles but even so my latent male bogan tendencies allow me revert to my memories of screaming around the European roads in my old convertible Triumph Vitesse. Usually I was over both the speed limit and the safe alcohol limit – albeit this was before the days when there was breath testing and before anyone, apparently believed drink driving was a problem.

Triumph Vitesse

Look just like my old Triumph – you can take away the car but you can’t take away the latent hoon

It takes about an hour to drive from one end of Mljet to the other along winding roads, and we enjoy views which, if you bought properties that had similar views, would cost $10 million if they were anywhere near the coast in Australia.

We quickly discover that the VW has no synchro, limited braking ability and a hole in the exhaust. This gives everyone within five kilometres the impression that an entire fleet of Triumph motorcycles is passing in convoy. For us, in the car, the exhaust problem threatens not only deafness but early brain damage via carbon monoxide fumes. And this is leaving aside the damage to Kaylee’s perm, and to her complexion, caused by too much wind and sun.

Our AirBnB at Saplunara sits on a quiet dirt road about 30 seconds walk from a spot where you can plunge off the rocks or, in the opposite direction a two minute walk from a quiet, partially shaded beach. It’s not really my type of beach but Kaylee is like the proverbial pig in shit with the tranquility, the sunshine and the water. Plenty of time to relax and read. On top of all those good things, the local village about five minutes drive away has a restaurant with a great location and good food and wine like a scene out of the Lotus Eaters¹.

In the morning we roar off, literally, to the other end of Mljet. The northern end is mainly national park but, if you want the party scene, also has the town of Pomena, just on the tip of the island.

The only real attraction of Pomena, for me, is that it has the only dive centre on the island, and so I get to go diving on our third day.

The owner of the dive centre, dive-master, boat captain and laconic Mjletian is, Ive Sosa, from the Aquatic Diver Centre, who quietly tolerates my apparent inability to organise or put on any of my equipment in any sort of manner that will ensure my survival for more than a few minutes underwater.

In our modern world, diving is a curious anomaly. It requires a massive infrastructure of boats, dive shops, ports, and equipment and the consumption of huge amounts of fuel to get to the dive spots but is one of the most tranquil, peaceful and meditative experiences available to humankind.

You slide beneath the waves and are left with just the sound of the escaping air. Your vision is narrowed to just what lies in front and you descend into this almost soundless nether world of rhythm, soft light, and sensuous movement. Everything, even the divers, try to move with a minimalist elegance of effort, conserving air and energy.

Meditation, yoga, the mountains, the wild lands – all places or states to which people go to find some form of tranquility, a type of transformation in a society where there remain few quiet places. The rhythm of swimming gives a form of meditative state to some but there are few greater states of grace than that experienced below the water’s surface.

We dive on an ancient 5th century wreck which is still surrounded by the pottery and old bricks that were destined for the, now ruined, palace at Polace, nearby. Visibility is about 50 metres. At about 12 metres I understand why Ive insisted I wear a hood on my wetsuit when we encounter a thermocline and suddenly the water temperature plunges from a pleasant 20°c down to about 12°c in the space of one metre. Thermoclines are most evident during the summer; the first at 3 – 5 metres, the next one at about 12 metres, and another at 18 metres.

Diving Mljet, crystal clear water, few currents and multiple great dive sites

To get to Pomena, our route takes us along the eastern side of the mountain ridge and past numerous jewel-like coastal towns, sitting hundreds of metres below our route along the main road. Each town has its own perfect bay filled with million dollar yachts, .

We visit four towns, on our way to Pomena and back, Korita, Okuklje, Kozarika and Blato. They are all perched around their bays with crystal clear water and old stone buildings, largely unspoilt by the waves of tourism that have overtaken much of Europe.

We venture down to each in turn, over the next two days, to see what they have to offer. Each is quite different with the sole shared quality being those crystal waters and a bunch of perfectly located AirBnBs and cafe-restaurants.

Korita, tranquil crystal clear water, million dollar yachts

En route to Pomena we also do a side trip down to Odysseus Cave. The descent is down several hundred steps which is a fortunate deterrent to many. We arrive at 9 am and have the rock platforms and caves entirely to ourself. Here you plunge off the rock platform into fifty metres of clear water and then, in calm weather, swim into the cave. Inside are the remnants of the old ramps on which fishermen used to store their boats and massive falls of rock which have carved off the cave roof.

Okuklje

Our first stop in the national park is Great Lake, at the centre of the park. The lake is encircled by a walking and cycling track and its history is dominated by the ancient 12th century Benedictine monastery on the Isle of Saint Mary. It remained a monastery until 1808 when Napoleon decided the monks had better things to do with their lives and then subsequently became a hotel. It has only recent started being repaired after the Croatian Government returned it to the church. The lake and its surrounds provide a relaxing days cycling, kayaking, swimming and checking out the local history.

Great Lake and the Island of St Mary

Our return trip takes us to Blato. Unlike the coastal towns that have benefited from tourism, Blato, once a thriving town of 250 is now a largely empty and much abandoned old town of just 40 people. It was the third settlement on the island and is the location of one the islands perched lakes as well as being one of the main agricultural areas on the island.

Blato provides the Idiot Traveller with a standard travellers’ intelligence test. This requires us to work out how to put on the roof in order to prevent further carnage being visited on us by the intense afternoon sun.

Travelling in a convertible one quickly realises why they never became the dominant transport mode since there are only about two countries on earth where the climate is sufficiently benign to prevent you either getting fried by the sun or frozen in driving wind or rain.

Blato, once a thriving community of 250 now largely abandoned in the flight to the coast

From Mljet it is back to Dubrovnik. We drop the Suzuki off, which has replaced the VW Golf when we could no longer tolerate the sense of imminent death that the brakes of the Golf engendered. The return trip is on the catamaran from Split, which was probably built in Tasmania (the catamaran not Split), a trip we do in company of several dozen teenagers. They spend the trip taking selfies and the males spend the trip preening in front of the girls each like latter day versions of Warren Beatty, about who the song “You’re so Vain” was allegedly written (at least in part).


¹ In Greek mythology the lotus-eaters (Greek: λωτοφάγοι, lōtophagoi), also referred to as the lotophagi or lotophaguses (singular lotophagus /ləˈtɒfəɡəs/) or lotophages (singular lotophage /ˈltəf/), were a race of people living on an island dominated by lotusplants. The lotus fruits and flowers were the primary food of the island and were a narcotic, causing the inhabitants to sleep in peaceful apathy.

This post is the fourth in the series Europe 2017 – From Corsica to Bosnia – links to previous posts in the series are below:

  1. Corsica
  2. Florence
  3. The Balkans

For the Flickr archive that contains all all the images from which the photos in this post were selected click on this link

Europe 2017 (Episode 3): The Balkans: Beauty and the Beast – from Dubrovnik to Sarajevo

The trip through the mainland Balkans starts in Dubrovnik. But to get to Dubrovnik we must first leave Bari, in Italy, by ferry. We arrive at the port to find that the ferry is delayed by several hours, apparently. No one is quite sure how long and, like the quintessential Disappearing Man of Isaac Asimov novels, any staff member of Jadrolinija Ferries who could supply useful information is as disappeared as they can be.

Hence we wait in the not very salubrious terminal served by one slightly seedy takeaway that, in common with most of Corsica, from which we have just travelled takes only cash. Light entertainment is served by watching the ferry to Albania which appears to have no timetable, having been loading for appears to be give hours and is still doing so and by also watching the other passengers for our ferry.

Dubrovnik

Periodically an additional Albanian will appear and leisurely make his/her way to the ship. There appears to be no rush. I assist one of them, a young woman with child, who is struggling with her luggage. Unsurprisingly since it turns out since her suitcase weighs more than the average fully loaded semi-trailer. She claims to be carrying clothes. In which case they must be gold lined bras and panties. No damage is done other than about five herniated discs in my back.

The ferry dock cannot be seen from where most people are sitting so we are able to observe metaphorical flocks of sheep in action. About every fifteen minutes  someone will pick up their luggage and head through the doors towards the hypothetical location of the ferry. At this point, and despite there being absolutely no new information or any rationale to their decision to move, at least half of the ferry passengers will pick up their bags and follow. This is the cult/crowd mentality at its best of the sort that leads to mob lynchings, gas chambers and queues for iPhones.

We, meanwhile, are not fooled, as we are with two Kiwis, Helen and Kemp, who of course understand sheep-like behaviour extremely well. They are going to Croatia for a wedding because it always makes sense if you are from NZ to hold your weddings in the farthest corner of Croatia.

On the other hand it gives them (and us) an excuse to drink champagne. Even better it is their champagne. Given that rugby season is coming it is unlikely Australians will be buying champagne any time soon. We also consume the bottle of Corsican mead that I brought on one of the walking trails. This is the best form of travel: random meetings, good conversation, champagne, mead. In this context delays are irrelevant.

For those that have not yet visited Dubrovnik which, judging by the crowds on the main street of the old city, can only be about half a dozen people, Dubrovnik is, daily, like a beautiful dessert placed before a crowd of gluttons. It will survive for seconds before being entirely ruined. It’s beauty is best appreciated in the two hours around dawn – that is before it is effectively destroyed by the descending hordes.

Dubrovnik

Like many other places where tourism has effectively, if not actually, destroyed the goose that laid the golden egg, it is hard to appreciate the real beauty of this ancient city when fighting ones way through the thousands of visitors, not least the hordes that descent ‘en masse’ from cruise ships like some sort of biblical plague.

In the last 20 years or so the population of the old city has plummeted from 5000 to 1000 as the locals are driven out by rising rents, lack of any shops other than cafes, bars, and shops selling un-needed gifts to unthinking travellers. And that’s leaving aside the conversion of almost every available bit of sleeping space to AirBnB.

Dubrovnik

We have two stops in Dubrovnik, one on arrival in Croatia and one on departure. For some reason known only to the Idiot Traveller I have managed, on both occasions, to book AirBnBs at the very highest point of the city just inside the city walls. Thus, several times a day we are required to stagger up about 200 + steps to the top of the city. Bad for both my knee and humour.

These ascents involve a sort of game of chicken with those descending where, at the hot times of day, everyone tries to stay in the sixty centimetres of shade next to the buildings. Fortunately it is only mid thirties while we are there as opposed to the 45ºc which Croatia endures the following week.

Like every couple, Kaylee and I have points of difference in our travelling routines. I like to avoid every market and shop as if they were sources of the Black Death whereas, for Kaylee, shopping and buying is one of the pleasures of travel. It seems that every second shop sells potential gifts for friends and relatives and our trip is punctuated by approximately 652 visits to inspect potential purchases.

This difference has been exacerbated, on this trip, by the “imminent” arrival of the first MacKenzie grandchild. As a result all of Europe has been scoured for baby clothes and gifts even though “imminent” in this case means at least six months away.

We also differ on beaches and driving speeds. Kaylee feels, for whatever bizarre reason, that, since I almost killed her by rolling her Subaru station wagon some years ago, I should restrain myself from acting like Ayrton Senna on Croatia’s windy roads. Perhaps justifiably, since Senna is dead.

Night time Dubrovnik

I also feel that any beach without waves or somewhere to kayak, dive etc is not a real beach, whereas she is quite happy to be on any beach with sun and water. She is also unsupportive of puns, word plays or interesting statistical analyses, all things which any reasonable partner should be prepared to endure until death do us part. I on the other hand, being inestimably tolerant, put up with the 652 gift shop visits with good humour and patience. Such is life.

Beyond these differences we travel reasonably amicably following the itinerary which I, as resident travel agent, have picked out. Croatia is the third country on our five country European tour and, like most places, if you can get away from peak periods and peak locations, it is beautiful and relatively deserted.

Dubrovnik in the morning and at night, after most people have either not yet got up or have already gone to bed, is a magical town of tiny streets, magnificent old buildings and breeze-kissed rock rock platforms perched above the Adriatic.

Dubrovnik

Travelling through the Balkans and Turkey is like a primer in life. Sometimes it seems a hard and brutal road if you look at the history, but, at the same time one is surrounded by ineffable beauty and acts of compassion. To know and understand the history of this region is to understand the total and utter failure of the concept leadership as defined by western democracy and, more generally, humans.

Greece, Turkey, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Turkey, Armenia, Kosovo, Montenegro. These are lands swept by repeated genocides. An eye for an eye makes us all blind. So far as I can tell only the Bosnian Muslims are largely innocent, in recent times. Even so there was at least one massacre of Serbians by Bosnian troops during the siege of Sarajevo.

The Greeks murdered the Turks, the Turks the Greeks, The Armenians murdered the Kurds and Turks and vice versa. The Croats murdered the Serbians and the Bosnians. The Serbians murdered the Croats and Bosnians. And on and on.

Unlike the Jewish holocaust, but like the Rwandan, Nigerian, Syrian and other genocides, these are repeated mass murders largely already forgotten. In Srebrenica alone the Serbians murdered 31000 people. Or at least there have been 8000 bodies recovered but another 23,000 Muslims remain unaccounted for 25 years after the war ended.

These were not casualties of war but victims of a brutal civilian ethnic cleansing where the Serbs executed almost every last able bodied Muslim male they could get hold off. Those that fled to the mountains were also hunted and murdered wherever possible. In total more than 100,000 people died in the war.

Our journey, in the Balkans starts in Dubrovnik, follows the bus route to Mostar in Herzegovina and wends its way onto Sarajevo in Bosnia also by bus. As I travel I read Rose of Sarajevo and Birds without Wings, both historical novels that document the sweep of history of 40 years of massacres during the death throes of the Ottoman Empire and through to the civil war in Bosnia. An un-ending tapestry of blood and brutality.

En route Mostar to Sarajevo

Each nation – one cannot say ethnic group because all these nations are composed largely of South Slavs – Yugoslavia means South Slavia – document carefully the atrocities committed by others against them but ignore totally the identical genocidal fury they unleashed at other times, in return.

Thus we find ourselves in the old fort above Dubrovnik where, in 1991-2, a handful of ill-equipped Croats held out against the entire remnants of the old Yugoslavian army, navy and airforce (the latter two of which the Croats had none). The Serbs, in defiance, of world opinion and seemingly out a spite that achieved almost nothing, proceeded to pummel world heritage listed Dubrovnik reducing large parts to rubble.

Here the Croats have created a museum commemorating that resistance and documenting the brutality of the Serb invaders. There is no mention, of course, of either the genocidal slaughter by the Nazi backed Ustashe Croat fascists during World War 2 nor of the revenge slaughter and expulsion of Serbs, in 1995, after the Croats had rebuilt their own army.

Mostar War Damage, the old town and old bridge

From Dubrovnik we head north and east to Mostar and Sarajevo in Bosnia Herzegovina (The name Herzegovina means “duke’s land”, referring to the medieval duchy of Stjepan Vukčić Kosača who took title “Herzeg of Saint Sava”. Herceg is derived from the German title Herzog).

We travel from Dubrovnik to Mostar by bus mainly because in the aftermath of the war many of the train routes connecting Bosnia to Croatia and Serbia no longer operate and we are deposited at a typically ugly bus station – nowhere in Eastern Europe is immune from the plague of soviet era architecture and the descendants of that architectural style.

From here we are fleeced double the normal charge for our taxi ride from our bus station to our AirBnB. The same taxi driver offers to take us on a tour of the local area at a price that we later find is as inflated as buying smashed avocado in eastern Sydney. This is the sort of price that the Idiot Traveler would pay without checking.

But as usual we are smart and fail to take up his offer out of sheer inertia. The route to the AirBnB takes us through Mostar’s civil war front line where the Croat leaders having betrayed the Bosnians, with whom they were formerly in alliance, sent their troops to try and create a greater Croatia from stolen Bosnian land.

Mostar

Mostar is an odd city. In many ways it is nothing special – much of the city is just a pretty ordinary modern urban centre. The old city, the part for which most people visit, is a tiny part of Mostar, just a street or three wide and a few hundred metres long. There are genuinely old parts that survived largely undamaged but significant parts were entirely reconstructed after the damage of the Balkans war and many buildings remain as ruins, or are full of bullet holes.

Those few streets are an archetypal tourist trap of market shops and restaurants perched above the river selling a mixture of everything from genuinely gorgeous art pieces through to junk. The famous old bridge itself is not, of course, old having been famously, and deliberately, destroyed by the Croatians during the war.

Mostar

But despite all that one cannot but be struck by the sublime juxtaposition of the old city and bridge perched above the deep green Neretva River. Mostar is named after the ‘mostari’ (the bridge keepers). We are fortunate to have one of the best AirBnBs in Mostar with a stunning view of the bridge, a breakfast costing $5 that would cost $20 in Australia and hosts who are friendly and who also double as our tour guides to the areas around Mostar.

There are five mosques and two churches visible from the balcony a reflection of the diversity that means Bosnia has one of the world’s most complicated political systems reflecting the disparate political ambitions of Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats – something that further exacerbates an economic situation that has led to 27% unemployment including youth unemployment of 66%.

From Mostar we move onto Sarajevo arriving after a circuitous bus trip through the spectacular mountain scenery and gorges surrounding the Neretva River.

We would have preferred to go by train as the train journey is reputed to be scenically one of the best in Europe but for reasons best know to Bosnian railways the line, which re-opened in July, only has two trains a day. The first of these requires you to get up at about 5 am, or some similar ungodly hour, and the second, and last, of which deposits you in Sarajevo in the middle of the night. No one, apparently, wants to travel at any civilised time of day.

We find our AirBnB is within spitting distance of old Sarajevo. In common with Mostar much of the old and a great part of modern Sarajevo had to be rebuilt having been shelled repeatedly by the Serbs, who controlled all the hills surrounding Sarajevo and mounted a siege of the town.

Reports indicated an average of approximately 329 shell impacts per day during the course of the siege, with a maximum of 3,777 on 22 July 1993.[6] This urbicide [6] Among buildings targeted and destroyed were hospitals and medical complexes, media and communication centres, industrial complexes, government buildings and military and UN facilities.

Sarajevo: Despite the bloody war & graves, still multicultural

The Siege of Sarajevo was the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. After being initially besieged by the forces of the Yugoslav People’s Army, Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was besieged by the Army of Republika Srpska from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996 (1,425 days) during the Bosnian War.

The siege lasted three times longer than the Battle of Stalingrad and more than a year longer than the Siege of Leningrad.[4].

More than 10,000 people died during that time and for much of the war the only access in and out of the city was via a 1.6 metre high tunnel dug by Sarajevans under the airport which was controlled by the UN. All Bosnian arms supplies came in and out of the city by this route. The siege was effectively ended by NATO intervention in 1994/5.