The Marrakesh Express – Two Weeks in Morocco Pt 1. Maudlin’ Musicians and Metal Miners

I must have been in my teens when “Marrakesh Express” came out (1969). Those were heady days. Before Hendrix (1970) and Joplin died (1970). The Lizard King was still alive (died 1971). We were still trapped in Hotel California. Barclay James Harvest would play at our school a year or two later, followed by Genesis. We paid them £200 and a year later they were playing in Brighton for£2000. There are some music pundits that say that Marrakesh Express is among the worst pop songs ever written. But we didn’t care because to us it represented something totally different from the school environment in which we were trapped.

I can remember, to this day, singing the lyrics of the CSN song and fantasising with my teenage mates about heading off to Morocco – before we even really know what drugs and sex were. Instead I made it to the Costa del Sol, with two other school friends, where we got drunk on cheap champagne and risked imprisonment by hiring a car on a provisional licence and then driving around the Pyrenees with no insurance. That was the limit of our budget, nerve and time.

Had we met any women in Spain, I know that I, for one, would have had no idea what to say, let alone anything else. Being brought up with two brothers and attending an all male school for all but two of your school years will do that. It took me another 15 odd years (odd being the operative term) before I got over that handicap in life and, I’m sure, some of my female friends will argue I never got over it.

So, I guess, Morocco had been on the proverbial bucket list for somewhere around 50 years before I finally landed in Fes, earlier this year. A trip taken somewhat wiser about things like drugs and sex (or at least I like to believe so) but just as profoundly ignorant about Morocco and most of Africa.


Marrakesh Express

Whoopa, hey mesa, hooba huffa, hey meshy goosh goosh

Looking at the world through the sunset in your eyes
Traveling the train through clear Moroccan skies
Ducks and pigs and chickens call, animal carpet wall to wall
American ladies five-foot tall in blue

Sweeping cobwebs from the edges of my mind
Had to get away to see what we could find
Hope the days that lie ahead bring us back to where they’ve led
Listen not to what’s been said to you

Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?
Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?
They’re taking me to Marrakesh
All aboard the train, all aboard the train

I’ve been saving all my money just to take you there
I smell the garden in your hair
Take the train from Casablanca going South
Blowing smoke rings from the corners of my mouth

Colored cottons hang in the air
Charming cobras in the square
Striped djellabas we can wear at home
Well, let me hear ya now

Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?

Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?

They’re taking me to Marrakesh

Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?

Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?

They’re taking me to Marrakesh

All aboard the train, all aboard the train, all aboard


And so I boarded my RyanAir flight. As any wise traveller knows this, in itself, was my first mistake. Non Gaelic speakers may not know it but Ryan is the Gaelic word for “complete shite”. And if it’s not it should be. If you don’t have a bad back when you board you will when you are carried off. The seats are made from some form of indestructible rigid plastic and, far from reclining, are actually set in a bolt upright position.

RyanAir. Almost impossible to find anything uglier or less comfortable

The décor is what you imagine they’d put in Guantanamo to torture the inmates. And all this before you even get to the booking process and charges which if you have any self-respect, you’d never put yourself through twice. People say “Oh but it’s a budget airline”. I mean, Aldi is a budget supermarket but no one would go there if they behaved like RyanAir. Can you imagine? Want to walk down the aisles? That’ll be $5. Basket? $5. Customer assistance? $20. Pay for your goods? $5. Use the toilet $10. Still at least we got their alive albeit with a stiff neck and sciatica.

My second mistake in Morocco was breaking rule 2 (the first being don’t travel RyanAir) – which is don’t try and cram a four week itinerary into a two week period. One would imagine any Idiot Traveller would know this after 60 odd years of travelling. But no. So Morocco turned out to be like the proverbial curate’s egg, I.e good in parts – meaning of course that a revisit is required to make amends.

This is a country which is fundamentally Muslim and traditional in it’s Berber culture. It’s population is about 75% Berber and about 25% Arabic.

Morocco hasn’t been overly corrupted by tourism, and is also a relatively modern in ways that many African countries are not yet. Good public transport, good drinking water, great food, good accommodation and remarkable accomodating to tourists. So it’s really the best of both worlds. Politically is is relatively liberal and socially and religiously it falls somewhere between a historically liberal and secular muslim society, such as Turkey (perhaps was), and the more conservative societies of Iran and Saudi.

On the road to Merzouga, Morocco

My two week trip took me on a circuit via Fes, to Volubilis the ancient Roman city, to Merzouga, in the desert, and then on through the Atlas mountains to Marrakech before finishing my trip in Casablanca and then flying back out from Fes.

It’s a day long trip into the desert but it’s a trip that should really take at least two days and once you are there it’s a full day trip back to Fes or onto Marrakech. In the ideal world this should be a week’s circuit at minimum. A couple of days out. Three or four in the desert and a couple of days back. And even that is scratching the surface.

On the road to Merzouga

My first AirBnB was in the heart of the Medina, which is reputedly the largest and oldest in Africa. Morocco greeted me with freezing weather and the tail end of a few days of rain. And it turned out that the AirBnb, I’d selected, while having many redeeming features, not least it’s location, could well have doubled as the site for the winter Olympics.

Absent any heating the only solution, after about 4 pm, was either to go out or to bury oneself in bed wearing every possible scrap of clothing. Still the food  cooked by our friendly hosts was good and his brother, usefully, also owned a cafe about 50 metres up the road which allowed for evening entertainment and supplies not normally available  in the Medina.

I shared the paid bit of the accommodation with two other guests, an Australian woman, Tiffany and a French woman, Alex, with whom I would visit the desert out near Merzouga.

Mohamed and the monkeys at the ski resort

The Idiot Traveller rule for all new places is to have at least a half day, if not a full day. for organisational purposes. Work out where you are going to go. Find the teller machines, the railway and bus station, the best cafes, the interesting bars, the live music. Work out the timetables, plan your route, make your bookings if necessary.

Fes (Blue gate, Mosque, square outside Medina, pottery shop)

Then a minimum of two days to put that plan into effect. That’s the theory but often the first day turns into a sort of desultory blob of a day where you get up late, have a brunch, get some money out, study your map over a coffee, stroll around a bit and climb up the nearest hill (if there is one) where you can buy a wine and look at the city below. That then becomes your spare day so you need four days minimum instead of three. So that was day one in Fes. Meaning the first part of day two is taken up doing what you should have done on day one.

Fes

My second day in Fes involved a side trip to Volubilis, the ancient and former capital or Roman Mauretania. Not that I was aware that the Romans even came this far south-west but clearly they did since just an hour from Fes is bloody great Roman ruin, estimably well preserved.

This was an Idiot Traveller instant decision – the sort you make when you haven’t been forced to make decisions of any importance for so long that you can no longer remember how to make them. Shall I go, shan’t I go, shall I go, shan’t I go…for about four hours. With the result that by the time I actually headed for the station it was already about 11 am.

So you jump the train omitting to note that one should get off at the second stop in Meknes. As a result you descend at the first station in town thus finding yourself marooned several kilometres from the “grand taxis” which you are supposed to share to go to Moulay Idriss, the nearest town, and then on to Volubilis.

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The holy city of Moulay Idriss

Here I encounter Chloë Mayoux who has made the same mistake as I but hasn’t yet realised that she has made that mistake. Chloë is a half French, half British being. She can’t decide if she is French or British and thus was a sort of Brexit before Brexit ever existed.

Cat Brexit

Chloë says she feels more British than French even though she exhibits every sign of being psychologically about 90% French and prefers to speak French. She is being cajoled by an elderly Moroccan who is trying, illegally, to sell her an unofficial tour of Volubilis.

On seeing me he determines that I shall (a) be his second victim and (b) by persuading me he will also be able to persuade Chloë as the cost to each of us will be halved. Unfortunately for him I perform the Scots gambit, a tourism form of a chess move which prevents one being checkmated by a clever tourism operator and saves a lot of money.

So I persuade Chloë, clearly against her better judgement, to share a petit taxi to where we can get a shared grand taxi. 

Chloë’s protective alarm systems are at Code Red. I can sense the hackles rising on the back of her neck as she tries to decide if I am (a) an axe murderer (b) a sex slave trader (c) merely a dirty old man who is likely to annoy and harass her. Having made the judgement that the latter is the most likely and reasonably benign outcome, but clearly still being very doubtful, we set off.

Communication is sparse as Chloë follows the female strategy of “don’t think I’m going to encourage your interest in me by speaking to you”.  This is a sort of partial inverse of the female complaint about being sexually invisible after about age 50.

strangers

In fact the same sense of invisibility applies to older men but, not only that, one is burdened with the perils of being perceived as a potential serial molester of young women if one is the least bit friendly to any female stranger under the age of 30. It is perhaps poetic justice for several thousand years of patriarchy.

Arriving eventually at Volubilis I can tell that the last thing Chloë wants is to be forced to do the tour of the ruins with me. Which is fine because I feel the same way. For me being forced to undertake tours as part of a group, however small, is about as satisfying is it is for my partner to be forced to take me shopping. It ruins the entire experience.  Still we bump into each other a few times as we tour the ruins and by the time we come to return it appears that Chloë is no longer at code red.

Volubilis itself is a delight. It’s large and well preserved as Roman ruins go. It sits high on a mini-plateau with spectacular views all around – especially good for sunset viewing – and it has a plethora of well preserved buildings, mosaics and bath houses.

This was the ancient capital of the Roman-Berber kingdom of Mauretania and, as such, was full of grand buildings. Historically this was also the capital of numerous empires. Built in and occupied since the 3rd century BC, Volubilis had seen its share of residents – Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Romans – before being taken back by the locals by 285 AD.

The city remained occupied by Latin Christians, then Muslims, then the Idrisid dynasty, the founders of modern Morocco. In the 11th century, it was abandoned when the seat of power moved to Fes. The ruins remained substantially intact until they were devastated by an earthquake in the mid-18th century and subsequently looted by Moroccan rulers seeking stone for building Meknes.

The buildings include a massive arch to the Emperor Caracalla. It was built in 217 by the city’s governor, Marcus Aurelius Sebastenus, to honour the Emperor and his mother. Caracalla was himself a North African and had recently extended Roman citizenship to the inhabitants of Rome’s provinces.

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The Triumphal Arch of Caracalla

By the time the arch was finished both Caracalla and his mother, Julia had been murdered by a usurper – perhaps a warning against misplaced vanity. Other major buildings include the Capitol dedicated to Juno, Jupiter and Minerva and the Basilica . The Capitol was built under the obscure (at least to me) Emperor Macrin (the ancestor of the current French President, perhaps).

The Arch, Basilica and Capitol, Volubilis

Volubilis is sufficiently intact that, wandering around the ruins, in and out among the baths, houses and mosaics one can almost imagine the footsteps of a thousand years ago, echoing down the stone streets. In winter this is exploration of the past at its best. There are few places in the world to see better examples of Roman mosaics, in situ.

Volubilis. Every step a joy

Our return trip to Fes is more relaxed and somewhat hilarious, or at least the first part. Our “grand taxi” is an old Mercedes which is already completely full save the front passenger seat. This means that Chloë and I have to share that seat and I make the mistake of not insisting on being in middle.

Being a manual car this means that every time the driver changes gear Chloë has to perform a feat of yoga practice combining a new move, known as upward dog, combined with a right hand twist in order to avoid getting groped by the taxi driver each time he changes gear. This is repeated about 40 times on the trip becoming increasingly hilarious as time passes. Maybe it was the Roman air. Our return to the station is made easy by a Moroccan woman who goes out of her way to accompany us the 500 metres to the station out of the goodness of her heart and we finally arrive back in Fes around 8 pm.

I have another day in Fes. The Fes Medina has allegedly over 8000 streets and lanes and venturing out into that maze of alleys to find a particular location is a bit like looking for ethics and values in a modern day democracy. They are out there somewhere but finding them is somewhat tortuous with no guarantee of success.

In my view better by far just to set off blindly and hope that, by chance, good things will happen. This was my plan if you can call a plan with only unknown unknowns a plan. But the advantage is that you stumble across all sorts of interesting little side alleys and cafes populated only by locals where you can either have good conversations or get mugged and robbed.

Either are, of course, interesting experiences but one is less stressful than the other. In addition you escape the majority of the other tourists who tend to stick to tried and true routes. Still since I was close to the famous blue Gate and the tannery these were included in my itinerary.

The trip to the desert was like Gordon and Speke’s search for the source of the Nile. We knew, ostensibly where we were going, but beyond that we had little information about the how, when, why or who with.

Lake Victoria
Lake Victoria, Nile source

This was a variation on my Fes Medina exploration, this time with some known unknowns as well as unknown unknowns. I was to travel with Alex, a young Frenchwoman just about to return to France having finished her studies, who was desperate to visit the desert before she left.

Then there was Mohamed the owner of the AirBnB, his cousin Salah and there was the driver who was apparently anonymous and who tried hard not to smile or communicate during the entire trip. 

Prior to leaving I knew only Mohamed and Salah among the group and they were the known unknowns.  Alex, Mohamed and Salah had known each other for a while, so I felt a bit like the third wheel.

Alex and me, Mohamed and me, the two boys and Alex and the road trip crew

Alex and Salah, in particular, and Mohamed to a lesser degree apparently had a form of love hate relationship going on where which felt like some form of asexual codependency where Salah spent the entire trip trying to touch and fondle Alex, which she accepted and appeared to even like until such time as it went beyond some unwritten and unspoken boundary at which point a shouting match would start and Salah would sulk off in a passive aggressive way until the entire sequence started again.

The trip to the desert passes through the nearest ski resorts and through many kilometres of semi-desert with the shining Atlas mountains in the distance.

It’s a fascinating trip broken by a few stops to visit villages and desert oases en route.

Each of the stops and where we go next is a bit of a magic mystery tour because Mohamed’s idea of being a tour guide is to just to go and not really tell anyone where the tour group is going, or when or why. The exemplar of this was arriving in Merzouga where Mohamed and Salah just mysteriously disappeared leaving Alex and I abandoned with no information and, more importantly, no alcohol.

In the morning we pile into the van and are driven out to Khamlia to see a performance by a group of musicians from the Gnaoua – about whom you can read more below.

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The music and performance are worth going for but for the sense that The Gnaoua musicians feel like a cross between circus performers and sweatshops labourers in Bangladesh.

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The Gnaoua – maudlin musicians

There is a distinct sense of ennui which makes watching the performers a tad uncomfortable for the onlookers – in fact some look so sad at being there  that you feel that they are about to start weeping – . You know you will be shuffled out the door and in another half an hour the performers will perform the same songs for another group of tourists. It’s the sort of thing that makes one want to avoid anything organised of this type.

From here we drive further into the desert to look at a semi-traditional Berber settlement – where the inhabitants are still on the margin of our technological society but are no longer nomadic and then onto a desert mine where a couple of miners scrape a living extracting a variety of stones for jewellery via a semi mechanised small scale mine.

Metal miners in the desert cold

Being winter the conditions are harsh, cold, with a biting dust laden wind. My sense of discomfort at being a spectator of other peoples’ lives is repeated. No matter how hospitable the people are or how interesting the places are the sense of intrusion is overwhelming.

Berber desert dwellings. How to feel intrusive

The sense of exploitation soon becomes a sense of the ridiculous. We are to go into the desert to camp overnight at a desert camp. These are specially constructed for tourists to give them a better sense of being in the desert. Which, in itself, is fine but it’s the way we get there that is somewhat hilarious. We are to go by camel about which I don’t have a particular issue until I discover that while Alex and I are to ride the three others, our camel guide, Mohamed and Saleh are to walk alongside.

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And the poor shall walk. While Alex and I perched precariously on our ships of the desert, like Lord and Lady Muck, the poor people walked

So, there we are perched precariously on our lurching ships of the desert to go to somewhere which is close enough to walk to, while alongside us the serfs are required to walk. Not only that but they are doing so in a wind which constantly lifts sand into all our faces and much so for those walking. It’s a neat encapsulation of modern day capitalism where the rich ride, metaphorically, on the backs of the poor (who cannot afford a camel ride).

Nevertheless the night is entertaining with good food, wine and music….unlike the previous stops the workers at the camp appear to be enjoying their work and the evening jam session is a delight. That combined with the beauty of the desert night and dawn make a Moroccan Desert experience of sorts a must do – just not the way this Idiot Traveller did it.

Alex and Salah desert camp
Dinner in the desert

Music in the desert camp. The locals do the jam session

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There’s a slow train a’coming driving me around the bend.

It is 392 kilometres from Sofia to Belgrade and another 600 kilometres from Belgrade to Vienna. From Vienna you are on the fast rail networks of western Europe but these first two legs of my journey are about 200 years in the past in terms of train technology years.

The trip from Sofia to Belgrade in particular, is the railway equivalent of slow boat up the Nile. The Nile slow boats are a sailing boat called a Felucca, a boat, incidentally, that I know well (more of that in another post).

Felucca
Felucca, Nile River

Faster by Felucca

These train services are so bad they make Australian trains look like the bullet train.

The “Avala”, the Vienna express, and the concrete something at Sofia station

This is serious regret country. Where you think “was this really a good idea to travel from Istanbul all the way to Malaga by train”. Even my fellow passengers look like refugees from some gulag in the east. Either exhausted, rough or disillusioned.

Not much joy from the fellow passengers either

To get a sense of the rapidity of travel we leave at 7 am on a cold Sofia morning and we don’t arrive in Belgrade until about 8 pm. The average speed is 30.15 kilometres per hour. Consider this – the average male marathon runner covers the 42 kilometres of the marathon in about 2 hours or around 21 kilometres per hour.

In other words this inter-city express would win a Boston Marathon but only by around half an hour. Or alternatively the marathoner could theoretically reach Belgrade only a few hours after the train if s/he could keep going – and the trip would probably be more comfortable than the train trip, since it seems that these trains were probably once used to torture their occupants via sleep deprivation. If you do accidentally fall asleep the lurching, bumping and grinding will have you on the deck in a matter of minutes.

There are, by my count 46 stops between the two cities which, if you work it out is one stop every 8.52 kilometres. Most of these stops, apparently, require that the driver or guard, possibly both, get off the train have a short winter holiday and then re-board before leaving the station. On average 0.75% of a person boards or descends at each stop.

From Belgrade to Vienna things decline further, other than the speed which is a little faster. We board the Vienna Express at Belgrade Station. The Vienna Express is likely the East European version of the Marrakesh Express of Crosby, Stills and Nash fame, but absent hippies, drugs and things of interest.

It consists of a single locomotive and carriage and an assortment of co-passengers that look as if they stepped off the set of Midnight Express. The Avala only travels as far as Nis, where we change trains to a the more modern version of our Felucca. To ensure that we are not, however fooled by this impression of modernity, our express journey includes an unscheduled one hour stop in the Serbian countryside just after we have changed trains.

Here we wait in a small town with several other trains while they repair the railway tracks. Apparently they started work on the track the night before and forgot that trains were supposed to run on it the following day (or something like that given that my Serbian was not really up to interpreting the announcement other than it was a track problem). It does have the advantage that we are all able to take a short tour of the village, have a smoke, get extra supplies, or whatever takes our fancy, etc.

The average passenger is also psychologically traumatised since the train, from Belgrade is called the Avala which sounds like it should be some slick modern train. In my brain it sounds a bit like Areva which is, of course, the French company which builds nuclear reactors. It’s the power of association. Even though nuclear reactor are themselves outdated 60s technology.

The psychological dissonance suffered by the passengers who believe they will be boarding something the name of which sounds like the TGV but which operates like the train in the accompanying photo (below, at Nis station) is a traumatic experience for which the railways would be sued were we in the US.

Nis station (right) another model of modernity and (left) the fast train from Nis

For the first world, western European/Australian, traveller the journey through the Serbian countryside is, in itself, also a blast from the past in various senses.

Even the names of the towns such as Dimitrovgrad, where we stop on the Bulgarian/Serbian border, are reminiscent, to my ears, of the greyness of the planned cities of the Soviet Union. And, as it turns out Dimitrovgrad  was exactly that. Here light grey concrete, blends nicely with dark grey concrete in an artistic panorama reminiscent of Peter Dutton’s mind. Devoid of anything pleasant.

Here, we have a Bulgarian/Serbian repetition of my experience of crossing the border from Turkey into Bulgaria which you can read about here. Multiple border guards mount the train and make off with our passports to perform some secret police ritual in the offices of the adjacent buildings. Satisfied that any potential Syrian refugees are not, in fact, on board the train but are back in Ghouta enjoying being murdered by the Assad regime, we are allowed to proceed.

Later we will have a similar border experience at Subotica on Hungarian border, a border which is replete with a 2.5 metre, razor wire topped anti refugee fence. This stop involves not just the standard passport control but also involves the border police getting on their hands and knees and searching under each seat bench for errant refugees.

Despite its shortcomings the trip is scenically quite spectacular as we pass along the Danube River valley gorges near Gradište. The Danube swollen by full floodwaters from the recent storms surges through the gorges past the cliffside forming a spectacular backdrop to the rail trip.

We also pass a plethora of small towns each with its own unique railway building and railway staff who perform the railway rituals that seem to come with the territory in most of the Balkans and eastern Europe. These involve a variety of uniforms, strange hand signals, flag performances and assaults on the train using strange looking hammers.

 

Railway guards each with their own ritual and the railway stations – about 46 of them

Many of the cities are a different story, especially along the train lines. Here, in every country in the world, seem to be the areas that are full of the most impoverished looking, dingy parts of each city.

This is particularly so in many of the major cities of Eastern Europe where every passing kilometre is littered with dead trains, carriages and buildings but, worse, sometimes for tens of kilometres, are ground zero for seemingly uncontrolled rubbish dumping as far as the eye can see.

Abandoned buildings, trains and things. And abandoned hope.

Piles and piles of household, industrial and building waste, much of it plastic. Whether it is the absence of recycling facilities, an historical or current disdain for the environment, the absence of tipping facilities or the cost of disposing of waste it leaves an unpleasant vision of a form of industrialised hell.

Rubbish central. For miles. As far as the eye can see. Here near Belgrade.

As we near Belgrade our train comes to another halt. After half an hour we are informed that the train has broken down. Soon after another train pulls alongside us. The doors are opened and we all climb off, onto the tracks, with our luggage and board the relief train which takes us to Belgrade Center Station.

Now, one might imagine that Belgrade Center might be in the centre of Belgrade but no such luck. It turns out that this is merely a suburban station some 5 kilometres from Belgrade, where some tricky apparatchik has decided to fool all the capitalist visitors by naming it Belgrade Center. Apparently, there is track work between Belgrade Center and Belgrade Central Station, so you can’t get between the two.

Moreover Belgrade Center station is devoid of any immediate public transport connections or even taxis and there is zero signage or information. So I and several fellow passengers mill around wondering how we get from here to Belgrade proper. Eventually we find an office and the staff there order a taxi for us. This signals the end of our journey and where I and another lost passenger share a taxi to downtown Belgrade.

As my AirBnB host says to me, sarcastically when I explain my delay “Welcome to Serbia”

Recent posts published on this blog:

The Iron Rule: thou shall not (easily) pass (at least not in Turkey or Bulgaria)

Making In-Rhodes: more than just a colossus

Images from this blog and others from this trip may be found here on Flickr

The Iron Rule – thou shall not (easily) pass (at least not in Turkey or Bulgaria)

TEN THINGS YOU DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT BULGARIA

Sofia coffee rating (note, based on limited sample) – 6/10 at 2 locations (for ranking system see here):

  1. Братя Хлебари / Baker Brothers, ulitsa „Georgi S. Rakovski“ 44, 1202 Sofia Center, Sofia – 6/10
  2. The Rainbow Factory ул. Веслец 10, 1000 Sofia, Bulgaria – 6/10

The train which we boarded in Istanbul stops at the Turkey – Bulgaria border – and, refusing to be outdone by the Australian rail system, this train is old and slow and leaves from some part of Istanbul far from civilisation – a 45 minute bus ride from central Istanbul – what Australians would call woop woop.

The station which is not a station (Sirkeki)

The train, itself, is some form of exercise in Turkish logic. My carriage is numbered 483 even though the train contains just four carriages. One assumes this is designed to confuse foolish yabangee (foreigners) since, no doubt, Turks understand this logic.

The border is where modern nationalistic, autocratic Turkey meets the remnants of the centralised monolithic communist state and its obsession with bureaucracy and control. Never let it be said that the era of easy globalised travel has reached the Turkish, east European and Balkan borders.

Here the obsessive nationalism, paranoia and xenophobia of some or all of these countries conspires with an antiquated infrastructure, and a disregard for the modern desire for speed, to ensure that no traveller shall go unpunished for daring to cross the border.

Pulling into Kapikule on the Turkish border we are first disembarked at 2.30 am. All of the 30 odd people on the train to Sofia are woken and de-trained in the dead of night. There is no purpose to this that could not be achieved by a single immigration officer boarding the train and politely requesting passports and ID cards so that they can be checked against the database to ensure that we haven’t just fled from Daesh controlled Syria. Having evicted the passengers from the depth of their sleep and the warmth of their beds, those passengers arrive on the platform only to find that there is nothing that resembles officialdom anywhere within rifle shot and no sign of a passport office.

Eventually we discover that they have hidden the passport office on the other platform cunningly hidden by the train. On discovering this we all head, sheep-like, for the crossing over the rail lines where, we have noted, various railway staff and security personnel are crossing.

They shall not pass. Turkish and Bulgarian customs posts

But, no, this is not acceptable since there may be a train passing this way sometime between now and Christmas. A phalanx (well 3, at least) of Turkish security/police shouting “you shall not pass” and waving their AK47s, ALRs or Uzis blocks our way.

So, we are forced to march 100 metres east, through a tunnel with harsh, flashing, white lights which would, undoubtedly, have sent survivors of the Gulag Archipelago into a frenzy and then 100 metres back to the passport office which is, as the crow flies, a mere ten metres across the lines and platform from the train.

Here we queue as the indolent passport officer scrutinises us at his leisure, while his colleague standing next to him is, presumably, taking his annual leave. Very slowly, presumably to avoid RSI, he checks each person off against a list of passengers after which we are allowed to return to the train.

Should any of the passengers marked as being on board the train not appear at the passport control the train shall not leave. In their wisdom, however, this turns out not to be a problem, since our train sits at the station for a further 90 minutes while the Turkish locomotive which, clearly, does not have a visa for Bulgaria is changed for a Bulgarian locomotive.

This gives Turkish immigration plenty of time to search the train for errant passengers. In the process they wake us twice, for light entertainment, presumably to check that no passenger has transmogrified into a refugee or alien from space or smuggled a refugee on board while the train was standing at the station.

In addition, presumably to ensure that no one actually has the presumption to try and sleep, the locomotive changing exercise takes the full 90 minutes and involves, apparently, smashing the new engine into the carriages repeatedly. The purpose of that ritual is unknown unless it is some form of crash test using live passengers as dummies. As it is the entire train suffers a form of horizontal whiplash with their heads being violently catapulted side to side.

The end result is that what could have been a pleasant nights sleep is turned into the sleep equivalent of coitus interruptus where what is, theoretically, pleasurable is interrupted to ensure that Turkey does not lose anyone which it wishes to protect in its internment centres and that Bulgaria is not impregnated by the arrival of unwelcome guests.

The detritus of the Communist era. Decaying building and half finished buildings everywhere

Arrival into Sofia is at 8.30, an hour later than scheduled. Mussolini clearly never visited Bulgaria. Here we are disgorged into a railway station that appears to be a practice run for building Bangkok which, as any person who has visited Thailand knows, is the world leader in ugly concrete structures.

To ensure that every passenger knows that they are in an ex-Soviet satellite state the front entrance to the station is adorned with a large-ugly-concrete-something that apparently served to use up the spare truck of concrete when they had finished the station.

Sofia – welcomed by a very concrete station and an large ugly concrete something

Bulgaria can’t quite decide whether it is Sovexit or Eurentry. The result being a sort of schizophrenic society which retains large slabs of the former Soviet society, culture and architecture, like a brutalised lover that can’t quite bear to throw out the photo of their tormentor; someone s/he didn’t really love or even, really, like but to whom s/he has a type of sentimental love/hate relationship. On the other hand s/he doubts the bona-fides of the EU, the new flash lover who promised much but has so far delivered far less than the marriage vows described.

This is reflected in the visual and economic aspects of Bulgaria and, even Sofia. Rural Bulgaria is old agricultural Europe. Depopulated with abandoned houses everywhere as people have fled to “better” lives in the cities. Then as you approach Sofia you move into the old Soviet Union. Abandoned factories and warehouses and, everywhere, piles of litter, building waste, industrial poisons, the detritus of a society that cared/cares little or nothing for the environment.

Then, finally, there is central Sofia a pleasant, small modern city strewn with the monumentalism of the Soviet Union and the religious fervour of a part Catholic and part orthodox Christianity.

In this context symbolism is everything and the bigger the better. From the massive Orthodox Cathedrals, the latter with more gold on the roof than that hoarded by every Indian on planet. For the environmental and social destruction wrought by its obsession with gold and gold leaf, the churches should be doing penance until the second coming.

Sveta Nedelya Orthodox Church

When it’s not the churches hoarding the wealth of society in its land and buildings it’s the grandiose neo-fascist symbolism of the ex-Soviet Union and its satellites celebrating the theft of millions of lives in their monuments to their so-called communism – that communist society being more akin to that which is feverishly being pursued by modern day neo-cons – in other words more a controlled klepocracy than anything resembling socialism.

The Russian Orthodox (Alexander Nevksy) Cathedral. More bling than Sarkozy

If, however, you ignore the religious and political follies that created these various buildings they are undoubtedly fine specimens of their type. The Russian Church, the St George Rotunda, and the Cathedrals of Sofia are all worth a visit if you are passing through, as is the Russian memorial, the Presidents Building and the ex-Communist Party headquarters. At the Presidents Building if you arrive just before the hour you can enjoy a remnant of the Soviet era in the spectacle of the goose-step driven changing of the guard.

Always hard to leave your authoritarian past behind. The changing of the guard at the President building

The nadir of this obsession with big and grand can be found at the Eagle Bridge which though by no means the largest symbol of stalinist excess is a suitable folly. This fine bridge adorned by four magnificent eagles spans a concrete drain containing a rivulet. This rivulet contains about as much water as the Darling River after Cubbie Station, in Australia, has extracted its billions in water to be wasted on a cotton crop. It’s a typical Australian plan. Take one of the world’s iconic rivers on the world’s driest continent and suck it dry for a crop that would be better grown almost anywhere else in the world.

Monumentalism everywhere both ancient and modern, including the famous Eagle bridge and the river (ditch) it runs over)

Cubbie, for non-Australians, is a cotton “farm” in Queensland which has been allowed by Government to pretty much destroy the Darling River by extracting so much water, along with some other culprits, that the second longest river in Australia is now an empty ditch.

Nevertheless, despite being burdened with a large quantity of cynicism I found Sofia, a pleasant city to visit. Most of the major attractions within the city centre boundary can be walked around in a day and the city is clean, open, populated with numerous gardens, has a good public transport system if you don’t feel like walking and is stacked with interesting buildings, if that’s your thing. It does have its idiosyncrasies among which are the paving of streets and public areas with large quantities of yellow pavers.

IMG_7365
The famous yellow pavers. More slippery than an Australian politician. Old communist party headquarters at rear.

These pavers not only are a distinct vomit yellow but are specially designed to ensure that, should it be wet, no visitor to Sofia shall walk the city without sliding and falling on them at least a couple of times. This presumably is an economy building exercise since injured tourists, unable to walk, stay longer and spend more money. While I didn’t witness the large number of rear end collisions that presumably occur when cars try and brake in the wet, these accidents, one assumes, these also add to the GDP in much the same way as wars and earthquakes.

Most recent posts:

Making In-Rhodes: More than just a Colossus

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

Images from this post can be found here:

En route to Bulgaria

Bulgaria

Sofia

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.

Pinara: In the Valley of the Living Dead

Sometimes, when travelling, one comes across extraordinary and special places. In this particular case not just because the place is, in itself, extraordinary and special but because it was empty. As I walked through the streets of this long dead city, following the footsteps of people who live 2000 years ago, there was an utter stillness, amplified only by a very gentle breeze and the distant sound of goat bells.

There was, literally, not a single other person in the entire city. Even the ticket office was deserted. It was empty of tourists, of noise, of crowds, of a single reminder of the crowded world we live in. Despite this you have no sense of being in a tomb. On the contrary one has the sense of being surrounded, everywhere by the Lycians and memories of their lives.

Pinara was settled when a group if Lycians decided that Xanthos, the largest of the Lycian cities was becoming overcrowded. It’s about 20 kilometres as the crow flies from Xanthos. The place they chose is one magical location.

(For more detail about the Lycians read this post)

Drive up over the crest of the hill and the whole of Pinara is laid out before you. Not in the sense that you can see the remaining buildings but, there, laid out before you, and completely surrounded by escarpments, is the bowl, in the mountains, which the entire city sits.

It’s impossible to know what the city would have looked like in it’s heyday, whether it would have been largely devoid of trees, but today it’s an enchanted circular valley full of fallen buildings, great rock tombs and pines.

Pinara

I arrived in Pinara, on December 5. It was a glorious winter’s day. Sunny. 20ºc. To get there you drive up the valley below, turn off the sealed road and go a further 2 kms along a roughish dirt track.

From the car park it’s about 800 metres to the Roman theatre. Above along the main road through the city lie all the main buildings, or what are left of them, scattered in among the pines. And, surrounding the city, the famous rock tombs, some hundreds of metres up in the cliff faces.

At this time of year the sun never gets high and at 2 pm it is starting to dip towards the escarpments which surround the city. As you walk through the fallen stones the sun pierces through the surrounding pines which, themselves, are being stirred by the faintest of breezes. You have that sense that you sometimes get, in a suddenly deserted house or building, of the original inhabitants being just around the corner.

If you get a chance to visit this magical ancient city, do so. But go in winter or when there are few crowds.

The full set of images of Pinara and other Lycian Cities can be found below:

 

Environmental Anecdotes (Episode 3) The Franklin Campaign: The Leaker – they came in the Dead of Night.

THIS IS NOT A HISTORICAL RECORD. AS PER TRUMPIAN LOGIC, NO APOLOGIES MADE FOR ERRORS, EXAGGERATION, OMISSIONS, BAD TASTE OR MISREPRESENTATIONS.

The call came from Canberra. I’d spent a year there as “National Liaison Officer” (NLO) for the Wilderness Society (TWS). A grand title but little else. I had been lobbying politicians and the media to act and write about the proposed Gordon-below-Franklin dam which, if built, would destroy the essence of the free-flowing Franklin River in south-west Tasmania.

But at the end of 1982 I’d been summoned by the cadres-that-be back to Tasmania to work on the Franklin Blockade. It was all hands on deck. The basic formula in TWS was this:

Take a completely inexperienced 20 something year old. Don’t just throw them to the lions but first make sure the lions are in a den of iniquity (eg Parliament House, Canberra). The goal you give them should be somewhere past the lions, over a bed of nails and a few burning coals.

Then make sure your chosen one comes un-armed and ill-equipped except, perhaps, with an unjustifiable over-estimation of their own abilities and worth. If they survive that experience then they probably have some worth to the organisation. Hence my summons.

Bob Burton, Vince Mahon, Karen Alexander, Tyndall Ranges
The cadres hard at work deciding who to order to where (L to R: Bob Burton, Vince Mahon, Karen Alexander). Some might argue that the level of organisation of the camp site reflects that in the Wilderness Society

But Canberra followed me to Hobart. The Leaker, called.

The voice on the line said “I have the Attorney-General’s opinion on the Federal Government’s responsibility, under the World Heritage Convention, towards South-west Tasmania and the Franklin River”.

This was, if we could organise it without the source losing their job, the smoking gun. A national story. A critical source of pressure on the Federal Government. The opinion was clear. The Commonwealth had an obligation, under the treaty it had signed, to protect world heritage. It could intervene to prevent the Franklin River dam being constructed.

This was an opinion and a document that, unlike the Loch Ness Monster, we knew existed but which, like the Loch Ness Monster, no one had ever proven to exist. The Government’s attitude was like the three wise monkeys. What opinion? See no evil, hear no evil and say nothing.

Loch Ness Monster
What Loch Ness Monster?

This was one of the most important outcomes of the year I’d spent in Canberra cultivating contacts and building relationships.

The source was clear, I needed to organise this, immediately and according to their instructions. It had to be done in secrecy. The journalists we were to use had to be completely trustworthy with no risk of the sources being revealed. It was on a need to know basis. Only a couple of people in the Wilderness Society were to be involved.

It was some compensation for my year of living ignominiously in Canberra. I was Mr “No, sorry, the Minister/the bureaucrat/the MP can’t see you.”

Robert the Bruce had nothing on me. The famous Robert took seven goes before he defeated the English at the Battle of Bannockburn. Smiting the English was nothing on getting a meeting with a politician who didn’t want to know. Paul Keating took me eleven phone calls and several informal meetings with his staffers before I bagged my target.

Loosely, you can describe this job as follows: Ask some 26 year old smart arse who thinks he knows everything, but actually knows nothing, to give up his (paid), but extremely tedious, job working on the Examiner Newspaper, in Launceston.

2017-12-11_1429
Sending smart arse 26 year olds to Canberra; hubris always works well (source: Cartoonstock)

There, demonstrating overweening hubris, he feels frustrated because he thinks he should go from cadet journalist to senior investigative journalist in six months; reporting on country football is well below him. Offer him the opportunity to go to Canberra and live on the dole and an expenses stipend. Persuade him that, there, he will change the world. It would not appear to be the dream job. No office, no salary, no accomodation, no prospects and no friends.

 

When you are operating at this level of investigate journalism then almost anything looks good

Nevertheless at first sight this seems attractive. How many 26 year-olds are asked by a nationally known, and much loved, figure to take an apparently important national position and move to the national capital.  There, single handed, they will persuade the nation’s Government to reverse its long held position that the Franklin is a brown leech-ridden ditch which, more importantly, the Government believes, will not change a single vote.

In reality the job is to be the champion of, apparently, lost causes.

The role (because one could scarcely call it a job), for no salary, is to daily humiliate yourself before two groups of people, politicians and journalists, who, largely, don’t care about what you are asking, offering or telling. On the whole they think you are an annoying irrelevancy selling an irrelevant annoyance.

The cause you are championing, to protect, a small river, in a small state, at the arse end of the world, where it is cold, wet and miserable, 250 days of the year, is worth less than a politician’s promise.

Besides, there are virtually no voters living there and certainly none that are not so stupid that they can’t be persuaded that giving away free electricity to multinational companies is more important than some latter-day pseudo scientific concept of wilderness. And weren’t the blackfellas there first, anyway? So how can it be wilderness?

But you go, anyway. And very quickly learn the difference between big fishes in small ponds vs little fishes and large ponds.

There were exceptions to the rule about lack of political interest. Michael Hodgman, scion of a famous Tasmanian family. Now, while not wanting to speak ill of the dead, one has to say that Hodgman, who was the Minister for Tasmania, when such things existed in the Liberal Government, was one of the biggest media harlots of all time.

Hodgeman opens ACT office copy

Invite him to open a used septic tank and he’d come if it guaranteed publicity. He was pro-dam and widely detested but we invited him to open our new office and shop in the Monaro Mall, Canberra. He couldn’t refuse. This led to two things (1) good publicity in the Canberra Times and other papers and (2) widespread condemnation from colleagues as champion hypocrites (guilty!!).

The most difficult target of all, at least on the Labor side, was Paul Keating, the Shadow Treasurer.

Now Keating couldn’t give a rat’s arse for wilderness or the environment generally. If it didn’t walk, talk, vote and earn money then the Keating political radar couldn’t detect it. And if you were from (a) Tasmania (b) lobbying for an environmental cause you had less reason to attract his attention than a cockroach.

Cockroaches at least needed exterminating so someone could earn money from carrying out that extermination and that which was good for the economy. And the economy, to be clear, was, apart from antique clocks, the only thing on his radar.

After eleven phone calls and meetings with his minions, I finally organised a meeting to talk, I naively thought, about the economics, or lack of them, of constructing the Franklin River Dam and supplying its power to a small number of energy intensive, capital intensive and job-poor multinationals.

We met in King’s Hall, in the old Parliament House. It was to be an impromptu stand-up meeting. I was given five minutes to make my case. It was late 1982. I forget the date. But I remember the meeting well and the timing. I arrived at the scheduled time. Keating and minders arrived ten minutes late. He was en-route to another meeting. I introduced myself. No response, just silence for two seconds. “I, um, wanted to talk about the Franklin Dam…”.

Kings Hall, OPH
Kings Hall, old Parliament House. Ideal for the odd random meeting with the Shadow Treasurer

That was it. Keating started. Those fucking Tasmanians. They were a bunch of fuck-wits. There were worse terms. They were nobodies, knew nothing. It was a diatribe that lasted about fifteen to twenty seconds. Keating’s description of Tasmanians was not pretty and, I sense, much of his language was not generally heard in the Queen’s salons (see the collected insults of Paul Keating)

As for me? Well I got just enough time, after he’d finished, to advise him that the Franklin Dam made no economic sense before one of his minders intervened to advise he was already late for his next meeting. That was it.

But back to the Leaker. The terms were clear. The document could be removed from the office but it had to be done late at night. It could be out of the office for no more than two to three hours and had to be returned before first light in the morning. No more than two TWS people to be involved and a maximum of two trusted journalists.

The journalists could not keep the document but could only view it and make notes. And they could not name the source. They were to ensure that the relevant department was not named in the article. And it had to be done within the week. It was Monday October 4th . I made some very cryptic phone calls telling people I had something they wanted but they couldn’t know what it was or where it came from.

They were to meet me the following day for a briefing. I flew to Canberra the next morning. On October 6th, I met with the chosen journalists and one person from the Wilderness Society to brief them.

 

Meetings in the dead of night (L to R: Jennie Whinam, Crispin Hull, Simon Balderstone). Images: Russ Bauer (L), Others unknown.

On the night of October 7th, 1982, we met Crispin Hull from the Canberra Times and Simon Balderstone from the Age, in the offices of the Canberra Times. It was 4 am. Jennie Whinam from the Canberra branch of the Wilderness Society accompanied me. The fifth person was the leaker.

The journalists had 30 minutes to read the A.G.’s opinion and make whatever notes they needed. It was then to be spirited away. The stories in the Age and Canberra Times were to be published two days later, on Saturday October 9th. Crispin Hull and Simon Balderstone had a maximum of a day and a half to seek comment, do further research and write their stories.

At 5 am, the Leaker left the office to return the document. By 5.30 it was safely back in the office and locked away. I flew back to Hobart later than morning. Two days later the stories were on the front page of both papers. The shit hit the proverbial fan. But despite an intensive witch hunt within the Government the culprit was never found. Job done.

Previous Episodes in this series:

Environmental Anecdotes (Episode 1) :The Coronation Hill Campaign (Kakadu) Beating BHP with Bravado and Blue Tarps

Environmental Anecdotes (Episode 2): The Franklin The Law of the Land and other Legends in their own Lunchtimes

Images from these campaigns: Campaigns and Direct Actions

Environmental Anecdotes (Episode 2) The Franklin Campaign: The Law of the Land and other Legends in their own Lunchtimes

This is not a historical record. As per Trumpian logic, no apologies made for errors, exaggeration, omissions, bad taste or misrepresentations. For those with a humour deficit it’s worth pointing out that satire and sarcasm are not to be taken seriously, especially when written about individuals.

I well remember the day and a few others like it. Few campaigners have ever imitated their state premier live to air as part of their daily campaign activity. But on this day Geoff Law excelled himself. Now I write about Geoff because, in my view, he represents the archetype of a good campaigner. Smart, laconic, stubborn, persistent, talented, and immensely annoying to those in authority.

The best campaigners have, hopefully, shortened the lives of a good many corrupt and incompetent politicians by creating major amounts of stress for them. Geoff is one.

If the biggest companies in Australia had been run for the last forty years by those running environmental campaigns, instead of a bunch of incompetent, unethical, greedy losers, Australia would be the envy of the world instead of the a source of immense shame to many of its citizens.

It was the famous (or infamous) Franklin River Blockade, in Tasmania (https://www.wilderness.org.au/history-franklin-river-campaign-1976-83). The location was the Information Centre, in Strahan, from where the blockade was run.

The Franklin campaign became a national issue with tens of thousands turning out in Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart in support of the campaign

Each morning between 7 am and about 10 am the four of us, Geoff Law, Pam (now Lileth) Waud, Cathie Plowman and I would staff the phones and respond to the never-ending requests for interviews from breakfast radio, around the country.

On average we’d each do 4 to 6 interviews in this time each one almost tediously the same as the previous one, one inane question after another: What’s happening today? Will anyone be arrested? What’s the weather like? Any more bulldozers? Is the Earth flat? The banality of breakfast radio can make Donald Trumps tweets look good.

It was Geoff who cracked first. On his 6th interview of the morning, no doubt, he could take it no longer. The interview was with 3AW then the station with the largest breakfast audience of all.

At some critical juncture Geoff had a stroke of apoplexy and started imitating the unmistakable gravelly tones of Tasmanian Premier, Robin Gray, live to air. Gray always sounded like he’d had a long night, too much whisky and too many cigarettes & was highly irascible. No cigarettes for Geoff, probably no whisky. But the irascible nature was common to both Geoff and Gray.

Outside the Information centre, Strahan
Outside the Information Centre (L to R – Chris Harris, Bob Brown, Sue Downey (Telegraph), Bill Lane (ABC), Geoff Law. Photo: Ian Skinner

Now in theory Geoff should have suffered eternal shame and never lived down this episode but one suspects he has dined out many times on this day’s performance (though, in a Trump-like, alternative facts, response to my query for details, he categorically denies this well documented case of mimicry ever happened). And it wasn’t his only famous case of mimicry.

Among others, Geoff liked to imitate Bob Brown, because a bit of satire is always good for the famous. Bob liked to introduce himself, often, with the phrase “G’day, I’m Bob Brown” among his other items of anachronistic speech and Geoff liked to practice to ensure that he was tone perfect. Because if you’re going to be Bob, you better be perfect.

Wandering alone across Mt Wellington one day, repeating his “G’day I’m Bob Brown” imitation, Geoff failed to notice a gobsmacked family standing by the path listening to him. At which point undeterred he looked them straight in the eye(s) and reassured them of his identity, once more repeating for their benefit “G’day I’m Bob Brown”.

The good use of mass media and editorial support of many major national papers (notably the Age and Canberra Times) was a critical factor in winning hearts and minds

I don’t remember when Geoff arrived in Tasmania. He was yet another Victorian who arrived to tell Tasmanians how they should live, abandoning his taxpayer-funded engineering or law degree or whatever it was he could have used to better himself and has spent the last 35 years wasting his life trying to stop progress – and as such is an archetype of those who worked on the Franklin Dam.

Not content with spending four years taking Tasmania back to the dark ages by preventing the Government giving yet more subsidised power to wealthy multinational companies, through stopping the Franklin Dam, he has spent the subsequent 30 years undermining the states most widespread industry, forestry. So much so that in 2004, he became one of the ‘Gunns 20’ – a group of conservationists and organisations being sued by wood chip giant, Gunns, for actions arising from the campaign to protect Tasmania’s forests.

While supporters of the Franklin campaign came from all works of life, backgrounds and ages, the core activists were primarily young professionals and students – seen here at a victory party after the High Court decision in 1983

It was not more than a few days after Geoff’s attempts to break into national live comedy on 3AW that the first bulldozer arrived in Strahan. Naively we’d imagined that the Government would not break its own laws. I was camped in the Ab Divers Inn, as it was known (where the Abalone Divers normally slept), when I was woken in the early hours of the morning by an apparition wearing a bloody headband and a mohawk.

Saul, my apparition, had been in the Information Centre when a rock thrown by supporters had sailed through a closed window, scattering glass around and hitting Saul on the head. But more importantly than his sartorial elegance, he brought news that the first bulldozer, to be used to start work on the dam, was approaching town. We would have received news earlier but the Government had illegally cut many of the phone lines to Strahan including every line in and out of the Information Centre.

The Wilderness Society functioned very informally. There was no real structure making it difficult for people to fathom where power lay. Shown here a “national” meeting in the Brindabellas (right). An informal meeting at Liffey in Tasmania and the team that worked on the Flinders by-election in Victoria (left). Photos L & R: Chris Harris. (centre image): unknown

Leaping from my bed into the dawn cold, we rushed outside and hijacked a passing car, which we assumed was being driven by a blockader. To this day I have no idea where the driver was going or even who they were but, faced by a bloodied Saul and I, they meekly surrendered their car so we could drive to the Blockaders’ camp ground a kilometre away.

I arrived equipped with bullhorn and a feeling of self-importance. No doubt rousing the blockaders from their sleep so that they could confront the bulldozers would mean, effectively, that I had saved the river single-handed. Like a demented Muezzin calling the faithful to prayer I raced around the campground summoning the faithful to lie down in front of bulldozers.

The hordes stumbled from their sloughs of sleep, scrambling into clothes and headed for the waterfront, most on foot but some in the few vehicles available. To no avail. As we approached the bridge over the creek the light of a police car parked diagonally across the bridge appeared out of the morning mist. We were stymied. At this point, like some, figure from a John Wayne movie, a shout went up “across the creek” – at which urging, the assembled masses, like lemmings, threw themselves in the water.

Meanwhile the erstwhile hero, yours truly, was stranded on the pipe across the creek, where, in my inimical courageous fashion, not wanting to get wet and cold, I had hurried thinking myself smarter than most. But a burly copper stood on the far side. So while the hordes poured across the creek to confront the dozer, I balanced dizzily on the pipe. My traumatic experience probably explains why, later, Geoff Law, unkindly, described me as standing, hornswoggled, with my mouth open.

1982-01-12 Police blockade bridge from Greenie Acres
As useless as….stuck on the steelwork protecting the pipe while Pam (Lileth) Waud negotiates with the police (photographer: unknown)

As carnage ensued in town, with dozens of blockaders attempting to get onto and around the barge, some leaping into water that couldn’t have been more than 12ºc, we attempted to get word out the world’s media, not only of the arrival of the bulldozer but of the perfidy of the Tasmanian Government which, completely careless of Australian law, had pretty much isolated Strahan, cutting all roads and most accessible phone lines, including all those to the information centre .

The lack of phone lines was a disaster, not just because we couldn’t get news out but because after weeks of being feted by the media, people, such as I, who had become media whores, had to go cold turkey. Fortunately they hadn’t thought of the line to the TWS shop and we leapt onto it like the pack of media whores we were.

My week got worse the following day when the bulldozer went upriver. I went with it, and a boatload of journalists, to witness the first confrontations of the campaign between blockaders, on one side, and workers and (ostensibly) Police on the other. Though in fact many police were sympathetic to the degree that at least one wore a ‘No Dams’ sticker on the inside of his cap.

The Franklin Campaign was gold for many cartoonists

Once again, I was part of the champagne set in the relative luxury of the shark cat while others got their hands dirty – both literally and metaphorically. Other than chatting to the assembled media I had no role but I quickly found one as the person who lost the best photographic materials of the blockade.

As Bob Burton, one of the key TWS organisers, was getting arrested he threw me an entire film of what I assumed to be the arrival of the bulldozer and the arrests. The average 8-year-old slips fielder could have caught it but, no, it sailed clean through my hands, over the side of the boat and into the depths below.

The campaign to preserve the Franklin River and prevent the construction of the Gordon-below-Franklin Dam remains one of the most famous and pivotal Australian environmental campaigns. It created a generation of activists many of whom are still active today. It brought down Governments, created a panoply of villains, martyrs and ‘heroes’ and is the source of enough anecdotes to fill several small books.

The organisation used a lot of quality advertising and materials and had significant support from professional photographers, designers and advertising agencies

A total of 1272 people were arrested, most for trespassing on Hydro land at the river, or on road works. Not one arrest was for a crime involving violence.

447 went to jail when they refused a bail condition not to return to the river.

Run, mainly, by The Wilderness Society (TWS), it was anything but a conventional campaign and was one that could never be run today since it relied entirely on volunteers and on Australia almost being a real social democratic state. It was probably the last campaign run entirely by dole bludgers (plus a few respectable employed people).

Almost the entire campaign was run by people living on the dole – a neat irony that the Australian Government, effectively, funded the campaign against itself. I spent three very good years providing social services to the Australian public undeterred by the theoretical need to actually look for work.

Each fortnight I’d drop down to the CES and receive my social wage which I then used, from the perspective of the Tasmanian Government, to undermine the entire fabric of society. Too many rallies to organise? No mind, just drop your dole form in the mail. Burnt out and need a break in the bush? I remember well going to the CES and the pleasant staff member just telling me to drop in the form a week early before I left to go bushwalking.

Left to Right – Blockaders head upriver on the J Lee M, blockaders on the Crotty Road and a letter to Geoff Law from Tasmanian Parks Minister, Geoff Pearsall, in which he refuses to meet on the grounds that TWS is not a genuine conservation organisation but a “political organisation in opposition to the Government” (photographer – centre: unknown)

Perhaps it is our fault that the current Government uses the CES’s successor, Centrelink, as some form of latter-day Inquisition through which, far from helping people, it persecutes them.

This is why the former-day CES was viewed by more recent Labor and LNP Governments as a throwback to Socialism and, so, was replaced by Centrelink, the role of which is to demonise the unemployed and ensure as few as possible actually get money from Government.

But 1982-3 was during an epoch in which Government actually believed that its role was to provide services, and public servants did not fear for their jobs on a daily basis, so the CES was stuffed full of people who actually believed that their role was to help rather than demonise the unemployed.

Thus did the baby boomers not only get a free education and use their entire carbon budget in about five years but also lived off the fat of the land doing nothing but undermine society as we know it.

The No Dams triangle was an ubiquitous symbol of the campaign. See here as a car sticker, on a banner at the blockade and draped over the front of the TWS “head office”, in Hobart, at a celebration after the dam was stopped by the High Court decision (photographers: unknown)

The people who ran the Wilderness Society were a motley bunch who had drifted in from various parts of the world and Australia – along with actual Tasmanians. Although Bob Brown was the figurehead, he didn’t run the organisation.

In fact Bob, for all his virtues, was and remains one of the world’s most disorganised people. He couldn’t, as they say, run a bath let alone an organisation. One strongly suspects that Bob will be late for his own funeral. So much so that, at various times in the campaign, the cadres in TWS had to organise minders to see that he caught his flights and attended the meetings that he was supposed to attend.

The real “master” minds behind the Franklin Campaign were people such as Vince Mahon, Geoff Law, Emma Gunn, Karen Alexander, Judy Richter (now Mahon), Bob Burton, the Lamberts, Geoff and Judy, and many others of that ilk, often un-known and unsung.

Other than the cadres who ran the organisation & blockade there were the larger than life figures such as Bob Brown, Tasmania Senator, Norm Sanders, celebrities such as Bellamy, Dick Smith and a conga line of politicians who came to visit hoping to gain political advantage.

Runner duckies (rafts) and blockaders with banners confront the first bulldozer heading up river and destruction in the rainforest (Photographers: unknown)

Norm Sanders main blockade claims to fame were piloting his 1954 war-surplus Cessna 180 around the Franklin and Gordon Rivers to undertake reconnaissance and drop supplies, such as newspapers, upriver much to the annoyance of the Tasmania Government who, if my memory is correct, tried to get him banned from flying in the area.

Aside from that role, he was best known for outraging adherents to the purity of non-violence (NVA) when he grabbed the handle bars of a local pro-dams motor cyclist who was harassing the first blockaders camp, Greenie acres. To listen to the outraged cries of protest for this breach of NVA dogma you would think he’d murdered the first-born of every pro-dam adherent in Strahan, good idea though that would have been.

The Tasmanian Government and the media always had this delusion that the Wilderness Society was a slick, well-oiled machine, powered by millions in donations. The truth was far from that. Each day, until Judy Richter took the reins of the finances, was an exercise in estimating how much more money Bob Brown could plan to spend than was coming in through the door.

The blockade, was one of the biggest sources of expenditure in the history of the campaign – and most of that expenditure was incurred out of the Information Centre.

The “use” and participation of celebrities from all walks of life, including politicians (Bob & Hazel Hawke with Karen Alexander and Bob Brown – left) and business figures such as Dick Smith (seen in the right hand photo) played a major role (photographers: unknown)

The Information Centre, in Strahan, Tasmania, was always the nerve centre of the Franklin River Blockade. This was where blockaders registered, where the organisers worked from, where the media came for information or to register to go upriver, where logistics were managed, supplies were delivered and where alarms were raised.

There were ten or more key organisers based in Strahan, working variously on media, training, legal issues, transport, logistics (food, accommodation etc) and a further half-dozen or so based in Hobart.

It was from the Info Centre that we communicated with “head office” in Hobart. The legal team operated from a desk in the window and communications were maintained with “up-river”. Scheduling was done here including supply runs, timings of training, planning for direct action and a myriad other tasks. Each day dozens of new blockaders would be registered and dispatched to camps and non-violent action training (NVA), like proverbial cannon fodder.

Teams were organised to bring new blockaders from Hobart and security was organised to protect the camp grounds and to give advance warning of bulldozers and other heavy equipment. Celebrity visits were coordinated and from here negotiations were undertaken with the Ab Divers to hire their boats to carry journos upriver at great expense to the media.

The issue of the Franklin was not just an environmental one but a social, legal, political and international issue, involving Aboriginal land rights, the world heritage treaty, High Court cases and elections.

The presence of the national media was, of course, essential to the success of the blockade but was, also to a great degree, the source of tension. The blockade wound on with each day following another, in the same pattern, often without anything very interesting occurring. The journos, under pressure from editors, started to get antsy, as each trip upriver, costing $100 odd a time, produced no deaths, disorder or violence on which to report.

Geoff’s humour did not save him from my wrath when, later in the blockade when being hassled by bored journalists, he suggested to me that we organise a stunt upriver to keep them entertained. Ever the hypocritical purist I remember shouting at him that we were not in Strahan to organise stunts for the benefit of the media. Never mind, of course, that it could be argued (though not by the purists) that in the broadest sense the entire blockade was, at that point, a giant stunt for the media.

More broadly, and cynically, one could argue that the entire process of consensus decision-making under which the blockade was run was simply an exercise to prevent anything from ever taking place. Any suggestion from the more radical elements, such as Ian Cohen, that any real action should be taken was easily blocked at any consensus based meeting.

There was a real division between some “upriver” people, who advocated blowing up bulldozers, and similar, and the core TWS activists Hobart who they viewed as a bunch hierarchical bureaucrats and control freaks.

Election night 1983

No, campaign shall be won without much laughter. After the Federal election was won by Labor, which had promised to stop the dam, in 1993. The Wilderness Society campaigned in 13 marginal seats and it’s estimated that its campaign effected up to 2% of the vote – enough to get Labor across the line (L to R Bob Brown, Margaret Robertson, Karen Alexander). Photographer: unknown.

The process of making consensus decisions took, on average, longer than it is taking to achieve peace in Palestine.

So much so that, on at least a couple of occasions, heavy equipment arrivals that were notified to us a couple of hours before they got to town, actually arrived while the so-called affinity group that were supposed to take action against it were still puffing on their metaphorical peace pipe wondering what to do. Fortunately others took the law into their own hands and simply acted in the absence of any formal decision.

I spent three months organising things for the Blockade and in the Information Centre, having been recalled from my year long stint in Canberra, before I was ordered away to work on the 1983 Federal election campaign. My first order of business was organising the communications for the Information Centre: six telephone lines, four for the media and general business, one for the legal team and a telex line.

To do this meant finding a wilderness sympathiser in what was then Telecom Australia and persuading them to carry out work in two weeks that would normally have taken two months. In the hostile political climate of Tasmania, the mere fact that we were able to rent the blockade office and get communications put in was a source of political outrage for the Government with questions being asked about how it was achieved.

The end of the road – after the High Court decision in late 1993. Banner posters from the Australian and the Herald.

The infamous telex, long consigned the IT scrapheap, was our only method of sending out media releases. To do so required you, firstly, to have several stiff drinks, and then to launch into the process which involved typing your media release on the antiquated keyboard. This then, like magic, appeared on a piece of ticker tape containing a series of punched holes – a little like a modern form of the telegraph.

Having produced this tape you then somewhat counter-intuitively fed it back into the machine which miraculously produced a print out, of what the string of punched holes meant, in a legible form at the other end. At the other end the recipient needed to don ear muffs if they were to continue work since the clatter of the telex machine drowned out most other sound (see a telex in action here).

The entire blockade was run on the cusp of the modern communications era. TWS got it’s first fax in 1983, its first computer in 1984 and of course its first mobile phone around the late 80s or early 90s. I remember getting my first flip Motorola, about the size of a brick, in 1994. Journalists had to queue for the only spare telephone in the Information Centre to file their stories in time for the following days editions.

Hubris and naivety
I titled this article in my archives “naivety and hubris”. Sometimes when one reads back the things one said, at the time, it’s surprising that anything was achieved (left to right Cathie Plowman, Chris Harris, Geoff Lea, Pam (Lileth) Waud.

Communications between base and upriver was via a secret repeater station called Echo which was staffed by Paul Dimmick. He managed blockade communications – via this crucial link which had a line-of-sight view of both Strahan and the blockaders’ camp. It took two days to cut a 2.6 kilometre hidden path up to a forest hilltop for Echo. Volunteers sat for three months under an aerial strung between trees, passing messages 24 hours a day. Police never reached them.

This was the iconic (to use a much overhyped term) Franklin Campaign. Run on a shoe-string, in an epoch when carrier pigeons had only just been retired and staffed, euphemistically, largely by a bunch of 20 something year olds who didn’t have anything better to do with the odd year or four.

This is the Second of approximately 20 anecdotal posts on environmental and social campaigns.

Previous posts in this series:

Episode 1: The Coronation Hill Campaign (Kakadu) Beating BHP with Bravado and Blue Tarps

Images from these campaigns:

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.

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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

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