I’m writing this post from the Royal Suite at the Bangkok InterContinental Hotel.
It’s the largest suite in the hotel. I’m seated at a glass coffee table in the lounge; there’s a lavish entryway, a 12-seat boardroom, a kitchen, a massive bathroom with a sunken bath, a dressing room, and a bedroom larger than all of the other hotel bedrooms I have stayed in in Europe. In fact, I think this suite is bigger than all of those European hotel rooms combined. It’s definitely bigger than our house.
“It’s too big,” said Calvin as we walked in.
We arrived in Bangkok on Sunday afternoon. Calvin had spent a day or two here before meeting me in Siem Reap, so he took me to dinner in a busy fluorescent-lit local eatery. It had been cool in Luang Prabang: it was hot and muggy in Bangkok. The icy beer I had with dinner was magical.
When we woke up on Monday morning, Calvin’s legs were covered in bites. In fact, he was driven out of bed at about 4 AM. Bedbugs, he said. We went up to the Club Lounge to complain, and they moved us to the next room so that they could burn the bed to the ground.
They offered us free dinner in one of the restaurants as compensation.
I think I’ve only been in Bangkok once before, in 2005. (Apple’s Photos app tells me that it was 2004, but I remember having to miss some early episodes of Series 1 of Doctor Who, which means that it was April 2005. Shut up.) Calvin comes here every year or so, and came here frequently as a child; as a result, he isn’t here to do touristy things.
Instead, he’s here to eat, to shop, and to visit the family temple. We’ve been personally blessed twice — a ritual washing and another ceremony that involved a monk drawing patterns on our heads with oil, wax and some kind of powder. We’ve bought some Buddhas and candles and jewellery and had it blessed. We’ve taken the monks out to lunch. We went to a restaurant called Insects in the Backyard, which Calvin thought was superb, even though it just serves unimaginative Western food sprinkled with deep-fried bugs. And the hotel is at the centre of a massive conurbation of giant shopping centres, which we’ve wandered through for hours, eating and buying things. Bigger clothes, mostly.
A couple of days ago, the toilet in the hotel room got blocked. I cannot honestly claim to be blameless in this matter: I’ve been giving the breakfast buffet a pretty serious workout every morning. Plumbers came to the room a couple of times to fix it, but with no lasting effect. And so they asked us to move rooms again.
Calvin was, of course, terribly annoyed. We ended up meeting some sombre and apologetic hotel managers in the Club Lounge, who told us how deeply sombre and apologetic they were, and invited us to call them at any hour of the day or night if we had any problems at all.
The toilet in our third room blocked this afternoon.
I went up to the Club Lounge to make a report, and then settled in to write a blog post. Before long, one of the sombre and apologetic managers came up to talk to me. He was dangerously sombre, to a degree that made me want to crack jokes and cheer him up. He said that we would have to move rooms again.
So here we are. I’m in the Royal Suite, writing a smartarse blog post; Calvin is wandering around complaining about the power points. Complimentary dinner tonight, hopefully followed by champagne in the bath. (Probably not, actually; Calvin is a hopeless prosaic.)
It had taken me two days to get there from Athens. A flight from Athens to Dubai, which was delayed a couple of hours due to fog in Dubai; a night spent in the First Class Lounge in Dubai, since it was too late to get to my hotel; a flight from Dubai to Bangkok; a night in the Novotel at Bangkok Airport; and then a short flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap.
Calvin is clearly much better at this holiday thing than I am. He used points to arrange our first class flights, and he used points to book us into the Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf and Spa Resort at Siem Reap. It’s a massive hotel, with a spa but no golf course, built in a sort of French colonial style. The staff say bonjour to you as you walk past, even quite late in the day.
I met Calvin at the hotel, dropped off my luggage and immediately went on an informal tour of the city. Calvin had arranged it the day before with a tuk tuk driver he met at a temple he was visiting. We spent a few hours careening around the city, had lunch, and took a boat ride up the river Tonlé Sap to a floating village on the edge of a massive freshwater lake. For dinner, Calvin had made a reservation at a famous restaurant called Haven, which is normally booked up months in advance.
For the next two days, Calvin had booked a tour of the temples around the city. We visited nearly half a dozen on the first day, beautiful ruined temples, surrounded and covered by forest, massive and complex, covered in sandstone carvings. On the second day, we spent the morning at Angkor Wat, arriving before 5 AM and watching the sun rise behind the temple, surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of other tourists.
For me, 2017 was the year of visiting temples — in Sicily, mainland Italy and Greece — and I saw a fair number of temples in Japan in 2016 as well. Angkor Wat is the most impressive temple I have ever seen. Not just the size and scale, but the intricacy of the carvings, on nearly every available surface.
We’re in Luang Prabang now. Calvin booked us a room in the Hôtel Sofitel Luang Prabang, a small resort hotel with only 24 rooms, which was the governor’s residence a hundred years ago, then government offices, and finally, a prison. The swimming pool was probably installed after that.
Luang Prabang is much smaller than Siem Reap — 55,000 people. It’s touristy as well, but more in a hippy backpacker sort of way. That’s slightly irritating, in so far as the streets are full of dreadlocked and tattooed young people wearing silk drawstring pants decorated with elephants. But it’s quiet and relaxing. The food is good, both in the restaurants and at the side of the road. And there are fun things to do, but not so many fun things that we’ll be running around non-stop until we leave on Friday.
Calvin organised a tour on our first day: a boat trip to visit a cave containing a thousand Buddha images, and a bus trip to a bear sanctuary and a waterfall. Today, New Year’s Day, we visited as many temples as we could possibly find, and went to the night market to watch young people buying silk drawstring pants. Tomorrow, we’ll be meeting some elephants. Calvin organised it.
Most of my last post was written on the ferry to Patras. I had decided to spend two nights there, not because there’s anything particularly cool about it, but because it the first place where I could see The Last Jedi in English. (English films are usually dubbed in Italy.) I saw the film a few hours after I arrived; I saw it again the following night.
I struggled to find anything much to do in Patras. I had some laundry and shopping to do, and I had to organise a bus ticket to Delphi. A Google search of things to do in Patras wasn’t particularly promising, but it did mention a Byzantine castle on a cliff overlooking the city, not far from my hotel. I climbed up the cliff, but the castle was closed on Mondays.
The bus to Delphi left at lunchtime on Tuesday. To kill time in the morning, I tried the castle again. It was worth it. Even a nondescript Greek town can be incredibly beautiful.
I had already been to Delphi once, on the School Classics Tour in June. We just stayed there one night. It was fantastic though — a warm evening, lots of bars and restaurants open, a friendly little town.
I didn’t really take advantage of it though. We let the boys go out for a few hours of free time, while I waited for them in the hotel bar, editing an episode of Flight Through Entirety.
This time, I stayed there for two nights. I had booked a single room in the hotel at an absurdly cheap rate, but the manager upgraded me to a double room out of sheer kindness and generosity — a room with a view over the valley, towards the sea.
It was freezing cold, of course, and lots of the bars and restaurants were closed. But I was able to spend more time at the archaeological site, which was much less hot and crowded than it had been in June. And it was lovely to be somewhere small and quiet. I really enjoyed myself.
The morning I left, it snowed. Not in Delphi itself, where it was just raining, but on the mountains on either side. I watched the snowflakes falling from the balcony of my room.
The bus from Delphi to Athens goes further up into the mountains, through a town called Aráchova. Everything there was completely covered in snow. I’ve only seen snow maybe twice before, so just days before Christmas, this was magical. (I only have very crappy photos of this from the window of the bus, with a woman’s head in the frame, so I’ll leave this to your imagination.)
I arrived in Athens in the afternoon. Calvin had booked me in at the InterContinental, a much classier hotel than the ones I’ve been staying in for the last few weeks. You can see the Acropolis from here, and the Philopappos monument, which is on top of a hill directly opposite. It was too late to actually do anything: all the archaeological sites close at 3 or 4 PM in winter, but I walked straight to the Acropolis as soon as I had checked in. Just to gaze up at it.
For €30, you can buy a ticket to the Acropolis, which includes entry to the Theatre of Dionysus, the Ancient Agora, the Olympeion, the Roman Agora, the the Library of Hadrian, the Kerameikos, and one or two more sites. When I was here on the tour in June, the only one of these I visited was the Acropolis, so I’ve spent the last couple of days visiting as many of the rest of them as possible. I also made a return visit to the Acropolis Museum.
Yesterday afternoon I went for a walk before dinner, and found myself at the park containing the Philopappos monument. I don’t know what it’s called, to be honest, but there are lots of cool things there, including the Pnyx, where the Athenian Assembly used to meet, and the Prison of Socrates, which we’re just going to say is the site of Socrates’ suicide, and therefore the setting for Plato’s Phaedo. That’s where I took that photo of the Acropolis, just before sunset.
Now it’s Christmas Eve, my last full day in Europe. (I arrived in London on 2 November, so it’s been just less than two months.) Tomorrow I’m flying to Bangkok, where I’m staying just one night. Calvin is there now, but he will have left by the time I arrive. I’ll catch up with him in Siem Reap, and we’ll be heading off together for a tour of Angkor Wat. I’ll let you know how we get on.
Perhaps the most baffling complaint about The Last Jedi is this: the Finn and Rose subplot is poorly integrated, and could easily be cut without damaging the film. I’ve seen this complaint over and over again, even in reviews that are broadly insightful and positive about the movie. And I think it’s completely wrong. The Finn and Rose subplot is thematically central to the film.
Let’s recap. Finn and Rose need to visit a town on the Space French Riviera called Canto Bight, in order to make contact with someone who will help them break the security codes preventing them from boarding Snoke’s ship undetected.
So they leave the fleeing Resistance fleet in a shuttle and land in Canto Bight. Rose warns Finn that the people there are the worst people in the universe. It’s a wretched hive of scum and villainy, apparently.
We cut immediately to a shot of a popping champagne cork. Canto Bight is a gloriously golden deco set full of fat aliens in lovely suits drinking expensive drinks and carelessly throwing gold coins onto roulette tables. Finn is hugely impressed: these are the richest people in the galaxy. This is like nothing we’ve ever seen in Star Wars before.
Then there’s a shot of lots of lovely champagne glasses shaken, Jurassic Park style, by thunderous footsteps outside. We rush to a balcony, much like the balcony on that planet in the Hosnian system from which the Republican government witnessed its own destruction. A race is starting up, a race in which giant horse-like creatures — fathiers — are running around a track; presumably the rich fat aliens are betting extravagantly on the outcome.
While the race is going on, Rose tells Finn why she hates Canto Bight. The people of Canto Bight are rich from the profit they have earned dealing arms to the First Order. Her own planet was mined to create these arms, and then destroyed in order to test them. She doesn’t blame the First Order for this: she blames the fat aliens, the one percent, the richest people in the galaxy.
Throughout Rose’s speech, Finn is using a telescope to watch the fathiers racing. While she describes the oppression of her planet, Finn is watching the fathiers being savagely whipped by their riders: when we seem them later, they will have visible marks from this mistreatment. Then Finn moves the telescope to see one of the trainers attacking a small child, a stable boy. The fathiers and the boy become a symbol for the oppression caused by the people of Canto Bight, including the oppression of Rose’s home planet.
Finn and Rose return to the casino and spot the codebreaker, who seems to be a beautifully-groomed rich arsehole too concerned with his gambling to help them anyway. But before they can reach him, they are arrested by the police, whose job, of course, is to protect the interests of the rich fat aliens, and ensure that their conspicuous consumption should continue unmolested. We’ve never seen the police in Star Wars before: they will be our antagonists until the end of this sequence. The police tase them immediately and take them to prison.
After he rescues Finn and Rose, Benicio Del Toro will tell Finn and Rose that the fat aliens are rich not just because they sell arms to the First Order, but because they also sell arms — X-wings! — to the Resistance. “They blow you up, you blow them up,” he says. It’s not just the First Order oppressing Rose’s home planet. It’s the continual war between the Separatists and the Republic, the Empire and the Rebellion, the First Order and the Resistance. The peoples of the galaxy have been oppressed for decades by Star Wars.
No one in the Star Wars films cares about the miserable inhabitants of Rose’s home planet. (It’s called Hays Minor, as if anyone cared.) The good guys in Star Wars don’t liberate the oppressed. They blow up space stations and smash up Star Destroyers. Or they levitate rocks and ransack their desk calendars for wise sayings about detachment and balance. Even in this film, while Admiral Holdo is bravely sacrificing herself to save people’s lives, Rey is fighting Kylo Ren for possession of Luke Skywalker’s fucking lightsaber.
And that’s why no one on the Outer Rim answers Leia’s distress call from Crait, the planet salty from the tears of a million fanboys. No one on the Outer Rim gives a shit about the Resistance. Because the Resistance does nothing to relieve their oppression: instead, it actively contributes to it, only ever solving things by getting in an (expensive) X-wing and blowing something (expensive) up.
The film has two endings. The first one is the traditional tableau of our rebellious heroes, like the ones at the end of Episodes IV and VI, where the Rebellion celebrates victories that will not end up making life any better for the oppressed inhabitants of Hays Minor.
The second one is unlike anything we’ve seen in Star Wars before. Or is it? Somewhere on the Space French Riviera, the stable boy is telling the story of Luke Skywalker, a story he can’t possibly know. Like Rey, like us, he has an action figure to help him act the story out. Finn and Rose have given him a spark of hope: they released the oppressed fathiers, let them smash up the rich fat aliens’ casinos and cocktail bars, took off their saddles, and left them to run free in moonlight and long grass. Rose was smiling as she did it.
Because the Force doesn’t belong to the Jedi any more, the stable boy uses it to pick up his broom and starts sweeping. He pauses for a moment and, like farmboy Luke, he looks up into the sky. And John Williams kicks into gear.
Rian Johnson has burned Star Wars to the ground. Now we know who the real enemy is. And we know what the Resistance should really be doing. Let’s hope JJ manages to stick the landing in Episode IX.
If you asked me right now to name my favourite Star Wars film, my answer, without hesitation would be Episode VII: The Force Awakens. It’s the funniest of the Star Wars films, it has likeable, charismatic, well-drawn characters, and it carries on the overwrought intergenerational Skywalker saga in a satisfying way.
Plenty of people dismissed it as a remake of the original Star Wars film. Which it was, of course. But we hadn’t had a remake of the original Star Wars since 1999, and we hadn’t had a good remake since 1983. So 2015 needed a new remake of Star Wars to relaunch a the new series of films and to remind us that Star Wars isn’t just about bored actors sitting listlessly on couches talking about trade embargoes.
More than that, though. After nearly forty years of Star Wars films and spinoffs, The Force Awakens understands what it’s doing in a way that the original Star Wars really doesn’t.
I’m in Bari right now, on a ferry romantically named the SuperFast II. I’m about to head over to Patras in Greece. It’s the second time I’ve done this.
The first time was in 2008, my last long service leave. That time, Bari was not fun. My train arrived late, I had just over an hour to get to the ferry, I didn’t know where the ferry left from, I had a crummy paper map, and I got completely lost in the narrow and slippery lanes of the old city. And it was probably raining. I remember being getting incredibly angry and flustered, which was a thing that happened a lot on that particular trip.
This time, I booked a hotel for a night. So, when the train arrived late, I just needed to walk a few blocks drop off my luggage and then go out for dinner. Totally relaxed. After dinner, I wandered down to the water and around the old city. On the way back, I found a nice bar and had a glass of a noxious liqueur called pugliese. It was nice.
I didn’t need to check in for the ferry until 5:30 in the afternoon. I couldn’t find anything pressing to do, so I explored the streets of Bari, got a beard trim, had lunch in the old city, found the seaside and wandered around there for a while. I ended up finding somewhere to sit and read for a couple of hours.
I’ve said this before here: at the start of this trip, I had only a few concrete plans. I had a hotel booked for the first couple of days in London, a flight booked to Amsterdam, another hotel booked for my last couple of nights in Athens, and then a flight from Athens to Bangkok at Christmas. (Thanks, Calvin.) I also wanted to stay in Sorrento for a while. But everything else was open. I could go anywhere or do anything.
And yet, this trip has pretty much been a remake of my last long service leave. Last time I explored the south of France a bit more and only stayed in Italy for just over a week. But otherwise, the itinerary has been the same.
It would be easy to be disappointed with myself. I’ve still never been to Spain or Portugal. I didn’t go to Budapest or Trogir. Most of my time has been spent in places I’ve seen before.
But I just don’t care. I explored lots of new places in Sicily and Greece on the Classics Trip in June. I’m meeting Calvin after Christmas: we’ll be visiting Cambodia and Laos, adding two more countries to the growing list of places I’ve visited in South-East Asia.
And this trip has been so easy and pleasant. Most of my train trips have been about two hours long; none of them have been longer than four hours. I’ve enjoyed seeing familiar places, and finding out new things about them, and having new things to do. Venice, Naples, Sirmione and Antibes were all great. And I’m more relaxed and well-rested than I have ever been, I think.
I’ll be staying in Patras for two nights. I don’t know anything about Patras, except that there’s a cinema there called the Odeon, where Star Wars — Episode VIII is screening in English. I plan to watch it at least twice. I’ll let you know after that whether it’s my new favourite.
It’s raining like crazy today, so I’m postponing my visit to Pompeii until tomorrow, which is my last full day in Sorrento.
I arrived here on 3 December. There have been plenty of day trips since then, but also a lot of relaxing and doing nothing. So, this post will be mercifully free of narrative. Instead, some Sorrento things.
Io non posso entrare
There are dogs everywhere here. They’re allowed, or at least tolerated, in bars and restaurants. One woman was walking a dog in the ruins of Herculaneum; someone brought their dog into the Archaeological Museum in Naples.
And there are dogs freely wandering the streets. Last night I was sitting outside at a bar, when a dog wandered past and cocked his leg on a nearby fruit stall. The owner gently kicked the dog, who growled at him and ran off.
There’s one grubby snaggletoothed dog who wanders around Tasso Square. He seems fairly confident in traffic, but every time I see him, I’m terribly anxious about him getting run over. I’m sure he’ll be fine.
It seems like middle-aged complaints about the length of the Christmas season start earlier every year. It’s been Christmas for my entire trip, all the way back in London in November. But it’s been crazy in Sorrento. Take a look:
This is all very sweet. The only annoying thing is the nightclub next to my apartment that plays Feliz Navidad loudly just once every night sometime late in the evening. Oh, and the horrific Christmas music that was playing throughout the main shopping area on Capri.
Uno spritz, per favore
It seems to me that Aperol only has only been a thing in Australia over the past year. Here it’s everywhere. Even the Beginner’s Italian course I’m doing on Babbel tells me that I have to have at least one spritz before dinner. And so I do.
My Italian is hundreds of years out of date, of course, and I’ve never actually formally attempted to learn it before. Now, for the first time, I’ve tried to give it a go.
The only thing is that my Italian is audibly terrible, and so everyone I try it on responds in English immediately. But still I persist.
More than once, though, I’ve received a verbal pat on the head for asking for the bill in Italian. Which is fine: I’ll take literally any reinforcement I can get.
Food and agoraphobia
I’ve never told anyone this before, but I actually get slightly anxious going into a shop or a bar or a restaurant I’ve never been to before. I often have to wander around for ages before finding somewhere where I’m prepared to go in and eat. (It’s even a thing at home, but then I have Calvin with me; given the choice, I’ll always go to somewhere familiar.)
It’s ridiculous, obviously. I’ve found lots of places to eat here; even the least expensive places have fantastic hearty food. The one time I screwed up the courage to go to a classy-looking restaurant and order from the specials menu, I ended up with a massive plate of gnocchi with gorgonzola and walnuts, which was like eating a giant tub of rancid wallpaper paste. I won’t be doing that again.
Naples is kind of horrible, isn’t it? I only spent one day there, last Saturday. It’s glamorous, but filthy and run down and vaguely threatening. I wanted to visit the Archaelogical Museum, which was okay — full of things looted from Pompeii and Herculaneum.
The highlight was the Secret Room, to which children under 14 are admitted at their own risk. It’s full of Roman erotica — frescoes of scenes from mythology, phalluses, tiny bronze dicks, and ridiculously obscene sculptures. Here’s the highlight:
I’m catching the train to Bari on Friday, staying there one night, and then catching the overnight ferry to Patras. Two nights in Patras, not because there’s lots of fun things to do there, but to give me the opportunity to repeatedly watch Star Wars VIII.
I’m going to go offline some time tomorrow, to avoid spoilers. I’ll be back once I’ve seen the film a couple of times.
Until then, here’s an inexpertly cobbled together photo gallery of Sorrento and the towns nearby. I’m off to have lunch somewhere I’ve been to before.
Reading:La Belle Sauvage, by Philip Pullman. Set 10 years before Northern Lights. It’s beautifully written, wonderfully anti-clerical, and about a third of the way through, it’s starting to get very tense.
I’ve made a lot of mistakes in the past few months.
Here’s one. I’ve been booking the cheapest possible hotels on trivago.com and booking.com. I can’t afford to stay in lovely five-star hotels every night for two months: I need to find cheap hotels reasonably close to the action in whatever city I’m staying in.
It took me a little while to properly get the hang of these sites, and so the hotel I booked in Amsterdam ended up being outside the old city, across a big bridgeless lake called the IJ.
The only easy way to cross the IJ is to take a free ferry from Amsterdam Centraal station to a place called Buiksloterweg. It’s free and it only takes five minutes. People board the ferry on foot, on their bikes or by just riding their motor scooters straight onto the deck.
The first night I tried to cross the IJ, I caught the wrong ferry and had to walk 45 minutes back to the hotel. Which was fine: I like walking, and I had podcasts to listen to.
But after the results of the non-compulsory non-binding postal survey, I had some very, very late nights out, and ended up having to catch the ferry, tired and emotional, at 3 o’clock in the morning. Or later.
It would have been much easier if I had booked a hotel in the Kerkstraat. Or somewhere else in the centre of Amsterdam.
Today, I went to Capri.
This wasn’t a mistake. I’d been there before, in 2008. It was spectacularly beautiful. Obviously, after my day off yesterday, it was going to be the first place I would visit during my stay in Sorrento.
I bought my ferry ticket from Sorrento port at 9 AM today. It cost €30. I had to choose a time for the return trip: 1:30 PM or 6:45 PM.
I chose 6:45 PM. There was no way I would get everything done by lunchtime, so I would have dinner on Capri and then head home after that.
I arrived on Capri, and, for the first time this trip, I checked in on Facebook. Lots of likes, which was nice, and a gratifying response from a beloved teacher from university. “Glorious place,” said Dexter. “(if expensive).”
He’s right. I’ve been travelling for over a month now, and today was the most glorious day so far.
I headed off towards the Villa Jovis, which was the biggest of the twelve villas on the island belonging to the Roman emperor Tiberius, who retired to Capri in 26 CE, leaving Rome to the tender mercies of Patrick Stewart’s Sejanus.
My first mistake was to take a wrong turn. I ended up at a place called the Arco Naturale.
Happy accident. But I was still keen to visit the Villa Jovis. I walked back, took a right turn at the Via Tiberio, and headed off in the right direction.
I found myself walking behind a talkative young American couple. I had been enjoying the silence, and I really didn’t want to follow them around Tiberius’s villa. So, at a fork in the road, I decided to head off to the Villa Lysis. There would be time for the Villa Jovis after that.
Tacitus mentions Tiberius’s twelve villas, but I know nothing at all about them. I supposed that the Villa Lysis might be one of them, but somewhere in the back of my mind I thought it seemed like an unlikely name for a Tiberian villa. (Who is Lysis? Why isn’t his name in the genitive case?) In any case, I was expecting some ruins.
I was wrong, of course.
There’s an early Platonic dialogue called the Lysis, about the nature of friendship. At the beginning, Socrates runs into Ctesippus and Hippothales and a bunch of young men who are hanging out with them. Socrates quickly realises that Hippothales is in love, and when Hippothales blushes and hesitates to tell him who he’s in love with, Ctesippus buts in and tells him that it’s Lysis: Hippothales won’t shut up about him — “Indeed, Socrates,” says Ctesippus, “he has literally deafened us, and stopped our ears with the praises of Lysis.”
That’s the Lysis that the Villa Lysis is named after. The villa was built in the first decade of the twentieth century by a man called Jacques d’Adelswärd Fersen. Fersen was born in Paris in 1880 to an incredibly wealthy family; at the age of 22 he inherited a bunch of money from his grandfather’s steel mills. After some kind of scandal involving tableaux vivants of schoolboys (whatever that means), he fled Paris; he settled in Capri in 1904 and built the Villa Lysis.
Fersen killed himself in 1923: glamorously, he dissolved 5 grams of cocaine in a glass of champagne and drank it. But he spent nearly two decades living in the Villa Lysis, smoking opium in a dedicated room, and sharing his life with an attractive young man called Nino Caesarini.
The inscription at the front of the Villa reads DOLORI ET AMORI SACRVM: sacred to pain and love. It’s totally camp and dramatic, of course, like the life of Fersen itself. He sounds like a truly terrible person, of course, but what would it have been like to be gay a hundred years ago, even in Europe, even for someone ridiculously privileged?
Okay for a while at least, I guess.
There was a ridiculously ramshackle path from the Villa Lysis to the Villa Jovis, which took half an hour and left me out of breath and disoriented. But I got there.
The Villa Jovis was a massive palace, bigger, I think, than any other villa I’ve ever visited. It’s right at the top of the Monte Tiberio, on the easternmost part of Capri. The unenthusiastic ticket-selling-guy gave me a horrible ASUS phone with an app on it to help me find my way around. The villa was massive and glamorous, perched on top of a cliff, eight stories high in places, with baths and kitchens and reception areas, and a massive dining room overlooking the sea.
Tiberius died there in 37 CE. According to an inscription in the main square of Capri, the elders of Capri don’t believe the infamous stories of his tableux vivants, and are proud that he ruled the Empire from their beautiful island.
I got back to the main square at about 2:30 PM. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. But there was still four hours to go before my ferry back to Sorrento.
What was I to do? There are any number of things to do in Capri, but now, hours later, back in my apartment in Sorrento, I’ve already walked over 28,000 steps and met 173% of my move goal. I was tired and hungry.
A toasted sandwich and an aperol spritz in the main square cost €20. So I settled up and headed down to the Marina Grande, where my ferry would be leaving in three and a half hours.
There’s a whole mistake theme to this post, which I should be circling back to now. But screw it. I regret nothing.
My Kindle easily fits in my jacket pocket, so I spent hours sitting at various bars and restaurants, eating expensive food and drinking expensive drinks and reading and looking out over the water. It was dark soon enough — time to leave. The ferry was enormous: unlike the ferries that travel across the IJ, this one was full of luxury cars driven by attractive Italian men. I started writing this post there: but now it’s finished, and I’m back in my apartment. And tomorrow I can do anything I want.
I never really planned this holiday. Calvin booked the plane tickets and the hotel accommodation at the start and the end of the trip, and helped me to buy my Eurail pass. But I always intended to just make things up as I went along.
But I did have one thing I really wanted to do: to stay in Sorrento for a couple of weeks. Sorrento is a smallish town on the Bay of Naples. From there, you can catch the train to Pompeii or Herculaneum, or to Naples itself, and you can catch a ferry to Capri. So it’s within easy range of some spectacular ruins and archaeological museums. And even though it’s a bit touristy, it’s much quieter than the places I’ve been lately.
I arrived here yesterday. I’m staying in a small, newly-renovated apartment just off Tasso Square. The bed is soft, and the shower has good water pressure. Which is important, and rare. There’s even a kitchen. Not that that means anything.
I’m here till the 15th. Plenty of time to chill; plenty of time to see all the ruins and museums without feeling rushed.
I spent the last week travelling from Verona down to Sorrento: three nights in Venice, two nights in Florence and two nights in Rome. (Not really long enough, but I wanted to keep the train journeys short, and I lost a couple of nights to my extended stay in Verona.)
I had never been to Venice before. I did all the usual things: St Mark’s Cathedral, the Bell Tower, a gondola. (Gondoliers don’t sing O sole mio any more — they just chat to their mates on the phone.) I ate food and wandered the streets. Venice is kind of ridiculous; even though it’s very busy and touristy, the canals and the bridges and the alleys are really sweet and hilarious, and it’s easily possible to disappear down a side street to escape the crowds and have a quiet drink somewhere.
It was my second time in Florence. Again, there’s a standard list of things to see: the Duomo, David, the Uffizi, the Ponte Vecchio. I went in search of a crappy replica of David which I remember seeing when I first visited 20 years ago, and accidentally ended up at the Piazzale Michelangelo, which is a big square on top of a hill just outside the old city. Here’s the view from there:
And finally, Rome. I don’t think I know how to do Rome properly. It just seems crowded and unpleasant; and it’s increasingly necessary to be insistently grumpy and hostile to avoid buying bracelets and things from the jovial young street hawkers who circle around every tourist attraction.
I arrived mid-afternoon, and did a big walk down the Via dei Fori Imperiali, past the Colosseum, the Circus Maximus, the Bocca della Verità, that island in the middle of the Tiber and then back to the hotel by metro. The next day — my only full day in Rome — I visited the Palatine, the Forum and the Colosseum in the morning; in the afternoon, I saw some Caravaggios in the Church of St Luigi, gave up on the queues to the Parthenon and St Peter’s and went to a bar to drink beer instead.
Maybe it would have been better on a weekday. Maybe it’s a mistake to stay in a hotel so near the train station where it’s kind of horrible. Maybe I should have just spent the afternoon in the Capitoline Museums reading the inscriptions or something. I’ll need some advice from more experienced travellers before I attempt it again.
Enough of that. Time to go and have some lunch. I’m determined to spend the day doing nothing. It’ll be nice.
Sirmio, jewel of islands, jewel of peninsulas, jewel of whatever is set in the bright waters or the great sea, or either ocean, with what joy, what pleasure I gaze at you, scarcely believing myself free of Thynia and the Bithynian fields, seeing you in safety.
Sirmione is a peninsula — nearly an island — that juts out into Lake Garda in Northern Italy, not far from Verona. It’s not big, just a few kilometres long. An easy walk.
Some time in the 50s BCE, the young Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus visited here, and the poem I quote from above is his reflection on the experience. He describes his visit as a happy homecoming; exhausted from his journey and from an unprofitable year serving on the staff of a provincial governor in Turkey, Catullus marvels at the bright waters of Lake Garda, lays down his cares, laughs joyfully and finally goes to sleep in a familiar bed.
My visit was a bit different. In my last night in Antibes, after writing but before uploading my last post, it became horribly clear that I had contracted some kind of foodborne illness. I’ll spare you the details, but I’m blaming undercooked meat. In any case, I had a long and gruesome train ride from Antibes to Catullus’s birthplace Verona, only made longer by my pathological terror of arriving late for connecting trains. I arrived in my hotel at about 6 in the afternoon and went straight to bed.
I spent my first day in Verona reluctant to eat and unable to be bothered to think about what to do next. So I decided to stay here for four nights instead of two. I visited the Roman theatre and the Archaeological Museum, saw Juliet’s balcony, and climbed around the Arena, a Roman amphitheatre in the main square still used for concerts and opera performances. I wondered if I would actually run out of things to do.
And then I remembered Catullus 31, and decided that I would spend my last full day here making my own visit to Sirmione.
It took an hour to get to Sirmione by bus. It was raining and freezing cold. The waters weren’t bright or full of laughter. And someone stole my umbrella while I was having lunch.
But it was magic. You cross a bridge to get onto the peninsula, and there’s a big castle there. The submerged part of the castle is full of ducks. You can climb to the very top of the tower and look out. On the furthermost part of the peninsula are the unexpected (to me) remains of a massive Roman villa. It’s called the Grotte di Catullo, built too late to actually belong to Catullus’s family, but still massive and labyrinthine and — in the wind and rain and the cold — romantic and desolate. And for the first time in days, I sat down and enjoyed some food, the Italian food that was one of my major reasons for making this trip in the first place.
Tonight I’m staying on the Côte d’Azur, extremely annoyed at the quality of the wifi access.
This is the end of my first full day in Antibes. I’ve never been here before: coming here was entirely Angela’s idea. I’m not sure I had even heard of it.
I had always assumed that I would need to be ludicrously wealthy even to think about staying on the Côte d’Azur. That impression was reinforced last night when I was wandering the streets. They were full of yacht hire shops, and expensive wine shops that guarantee immediate wine delivery to your yacht.
Here are some of the yachts I saw today:
I also spent some time in the Picasso museum, which is a hilltop seaside castle where Picasso stayed for a few months in 1923. But most of the artworks here seemed to be from the 40s; they were vastly more cheerful and silly than some of the upsetting things I saw in the Centre Pompidou.
I suppose I should recap. I left Amsterdam on Friday and caught the train to Paris, where I stayed three nights — two full days. The first day I hung out in the Louvre, mostly looking at antiquities, although I did check in to make sure that nothing bad had happened to the Mona Lisa. (It was fine. Disappointing.)
I spent the second day relaxing and enjoying Paris. The highlight: visiting the Centre Pompidou for the first time. I spent most of my time on Level 5, looking at the modern art collection. I’m not recording my reaction here, for fear of appearing like a facile idiot, but some of it was breathtaking, some was hilarious, and some of it was fabulously nasty and unpleasant. A good afternoon.
The next day, I left Paris on the TGV, travelling to Marseilles. The trip was incredibly fast: from the window seat, it seemed like the trains travelling in the opposite direction were going to take my face off. Sitting opposite me was a fantastically elegant woman in her 70s, and we ended up chatting for a while.
We talked about the weather, about all her languages, and about my job and my plans. She was incredibly urbane and charming. And just when we were a few minutes from Marseilles, she gave me some advice. Watch yourself in Marseilles, she said. Make sure you don’t get robbed. It’s full of blacks and Arabs.
Leaving France tomorrow. A long, slow train trip to Verona. I’ve been there before, back in the 90s, with Robert. After that, a week travelling around northern Italy, then a few days in Rome, probably, then two weeks in Sorrento. I’ve already booked an AirBnB right in the middle of town, just near Tasso Square.
And that’s this post finished. But the wifi here is too slow for me to upload it. I’ll have to wait till I’m on the train tomorrow, for God’s sake. (Update: there was no wifi on the train tomorrow.)
Reading: God, A Human History by Reza Aslan. Not only is he kind of hot, he was once sacked from CNN by describing Donald Trump as a piece of shit on Twitter.