Bari — Episode II

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.

καλά Χριστούγεννα

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.

View from Delphi toward Itea and 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.

Merry Christmas.

Writing: I posted a thing about Star Wars: Episode VIII, which I think was a brilliant film. Don’t read the post if you haven’t already seen it. It’s lousy with spoilers.

God mode

I met Calvin in Siem Reap on 27 December.

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.

Last Days

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.)