Guns and Frocks

Loving Delta and the Bannermen since 1987

2008 Long Service Leave

Hello world!

Friday 8 February 2008

Welcome to Furius Abroad!

I’m writing this post mere hours before boarding my plane to London. I’m in the first class lounge, thanks to Calvin, but I can barely believe that I’m allowed here. Too scared to order food, drinks or massages, in case they throw me out for being too poor or badly dressed.

I’ve taken one or two photos of the lounge, which is a kind of glamorous, wood-panelled version of the Starship Enterprise’s Ten Forward. The photos are not very good, of course. I’m having to photograph discreetly, because, as I said, they’ll throw me out if I make any trouble.

I hope that you’ll come back here from time to time. All my photos from the trip will be available here, as well as the occasional mordant observation or hysterical cry for help.

And please feel free to write comments. This trip is incredibly poorly planned, so I’d love it if you suggested places I could visit or things I could do to keep myself occupied.

No place like London

Saturday 9 February 2008

We're looking down a busy road on a sunny day.  On the left is a London Underground station; there are people sitting at tables and people walking down the footpath. In the middle of the footpath is a battered old blue Police Box.

Well, after a long journey, I’m finally here.

I flew Qantas from Sydney to Hong Kong. Read a book most of the time. The inflight entertainment consisted of VHS videotapes projected onto a screen metres away,  like the entertainment on a coach to Goulburn. In 1990.

I had a window seat, but the aisle seat next to me was free. So I had more room than those rich bastards in business class, and I didn’t have to clamber over anyone to get to the toilet. Result!

I tried to put up another post during my three-hour stopover in Hong Kong airport, but the wi-fi there was third-world standard, and I had left my power adapter thing in my check-in luggage. The business class lounge (thanks again, Calvin) was very nice, but I was determined not to be too jetlagged when I arrived, so I was uncharacteristically abstemious. The food was particularly nice, and I got to have a long, warm shower.

Hong Kong to London was on British Airways. I’m not sure how long it was: I spent all but the last three hours fast asleep, even refusing the first meal service. A free seat next to me again, but the aisle seat was occupied, so I had to clamber over a sleeping woman to get to the toilet. Having the window seat was well worth it, though. What’s more spectacular than London at dawn?

British customs and immigration reluctantly allowed me into the country, and I went straight to the hotel in Earls Court which I had booked online. It’s fairly comfortable and inexpensive, but grimly post-war and English. There’ll be more photos later.

And what a beautiful sunny day it was! Glorious after a week of rain and sweaty humidity. You can probably see how blue the sky was in the photo above.

First I caught up with Angela and Joseph and their kids Alex and Elizabeth. They live in a beautiful house in East Dulwich, a lovely suburb in South London. We wandered down the high street, taking in a street market, visiting a fabulous deli and stopping off at my first English pub this trip. Mmm, warm English beer.

Then I met Peter in town, at the Borders in Charing Cross Road. Headed over to have dinner with Sarah and Gary. It was lovely. Gary was back from his exciting job in Cardiff, so I was lucky to catch up with him at all. Today he flies off to LA for a Doctor Who convention. Also there were some people I haven’t met before: Paul, Simon and Debbie. Simon and Debbie were also off to the convention today; I’m hoping to catch up with Paul again later in the week.

An epic post. I’ll try and make later ones more concise and exotic.

Mind the gap

Sunday 10 February 2008

A quieter day yesterday.

Spent a little while in the morning uploading photos, blogging and chatting with people at home. Nice and relaxed. I felt quite good: less grumpy and dehydrated than my first day, and a lot less tired. And it was another beautifully sunny day.

I caught up with Ange and the kids on the south side of Westminster Bridge. We wandered down the south bank of the Thames, had lunch, and wandered into the Tate Modern.

I loved the Tate Modern the last time I was in London, and had a vivid memory of the Weather Project, a clever installation in the six-story Turbine Room. So I was a little disappointed to find that the Turbine Room seemed to be completely empty. Perhaps, for once, there was no installation there.

You can see the photo above. There was a huge crack in the concrete floor, more than a foot deep in places, forking and zigzagging like lightning. God knows how they did it! You can see from my (crap and numerous) photos how popular it was with the kiddies.

Ange drove me around through the London traffic for a while, dropping me off in Picadilly Circus. I caught the tube back to Earls Court. I had a couple of quiet pints in a local pub, and wandered back to my room to await a phone call from Calvin.

A nice day.

Extravagant future plans

Monday 11 February 2008

Yesterday I spent some time wandering the streets, window shopping and being a general tourist. Then over to Ange’s to plan the rest of the week, to watch Neighbours on Channel 5, and to have dinner. Got home late, and freezing cold.

I spent the morning uploading photos to Flickr, which is a long and arduous process for some reason. So I’ll write a longer post tonight.

Made some decisions. I’m staying in London till the 20th, then flying off to Amsterdam, where I’ve booked a hotel for four nights. Then what? Somewhere in France, I think. Nîmes? Carcassonne? Paris? Any ideas, anyone?

Off on a pilgrimage now. More details later.

Thanne longen folk...

Tuesday 12 February 2008

The familiar sight of the BBC Television Centre. Its a brick building with a round wall full of windows. There are traffic fences and boom gates visible in the foreground.

Yes, it’s sad. But it was nearby and all.

I didn’t see Jennifer Saunders falling out of her car, or Tom Baker dropping by to offer helpful advice about Krynoids.  I just had a quiet moment to myself, thinking about all those sketches and alien planets and Roman villas that had been hosted here over the years.

After that, I went and did some sensible sightseeing. The Globe and Southwark Cathedral and things. There are photos.

Now I’m off to the pub down the road for some food and some more beer. It’s still beautifully sunny, but very cold at night, and I’ve managed to catch a bit of a chill. But if there’s a better cure for that than English bitter, I don’t want to know about it.


Wednesday 13 February 2008

Another relaxing day. I packed up my stuff and said farewell to my tiny hotel room before heading out for more sightseeing. I thought I would go to some of the cut-price ticket booths in Leicester Square. I’m thinking maybe Wicked, which Philip recommended and which Calvin saw in Chicago. Although I did notice that Penelope Keith is playing Lady Bracknell. Again, apparently.

Anyway. the train stopped at St James’s Park Station, and I suddenly felt like a walk. The first time I ever came to London, St James’s Park was covered in snow or ice or something, and it was horribly, horribly cold. So today I had the opportunity to wander about in the sun and have a proper look at it.

It’s beautiful.

After my first brief walk, I spotted a crowd around Buckingham Palace. I joined them for a bit, but nothing particularly fascinating seemed to be happening, so I went back into the park. But not before I saw this:

Two uniformed men standing in front of an old building. They are wearing white hats, long coats and white belts are holding a sheep on leashes.
The Queen's sheep?

These lovely guards saw me trying to take a photo through the fence, and graciously moved so that I could get an unobstructed view. But can anyone explain to me why they were guarding a sheep? Is it the Queen’s? And if so, why?

Went over to Angela’s in the afternoon. Hung out, watched some telly, had dinner. And now everyone’s in bed, and I’m on a comfy sofa by the fire.  So relaxed that I can’t even get worked up about the inconsistent apostrophes in the signage at St James’s Park tube station.

(Not even the Queen gets it right. A sign by the gate at Buckingham Palace describes the Royal Mews as “one of the worlds [sic] finest working stables.”)

In short

Friday 15 February 2008

Well, I was away from my computer on Thursday, and we got home quite late last night, so this is my first entry for a couple of days. So what have I been up to?

Very briefly. Thursday: breakfast out, quick visit to Dulwich College, British Museum, dinner and drinks with Peter. Friday: trip to Oxford, lovely lunch with Joseph’s parents and sister, quick walk around town, back home for an hour of crap British TV.

Not a very detailed or evocative post, I know. I promise to revisit all this in more detail in a couple of days. (Remind me to tell you the story about the Bassae sculptures.) Heading off to Greenwich today, and out tonight with Peter and Sarah. There will be dancing, apparently.

Until next time, enjoy this photo of snowdrops near the river in Oxford. I’ll write again soon.

In the foreground, clumps of tiny white flowers beside a brown road. Behind them trees, and then grassy lawns, and then some brown brick buildings in the distance.

A whiff of Joan Collins

Sunday 17 February 2008

Off to Harrod’s and Harvey Nicks today. Fabulous!

I’ve still had very little time to blog. Another brief summary. Saturday: the Old Naval College, lunch courtesy of M & S, the Maritime Museum, Greenwich Observatory. Dinner and clubbing with Peter. Sunday: Hyde Park, South Kensington, Chinatown. Two episodes of Torchwood.

Leaving Wednesday morning for Amsterdam. Thinking of France after that. I’ll have time to write more when everything settles down.

Last day in London

Tuesday 19 February 2008

Looking along a London street with beautiful old buildings each side. Near us, on the right hand side and in shadow, is an awning marking the entrance to Harvey Nichols.

Glamorous morning yesterday. Ange dropped Joseph and the kids off at school, and the two of us headed into town. First stop: floor five at Harvey Nichols. Ludicrously expensive muffins and coffee, surrounded by women in scary makeup and black leather pants. (This cost us £22: if I’m sleeping in the streets of Sorrento in a fortnight, you’ll know why.) Then where else but Harrod’s, where we found a scarily realistic waxwork of the owner benignly but insanely overseeing his customers, while the man himself was busily accusing everyone in the Western world of complicity in Diana’s death. Looked at lipstick and ties for a bit before heading off to the food court for lunch. Fabulous!

But it wasn’t all high culture. Ange escorted me to the Victoria and Albert Museum. It’s extraordinary. I can only compare it to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (of which more later), in that it consists of room after room of baffling objects from all over the world and all throughout history. I spent some time looking at neolithic Chinese burial artefacts, before wandering desultorily through the rest of the museum. The highlights included some huge tapestry patterns by Raphael and corridors of wrought iron railings. I was about to give up when I came upon an extraordinary room.

Apparently the Victorians loved doing plaster casts of churches and statues and monuments. One room in the V & A contains giant casts of Trajan’s Column, as well as dozens of Christian artefacts, including the huge main doorway of the church at Santiago de Compostela. The adjoining room has a huge plaster statue of David. Impressive and curiously kitsch at the same time!

I gave the Science Museum a try, but apart from Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, nothing really grabbed me, so I headed off to the Natural History Museum in search of dinosaurs. Entering by the side door, I mistakenly thought that the entire museum was obsessed with geology. I was about to leave disappointed (sorry, Sara), when I found a wall covered in dozens of fossil ichthyosaurs, and then the museum’s entry hall with its massive Diplodocus skeleton.

Had a quick pint in Charing Cross Road before meeting Sarah in Soho. We had a delicious dinner of tapas, walked across Waterloo Bridge, more pints, and then off home to Gary’s place. A great night. I must try and see Sarah more often. If that means coming to London more frequently, well I guess that’s what I’ll have to do.

Today was altogether quieter. Wandered around Dulwich with Ange and her friend Rachel. A delicious pub lunch, my last pints of English bitter for the foreseeable future (tomorrow, Heineken), and now home, blogging and preparing for my plane to Amsterdam tomorrow morning.


Wednesday 20 February 2008

I’m finally here, three hours late, but I’ll be buggered if I’m gonna hang around in my hotel room blogging. I’m off down the canals to the Leidseplein for a beer. I’ll catch you all later!

White wine

Wednesday 20 February 2008

So my flight to Amsterdam was cancelled. After queuing for about three months at the BMI ticket sales counter, I was allocated a seat on a flight an hour and a half later. Not to worry, I thought: Calvin to the rescue. I’ll just swan around in the BA lounge for a while, using the diamond (diamond!) club membership he so thoughtfully organised.

No luck though. I’m in Terminal 1, and the Cathay Pacific lounge is in Terminal 3. The nice lady refuses to let me into the British Airways lounge because I’m flying BMI. That makes me insufficiently patrician, I think.

So here I am surrounded by commoners, reading the Guardian and waiting for my flight to be called. The gate opens 5 minutes before the flight is due to leave, so I don’t expect to be leaving on time.


Thursday 21 February 2008

The blurry corner of a building, covered in graffiti, with red lit windows on each wall.

This is my third time in Amsterdam. The first time was on my first trip to Europe, with Rob. Within an hour, we had both decided to stay there for a week. The second time we went, we stayed for two weeks. We had many adventures, but my favourite part was just staying for a long time in a beautiful, alien, old-world city. Shopping, eating, drinking, browsing in bookshops, doing laundry. We did touristy things as well: going to the zoo, cycling in a snowy park, touring the canals, admiring the architecture, visiting museums.

But in those three weeks, I barely noticed the red light district. I remember wandering down a canal once and seeing a few sex workers in windows, but it was daytime and we were just on our way somewhere.

So. I went for a couple of walks last night around my hotel. The first time was to look for somewhere to eat. The second time was to sober up a little before interacting with the hotel reception guy, who keeps your room key behind the desk while you’re out. (What’s with that?) And on my walks, I discovered that my hotel is right in the middle of the red light district.

I’d already seen the women around the corner, just next to the oldest parish church in Amsterdam. There’s a photo. But last night, I walked through many narrow, narrow alleys with dozens of windows on each side. Around them are red fluorescent lights, and inside are ultraviolet lights, which create a shimmery purple glow on the women’s underwear and on their white PVC nurse’s uniforms.

Well, of course, for a gay man brought up in a leafy suburb, this is all very embarrassing. Every time I make eye contact, I’m invited in to join them. And I’m painfully aware how rude it is to pointedly ignore people.

So today I’ve decided to browse some bookshops, do some laundry, and visit a few museums. Just to calm myself down a bit. And after that, maybe somewhere local for dinner.

“Want some charlie, mate?”

Thursday 21 February 2008

Looking out of the window at a bridge across a canal. There are many bikes leaning against the railings of the bridge. It's cold: people are walking around in coats and hats and the trees have lost their leaves. Lining the canal are tall and narrow Dutch houses.

Had a great night last night. Went straight to the Leidseplein to check out all my old haunts. Instantly felt at home. It’s great to be able to walk around a foreign city, confident that you won’t get lost, and familiar with good places to eat and drink. In keeping with Amsterdam’s reputation as a party town, I was in bed before nine last night. Feeling terrifically well rested now.

I’m staying in a hotel not far from Centraal Station, near Dam Square. I haven’t spent much time here before. The area by the Leidseplein is genteel by comparison. There are lots more tourists here, and many more of the tourist-oriented businesses Amsterdam is famous for. There are sex workers in the window just around the corner. And I’ve been offered drugs on the street about five or six times, once as I was actually walking in the hotel door.

It all sounds a bit seedy, I guess, but I can’t tell you how happy I was the moment I arrived. I’ve got lots of good memories of Amsterdam (most of which I intend to keep to myself), and I’m really looking forward to spending a couple of days here.

Het weekend

Friday 22 February 2008

Yesterday I decided to stop killing time in pubs and wandering the streets, and to do some proper sightseeing.

The Rijksmuseum is still closed, just like last time I was here. That’s a blessing really. It’s a huge building, full of rooms and rooms of Delft porcelain: mazelike and impossible to comprehend. But they’ve shifted the main bits of the collection into a side building, twelve rooms with a sensible number of artifacts, including some Vermeers and Rembrandts. The Night Watch is in the last room. But my favourite thing is the rear of a ship that the Dutch captured when they raided a naval base at Chatham in 1667.

Then the Van Gogh museum. Most of his paintings are here. They’re beautiful, but the exhibition is rather sad. His paintings become a bit scary towards the end. Upstairs there’s an exhibition of envelopes and menus scrawled on by the artist.

Then back to my quiet wifi-equipped cafe to upload some photos. It was Friday afternoon, and the cafe was full of drunken Mancunians singing Sweet Caroline (da-da-da!). Over here for the weekend, of course. And this morning, the streets are full of groups of young men, quieter and more dehydrated than they were last night, but no doubt up for a huge Saturday night tonight.

As for me, I’m taking it easy today. I’m travelling to Paris by train tomorrow, and that’s when the heavy-duty tourism begins. I’m gonna need my strength.

Crocodile Dundee and the Stingray

Sunday 24 February 2008

I have already suggested that this trip was not very carefully planned. Some people like to keep a completely open mind, making decisions at the spur of the moment, suddenly abandoning their plans and heading off in a completely new direction. I am not one of those people. I just find that planning ahead makes me tired or thirsty or angry, and I like to put it off as much as possible. That’s why I bought a Eurail pass. That way, I could leave Sydney with no more than a four-day hotel booking in London and absolutely no idea what to do after that. I didn’t have to consider the weeks and weeks I’d be away from the couch, travelling, booking hotels, finding food and interacting with scary new people.

I spent the night being woken by the happy singing of binge-drinking English children. This morning, I walked the streets saying goodbye to Amsterdam and chatting with some of the city’s more colourful drug dealers. One of them offered me his condolences on the loss of Steve Irwin, whom he referred to as “Crocodile Dundee”. He wasn’t going to sell me cocaine, apparently, but he was willing to give me some in exchange for some money. Sadly, I’d left my wallet in the hotel.

And now I’m on my first train: Amsterdam Centraal to the Gare du Nord in Paris. It’s a lot like a plane, but with less fear and more legroom. They’re even about to serve us lunch.

I arrive in Paris at 4.30 pm. My hotel is not far from the station, but I’ve forgotten to download the map from Google Maps. (Can you do that? I suppose you can.) So if I can’t find a wi-fi equipped cafe near the station, I could be in trouble. I’ll let you know how I get on.

Free wi-fi!

Tuesday 26 February 2008

It's dusk. We're looking at the Gare de Lyon, an ornate nineteenth-century train station dominated by a tall clock tower.

Here I am at the Gare de Lyon. My train leaves at quarter past 11, which left me enough time this morning to eat breakfast, pack up, and arrive at the station more than an hour early, with a heavy backpack and nothing in particular to do.

But there’s free wi-fi here. So I’ve been passing an agreeable few minutes labelling my Paris photos on Flickr and dicking around on the internet. And with a clear conscience. Wi-fi is ubiquitous in Europe, but you usually need to pay for it. I found a great café in Amsterdam with free wi-fi, and I hung out there a lot. In Paris, many cafés had it, but most of the waiters had no idea how to let me use it. Here at the station, however, it’s free and unlimited.

I’ll write about my day and a half in Paris when I’m on the train. And I’ll upload it when I arrive in Avignon, wi-fi permitting. Until then, enjoy my photos of Paris. And thanks to Tsunami, the unsecured network near my hotel which made uploading them possible.

Les beaux messieurs font comm’ ça

Tuesday 26 February 2008

Looking down my legs: I'm wearing jeans and sturdy walking shoes,  and standing on the pebbly surface of what turns out to be the  bridge at Avignon.

Well. I’m in Avignon. I arrived early afternoon yesterday, and I’m in love with it immediately. It’s small, for a start, and I don’t need a map. I wandered the streets last night, totally certain that I wouldn’t get lost. And it’s beautiful, full of well-lit medieval churches and surrounded by walls. I walked through a gate last night, and it was like leaving a fairytale castle.

And then there’s the famous bridge, with its well-known nursery rhyme. It’s too narrow to dance on, of course, but you can see me standing on it with confidence. There are lots of photos.

Today, the Papal Palace. And tomorrow, maybe I’ll catch the bus to the Pont du Gard, a massive Roman aqueduct just over 20 kilometres from here. Then off to Nîmes for a few nights.

I’m changing my plans. The trains are a bit complicated, so I’m going from Nîmes back to Paris, and then overnight on the train to Rome. Then Rome for a few days, before Sorrento, which is the place I’m most looking forward to.

Lost in Paris

Tuesday 26 February 2008

I decided to stay in Paris for just two nights. So far, I’ve spent all my time in big cities, and I want to go somewhere smaller and more restful. I got a lot done during my one whole day, but it was tiring and a bit stressful, and I’m glad to be off.

I had three things to do: buy a ticket to Avignon, book a hotel room there, and see the antiquities in the Louvre. Not a hectic agenda, but nearly more than I could manage.

Buying the ticket was easy. I had checked out the Gare de Lyon the night I arrived, and I knew I could get there. But after leaving, I got lost almost immediately. And I discovered that despite years of high-school geography, I am completely unable to use a map to get from one place to another. I can’t remember place names and directions, and I need to turn the map around so that it corresponds to the layout of the streets. Except that that doesn’t really help.

After an hour of standing on street corners, frantically rotating an obvious tourist map and swearing in English, I came across a metro station and decided to use that. The metro system map was fixed to the wall, which made rotating it more or less impossible, so I decided not to tempt fate, and went to the station nearest the Louvre on the line I was on anyway.

There followed another hour of hunting for wi-fi enabled cafes, booking hotel rooms, rotating the map, swearing, tearing up the map, and being offered directions in French by a helpful old man. However, I can’t understand directions either, even in English, and I was too busy wondering if the old man would want money to really pay attention.

But I did find the Louvre, mostly by following the well-signposted Avenue de Louvre, with its Café de Louvre and Tabac de Louvre and so on. It ended up being the huge-ass palace thing at the end of the street. And although the Greek and Roman ceramics were closed (damn!) I spent a happy few hours wandering around, mostly looking at Classical Roman sculptures, finishing with a quick run around to catch the Mona Lisa, and Michelangelo’s prisoners and the Venus de Milo. The Louvre map was smaller and much easier to rotate.

After that, I did the obligatory tourist spots, most of which I had visited last time. There are photos, as usual. Then dinner in Saint-Denis, as David suggested, and then back to the hotel. And I only got lost on the metro once.

Day off

Wednesday 27 February 2008

Well, I had a great day in Avignon yesterday, wandering the streets and visiting the Papal Palace. The palace is amazing. Most of the rooms are quite empty: stone walls, high ceilings and mullioned windows, with occasional traces of the frescoes and polychromy which once rendered the rooms garish and hideous. Unfortunately, they don’t let you take photos inside, but I did sneak one from the topmost tower.

A view from above of brick arched bridge going partway across a river, with trees on the far bank.

I can’t imagine what it would be like for a devout Christian to visit a place like this. The building is huge and beautiful, but room after room reveals the popes to be grandiose monsters, and medieval Christianity to be a brutal confidence trick. Does that sound harsh? Anyway, at least we got some lovely buildings out of it.

It’s my last full day in Avignon. Off to Nîmes tomorrow, for some Roman ruins. So doing nothing much today. I might walk over to Villeneuve-lez-Avignon on the other side of the river. I might go to Place les Halles, where there’s lots of great food at lunchtime. I might see if I can find that restaurant Geoff mentioned in his comment on my last post. But there’s no list of things to do or sites to see. Just gonna enjoy the atmosphere, I think.

From Avignon to Nîmes

Thursday 28 February 2008

A low nineteenth-century building with the words Gare d'Avignon Centre across the front. There's a car park in front of it.

Just under an hour before my train leaves for Nîmes. There are a few things I want to see here:

I’ve given myself three nights there. Hoping that’s enough time. And then to Rome itself. There’s a possibility I might have to catch the TGV back to Paris, and then another train to Rome. I’ll find out this afternoon.

All the cafés round here are full of hot young soldiers!

Friday 29 February 2008

I just thought I’d mention it.

Colonia Augustus Nemausus

Saturday 1 March 2008

I arrived in Nîmes yesterday lunchtime.

The hotel was easy to find, but hideously grim and unimpressive. To name and shame: it’s the Hotel de Provence, Nîmes. When I checked in, the concierge apologised about the room, and I said no, I’m sure it will be perfectly alright, but I was horribly wrong. The walls are grimy and the shower overflows. There’s a smell in the corridors, and there’s a continuous grinding sound somewhere on the second floor. There’s only one power point. I got home this evening to find that no one had done the room. Avoid.

The hotel put me in a bad mood, so I went off to look at the town. At first, I was unimpressed. It was like a grim country town in New South Wales: wide streets and shitty Chinese restaurants. Like, say, Guyra, only not as nice. But then I turned a corner, and at the end of the street I saw the Maison Carrée.

A narrow street full of parked cars. Unexpectedly, there is a Roman temple at the end of the street.

And from then on, I started to cheer up. After the Maison Carrée, you turn another corner and there are clothes shops and nice bookshops and trendy cafes with alfresco seating, and a few hundred metres further there’s a giant Roman amphitheatre.

I visited the amphitheatre in the afternoon and took dozens of pictures. They’re all up now. It’s the best-preserved Roman amphitheatre in the world: in fact, it still seats 15 000 for the annual bullfights. I hung around there until it closed and then went off to find somewhere to drink. Most places were full of soldiers, as has already been noted. I wonder why.

This morning, I spent an hour booking my ticket to Rome (overnight, via Paris again), and another hour trying to find a bus to take me to the Pont du Gard, which is a stretch of Roman aqueduct about 20 km from Nîmes. It’s beautiful. It spans a valley covered in what I want to call bushland; three levels of beautifully preserved arches, built in the first century to supply Nîmes with water. The pictures don’t do it justice, of course, but I’ll try and upload more of them tomorrow.

Conversations with Mormons

Sunday 2 March 2008

Yesterday I spent a few hours checking out Roman ruins, and at about three in the afternoon I was wandering the streets when I saw a pair of well-dressed young men ringing a doorbell.

Now, I’ve been in France for just over a week. And everyone here speaks French, apparently.  I’ve had to book hotels in French, and order meals, and buy train tickets. I’ve even explained the merits of the Eee PC to a few curious passersby. But my French is not what it was. I can tell people that the monkey is on the branch without making any mistakes, but otherwise I find myself horribly self-conscious about genders and irregular verb tenses and things. I came top in French in 1A, for God’s sake, I shouldn’t be uncertain about the future tense of faire.

So I was so excited by the prospect of a conversation in English that I went straight up to the young men. The more confident one told me he was from Idaho (bless him!); he had learned French at school and had done some intensive language training before coming to France as a missionary. I told him about my plans, and he was lovely and enthusiastic, as Mormons are. He briefly attempted to hook me up with missionaries in Sydney, but didn’t push it when I told him I wasn’t very religious. I said goodbye and walked away much happier.

The ruins had been great, of course. I went a bit mad with the camera. There was the Maison Carrée, where they show you a cheesy 3D film about the heroes of Nîmes. And then the beautiful Jardins de la Fontaine, where there was once a temple of Augustus and where you can still see the ruins of a temple of Diana. And at the top of the hill is the Tour Magne, a deceptively squat-looking tower from where you can see a panoramic view of the whole town. If you can cope with the scary spiral staircase leading to the top. I even visited the Castellum, which is the cistern at the end of the aqueduct, which used to distribute water all over the colony.

Catching the train to Paris this afternoon, and from there to Rome. I arrive on the morning of the fourth. I’ll catch up with you all then.

Lost in Paris II

Monday 3 March 2008

My trip back to Paris took three hours and was very easy. Three hours of sleeping lightly, listening to Doctor Who audios and looking out the window at picturesque French villages. I was looking forward to sitting elegantly in one of the cafés at the Gare de Lyon, drinking wine and using the free wi-fi that so excited me last time.

We were pulling into the station when I took another look at my Paris–Rome ticket, and it occurred to me that Paris Gare de Lyon and Paris Bercy might be completely different stations. A quick look at the departure board at Gare de Lyon confirmed it: there was no train leaving from there for Rome.

Frantically consulting Google Maps, I discovered that the Gare Bercy was only a mile away, and that it could be reached by following the Rue de Bercy. Even I managed that without getting lost. The station itself was horrid: no cafe, no wi-fi and nowhere to sit. Thank God there was alcohol available.

And so now I’m on the train. A second class couchette was the only thing I could get, which means I’m currently sharing a tiny room with a nice Norwegian family of three and a reticent young Japanese woman. I don’t think there’s enough room for us all to sleep at the same time.  I’m hoping the conductor guy is going to bring our passports back tomorrow morning. And I’m beginning to suspect there will be no food served on this trip.

I’ll upload this post when I arrive in Rome. And I’ll let you know then what kind of state I’m in.

Life on Mars

Tuesday 4 March 2008

The trip to Rome was not too bad after all. The Norwegian family were nice, and their four-year-old daughter was cute and well behaved. And it turned out that not only was there a dining car in the next carriage, but it was possible for all of us to sleep lying down at the same time. I think I slept well, but I’m pretty tired now, and when I had a lie down in my hotel room earlier on, it felt like I was rocking from side to side. When I asked the Norwegian woman how she had slept, she was evasive and distant, so I suspect that for much of the night I was snoring or farting or both.

We arrived in Rome at about 11, one hour late. I found my hotel easily enough: it’s just near the station. But it is odd. Reception is on the first floor, and the rooms are behind a door on the fifth floor. On the other floors, there are other hotels and pensiones. And they serve breakfast at a café round the corner.

After dumping my stuff, I went on my customary hunt for a cafe or bar with wi-fi. No luck at all. There are internet centres on every corner, full of scary Windows machines infested with toolbars and spyware and shitware. Nothing I’d be prepared to type a password into, and nothing that it’s possible to upload photos from. Some internet centres offer to burn your photos onto a CD, which would be great if it was 1996, but doesn’t help me get my photos safely off my person and onto this blog.

So I uploaded yesterday’s blog entry standing on a street corner using stolen wi-fi. I may have to do the same with this entry. And it’s just possible that there won’t be any new photos here until I return to the present day. See you then.

A cold day in Rome

Wednesday 5 March 2008

Keen-eyed readers will have noticed that despite my last post, photos from Rome have started to appear on this blog. How is this possible? Well, some nice young men in a mobile phone store told me that there is almost no wi-fi in Italy, so I swallowed hard and visited an internet centre instead. Fortunately, the one nearest the hotel uses Firefox, which is a bit more secure than the Internet Explorer installations I saw elsewhere. But enough of that.

Yesterday afternoon I went for my first long walk, to make sure I could get to the Forum and Colosseum without getting lost. Of course, they’re not very far from my hotel near the station, but I still had no difficulty finding them. I took some photos, but since it was getting late, I decided not to pay to go inside. There’ll be plenty of time for that later. The area was very familiar from last time, although I don’t remember seeing Trajan’s column or the Circus Maximus before. God, what did I actually do the last time I was here?

Beer and gelato for dinner, then an early night to recover from the previous night’s train journey.

Today it was raining when I woke up, and quite cold, the coldest since London. But I had things to do. In the morning, I visited the Pantheon. Apart from the front, from the outside it is astonishingly hideous. Blunt and brutal. The inside is glorious, of course, although I was appalled by the nerve of the Christian upstarts who put up signs about saints and silence and reverence as if they owned the place.

After that, I stopped by the Trevi fountain just long enough not to have my pockets picked. Then, after an ample lunch, I spent the afternoon in the Museo Nazionale Romano. It’s all ancient Roman stuff, statues and frescoes and mosaics, as well as a display of frescoes from Pompeii which are usually housed in the museum in Naples. I’ve been trying to write about them for about fifteen minutes now, but I can only come up with crap sentences stuffed with adjectives. They were great.

Off to dinner now, followed by some gelato, and then a quick trip to the internet centre to upload this post and my day’s photographs. Tomorrow, the Baths of Diocletian, I think, followed by the Forum and the Colosseum.

Monument after monument

Thursday 6 March 2008

It rained on and off all day yesterday. In the morning it looked like it would clear up, so I left my umbrella in my hotel room and walked down to the Colosseum. As I approached, a couple of people asked me if I wanted to join a tour group: one inventive young man even suggested that I wouldn’t be allowed in if I didn’t. The queue to get in was long, and by now it had begun to rain hard enough to be annoying, so I took the Metro back to my hotel, grabbed my umbrella, and took the Metro back again. I needn’t have bothered: there had been people selling umbrellas on every street corner, and by the time I got back to the Colosseum, the rain had eased off.

Unlike the Arena in Nîmes, the Colosseum is only a skeleton, but at twice the height, it’s still amazing. I spent an hour there wandering round taking photos, and wincing at the accents of the American tourists. The ticket to the Colosseum entitles you to a visit to the Palatine hill, just across the road, so I decided to go there next.

Last time I was in Rome, I visited the Forum, but this was my first time on the Palatine. I could have done with a map or a guide, really. The hilltop is covered with low walls and gardens and things, and I recognised very little: an enclosed garden, the stadium of Domitian. A few things were labelled, but half-heartedly. The rain started up again, and so I took refuge in the Palatine Museum, which is mostly full of fragments of statues found on top of the hill.

By now it was afternoon. I had had lunch. (Pizza sold by the hectogram. Fantastic.) I decided that I had had enough of ruins and monuments for a bit, and that I wanted to see the river. So I walked down the hill, past the forum and the Arch of Constantine and then past the Circus Maximus, which is now a park. But the ruins and monuments kept on coming.

First, the Bocca della Verità. You know, like in Roman Holiday. Tourists were lining up to take wacky photos of each other with their hands inside the mouth. It didn’t bite any of them. Across the road was that round temple of Vesta I had been wanting to see. And next to that was another temple, completely covered in scaffolding.

I wandered over to the river and took a couple of photos of the Fabrician Bridge. And then I spotted the Portico of Octavia. (What is that? I must look it up.) And then, wandering uphill towards the hotel, I saw a whole block full of ruined temples: the Area Sacra.

And that was when my camera got full. One gigabyte of photos in just under a month. So I abandoned my sightseeing and headed back to the hotel. It took an hour to upload and label the day’s photos; by the time I finished, it was time for a drink and then dinner. It was warm enough to dine outdoors: I treated myself to a two-course menu turistico thing, which came with accordion accompaniment. Then a brief swing past the internet centre to catch up with the iPhone news and then to bed.

Forums today, I think. I’ve emptied the camera, and I’m ready to go.

The Visitation

Thursday 6 March 2008

In case anyone thought I was being an insufferable Mac snob when I said that I was reluctant to use the Windows machines at the internet centres in Rome: my thumb drive thing came back from the internet centre this morning with no less than three separate viruses on it. Let that be a warning to you all!

The Forum, the Basilica and the River

Friday 7 March 2008

Until I reached Rome, I had been very lucky with the weather. Every day had been sunny, except for one day in London, and one slightly rainy morning in Paris. London was cold, but otherwise it had been very mild — mild enough to wear a T-shirt and jacket, like I would in a Sydney winter.

But the last two days in Rome have been cold, overcast and rainy. Yesterday I went to the Roman forum, for example, and was driven back to the hotel after an hour by the rain. My umbrella had disintegrated overnight, and I was trying to hold it together and operate the camera and not fall in the mud all at the same time. I think some of the photos are at crazy angles as a result.

Anyway, at the hotel I got the waterproof hooded jacket Calvin leant me, and I was good to go. I caught the metro to the Spanish Steps, and had a long afternoon walk. The Spanish Steps, the Piazza del Popolo, the River, the Museum of the Ara Pacis Augustae and the Mausoleum of Augustus, more river, St Peter’s Basilica, that island in the middle of the Tiber and then the Pyramid of Sestius. This last one took me hesitantly off the map, but I had a vague memory of a Piramide Metro Station, which proved to be correct.

The visit to St Peter’s was a spur of the moment thing. I had just intended to walk the length of the river, but I saw the dome in the distance and decided on a visit. It is impressive, isn’t it? I didn’t visit the museum, but I went into an adjacent treasury thing full of chasubles and giant candlesticks and reliquaries (including one containing the skull of St Luke the Evangelist!). And I visited the tombs downstairs, just to make sure John Paul II was still resting comfortably. See how thoughtful I am!

There are lots of photos again: I spent an hour and a quarter uploading and labelling them when I got back that evening. Then more red wine, more pizza by the hectogram and then an early night. I was hobbling by then.

Today it’s beautifully sunny. I’m planning to swing by the Forum again, and then perhaps a park. Or the Vatican Museum. Or the Capitoline Museum. I’ll decide later. It’s my last full day in Rome: I’m catching the train to Sorrento tomorrow.

Dum Capitolium scandet

Saturday 8 March 2008

I climbed the Capitoline Hill three times yesterday.

It was sunny, as I said before, and so I wanted to try the Forum again without a camera or an umbrella, to get to know the space better. Or something. I had a nice time. Then I thought I’d climb the Capitoline to see what the museum was like.

An old ramp with whited concrete railings leads up to an ornate museum building with a clock tower. In front of it, on the left, is a statue of a man mounted on horseback.

It’s beautiful. There are two buildings on either side of a courtyard surrounded by statues; in the middle is an impressive bronze of Marcus Aurelius on a horse. But I didn’t have enough cash on me, and I was hungry by then, so I walked back to the hotel for lunch.

The second time I climbed the Capitoline was to visit the museum. It was extraordinary. I spent a happy time in the basement reading dozens of Latin funerary inscriptions, feeling close to real dead Romans and marvelling at all the spelling mistakes. As for the rest of the museum, I can’t even describe it. Nearly every photograph in every Latin textbook we use at school was taken there. The dying Gaul. Eros and Psyche. That bust of Cicero. Frescoes of great scenes from the historian Livy. The contents of Maecenas’s gardens. Bits of a massive statue of Constantine. That bronze she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus. And a hilarious collection of religious paintings.

I left the museum and went down the stairs to return to my hotel room. There was a huge political rally in the way. There’s an election here next week — every available surface is covered with “Vote Saxon” posters — and so a bunch of wacky left-wingers with flags and balloon were getting in early, I think.

By the time I walked back to the hotel, I was looking forward to a pee, frankly, and thinking about getting my bag and then going back out for dinner. And then I thought about how rarely I leave my hotel without taking my bag. And then I thought about how I hadn’t left my hotel without taking my bag.

The third time I climbed the Capitoline, I was running, frantic, desperate to get my bag back from the museum cloakroom. My bag contained a pad, a jumper, a spare camera battery, a copy of Europe on Less Than Thirty Altairian Dollars a Day and a second-hand copy of Gulliver’s Travels I bought in Nîmes. But I couldn’t do without it. I had caught the metro to the Colosseum and run along the Via dei Fori Imperiali. I knew that the museum wouldn’t close for a few hours; I didn’t know whether they would charge me another 8 euros to get back into the museum.

The Capitoline is steep and tiring, but the security guards let me straight back in. My bag was fine. The happy ending: I had a lovely and hilarious two-course dinner near my hotel reading about Gulliver’s escape from Lilliput. The bowdlerised version I read as a child never had this much pissing in it.

This evening: Sorrento.

A kind of homecoming

Sunday 9 March 2008

My hotel in Rome was right next to Roma Termini, Rome’s biggest railway station. It’s not the most salubrious part of Rome. I wasn’t actually offered drugs, but a tall black man with dark brown teeth tried to sell me a watch once, and later shouted at me and pushed my shoulder when I carelessly trod on his friend’s stock of pirate CDs, which he had laid out on a blanket on the sidewalk. And fair enough too.

The hotel itself wasn’t the most salubrious hotel of the area. Groups of people used to huddle on the front step, to discuss how the drug sales were going, I imagine. And my room wasn’t that great, with its tiled floor and freezing draught and unreliable hot water. I  had to yell at the bent and wizened old man at reception to get him to start the pilot light so that I could have hot water for a shave. I felt mildly guilty for several minutes afterwards.

So imagine my surprise when I arrived in Sorrento this afternoon, and found out that the hotel I had booked looked like this:

A nineties-style hotel lobby, with a bar and lots of table settings in front of it. The floor is tiled and the light is very yellow.

This is the lounge of the Ulisse Deluxe Hotel. It’s cheaper than my hotel in Rome, but it’s the only hotel I’ve stayed in so far that wouldn’t give Calvin an instant aneurysm. There are sliding glass doors at the entrance and a toaster in the breakfast room. My bathroom even contains a bidet, for God’s sake.

Sorrento itself is lovely and clean and safe. I’ve had a very relaxing evening here. Thank God I didn’t decide to stay in Naples. Tomorrow: Pompeii.

Dies Jovis

Monday 10 March 2008

The Pompeii thing didn’t work out. I got to the station this morning to discover that the drivers on the Circumvesuviana railway were on strike. A young English woman there told me that this happens a lot. I repaid her by saying that the garbage collectors in Naples were on strike, and that I saw huge drifts of plastic bags from the train. She seemed grateful for the warning. I may not make it to the museum in Naples, actually.

So, no Pompeii. What to do instead? Sorrento is beautiful, as I said yesterday, but there are too many clothes shops and craft shops and objet shops here, and too many American tourists. So I decided to go to Capri instead.

The ferry to Capri takes 25 Italian minutes, which is about 45 of your Earth minutes. It was full of American tourists. But Capri itself is astonishing.

The emperor Tiberius retreated to a villa in Capri from AD 27 to 37, leaving his city prefect Jean-Luc Picard to run Rome in his absence, if the BBC drama series I, Claudius is to be believed. In fact Tacitus claims he had no less than twelve villas there; the biggest of them was excavated last century. It’s called the Villa Jovis, and it’s on the highest mountain on the island, 335 m above sea level. So I went to see it.

It’s a bit of a hike. You take the Via Tiberio, go past the Tiberius Elementary School (who named that?), and then on and on up the mountain. The walk takes about an hour, but it’s worth it. The villa itself is a bit of a big ruin, but that view! Who wouldn’t forgo running half of Europe if you could look out the window and see that view?

My ferry back to Sorrento didn’t leave till 6.30 pm, and I finished my trip to the villa at about 2, which is when the rain really set in. I had some lunch for a while, went for a walk, and still had two hours to kill. You’re on Capri, I told myself; don’t waste it just because it’s raining. You might never make it here again. Go for a walk or something.

Ten minutes later, a hailstorm broke out. Rivers of water were flowing down every staircase and from every manhole. Drenched, I retreated into the nearest café and drank half a bottle of red. An elderly American tourist complained to the waiter that she didn’t know what a cappucino or an espresso was. Instead of hitting her, I decided to watched Grande Fratello. It’s day 49, and the housemates appear to be yelling and gesticulating at each other.

Tomorrow, deo volente: Pompeii. There’s a lot of thunder about right now.


Wednesday 12 March 2008

I made it to Pompeii yesterday.

I wandered around for hours and hours, taking photos of absolutely everything. It was great. It’s the skeleton of an ancient Roman town of course, but it’s so nearly an ancient Roman town that you can barely believe that all those centuries are completely irrevocable, that there’s no way of bringing it back to life, just for a day, to see what it was like. I visited the house of Caecilius, saw the Cave Canem mosaic in the house of the tragic poet, and also saw [a replica of?] that famous mosaic of Alexander and Darius, which I hadn’t even realised was from Pompeii. (A shame my photos of it are so crap.) It was a little bit like wandering around Avignon, I guess, but with fewer toilets, fewer cafés and less wi-fi access. But the walls, the narrow cobbled streets, the towers, the squares are all there.

The visit was surprisingly tiring, and I slept for about eleven hours last night. Today, I felt disinclined to do anything much. I spent about three hours uploading photographs to Flickr and dicking around on the internet, I did some washing, and I wandered the streets of Sorrento. It’s very pretty here, even if you have no interest in clothes shopping or shitty souvenirs.

I’m putting the Pompeii photos up now. There are lots of them. I’ll get round to labelling them all tomorrow. I’m going out for a drink, and then dinner. And another early night. Tomorrow I’m going to Herculaneum, and finally facing the full horror of the twenty-four hour voyage to Athens that awaits me on Friday.

Sunshine, ruins and cutting it fine

Thursday 13 March 2008

It was a beautiful day today. Sunny, warm, clear skies, for the first time since Rome. But I was slow to get moving, and still had several thousand photographs from Pompeii to label and classify, so I didn’t get going until about ten o’clock.

I went to Herculaneum, which is a town less well known than Pompeii, but far better preserved: instead of being covered in ash, it was drowned in boiling mud, which was bad for the inhabitants, but good for the archaeologists. The ruins in Pompeii are rarely more than a storey high; Herculaneum is full of two-storey buildings, and even some wooden structures survive.

Only just over four blocks have been uncovered. So it’s not a complete town like Pompeii, with theatres and temples and amphitheatres. There are a few public buildings, but it’s mostly just shops and houses.

And it’s just terrific. More houses are open to the public, there are more mosaics and frescoes, and the site has been planted with gardens. You can’t get lost there, which is a shame, but you can certainly get immersed. In fact, in some of the photographs you can barely tell where the ruins end and the surrounding suburb begins.

Again, it’s taking hours to upload the photos, but I still had time for a last dinner in Sorrento, and a night-time wander through its narrow streets.

Tomorrow I’m leaving for Athens. It’s going to take over twenty-four hours: Sorrento to Naples by the Circumvesuviana, Naples to Bari by Trenitalia,  a frantic dash to the ferry wharf, a ferry trip from Bari to Pátra, then a train trip from Pátra to Athens. There’s less than two hours between my arrival at Bari and my departure: if the train is late, or if I lose my way between the station and the ferry, I could be spending the night in a town so grim that it doesn’t even rate a mention in Europe for Less Than Thirty Altairian Dollars a Day.

I’ll let you know how I get on.

Last leg

Friday 14 March 2008

The train was late, and I did get lost on the way to the port. But I’m writing this post on board the ferry, about four hours out from Pátra.

The train was only ten minutes late into Bari, and I was sure I knew which direction to go to get to the sea. Things were looking good: the street continued straight ahead, there was a breeze, I could see a pavilion of some kind up ahead. Suspiciously, though, there were no signs saying This way to port. Not to worry, I thought,  Bari is probably embarrassed about simply being a ferry port on the way to Greece, and it bolsters its self-esteem by having lots of signs directing you to its lovely church and prestigious university, and no signs telling you how to leave.

That was when I got lost. The pavilion was a false alarm, and I found myself in a maze of twisty little cobbled streets, all alike. Perservering, I passed the church and the university, and came out on a wide street by the ocean. I immediately noticed something about half a kilometre to my left that looked like a port, and after a few moments, I noticed another port-like thing about a kilometre to my right.

I approched a sausage-seller in a van with (literallly) all the Italian at my command: Dov’è il porto? He said it was the port-like thing on my left.

So I got to the ferry with enough time to check in and eat dinner before it was time to depart. My Eurail pass entitled me to (nearly) free passage and a reclining aeroplane-style seat, which was easily comfortable enough to sleep in. It’s quite nice here, nicer than a train: there’s a bar and a restaurant and a duty free shop. There’s (slow and unreliable) wi-fi and televisions showing BBC World, Greek News and Italian sitcoms.

One more train trip and I’ll be in Athens. My guidebook tells me they have wi-fi there too.

Cradle of civilisation

Sunday 16 March 2008

A large white and blue Mediterranean ferry marked Blue Star Ferries is in dock, with some large trucks in front of it.

The ferry arrived in Patra yesterday lunchtime, and I easily found the railway station. But when I tried to buy a ticket to Athens, the man at the counter said that there had been an accident, and that it would be half an hour before he could tell me whether there would be any trains to Athens. He may have added something in Greek to the effect that the line had caught fire, or that a tower had fallen on it; my Greek is about two and a half thousand years out of date.

I had been followed to the station by three American students, who also asked for tickets, but the ticket seller suggested to them that they could catch the bus at the bus station we had passed on the way to the railway station. I decided to do this as well.

The bus trip was incredible, and much faster than the train would have been. We drove along the north of the Peloponnese, looking out across the water towards northern Greece, until we reached Corinth; then we drove along looking south across the water towards the Peloponnese. The sky was blue, there were mountains; it was terribly beautiful, and a nice confirmation of all those maps of Greece I’ve looked at over the years.

The American students were on the bus with me. They were studying architecture and construction science at a university in Texas; they were studying abroad in Italy for a whole semester, and were taking their spring break in Greece.

When we got to Athens, things were less attractive. The bus station was, as usual, full of lost luggage and lost souls. From there I caught a local bus to Omonia, which the Guide describes as a “home to pickpockets, prostitutes and drug dealers”. The garbage collectors, like those in Naples, must be on strike: everywhere you look there are six foot piles of garbage, and small drifts of garbage everywhere else. The window cleaners’ strike appears to be in its third decade.

The hotel didn’t improve my mood. It’s called the Hotel Joker; the lit sign on the side has a malfunctioning R. I only reconciled myself to Athens when I visited the pub next door. The staff were friendly, the beer was cold, and they were enthusiastically playing that Greek music which I had always thought Greek people only pretended to like just to placate their mothers.

This morning, the first place to go was the Acropolis. And it was as easy as catching the metro to the station called Akropoli, climbing the escalator and looking up. Unfortunately, the staff there were also on strike: the Acropolis was not opening until midday.

This gave me plenty of time to visit the temple of Olympian Zeus and the Pnyx and the Hill of the Muses, from where you can see the gleaming white buildings of Athens stretching out to the hills, much less grubby from a distance. I also had a brief preview of the new Acropolis Museum, which is due to open fully this year. When twelve came round, I briefly considered leaving the Acropolis for another day, but that was a crazy idea, and so I went there straightaway. Spectacular, of course. I ran into the American students on the way down the hill.

After that, a late lunch, and a wander around Syntagma and Plaka, which the Guide tells me are the heart of Athens. It’s Sunday, so all the shops were closed, but there were markets and pubs and a happy carnival atmosphere. I stumbled across the Roman agora, and the Kerameikos, which is where all those famous Greek amphoras were made, and which doubled as the red light district, before the area around my hotel took over, of course.

Tonight, the pub again, I think. Tomorrow, the museum, and the inevitable second trip up the Acropolis.

The Athens photos are up

Sunday 16 March 2008

I don’t have time to write a long post right now, but I just wanted to say that I’ve uploaded my photos from today’s sightseeing tour of Athens, including my first ever trip to the Acropolis.

Normal whinging about the vicissitudes of overseas travel will resume as soon as possible.

Strike two

Monday 17 March 2008

Today is my last day in Athens, and my last day in Europe. I’m leaving tomorrow morning at 9 am to fly to Tokyo via London, where I’ll meet up with Calvin.

Yesterday was another beautiful day, hot and sunny: for the first time, I shed the jacket completely. I decided to head up to the Acropolis again. This time I started with the excavations on the south side and the Theatre of Dionysus. Then up to the Acropolis itself.

It was still spectacular. It was Monday, and entry was no longer free, so it was less crowded. I took a couple more pictures, but basically just tried to memorise the place as much as I could. This time I noticed that from the Erichtheion you could see the Ancient Agora and its amazingly intact temple of Hephaistos. I also saw a lump of rock nearby which people were clambering on, and suspected that I knew what it must be. I headed towards the exit.

Before I got there, I ran into the American students again. They’d been having fun, and were getting ready to leave the next day.

The lump of rock had a plaque on it quoting the chapter of the Book of Acts where Saint Paul preaches to the Greeks about a God previously unknown to them. This was the Areopagus. I wandered up, marvelling at its slipperiness and wondering if there were as many beer bottles there in Paul’s day. I saw the American students again, but climbed down before they saw me: it would have been ridiculous to say goodbye to them for a fourth time.

Closeup of a bronze plaque set into a stone surface. The plaque is inscribed with Greek capital letters.

I went through the Ancient Agora, and walked around the temple of Hephaistos. They have little tortoises here, like the one that killed Aeschylus. I emerged from the agora into a fabulously cool street, full of roadside cafes where attractive young people were playing backgammon and drinking that scary frothy Greek coffee. I vaguely decided to come back and eat here that night.

Souvlaki for lunch: the best thing I’ve eaten since Italy. Then the National Archaeological Museum for the afternoon. Had a happy time looking at all that gold Schliemann dug up in Mycenae, and spent quite a while looking at the Neolithic artifacts. By the time I reached the  fantastic ceramics rooms on the top floor, my knees and ankles had had enough, and I didn’t do more than a cursory tour.

It was dark and overcast when I left the museum, but not yet time for dinner, so I walked back to the cafes near the Ancient Agora. It was quite dark when I got there, and the bookshop I’d spotted earlier had no books in English, and it was too dark to read at any of the cafes anyway, so I decided to head back. Not before seeing the Acropolis all magnificently lit up, though. I tried to take a photo, but it was dark and the camera’s a Sony, which means that I can’t work out how to change any of its settings.

There was a notice at Thissio station, which looked like it said there would be a train strike for the next 36 hours. When I got to Omonia station, there was an English announcement that confirmed it.

So, no trains today. I can’t face the buses, frankly, and so I’m stuck doing things within walking distance. That might mean another trip to the Archaeological Museum to take a proper look at the pottery and a trip to the Kerameikos. Or it might mean dicking around on the internet and drinking at the pub next to the hotel. Let’s see, shall we?

Strike three

Wednesday 19 March 2008

I had a bit of a ceramics day yesterday. There were no trains running, and I was reluctant to attempt the buses, so I was restricted to places within easy walking distance of the hotel. Fortunately, that included the National Archaelogical Museum and the Kerameikos.

I had visited the museum the day before, but by the time I reached the pottery collection on the top floor, I had pretty much had enough. I briefly walked through all the rooms in reverse chronological order, only stopping to look at the occasional pretty or unusual piece.

This time I had a few hours to walk through the whole collection, in order. And I was glad I did. Everything was very clearly described and explained, and there were beautiful examples of the different techniques and types of vessels. By the end, I knew a lot more than I had when I arrived.

More souvlaki for lunch, and then the last of the archaeological sites on my list. The Kerameikos was where a lot of the pottery was made, and although the ruins are now little more than square brick outlines, there is a small museum there with more pottery and grave markers. I wandered around for a while, marvelling at the tortoises and the flowers, looking up at the Acropolis, and trying to imagine Athens 2500 years ago.

On my way back to the hotel, I started to notice ominous signs on the telegraph poles. Brightly coloured signs, prominently featuring the word apergía and the date March 19. I went back to my local pub and decided to have an early night and not to worry too much about it.

Of course, I couldn’t sleep. I’ve had a fun few weeks travelling on my own, but I’m really looking forward to travelling in Japan with Calvin. It was like Christmas Eve: I couldn’t sleep till nearly midnight, and I was wide awake at 4.30 am.

And good thing too. The signs were advertising a general strike in protest at the changes to pensions the Greek government is planning to bring in tomorrow. When I checked out at 5.30, hoping to get to the airport in time for my flight at 8.55, the reception guy said that there would be no buses or trains or taxis today.

But 5.30 in the morning was early enough for the strike not to have kicked in yet, and I managed to get a cab to the airport, for only a couple of euros less than the cost of the previous night at the hotel. After spending a couple of hours wrestling with the ancient Windows machines in Athens Airport’s crappy first-class lounge (darling!), I’m now in the air about three hours from Heathrow, where I catch my flight to Tokyo.

Easter among the Shintoists

Thursday 20 March 2008

I’m writing this post from the top floor of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Kobe. We arrived here yesterday afternoon, and after about five minutes of conversation, Calvin had us upgraded to Vice-Emperor Status, which means a massive room and free access to endless free drinks in the Ambassador Club Deity Lounge. He’s my absolute hero.

It's an overcast day and we're looking over the city of Kobe: mountains on the left, lots of multi-storey buildings clustered together, and just visible in the background on the right is the sea.
View from the hotel room window in Kobe

I met Calvin at Tokyo Airport, after a horrid long-haul flight from London to Tokyo. There was to be no sleeping on this flight, thanks to the many children around me, and the confined economy-class seating. But the inflight entertainment was spectacular: I watched hours of cartoons and sitcoms, episodes of Torchwood, and, for the very first time, This is Spinal Tap. No one ever told me that Patrick Macnee was in it.

Dinner last night was hampered a bit by our complete inability to communicate with the staff in the restaurant. Buying train tickets this morning was hampered by our relative inability to communicate with the staff at the railway station. We’ve picked our restaurant for dinner tonight, and are hoping for a menu with pictures on it. Although we’re pretty sure that most waiters in Kobe will understand the word beef.

Caught the tourist bus around Kobe today, visited a beautiful Shinto temple, wandered slack-jawed around a six-storey electronics shop and climbed the hill behind the city on a scary cable-car thing.

Tomorrow, we’re off to Koyasan, where we’ll be staying in a Buddhist temple for two days. I’m guessing that opportunities for beef, beer and wi-fi will be limited, so I don’t expect to be blogging again until after the weekend.

Red meat on Fridays

Friday 21 March 2008

I’m just back from dinner. Calvin and I went to a restaurant under the hotel called Wakkoku, which was recommended by the Guide for the quality of its Kobe beef.

We were seated at a bench, directly in front of the long rectangular hotplate where our meal was cooked. Next to us we had small bowls of vinegar and soy sauce.

I started with smoked salmon, served with capers on a bed of lightly pickled onion. Calvin had tongue. (Delicious. I broke my skeletal-muscle-only rule to try it.) We ate our entrees while watching the chef lightly fry huge slices of garlic, carefully creating two small piles. He placed the garlic on large plates, which sat on the hotplate in front of us. Then he added small piles of salt, pepper and mustard.

We ate a light salad while the chef brought out two 250 gram slices of Kobe beef, amazingly geometrical, and marbled with fat. He cut off the fatty ends, and then cut two-thirds of the rest into slices and carefully fried each surface.

We dipped these slices in pepper or in a mixture of mustard and soy sauce. They were rich, juicy and fatty — by far the most delicious meat I have ever eaten.

Then he used the molten beef fat to lightly fry pieces of tofu,  eggplant, carrot and radish. He served these to us, and  added some of the pieces of fat themselves (oh my god!), and then the rest of the beef, and then bean shoots mixed with the rest of the pieces of fat. Calvin was defeated by the richness of it all, but I made it all the way to the end. So much delicious meat.

That was when I remembered Good Friday. Tomorrow and Sunday: penance and self-mortification. I’ll get back to you after that.

48 hours without coffee or garlic

Monday 24 March 2008

We’re back from our stay in the Buddhist temple, and it’s quite different from what I expected.

We stayed at Eko-in, which is a shukubo, a Buddhist temple which doubles as a hotel, where the guests are looked after by novice monks. I had expected hard benches and drafty rooms; instead, our room was the most beautiful one I’ve had on the trip. There was a TV and an electric heater; the toilet outside had one of those creepy Japanese heated toilet seats.

Eko-in is in Koyasan, a mountain village full of temples and holy places, the home of the Shingon School of Buddhism, founded by Kobo Daishi in 816. He’s still there, apparently, in eternal meditation, although I didn’t see too many signs of life at his mausoleum. Calvin remains convinced, however.

It took us five different trains to get here; the last was a scary funicular railway like the one in the Blue Mountains. A bus took us to the temple. We didn’t have much time once we arrived. We wandered through the cemetery, which is beautiful: crumbling lichen-covered monuments surrounded by tall cedar trees. Very sad and peaceful.

Dinner was at 5.30. There was sake, but the monks can’t eat meat or onions or garlic, so neither could we. (No garlic! This is exactly the sort of thing that gets me so cross about religion.) Calvin enjoyed the food, but all I could think about was that fantastic plate of tagliatelle I had in Nîmes. The breakfast next morning was even more bland and horrible.

We spent yesterday going from temple to temple. Japanese Buddhist temples are beautiful. They’re dark inside, full of black lacquer and red and gold and soft orange lanterns. Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum contains tens of thousands of lanterns. When I expressed awe at this, Calvin pointed out that they ran off electricity; this was his revenge for my skepticism about Kobo Daishi’s immortality.

We reached Kyoto this afternoon, and were immediately unimpressed by the hotel. Mind you, it was better than any hotel I stayed in in Europe (apart from Sorrento), but Calvin hated it the moment we walked in. So our plans have changed. We’ll spend the morning sightseeing in Kyoto, and then we’ll catch the train to Tokyo, where we’ll stay until we leave for home on Monday night.


Tuesday 25 March 2008

Tonight’s blog entry comes to you from the 34th floor of the ANA Inter-Continental Hotel Tokyo, where I’m sitting at the window of the club lounge with my complimentary glass of champagne and my complimentary plate of nibbles, looking out over the Tokyo cityscape as twilight falls. The view is amazing: the skyscrapers, the neon lights, the flying cars. Wish you were here, obviously.

I’ve been on my own again today while Calvin’s been working. In fact, he just dropped by for five minutes as I was writing this, but he’s off to dinner with the Japanese CEO (or something), and won’t be in until ten: he’s gone native. He’ll be working tomorrow as well.

Yesterday we spent the day sightseeing in Kyoto, before catching a train to Tokyo in the afternoon. We reached the hotel at eight in the evening. Our taxi pulled into the driveway and was instantly unpacked by efficient and courteous bellboys, while we were ushered into an absurdly glamorous hotel lobby. It’s three storeys high, the ceiling is carpeted with expensive chandeliers and there are glassy water features and bamboo gardens in every direction. From the open-concept champagne bar on the mezzanine level, a glass staircase descends, tastefully lit from within by purple fluorescent lights. I keep expecting Cameron Diaz to stagger down it carrying that all-important envelope. (There are a lot of posters of her around, actually. I’m going to start carrying cloves of garlic, I think.)

Kyoto was lovely. The Guide says that you need to spend several days there, savouring the food and visiting the historic buildings. But if you’ve only got a few hours, there’s a walk it recommends. We followed it for most of the day, visiting huge temple complexes and walking down cobbled streets lined with tea houses and quaint, crappy souvenir shops. The photos are really worth a look. There are turtles.

Today, I took it easy. Calvin suggested that I should make the most of the last day of our rail pass and go to see Mount Fuji. I was tempted, obviously, but just couldn’t face the hours of complicated train trips it would have taken. Instead, I spent the day catching up on the backlog of photos and visiting huge glassy shopping centres and multi-storey electronics stores. I spent an indecent amount of time stroking a MacBook Air.

Off to dinner soon. Trying to remain seaweed-free today. My hopes remain high.

Blossoms and bidets

Wednesday 26 March 2008

Calvin ended up getting back from his work dinner after 11.30 last night, long after I had fallen asleep. Right now I’m waiting for him in the glamorous hotel lobby, behind a bamboo garden and in front of a water feature. When he gets here, we’ll pick up our bags and head off to our last hotel. He assures me it will put this one in the shade.

After Calvin left for work this morning, I rang Ben Tupman, who took a year’s leave from Grammar last year and never came back. He’s living just out of Tokyo now. We’re catching up tomorrow, which I’m really looking forward to. I’ve got lots of Japan questions to ask him, for a start. Like, how do you type? How do those handheld electronic dictionaries work? And would he consider wearing one of those surgical face masks if he caught a cold?

After speaking to Ben, I walked to the Imperial Palace Gardens, which are visible from the hotel room window. They are surrounded by a moat about five kilometres long, but most of them are actually open to the public. I walked around the moat and wandered through the gardens, spending a salutary few hours taking photographs of cherry blossoms. They’re really coming on now.

Then, by way of contrast, I went by metro to Akihabara, which is a busy and garish district, packed with stores selling consumer electronics. I worked my way from biggest to smallest. But I was very self-controlled. I added to my collection of screen protectors for the iPod touch, but didn’t buy anything else. I’ll be back, though: Calvin wants to go later to pick up one of those horrifying heated Japanese toilet seats with built-in bidet and water jet, and a mysterious third spray setting specifically for ladies. He’s been obsessed with them ever since we arrived.


Friday 28 March 2008

Another great day yesterday. We got up horribly early in the morning to go to the fish markets at Tsukiji. Calvin had seen them on Lifestyle Food, and it was the first thing he wanted to do once he had finished working. There are some photos, as usual, but Calvin also took some video of people slicing up giant tunas with swords, or sawing up frozen ones with power tools. Awesome. There are live crabs, and giant scarlet octopuses. And you constantly have to dodge the noisy three-wheeled carts which zip among the stalls.

Sushi for breakfast, of course, and then back to the hotel to meet Ben. Ben took us to Ueno park, where all of the cherry blossoms were out. Ben reckoned that the park wasn’t very crowded, but he may have been in Tokyo too long: thousands of people had turned up to photograph the cherry blossoms, and the paths were lined with roped-off tarpaulins, which Ben said were reserved areas for companies. But they looked to me like they were full of hippies and vagrants rather than sober corporate types. We visited a shrine dedicated to the fox spirits, and a lake with swan-shaped paddle-boats, before heading off to the markets and the inevitable drink.

Calvin and I had an early night, narrowly avoiding another work dinner.

This morning I was woken by the news that two of Calvin’s dogs had escaped, but had been picked up and brought back home by someone kind who knew where they lived.

We visited Akihabara again this morning, and I showed Calvin the sights I had seen a few days early. Even he managed not to buy any electrical equipment. We met Calvin’s Japanese colleague Hayuru, who took us to lunch at a restaurant where they cook a kind of fishy noodly omelet on a hot plate embedded in the table.

Now we’re waiting to meet some of Calvin’s old gym friends, who we ran into in the lobby of the last hotel. We’re having dinner with them. I can’t say I’m enthusiastic, though. We just heard that the same two dogs escaped again this morning, and only one of them has been accounted for. I hope Willey is okay.

Both dogs found

Saturday 29 March 2008

We got a phone call last night saying that Gracey had been turned in at a vet in Marrickville. Willey wasn’t mentioned. Years ago, they used to escape occasionally, but they would always be found nearby and together. Willey would always follow Gracey.

Calvin rang when the vet opened again this morning and was told that stupid, faithful Willey was at the vet’s too. Trish is going to pick them up this morning.

I’m very relieved. That was an unpleasantly anxious night.

Last full day today. We fly out at 9.25 pm tomorrow night.

No fugu for you

Sunday 30 March 2008

Saturday night we went for dinner to Shibuya, which, According to Calvin, has the busiest intersection in the world. It’s massive, with neon signs and animated billboards. And everyone in Tokyo was there. It made Piccadilly Circus look like Johnston Street, Annandale.

We were having dinner with a couple Calvin knew; we had run into them a couple of days earlier in the lobby of our last hotel. With the help of Nick, who knows Japanese, we found a good restaurant, full of locals, and had nice meal. We drank plum wine and cherry-blossom sake. Apparently there was whale bacon on the menu, but since I heard this as “quail bacon”, I wasn’t particularly shocked until later. Calvin didn’t have any, which was a surprise.

Sunday morning, on Nick’s advice, we went to Harajuku, which is apparently full of wacky young people dressed in cartoon-character-Victoriana-S & M-wear. It was so cold, though, that we were disinclined to explore, and only caught sight of one or two of the less extreme examples.

Then to the giant department stores of Shinjuku. This was fun, but I was already starting to feel unwell. I think parasites from the sushi I’ve been eating had invaded my cerebro-spinal fluid and were making my joints ache. Or something.

We met Ben Tupman and his girlfriend Satoko fo lunch in Shinjuku. We ate in a Korean barbecue restaurant, where we selected our own food and cooked it on a hotplate embedded in the table. Calvin tricked me into eating heart (again), and we may have overeaten in order to avoid the 500 yen fine for taking food and not finishing it.

During lunch, we discussed Calvin’s plans for eating fugu, the poisonous blowfish that nearly killed Homer Simpson in 1991. Fugu restaurants only serve fugu normally, but Ben looked at the menu that the concierge had given us, and helpfully informed me that if I didn’t feel up to fugu, the restaurant also offered shirako, which is the fugu’s sperm.

Unsurprisingly, by the time I got home, I was horribly nauseous, and I split the evening between groaning weakly and being sick. Sadly, neither of us got to taste any delicious fugu.

Home safe

Monday 31 March 2008

Our last day in Tokyo was largely uneventful. We took a quick trip back to Harajuku to check out a 100-yen shop. (These are great. Full of things shaped like cartoon animals that are good for opening jars.) Then a turn around a supermarket near our hotel in Shinagawa to make sure there were no foodstuffs unavailable in Australia that we hadn’t already bought. Then back to the hotel to pack up. Calvin filled two extra boxes with food, as well as the complementary contents of the daily-replenished minibar.

And then, the airport. Duty-free shopping, hanging round in the the airport lounge, killing time. The first leg was from Tokyo to Cairns: my first ever business class flight. I was a little underwhelmed, to be honest. I could survive seven hours sitting on broken glass with a gun to my head, provided I had video on demand, but on this flight there were only eight channels, and the highlight appeared to be Andrew Denton interviewing Rod Stewart. We did this flight on points; had it been with money, I don’t think I could justify spending thousands of dollars on a slightly bigger seat and much jollier flight attendants.

Anyway. We arrived in Cairns, and decided not to prolong the agony. Instead of waiting six hours for the next business class leg, we got straight back on the same plane in economy class. And two and a half hours later, we were in Sydney.


Tuesday 1 April 2008

And that’s that. Thank you to everyone who commented, and to everyone who told me that they were reading along, and to everyone else who’s been reading. I had a great time on the trip, much better than I could have imagined, and it was nice to think that I was somehow sharing my experiences with my friends.I’ll see you soon.