Guns and Frocks

Loving Delta and the Bannermen since 1987

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.