Guns and Frocks

Loving Delta and the Bannermen since 1987

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.