Steve's Weird Food for Turkey: Lamb. Sort of.

Monday, November 30, 2009

You remember back in Greece, when I thought I’d got off lightly because I couldn’t find a purveyor of the liver ‘n’ intestines thing that one of the local hostel people mentioned? Well I should have known it was too good to last. As soon as I got to Turkey, there is was. And now it had a name: kokoreç. And considering that the Turkish pronunciation of the ç is “ch”, it seemed appropriate that the last syllable of the word is “retch”.

Here again, the LP weighs in:

“Like most countries, Turkey has some dishes that only a local could love. Top of the confrontational stakes is kokoreç, seasoned lamb intestines wrapped around a skewer and grilled over charcoal.”

Cleary these lamb intestines were my fate, so despite the existence of some other quite odd foods in Turkey, I gave in to the kokoreç. Honourable mentions in the realm of weird Turkish food should go to ayran, the watered-down plain yogurt drink with a touch of salt, and most especially to a dessert pudding one of whose ingredients is chicken breast. I’m not kidding. For a nation so sweet-obsessed that truck stops stock 6’ high palette-sized stacks of Turkish Delight, this displays a bizarrely loose grasp of the concept of dessert.

Anyways, here’s the establishment I chose. A close-up look at the stuff on the spit will reveal that it looks like exactly what it is – long ropey bits wrapped again and again around a skewer.

Once the sausage-shaped blob is cooked they take it off the skewer and cut it into rounds, and then put those on a flat grill and chop them all up into little bits. Then the bits get stuck in bread, or on a pide (a sort of Turkish pizza), or just on a plate, with spices added.

I chose to have mine served on a bun. The “On a Bun Gambit” served me well when tripe was on the menu, so I thought it would be a safe choice. I even sort of ordered in Turkish. Well, ordered might be a generous definition. What I said was “Kokoreç. Ekmek” (which means bread), accompanied by a sort of opening-book hand gesture meant to convey the idea of a bun. It worked, and the nice men at the kokreç stand directed me downstairs to a small seating area they had in the basement. And he brought my food down, and put it on a tray, and was, er… very friendly. (“Where are you from? Canada! Your are very beautiful woman. My name Farat. This my shop. Shop close 6:00. Maybe I can help you tonight? Show you Sultanhamet? Blue Mosque? Aya Sofia? Have Turkish coffee? I want to help you. Give you my mobile number.” Umm, thanks Farat, you're obviously a man with impeccable tastes, but I really just came for the intestines…)

And here they are:

And, once again: not bad. Not bad at all. Spicy, meaty, tasty. In fact, I’m now pretty convinced that just about anything is edible when it’s been properly stewed, grilled, roasted or otherwise disguised. I could probably eat my own running shoes if they were chopped into unrecognizable bits, doused in something spicy, and stuck in a bun.

And per Rob Hamilton’s request, here’s a self-portrait of me at the kokoreç stand, in between bites of intestines and visits from Farat:

Cappadocia from the ground

Friday, November 27, 2009

Besides hot air ballooning, there’s plenty to do on the ground in Cappadocia. I was booked on two all-day tours around the area, so the days were quite packed. And I went to a touristy but fun “Turkish Night” in a town near Göreme. When in Göreme, GSRED stays at the Shoestring Cave Pension, a pleasant cluster of rooms cut into rock surrounding a central courtyard. They apparently have a pool too but Cappadocia is decidedly chilly at this time of year and I wasn’t in the mood to chip my way through a layer of ice to have a dip.

The courtyard (Notice the solar panels for hot water - they're everywhere. Very clever.)

My room. A cave with wifi!

I went to Turkish Night with a gang from Shoestring and had a great time, partly because the price for dinner included unlimited drinks, and there was a whole bottle of Raki on the table. (Though it turns out that Raki is sort of, er... foul. No offense, Turkey). The night started off with a demonstration of whirling dervishes, though I suspect that it was not the most precisely authentic version of the famous practice, unless 12th c. sufis who originated the custom did so under florescent black lights… (I’m just sayin’)

There was also a lot of good Turkish food (in fact there may be a whole post coming on Turkish food, because there seems to be a lot to say about it). And there was a seemingly endless series of traditional dances performed during dinner. They were hard to photograph, but the band is worth a mention here because they were the most disinterested, unengaged bunch of musicians I’ve seen in ages.

They love their job

Turkish night was fun, but I (wisely, I think) chose to go to bed relatively early instead of following the rest of the hostel bunch to a bar in town. I did have to get up at 5:00 for the ballooning thing the next day, after all. After the balloons (which you’ve already heard about) I spent the day on the first of two organized minibus tours through the area around Göreme. There was a long hike through Rose Valley, which was a really nice way to see the rock formations and caves up close. They really are everywhere, and they’re dotted with tiny pigeonholes which were, in fact, holes for pigeons. I never really got a good explanation of why the people who inhabited the place needed so many pigeons, except that they were somehow sacred, and the droppings were used as fertilizer.

Caves and pigeon holes

At the end of the hike we stopped for tea in the tiny town of Cavusin. Our target was a tea house at the opposite end of the village to where we entered, but we had to stop before then because the centre of the town, just outside the mosque, was packed with a big crowd of men. It turned out there was a funeral in progress. We stopped for tea at another spot so we could wait for the road to open up again, and as we were sitting the funeral procession came past. All men, walking silently, carrying the coffin to the graveyard down the road.

The graveyard

It was sad, but also really interesting to see. As I mentioned, there were no women at all in the procession. Our guide explained that the men would carry the coffin and bury it in the graveyard (this despite the fact that the deceased was a woman), and later the women would go visit the site. After the procession passed us a carload of women pulled up and got out to watch the burial from a distance. It felt intrusive to sit there and watch, but I also felt lucky to have seen it. (No pictures, because of course that would have been beyond tasteless.)

We went to Cavusin to see was the old city cut into the rock face, including a great Christian church that even had some of the original paintings on the walls.

Those pillars are carved out of the rock, not added on after.

The tour also included the mandatory thinly-disguised “pottery demonstration” that ended with a trip through the pottery studio’s showroom (“Please have a glass of apple tea. You will have 20% discount. All prices of larger pieces include packing and shipping to your country.” The next day’s tour ended at the onyx jewellry shop…)

My second day trip was similar to the first, but the landscape was quite different. We visited the underground city at Derinkuyu, which was hard to photograph since it is underground and hence sort of dark. The photos I did take are over at Flickr, instead here you get Rob’s requested people picture:

Old Turkish woman selling “Cappadocia Dolls” outside the underground city

We also had a hike through a lovely green canyon, and lunch in a nice restaurant, and lot more time spent clambering around and photographing rooms cut into rocks.

The river valley we walked through

I could go on and on with pictures of crazy-looking rocks, and rooms cut into crazy looking rocks. So much so that by the end of my second day of minibus touring around Göreme I felt like didn’t need to see, photograph, explore, sleep in or otherwise interact with another rock-cut anything for a long long time. So it was with a sense of relief and anticipation that I got on my second overnight bus to make my way to Pamukkale, to look at entirely different rocks.

One last look at crazy rocks of Cappadocia

One impossible thing before breakfast

Thursday, November 26, 2009

I didn’t actually intend to go hot air ballooning in Cappadocia. It seemed really expensive and touristy and I was already booked on two all-day tours of the surrounding area that I thought were going to eat up all my time. But then I met single-serving friend - Tania (a New Zealander) from the overnight bus, and she staying at my hostel, and she was doing it. And it turned out that it all happened so early in the morning that I could do the ballooning and still get back to the hostel in time for breakfast and a hot shower before my tour started. Before I knew it I was forking over €140.00 for an hour of time floating over Cappadocia’s unique landscape.

The unique landscape I was talking about – they call the funny rock formations “fairy chimneys”

And so the alarm went off at 5:15am, time enough for me to roll out of bed, get dressed, splash some water on my face and run some gel through my hair (to little effect), and bundle up to wait for the minibus. I borrowed a warm jacket from one of the nice guys at the hostel, and was very glad I had it. I would have been happier still to have a pair of gloves and a toque, but the strictures of light packing mean that things the “might” be needed are left out, so my gloves and toque (and long underwear) are stuffed away in storage in Winnipeg. Let’s just say it was a chilly wait.

We eventually made it to the staging area, where at least a dozen balloons were preparing to fly. Hot air ballooning is THE thing to do in Cappadocia, so there are a lot of companies that do it. There probably wasn’t a moment during the whole flight when I couldn’t see five or ten other balloons. Though this didn’t really detract from the experience.

Many many balloons, getting ready

Both Tania and I were alarmed at the number of people the good folks at Balloon Turca planned on getting into the basket – I think I counted twenty heads. But it turned out that we all fit reasonably well, and it looked like everyone had a good view. The basket was divided into five sections – 4 around the edges for passengers, and a space in the middle for the pilots and gas canisters. Dividers kept everyone corralled in their section, presumably to keep people from charging back and forth around the basket and upsetting the balance.

The burners, or jets, or fire-spitters, or whatever they’re called.

We got some simple instructions, which I tried to help translate for some uni-lingual French folks in the next compartment. They boiled down to this:
  1. Stay in the basket. Do not leave the basket until the pilot says you can leave the basket.
  2. When we are about to land put your camera away, grab onto a handle with both hands and crouch with your head below the edge of the basket. Do not get up until the pilot says you can get up.
  3. No really, stay in the basket.

And then we were off. It was an odd sensation because there was, in fact, no sensation at all. There’s no stomach-churning leap into the air, no rush of wind, no sense of movement. It’s incredibly gentle and pleasant. And of course because you're moving in the wind, you can't feel the wind, which is really good, because as I mentioned, it was chilly.

Balloons, weird rocks, sunrise. It’s the whole package.

We spent some time moving at low altitude through the fairy chimneys. Apparently it’s a mark of a skilled pilot to be able to manoeuver very close to the ground. Ours must have been pretty good, though one or two trees got a trim, and one fairy chimney was forcibly eroded by our passing. As advertised, it was a great way to see the rock formations close up. And it was also neat seeing all the other balloons too, and watching the sun rise over that incredible landscape.

A close up look at one of the rock formations, with some really nice carving

This shot gives an idea of just how many rack-cut dwellings there are in the area. There must be thousands, and that’s not an exaggeration.

And because I promised Rob – a people picture. Me and Tania (Smart girl - she had a hat and rabbit-fur lined gloves from Firenze! Why didn’t I buy rabbit-fur lined gloves in Firenze???)

The flight was supposed to last an hour, but we ended up being in the air for closer to 75 minutes. The time must vary according to how long it takes to find an appropriate place to land. The landing itself was funny. We were all crouched down, so it was impossible to tell how close we were to the ground, then suddenly about six guys appeared over the edge to pull us down to the ground. It was a bit startling.

After we landed, the pilot and the guys on the ground actually guided the basket right over to the trailer and landed it exactly, ratcheting it down into place before we were allowed to get out. There was even a little treat on the ground!

Our pilots, pouring out a little sparkly beverage at the landing site

Naturally I took one or two pics. In fact, there are about 130 photos of the whole experience over at Flickr. I’d post more here, but I’ve got better things to do than sit here all night uploading photos to a blog post. There’s a mama-cooked Turkish supper in a few minutes, and there will be HOME MADE BAKLAVA. So if you want to see more pics, go look at the set called “Ballooning in Cappadocia”. Oh, and in case there is any doubt that I really did this, read ‘em and weep:

Pick of Pics - Istanbul

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Mosques in the mist, Istanbul

(And can I just add here that I can't believe I actually took this photo. It might be my favourite of the trip so far...)

Istanbul, Part One

Monday, November 23, 2009

Arriving in Istanbul from Athens was pretty painless, but when I first heard the call the prayer… wow… I really knew I was somewhere else. Despite the different alphabet and such, Greece was still very much part of Europe. They had Spar shops and they use euros and it all felt somehow familiar after having been through at least a dozen or so other European cities in the last five months. (Five months! Wow! It's almost half over.) Despite the geographic technicality that much of Istanbul, including all the bits I’ve seen so far, is still in Europe, it really does feel different. Like I mentioned in Russia, the faces are different – all dark hair and brown eyes. I suspect I stand out – I can’t imagine what it would be like if I was blonde. (I can't imagine what it will be like in China...)

I’ve seen some of the big sights – the Aya Sofia, the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, but they’re actually not what stick with me. Yes, the Aya Sofia was big and impressive, but I think I’ve reached my limit on big impressive buildings.

Obligatory shot of the Aya Sofia

I actually liked the Blue Mosque better, though even there it was odd because while the Aya Sofia started out as a church and then was converted to a mosque, and is now a museum (and scaffold-storage facility, it seems), the Blue Mosque is still a functioning place of worship. This made me feel a bit awkward standing around gawping. And because it’s a mosque, you have to take your shoes off before going in, women are asked to cover their heads. I bought a scarf for this purpose – I figured it won’t be the last “covered head” site of my trip. But I was amazed at the number of women wandering around with uncovered heads. I mean how hard is it to make the effort, people? Honestly, grow up and grab some class.

Inside the Blue Mosque

So those were the big impressive buildings. More my speed were the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar. Both are big covered market areas absolutely crammed with little shops – the LP says the Grand Bazaar has over 4,000 shops and several kilometers of lanes, and I can believe it. What makes it particularly tiresome is that every one of them has a guy or two outside trying to solicit your business. “Hello! Ola! Bonjour! Espanga? Australia? Canada? Canada! How are you today Canada? Would you like to come in? Special sale today Canada! Wait, come back!” It was really tiring.

One of the larger “lanes” in the Grand Bazaar

I preferred the Spice Bazaar because it’s smaller, and most of the shops sell sweets. And here I have to say that the Turks really love their sweets (That, and their kebaps. In fact, I may have to write a whole post on Turkish fast food…). In some ways, it’s like they are my people with all the sweet treats on offer everywhere (It’s really too bad this comes at a time when I’m rapidly expanding out of my tired wardrobe and really feel like I need to get a handle on both the deteriorating clothing situation and the expanding thighs situation). If only I actually liked Turkish Delight… I must have walked past at least a metric tonne of it in the last three days. I did at least buy a bit of that round “shredded wheat” ‘n’ pistachio style baklava stuff that was very nice.

A typical stall in the Spice Bazaar

After a day or two of sights like these I decided I needed a bit of unstructured wandering time. This coincided with a desire to look around for some new clothes (see above) and a need to stock up on reading material for my overnight bus trip to Cappadocia. Luckily, there’s just the spot for this across the Galata bridge in the Beyoğlu area.

The Galata bridge, which is filled, end to end on both sides, with guys fishing. I estimate that there were perhaps a thousand rods in the water at a time, and I never saw a single one pull out a fish bigger that your finger. Still, they make for a good photo.

I had a very long day of wandering, looking in bookshops, trying (unsuccessfully) to find clothing, and soaking things in. It was fun, overwhelming, satisfying, frustrating and tiring. I did manage to find three or four English bookshops (though nowhere that stocked the LP Israel. It looks like, as with the LP Turkey, I’ll be buying my guide book in the airport on the way to my destination.) and I bought a couple of books, and some supplies for the bus.

As I was walking back to the bridge I found the the most excellent Hardware Bazaar. Ok, that’s perhaps not the official name for it, but what else would you call a street filled with stalls selling plumbing fixtures, power tools, locks, generators, and other home-reno supplies? Some stalls were very well-organized, and some were… less so.

Lacking in sense of order, but colourful.

And right next to the Hardware Market, the Fish Market, complete with restaurants selling fish that must have been exceptionally fresh.

There were about twenty stalls like this one, right along the water.

From there I walked back across the bridge towards my hostel where the shuttle would pick me up at 6:30 pm to take me to the giant, crazy bus station . All day it had been hazy and I couldn’t tell whether it was fog or pollution or smoke, but it gave everything a strange, filtered kind of look, and by about 4:00 pm it had drained all the energy out of me. All I wanted was a nap. All I didn’t want was a 12 hour overnight bus ride. Guess which one I got?

And now I’m really into it: I’m in Asia! I crossed the Bosphorus last night on a bus that seemed to crawl through the fog, and paused at some very odd Turkish truck stops. Luckily, the Shoestring Cave Pension is friendly and reasonably priced and let me into my quiet, private room (which is carved right into the rock) in time for me to have a much-needed three hour nap.

Tonight it’s a touristy “Turkish Night” which promises supper, unlimited drinks (!), belly dancing, whirling Dervishes and a late late end to a long day. Tomorrow I’ve taken the plunge and booked an outrageously expensive hot air balloon ride over the crazy Cappadocian landscape (it starts at 5:30am – bleah), followed by a long day of touring the area, and perhaps a Turkish hamman (bath) to top it all off tomorrow night. It’ll be a big day, so stay tuned.

Poros: boring and perfect

Sunday, November 22, 2009

As I said before, I spent too much time in Athens. If I’d simply trusted that an island – probably any island – would be cheaper and more fun than Athens, I would have left much sooner. Because of my deadly inertia I ended up with just two nights on the lovely little Island of Poros, which started out as a compromise destination – cheaper and quicker to get to than the better-known Hydra, and yet still with the exotic island-ness lacking in the mainland town of Nafplio. If I’d known how fantastic, sunny, relaxing, cheap and fun Poros would be I’d have left Athens in the dust the day after the marathon and not looked back. Lesson re-learned: as usual, doing anything is better than doing nothing. As it was, I came very close to simply abandoning my €148 plane ticket to Istanbul, and I have to admit that I'm still not sure I made the right choice on that score.

So Poros it was. After a quick 2-3 hour ferry ride from Athens, the boat docked at the town, which occupies most of the smaller of the two islands that comprise Poros. The other, larger, island is reached by a short bridge across a narrow isthmus and seems mostly uninhabited except for a fringe of beaches, some houses, a fish farm and a few other things. The LP pointed the way to a nice hotel with a sea view, and the room had two balconies (one best for the morning sun, one nice in the evening), rudimentary kitchen facilities, and a private bathroom, and was still €10 cheaper than the place in Athens.

The view from the evening balcony

On my only full day on Poros there was a scooter rental (Laurie, you would have been proud of me: my hawg was a full 50cc), a complete circuit of both the islands, and a picnic lunch on a deserted beach. It was perfectly brilliant.

My ride. (And yes, I did wear the helmet, though I think I was the only person on the island that did, and I'm talking about a place where it seemed like scooters outnumber people. No word on whether head injuries outnumber scooters.)

Really, there’s not much to do or see on Poros, which is perhaps why it was so appealing. The town has a nice clock tower (too far up to bother going to), a summer cinema (closed), a library, and about 7 zillion restaurants along the water, most of which were empty most of the time – it was mid-November after all. The big island has an odd abandoned Russian naval base, and the ruins of the Sanctuary of Poseidon (approx 520 BC, and fenced off, or so it seemed to one disinclined to leave the scooter), and a 358m high point adorned with cell towers and radio masts.

The ruined Russian naval base

Other than the scooter adventure, there wasn't much to do except this: sleep in, lounge on either balcony, read, walk along the waterfront, do crossword puzzles and drink either beer or wine, depending on mood. I also had a nice early morning run during which I was surprised to discover that it takes only 20 minutes to get around the small island, and that was at a decidedly leisurely post-marathon pace. This made me reconsider my new plan to retire to Poros as soon as possible, but then I remembered there’s that whole other big island just across the bridge, with a good selection of hills for maintaining peak marathon fitness (and working off all kebabs, beer and baklava), and the plan was saved.

A view of the beach of the picnic lunch, on the big island

Yep, I have a strong feeling I’ll be back to Poros some time. Even though I was only there for two nights it now feels like my island. I can just see myself scooting into town on my 50cc monster to pick up some groceries and the latest English newspaper, and then retreating to a comfy balcony for another afternoon of nothing. It would sure beat shoveling a path to an ice-shrouded vehicle in 30 below temperatures to pick up a bag full of mealy, tasteless winter tomatoes and a DVD rental.

Pick of Pics - Delphi

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Temple of Apollo at Delphi

Steve's Weird Food for Greece: Snails

Friday, November 20, 2009

Again the LP is to blame, though I think I got off easy in the end. My initial inquiries about weird food were directed at the staff of the lovely hostel in Athens (mostly half-and-half Greek/Aussie types fluent in both languages and cultures) and had me leaning towards a dish comprised of spit-roasted liver wrapped in intestines. So when I saw the LP entry for the Taverna Karavolos, and it turned out to be on the way from my hotel to the main drag on the little island of Poros, it seemed like fate. (Yes, I did finally make it to an island. More on that in another post.)

Taverna Karavolos, with friendly resident dog.

I abandoned the LP Greece when I left the country so I can’t give you the exact details of the entry, but suffice it to say that snails were the specialty of the place, and I recall that the house-made wine was described as “persuasive”. I think it could more accurately be describes as “rubbing alcohol”, but that didn’t stop me from drinking it. Anyways, the guy running the place was very friendly, and spoke English, and explained that the snails I ordered were small ones served in the shell, not like the French way. He even instructed me on how to eat them: “Suck them out of the shell from this end, not from the side. Use a toothpick if they get stuck. And sop up the sauce with the bread”.

The snails, the sauce, the wine

Once again, I was lucky. The snails didn’t really taste like much – a little bit rubbery, but otherwise totally inoffensive. And the sauce was a dark tomato-y concoction with big pieces of onion and it sopped up very nicely. And I’ve already mentioned the wine…

Me, demonstrating proper snail-sucking technique

Frankly, the weirdest part of the whole experience was going for a very early run the next morning and finding the roads dotted with snails that looked suspiciously like the ones that had been on my plate the night before. Luckily I didn't run into the proprietor with a sack over his shoulder.

So chalk up another weird food. I think I’ve been doing pretty well with this challenge, and I have to admit that it’s been fun to seek out the unusual and force myself to give it a shot. Thanks Steve, for everything except the pig ears

Athens, in retrospect

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Bad, bad blogger. I spent over two weeks in Greece and haven’t written about it at all, and now I’m in a whole other country! Sorry about that. I kind of got stuck in Athens for about 12 days, and my only excuse for not moving on was that the hostel was very very comfortable, and the company was good, and my motivation to pack and unpack one more time was at an all time low. I also had several days of sinus / head cold / stuffy nose business that made it very appealing to just sit quietly and enjoy not moving. In fact I’m still kind of sniffly and my cold has morphed into a tight, tickly-throated cough that comes in uncontrollable fits. One of these hit me in the tram on the way from the Istanbul airport to the hostel, and it left me gasping for breath with tears streaming down my face. I’m pretty sure everyone in the car was convinced I had swine flu or something. (“Hi Istanbul! I’m here! How do you like me so far?”)

But Athens. Of course I saw the sights, chief among which is the Acropolis. I think I’d always blurred the Acropolis and the Parthenon together in my head, so for anyone else in the same boat here’s a brief clarification: the Acropolis (literally meaning “high city”) is the name for the whole complex of religious buildings on the top of a big hill. The Parthenon is one of those buildings. Either way, the whole site is damned impressive; the LP calls is “…the most important ancient sight in the Western world.”

A view of the Acropolis, with Parthenon peeking out over the top

So it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. I think I had something in mind more like the Roman Forum, but the Acropolis is very much set apart from the city below. The hilltop has been inhabited since Neolithic times, but the site we know today started evolving when the Delphic oracles declared that it should be “the province of the gods”. Around 480 BC Pericles started transforming it into a city of temples, only a few of which survive today, including the Parthenon (which I suppose explains why it feels like more of a scared place set apart than the spot where your average ancient Greek went for a kebab and the latest issue of “Olive Oil Weekly”). The whole site is in varying states of decay and restoration, with seemingly random chunks of worked stone littering the area. The Parthenon itself is festooned with scaffolding, and people I’ve talked to who’ve live in Athens their whole lives say they can’t remember a time when that hasn’t been the case. This meant it was a bit disappointing, but still you can't get away from the fact that it’s been there for a couple of thousand years and is undeniably impressive.

Festooned, I say

More interesting to me was the ancient Greek Agora, which covers a large, quiet, green area right near the Plaka (the obligatory old neighbourhood of winding streets and shops selling tourist tat). The Agora was kind of like what I’d hoped the Roman Forum would be like and though there was no audioguide, it was really nice to wander among the ruins with just the LP to elucidate where necessary. The best spot in the agora has to be the Temple of Hephaestus, which is the best-preserved Greek temple, and even has bits of it’s roof and ceiling left, and is generally not crawling with tourists. Two thumbs up for the Temple of Hephaestus.

Just like a postcard

I also visited Syntagma, which is the seat of the Greek government, but I could only think of it as the Ministry of Silly Walks. Anyone who’s been there will know why. In front of the main building, at the tomb of the unknown soldier, there’s a ceremonial guard of two colourfully-dressed Greek soldiers wearing pleated skirts and with giant pom-poms on their shoes, who do a bizarre marching thing that has to be seen to be believed.

video

I’m not kidding, this video is in real time. And that’s why I call it the Ministry of Silly Walks. John Cleese must have seen this.

As for other stuff in Athens, there was the just-completed Acropolis Museum (just €1.00 to get in!), with a display of the Parthenon frieze marbles that includes big spaces where the ones that are in London would go. I saw the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum, and there’s no getting around the controversy surrounding whether or not they should be returned to Greece. Cognizant of the fact that this is a touchy subject for both countries involved, and there are loads of issues involved, I’ll just say that if the British Museum thinks that the Greeks don’t have a proper facility to preserve and display the marbles, that’s simply no longer the case. As for any other issues on the subject, I’ll keep my completely uninformed mouth shut.

There’s also a very tall hill in Athens, so naturally I went up it. Called Lycabettus, it’s the tallest point in Athens. I was still sick when I went, so it was nice to take the funicular up to the top (though it cost a usurious €6.00 one way!). Also, it turns out that going to a very high spot when you’ve got a bit of a sinus thing isn’t the best idea. I spent the whole time at the top feeling sort of like my head was in a vice, and needed a nice nap upon returning home that afternoon. The views were impressive, though.

Athens, the Aegean, and the Acropolis

And that, pretty much, was Athens. Not much to show for 12 days, but I did run a marathon in there too. And I think I deserved a break. Stay tuned for more thoughts on Greece, including my big escape from Athens (finally) to a tiny island, and Steve’s Weird Food for Greece!

The Go See Run Eat Drink Generic City Guide

Monday, November 16, 2009

You all know I’m a Lonely Planet gal. And though I love a good fling with Rick Steves when he’s available, I am committed to a long-term serial relationship with a seemingly endless string of fat blue €30 books that I use, abuse and then break up with on a regular basis. I am one with the LP. However that doesn’t mean I don’t get a bit bored with things every once in a while. It’s a long-term relationship, and like all long term relationships you just can’t keep the magic going forever. So with the greatest affection, I offer you the Go See Run Eat Drink Generic Guide to Any European City, just fill in the blanks.

Information:

There can be no doubt that ___ is one of ___'s premiere destinations. Situated midway between the north / south / east / west coast and the mountains / ___ River / Industrial Heart, ___ is a vibrant city with much to offer the traveler. A large population of university students keeps ___ lively, and the city's historic centre is full of Roman ruins, medieval churches, bustling market stalls and upscale boutiques; there’s something for everyone. Truly, ___ is a city of contrasts. And don't be intimidated by the language, locals will always appreciate a hearty Bonjour! / Ola! / God Morgen! / Buon Giorno! and most young people speak excellent English.

Start your visit at ___ Square/Plaza/Campo/Piazza, ___'s spiritual and cultural centre (Metro ___, bus 17, 25, 35). The Tourist Information Office is located just a few metres off the Square, behind the statue of ___, Patron Saint / Victorious General / Founder / Most Famous Son of ___. The friendly staff at the TI can help you book a walking tour of the historic quarter (€12), or a sell you a bus ticket for one of the 156 slightly different hop-on hop-off open-topped double-decker bus tours offered (€25, good for 24 hours. €35 for 48 hours).

Winner of the 2003 "Europe's Most Livable City (Pop. 117,500 - 117,600 Category), ___ takes great pride in the ___ Festival, celebrating all things ___. Visit in July for displays / performances / competitions of the local folk dance / pastry / stringed instrument / hand crafted ___. It's all ___ all the time during ___ Days!

Dangers and Annoyances:

___ is a relatively safe city, but visitors should always be aware of pickpockets that operate in the popular tourist areas. Watch out for any commotion as it’s likely a way to distract your attention from the roving gangs of gypsy children who can strip an unwary traveler down to his or her underwear in 21.7 seconds.

Sights:

The most important site in ___ is certainly the grand Cathedral / Basilica / Eglise / Duomo / Chiesa of St. ___. (Map #235, admission free, Hours: 9:00am – 3:30pm M-Sa, Su. only open for religious services). Started in the 14th century and completed in 1987, it was built on the site of an 11th century church, that was built over the remains of the first Christian church from the 9th century, that was converted from a Roman Temple of the 4th century, that was erected at the site of a bit of flattened-down turf presumed to have been used in prehistoric fertility rites dating to 973 BC. A magnificent example of perpendicular / Gothic / Renaissance / Counter-Reformation architecture, the facade features 392 individual sculptures representing local figures of the time / apostles / saints / the Muses / the Virtues. Also be sure to visit the chapel of St. ___, where there’s a lovely fresco by ___. Visits to the crypt available by appointment only (Call ahead, admission €5.00).

While the Cathedral might reign over the historic centre of town, ___’s Castle / Chateau / Kremlin / Castello / Fortezza dominates the skyline. An easy 75 minute amble uphill will reward the visitor with a breathtaking vista of the city. Walk along the remains of the castle walls, and visit the lavishly decorated and meticulously restored upper level apartments of the ___ family (Map #294, admission €6.00/€3.00/free adults/EU citizens under 25 or over 60/children under 12, Hours: 10:00am – 6:30pm every day). There’s also a pricey café on the lower terrace that offers indifferent food, but wonderful views.

Those interested in delving deeper into the life and career of the painter / sculptor / composer / architect / designer / soldier ___ (undoubtedly ___'s most famous citizen) can find plenty to keep them busy. Real enthusiasts might want to consider buying the ___ Pass, which gives access to all of the sights surrounding ___'s life: The ___ Museum, ___'s Birthplace, the ___ Studio, #37 ___ Street (home of ___'s mistress from 18xx to 18xx), and the lesser-known café / bar / garret where ___ spent much of his time as a student.

Most visitors to ___ will also want to take in the Archeological Museum (Map #978, admission €12.00/€8.00/free adults/EU citizens under 25 or over 60/children under 12, Hours: 8:30am – 3:30pm Tu-Fri, Closed M, 12:30pm – 12:45pm Sa, 6:30am-8:00am Su). The museum displays unidentifiable potsherds and the vague traces of a ruined Roman villa (including 28 square inches of pristine mosaic floor tiles), that were unearthed during the 1997 excavation of the Via / Rue / Correia / Avenida ___ to make way for a new electronics megastore and a Spar shop.

The ___ Gallery (Map #1845, admission €7.00/€3.00/free adults/EU citizens under 25 or over 60/children under 12, Hours: 9:30am – 6:30pm Tu-Su, Closed M) has a nice collection of modern art, including a lesser Warhol and the torn corner of a pencil sketch of Goya's study for the bottom left-hand corner of “___“. The ___ Gallery also includes 732 unique and delightful depictions of the Madonna and Child. (Note the ___ Gallery is undergoing renovations until 2048 and the main collection will be unavailable for viewing during this time. Visitors can take in temporary exhibits during the renovations, currently including a retrospective on the life and work of local philatelist / knitter / squid chef / balloon folder ___.)

And of course no visit to ___ would be complete without setting aside an afternoon to get lost in the winding streets of ___’s medieval quarter. Here you’ll find quaint traditional kebab shops, overpriced artisinal chocolatiers, mobile phone shops, and stalls selling charming keychains, miniature copies of the local landmark the ___, and guide books in 832 different languages. Wandering accordion players and numerous “living statue” performers complete the area’s indefinable charm.

Sleeping:

Camping L'Enfer. ($) A not unpleasant site 7.5 km from the city boasting a solid square kilometre of gravel for the hardy traveler to pitch-up. Summer months have campfire sing-alongs & night hikes to the abandoned quarry (20 km). Full washing & toilet facilities in nearby canal. No open fires.

Auberge Titanic ($$) This sprawling youth hostel on the wrong side of town has 20 & 25 bed dorms all with panoramic views over the prominent rendering plant & a scrubland of challenging ugliness. A favourite with itinerant performers & members of the Gypsy community, a lively atmosphere is guaranteed. Ask about mime evenings & peg making workshops. (Brisk 65 minute walk from the central station, or take Bus #27 and transfer to Bus #456 at the unmarked intersection of ___ Street and ___ Avenue.)

Pension Stumpy ($$$) A misguided attempt at faux deluxe with flock wallpaper reminiscent of a Turkish brothel and ill-appointed rooms designed for midgets. This is indeed the last resort should the campsite be full. s/d €45/60 Full pensione €60pppn evening, menu has the best of Albanian & Romanian cuisine.

Eating:

___ has a wide selection of restaurants ranging from the cheap and cheerful ($) to the gob-smackingly expensive ($$$$$$$$$$$$$). All restaurants close down for the afternoon between 1:15pm and 9:45pm, as locals tend not to sit down to dinner until midnight at the earliest, when toddlers and children are served. Adults tend to not to eat until 2 or 3:00am.

Zonko’s: ($) This nation-wide chain of convenience stores is open 24 hours a day and has locations approximately every 35 feet in tourist areas. They offer pre-packed sandwiches drenched in mayonnaise, cans of unrefrigerated beer, thimble-sized cups of coffee and Milka chocolate bars in abundance.

Crystal Friendship Co-op: ($$) Run by ex-pat Americans Sunflower and Gerhardt, this tiny, quirky café offers daily vegetarian and vegan specials. Try the Gruel of the Day, the Tofu Surprise and the non-dairy eggless flourless chocolate-less low fat turnip-based chokolat cake.

Trattoria Testiculo: ($$$) The best place for the local specialty ___ (a delightful concoction of lamb testicles and fig paste), this restaurant has been run by the same family since 23 BC and continues its tradition of serving both locals and tourists with equal contempt.

Chez Fi-Fi: ($$$$$$$$$$$$$) Top-quality ingredients are transformed into tiny portions of amuse-bouche served on square white plates the size of billboards artfully painted with 6 different coulis and topped with gold leaf. Specialties of the house include pure oxygen cocktails infused with saffron and panda sweat, and shaved unicorn horn quenelles topped in a reduction of Madagascar vanilla and ostrich egg foam. Starters €37-47, mains from €112, desserts €36-59. Don’t even ask about the wine list.

Getting Around:

To/from the airport: ___ Airport is 97km from the centre of the city. Taxis to the historic centre will cost approximately €117.00 (Be careful to take only the pale blue licensed taxis, and opposed to the light blue gypsy cabs). Shuttles run every 380 minutes, departing from Terminal 17a (€12.00). Public bus #39 runs on alternate Tuesdays during months ending in “R”. (€1.50, 4.5 hours).

Bus / Tram: Local buses/trams are infrequent and baffling. Tickets are available from the driver (€1.37 one-way, no change provided), or from incomprehensible and/or non-functional ticket vending machines infrequently encountered at main stops. Buses generally run from about 5:30am to 11:00pm (1/2 hour before the bars close).

Metro and Train: ___’s metro system is convenient and easy to use with stops at most major tourist attractions (except the Cathedral, Castle, ___ Museum, Archeological Museum and medieval quarter). The system map (inside back cover) resembles the electrical schematic diagram for the space shuttle but will become familiar with just 2 or 3 months of regular use. Individual metro tickets are not a good value (€2.45 each) but you can purchase a strip of 10 tickets for €24.00. Local residents can buy a lifetime metro pass for €12.50.


(Please note: The ”Sleeping” section above was written by GSRED’s first freelance contributor, a like-minded and very experienced fellow traveler who shall remain nameless. Thanks P.)

The 27th Athens Classic Marathon

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

I may have mentioned it once or twice in recent weeks, but I was not feeling at all prepared for this marathon. At all. I hadn’t done nearly as much running as I’d hoped while traveling, and I was sort of expecting the whole thing to be a bit of a Gong Show. Add to this the fact that it was bucketing down rain when I got up at 5:00 am and you may understand why I despaired a bit before I trudged off to the Panathenaic Stadium to get on a bus for Marathon. It really can’t be a good thing when you’re soaked to the skin before you’ve even reached the starting line.

The bus took an hour to get from downtown Athens to Marathon, which says to me that it must have been going about 42.2 km/ph, though the trip seemed to take forever. We got to the starting area by 7:30, leaving another 90 minutes of waiting in the rain before we’d be off. I had a rain jacket but eventually I had to pack that and my warm fleece away in my checked bag and make do with the standard garbage-bag-with-ripped-arm-and-head-holes that was all the rage that morning. Really, the wait was pretty grim. It was wet and cool and grey the whole time. It was bad, but luckily it turned out that the wait for the starting gun was the worst part of the day.

The inevitable, muddy wait for the porta-potty

I chose this race because it THE marathon. It’s supposed to trace - very approximately - the route Pheidippedes took from the 490 B.C. Battle of Marathon to Athens. (Apparently, I missed the big anniversary by one year. 2010 will mark the 2,500th anniversary of the first marathon!). But I have to say that it was just like every other marathon I’ve done. There was no big sense of history. No one dressed up as Pheidippedes (or dressed down more likely). Nothing special at all. Just the inevitable P.A. announcements about checking your bags and seeding yourself in the proper start corral, and the distorted rock music, and the sad attempt at creating a festive atmosphere with balloons. And of course there were the hordes of wet, frustrated, anxious runners huddled under whatever shelter was available, or jogging up and down, or smearing vaseline anywhere and everywhere. (God, I should have done a lot more of that. My somewhat expanded thighs, and my very wet and fairly short shorts made for a significant amount of chafing about which we shall not speak again.)

The starting corral

Finally we were ordered into our starting corrals and, mercifully, set off. Once I was actually running things were muuuuuuch better. I warmed up, and started to implement my extremely detailed race plan: Start slow and taper off from there. In fact, it wasn’t bad at all. The first 10km or so were relatively flat, and then the elevation went up fairly steadily for the next 22km but I was surprised to find that the hills were no bother at all. So despite all my complaining at the time I really have to take a moment for this:

Thank you Cliffs of Dover. Thank you Arthur’s Seat. Thank you West Highland Trail. Thank you Giant’s Causeway Path. Also, thank you Valence and Orange and Barcelona and Granada and Lisbon and Sesimbra.

I may have bitched at the time, but every hill I ran in the last four months made this race soooo much easier. I wasn’t sprinting up the hills by any means, but I never had to walk them, and passed a lot of people, and felt surprisingly strong. There’s a lesson: hills are your friend.

I’m sorry about this, but I have no pictures of the course at all. This is partly because it was wet for so long that I was nervous about getting out my camera. But mosty it’s because there was not a single moment of scenic anything on the entire course. It was one long commercial street starting in Marathon and ending in Athens. It was disappointing. But when I thought about it later it kind of made sense. After all, Pheidippedes probably took the most direct route from Marathon to Athens – the main road. And since the area has been continuously inhabited since that time it kind of makes sense that it’s still the main road. Only now instead of being lined with, say, pastoral flocks of sheep and groves of olive trees, it’s lined with car dealerships, restaurants, pet stores and the odd Bed & Bath. It also didn’t help that every man running that day treated the course like a 42km long urinal. I don’t think there was a moment when I couldn’t glance to the right and see at least one guy…er… giving something back to the earth, shall we say.

The course support was quite good, with aid stations every 2.5 kilometers. They all had water, and some had sports drinks as well. And there was at least one stop with gels and a couple with bananas. I missed the first banana stop and only realized I’d passed it when I noticed the road ahead was littered with banana peels. Seriously? Did no one at Athens Marathon HQ pause for a moment and think, “Wait a minute… maybe it’s not such a good idea to create a situation where 3,800 people have to run along a road covered in banana peels.” I didn’t see any mishaps, but still the comedic potential was staggering.

It was quite a solitary race for me. I brought my iPod because I thought there was a good chance I’d need a pick-me-up, but I didn’t even turn it on, and didn’t talk to anyone until about the 20km mark when I met Dave from BC. He was there with a group of friends and was running his first marathon. I stuck with him for a while because it was nice to have someone to talk to, and now that I’ve done a few marathons I kind of feel like it’s my duty to help out people who are doing their first if I can. I tried to be encouraging, but finally I left him at about 24km when he stopped to walk and stretch a bit. His ankles were giving him trouble so I gave him some advice and some ibuprofen. He must have had a tough second half but I was pleased to check the results and see that he’d finished. Well done for gutting it out, Dave. Congratulations.

I already mentioned a bit about the elevation profile for the course; it was interesting. A bit of downhill at the start, then about 10km of relative flat. Then the climbing started and carried on pretty steadily until about 32km. That was a bit tough, but as I said earlier I was really happy with how I felt on the hills. Also, knowing exactly where they were going to end was a nice psychological boost because magically, just when you need it the most, the course dipped down. You just have to hang on until the 32km mark and it’s literally all downhill from there. I had a great last 10km – they were easily the fastest of the race, and the most fun. The rain had stopped (actually, it stopped at about 15km), and the sun was out, and I knew I was going to make it, and I felt much much much much better than I’d ever expected.

The last five kilometers were a relative breeze. I continued to pass people and enjoy the downhills and then I was just a few metres from the stadium and I knew I’d finish comfortably under 4:15 (which had emerged as a sort-of goal somewhere along the way) and I was very happy. Within sight of the stadium my right calf started to seize up, so I had a bit of a hitch in my giddy-up, but I kept it together and sailed in at 4:12:07 (Though I dispute that time. I started my watch just before the mat at the start, and forgot to turn it off until at least 50 feet past the finish, and it said 4:11:53.) And I was 27th of 94 in my age group. And I ran a 3:39 negative split. Not bad for a race in which I had no expectations.

The finish

And of course, there was some celebration once I’d cleared the finish area and retrieved my belongings.

Well-earned, I think

And that was it: a race well run, a beer hard-earned, and marathon #10 in the books. Stay tuned for some news about the sights around Athens. I’ll be here quite a bit longer than I expected, but it I kind of feel like a bit of an extended break right now. The hostel is very friendly, reasonably priced, and comfortable. There’s even a bar and a laundromat downstairs, both of which I have patronized. And they run a couple of interesting-sounding day-trips that I think I’ll do. It may mean that I don’t hit my Greek island, but I’m fine with that. The vague plan right now is to get a flight from Athens to Istanbul, maybe as early as Sunday. Or not. I’m not sure. Right now I’m just enjoying not running, not packing and unpacking, not finding the train station or the bus depot or the ferry terminal, and not navigating to another new hostel, and I think that’s just fine.

Naples, good and bad

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Yes, I know. Another long lapse in blogging, with very little excuse except somewhat inconvenient internet access and lack of motivation. Though I’ve been in Greece for a week now, and you may be wondering what happened in the marathon, I’ve got a few more things to say about Italy. So here goes. (News on the marathon will follow smartly. In brief: it was fine.)

Naples is not exactly, shall we say, the Venice of the south. The chief form of outdoor decoration seems to be drying laundry, which festoons virtually every residential building in the city. And the strip between the central station and my hostel was grim. It felt like a never-ended parade of construction barriers, over-priced clothing stores and street hawkers selling purses, scarves, fishing rods, posters, pirated DVDs, sunglasses, jewelry, hats, belts, cell phones, random circuit boards, wallets, and, in one particularly memorable case, a selection of wigs hanging from a circular rack suspended from a tree. I’m sure there are perfectly lovely parts of Naples. I have to believe there must be. Either that, or everyone who lives there must have had a state-sponsored lobotomy to be able to stand the place.

Festive Naples

Still, it was a springboard to Pompeii, which was really excellent. In fact Pompeii was everything that I’d hoped the Roman Forum would be. (And it turned out that I arrived on a day when entry to the sight was free. When I asked why I was told it was a “special day” which I guess had something to do with All Saints Day (Sunday) but I never really got an explanation.). And since I was so harsh with the Forum audioguide, I have to say that the Pompeii audioguide and map was everything the Forum one wasn’t. That is to say that it was easily possible to divine your location by consulting the map, which even had little 3D images of some of the more important buildings so you could look and think, “Aha, large open space with a curved wall at the back and a little do-hickey in the middle. This must be the Sanctuario di Lari Publicci.” And you’d be right. And the streets had signs, and the important audio points were marked on the sides of the buildings. It was excellent.

The Pompeii Foro (forum), with Vesuvius cleverly framed in the background

And of course the site is brilliant – everything you think it will be, but probably bigger than you imagined. It really was a city. The site covers 66 hectares, of which 44 have been excavated, and most of that is open to the public. You wander down street after street and it’s really well-preserved and a bit ghostly and quite amazing. I think I was there for about 5 hours. There are even original frescoes still visible on some walls. There are lots more photos at Flickr.

An original fresco that was buried by the volcano in 79 A.D.

The next day I had a choice: I could either head out on the bus again for a quick trip up Vesuvius, or stay in the city and go to the Archeological Museum. I figured I wouldn’t see a lot in the museum that I hadn’t already seen at Pompeii (the constantly-repeated phrase in the Pompeii audioguide was “…the original of which is on display at the Archeological Museum in Naples…). And it’s not very often you get to climb an active volcano. So, though the trip back to Naples to catch the 16:24 train south would be a bit of a rush, I opted for Vesuvius.

It turned out to be more interesting in theory than in practice, because it's not like the crater is filled with a satisfyingly molten sea of lava spewing forth Volkswagen-sized chunks of rock. In fact the only evidence of its incendiary potential were few wisps of steam/smoke emanating from the side of the crater, and a decidedly sulfurous smell in the air. But at least it was a pleasant day out, and there are great views of the Bay of Naples from the top of the mountain, and I met a nice Canadian couple to chat with.

Me, sitting on a volcano

So Vesuvius was nice, but the connections to get back to Naples were annoying. This meant that by about 4:00pm I was racing to catch a 16:24 train south, and I mean racing. I may not have been sprinting, but I had 40+ pounds of gear on my back and I was close to a jog. And I was trying to find a replacement for my plug apaters, both of which gave up the ghost within about 20 minutes of each other. (Ok, the demise of one of them may possibly have been hastened by my forcibly jamming it into a socket it clearly did not want to go in to until something went CRACK and bits of it fell off and the remaining bits had to be removed from the socket with the aid of a crescent wrench provided by my helpful hostel roommate, Anya.) Anyways, the point is that I was in a hurry, and it was warm, and I had all my belongings on my back, and I’d hiked up a volcano earlier that day so I was a bit done in it already.

Miraculously, I got to the station in time after stopping at two different stores and finding a plug adapter for only €5.00. And then things started to go pear-shaped. I marched up to the window to buy my ticket and the woman behind the counter tried to tell me something about my train that involved the word sopresso, and I really didn’t understand, and finally she directed my over past the McDonald’s. I thought she was gesturing to the ticket machines (she wasn’t), so I went over and bought my ticket at the machine. Then I went over to the newsstand to buy a nice English newspaper, paid for the paper, and promptly left it at the newsstand.

I checked the departures board and discovered that my train was listed as “SOP”, which I guess is short for sopresso, so I figured it was time to consult the phrasebook. Obviously this was an important word in my life at the moment. The phrasebook did not list sopresso but noted, helpfully, that sopresa means surprise. This did not sound good, but I checked again and at least sopresso didn’t mean late or cancelled. It was around this time that I realized I didn’t have my newspaper, so I went back to the newsstand and the nice man there told me that sopresso does in fact mean cancelled. This definition was accompanied by the universal hand-drawn-across-the-throat gesture, so there could be no doubt. Well, at least I had the paper.

I went back to the ticket desk and asked what I was supposed to do with my €14.90 ticket for a train that was sopresso and the woman simply directed me to the Customer Service office. (Ha!). Instead I bought another ticket for the next train, spending another €15.33. Then I went to Customer Service where I found out that the first train wasn’t running but it had been replaced by a bus. And there would be no refund. Of course.

So I’d raced around to get to the station, spent a bunch of money I didn’t need to, and now had about 90 minutes to kill in the dreary and ill-appointed central station of Naples. I was very tired and drippingly sweaty and utterly fed up with Trenitalia and Naples and the country in general. So I lifted the bag again and headed back out into Piazza Garibaldi. And really, Garibaldi is (bad language coming here) a SHIT HOLE. It’s like a giant cross between a bus stop and a parking lot and a flea market and a garbage dump. I turned right and fought past the street hawkers and their knock-off sunglasses and handbags and crap, and then I saw it: the LP-recommended restaurant for trying the local pastry specialty sfoglitelle. So of course I went right in. I ordered a sfoglitelle coco (turned out to be coconut, not chocolate – of course, stupid mistake) and a café macchiato. I stood at the counter and had my coffee and pastry, and looked at the paper, and things started to be betterr. I was only out about €15 after all, and I would still get to my destination in reasonable time, and on a faster train. It wasn’t so bad.

It was when I left the café that the real magic happened. I looked up in the sky, and there was a big flock of birds whirling around. And then I remembered someone telling me about how starlings do that in huge numbers, and how it was a shame I hadn’t seen it. And there it was. The flock was big, but it kept being joined by more and more smaller flocks, and it wheeled and turned and swooped and folded back on itself and it was just fantastic. I looked around to see if any denizens of Garibaldi had noticed this and just one other older man was watching. I wandered a bit to keep them in view, dodging scooters and stray dogs, and finally sat on a cement block and just stared. Garibaldi was still being very Garibaldi, complete with a guy pissing against the opposite side of the rank of overflowing dumpsters just to enhance the ambience, but it honestly didn’t matter. I was so happy with those birds.

Really, I can’t describe to you how lovely it was. There were thousands of birds, and watching them was hypnotic. It reminded me of screensaver derived from a computer simulation of some kind of brilliant mathematical equation. It was so perfect it was hard to believe it was organic beings. And it kept going and going, and the sun was setting, and I finally got out my camera and got a bit of video, which does an ok job of showing what I mean.


video

It was a like a lot of Italy. It can be maddening and stupid and pointless. You can forget to carry ID with you and not be allowed internet access as a result. Or wait for half an hour at a random and unscheduled bus stop so that the woman who runs the shop there can flog her father’s book about Pompeii. Or be forced to surge into oncoming traffic like a madman just to get across the street. But then you get across the street and you’re staring at 2,000 year-old ruins. Or a nice bus driver that seemed angry and gruff drives you a couple of miles out of his way to take you back to where you should have got off in the first place. Or you get served a plate of pasta in a little restaurant and it’s a miracle on a plate. Or you see those fantastic birds.

So I suppose Naples wasn’t so bad after all. But I think someone still owes me €14.90 for that stupid train ticket. Sopresso indeed. Bah.

Random Thoughts on Italy

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

I planned to spend a lot of time in Italy – I wanted it to be one of the big stops of my trip. In fact when I was thinking about where I wanted to go I tried to concentrate on places that made me go “Oooooooo….” when I saw them on the map and Italy made me go “Oooooooo….” in a big way. By the time I step onto the boat for Greece I will have been in Italy for about 3 weeks so naturally there are a few things I that didn’t make it into a longer post. And here we go:

- Though it only merited a brief mention in my post on Rome, I did go to the Vatican. I even saw the Pope! I arrived (unintentionally) in time for the tail-end of his weekly Wednesday address out in St. Peter’s Square. There were about 7 zillion chairs set up in a special fenced off area, but the whole square is so huge that they only took up a small part. There were also big video screens off to the side showing his face, and he was speaking German. And despite the fact that His Holiness was so far away they could have substituted him for a talking match- head and I wouldn’t have noticed, it was still pretty cool.

See? That’s him – the infinitely tiny white smudge in the middle of the dais.

- It doesn’t have much to do with Italy in particular, but my Eurail pass expired on October 15th (the day before I got on the train from Venice to Firenze, naturally). And for future reference – it did NOT pay off having a rail pass. I bought the “15 days of travel within 3 months” version, which cost somewhere around €800.00. This means I needed to spend about €53.00 on each trip I used the pass for. Though I stopped keeping careful track, I’m pretty sure I only spent about €650 in total. This is mostly because though I did have a few very long trips, especially the overnight ones, I mostly made a lot of short hops. In fact, the same ended up being true for my Britrail pass (back a thousand years ago when I was in the UK). I’m not saying a rail pass in never a good investment, I’m just recommending you think carefully about where you’re going and how you’re planning on travelling before you invest. In Italy, for instance, the trains are quite cheap, but I hear that in Germany they can be ferociously expensive. Just think about, that’s all I’m saying.

- Here’s something I didn’t mention about the Colosseum: Lots of it looks like it’s made out of Swiss cheese. There are big holes in the stones all over, like it was attacked by giant stone-chewing gerbils or something.

See?

It turns out this is because when it was built they used iron pins to key together the big blocks of stone. When the Roman Empire fell in the 5th or 6th century (yeah… whenever…), people were understandably more concerned about defending themselves against the barbarian hordes than preserving the then-abandoned Colosseum so they chiseled into the stones along the seams, extracted the iron pins, and melted them down to make weapons. I asked my guide what holds the stones together now, since the pins are gone. She assured me that the weight of the building holds everything in place, and it’s now been standing for about 1500 years since the vandalism, so I guess I believe her.

- I’m truly sorry I did not get a picture of this, but the train police in Verona were on Segways! I saw a pair of them on the platform while waiting for the train to Padua; they were rolling along, checking in the windows of the trains. I’m not sure why, but it seemed perfectly ridiculous. I’ve got a strange love-hate thing with Segways: I think it must be fun to be on one, but I also think they look preposterous. It made the police in Padua look like they were part of an Affirmitive Action Program for Mobility-Impaired Law Enforcement Officers (AAPMILEO). And I couldn’t help but think that all a ne’er-do-well would have to do to escape their clutches would be to run up or down the nearest flight of stairs. Then again I’ve also seen quite a few companies offering city tours on Segways, and that would probably be loads of fun.

- My tour of the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel was thanks to a hashing friend I met the night before who actually runs a tour company! He generously set me up on one of his guided tours, so I am happy to plug him here to my 7 or 8 loyal GSRED readers: When in Rome, please go see the Vatican with Italywithus.com. And tell Adrian thanks from me. And here’s a little tidbit from my guide of that day, who was excellent: The Vatican Museums house so many pieces of art that if you were to glance for just 60 seconds at each one, it would take you twelve years to get through the whole place.

A fresco in one of the many Stanze di Rafaello

- I’ve had the chance to play a bit of pool while on this trip – in Holland, France, Portugal, and also in Italy. I am by no means a skilled pool player, but I’m also not complete rubbish. However in Italy I, and everyone I was playing with, were utterly hopeless. This is because the tables were approximately the size of a soccer pitch, and the pockets were exactly one micron wider than the diameter of the balls. It doesn’t really show in the picture, but trust me, if that table was the standard in Italy you would not want to play pool with an Italian on a standard bar-sized North American pool table.

Trust me on this one.

- Daylight Savings Time ended the Saturday night/Sunday morning that I arrived in Rome. (They still use the last-Sunday-in-October schedule over here.) This means that it starts getting dark around 5:30pm, making it almost impossible to go for a run after a day of sight-seeing and before dinner. I may be getting pretty comfortable running in new and random places every other day, but I really don’t fancy trying to run and navigate and dodge traffic in the dark. It’s a drag.

- SPQR, meaning Senatus Populusque Romanus ("The Senate and the People of Rome" or "The Senate and Roman People"). I think of it as something written on the flags of Roman Legions marching off to conquer the world a few thousand years ago. It turns out it's also the motto of the modern city of Rome. It's all over. Like, for instance, here:

- Again, it doesn't have a lot to do with Italy in particular, but I came into possession of a Lonley Planet Italian Phrasebook when I arrived, and I have to say that it’s perfectly excellent, and much more fun than the Eyewitness Russian Phrasebook I had. For instance the Eyewitness did not have a section devoted exclusively to romance, including the phrase “Neanche se to fossi l’ultima persona sulla terra!”. I’d really like to find an LP Phrasebook for Greece.

- As I mentioned, there are ruined Roman antiquities all over the place in Rome, but the thing I found surprising is that they are almost all built out of red brick. I was expecting to see a lot of big chunks of white marble, but the Romans were much too practical and tight-fisted for that. Bricks were cheap, easy to manufacture on site and (compared to solid stone) relatively lightweight. Most of the Colosseum is brick, and a lot of the ruins in the Forum are too. Often they built out of brick and then faced buildings with more expensive stone. The seats in the forum used to be covered in marble slabs, and the Pantheon used to have marble veneer panels on its pediment. (It also used to have bronze panels on the ceiling of the portico which were removed by Pope Urban VIII of the Barberini family, who had them melted down to make part of the altar at St. Peter’s, and a load of cannons. This gives rise to a saying that goes something like: “What the barbarians didn’t do to Rome, the Barberinis did”.)

Brick underneath, and stone for the fancy bits

- Finally, I have to point out that there’s a chain of grocery stores in Italy called Pam!* Look:

And now it’s on to Greece! The trip from Taranto to Athens is a long one involving trains and boats and maybe buses, and certainly lots of waiting and probably frustration and likely a sleepless night. And there will almost certainly be very little internet so don't be alarmed if there's some stoney silence ahead. But at the end there will be another new country (#11), another new language (#9) and even another new alphabet (#3). Stay tuned for news on the marathon, and the ouzo, and the baklava, and hopefully an idyllic Greek island, and a day or two of post-marathon dabbling of toes into crystal blue Mediterranean waters.

* This goes along with the manhole covers in France, which must be made by a particularly clever and talented foundry: