Saturday, 9 October 2010

Canberra to the Mani and back

As I’ve already said elsewhere we’re back from an excellent four weeks in Europe during which we travelled from London down to Kardymylli on the edge of the Mani entirely overland by train, ferry and (slightly less green) a rented Fiat Panda.

Of course, being Australian our initial journey to London was totally ungreen, involving an Etihad flight from Sydney to London via Abu Dhabi. We’d never flown with Etihad before, and only chose them out of curiosity and because they’d give us two seats side by side with an aisle oneside and a window the other – Etihad planes being laid out 2+4+2.

Airlines reflect their host cultures and Etihad was no exception with that wonderful and infuriating mix of seeming chaos and efficiency that seems to underlie travel in the Middle East. The food was good too, provided you enjoy the idea of a surprisingly spicy chicken and green olive tagine for dinner and kebab and ful medames for breakfast.

In London we stayed in a rented apartment in Chelsea which we nicknamed the ‘Chateau Kazakhstan’ for its slightly vulgar over the top decor. However it was extremely convenient, within walking distance of the soldiersV&A, which was useful as there was a Tube strike on our first day there. The only downside was that the internet didn’t work with the dread ‘no DHCP offers received’ error message, which meant a trip to Starbucks and the purchase of some BT openzone vouchers.

This revealed a problem – BT send you the voucher codes in an email, which you of course can’t print as you don’t have a printer, and so you are reduced to scribbling down the 12 digit codes (wrongly in one case) on a bit of scrap paper. It would be easier if they followed Orange’s approach of giving you an account with a username and password to let you logon to the network – at least then you can ask firefox to remember the username and password, even if it’s not the best in terms of network security, but I don’t think it matters too much for 10 quid’s worth of internet access.

But I digress. In London we did London things such as causing chaos in Sainsbury’s by trying to use a self service checkout to buy a bottle of wine, and other such fun things. I also managed a side trip to Oxford on the Oxford Tube to look at the new revamped Ashmolean museum and its good, if small collection of Coptic and Middle Eastern material. The return journey was enlivened by a sloan-ish woman talking loudly to a friend on her mobile, discussing her friend’s latest dalliance which had apparently involved some mild bondage …

And then to Paris via Eurostar. And we managed the whole London thing of the taxi we booked not turning up and eventually managing to flag down a black cab. However we got to St Pancras in time enough to check in and board the Eurostar.

I was struck at just how prosaic it had become – the train was distinctly tatty and instead of it’s initial glamour was now as sexy as the 0823 to Goulburn. The food was worse too. However we got there, and Paris was, well Paris.

We stayed at the Holiday Inn for no other reason than it was directly opposite the Gare de l’Est and we had a train to catch reasonably early the next morning. After dumping our bags we jumped on the Metro and took ourselves down the Tuileries to have a beer and enjoy the ambience of Paris on an early Autumn afternoon.

The actual area round the Gare de l’Est is not the best and singularly devoid of decent places to eat, but we did find a little cafe round the corner from the Holiday Inn that did a decent pizza and pichet de rose, and had live jazz from a local group, including one woman with an amazing if untrained voice. Of such things memories are made.

The next morning we boarded the TGV for Zurich. Our eventual aim was Bologna and we had a couple of changes but we had confidence that SNCF and Swiss efficiency would see us right.

The TGV glided effortlessly and punctually across eastern France to Zurich arriving exactly on time. I had been worried about this connection as we had only nine minutes to find our connecting train and get on board but we need not have worried.

The connecting Swiss train was a bit of a surprise. I had expected something cold and efficient but in fact the train was quite conventional and overcrowded. And the on board cafe only ran to pretzels, ham and cheese paninni, beer and fanta. And they managed to run out of that. It was also slow and was 15 minutes late into Milan, which was a problem as we’d planned for a leisurely 25 minute change – instead we had a mad dash down one platform, across the concourse and up another platform. However we made it and we made Bologna in time for a shower and an excellent dinner at an upmarket trattoria, the Cabbineta d’Oro.

Bologna is a pleasant enjoyable workaday city with a slightly old fashioned but good archaeological museum and a new medieval museum, but we visited neither this time, as our aim was to fulfill an aim of mine the past twenty years or so to visit the mosaics in Ravenna. Every other time we’ve tried to do this something has happened that makes it impossible, not the least because Ravenna is not the easiest place to get to by train.

So up early the next day, to beat the tourists, a long rattle across the plain past men tending their tomatoes and harvesting their beans to Ravenna, and yes, the mosaics were everything I imagined. I was particularly taken by those in the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo and the way that the Magi are represented in the way late Roman writers describe Parthian clothing, and the parade of saints are dressed as if they were Roman senators, clothing which must have seemed suitably antique and respectful, much in the same way English High Court Judges still wear 18th Century dress to make themselves look more imposing.

The other mosaics are equally stunning, Justinian looks like the hard bastard he must have been and Theodora’s ladies at first look to be stock figures, but as you look at them you begin to realise that images, though impressionistic, must have come from life, one’s winking, one looks flirty etc etc.

And of course Ravenna is where Dante was exiled to when he was kicked out of Florence. By pure chance we managed to end up in Ravenna on the anniversary of Dante’s death, marked this year by a medieval festival with re-enanctors and the rest. After the festival, we paid our respects to the shade of Gallia Placida, arguably the most powerful woman in the late western empire, and then back to Bologna.

The return journey had some comic relief as I’d bought the train tickets in advance via SNCF’s online booking site, and this confused the ticket inspector as to how we could have day returns from Bologna to Ravenna issued by SNCF in Paris, and I’m afraid my Italian deserted me and I was reduced to pointing at the SNCF logo on the ticket and saying ‘Francia – bigletti internet’ – however he got the point (or perhaps decided this was going to be too difficult to resolve) and stamped our tickets.

Back in Bologna we found parts of the city cordoned off for a pro Berlusconi rally, but an obliging riot policeman told us how to sneak round the cordoned off area to get to the main square in time to see the sun go down and people do that stylish Italian thing of sitting and talking with extreme style.

We should probably have stayed in Bologna longer, but next day we were off to Venice to stay in a moderately over priced apartment near the Arsenale vapporetto stop.

Oddly, I’d never been to Venice before. Staying where we did in an alley in the warren of the medieval city was a truly wonderful experience. Fighting through the crowds to see San Marco and the Doge’s palace was less so, but we had the advantage of being able to beat the crowds, and because we stayed there wander the streets once the tourists had gone for the day or to visit less well known sights such as the Rialto fish market or go to one of the outer islands for the day.

Then it was off to Greece via the ferry. Originally, and some of the older vapporetto maps still show this, there was a water bus to the ferry dock. Not any more. You now have to get the vapporetto to Piazzale Roma, struggle across the bus station and onto the monorail to Stazione Maritima (actually you could walk this if you had a single backpack, unfortunately our attempt to travel light hadn’t really worked and we had a wheely case and an overstuffed daypack each). From there you might think there would be a shuttlebus to the actual ferry terminal some 2km away. There wasn’t. And it was raining, in fact it had been raining all morning, something that causes Venice to smell ever so slightly of shit and fish.

So we struggled down the road, being doused every so often by German camper vans splashing down to the ferry dock. However we got there, and the ferry was not busy, so we ended up with a bigger cabin than we’d booked.

It was a Greek ship, and suddenly we were in Greece, feta and tomato for lunch, and extra olive oil by the litre if you wanted it. Just in the same way as Etihad was a little flying part of Arabia, this ship was a little floating Greek island in an Italian sea.

One of the best things about the ferry to Patras is that it swings round the south along the Canale della Guidecca and out into the Canale San Marco past Arsenale, san marcoof the city, and then out past the islands and out into the Adriatic.

And a day and a half later we were in Patras. Flying would have undoubtedly been cheaper but that day on the boat gave us time to read and write up notes on the journey so far.

Our original plan had been to stay at the Olympic Star in Patras – a more than reasonable hotel a couple of blocks from the train station, and then get the train to Kalamata the next day, and pick up a rental car there. Rumours of strikes and industrial chaos led us to change our plans and pick up our rental car in Patras, hoping that as long as there was petrol available we’d be able to spend a week in the Peoloponese and then drive to Athens to drop off the car rather than risk being caught out by a train or bus strike.

Collecting the car was not as easy as it should have been – half the city centre was cordoned off for a go-kart race, the Europcar rental office had moved the week before to a new office block and had no signs up yet and the street it was in had been renamed. That said we found it with the help of the hotel staff who gave us a map with two or three likely locations, one of which was spot on. And the traffic police were great, allowing us to park illegally while we got our bags from the hotel which was in an area cordoned off for spectators.

The last time I was in Patras it was a sleazy place, with beggars in the square and obvious prostitutes touting for trade. This time it was cleaner, more prosperous looking, although there were a number of shops with closing down sales, and generally nicer. They even had a branch of M&S.

Getting out of Patras was reasonably straightforward, although we did make a wrong turn and end up in an area of beach side stalls, where we managed to surprise an elderly stall holder urinating in a bright orange plastic bucket. He had obviously though he was being discreet behind his van outside of his stall, and didn’t expect two Australians in a rented Fiat looking for wide enough gap to do a U-turn.

Out of Patras, the agony and the ecstasy of driving in Greece came back to me. Yes of course lane markings are for decoration, or at most there to suggest that you form two, or three, or four lanes, as many as can fit into the available space, and yes, the hard shoulder is to allow you to let faster traffic past, and no, indicators are just blinking lights. That said I managed the near continuous roadworks between Patras and Corinth without difficulty, even if it was enlivened by the sudden discovery that J couldn’t read lowercase Greek letters at all, and on our previous trips had been reading uppercase ones based on her knowledge of Cyrillic scripts – strange what you discover in the middle of a half built freeway intersection where all the temporary direction signs are in Greek. Fortunately we were looking for signs to Tripolis which rendered in Cyrillic is close enough to Greek to be recognisable. From there we drove on down to Kalamata and then to Kardymylli.

Kardymylli was to be our chill out stage. We stayed in a stone cottage in an olive grove which had about the most inefficient solar hot water system in Greece – ie it was cold most of the time, ate fish and went walking in the hills behind the old town. From there we had a side trip to the Mani and to Mystras, but basically just chilled. Internet access was fun – if you walked down the hill through the olive grove you eventually got access via a flaky signal from the hotel on the other side of the inlet – enough to check email but not enough for sustained surfing.

And then it was back to Athens. Originally we had planned on having a stop at Mycenae, but we missed the exit (seeing freeway exits to Sparta and Mycenae excites my inner child) – I think it was only signposted coming from Corinth rather than from the Kalamata end, and decided to dash to Athens to try and get to the Acropolis museum before it closed – the next day being Monday when the museum is closed.

Well we made the museum, and frankly I was slightly disappointed. While they have a good display of sculpture, including a range of kouroi, some of which show the first hints of figurative representation – in one example the archaic smile has metamorphosed into a slightly wicked wink – the museum is waiting for the main act. The display of the Carytids give a hint of just how stunning the display will be if the marbles ever return, but until then …

Lysistrates column AthensThe next day was Monday, and the Greek Heritage service had decided to go on strike, or more accurately protest against the austerity programme by not collecting entrance fees leaving us free – literally- to wander round the Acropolis, including the scaffolding free Parthenon almost at will, not to mention the Stoa and the Roman Agora area.

And we managed to slip in a (free) visit to the Byzantine Museum to see their exhibition 'From Byzantium to the Modern Era'.

Athens was Athens, and while we were staying close to Syntagma Square there was no sign of the anti austerity protests other than a few extra riot cops and the odd boarded up shop. Athens was as peaceful and engaging as ever. My only regret about the Greek leg of our trip is that one of the Greek quality papers was giving away free cd's of contemporary Greek music. I should have just been impulsive and bought the paper for the cd rather than procrastinating until they were all sold out. Next time I will.

From Athens it was a flight back to Scotland to see family and then back to Australia with a day (and two nights) in Dubai.

Dubai, even though we had a ridiculously short visit, made a strong enough impression on us to deserve a separate post. Probably we were completely mad cramming all this in to four weeks.But we enjoyed ourselves, and even though we tell ourselves we should do something simple next time, such as a couple of weeks on a beach at Lankawi, somehow I don’t quite see it

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