Friday, 27 July 2012

And they are off...

Unless you have been living on another planet for the last few years you will of course know that today the games of the XXX Olympiad begin in London.

It amazed me that it was seven years ago when the nation held its collective breath as, at a little podium in Singapore, our fate was announced. Used to being the perennial also ran I found it hard to imagine that Britain would scoop this ultimate prize, much as I wanted it to. I distinctly remember the wait. I was at Whirlowbrook Hall in Sheffield taking part in a consultation day for the Library Management Software company that provided the system my library used.  (my how my life has changed... but that’s a post for another time!)   We didn’t have access to TV or radio but the technical manager running the day had a WAP enabled phone – quite the rarity in those days and definitely experimental (for which substitute flaky) technology.  The signal was patchy out at the hall but we did manage to get that we were down to the last two contenders. At which point we ceased to get any signal at all. As he frantically pushed buttons on the phone trying to get it to release the essentially information we heard a loud cheer from the halls kitchens. “Have we got it?”  “We must have, otherwise why would they be cheering?” ... the start of grins until someone said “But what if the kitchen staff is French?” A scout was rapidly dispatched who was able to come back with the happy news that the kitchen staff were indeed good Yorkshire folk and the games were ours. I am not sure what else we managed to achieve with the library management system that day but I know that I spent it in a happy haze that the Olympics were coming to the city I loved.

Since then my world and the world I live in has changed monumentally. Just the day following we were dragged to a different, darker reality with those dreadful scenes of the 7/7 bombs. A bloody and destroyed bus, its top pealed back like a tin can, becoming the dominant image that shoved the jubilant scenes of the day before to the back of the cupboard. Then a massive global recession that has left so many questioning whether holding the games here is the sensible thing to do, spending so much money when many are struggling to make ends meet.

But we are here, and despite what the detractors and moaners might have us believe, we are essentially ready. The eyes of the world we be upon us and I believe that we will not be found wanting.  The Olympic motto is Citius, Altius, Fortius, Latin for "Faster, Higher, Stronger"
and certainly the competitors will be straining for this with every fibre of their being..... but what of the rest of us who struggle to run for the bus in the morning let alone run for Olympic glory?  What can the Olympics be for us?

Well call me naive and a dreamer if you like but that I think there is something magical that every four years the world unites behind a single event.  Yes it's a competition and so there will be winners and losers in the classic competitive sense of the word...  but to my mind it’s more than that. For at each games an Olympic truce is signed up to by all the competing nations. Dating back to the ancient games this was originally a practical step to ensure safe passage of all athletes to the games. Now it may be seen as nothing more than a hollow gesture – after all do we really think the Taliban are going to stop firing on foreign troops because they both nations have teams in the games, or that North and South Korea are going to become close friends for the next three weeks.  Of course not... but was it does do is set a standard, an ideal, a dream if you like, that such a thing might just be possible. We all love an underdog, the Olympic games proves that more than most – who can forget Eddie the Eagle on the ski jump or Eric the Eel swimming farther than he had ever done in the slowest Olympic time recorded. Was that pointless, no for it allowed others to dream that maybe, just maybe they could get to the games themselves. So to with the truce – dare we let ourselves dream that one day real peace may be possible, that one day all nations of the world will be able to join together harmoniously as a living embodiment of the Olympic rings? We may never strive to be faster  than Usain Bolt but we can strive to be stronger than the forces of evil and aim higher than that which we see before us. Now that’s an Olympic dream I believe we can achieve.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Train Saga's

After the stresses of getting from Athens to Sofia I was looking forward to getting back to the relative simplicity of the trains and my nicely scheduled and pre-booked itinerary. After a couple of days in Sofia I was due to take the midday train to Belgrade that connected with the night sleeper to Budapest, my next and last stop. I had the ticket from Sofia to Budapest already and the sleeping car reservation from Belgrade to Budapest, but what the nice man at Eurorail had not been able to do in advance was get me a seat reservation for the first leg. "Not a problem" he said "just go to the station when you get to Sofia and they will be able to do that for you". This afternoon, I dutifully trek out to the station and after the usual round of being passed from pillar to post because i am in the wrong queue I finally find myself a the international rail desk. "I need a seat reservation to Belgrade" I say, "11.55 on Friday". "Ah yes" she says, "That train no longer runs"... "But I have a ticket" I say, she shrugs....  So there is no train for me. At this point I am really beginning to wish I had flown from Athens to Budapest.... This has got to be the most convoluted way of getting anywhere that I have ever experienced.... Fortunately the bus station is right next door and so I stomp over (it's 30 degrees and I am really, really hot and really, really annoyed, I am allowed to stomp...) and look at the bus schedules. Fortunate there is a bus to Belgrade on Friday at 9am and its only £18 and they have space.... Thank God for Eurolines. According to the lady on the bus counter it takes five hours. Looking later at he map I was sceptical as its looks much further than Thessaloniki which took 5.. I did some googling and found it was actually more like 7-9 hours.... Joy. Still that should be ok as my train from Belgrade doesn't leave until 10pm... So as long as we don't get stuck anywhere I should make it.....  Interestingly, I looked at the website where I got the idea for this journey from, the man at seat61, to see what he had to say for himself, telling me to catch trains that no longer exist... And see that he has changed the route to and from Athens in the last few days and now suggests routing through Bucharest.... Clearly i am not the only person to have discovered that the Belgrade route is no longer viable by train.... I must admit his new route takes longer and Bucharest is quite along way out of the way... And to be honest if I had seen the route he now proposed I don't think I would have done it.... So even with all this hassle in the last few days I count myself very fortunate that he had not updated his advice before i booked as I wouldn't have wanted to miss this trip for the world... It's amazing!

Chugging North

Well getting to Sofia was eventful and not quite as I imagined it... A travel conundrum that's set to continue.... More of which later! It used to be that you could get a train direct from Athens to Sofia but in these straightened economic times that's no longer possible so I had to take it in stages, none of which could be booked in advance (always my preference) The first part was straightforward.... I bought a train ticket to Thessaloniki at Larissa train station in Athens. It was a lovely 7 hour journey, particularly the climb up through the mountains which gave wonderful views... I think I saw Mount Olympus... But my Greek geography being pretty ropey I couldn't be sure! I mean I was sure I saw a mountain, but which one it was? I arrived at four and set of to sort out the next stage of my journey, the bus to Sofia. My guru for these kind of journey, the man in seat61 ( said that a bus departed from outside the train station each day at 8am and it was this I was planning on catching he following day.... However after a few false starts I managed to find the office of the bus company which was closed. It had its timetable on the door though which showed there was indeed an 8am bus everyday except Tuesday... Which of course was the day I needed it for! Not being a lot I could do about it there I headed for my hotel (which was lovely, and more importantly had good wi-fi) to try and hatch and alternate plan. It has to be said that Internet information about Thessaloniki to Sofia buses is not at all easy to find on the web, Sofia to Thessaloniki no problem but not the other way around.... In the end i managed to get the website up of a company who ran a service and with the help of Google translation (the site was in Bulgarian) managed to get an office address the other side of town. I duly headed over there only to be told they didn't handle the bookings anymore and was given another address of someone that did, back across town where I had just come from. As you can imagine by this point I was a less than happy bunny! So I tracked back and eventually found this second office, which was staffed by a lovely lady, who sadly though didn't speak any English... She tried German, I tried French but it seemed we has no languages in common.... But not to be deterred from a sale she takes out her mobile phone and rings someone.... Queue a great deal of Greek and then she hands me the phone where I am told that they have a bus leaving the next day a 2.30 and I should go to yet another address at 1.30 to buy a ticket and catch the bus....result! Though I never did discover if the person on the phone had anything to do with the travel company or was just some person she knew who happened to speak English! I resolved to go to this other office first thing in the morning just to check that this information was correct and to buy a ticket... But as it was now nearly 8pm there was little else I could do that evening apart from get some food and go to bed. so I wake the next day to an eery silence... Looking out of my window I see hardly any traffic, which given how busy the road was the day before, seemed a little odd. It was only as I went to check out after breakfast I discovered why... It was May 1st. Now before you think I am really dumb, I was more than aware of the date, what I hadn't realised though is that in most European countries this is a public holiday where everything, and I mean everything shuts down... Great, I have several hours to kill and I am in a ghost town! I went to the address i had been given the day before which turned out to be a travel agency but unsurprisingly it was firmly shut along with everything else... So I just had to trust that there would be a bus there a promised later in the day and I wandered off in search of something to do..... ......which turned out to be pretty difficult. Thessaloniki is one of those places that clearly has had some history at some point as there are a few bits of roman wall and some Byzantine churches dotted around but it seems that any history has been well and truly squashed by the mass of concrete hotels, shops and cheap eateries that have sprung up everywhere.... This town was a whole heap of ugly and I cannot say I warmed to it a all... It reminded me of Torremolinos... I that there was probably a nice village somewhere in its history that's got totally obliterated in the surge of mass tourism..... So as you can imagine I was not in the best of moods mooching around looking at the outside of locked up churches and shoe shops... When who should turn up but several thousand Communists... Oh yes I kid you not, just when I though it could not get any more odd, I find out that the town has been taken over for political demonstrations for the day and that the police have closed off half the roads to contain the demonstrators!! Deciding at this point to cut my losses, and not knowing the words of "workers of the word unite" I decided to head back to the bus stop and wait. Fortunately the bus did eventually  arrive as promised and I happily beat a path out of dodge! After all the drama of getting a ticket the journey itself was surprisingly enjoyable, took around five hours and I had a front seat and so had a panoramic view which was great. The coach was modern and as comfortable as coaches can all in all not bad, though there was a rather strange Bulgarian woman who clearly felt she should have my seat, to the point of which I got off at a rest stop and when I got back on 10 minutes later she had moved my stuff to a seat further back and plonked herself and her numerous bags right across the front row. Myself and the lady I was sitting next to expressed some surprise at this wherein the driver started trying to shift her, much loud exchange later she finally did move but boy was she not happy about it! I finally made it to Sofia just after seven and headed to my hotel (which is lovely) glad that from here on in I would be back to the relative simplicity of the train... Or so I thought!

Monday, 30 April 2012


its hard to believe that I have been here three days already. In some ways it feels like a minute and in others weeks... And yet today I have to leave to begin the long journey back north... First thing to say is that I absolutely adore Athens and can see why so many Brits come to Greece and end up staying... I could quite happily live here if they didn't have a chaplain already :0). In three days I have quite literally walked my socks off and covered most of the centre of the city. In fact I walked so much that there is not a part of my body that does not ache.... I have been to museums and galleries, flee markets and churches, tourist tat shops and of course more archaeological sites that I could believe could be crammed into one city, in fact so many I think I am likely to start seeing corinthian columns in my sleep. Needless to say its been absolutely bliss.... I am not going to bore you with everything I saw... If you want that much details email me and I can send you the guide book, but there were some highlights that I want to share. Firstly the city itself... I was so focused on marking up all the sights I wanted to see in the guide book that I don't think it occurred to me to also consider the city that they were in.... But truth be told Athens is a beautiful place. The old parts, like Plaka where I am staying have beautiful old winding streets, with flower filled balconies and orange ladened trees, this is surrounded by the nineteenth century city that has wonderful neo-classical buildings and there are some stunning modern buildings as well like the new acropolis museum.... Ok it has it's seventies ugly as do all towns but you can kind of look past that... In among this beautiful architecture is a fantastic cafe culture were you can sit out at the pavement tables and watch the beautiful people go by and look at the Acropolis which you do really seem to be able to see from everywhere in the city!  And the food, my God, it's awesome... Even in the most touristy restaurants the food is great and if you venture a little further afield you can be rewarded by some of the best meals You have ever eaten. It does help that I am a fan of Greek food anyway but ohhhhh it's been bliss... Though I think I might just turn into a block of feta cheese by the time I leave so much of it have I eaten ;0) Another highlight was the Acropolis museum.. A stunning piece of architecture in its own right it is also a building so perfectly designed for its purpose that you cannot imagine how anything else could have worked. You enter inside up a slope that mimics the one you travel up to get to the acropolis itself and then reach a floor full of sculptures and other finds from the site beautifully laid out in a sunlight gallery. The walls are almost entirely glass and so the light floods in and on the left you have uninterrupted views of the acropolis... There is a great spatial relationship between the museum and the site that it represents.  You then rise to the top floor of the building and it's zenith architecturally and emotionally. Here they have built the floor to be an exact spatial replica of the Parthenon itself. For the first time you can see all the remaining reliefs and statues in context to each other and follow their narrative arc around the floor as you once would have been able to follow it round the building. It is truly stunning. What really hits you though is when you turn the corner to come upon the great pediments at the end and see how much is missing. I have felt uneasy for a long time about the British governments refusal to even discuss the possibility of returning the Elgin marbles to Greece. Yes there was an argument that in removing them Elgin ensured their survival and I there was even the argument to be made that until recently the Greek government could not guarantee their safety in the pollution soup that often hangs over Athens.... But with the building of the new museum all arguments are moot. They need to be here, back in context with the other remains. They are looted goods pure and simple and the British have no right or indeed need to hang on to them any more..... It's shameful.  Last, but by no means least going to morning service at St Paul's Anglican Church. Being Just around the corner from the hotel meant I got a nice lie in this morning which is always a good way to start but I must admit I didn't go to church with any High expectations this morning... But how wrong I was. The service was led by the Reader, a women of such infectious enthusiasm it was impossible. It to get drawn in. There were plenty of hymns old and new, solid teachings and even a nicely cantored psalm. But most of all there was the most lovely congregation, so warm and friendly I didn't want to leave. From the minute I arrived the congregation, mostly expat Brits and Nigerians but with a good smattering of lots of other nationalities too, we're so nice. By the end of the service I had invites to stay, should I come back to Athens again and a very nice lady gave me her card and said I must go and visit her next time she was back in blighty.  The notices were delightfully full of appeals to make chutney for the summer fete, home made cards for sale, endless details of the upcoming coffee mornings  and plans for the jubilee picnic and the Sunday school kids we running around showing us the sheep they had made. Even better after church coffee takes place in the outside courtyard under the shade of beautiful palm trees (though apparently they are infested with weevils I was told rather conspiratorially by someone worried the would collapse before the fete!) and people could, and did, wander in off the street to get a drink and a pastry wether they had been part of he service or not. There was a real sense of God being present in this wonderfully eccentric group of people and it made me a little sad that I could not belong for more than an hour or two :0( So that was Athens.... I heartily recommend it to you... As do most of the congregation of St Paul's by the way. They said to tell all my friends to come.. So I am. They know more than most the difficulties this country is suffering, they can see the impact of the huge drop in tourism that there has been following the negative reporting of the civil disturbances. This country is hugely dependent on its tourism income so please do consider coming... It's an amazing place, I can't imagine that you will be disappointed :0)

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Sweeping South (part 2) and paddling west

It's funny how things work out sometimes. I should know by now that it's often the least expected things that deliver the most. I was surprisingly sad to leave Milan on Wednesday morning... After all I had no great plans to go there but I needed to stop as it was the furthest point on my journey from London that I could comfortably get to in a day. I could have left first thing in the morning but I know from bitter experience that that would leave me exhausted hence why I spent a day there. Milan surprised me though and turned out to be a thoroughly charming and interesting city that I still had much to see in... Always a good way to leave I think.... But leave I had to as I had a ferry to catch. I was up at stupid o'clock so I could be on the 7.30am train to the ferry port at Bari. I think I committed a mortal sin at the train station by asking for my cappuccino to take away... It seems that no matter how short of time the Milanese are they will always drink their coffee from proper cups in the coffee shop.... But hey I needed coffee at that time of the morning and the train waits for no-one... It was a long journey, nearly eight hours and took me further south in Italy than I had been before. Vineyards gave way to olive trees and then palm trees as we met the coast at Rimini. From then on it was a glorious run along the seashore, sometimes only meters from the waters edge.... Though sadly far to much of the coast was blighted by ugly concrete hotels. The train stopped quite a lot and I had several Larkin moments (check out the poem The Whitsun Weddings if you want the reference) though being Italy the scenes were a great deal more romantic and less cynical than the man from hull observed on his ride.  As I had a couple of hours between the train and ferry I was hoping to have a bit of an explore of the old city of Bari which is supposed to be very beautiful.... It may have been but on this particular Wednesday afternoon it was resolutely shut, everything from restaurants to the Cathedral and Castle were bolted up tight... I had to resort to Burger King to get some food as it was the only place open.... It was downright eerie.... so I headed on over to the ferry port and waited to board. I got quite excited when I arrived as there was a lovely looking ship in dock.... But I soon realised that that was a German cruise ship and the ferry to Greece was in fact the small scruffy boat moored alongside!  That said I could not fault the ride at all. I boarded at six and we departed dead on time at eight. There was a bar and restaurant that served food and drink at not extortionate prices given they had a monopoly on us for the next sixteen hours and several seating areas with good views off the ship. The cabins were far to expensive for me on my own so I had booked an "airline" seat in the sleeper lounge. I was concerned I would not get much sleep but it turns out a midweek crossing off season is not that popular a choice and there were only a dozen or so of us with 100+ seats to choose from... Result. Bagged a bank of four and with the aid of a few glasses of red wine actually got a fairly good nights sleep. It was somewhat of a rude awaking in the morning though as we docked at our intermediate stop (Cofu?) at 5.30 am. Any hope of sleeping through this were rapidly dispelled as the disembarkation notices were given in five languages one after the other, each started and ended with a cacophony of bing bongs very loudly over the ships PA system... You would have had to be stone deaf to have stayed asleep thought that.  It seemed like most of the passengers got off at this stop and so the boat was pleasantly empty for the remainder of the voyage. I had the top deck to myself most of the morning and enjoyed a lovely peaceful time leaning on the rail and watching the Greek islands pass by. Just needed to venture inside every now and then for a top up of the cappuccino (this time correctly drunk in a small china cup with amaretto biscuit on the side) and I was happy as Larry. The arrival in Patris went smoothly with a local bus right at the ferry port to take us to the main bus station. Sadly I couldn't get to Athens by train as the line was closed for upgrading a few years ago and shows no sign of re-opening anytime soon. I therefore caught an express coach to the Capital.... It may be several hours quicker but my goodness I much prefer trains to cramped coaches anyday. We arrived a a bus station somewhere in the suburbs (another plus of trains they usually deliver you to he middle of town!) and on asking for directions to the centre got several opinions on buses, where to change etc.... Decided I didn't fancy getting lost on the Athens bus system and so grabbed a cab to my hotel - definitely ten euros well spent.  So I have made it to Athens and I am writing this on one of the two balconies my hotel room has, looking over a lovely tree lined alleyway only a stones throw from the acropolis and listening to the wonderful chanting coming from the Orthodox church on the corner. Ok the bathroom suite is bright yellow and the decor is distinctly seventies but hey I think I can deal with that :0).  Tomorrow I head for the station first thing to see if trains north will be running on Monday.... Not a given, the state of the economy being what it is.... But after that to the Acropolis, the inspiration for the whole journey. Can't wait....

Wednesday, 25 April 2012


I woke to the ominous sound of heavy rain. Having only a day to explore Milan this was not great, but thems the breaks... Or so I thought.... As I left the hotel the rain began to let up and by the time I had had a breakfast cappuccino and pastry at the corner coffee shop the sun was out, and half an hour later there was not a cloud in the sky, result!  The down side of this is that I thought it would be nice to walk into the centre of town to give my legs a stretch. Queue one very lost person :0( it probably wasn't the best idea given I didn't have a proper map but hey ho. Milan turned out to be a very pleasant place to be lost in as it gives, it's actually quite an old city and I got to wander some lovely old residential neighborhoods. After about an hour I admitted defeat in trying to find the city centre and turned on the sat nav on my phone. It's a good thing I did as I was going in totally the wrong direction! Duly corrected I finally made it to the main square for my first stop on the day the city's cathedral, the Duamo. Started in the thirteenth century but not finally finished until the 1960's it's a gothic riot with adornments on every door, wall and roof. That makes it sound awful but in fact it's incredibly beautiful both inside and out. What was most impressive is how quiet and reverential it felt inside despite large amounts of tourists milling about. I ended up down in the crypt looking at the mummified body of a fifteenth century cardinal (as you do) when I noticed there was an art installation in a side room. This was a video installation by Mark wallinger's called Via Dolorosa. On the surface it seemed like a strange thing... It was a projection of zefferelli's film about Jesus but with a large black square obscuring all but a tiny border of film around the edges. ... However once I sat watching it for a while it really started to get to me. It made me think about how little we really see of Christ, that we may think we have a clear picture of it all but in reality we see only a tiny fraction, but also made me profoundly grateful that one day the black square will be gone and I will truly be able to see the whole picture....(1 Corinthians 13: 12) Going to the other extreme I then decided to tackle the church roof.  For a fee you can climb up to the roof to get a gargoyles eye view of the city... I decided to pa the 3 euros extra and get the lift! And I am glad I did as its really high up. But it was amazing to be up among the statues and carvings. It's clearly a popular spot to be photographed as I saw a couple holding their new born (and very squirmy) baby by the parapet for picture... I must admit I looked away as it seemed way to close to me! Walking along a bit I came across a Japanese bride and groom in full kit... Presumably they took the lift to, the brides crinoline skirt would have been a bugger on the stairs!  You end up quite literally on the roof were as well as a fantastic view you can people watch to your hearts content as its seemed to be a popular sunbathing spot! The afternoon was spent at the modern art gallery which was fab. I wasn't sure what to expect but was pleasantly surprised on entering to see a Mondrian, a Kandinsky and a Klee all hanging on the wall... Three of my favourite artists right there together, bliss.... And then I turn around and see a Picasso and a Modigliani... Life is good.  But actually it's not the international heavy hitters that ended up making the museum for me, lovely though they were... What was amazing was seeing the work of local Milanese and Northern Italian painters who I had never heard off. There was some stunning examples of all sorts of media and it was a real eye opener. I thought I would be only in there for an hour or so as its not a huge museum but in the end I was there for nearly three enjoying seeing something new. By the time I re-emerged I didn't fancy any more museums and so spent the rest of the day widow shopping and admiring shoes that cost more than a small car and handbags that would require a second mortgage... I settled on the purchase of a Gelatto, every bit as satisfying at a fraction of the price :0)

Sweeping South

So I am off of my travels again. I was planning on doing something low key and cheap as I am hoping to go to central America in Autumn and so a couple of weeks in Europe for my post-Easter break seemed just the thing. As is the way of things however, well for me anyway, what started as a thought that it would be nice to see the Parthenon turned into a fairly expensive 2000 mile train journey.... Oooops. So yesterday I boarded my first train, the Eurostar to Paris. Annoyingly, despite being sold a " window" seat all I had was a bulkhead so rather than staring dreamily at the view as planned I buried my head in a 3 week old copy of the Church Times to pass the time. Arrival at Paris meant a change from Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon for the onward journey. It was at his point that I discovered the perils of A) speaking a very tiny bit of French and B) looking like I knew what I was doing. Before you could say zut alores I had been adopted by two bewildered Canadians and three scared Aussies who also need to get to Gare du Lyon and were without a clue as to how to do so. Tickets bought and five people stopped from going in six different directions I managed to get us all (plus vast amounts of luggage, there's not mine) on the metro for the transfer. As we were rattling along a young man looked over at me... English? He said. Yes I replied. I want to go to England he is said in broken English... To Manchester to see the football... Somehow I knew what was coming... Manchester United I said?  Oui, they are the best team.... One has to wonder the odds that he should find himself on the Metro next to a girl from the very town he idolised only to have her be a City fan. He took it well and we attempted to discuss the upcoming Derby...not easy given my French does not extend to much beyond ordering tickets and drinks.  Lots of shrugging and hand waving seemed to do the trick. At Gare de Lyon I put my impromptu tour party on their train and managed to grab a quick sandwich before boarding my ride, the TGV to M ilan. thankfully this time my window seat had a window, which given I had a seven hour journey was a relief. The train was fast to Lyon and so passed a few hours of pleasant but rather dull French countryside. From then on in though the view just got better and better as we climbed into the French Alps. It was amazing to see the snow capped peaks looming over us a we snaked our way down ever narrower valleys and see the towns and villages take on an increasingly idyllic ski chalet character. The only sadness was that night fell when we were still in the Alps on the Italian side by now though. I eeked out the view as long as I could but finally admitted defeat and took to my book. A couple of hours later we pulled into Milan - only 20 minutes late on a 7 hour ride can't be bad.... Looking forward to what tomorrow holds.