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
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)
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.