Wednesday, September 30, 2015

September 30th – Athens, Ancient Triumphs and Modern Tragedies

As we walked from the Metro, we were greeted by two heartrending signs of Athens' modern struggles. A couple of scruffy-looking toddlers played in the street ahead of us, and one of them fell flat on his face yet hardly let out a cry. As we picked him up, his father ran over to apologise and explained (in perfect English) that they were refugees from Syria, and that every time he fell asleep, the children ran off. We turned the corner to come across a group of about 10 people living out there on the street – it made us feel sick with sorrow at the plight of these poor people.

Then, about 15 metres further up the street, crouched between two cars, was a drug addict injecting himself, while an old man walked past shaking his head. Greece has had such a hard time of it over the last few years, and if any city didn't need to be hit by the migrant crisis, it was Athens.

You can walk down Athens' busy main shopping street, and it's like the financial crisis and the refugee crisis weren't really happening, but just head a few streets back and it's another world – one of beggars, refuse on the streets, and so much graffiti that it takes your breath away. If one industry is doing well, it's got to be the aerosol trade.

Yet, somehow Athens isn't a depressing place – it has its troubles, but life goes on, as best it can. So, being tourists, we carried on with doing touristy things, and we paid a visit to the remarkable National Archaeological Museum, full of the most amazing array of ancient sculpture, carvings and jewellery you can imagine. Looking at some of the exhibits on display, it was incredible to think that these fantastically skilled statues were over 2,500 years old.

Seeing all this classical artwork, and walking around in the shadow of the magnificent Acropolis is a constant reminder that Athens was once at the very forefront of Western Civilisation – golden days that seem further away than ever these days. The fact that it's down on its luck at the moment is staring its visitors fully in the face, but I can only hope that this wonderful city can get back on its feet again.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

September 29th – (Wind) Swept Away By Limnos

Limnos is one of those Greek islands with an incredibly low profile – the lack of regular international flights, the distance from Athens, and a slowly developing tourist industry have seen to that. But, all those factors are what make a visit here worthwhile – this is island life as it used to be.....without the crowds.

To be honest the gloomy skies and strong winds that greeted us on the tender didn't promise much, but our day here showed us an attractive island with an interesting history, a laid-back pace of life, and some beautiful beaches too.

We first went to the wind-pummelled eastern side of the island to visit the ancient site of Polyochni – a set of 4,000 year-old ruins that lay a claim to being the oldest city in Europe. The scanty stone ruins and walls may have provided a great home to the ancient Greek version of Fred Flintstone, but with nothing much above waist height, it was a little difficult to imagine what the place was like; however, the fact that there was something so old here, shows that this Aegean island must once have been a centre of culture.

Because, this place has always made its location work for it – sitting 40 miles from the entrance of the Dardanelles, on the trade routes to and from the Black Sea has always drawn shipping to it. In fact, it was that location that drew the British and French to position their invasion task force here in the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign in 1915. Hundreds of thousands died on the killing fields of Gallipoli, and thousands of the wounded were brought to Limnos to be treated, and hundreds of them sadly died and were buried here. We visited the poignant Commonwealth War Cemetery here – the bleak, windswept conditions of the neat graveyard providing a suitably inhospitable backdrop to this reminder of the futility of war.

After that slightly depressing visit, we cheered ourselves up with a stop at a local winery, where we tasted some decent (and some not-so-decent) Limniot wines. Then, finally, we returned to the island's pretty capital Myrina, for a walk around. It had a distinctly end-of-season feel to it, but it was a lively enough place, with some good restaurants and some gorgeous sandy beaches on the edge of town. Dominating everything, is Myrina's imposing castle on the steep rocky hill overlooking town. We trekked up there, and explored its enigmatic rocky remains – the view from the Citadel was wonderful, even if it did feel like we might be blown off at any point.

So, Limnos offers an untouristy, quiet environment, ancient sites, decent wines, great beaches – on a sunny day, it looks fantastic too. Maybe those travel agents should look a bit closer at Limnos (although only on a non-windy day).

September 28th – Cruising Again - Istanbul

So, as our summer off ends, we got up at the crack of dawn to leave the clear skies of London to arrive in rainy old Istanbul (shouldn't that be the other way round?). We're going to spend the next 5 weeks cruising around the Aegean and Mediterranean on the Silver Spirit. Just one sea day in those four back-to-back cruises, does mean A LOT of lectures to give, but it also mean that we're going to see some great sights along the way – can't wait!

Saturday, September 5, 2015

End of an Era

Our drive back from Italy, calling in at Nancy in France, and Ghent in Belgium, have made us realise why we love campervanning, and why maybe we need a bit of a rest from it.

In Nancy, we met up with friends and the weather was glorious. The town is a beautiful one that we'd probably never have visited if we weren't in a campervan, and the open spaces of the campsite were great for mucking around with their children and for having a lovely couple of alfresco nights eating outside the van.

Then, as we began to pack up the heavens opened, and we got soaked. On the drive up to Ghent, the roads were heavy with traffic, and the campsite was sodden. After 6 weeks with fantastic weather, not much moving around and only a couple of days of rain, the temperatures, the grey skies and the driving rain of northern Europe were threatening to drive us into a depression.

Actually, after much consideration, we've decided to spend our next few summers a little differently. We hope to sell our beloved campervan, and instead of roaming around, we'll settle on two or three different places each summer to rent an apartment in for a month or two. We loved spending that month in Izola, and after 10 years of being on the move, maybe we've got a little weary of constantly packing up every few days.

So, if all goes to plan, next year we're thinking about stops in Palma de Majorca, somewhere in Northern Spain, and Siracusa in Sicily. Nothing is set in stone, so we'll see what happens. Let me know if you can think of somewhere perfect in Europe for us to spend a month in – all suggestions welcome! Maybe we'll find somewhere to put down roots?

We've had some great adventures along the way, but it's time to do something different.

Home Comforts In Stresa

Our time in Izola was wonderful, but after a month in one of the most basic campsites imaginable (cold showers and some rather strange fellow campers), we were ready for a few home comforts. Fortunately, our generous friends let us stay in their apartment for a few days in the beautiful town of Stresa on Lake Maggiore.

The first couple of days were a bit wet and miserable, but who cares when you have an actual roof over your head and as much wifi as you want, and you can watch the Athletics on TV? We're easily pleased these days!

But, once the sky cleared and we got those million dollar views across the length of the lake, then you can see why our friends have fallen in love with the place. It made us wonder which we prefer – Stresa's lake views, or Izola's sea views; Stresa's sophisticated charms, or Izola's down to earth appeal. How lucky we are to experience them both.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Izola – Feels Like Home

After a month here in our Slovenian seaside haven, sadly it was time to leave Izola. For reasons that are hard to explain, this place has started to feel like home. In no particular order, here's a list of some of the things we loved about Izola:
1. The people are so incredibly friendly
2. The wonderful sunsets (great for having a drink as the sky turns red)
3. A seafood restaurant called Sidro – the staff were wonderful and their grilled calamari were fantastic
4. The pace of life – super laid-back
5. The number of events they put on in the summer – we saw Slovenian flamenco, an Italian Rolling Stones tribute band, and an amazing ensemble of folk artists from around the world
6. Their attitude to cycling – so many cycle paths and all motorists stop for cyclists
7. The prices – I don't think you can get better value for food and drink at any other seaside town I've been to.
8. It's beautiful - a lovely combination of Italian architecture and seaside views

We will be coming back.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Trieste – Better Close Up

Up till now, my impressions of Trieste have not been good. When you drive along the motorway past the edge of it, the city seems full of ugly apartment blocks, and horrendously hilly. While, looking across the bay from Slovenia at night, the contrast in the number of lights makes it seem horribly overcrowded and busy.

However, having got the bus there from Izola, on closer inspection, we found Trieste to be a really attractive place, full of character and lovely architecture. What gives Trieste its character is that it's been something of a political football over the past couple of centuries, as ownership of the city has passed from power to power, meaning that the city has influences from Italy, Austria and from the Slavic world too. The city was initially an important Roman settlement (as evidenced by part of a Roman arch sticking incongruously out of another building), and it was then a satellite port of the Venetian Empire. But, what gave Trieste its major boost was that after the end of the Venetian Republic at the start of the 19th century, it was awarded to the Austrian Empire, as it became their first ever (and only) route to the sea.

As the Austrians proudly started up their new navy, they embellished the city with some superbly grand architecture that made it seem like a Vienna by the sea. At its centre, the huge main square facing out to sea (apparently the biggest in Italy) is a wonderful set piece - surrounded by impressive monumental buildings that make it seem like a set from an opera.

In a boost to local flagmakers, the Italians managed to grab Trieste back from the Austrians after the First World War, and then after the Second World War, the city was coveted by Tito's Yugoslavia, and had to be designated an International City until 1954, when the international courts finally agreed that it should stay Italian. Since then, the city has grown rapidly (hence the rows of ugly apartment blocks that cling on to the steep hills around Trieste), particularly populated with Italians who left the former Italian coastal possessions (like Izola) that became Yugoslavian in 1945.

Even the food and drink scene here is still dominated by Trieste's influences from MittelEurop. It was the Austrians who first got Europe interested in coffee (which they imported through Trieste), something that the Italians have now moved on to an art form – in fact, the famous coffee brand, Illy, started up here. While, curiously enough, the most famous Trieste dish is bratwurst or pork served up Austrian-style in a bun, in restaurants that couldn't feel more Germanic if they tried. I guess it doesn't matter where it all started – Tracy loved the coffee and I loved the pork roll.

So, we were very pleasantly surprised by Trieste, although the traffic on the streets, the graffiti and the underlying sense of big city chaos made us feel happy to return to our peaceful haven in Izola.