Saturday, December 09, 2017

Scintillating Syracuse and Monstrous Mosaics - Sicily (Part 1)

I simply love Italy. Its intoxicating mixture of passion, beauty, history and culture stands it apart from anywhere else I have been. It has therefore nagged me for a while that I haven’t ventured further south than Rome. This was the year to rectify that. After flirting with Naples and the Amalfi coast, I bought flights to Sicily and got busy planning…
It quickly became evident that Sicily was packed with more treasures then I imagined, scattered widely around its almost circular masse. Excited by everything, we went big and got set on a road trip right around the island.

AN INRO TO SYRACUSE

We flew into Catania, hired a Fiat and braved the road south to Syracuse. This seemed a natural place to start with my Greek connections. For an age “Syracusa” was the heart of Magna Graecia, the ancient Greek colonies of the Western Mediterranean. 
Centred on Ortygia, a compact island thrusting out from mainland Sicily into a wider natural gulf, the core of ancient Syracuse harboured the ideal spot for trade and defence. Barely a river’s width of water separate Ortygia from the coast and kept would be attackers at bay for centuries. Settled by Corinthians over 2750 years ago, the city grew to the size of ancient Athens at its peak, was ruled by (in)famous despots and tyrants and threw its weight around the region.

We spent five great days exploring what Syracuse has to offer, but nothing surpassed our introduction. Shortly after dark walking the 200m from our hostel, we fell upon the Piazza Duomo. An arching conglomerate of grand baroque buildings, centred on the magnificent Duomo di Siracusa, all lit up in a soft orange. Perhaps the most beautiful civic square I have seen in the world. Quite a statement, but I mean it.
The imposing baroque façade of the cathedral is impressive in itself, staying the right side of many of its overly gaudy fairy cake contemporaries, but this is just decoration. As our path took us past the front left corner, its uniqueness was revealed. One massive Doric column after another, soaring from base to roof and stretching the entire length of the cathedral. It looked like a near perfectly preserved giant Greek temple. And that is pretty much what it is!
Goodbye Athena, hello Jesus and Mary. After standing since the sixth century BC, the temple of Athena was usurped lock stock and barrel for Christianity. The result is the preservation of the most magnificent link to ancient times and the centre piece of a very special little patch of earth.

We must have spent 20 minutes, just gawking at the beauty of our surroundings, and chasing after the over-aeroplaned giggling small children. A memory for keeps.

SYRACUSE KEEPS ON GIVING

The more you scratch at Syracuse the more you get. A place where civilisation has repeatedly refreshed itself, building on the foundations of those gone before. One minute you are walking past vast remnants of 2500 year old Greek buildings, the next you are lost in the twisting Baroque lined streets, before strolling into medieval fortress. The Mediterranean caps it off, never far away, lapping at the old city just like it did in the time of Gelon the Tyrant.
Cross the bridge from Ortygia to Sicily proper and there is much more to discover. Newer streets still house some interesting buildings, none less so than the Sanctuary of Madonna delle Lacrime (Our Lady of Tears). A madcap concrete beehive, not unlike the cathedral in Rio, which while ugly on the outside makes startlingly beautiful use of light on the inside.
Then there is the extensive archaeological site. For the kids, the twin highlights of scrambling around the large Roman amphitheatre and shouting into the quarries where Dionysius famously imprisoned Athenians and listened out for talk of treachery carried by the echoes of their cavernous prison.
For me, I loved the remnants of the nearly 200m long Grand Altar of Herion and just chilling out in the massive ancient Greek theatre. To cap it all off, we spent an afternoon around the impressive archaeological museum, housing floor after floor of world class items from the rich history of this area. To my happy surprise my four-year-old was enraptured the whole time trying to find every “highlight” pictured on the welcome leaflet. He succeeded.
On our final night we gave the kids (and us) a bit of a treat and took a boat tour around Ortygia. Packed into a small, low boat, we circumnavigated the island, in the shadow of the walls which repelled invaders for so long. From there we sped out towards the craggy coast of the mainland. We had some thrill seeking in store. It became clear why the boat was so low as we all ordered to duck as our boat powered into a narrow cave. The kids loved it. The helmsman somehow managed to avoid the edges through the chop as we backed out again and put the power on as we raced back to the city as the sunset ahead. 
As a final comment on Syracuse, a quick comment on its people. I had been told by Italian friends how the Sicilians were a people unto themselves. Distinct and different from other Italians. Our impression from the best part of 5 days around Syracuse was a great one. The locals were friendly at every opportunity and particularly welcoming to us as a family. Wandering into a nice restaurant with a 4-year-old, 3-year-old and 1-year-old we received only warmth. Oh, and the food was damn amazing. Pizza four nights running for me.

ROAD TRIP TO A ROMAN WONDER

In certain places I can get strangely settled in a very short time. A mini life within a life. Syracuse was just such a place, so it felt a little sad to jump in the car we had abandoned on our first night and head West. Thoughts of Syracuse were soon left to one side as Mount Etna reared into view shortly after leaving the city. Europe’s largest active volcano dominates the East of the island, both in its own right (I nearly went off the road, drawn to its domineering reflection in my mirror) and in the landscape for miles around shaped into a broadly curving, dipping and fertile countryside by its eruptions.
It was a beautiful drive, mostly through sparse rural scenery, broken up by brief stops in small towns centred on the oddly grand architecture in which this part of the world was rebuilt after devastating earthquakes in the 17th century.

Our structural highlight was though of much greater antiquity – Villa Romana del Casale. Nestled a short distance from the town of Piazza Amerina (and very little else – it took us hours to get there) is a seriously impressive Roman site. Buried under crops for centuries are the remains of a huge Roman Villa. I would have loved to have been there when archaeologists first dug the site less than a century ago and bit by bit uncovered one of the most intricate, imaginative and vast collections of Roman mosaics found anywhere in the world.
We spent a full two hours exploring room after room of the 3000 square metres of wonderous mosaics. There are numerous majestic hunting scenes, showing tigers, elephants, deer and rhino. There are scenes of Gods and mythic adventure. 

Then there are those of dancing ladies and explicit bedroom stuff. You can just imagine the Roman master of the house residing on a couch, drinking wine and entertaining.
The detail and preservation are startling. The kids naturally focused in on animals. Chris and I loved everything. I cannot recommend the place more highly.

With the day starting to fail, we jumped back into the car and drove on and on into the dark to our new digs far to the South. We eventually made it to Agrigento. Nestled to the coast at the bottom of this great island, we were about to put the Romans aside and focus back on the Greeks. For here, 2,500 years ago had been an ancient Greek city of an estimated 200,000 people and many of its great monuments are still standing… but that’s for next time.

Friday, April 28, 2017

The Route VI – Swedish Cycling and a Touch of Viking (Days 3 and 4)


 
DAY THREE
Ups and downs
After limited sleep and a little worse for wear, we piled in as much breakfast as we dared to soak up the night before (Blog Part One), before jumping back on our bikes for the final leg of our journey to Gothenburg (or “Jurt-a-boy” in local pronunciation).
Up until this point I had found our ride through south-western Sweden often pretty, but rarely show-stopping. The scenery though stepped up few notches on our path north from Varberg. We hugged a coastline that began to break-up, flanked by a mixture of forest and field. After a heavy day pushing up the road it was fantastic to take it easier, meander around on country lanes and take in a bit more of our surroundings. This added up to a great morning's ride.
Somewhere in the middle of a bike tour, I invariably find a standout period of calm, contented, satisfaction. Fully in the moment, yet removed from myself by the meditational monotony of the wheels going round and round and round. This generally occurs at a point of voyage equilibrium, where the initial excitement of setting off has been broken down by a few hundred kms of asphalt, yet the end is sufficiently far over the horizon to hold off thoughts of pending normality. Once the hangover had worn off, this day entered just such a period. It was glorious.
Everything comes to an end and, rather predictably, a stumble for me and a puncture for Dave snapped me back to reality.
Systembolaget
Stopping off for a lunch of meatballs in Kungsbacka, a town of limited aesthetic attraction, we managed to experience a dollop of authentic Swedish culture. You may ask, was it a castle? A museum? A folk festival? A sauna? An elk farm…? No, it was a booze shop.
With the knowledge of how exorbitant drinks are in Swedish bars and having the full intention of a big night out in Gothenburg should we ever arrive there, a trip was required to Systembolaget, the Swedish governmental alcohol monopoly.
Sweden has long been a country with a complicated attitude to alcohol, veering from the tendency to drink like Vikings in Valhalla (I still have mental blanks from a good mate’s wedding in Sigtuna – a different drink for every toast… and there were a lot of toasts), to major abstinence movements. The latter is no doubt a cause of legislation banning the sale of anything constituting more than piss strength alcohol anywhere except bars and the monopoly shop. More stringent still, Systembolaget is only open for limited hours, closed all Sunday and closing at 2pm on Saturday. Party on Sweden.
We scraped in just before the 2pm close. It was a peculiar place. Row after row of pricey imported bottles, transversed by old ladies carrying shopping baskets full of vodka and gin. We purchased a fair bit for ourselves and hit the road for the final leg to Gothenburg.
Swedish Paradise
Trying to get back to the coast, we followed the trusty compass west and found ourselves rather lost on small roads through the countryside. When it eventually came, we welcomed the sight of the North Sea. Switching north on a path signalling Gothenburg, we searched for a sweet spot for a beer, and chill. We found it and some.
If you look at the map of Sweden, you will see that from just south of Gothenburg the coast starts to break up. At first there are small inlets, then larger ones, before islands and full blown fjords. Passing over a rise, we sighted a beautiful little inlet. Gentle green slopes dropping into the sea, backed by forest and speckled in one or two places by picture perfect Swedish summer houses. Following a track, we cycled beyond the porch of one the dwellings, nodding to an old man was sat on his porch, peering out at his view with an expression of contentment. I intrinsically felt we were invading his own personal paradise, but fortunately he smiled at us and had no issue with us dumping our bikes as we scrambled out onto a set of large boulders which protruded out into the water.
While we chilled and sipped weak beer in the just about warm sun, I had a growing urge to dive into the calm, dark waters. Dave did not want to get his beard wet, but Uwe was game, and we soon were stripped down to our boxers and throwing ourselves into the bay. I won’t lie. It was cold, but in a strikingly refreshing way. The chill searing into the muscles, penetrating the ache from the 3 days on the saddle. We scrambled back on to the rocks and, lying back, slowly drying in the Scandinavian sun, I was about as content as can be.
Gothenburg
We eventually put our clothes back on and pedalled the coastal path towards our final destination. It was the most attractive part of our ride, leaving me with a desire to one day come back to this spot and follow this rugged bit of coast all the way to Norway and beyond. Unfortunately that was not be on this trip, and our path finally took us inland, out the countryside and into the outskirts of Gothenburg. The other side of some big roads, parks and the ‘burbs we had made it to the city centre and what I had assumed was the end of our road.
We found a bar spilling out onto an old ex-industrial cobbled street, parked the bikes, put our feet up and celebrated with a few ice cold beers still Lycra clad. Basking our tired legs in the afternoon sun, setting off in a cold, wet, miserable Copenhagen felt half an age ago, rather than the factual 3 days.
On surprisingly good form, we found the energy to do a loop of the inner city on our bikes, cursing the effects of the cobbles on our posteriors. First impressions were of a surprisingly unpolished port city with a nice vibe. Yes, there were grand buildings and lovely bridges over the water, but these were broken up by the remnants of industry. A working city rather than a showy capital.
Finally stripping off the by this time rather smelly cycle gear, we settled into our hostel with our purchases from Systembolaget, before heading out for a night on the town. We had a good time, the height of which entailed a rather crazy heavy metal bar dominated by massive men undertaking a special type of head banging that involved a dance floor clearing move of enthused, constant, circular hair-swishing (and these men had a lot of hair!). Our first glimpse of Vikings…
We made it to 3 am and the queue for some posh club before age got the better of us and we headed home discussing how, yet again, we had failed to encounter gregarious Swedes on a night out. Given alcohol prices it is not surprising that the bar scene is a bit under-cooked (strangely the clientele seemed to be predominantly 18 or 50, with little in between), but this seemed more down to a culture of keeping to one’s group. 
DAY 4 
"Jurt-a-boy, Jurt-a-boy!"
Any, mild lingering disappointment at the night before was blown away on a perfect Swedish Sunday. Coffee, sauna, coffee, meatballs, coffee, chill in a beautiful park with a coffee and then… football. Seeing an increasingly large number of people walk by with blue and white striped shirts, we followed the crowd and ended up in a stadium to see the mighty Gothenburg. After witnessing the calm and refined every day nature of the modern Swede over the last few days, it was great to find ourselves in the middle of a home stand in full on Viking mode. As guttural chants and roars of noise poured out from the throngs of large men, I could sense why Anglo-Saxons often ran away when faced by such intimidating and seemingly barbaric invaders.  
Gothenburg won and, needless to say, we had a great time. Relieved to see our bikes has not been nicked while we watched the game, we made it back to the hostel, put the racks and packs back on and headed off to the airport via what proved to be one last adventure.
Lost at the last 
Even though it was a good 30km, we expected little of our ride to the airport. No doubt, as usual, a slow ride out of the centre, before speeding up on an easy, well-marked cycle path to our plane. That was the norm, but knowing things can go array, we gave ourselves a couple of hours to make the journey. Boy did we end up needing every minute.
The first part went as expected. Slow exit from the centre, before speeding up as we hit the outskirts. Our map then took us sharp south into a wooded area. Initially it was a pleasant surprise. We followed a hilly path through a thick forest, breaking open to lake below. 
We had found the quintessential Swedish view. Lake and forest, forest and lake. Heading round the water, the path soon deteriorated. First to bumpy gravel, then, after we had made a gut choice on an unmarked fork, root strewn dirt. Dave was understandably worried that his road bike was out of its depth. Our progress was slow and time was running out. Our built in puncture time had expired in the most likely place to puncture.
We were forced to make another gut path choice and, somewhere in a middle of a forest with no signs, were starting to worry. Fortunately, we came across a helpful Swede… Unfortunately, said Swede pointed out that we were heading in the wrong direction…
Time was really running short. We went back on ourselves and pushed on as fast as we dared, following the directions of the Swede. Then, when the directions had run out, another fork. We were fully aware that the wrong choice could mean no plane home. Taking out the trusty compass, we made a punt and pedalled on.
To our enormous relief, the path hit a road, which wound down fast, out of the forest and to an airport sign. A few more km and a sharp hill to the terminal later, we pulled up at the terminal just in time. An unexpected last minute adventure that fortuitously failed to be a misadventure. Close call.
Another year, another trip, another 350 plus km. Next year back to Sweden!

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Route VI – Scandanavian Shores (Days 1 and 2)

Poitiers to Copenhagen completed over the past five trips, we decided to point our bikes north and follow the cold shores of the Baltic Sea from Denmark’s capital to Sweden’s second city, Gothenburg.

DAY ONE
Out of Denmark
Arriving early morning in Copenhagen, things did not look promising. The bikes had gotten beaten up on the plane - Dave inevitably complained about a wheel buckle - and the weather was simply horrible. A shiver went down my spine as I stepped out the terminal into the grey, cold, raining Danish “summer”, with only a thin rain jacket and Lycra to protect me from the elements. 
On the bright side, Uwe had made it from Germany on time and the reunion gave us the shot in the arm we needed to contemplate the long, wet, cold day ahead. After the obligatory picture and butt slaps, we pushed off towards the city centre through curtains of rain.
What could improve the commencement of our journey? A puncture. Barely had we made it into Copenhagen and Uwe had the first blow out of our trip. Fortunately, this occurred near a 7/11 where we picked up some local Dutch courage to warm us up, which uncannily resembled Listerine.
We diverted through Christiania, the odd hippy colony that we had paid a night visitation to on a previous trip (Copenhagen 13). By daylight it had lost its edge and found tourist groups. Hippies and pushers watched on as flag waving East Asian tourists admired its novelty.
Assisted by another puncture (we later learned that the local roads are notorious for popping tyres due the usage of small sharp rocks in the tarmac), it took us an age to come out the other end of the city, but once on the coast road heading north the weather cleared and we hammered it at over 30kpmph. It was a great stretch of ride, with the sea to our rights and one pretty, affluent settlement after another on our left. Our destination was Helsingor or, more specifically, as early a ferry as possible from its port. From a couple of miles out we could see the boat at dock. We put pedal to metal (or whatever the equivalent is in cycling terms) and squeaked onto the ferry just as its doors closed and it departed for Sweden.
Skane, Sweden
On the boat, we drank our last Danish beer and poured over the maps of Skane, Sweden’s most southerly and heavily Danish influenced province (it was part of Denmark for a very long time and it cut off from the Swedish heartland by a massive forest). Oh, for a good route and place to spend the night. Before we knew it, we were disembarking in a new country, our sixth of the route, at the city of Helsingborg. After the obligatory flag picture and pit stop we took set off through town.
Maybe we missed the nice parts, but it did seem like an underwhelming place. The centre was rather grey and, getting lost on small bike paths out, we encountered what seemed like well-meant, but somehow stagnant, newly built estates housing recent immigrant communities. It did not feel like a place of seamless integration.
What I will say for Helsingborg is that somewhere near a roundabout in the centre of town it had a simply awesome bakery with great treats, coffee and unnervingly attractive, yet friendly staff. A Swedish stereotype straight off the boat.
After an annoyingly long time trying to shake off the large roads and industrial estates of the city, we eventually found countryside. Taking a diversion to the east to avoid a whole lot of contours on the map, we passed gentle, tilled countryside before eventually hitting the sea. It was getting late and we turned north, skirting along the coast in search of lodgings. 
It is fair to say we found scant pickings as we followed dune flanked cycle paths and minor roads. Amongst the sea, sand, and trees there were houses, but seemingly no life. So few people and a strange emptiness, I presume emanating from the Swedes not having much interest in their second homes this late in the season (usually I would not think of end of August as late, but Swedish summer is damned short).  
The scenery was pretty and all, but déjà vu was creeping in as the light failed and we still had no idea where we were going to stay. Finally passing some locals, we followed their directions through an ill judged short cut. Instead of following the paved road, we found ourselves on an ever-diminishing dirt trail across fields and then through a small forest that jutted out into the sea. Jumping over roots and down dead drops in diminishing, grey gloomy light. I am not quite sure how we stayed on our road bikes. Oh, OK, I did fall over, but only right at the end skidding across a part of the path that resembled a sandpit.  
Rocking up in the seaside resort of Vejbystrand, we criss-crossed the roads with no luck before finally striking gold. Against all the odds we not only found the only place within miles that was open, but no less than a speciality cycling hostel. If we needed any more indicators of just how dead this part of Sweden gets, we had to brag a lift 7km to get to an ATM, before we could settle down to beers, chill and a massive pizza to see out the day.
DAY 2
Waking up to a great Swedish breakfast of cured meat and yoghurt, we veered back to the sea and just like that discovered the Kattegatleden cycle path (http://kattegattleden.se/en/) which, if the sign was to be believed, would take us all the way to Gothenburg over the next 2 days along the shores of the Kattegat Sea. We had lost it within 5km. 
Accidently taking a bending road back in land, we discovered some countryside which put the day before to shame. Steep, bumpy valleys of green. The adrenaline reached pitch as we freewheeled at 60kmph down a twisty, precipitous road before having to swerve past a BMW and around flower boxes that were unhelpfully left in the road to “calm” traffic.
A big uphill later, we were again gunning downhill to the town of Båstad and a small promenade on the sea where we parked up our bikes and savoured one of the surprisingly hydrating Swedish supermarket beers (in Sweden, supermarket beer is capped by law at piss strength, leaving even slightly intoxicating stuff to System Boleget – more on that later). 
It was a great moment, looking out over the sea and a beach strewn coast line arching to our right and up. Not for the first time, the boys rejected my suggestion of a little swim.
We powered on, switching back and forth between bike path and road, past a seemingly endless golden beach. We grabbed lunch and a beer in the sunshine by the river in Halmstad, before doing some serious spinning all the way to Falkenberg, burning up 50km in our impression of a peloton. This was the long leg of the journey, and it felt it. Heavy cross winds did not help!
My poor directions inadvertently by-passed the historic centre, taking us through an ugly industrial centre. With the day already running away, we decided to miss the town and push on up the coast, hoping to make it make the final 30km to Varberg before night fall.
A combo of more strong wind and my puncture did not help, though the latter gave us a good excuse for a tin of beer on the beach as the sun lowered to the horizon, like a countdown clock. 
Twenty minutes more on the bike, willing the tired legs through each revolution, and we rolled into Varberg. On a tip, we made it up the castle seeking rooms. There were none free, but we were compensated with a clear sunset from the ramparts.
Heading back into town, as per usual, we struggled to find anywhere to stay, but eventually shacked up in a strange, funky Lenin themed place. In all truth, I was ready to knock-out. Beer and chocolate had dragged us through 150km of up and down cross-winds and there was not much left in the tank…
Just enough for a quiet beer or, as it ended up, a night-out which went from the ridiculous to the sublime.  From a speedway obsessed seemingly over 50’s bar to an immaculate 18-21 Swedish party club. Neither was particularly sociable (we were quickly understanding that the Swedes are not the most open of peoples), but a few hours in the latter was a rather surreal experience. Three smelly, scruffy thirty somethings sitting back and watching all these young, beautiful, overly-blonde and perfectly done-up Swedes float about their party business.
This is what I love about these trips. A bit of a challenge, taking in the countryside by day, ending up in a small town you have never heard of and gaining an unexpected glimpse into local life. Only problem was we had a long way to go… with a mild hangover.

(Continue to Blog Part 2...)

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Deep South USA - Charleston v Savannah

Either side of lapping up the less famed delights of Beaufort and surrounding islands, we took the obligatory tours of the twin historic Old South coastal cities of Charleston, SC and Savannah, GA. This aims to be brief "first feel" comparison.

CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA

Having battled through the traffic of the suburbs, passed a man dragging a crucifix and struggled to find somewhere to put the car, on finally finding ourselves on foot in its centre, Charleston certainly had that wow factor. Imposing public buildings, grand churches, beautiful old town houses and a zing of gentility.

It is littered with interesting sites, great cafes and, when the day gets going, tourists galore. While we really enjoyed walking the old streets and popping our heads into the odd interesting looking building which would let us in, it did have the undeniable whiff of a theme park. A bit like Venice, where so much of the city centre's energy is devoted to tourism that you wonder how much is left for real life.
 
We decided to embrace this reality full on, joining a dozen slightly rotund, retired, shorts and polo shirt wearing Americans on a "traditional" horse and cart ride around the city. As you would expect, the kids loved it and I have to admit I rather enjoyed it, cheesy tour-guide jokes and all.
 

For me, the highlight of our visit was parading along the water front in glorious sunshine, playing in water fountains with the kids and peering out to Fort Sumter, contemplating the shots fired at her which started the American civil war.
 
My lasting impression is of a very beautiful and historic city, that, while charming, is a little less so than it deserves to be due to the hollowing out effect of the tourist dollar.

SAVANNAH, GEORGIA

When people talk about their visits to this part of the world they so often mention these two cities together that I suppose I assumed on entering Savannah that it would be much like Charleston. I was to be surprised.

Grittier, steamier and with a different type of beauty. While the heart of the city is also full of old, historic buildings, they fail to take centre stage. In Charleston, wide open avenues show off its grand facades. In Savannah the even wider, park strewn squares are dominated by hundreds of live oaks dripping with lashings of Spanish moss. These trees and their pretty parasites suck out the harsh Southern light, creating a softer, yet more sombre tone, enhanced by the dozens of statues of long gone city citizens.

We spent a day pushing the pram up and down the streets of the old town before settling down in Forsyth park for the afternoon. It may sound strange to keep banging on about these trees and their moss, but they really are startlingly beautiful, wonderfully creepy and, of course, quintessentially Southern. No where else did I encounter them as impressive and imposing as those in this mid-nineteenth public green space. It was fantastic.

While Savannah of course has its tourists and its tack, to be honest, I barely noticed it. Its beguiling atmosphere blocked everything out. Georgia's old city was the place for me.