fbpx

The Ship of Poles (& the Idiot Traveller)

We are a ship of Poles. 22 to be precise plus one Ukrainian, 2 Germans and one Australian.

We slip slowly down the river, in the Belgian winter fog, out of Antwerp bound for Cape Town via Porto, Vigo and Wallis Bay. Our ship, the six year old, 200 metre, 30,000 tonne, Blue Master 2.

Loading and leaving Antwerp + Antwerp port wind farm

I board the ship after two days in Antwerp, a fleeting visit to Amsterdam and a two hour pursuit of the immigration office around the port of Antwerp. In keeping with the tradition of something always needing to go wrong on every trip, the agents “Slow Travel” despite having to do little other than provide basic information in emails have clearly been unable to check that the immigration office is still at the address they have previously given.

Twas a foggy (and cold morning), leaving port, the pilot etc on the bridge

This, and the fact that they have failed to notify the security office of my passage aboard the ship, thus involving a long delay at the gate, adds $40 to my taxi fare, for which I shall seek my pound of flesh.

I cross the docks playing chicken with 100 tonne cranes, forklifts, trucks and a myriad of utes and other vehicles and board the ship. I am well prepared for my 27 day trip with 10 books loaded on my iPad, miscellaneous ideas for writing and a guitar to be learned (an exercise in wishful thinking judging by past experience). I also have Spanish, French and Italian grammar in case I find myself unable to sleep.

The security officer at the top of the gangplank summons someone to take me to wherever they plan to take me which turns out to be the ship’s office. There I am greeted by one of the engineers, who advises the crewman to summon the Captain and the Steward.

Most of the action, for those who are not working, takes place on the so-called “Poop” deck.

Aside from providing a degree of childish entertainment to passengers (aside from its English meaning, poop means to fart in German) this deck, one level up from the main deck is where the mess rooms, kitchens, and ships office are located. From here going up it’s up past “A” and “B” decks (crew quarters) and then on up to “C” where my cabin in located and “D” decks which are both accomodation for officers and elite passengers (Eduard and Renate – my German fellow passengers). Above this is just the bridge.

Further down are the four levels of the engine room and the two levels of holds and at the front the upper deck and the fo’c’sle.

Two many stairs, fixing the crane, the engine room and the engine

The fo’c’sle (otherwise known as the forecastle in normal English & formerly crew quarters) is the topmost deck right at the front. There is nothing here except for the structure for the forward radar (there are three radars of which the ship uses just one at sea, normally) and forward lighting structure, plus a few rolls of razor wire which, in certain ports are wrapped around the hawsers to prevent stowaways climbing the ropes.

From my perspective the fo’c’sle is the most important deck on the ship. Here at the front it’s entirely quiet save for the sound of the sea and wind. It’s also the best place for watching for dolphins, whales and flying fish among other things. In good weather one can make like Kate Winslet and stand meditating on the rushing water, wind and waves.

Chris trying to be karmic and the dolphin I summoned

Crossing the equator, there are thousands of flying fish and I also expend a myriad digital images trying to photograph them as they emerge from the water just in front of the bow and flit away across the ocean, effortlessly traversing 200 metres of water in a single flight.


These days, though, the ocean is a sadly empty place. We see just a handful of pilot or other small whales, two pods of dolphin and almost no birds aside from a handful of migratory swallows and a dozen or so terms and other seabirds which I don’t recognise.

Of the once mighty great albatross and the frigate birds which once used to haunt the path of all the large ships, there is not a single one. The ocean is a desert.


The ship is like a living, breathing thing. No matter where you are, except right at the bow, you cannot escape the sound or vibration of the engine, seven giant, Japanese made, cylinders powering the single prop. In addition to the engine the ship creaks and groans continually as it labours over the incoming swell.


From stern to bow the ship is 199 metres and to get to the bow one walks along the main deck five metres above water level. For me, at least, this is quite mesmeric; the rushing sound and motion of the passing water and the endless changing patterns and colours, light, dark and foam. Looking down into the water one has the sense as the dark patches swirl past of looking down to the centre of the ocean.

When not in ones cabin, the mess or fo’csle, the passengers spend most of the time on the bridge or passenger deck (deck D) soaking up the sun or sitting, on the bridge, with the watch officers watching the world go by.

Barbie on the passenger deck, the control panel on bridge, boat training

Our ship of Poles are a friendly bunch although almost all our interaction with the crew is with the Captain, Mariusz and the first (Bogdan), second (Sambor) and third mate (Kamil), the steward (Severin). Suffice to say their last names are unpronounceable, except perhaps to other East Europeans, as are almost all Polish last names. I get the sense that the passengers are tolerated, if relatively normal and not too demanding, as a sort of inconvenient added burden.

My two German fellow passengers, are Eduard and Renate. They are in their late fifties and make very good and humorous company. Eduard is a failed public servant – in the sense that he worked for the German Government for most of his working life as a senior overseas aid person in various places around the world administering and supervising German aid programs – but now sees all aid programs as largely a racist and paternalistic failure which, far from aiding developing countries actually hinders them.

Renate is a pharmacist and researcher and they are on their way to Namibia (Formerly German SW Africa) to do some research on the German history in Namibia.

The rudder control room, Renate and Eduard relaxing?, engine room

Unlike the entire rest of the world they view Angela Merkel as a German disaster story who is more interested in staying in power than anything else (they quote, for example, her decision to close the German nuclear industry which they say was not driven by good policy but to simply keep the Greens onside and thus keep her position). They think the German energy policy “Energiewende.” is a disaster and are climate sceptics.

Inevitably this produces some interesting breakfast and dinner time conversations, as we traverse the fields of politics, climate change, world wars, overseas aid, energy, human development, identity.

Eduard is quite talkative which is fortunate for him because he is able to compete with me while Renate is much quieter. They have an interesting dynamic no doubt developed over 40 or so years. As an example, Eduard, has a habit of saying to Renate at least a couple of times each meal “Correct me if I’m wrong….” which, of course she does, frequently and with alacrity. This seems to imply that Renate often thinks Eduard to be wrong.

The lifeboat with the 20 metre plunge, fixing the crane, boat drill (if we all stare at the life raft long enough it will leap over the side

Eduard and Renate have three children, Eduard II, Elsa and Marie. Eduard II lives in Luxembourg and is a currency trader or some other such activity designed to produce wealth but with no other discernible benefit to humankind. Apparently like the Americans there is something of an unfortunate tradition, in Germany, to name your first born son after his father.

I’ve always seen this as a very egotistical and patriarchal tradition that, I assumed was restricted to the US, like the vast majority of stupid practices. Leaving aside the questionable ego involved in naming your child after yourself (and the inevitable confusion involved), why does this seem restricted just to men? Why not Renate II?

I guess, once again, women are not so foolish.

Like all the best parents, Eduard and Renate are slum landlords, with an apartment in Berlin for which they extort large sums of money from their two daughters and, presumably, provide no maintenance in return.

The quid pro quo, however, for Eduard in particular, is that his eldest daughter, Elsa, is attempting to re-educate him in an attempt to make him into a good human being instead of a scion of capitalist, conservative, society. As a part of this she buys him books for his birthday which she thinks may improve his understanding of society. Currently he is reading “The Lies that Bind” – rethinking Identity (Creed, Country, Colour, Class, Culture). But it is not clear to me which of Eduard’s many failings Elsa is trying to address with this book.

Flying fish

Fortunately both Eduard and Renate appear to understand my sense of humour and Eduard takes the frequent jokes at his expense in good humour. The Polish crew members, on the other hand, seem someone bemused and, when some look a little put out, I have to assure them that I am only joking, it is just Australian humour which, frequently, relies on taking the piss. This seems not to translate well into Polish humour, however, or simply is lost in translation.

Others, less kindly, might simply argue that my humour it is not Australian humour, at all, but simply Chris Harris humour which is understandable to only one person on earth or is, perhaps, just not funny.

Aside from meal time entertainment the trip is largely taken up by sleeping, lying in the sun, reading, taking photos and writing. I started the trip with pretensions to writing for two to four hours daily and to producing, at the end, my best-selling Man Booker prize winning novel. Sadly the first week produces nothing but five or six desultory, five to ten page long first chapters, all of which end in the bin.

Porto street art

On day seven I decide that, given my inordinate success at novel writing, I will gracefully retire to writing my periodic blog based on a series of sequential events over several years. By day ten I suddenly realise this looks more like a memoir than several unconnected blogs and by the end of the second week I have written 50 pages.

Porto street art

From this their emerges, unasked a section which I, realise, would have the good makings of a novel. I then proceed to write an outline including the characters, their stories and the plot lines. Suddenly from nothing I have an accidental memoir and an accidental novel, or, at least, the first twenty pages – which is ten pages longer than I have every succeeded in getting previously. But, I caution myself, completing ten laps of a 100 lap race is no guarantee of finishing.

Porto

Aside from this the other events of note are a Saturday barbeque, a tour of the engine room and visits to Porto, in Portugal and Vigo in Spain. We get six hours in Porto which turns out to be sufficient to have a good walk around the old city and find a fine coffee shop and spot for lunch. Porto is a fine city with lots of gracious old buildings, wide streets and interesting old quarters which are decorated with good street art. But despite everyone’s ravings about it I don’t find it more or less interesting than a myriad other beautiful old European cities.

Porto

Vigo, the northeast most city of Spain, in Galicia, is the reverse. Despite being told it’s not very interesting I find it an interesting city of friendly people, wide gracious streets and people friendly boulevards. Importantly I also find a supply of organic crunchy peanut butter and six good avocados to substitute for the sausage breakfast.

Vigo

Our interesting tour of the engine room simply serves to demonstrate to me my ignorance of all things ship. This starts with the revelation that this ship, along with most large vessels, has a single engine and prop where I had always imagined they would all have twin engines and screws.

Vigo

The ship, built in China, has a Swiss designed, Japanese made engine and whereas I still had images of a dirty oily edifice, the engine and its surroundings are an immaculately clean and entirely computerised operation comprising its seven cylinder 11620 kw engine which consumes 28000 litres of fuel oil daily, a desalinating plant capable of producing 20,000 litres of drinking water daily, its own air conditioning plant, a workshop than can do pretty much anything other than repair a broken prop or drive shaft and several massive compressors for starting the engines and generators as well as other bits and pieces such as plant for separating oil from water.

The big beast (engine), Renate in engine control room, the air conditioning and the compressors

My cabin is a gracious and comfortable seven metres by six metres with ensuite, desk, table, wardrobe, TV, radio, drinks cabinet, dining table and chairs. This used to be the fourth officer’s cabin but like the rest of the transport industry crews have been downsized and have lost fourth officers and radio officers.

There is also a satellite modem connected to a piece of metal whirling around somewhere in the sky. With this I can communicate, via data, with the rest of the world for a cool 150 times what I pay for my internet ashore. So it’s limited to WhatsApp and email. A large attachment or photo, if one is so ill advised to download one, can set you back $1 a pop.

The bridge, water patterns, at sea, the crane (again)

One of the downsides of a life at sea, at least for those who are not engaged in the manual labour of constantly maintaining the ship, is that life is almost entirely sedentary with the sole exercise being that involved in climbing the endless flights of stairs between the main deck and the bridge, six floors up.

This lack of exercise is compounded by efforts to feed the entire crew into a stupor with three cooked meals a day. The food is what I would describe as canteen food. As such it is a mixture of the very good (soups for example) and stupendously awful (every third breakfast is a single Polish sausage which both looks and tastes disgusting). If you were a vegan you would surely starve. But given a single person has to cook for 25 people in a single sitting at the same time then it is a noble effort by Robert, the cook.

Walvis Bay – entry, the lagoon and some bush regeneration

In the event that 3 meals a day is insufficient, the pantry is always stocked with bread and meat which you can slip down and consume in case the late night hunger pangs suddenly hit your well engorged stomach.

One might imagine that one could do one’s daily 10,000 steps around the main deck but in reality the main deck is an obstacle course of pillars, protrusions and slippery decks that pretty much guarantee that anyone foolish enough to contemplate using it as an exercise area will quickly find themselves exchanging pleasantries with ones insurance company.

Not to be deterred we have noted that the ship’s owner has obligingly provided us with a gym and “swimming” pool.

Boat drill

It would be fair to say, however, that maintenance of the gym is not the highest budgetary priority for the vessel’s owners. The equipment consists firstly of six aerobic trainers that appear to have been purchased in a garage sale circa 1990. Assuming they were ever completely serviceable their physical decline appears remarkably similar to mine.

The rowing machine works not at all, much like my memory on a bad day. The two bikes are operational providing you have no desire to know things such as heart rate, distance, time etc. The weight resistance machines look as if Henry Ford used them to keep fit and the static weights appear to have been used for training by Dean Lukin (who won gold for Australia in weightlifting around 1980) when he was a child.

Unloading in Walvis Bay (taken from Cabin window)

Undeterred, you finish your session and look forward to a few cooling laps in the pool. Suffice to say that it’s possible that the average tadpole or small goldfish might manage to keep fit in the pool but for anyone over about a foot long swimming laps might prove to be awkward. In addition, unless, however, either of those animals had miraculously obtained lungs their ability to breathe would be somewhat constrained.

As for the crew and passengers, plunging into the plunge pool would tend to leave them winded or worse if they failed to notice that it was permanently empty. This is leaving aside the slight illogicality, in a ship traversing the tropics, of an indoor swimming pool in a windowless room below decks. Not to be deterred, however, one may pass a pleasant fifteen minutes in the sauna in the event that, the tropical heat, on deck, is insufficient. Or, that would be possible if the sauna was anything more than a lined timber box permanently at a temperature of 20ºc.

Having enjoyed the pleasures of the pool and sauna, I make a mental note to research the address of the German office of Fair Trading, or its equivalent, and write them a friendly note regarding the accuracy of the ship’s advertising.

Water patterns, on the dock at Vigo, Walvis Bay cricket pitch (all the best places have one) and my cabin

Given the situation of the gym and the main deck the Captain, Mariujs, has wisely decided that he will take his exercise on the bridge. He thus appears three or four times daily for a spin around the outer reaches of the bridge trudging his domain once every forty seconds or so in a clockwise direction.

Fortunately the remainder of our vessel appears to be in better shape than the gym, pool and sauna although, in the event of an emergency, it seems likely that, unless the emergency were catastrophic, the entire contingent of crew and passengers are more likely to be seriously injured by a prospective evacuation in the lifeboat than by the emergency.

Such an evacuation involves boarding what looks like a large orange slug perched some twenty metres or more above the ocean. On being released it hurtles uncontrolled at high speed off the ship, like some malfunctioning fairground ride, until it plunges at high speed into the sea. At which point every occupant presumably suffers severe whiplash at best, other than those with a fear of heights who will have both whiplash and PTSD as a result of being dropped, effectively, off a cliff.

Randomly: Sunet, the bow (the only quiet place), Porto and lunch in Walvis Bay

Our only obligatory task, as passengers, is to attend the weekly boat drill. The general assumption seems to be that the average passenger is a moron since, regardless of how many times one has done the drill, one is required to wait in ones cabin until the steward arrives to guide you to the muster station, 30 metres away. Here the three of us stand, among the crew, where we are instructed to “obey the Master’s orders”.

For most this might appear straightforward but, for me, it is a somewhat traumatic idea since I have spent my entire life disobeying my Master’s orders, no matter from whence they come.

In the event of a critical emergency, where obliged to evacuate, this occurs via rocket ship. One removes shoes, dons ones survival suit. Then you squat a somewhat amusing exercise if the entire crew were to do it collectively since it would look like some sort of communal bowel evacuation. All together now.

Cape Town – ocean pools and the beach

Then donning ones lifejacket you board the orange rocket ship. This particular rocket ship is not designed to launch one into space but, along with a maximum of 39 other people, so launch you semi-vertically downwards, twenty+ metres to the waters surface. Here, if it does not break apart, as the third office and safety officer, believes it is likely to do, you will hit the water surface with the impact of a speeding bullet and enable the medical world to study 40 simultaneous cases of whiplash and worse.

Alone, on the world’s oceans, far from land, in your orange rocket ship, you watch your ship go down and wonder if you will ever be able to turn your neck again which is currently lolling at at angle of 45º to port.

The likelihood of such an eventuality seems remote given the ship is just six years old and well maintained. The life of the average seaman (the ordinary seamen and the able seamen) is a never ending life of maintenance similar to the mythical maintenance of the Sydney harbour bridge where you start painting at one end and when you finish you go back to the beginning again. Everything has to be regularly sanded and painted or oiled and greased to keep rust at bay.

It’s a life of routine and, presumably, unless you have a mass of videos or a reader (I managed to read more books in a 27 day trip than in the previous few years) of some boredom. It is to some degree subject to unknown schedules determined by wind, tides and the exigencies of available berths and pilots – such that the ship can end up anchored or drifting off shore for days at a time as it once did for four days off Durban.

On day 18 we reach Walvis Bay the principal Namibian Port. This is very much a port city and pretty much everything is focused around serving the cargo ships and occasional cruise ships that call here to give their passengers access to the Namib Desert and adjacent nature reserves. From the point of view of entertainment it doesn’t have much to recommend it and pretty much comprises a single long main street and an esplanade with a bunch of good restaurants that service the tourists passing through on their way to elsewhere. Fortunately, for me, it also has a great coffee roasters and coffee shop. “xxxxxx” where I spend a pleasant couple of hours each day.

A twenty minute walk due west and one hits the Namib Desert but surprisingly, even in February, Walvis Bay is cool due to the mixture of fog and cloud created by the cold Benguala current and the cool winds blowing north from the Antarctic across the southern Atlantic ocean.

Having been both a German and, later, South African colony, when it was known as South-west Africa, until liberated in 1990 by SWAPO (the South West African People’s Organisation) it retains influences of both and there is still a significant non-Black population evident. Like Zimbabwe and South Africa it confronts similar issues with large areas of the country still owned or managed by the remnants of the former colonial powers.

We depart Walvis Bay late on Sunday night to a glorious sunset and the sight of two of the world’s largest drill rigs lit up like Las Vegas as they seek to find additional fossil fuels with which to put an early end to humankind’s current stay on planet earth or at least the existing technological society. It seems no number of calamities or warnings will stop the climate criminals.

From here it is two and a half days to Cape Town. For most of those two days we see little of anything due to the fog created by the Benguala current and the fact that it is flat calm and almost windless. Even the summer sun fails to completely burn off the fog at any time of day.

Greeted by whales, and Table Mountain

Arrival into Cape Town is a different story, however, with glorious sunshine, views of Table Mountain and a pod of whales to greet us.

Kaptan Kaylee’s Swedish Kayaking Adventure

Always lead from the rear, they say. Heeding this good advice, Kaptan Kaylee took the rear seat in our double kayak when it was offered. We were off on a short four-day kayaking trip in Sweden.

This has several advantages on such a trip: (1) the marine serf in the front can’t see you when you are not paddling (or lily dipping which has a similar effect to not paddling but is less easy to spot) (2) You control the steering which is an advantage when your crew cannot read a map (3) When conversation is needed (eg instructions) the serf in front can hear you but you can’t hear him (complaining).

Having organised ourselves appropriately (according to pecking order) with pecker at rear and peckee at front, we set off into the wilds of Sweden. Based on history it should be a dangerous place since it is populated by Swedes who claim to be descended from the Vikings who pillaged half the western world. In reality this is Swedish myth since they really aren’t Vikings at all – that’s more the Danes and the Norwegians.

But, as always, in the era of Trump neither undersell yourself not let the facts get in the way of a good story. This is the reason the Swedes have to make Scandinavian noir thrillers since, if you are not the real thing, you can at least make films that pretend.

The reality was that the greatest risk to our safety came not from the Swedes but from ourselves and our “great” kayaking skills and experience which was limited, largely, to playing with plastic toys in the bath at age 3. Not counting, of course, the fact that both of us were about as fit as the average mid-western American would be after a year of bingeing at McDonalds.

In order to increase our risk factor we chose, according to the owner of Scandinavian Kayaking Adventures, Darren, the only August since 1367 (possibly when the Vikings were out raiding) which had bad weather…or at least not great weather.

The inception of our kayaking trip to Bohuslän occurred during a day, earlier in the year, when, in my overwhelming enthusiasm for shopping, I decided the best way to reward Kaylee for reaching 56 years and putting up with me, was to put as little intellectual effort as possible into buying a present.

Hence I went  online to order a gift card, as required by the Bone Idle Birthday Present Shoppers Guide to “no effort birthday gifts”.

Searching around on the internet I found The Adventure People who advertise adventure holidays for 64 year old men who still think they are 21. Or, at least, a variety of adventure holidays for people of different skill sets and fitness all around the world. And, in order to increase my commission, I can advise that both Scandinavian Kayaking and the Adventure people were excellent and efficient. Really.

After much deliberation, Kaylee picked the kayaking holiday because (a) she doesn’t dive or like sailing holidays much and (b) I don’t do long distance walking since the inside of my knees look like a something out of a Heath Robinson contraption. This pretty much made sea kayaking or jumping off high cliffs the only remaining options.

Heath Robinson
Heath Robinson aka my right knee

Hence, via this circuitous logic and present buying process, we arrived in Gothenburg ready for our four day kayaking trip in a double kayak. After a pleasant two hour trip up the coast to the Bohuslän region (specifically the small town of Hamburgsund) and half an hour getting ready it was time to put in, as we kayakers say. Everything was provided and packed: Boat, paddles, water, food, maps, safety equipment, compass. The only thing lacking was my sense of direction which I didn’t bring.

There are about 3,000 islands and 5,000 islets (skerries) in the Bohuslan archipelago. Now this is both good and bad. Good because it provides lots of shelter, and places to camp which are not far apart. Bad because every island looks like every other island (well sort of) and there are a lot of them. Which means if you have my map reading skills it is easy to mistake one island for another and you normally end up in Norway when you should be in Finland.

Undeterred we set off. The first day was fine and perfect for navigation (initially). We had to paddle up a narrow channel for an hour or two. No chance of getting lost. This was no doubt Darren’s intention: Thinks…”Where can I send these idiots where they won’t get lost for at least the first half day…?”

The sun was warm, the weather was calm and the paddling was easy. I noted that the Kaptan was paddling too hard and would get tired quickly, so I suggested slowing down. This was of course part of a plan to make sure I didn’t have to paddle too hard – if Kaylee didn’t work hard I wouldn’t have to either.

We stopped for lunch at a beautiful small beach/cove. This is typical of some of the islands which are mixture of a small number with nice beaches and inlets and a lot which involve a rocky landing if you want to go ashore. But importantly there is plenty of shelter if the wind gets up. Here we encountered some Dutch people who seemed to think the water was warm and who went swimming. But then compared with the North Sea, Tasmania is warm.

Most days were a pleasant and not too stressful paddle of around four hours. All but one of our campsites had no other kayakers or boats (the plus side of going later in the season) and only the last was shared with two others.

Regrettably the Kaptan had assigned the navigation to the crew and this led to a few incorrect detours. Day one started easily, sliding up the passage between the mainland and Hamburgo Island following a large sailing boat for most of the way. No chance of getting lost. From here you head north and around the island south of Kalvo. With my keen navigation antenna on I managed to take us much further north and around the north of Kalvo, thus requiring a much longer paddle south against the prevailing wind and waves in order to get to our first campsite.

We arrive at the campsite at about the time when the Kaptan is thinking of throwing the crew overboard for incompetence. Just adjacent to Gaso Island, this is the perfect camp spot, a sheltered, sandy beach with level rocks for cooking and basking on. From the top of the island you can see far across the archipelago and we are treated not only to a magnificent sunset but to a mini wonderland of tarns and soaks with wildflowers abundant – and it’s full moon. First though, an hours sunbaking in the remains of the sun with wine and snacks is order of business. The long (well, perhaps not long but not so short) paddle is forgotten.

The morning brings more fine weather and we paddle to Porsholmen Island, just off Fjallbacka. We could go much further west but a strong wind deters us and, initially, we have a gentle two hour paddle past a myriad small islands and islets, fishing villages, lighthouses and inlets. As the the day wears on the weather changes and it becomes greyer and colder.

Luckily today’s paddle involves no major navigational errors but still we resort to mobile phone and GPS a few times in the early stages until finally we are easily guided by the sight of Fjallbacka in the distance. We approach Porsholmen but the location of the campsite is not obvious so we pull into beach which is facing the prevailing wind with the intention of having a recce for a better landing and camp spot.

I get out and, at this point, with the elegance of a rhinoceros in high heels I catch my sandals in the cockpit and plunge side first into the water, soaking myself. On top of everything it is now raining lightly.

The Kaptan is highly concerned that I may have hurt one of my many joints that no longer work properly; wonky knee, sore ankle, bad back…but all that is hurt is my pride and my body temperature which is now, in the cold wind, close to hypothermic. Falling in the ocean is standard practice since I’m required to have at least one misadventure every holiday or trip. This is a requirement to be a member of the Idiot Traveller club.

The Kaptan goes off to recce while I nurse my wounded pride. She reports that we must re-launch and paddle around to the other side.

This is another beautiful camp spot which we have all to ourselves – the two Norwegians who are there paddle off as we arrive; the lateness of the year means everyone else has disappeared. Just as we pull in the sun reappears. There is a nice warm cabin and toilet nearby but they are locked and surrounded by a fence. Clearly whoever owns it does not believe in socialism. We put up the tent and find a spot out of the wind in the evening sun. Normal service is resumed.

Day three sees us paddle to Fjallbacka. There are two main objects in sight. A warm shower at the youth hostel and a good coffee. But when we arrive the youth hostel is still closed. It’s 10 am and the Swedes clearly have adopted Turkish work hours. So we wander off into town.

Fjallbacka is an elegant little town famous for, among other things, the fact that Ingrid Bergman visited every summer bringing a bunch of other famous film actors and directors – and where she has a square named after her. Its mountain is known for its views and the passage that passes between two parts of it.

We wander the streets firstly looking for good coffee – eventually ending up at the bakery  where we get a grade 6 coffee. Then we have to do the Kaptan’s shopping (clothes etc) and food shopping. This is an obligatory routine on every holiday. The Kaptan goes shopping for gifts for every living human being she knows on the planet and the crew sits meditating on the nature of consumer society. Once this routine is finished, the visit is rounded off by hot showers and phone recharges.

At 1 pm we are back in the kayak and heading for Lilla Brattholmen Island. The wind is now pretty strong and Kaptan is unhappy. Her unhappiness is compounded by the failure of the navigator to navigate correctly and instructions are given to check the GPS. Tolerance levels are now at about 2 out of 10. I check and, sure enough, the Kaptan is right. Due to a following sea and winds we have been moving at approximately the speed of The World’s Fastest Indian,   (note this has nothing to do with kayaking but I just like the film) meaning we are about halfway to Norway by the time we change course.

We alter course, meaning that what could have been an even longer & unnecessary detour is avoided. The bad news is that there is but one tiny beach to land on and it is exposed to cyclonic force winds from the south-west. There is one other kayak beached there. The only solution is to find the camping location they have and join them.

This involves carrying every last item needed for the night, about 100 metres across the beach up a 20 metre sheer cliff, across a moorland that would have given Heathcliff pause and down the other side. All this while being threatened with an early death through being caught in a sudden updraught of wind and carried off into the ocean. Intrepid adventurers, as we are, we succeeded, however. The two other erstwhile campers are safely ensconced in their tent and don’t emerge for a while.

For us it is tea and siesta time…leading into diner. Afternoon tea/slash dinner time can sort of merge into one on these trips with good planning. We meet our neighbours who are a German/UK (Boris eat your heart out) couple, Eiko and Pascale, pretty much the first people we’ve met on our little trip.

The spot in which we are camped is quite beautiful with a mass of heath plants, lichen, and great views on all sides (once you get out of the camp area). The other three spot a seal. I am convinced it is a bird but am firmly in a minority of one and don’t have my binoculars. So a seal it is.

We pass a pleasant and convivial dinner together and turn in for the night wishing for fine weather to allow us to pack up in the dry in the morning.

Day Four arrives cold, wet and windy. We decide to paddle ensemble directly to the take out point which is TanumStrand – the alternative being the recommended sightseeing tour around a few islands. It turns out this is only a short paddle of about an hour and we arrive to find that there are hot showers and toilets on the beach. The locals have apparently failed to realise that it is not a hot summer’s day and are taking their money dip and complaining about the prevalence of stinging jellyfish. I refrain from telling them it’s because they eat too many predator fish.

Having showered we wander off in search of somewhere dry, warm and with coffee to await Darren’s pick up. Fortunately the TanumStrand is kind enough to provide all of these for free whether intentionally or otherwise. Two hours later we are on the road back to Gothenburg.

 

Albania – Europe’s former recluse

They say that Einstein said that the sign of an idiot was doing the same thing twice (actually I think the word was repeatedly) and expecting a different outcome. This is the thesis of the Idiot Traveller. I am a world expert, while travelling, in repeating mistakes.

I command that you stop misquoting me…

I am also happy to go on accrediting the saying (in reality it was “Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results“) to Einstein, although there is no evidence he ever said it.

So having done little travelling in the last year it was important to follow the the creed of the Idiot Traveller. You start with booking your car, for pick up on arrival in Tirana, on the wrong day. Cost: an extra €30. You compound this by booking it for return two days after you leave, cost €60 (wasted). How does one do this? Buggered if I know.

Then based on these mistakes you book your car in Podgorica a day late and at the airport. Which isn’t useful when you are arriving by bus. Cost €20 (taxi fare) and €30 (extra days rental).

Then of course there is the small issue of leaving bits of my DNA everywhere. No, not in that sense. Two pairs of sunglasses, adaptor, hat, keys (requiring me to be rescued via a new set of keys sent by taxi). The list goes on. You’d think that after 55 years of travelling (yes I was first stuck unaccompanied on a plane at 8) that you’d learn to check twice before moving.

Arrival

So, our first job was to persuade the rental company to find a car a day early. This might have been easier if I hadn’t decided to try and entertain the rental car person with my witty repartee about drivers in Turkey and Georgia; asking him if Albanian drivers drove like Turks or Georgians (the thesis being that Turks are good drivers and Georgians are simply people in cars with a death wish).

That’s right. Jokes don’t work well in second languages. He looks at me strangely and replies “No they drive like Albanians. Here we are Albanians”

Panda 2 (right): cheaper to run and prettier

On finding we have a Fiat Panda and him asking if a Panda is ok for us. I tell him it’s fine. Cheap to run. Just find a patch of bamboo. That joke doesn’t work either. At which point Kaylee tells me I’m an idiot (traveller) and the car guy thinks so too.

Solitary confinement creates trauma..

Albania, was until 1991 Europe’s equivalent of North Korea. An entirely closed and paranoid society. Its long time leader, Enver Hoxha (pronounced Hodgeha) believed Albania was the only true communist society on earth and refused to even associate with Russia or China after they fell out.

Enver Hoxha – no longer able to poke his nose into other people’s business

No one was allowed to leave Albania and few people, if any, entered. The society was a police state with everyone subject to strict controls and surveillance. Any breach of the rules and everyone in your family paid the price.

If Albania were a person (Al Bania) he would be a very disturbed individual and this, perhaps, explains Albania’s many idiosyncrasies.

The House of Leaves

Albania’s trauma is well documented in a great little museum called the “House of Leaves” located in central Tirana just across from the orthodox cathedral.

Albania was, for fifty years, the archetypal police state. Every aspect of public and private life was controlled via the state security apparatus.

Tens of thousands of Albanians were recruited as state spies to eavesdrop and spy on their fellow citizens. Virtually no one was allowed to enter or leave the country. The society was completely closed. Everything was rationed. In 1991 there were a mere 3000 cars in the entire country (heaven!!)

The House of Leaves Museum tells the story of the ubiquitous state security apparatus. The walls list the thousands executed, imprisoned or persecuted by the state under the leadership of Enver Hoxha (pronounced Hodgeha).

Mercedes for everyone

One of the first things one notices about Albania are the German cars, especially the Mercedes. For a poorish European country it has a remarkable number of expensive cars. That, in itself would not be an issue except that there is a German car gene that emerges in Albanians driving German cars…it’s a sort of arsehole gene which convinces them that they can drive as they want regardless of road rules, safety or manners.

If you drive a Mercedes you may overtake where you want, when you want. You may drive at whatever speed you feel like but, most importantly, it is compulsory to treat every other car driver as a second class citizen, cutting them off , cutting in, abusing them and generally. No level of psychopathy is too extreme for Mercedes owners.

This specific problem (call it the Mercedes syndrome) is compounded by an odd Albanian trait which essentially persuades all Albanians that it permissible to simply stop wherever they want, for whatever reason. Need to grab a coffee. No worries! Simply stop in the middle of the road, blocking all traffic, and nick in for take away. Feel like a park? Don’t worry about finding a parking place. Just stop. Need to pick your nose? Look at your phone? Think about the meaning of life? Just stop where you are. No worries.

Mercedes, yes, religion and communism, No!!

One of the side effects of 50 years of totalitarian communism (a sort of oxymoron) apart from a love of symbols of outrageous consumerism (eg Mercedes, BMWs and Audis) is that all the most obvious remaining signs of the era have been systematically erased, except perhaps in Albanians commitment to secularism (it is the least religious society on earth some say).

The giant statues of Stalin, Lenin and Enver Hoxha now hang out discreetly behind the museum, hidden from the everyday of Albanians, waiting, one day perhaps, to be restored as a part of history rather than as the open wound of the recent past, as they might currently be seen. We visited Stalin, Lenin and Hoxha, where they were hanging out, as part of the city walking tour (highly recommended) which also included Enver Hoxha’s house – also closed for now as part of the same concept of keeping the recent past hidden.

Ironically, directly across from Hoxha’s erstwhile house is a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet (apparently Albania’s first fast food outlet – as yet Albania has no McDonalds) the sign of which reflects nicely in Hoxha’s living room window – a symbol, so our guide tells us of the victory of capitalism.

The remnants of the recent past are everywhere. In the park on the corner are one of the 270 bunkers built all over Tirana/Albania from which the valiant Albanians would repel the perfidious Americans, Russians, Chinese etc. And in the middle of the park a piece of the Berlin wall sent to commemorate the fall of communism. It sits next to a replica of the entrance to the chrome mines where political prisoners were sent to mine and die.

The abandonment of the past is not restricted to images but to buildings also. On our tour we pass the Pyramid, constructed after Hoxha’s death and intended to be a massive memorial to his memory. Today, after several uses over the years, including as a Telecom building it lies empty.

The “Pyramid” now lies empty.

Despite the irreligious attitudes of Albanians, the wasteful symbols of formal religion abound. A new and, as yet, unfinished mosque donated by Turkey (a miniature version of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul) – costing billions because the Turks need to waste their spare billions on something – and a cathedral incorporated in 2014 and incorporating an impressive ceiling with the largest mosaic in the Balkans.

Speed limits and speed humps (aka sleeping policemen to the Poms)

In theory there are speed limits in Albania but everyone ignores them. There is a good reason for this as Albanian speed limits are totally idiosyncratic. You can be speeding down a freeway at 80-100 kph and next minute there is a 30k speed limit. The reason? An intersection. Never mind that only one tractor and a passing camel have emerged from that intersection since Christ was a boy. And it’s like that at every intersection. So everyone just ignores them.

Similarly most stretches of superhighway have 30, 40 or 50 k limits for no apparent reason other than either (a) a peculiar Albanian sense of perverse humour (let’s really give drivers the shits) or (b) let’s collect lots of traffic fines by imposing weird and ridiculous speed limits.

If this were not enough, Albanians have an obsessive love for speed humps. Everywhere. And often. And in the weirdest places.

That is bad enough in itself but for whatever reason the accepted speed to traverse a speed hump is apparently 0.1 kph. So everyone slows to a virtual stop even though most of the humps could be comfortably crossed at 50 kph. The reason for this excessive caution is not clear but maybe goes back to when there were only 3000 cars in the country and a car cost you the equivalent of 10 years wages.

Having said this, most of the speed humps are entirely unnecessary since traffic in Tirana makes traffic in Istanbul or Sydney look like a paragon of fast flowing traffic. The city is one large traffic jam – but nevertheless it has many redeeming features from a plethora of tree lined pedestrian streets, good markets, to great night life, good food (especially the boreks) and lots of friendly, helpful people.

Meeting the Deputy Minister for Justice

You know how it is? You rock up in your AirBnB in Divjake after going out for dinner and go to tell your host (who speaks no English) that you will be leaving very early in the morning so will not need breakfast. Not to worry. she indicates that her daughter, Fjoralda, speaks good English. So we sit on the lounge chatting about life, death, Albania etc…Eventually I ask Fjoralda about her work and life and it turns out that Fjoralda Caka is the Albania Deputy Minister for Justice. You never know who you will meet on the lounge in Divjake.

A pleasant evening with the Deputy Minister for Justice, Fjoralda Caka and her Mother

A day at the beach and in the mountains

This was the archetypal Australian at the beach experience. Arriving in Divjake – which unlike many of the ugly beachside towns find throughout the Mediterranean (see eg most of Spain, most of the Albanian and Montenegrin coastal architecture) – has made a real effort with its buildings and streetscapes.

It’s a hot day and we head for the beach – which turns out to be a wasteland of eroded dune systems – systematically vandalised by thousands of cars – dirty looking water in a lagoon etc. We dutifully pay our beach entry fee anyway and head out on the long ricketty boardwalk which had been built over the lagoon out to the ocean proper…

The boardwalk ends at a bar on the beach which, at least serves good gin and tonic and plays some good blues…while we contemplate the miles of cars and umbrellas on the beach and long for a proper Australian beach.

If you can criticise Albanian beaches (or at least the ones we saw because we heard Himare and other places are much better) – you can’t criticise the mountains which are spectacular and a welcome escape from the heat and crowds of the coast. if you are a walker or mountain lover – Albania’s alps are beautiful and rugged.

Skanderbeg and Krujë

Then there is the famous Skanderbeg. Now you may never have heard of Skanderbeg but every Albanian has. There is a statue on every second street corner in Albania. There are Skanderbeg streets, Skanderbeg parks and a giant Skanderbeg museum to be found in Krujë just outside Tirana.

But there is more. Not content with populating the country with more Skanderbeg statues than there are Albanian citizens, they are busy erecting Skanderbeg statues in every other country in the world. No Skanderbeg in your country? Don’t worry one is coming soon.

Skanderbeg mania and idolatry not withstanding, Krujë is well worth a visit. The old citadel incorporates not just the aforementioned museum, but the ethnographic museum, a great old church now converted to a mosque and incorporating some nice frescoes, among other things such as great views, the Skanderbeg olive tree….

See the full set of images on Flickr below click links):

There’s a slow train a’coming driving me around the bend.

It is 392 kilometres from Sofia to Belgrade and another 600 kilometres from Belgrade to Vienna. From Vienna you are on the fast rail networks of western Europe but these first two legs of my journey are about 200 years in the past in terms of train technology years.

The trip from Sofia to Belgrade in particular, is the railway equivalent of slow boat up the Nile. The Nile slow boats are a sailing boat called a Felucca, a boat, incidentally, that I know well (more of that in another post).

Felucca
Felucca, Nile River

Faster by Felucca

These train services are so bad they make Australian trains look like the bullet train.

The “Avala”, the Vienna express, and the concrete something at Sofia station

This is serious regret country. Where you think “was this really a good idea to travel from Istanbul all the way to Malaga by train”. Even my fellow passengers look like refugees from some gulag in the east. Either exhausted, rough or disillusioned.

Not much joy from the fellow passengers either

To get a sense of the rapidity of travel we leave at 7 am on a cold Sofia morning and we don’t arrive in Belgrade until about 8 pm. The average speed is 30.15 kilometres per hour. Consider this – the average male marathon runner covers the 42 kilometres of the marathon in about 2 hours or around 21 kilometres per hour.

In other words this inter-city express would win a Boston Marathon but only by around half an hour. Or alternatively the marathoner could theoretically reach Belgrade only a few hours after the train if s/he could keep going – and the trip would probably be more comfortable than the train trip, since it seems that these trains were probably once used to torture their occupants via sleep deprivation. If you do accidentally fall asleep the lurching, bumping and grinding will have you on the deck in a matter of minutes.

There are, by my count 46 stops between the two cities which, if you work it out is one stop every 8.52 kilometres. Most of these stops, apparently, require that the driver or guard, possibly both, get off the train have a short winter holiday and then re-board before leaving the station. On average 0.75% of a person boards or descends at each stop.

From Belgrade to Vienna things decline further, other than the speed which is a little faster. We board the Vienna Express at Belgrade Station. The Vienna Express is likely the East European version of the Marrakesh Express of Crosby, Stills and Nash fame, but absent hippies, drugs and things of interest.

It consists of a single locomotive and carriage and an assortment of co-passengers that look as if they stepped off the set of Midnight Express. The Avala only travels as far as Nis, where we change trains to a the more modern version of our Felucca. To ensure that we are not, however fooled by this impression of modernity, our express journey includes an unscheduled one hour stop in the Serbian countryside just after we have changed trains.

Here we wait in a small town with several other trains while they repair the railway tracks. Apparently they started work on the track the night before and forgot that trains were supposed to run on it the following day (or something like that given that my Serbian was not really up to interpreting the announcement other than it was a track problem). It does have the advantage that we are all able to take a short tour of the village, have a smoke, get extra supplies, or whatever takes our fancy, etc.

The average passenger is also psychologically traumatised since the train, from Belgrade is called the Avala which sounds like it should be some slick modern train. In my brain it sounds a bit like Areva which is, of course, the French company which builds nuclear reactors. It’s the power of association. Even though nuclear reactor are themselves outdated 60s technology.

The psychological dissonance suffered by the passengers who believe they will be boarding something the name of which sounds like the TGV but which operates like the train in the accompanying photo (below, at Nis station) is a traumatic experience for which the railways would be sued were we in the US.

Nis station (right) another model of modernity and (left) the fast train from Nis

For the first world, western European/Australian, traveller the journey through the Serbian countryside is, in itself, also a blast from the past in various senses.

Even the names of the towns such as Dimitrovgrad, where we stop on the Bulgarian/Serbian border, are reminiscent, to my ears, of the greyness of the planned cities of the Soviet Union. And, as it turns out Dimitrovgrad  was exactly that. Here light grey concrete, blends nicely with dark grey concrete in an artistic panorama reminiscent of Peter Dutton’s mind. Devoid of anything pleasant.

Here, we have a Bulgarian/Serbian repetition of my experience of crossing the border from Turkey into Bulgaria which you can read about here. Multiple border guards mount the train and make off with our passports to perform some secret police ritual in the offices of the adjacent buildings. Satisfied that any potential Syrian refugees are not, in fact, on board the train but are back in Ghouta enjoying being murdered by the Assad regime, we are allowed to proceed.

Later we will have a similar border experience at Subotica on Hungarian border, a border which is replete with a 2.5 metre, razor wire topped anti refugee fence. This stop involves not just the standard passport control but also involves the border police getting on their hands and knees and searching under each seat bench for errant refugees.

Despite its shortcomings the trip is scenically quite spectacular as we pass along the Danube River valley gorges near Gradište. The Danube swollen by full floodwaters from the recent storms surges through the gorges past the cliffside forming a spectacular backdrop to the rail trip.

We also pass a plethora of small towns each with its own unique railway building and railway staff who perform the railway rituals that seem to come with the territory in most of the Balkans and eastern Europe. These involve a variety of uniforms, strange hand signals, flag performances and assaults on the train using strange looking hammers.

 

Railway guards each with their own ritual and the railway stations – about 46 of them

Many of the cities are a different story, especially along the train lines. Here, in every country in the world, seem to be the areas that are full of the most impoverished looking, dingy parts of each city.

This is particularly so in many of the major cities of Eastern Europe where every passing kilometre is littered with dead trains, carriages and buildings but, worse, sometimes for tens of kilometres, are ground zero for seemingly uncontrolled rubbish dumping as far as the eye can see.

Abandoned buildings, trains and things. And abandoned hope.

Piles and piles of household, industrial and building waste, much of it plastic. Whether it is the absence of recycling facilities, an historical or current disdain for the environment, the absence of tipping facilities or the cost of disposing of waste it leaves an unpleasant vision of a form of industrialised hell.

Rubbish central. For miles. As far as the eye can see. Here near Belgrade.

As we near Belgrade our train comes to another halt. After half an hour we are informed that the train has broken down. Soon after another train pulls alongside us. The doors are opened and we all climb off, onto the tracks, with our luggage and board the relief train which takes us to Belgrade Center Station.

Now, one might imagine that Belgrade Center might be in the centre of Belgrade but no such luck. It turns out that this is merely a suburban station some 5 kilometres from Belgrade, where some tricky apparatchik has decided to fool all the capitalist visitors by naming it Belgrade Center. Apparently, there is track work between Belgrade Center and Belgrade Central Station, so you can’t get between the two.

Moreover Belgrade Center station is devoid of any immediate public transport connections or even taxis and there is zero signage or information. So I and several fellow passengers mill around wondering how we get from here to Belgrade proper. Eventually we find an office and the staff there order a taxi for us. This signals the end of our journey and where I and another lost passenger share a taxi to downtown Belgrade.

As my AirBnB host says to me, sarcastically when I explain my delay “Welcome to Serbia”

Recent posts published on this blog:

The Iron Rule: thou shall not (easily) pass (at least not in Turkey or Bulgaria)

Making In-Rhodes: more than just a colossus

Images from this blog and others from this trip may be found here on Flickr

The Iron Rule – thou shall not (easily) pass (at least not in Turkey or Bulgaria)

TEN THINGS YOU DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT BULGARIA

Sofia coffee rating (note, based on limited sample) – 6/10 at 2 locations (for ranking system see here):

  1. Братя Хлебари / Baker Brothers, ulitsa „Georgi S. Rakovski“ 44, 1202 Sofia Center, Sofia – 6/10
  2. The Rainbow Factory ул. Веслец 10, 1000 Sofia, Bulgaria – 6/10

The train which we boarded in Istanbul stops at the Turkey – Bulgaria border – and, refusing to be outdone by the Australian rail system, this train is old and slow and leaves from some part of Istanbul far from civilisation – a 45 minute bus ride from central Istanbul – what Australians would call woop woop.

The station which is not a station (Sirkeki)

The train, itself, is some form of exercise in Turkish logic. My carriage is numbered 483 even though the train contains just four carriages. One assumes this is designed to confuse foolish yabangee (foreigners) since, no doubt, Turks understand this logic.

The border is where modern nationalistic, autocratic Turkey meets the remnants of the centralised monolithic communist state and its obsession with bureaucracy and control. Never let it be said that the era of easy globalised travel has reached the Turkish, east European and Balkan borders.

Here the obsessive nationalism, paranoia and xenophobia of some or all of these countries conspires with an antiquated infrastructure, and a disregard for the modern desire for speed, to ensure that no traveller shall go unpunished for daring to cross the border.

Pulling into Kapikule on the Turkish border we are first disembarked at 2.30 am. All of the 30 odd people on the train to Sofia are woken and de-trained in the dead of night. There is no purpose to this that could not be achieved by a single immigration officer boarding the train and politely requesting passports and ID cards so that they can be checked against the database to ensure that we haven’t just fled from Daesh controlled Syria. Having evicted the passengers from the depth of their sleep and the warmth of their beds, those passengers arrive on the platform only to find that there is nothing that resembles officialdom anywhere within rifle shot and no sign of a passport office.

Eventually we discover that they have hidden the passport office on the other platform cunningly hidden by the train. On discovering this we all head, sheep-like, for the crossing over the rail lines where, we have noted, various railway staff and security personnel are crossing.

They shall not pass. Turkish and Bulgarian customs posts

But, no, this is not acceptable since there may be a train passing this way sometime between now and Christmas. A phalanx (well 3, at least) of Turkish security/police shouting “you shall not pass” and waving their AK47s, ALRs or Uzis blocks our way.

So, we are forced to march 100 metres east, through a tunnel with harsh, flashing, white lights which would, undoubtedly, have sent survivors of the Gulag Archipelago into a frenzy and then 100 metres back to the passport office which is, as the crow flies, a mere ten metres across the lines and platform from the train.

Here we queue as the indolent passport officer scrutinises us at his leisure, while his colleague standing next to him is, presumably, taking his annual leave. Very slowly, presumably to avoid RSI, he checks each person off against a list of passengers after which we are allowed to return to the train.

Should any of the passengers marked as being on board the train not appear at the passport control the train shall not leave. In their wisdom, however, this turns out not to be a problem, since our train sits at the station for a further 90 minutes while the Turkish locomotive which, clearly, does not have a visa for Bulgaria is changed for a Bulgarian locomotive.

This gives Turkish immigration plenty of time to search the train for errant passengers. In the process they wake us twice, for light entertainment, presumably to check that no passenger has transmogrified into a refugee or alien from space or smuggled a refugee on board while the train was standing at the station.

In addition, presumably to ensure that no one actually has the presumption to try and sleep, the locomotive changing exercise takes the full 90 minutes and involves, apparently, smashing the new engine into the carriages repeatedly. The purpose of that ritual is unknown unless it is some form of crash test using live passengers as dummies. As it is the entire train suffers a form of horizontal whiplash with their heads being violently catapulted side to side.

The end result is that what could have been a pleasant nights sleep is turned into the sleep equivalent of coitus interruptus where what is, theoretically, pleasurable is interrupted to ensure that Turkey does not lose anyone which it wishes to protect in its internment centres and that Bulgaria is not impregnated by the arrival of unwelcome guests.

The detritus of the Communist era. Decaying building and half finished buildings everywhere

Arrival into Sofia is at 8.30, an hour later than scheduled. Mussolini clearly never visited Bulgaria. Here we are disgorged into a railway station that appears to be a practice run for building Bangkok which, as any person who has visited Thailand knows, is the world leader in ugly concrete structures.

To ensure that every passenger knows that they are in an ex-Soviet satellite state the front entrance to the station is adorned with a large-ugly-concrete-something that apparently served to use up the spare truck of concrete when they had finished the station.

Sofia – welcomed by a very concrete station and an large ugly concrete something

Bulgaria can’t quite decide whether it is Sovexit or Eurentry. The result being a sort of schizophrenic society which retains large slabs of the former Soviet society, culture and architecture, like a brutalised lover that can’t quite bear to throw out the photo of their tormentor; someone s/he didn’t really love or even, really, like but to whom s/he has a type of sentimental love/hate relationship. On the other hand s/he doubts the bona-fides of the EU, the new flash lover who promised much but has so far delivered far less than the marriage vows described.

This is reflected in the visual and economic aspects of Bulgaria and, even Sofia. Rural Bulgaria is old agricultural Europe. Depopulated with abandoned houses everywhere as people have fled to “better” lives in the cities. Then as you approach Sofia you move into the old Soviet Union. Abandoned factories and warehouses and, everywhere, piles of litter, building waste, industrial poisons, the detritus of a society that cared/cares little or nothing for the environment.

Then, finally, there is central Sofia a pleasant, small modern city strewn with the monumentalism of the Soviet Union and the religious fervour of a part Catholic and part orthodox Christianity.

In this context symbolism is everything and the bigger the better. From the massive Orthodox Cathedrals, the latter with more gold on the roof than that hoarded by every Indian on planet. For the environmental and social destruction wrought by its obsession with gold and gold leaf, the churches should be doing penance until the second coming.

Sveta Nedelya Orthodox Church

When it’s not the churches hoarding the wealth of society in its land and buildings it’s the grandiose neo-fascist symbolism of the ex-Soviet Union and its satellites celebrating the theft of millions of lives in their monuments to their so-called communism – that communist society being more akin to that which is feverishly being pursued by modern day neo-cons – in other words more a controlled klepocracy than anything resembling socialism.

The Russian Orthodox (Alexander Nevksy) Cathedral. More bling than Sarkozy

If, however, you ignore the religious and political follies that created these various buildings they are undoubtedly fine specimens of their type. The Russian Church, the St George Rotunda, and the Cathedrals of Sofia are all worth a visit if you are passing through, as is the Russian memorial, the Presidents Building and the ex-Communist Party headquarters. At the Presidents Building if you arrive just before the hour you can enjoy a remnant of the Soviet era in the spectacle of the goose-step driven changing of the guard.

Always hard to leave your authoritarian past behind. The changing of the guard at the President building

The nadir of this obsession with big and grand can be found at the Eagle Bridge which though by no means the largest symbol of stalinist excess is a suitable folly. This fine bridge adorned by four magnificent eagles spans a concrete drain containing a rivulet. This rivulet contains about as much water as the Darling River after Cubbie Station, in Australia, has extracted its billions in water to be wasted on a cotton crop. It’s a typical Australian plan. Take one of the world’s iconic rivers on the world’s driest continent and suck it dry for a crop that would be better grown almost anywhere else in the world.

Monumentalism everywhere both ancient and modern, including the famous Eagle bridge and the river (ditch) it runs over)

Cubbie, for non-Australians, is a cotton “farm” in Queensland which has been allowed by Government to pretty much destroy the Darling River by extracting so much water, along with some other culprits, that the second longest river in Australia is now an empty ditch.

Nevertheless, despite being burdened with a large quantity of cynicism I found Sofia, a pleasant city to visit. Most of the major attractions within the city centre boundary can be walked around in a day and the city is clean, open, populated with numerous gardens, has a good public transport system if you don’t feel like walking and is stacked with interesting buildings, if that’s your thing. It does have its idiosyncrasies among which are the paving of streets and public areas with large quantities of yellow pavers.

IMG_7365
The famous yellow pavers. More slippery than an Australian politician. Old communist party headquarters at rear.

These pavers not only are a distinct vomit yellow but are specially designed to ensure that, should it be wet, no visitor to Sofia shall walk the city without sliding and falling on them at least a couple of times. This presumably is an economy building exercise since injured tourists, unable to walk, stay longer and spend more money. While I didn’t witness the large number of rear end collisions that presumably occur when cars try and brake in the wet, these accidents, one assumes, these also add to the GDP in much the same way as wars and earthquakes.

Most recent posts:

Making In-Rhodes: More than just a Colossus

Ai am the Wei and the truth and the life -inside Ai Weiwei’s Istanbul exhibition.

Images from this post can be found here:

En route to Bulgaria

Bulgaria

Sofia

Making In-Rhodes – more than just a colossus – on a side trip from Turkey

2018-02-27_1455I arrive in Rhodes on a slow winter’s day. The 60 kilometre journey from Fethiye, in Turkey, by hydrofoil has taken twice as long as expected due to heavy weather. The Rhodians are fortunate because, had I decided to behave like almost everyone else who has arrived for the last couple of thousand years, I would have invaded it.

Rhodes harbour at dawn

As it is, looking at Rhodian history, it seems that it was a bit like a conga line of uninvited dinner guests. They arrived sans wine or food, hung around for a while, behaving unpleasantly,  living off the hosts and then leaving when someone even more unpleasant arrived. Occasionally unable to find a better dinner party they’d return and gatecrash a second time.

This unparalleled complexity of Rhodian history has left an 80 kilometre long island full of rich mixture of fabulous archeological sites from a dazzling array of cultures all within a days drive.

Rhodes was inhabited from Neolithic times but around the 16th century BC, the Minoans came to Rhodes followed by the Mycenaeans the following century.

Later Greek mythology recalled a Rhodian race called the Telchines and associated the island of Rhodes with Danaus; it was sometimes nicknamed Telchinis.

Then from around 700 BC the arrival of uninvited dinner guests accelerated starting with the Dorians for pre-dinner drinks. The Persians arrived for aperitifs about 460 BC but left when the Greeks arrived in time for hor d’oeuvres in 458 BC. In In 357 BC, the Carians turned up from Turkey but left when the Persians returned in 340 BC, for soup. The Persians clearly didn’t get along with the Hellenes because they left again when the Macedonians returned.

By this time we are on to main course and all the uninvited guests have left and the Rhodians and their invited guests (the Romans) stayed and enjoyed themselves until the Arabs and Genoese started coming around and dropping in for the odd year or two. Finally the Knights Hospitallers turned up around 1310 AD, followed by the Ottomans for coffee in 1522. In 1912 the Italians came for port and cigars and stayed until 1945 when the British arrived for a quick pre-bed time snack before finally handing the entire place to the Greeks in 1947.

Rhodes map

Most visitors I talked to seemed largely unaware of this history and for them Rhodes is just famous for the Colossus and for the fabulous medieval city left by the Knights Hospitallers of St John.  Apart from that all they know is that it is just another Greek Island.

But Rhodes (Ρόδος to the Greeks, Rodi in Italian, Rodos in Turkish and Rodi in Ladino) is anything other than just another Greek Island. To begin with it’s also Turkish in the sense that it is one of the few remaining large Turkish communities in Greece. Around 2000 Muslim Turks live in Rhodes, a historical anomaly due to the fact that Rhodes was under Italian rule when the population exchange was done between Greece and Turkey in 1923. It also had one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in Europe until the Germans sent most of them, except a few dozen rescued by the Turkish Consul, to Auschwitz.

Jewish memorial

Memorial to members of the Jewish community murdered by the Nazis

The city of Rhodes is also the largest remaining intact medieval city in Europe, with the old city being a world heritage property. And like everywhere else in Europe if you visit in winter you can have it almost entirely to yourself with just the small disadvantage that three out of every four cafes, restaurants and bars are closed and that most museums and archaeological sites close at 3 pm.

This has both advantages and disadvantages depending on your preparedness to get arrested and left to rot in some Greek jail. Essentially almost all closed archeological sites are, simply, open archeological sites with a closed gate and no security. Walk around and, generally, somewhere, there will be a gap in the fence, steps up the wall or a combination of both, thus inviting you to have a very personal, free and uncrowded tour,

Given that security costs money there is rarely security and, if there is and you are caught, indulge in the Gallic shrug and explain that you actually got locked in when the site closed. Regrettably if you are not prepared to take this risk and you arrive too late, well tough. And, yes, yes, we all know the “but what if everyone did that argument?”. Well they won’t.

A quick visit to a deserted Ialysos courtesy of dodgy fences

Time was, when arriving in a strange city, you’d simply jump in the nearest taxi go to your hotel, check in and sort yourself out. Said hotel had a reception and someone awaited to, at worst, let you in or, alternatively, you just stayed at one of a plethora of hostels which were also permanently open.

Today, however, in the epoch of mobiles and AirBnBs one may well arrive to a locked door and, in the event that you do not have a local sim card, you end of standing by the front door in a form of limbo. Do you wait and hope that someone turns up? Or leave and try and find a wifi connection? Is so where? And can you justify investing in your 26th coffee of the day just to have a wifi connection? Or just go and get a coffee and hope someone turns up by the time you get back? Will the host arrive and leave again before you return?

Normally, in these circumstances, it will start to get dark, the rain will start to come down, you will realise your parka is at the bottom of your pack under 10 other items. If you go for a coffee, the nearest cafe is closed and, if not, you only have a 100 Euro note to pay for a 2 Euro coffee.

By now your bad knee is hurting walking around town past past ten other closed cafes and, as you realise you are finally and completely lost, you notice standing, on the corner, in the shadows, a group of 5 large tattooed bikies. It’s no good appealing to God or Allah because you are an atheist and you prepare to hand over your computer, camera, wallet and passport. So, wishing for something good to happen, like the death of Donald Trump you walk on in hope.

As you approach the only bad thing that happens is that you realise your prejudices and cowardice are as rank as the next persons, as one of the five heavily tattooed female soccer players greets you pleasantly in broken English…then as you turn the corner you see your AirBnB with the light streaming through the open door. Still, life was simpler when you either booked into the local Hilton or you couldn’t afford to travel at all.

There is little about Rhodes that is not to like. Stunning coastal scenery, friendly locals, one of the most beautiful medieval cities in the world, the three ancient Dorian/Roman cities of Lindos, Kamiros and Ialysos, plus an incredible mixture of Greek, Turkish/Ottoman and Jewish cultures, among others. Not counting of course the indelible traces of 200 years of occupation by the Crusaders.

A couple of hours to the south are the remains of two of the six great Doric cities, Lindos and Kamiros. Of the third Ialyssos, just above Rhodes City, little remains apart from a temple and some stairs and fortifications. All of these ancient sites sit in stunning locations above the water and for hundreds of years during the Dorian and Roman eras were the most important Rhodian cities.

Lindos

A winter trip to Lindos down the highway takes just an hour, followed by a further fifteen minute walk from the empty car parks through the winding white-washed deserted streets of the modern day Greek city and up the ancient stairs to the fortress. This is a place of four ages, first the Dorians, then the Romans, the Crusaders in the form of the Knights Hospitallers and the modern Rhodians.

From here the inhabitants were masters of all they could survey and that, perched in their fortified eyrie, was a large slab of Rhodes.

Rhodes, though is far more than the grand gesture. The real beauty of the old city of Rhodes are hidden lanes, gardens, the lights, the fountains, the footpaths, the doors and steps and a myriad other bits of the city that in other places are simply sources of light or places to walk but in Rhodes are works of art.