Recently in Gap Year Diaries Category

Ventnor, August 2nd

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2nd August 0322hrs, Monday. Ferry, somewhere in the English Channel.

I’ve just carried out my first transaction in pounds and pence for over two and a half months, and felt distinctly odd. Especially conversing freely in English with the lady at the till, and hearing strange voices onboard ship. Not foreign tongues, but different accents of English. Not American English or Canadian English or English from someone who learned it as a foreign language, but Mother Tongue type English. I know it will take me all of a day or two for this to wear off, but for now it is a very eerie feeling.

I’m really looking forward to walking up the path to the front door without anyone expecting me back until tomorrow! (I hope someone’s in – that would just take the piss) I also hope that they don’t take it the wrong way. I’ve missed them so much that to come back to a disgruntled family would probably knock me for six.

The really annoying thing is that despite travelling overnight to arrive in the morning to have to the day to talk and stuff, I’m going to arrive home and have to go to bed, because the evening has been so disjointed )bus from Paris Bagnolet at 2200, stop-off mid-France around 0000, at ferry by 0200....), there has been very little time for sleep. I’ll try when we get back on the coach shortly. Due to the time difference, it’s now 0243hrs. Handy, but tiring! According to memory, the bus arrives in Victoria at 0655hrs. I don’t know why it takes four hours to London from Dover, but that’ll be the main sleeping opportunity of the day.
It hasn’t quite dawned on me yet that I’ll be at home later today. It doesn’t seem to fit in my head.

0650hrs: Victoria Coach Station, London
We arrived here in London about an hour ago, and the first coach to Portsmouth doesn’t leave until 9am, so we’ve a couple of hours to kill yet.
I still haven’t contacted anyone at home to let them know I’m coming! I’m bloody knackered and looking forward to being reunited with my bed.
It’s getting stuffy, I’m sticky and on the far side of dirty. There aren’t any showers here, so I’m going to arrive home smelling.

Mmm, great.

French Countryside, August 1st

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1st August 99 1805hrs, Sunday. Jardin de Tuileries, Paris. Facing the Louvre.

It’s been about two and a half months since we sat here last. It’s a startlingly different scene. The fountain in the pool in front of our seats is on, projecting water 10-15 feet into the air. The sound of it could only have added to the tranquillity of the gardens in May. Now it is the only tranquil sound. The gardens are packed with people. Tourists from around the globe, and the odd Parisian attempting to enjoy a book are sharing the same ground.

It’s so busy that a haze of dust hangs over the gardens, and a huge fun fair with the largest Ferris wheel I’ve ever seen has been erected on the side of the gardens farthest form the river. I prefer it as it was.

1930hrs: Banks of the Seine, facing the Eiffel Tower and the bridge between Avenue Winston Churchill and La Palais des Invalides with the huge winged golden horses. Okay?

I thought I’d liked Paris as much as I could last time. I was wrong. This is more a case of love at second sight. The sun is still quite high in the sky, but it feels like sunset. the shadows are long and the light is golden.

Paris seems to welcome us like an old friend, one that remembers us well. It is good to see somewhere that is known to me from this trip, so that it is familiar, but familiar in a personal way. This Paris belongs to me. When I get home tomorrow everything will be familiar, which, oxymoronically, will seem strange. It won’t be personal familiarity – it’s shared by my family and the people I know, so for that personal quality I silently thank Paris.

I can see now one of the differences between Paris and other European cities. The stark differences between the two Tuileries – the Tuileries of May, and the Tuileries of August, depressed me, but Paris has an enduring quality. Whereas other cities are swamped and weighed down by the feet of the multitudinous tourists, they break over Paris like a wave, present only for a time before flowing away...Afterwards, underneath, is still Paris. It cannot be changed by tourism. It caters for it, but it a few more weeks of high season and the fair will be dismantled and the dust will settle.

Rome was vibrant and steeped in history, it was alive and thriving. Athens was a maze of thundering traffic, with all the culture and identity it needed poised gracefully on a rock against the sky for all to see. Madrid sweltered, but it is justifiably its nation’s capital – there wasn’t one single identifiable mark of the evolution of a global culture (over and above the usual McDonald’s and ‘Coke’ adverts). You could crush Madrid and it would bleed Spain. It is Spain through and through. Rabat was a meeting of two cultures, a melting pot that challenged the senses and intrigued my mind.

Paris seems to know that all it needs to do is to be Paris, and everything can only be well. it is the most self-assured and confident city that I’ve been to. It doesn’t threaten – if you are here, then you are a part of Paris. There are no peddlers, no aggressive beggars and no real malevolence – nothing to cultivate a ‘them and us’ mentality on either the visitors’ or the Parisian’s side. It rests easy on the mind.

Perhaps you see in each city how you feel at the time, perhaps a mass of humanity only reflects what you are, so you leave with your memories of the city with how it made you feel as one whole. That would say a lot for my second impression of Paris, and how I have changed in the last few months.

This afternoon we went to the Musée D’Orsay, which I enjoyed immensely. Works of Monet and Degas, Renoir, Cézanne, Van Gogh and countless others, some familiar and others pleasingly new. The D’Orsay used to be a train station, and it makes a magnificent museum. I made new discoveries for myself in the world of art – I enjoyed the temporary exhibitions as much as the standing shows of the greats. I couldn’t have faced the Louvre afterwards though. I had been tired to begin with, then enthused, and then made weary.
Since then we’ve food shopped, and sat both in the Tuileries and here.

Time has passed and the sun will set soon.

Gemma and I have to be at the coach station at Bagnolet by nine, so we’ll have to leave this panorama, our last of the European continent, and travel overnight AGAIN.
Only this time, we’re going home...

French Countryside, July 31st

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31st July, 0003hrs Saturday. Train – Rome to Nice. Rome.

It’s gone dark. Sorry.

1055hrs Nice-Ville station

Europe’s a small continent. Gemma and I have just bumped into Nicky and Brian from the ferry from Brindisi to Corfu. Bizarre. They’re bound for Barcelona having come from Cinqueterra.

Last night’s train was not my favourite one so far. We got a reasonable compartment with only four other people, but at certain stops we exchanged one short person for two incredibly tall ones. Great. I slept fitfully – when the train was moving ( a seemingly rare occurrence) it was very fast and consequentially very noisy.

We arrive in Paris at about 7am tomorrow morning. It’ll be Sunday, so we’ll ring Olivier and see if we can dump our bags/crash tomorrow night/have Herve’s flat for the night...I hope so! Tonight will be our last European train ride, and marks the end of my totting up the cost of getting home on my Barclaycard. Is it more than the cost of the Interrail ticket? Let’s see...

Italy first time: Florence-Naples £20, Naples-Brindisi £20

Greece: Patras-Olympia £1.80 (oooooh), Olympia-Patras £1.80, Patras-Athens £2.80, Athens-Patras £2.80, Patras-Brindisi £16, Brindisi-Rome £16.50, Rome-Nice £25.10, Nice-Paris £48.20 (ouch!).

Grand total - £154.80

Cost of Interrail in Spain - £167!

Hmm, that’s close, and on the good side.

1300hrs, A park in Nice

I am, without the faintest shadow of a doubt, exhausted. We’re stopped here for lunch (a more traditionally ‘us’ baguette with cheese (EDAM-type stuff from Rome)) and now we’re going to the beach so that I can crash, Gemma can veg, and we can both try to regain some semblance of normal lack of fatigue. It has been many miles and a few too many night trains and boats since Crete. It hasn’t been especially gruelling – we’ve had particularly unstressful days (apart from in Rome) – but it has meant we’ve had very little sleep. I know that if I sleep a lot today, my rhythms will be finally shot to pieces, I won’t sleep tonight and Paris will be less colourful as a result. Heigh ho.

Nice seems a really, um, pretty town. Just right for relaxing in. Aaaaaah.

1845, Back in Nice-Ville station

We’ve had a doze on the beach (a bit stony, but our roll-mats came to the rescue), I’ve done a little shopping, buying CDs of songs we learned in the mountains, and now Gem’s nipped off for some food for our journey. I only started collecting country/flag patches for my backpack in Greece, but thanks to a shop with other country’s patches, I’m only missing one for Morocco, and I think maybe ‘Au Vieux Campeur’ in Paris might have one. Cool.

The Italian Countryside, July 30th

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30th July 1255hrs Friday. Piazza San Pietro, The Vatican City.

Yesterday was a great day. Our intended siesta/repose never materialised and we did lots. After having breakfast at the pension we went to the internet cafe, got some laundry done (gleaming white T-shirt for the homeward journey!) and shopped for lunch.

We went to the Colosseum. A scaffolding-clad amount of brick greeted us from the metro station when it first hove into view, and I had a similar (but more short-lived) reaction to that at the Parthenon, but about 80% of it wasn’t under scaffold, so it was bearable. After the four of us (still us, Daena and Eric) had waded through the custom gladiators (“Can I kill you?”), we went inside. It was impressive. It must have been immense. After a brief stroll around we took a free tour and I was astounded at the amount of death, torture and destruction that took place there throughout its history.

To inaugurate the place, there were 100 days of ‘games’ with (on average) one human or animal death every thirty minutes in that time. It was horrifying, but involving. It was bakingly hot – when there were 80,000 people in there it must’ve been like an oven.

After that we went back to the hostel, cooked and ate dinner – pasta, tuna, sweetcorn with melted cheese, and a glorious bottle of Chianti ’97, courtesy of Eric.

The night tour took in the Spanish Steps, the Trevi fountain ( absolutely out of this world – I threw 3 coins in – I’ll come back to Rome, fall in love in Rome, and the third coin is so you have great sex with the person you fall in love with. Apparently.), the Pantheon and other spots of interest.

The front of St. Peter’s cathedral, the epic frontispiece of The Vatican, centre of the Roman Catholic world and the Pope’s playroom, is totally covered in scaffold. They’re cleaning it for the year 2000 Roman Catholic Jubilee AAAAAAAAGGGGGHHHHHHHH!

1500hrs –Same place.

Last night on the tour, there was wine (‘mother’ bottles – 5 litres!) and gelati (‘as big as your head’). A fantastic combination. Our tour ticket was good for 5 scoops of gelati, from a shop that had won Italy’s ‘Golden Spoon’ ( a sort of ice-cream Oscar) three years in a row. I had, in this order: Nutella, Giacuia, Coconut, Chocolate and Yoghurt. It was heavenly. Brilliant.

Afterwards, I had to shake the owner’s hand!

Also on the tour ( I got a bit rushed above) we saw the Pantheon and a couple of famous Piazzas – dei Fiori and others. It was really fun, and well worth the £.20,000!

Rome, July 29th

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29th July 1050hrs Thursday. Internet cafe, Via Vicenza, Rome.

After some serious platform hogging and nifty footwork getting on, we got a whole compartment on the train. The four of us pulled the seats out to form weird bed-like things (only not) and got at least 3-4 hours sleep.

We arrived in Rome at 'Roma Tibertina' at about 0730ish, missed the 0740 to Roma Termini and caught the 0803 instead. We’re staying at the Pension Alessandra – a little pricey at £.30 000 a night, but it’s only for one night, and we'll be on our way tomorrow evening once more.

By the time we arrived here I stank. Cutting no corners, pulling no punches, I stank. I’ve just had my first shower in a few days, and despite being dog-tired (couple of cups of coffee at the hostel helped – I knew it would be worth carrying the tea and coffee from St. Andeol around!) I feel great. we’re going to go and see the Colosseum and the Trevi fountain today (hurrah!) and maybe a tour later!

The Italian Countryside, July 28th

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28th July 99 1300hrs (Italian time) Wednesday. Somewhere in the Med.

It’s hot, breezy, and sedate. I’ve had a dip in the pool, done some sunbathing and just had lunch on deck. We’re travelling ‘Deck Class’, but we might as well be on a cruise.

We’ll be arriving in Brindisi...at some point, probably later today, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s a gorgeous day. We met up with a Canadian girl (tanned, short, with headscarf – there’s probably a mould churning them out somewhere) – Daena – last night in Patras before catching this ferry. She’s cool.
Gemma and I slept on deck, just below the mast.

I awoke to a pink sky, pulled myself up to my elbows and caught the sunrise full in the face. We were docked somewhere, and the sun broke out through the trees on the hills surrounding the harbour.

Yesterday we arrived in Athens, ate brekkie at the Inn and caught the 3-hour express to Patras at 12. From Patras to Athens, our ‘5-hour’ journey took 7½, and yesterday’s ‘3-hour’ took 4½. I was a bit annoyed, but there’s no pace, no urgency in Greece, just a surefooted certainty that nothing really matters. Relax! It’s a nice day.

Our boat turned out to be at ten o’clock, so there wasn’t any rush anyway. We
ate moussaka in the square, bought a paper and went to a supermarket to stock up for the journey. I slept quite well and have enjoyed just lolling around chatting so far today. It looks like we’ll be going to Rome after all, if we want to get to Paris, Rome is a good starting point. Whether or not we’ll spend a night there is yet to be decided, but we’ll definitely be spending at least a day there. Good stuff! I want to see the Colosseum and the Trevi Fountain, and Gemma wants to see the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel. I’m not crazy to go there, but it does seem pretty bad to go and not see the Vatican. We’ll see.

We’ve certainly covered a fair few miles since Monday evening! I haven’t taken my contact lenses out since Monday morning, and they’re definitely starting to feel a bit manky. I know that if I do take them out, I’ll go to sleep. Not necessarily a bad thing, but I don’t know when we’re due into Brindisi. Heigh ho.

2100hrs, Train station, Brindisi.
The boat pulled into Brindisi at about three, and as a group, Gemma, Daena, Eric and I yomped up to the train station, got some money, bought some food for the journey and Rome. I am definitely feeling tired now. If we get seats on the train, I am out for the count.

The Mediterranean, July 27th

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27th July 99, 0911hrs Tuesday. Student+Traveller’s Inn, Plaka, Athens.

Just passing through Athens, and due to several extremely funny looks from cafe and restaurant proprietors when I asked if their cheese pies are the type you have with sugar, we’re in our Athens haunt, just for breakfast.
Yesterday evening we bunked down in one of the Pullman seat rooms and I got the best night’s sleep since Athens last time. Yesterday morning we got up early and had breakfast in the hostel before heading out to Knossos.
It was really cool to be round Dave again, reminiscing, cowering with fear as we uncovered each other’s cringe-worthy stuff from the past...cool.

I remember Knossos as being a lot more enjoyable when I came with my family at the age of nine. It was impressive and haunting, but it was a faint echo under the hundreds upon hundreds of tourists milling round in hordes.
The Royal Quarters and the great staircase were closed for restoration, which might have had quite a lot to do with it, but after about an hour, we felt like we’d done all we could legally do. The baking sun was telling on us. A search through all the gift shops for another key ring like my parents’ old one that I lost was fruitless (to add to the fruitless searches in Hania and Iraklion), so I came to the conclusion that they’d stopped making them. Damn.

We’re going to do a spot of shopping in a mo, before going to catch the train to Patras.

Tomorrow morning, all being well, we’ll be in Italy again.
Yesterday afternoon we walked out along the harbour wall in Heraklion, ate lunch and generally wandered about. We went with Dave to meet his parents after they’d dropped Jenny and Ari off at the airport and said goodbye. He’ll be back in the UK by this evening. That seems very weird.

After arriving in Heraklion, we managed to get into the archaeological museum, where most of the finds from Knossos are, including the genuine frieze remains, for free. Dave and Gemma had their student ID, me with an Italian police report stating that I’d had my student ID stolen...same thing at Knossos!

1250hrs - Train to Patras.

Long walk from Omonia to the train station, and after a pedantic seat-swapping fiasco, we’re on our way back to Italy.
Coming back this way gives me the opportunity to appreciate the views in a way I couldn’t when I was talking to Mikas on the way to Athens. Sea views of massed chemical tankers, moving onto sea framed by hilly islands covered with low, olive-green scrub. Cliff-top rails, and a spectacular drop, secluded coves and fishing villages in white.

The Aegean, July 26th

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26th July, Heraklion, 1930hrs. On board ‘Rethymno’ in port.

A cacophony of revving moped engines, car horns and a mixture of firecrackers and pistol fire has surrounded our ferry for the last half hour. A newlywed couple are boarding the ferry opposite and there is a crowd amassed in what we’re learning to be true Greek style. The sun is going down, the boarding is complete- the foot passengers ramp is down. A group of young men race to the top of a platform on the ramp with a moped held aloft between the four of them, the engine held at full throttle, waving illuminously coloured flares with their free hands. The noise is almost deafening as the lines are being cast off at the stern. More flares are lit and horns sounded as the ship gets underway.
It’s not a wedding I’ve just asked a frantic-looking guy in ship’s uniform what’s going on, and he explained that the men of an age of Iraklion are being taken into the army for national service. In answer to the cars, all the ships in harbour sound their whistles and horns...WOW the noise is impressive – I can feel it in my chest. The noise is echoing and resounding round the bay and the whole city as the other ferry pulls out ahead of us. The decks of the other ferry- the ‘King Minos’ are packed with waving figures. For us, the opposite is true, and those who would wish us well are far away.

We’re turning around and heading for home.

But the crowds are massed for us as well. They’re there because they know what it is to be away from home, and they’re there as a testament to that feeling. They know what it’s like to miss someone, to be missed. Goodbye chaps, thanks for the send off.

2010hrs – North of Crete

Ari and Jenny were due to fly out of Iraklion airport just as we pulled away from the harbour. There was only one plane as we cast off, so Gemma and I said a silent goodbye and good luck to them.
Love, and do what you like.

There is an air of beginnings surrounding the end of our travelling. Ari and Jenny are flying off on their honeymoon as a married couple, hundreds of men setting off on their national service, and we are turning home. New lives.
For the first time, I feel like a traveller.

The colour of the sea and the light in the haze of the mountains, the breeze, the sunset. All of this is a journey. All of it is part of me, of everyone who witnesses it. I have travelled. It doesn’t matter how cheaply, whether in youth hostels or ferry cabins, in hotels or by plane. I have travelled to travel. To experience, to see, to meet people and to learn. I feel now how reading Jules Verne made me feel when I was younger. Excited, thrilled, revelling in the colours, the smells and the feel of the world around me.

It’s all so beautiful.

Iraklion, July 25th

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25th July 1999 1230 Sunday Coach Station, Hania. en route to Iraklion.

The wedding was last night. It was the first wedding I have ever been to, and very different to what I was expecting. On Friday we rose late, went into the town, had a look round, came back, slept and went for a swim before eating a la Grec at Palazzo on the harbour. Lazy days...

Yesterday we rose late (again!) and went into town (to get out of the way of all the preparations; we are staying in the house of the bride’s family, after all...) and I bought some presents, postcards etc. We came back too early to get ready, played Goldeneye until we could get ready without feeling stupid. With Dave wearing a suit and Gemma looking disturbingly feminine after all these weeks in shorts and her light canvas trousers, and with me feeling rather wrong in a shirt and slacks after travelling for so long, we strolled to the church. We were still early.

The church was unusual. The altar was in the centre of the church, and when Ari and Jenny arrived, the congregation surrounded it and them. Ari and Jenny met each other outside the church and went in together. Quite a lot of the guests stayed outside for the first part of the ceremony – it was very hot in there. The church was very bright, lit by chandeliers, and decorated with religious icons. Gemma, Dave and myself, surrounded as we were by jubilant Greeks, found ourselves clustered unintentionally underneath St. George.
Another thing that differed a lot from my expectations was that everyone, and I mean everyone, talked. The guests, the bride’s parents, the grooms family, and even Ari and Jenny had a bit of a natter whilst the ceremony was in progress. Two of the three priests shared a joke while the third was in mid-chant. It was all very relaxed, which while good, seemed a little too casual to me.
The priests sang and chanted, harmonising beautifully in places, and blessed the couple before they kissed a large silver-bound bible with icons inlaid on the cover. After more singing, the priests laid two silver-ring like coronets joined by a ribbon of white, on Jenny and Ari’s heads. They were then given wine from the same glass. As the priest spoke to them, not from a book but seemingly in his own words, Jenny suddenly and without warning stamped heavily on Ari’s foot, and he winced. Everyone else thought this was great, and there was laughter and a light smattering of applause. This, according to Dave’s Aunt, the mother of the bride, this was Jenny’s defiant (but fast becoming a modern tradition) reaction to the priest’s advice that the woman should fear the man!
Some more of the priests’ lilting song, and the priests took each others hands and led the bride and groom around the altar three times while we all threw rice and confetti. After shaking hands and accepting everyone’s congratulations, the couple came out of the church under a hand-held tunnel of tennis racquets – Ari is an instructor.

After driving out to the hotel for the reception, we were disturbed to note that Dave’s, Gemma’s and my names were the only ones in English – not just on our table, but anywhere! Thankfully the people we were sat with spoke English, but only rarely.

David waxed lyrical on the potency of the Svakian home-made wine whilst we ate (Oh my God the food here is gorgeous!), so I had none whatsoever and stuck to the Cretan white bottled stuff. Wise move as it turned out –very unusual for me where alcohol is involved. Ah- the food.

We started off with bread and prawns, moved on to cheese and spinach pastries with meatballs and rice in olive leaves. next came the meat - the tenderest beef I have ever eaten, accompanied by rice which had been boiled in the meat juices – superb. Followed by more meat, potatoes and then a whole table of Greek desserts so tempting it made me want to cry that I’d already eaten my fill. I had a little of everything anyway. Emmental (or Greek equivalent) with honey, a sort of shredded wheat biscuit with spiced honey, yoghurt...with honey, peach slices in very thick sweet stuff (not honey), cake, and a sort of sweet fried pastry ball.
I had an amazing evening.

We danced the ‘ten e-leven!’ dance, and were at a distinct advantage because hardly any of the Greek people knew it at all, so we ACTUALLY LOOKED LIKE WE KNEW WHAT WE WERE DOING. Blimey.

David had been to a Svakian wedding in the hills the Saturday before, where they all fired their guns into the air. Jenny and Ari expressly asked that people didn’t do this, a they weren’t in the hills that night, and it was a residential area, and also they didn’t want guns to be involved in their wedding. There was laughter, and the father of the bride from the previous wedding loosed off three shots from a pistol into the sky.

Needless to say I wasn’t expecting any of this – just a small shock! The last time I heard gunfire was when I was at Newtown range on the Island, with the Air Cadets.

1420: Our coach has been going for about 2 hours now, and we haven’t lost sight of the sea for more than a few minutes in that time. The sienna hills and the bright blue sea – we’re skirting a bay where a schooner is anchored. When we do go away from the coast, there are mountains through the haze inland. It’s a beautiful day.

I think Dave is feeling slightly more human again. He didn’t eat much last night, and the Svakian wine he warned us away from got the better of him. He was a bit ill. Mind you, I was far from sober – I managed to smash a glass on the sink in the upstairs flat, smashing the corner of the sink into pieces in the process. Whoops.

I don’t think any of us have hangovers, which is lucky considering the coach ride is three hours long! We’ll stay in the hostel this evening and go to Knossos tomorrow, and catch the ferry to Piraeus tomorrow night.

Chania, July 22nd

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22nd July. Eveningish, Thursday. Room, Hania.

Yesterday evening we went out in Hania and were enticed into ‘Bar Klik’ with the promise of free drinks and then buy-one get-one free. We had a cool time, drank too much, and Dave and Gemma kissed. Aaah. Really happy actually – they really suit each other.
Fingers crossed, eh?

Today we went to Limonoupolis, a huge water park, which was fantastic fun. More holidayish holidays than we’ve been used to, and it’s a great change. It’s great to see Dave again, and I’m really looking forward to the wedding. Gemma and I attempted to learn the steps to an apparently compulsory dance from Jenny, the bride, and hopefully were sufficiently bad to plead exemption on Saturday night. (Masses of seriously injured guests are likely to put a bit of a downer on proceedings...).

We’re planning a night in Iraklion to see Knossos (it’s about a 3 hour journey there and back) after the wedding – we’re leaving on Monday evening, so we may catch the ferry from there.

We had souvlaki for dinner this evening – like the ones we had in Athens, but not as nice – thicker bread, no paprika and small pieces of meat rather than the fried shish-kebab chunks. I learned that the white sauce stuff is actually yoghurt. They have yoghurt with everything out here.

In retrospect, then, the sauce in the souvlaki in Athens must have been some sort of garlic yoghurt, which is a bit too surreal a consideration for this small a wee small hour. ‘Night.

Chania, July 21st

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21st July, Morningish, Wednesday. Beach, Hania, Crete. With Dave!

Beeeach.
Sunny, fish in the sea, ubiquitous dzee-dzee-kahs rasping in the trees, and cheeringly stupid conversation.

We’re in Crete at last, and it looks like it’s going to be cool. We’re going to be here for the breaking in of the marital bed this evening...sounds interesting...

The ferry from Piraeus was no problem – we slept on deck, and I watched the sunset, and later the moonset, and the stars, and the people in the ship’s disco/bar, which was funny.

Dave and his Dad picked us up from the ferry at ludicrous o’clock in the morning as the sun was coming up, in fact, and took us to a cafe in Hania town for breakfast. The cafe was a speciality cafe, said Dave’s Dad, that did something unique to Crete. We sat down, and Dave’s Dad ordered four coffees and, then, just four. We watched as the man went behind a tiny counter, lifted out a large dish which seemed to be full of a pastry of some kind. He sliced four pieces out, and brought them over.

“It’s kind of a cheese pastry, but filled with milk whey. Here, have some sugar.”
After the initial suspicions of having the piss taken, Dave’s Dad pointed out that it was 6am, and that no serious piss-taking could happen until at least nine. It was delightful. So unusual, the texture of the whey, the pastry and the sugar was feather-light on your tongue but filled you up.

So after cheese pastry with sugar for breakfast, and after sleeping out on the deck of an overnight ferry on the Mediterranean, here we are...

The Aegean, July 20th

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20th July, 1425hrs Tuesday. Acropolis, Athens, facing the Parthenon.

Yesterday on the train we met Makis, who told us to regard the Parthenon as ours, as a European monument, not Greek. I am having difficulty. It was built before there were countries, according to Makis (he was scarily intense, so I kept quiet about the city state of Athens) and so was built not to the glory of Greece, but of the goddess Athene. This and Stonehenge, he opined, were the only two true European monuments.

I was so excited about seeing the Parthenon for the first time that when I raised my eyes to it, clad two sides with scaffolding and with a crane protruding from the top (not a ubiquitous crane, but a seemingly malicious one), that I was shaking. I don’t think I’ve been so...pissed off in my life. (Pissed off is the only fitting description, sorry.) They’re cleaning it. Thankfully the two side I couldn’t see are free of scaffold (where I’m sitting now) and are as beautiful as I imagined. It is magnificent. The precision involved must have been phenomenal. The base is not flat – it’s curved to counteract any non-aesthetic optical illusions, and the pillars taper toward the top – in a curve – and the overall effect is of perfect straightness (to the not-too-enquiring eye) and balance. The stone is not white, it is a golden cream. I had no idea that the Acropolis has had such a turbulent history. One thing that pleases me about all of the restoration, cleaning, replacement and rebuilding in places, which seems to me rather...not blasphemous, but close, is how part of one of the buildings was destroyed. During the Turko-Venetian war (when the Turks used the Acropolis as a fortress), the Turks kept their gunpowder in the Propylea (entrance palace). It was struck by lightning, destroying one wing. Nice shot, Zeus!

The museum displays models of the portico marbles, which were removed by Lord Elgin in 1801 and are in the British museum - London. Damn.
The pollution of Athens is frightening– acid rain is damaging the buildings, so all of the statues are in the museum. In the morning when we were up here, the view was clear. It’s now slowly blurring over and has taken a greyish tinge. In spite of this, the view of Athens’ sprawl is impressive.

We bumped into a familiar American couple – after spotting them at Brindisi, Corfu, Patras (on our second time, just passing through) and here, are worth a mention!

Our hotel, the Student and Travellers’ Inn, is five minutes walk from the Acropolis, and okay value at 3000 drachmae, but worth it for the position! It seems brighter and cleaner than Napoli, despite pollution.

1835hrs: Café, Piraeus.

There was also a great place just down the road from the Inn that sold Souvlaki (like shish kebabs, but Greek and nicer) in pitta bread, rolled up with tomato, onion and a garlic salad dressing. A sprinkle of salt and paprika, and the pitta bread rolled into a cone, and the ingredients were transformed into the ultimate snack food. They were GORGEOUS. We had two each last night for dinner (great value at around 400dr) – one chicken one, one pork, and one as a farewell to Athens snack as we left the Inn. If the guy that runs it ever thinks about expansion, McDonald’s had better watch out. (Hurrah!)
(Oh – I’ve made a point of not going into McDonald’s through Italy, and haven’t yet in Greece – I think I’ll keep it that way!)

Athens, July 19th

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19th July Monday 1615hrs, between Patras and Athens. Hot

Yesterday we breakfasted on bread and honey before seeing the ruins, and we said goodbye after touring the museum with the remains of the porticos from the temple of Zeus.
Today has been a flurry of potential destinations. First Delphi, Crete, now Athens, where we’re DEFINITELY going now. We’re going to see the Acropolis tomorrow and go to Crete in the evening.

Olympia, July 18th

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18th July, Sunday 1815hrs, Temple of Zeus, Olympia. Site of World Wonder.

The ruined temple of Zeus where I am sitting, was the site of a wonder of the world. Pheidias’ chryselephantine statue of Zeus, made of ivory and gold, was large enough to hold a human figure in its hand. The pillars must have been enormous – on one side of the temple, the sections of pillars lie as if someone had only just pushed them over, and this temple dates from 460BC. They are really wide, too. One pillar section, resting on its side, was wider than I am tall – over 6’2”. Fragments of mosaic remain, grass grows where worshippers would once have supplanted themselves in front of the wondrous spectacle of the Lord of the Gods of the Greek world.

2210 – Hostel, Olympia

The not-so-hot drawing opposite is of the Stadium, where the races were run. Walking down the course, everything seems to focus you on the track. When Gemma had sat down, I went back to the marble starting line, removed my shoes and socks and took off across the baked clay in just my shorts (as close to the Hellenic dress as I could legally go). Running there felt right – not like the courses at school that called out be lain on, or where it just seemed like too much effort. The entire focus is on the track, and the track is your focus when you run. Despite the stones and not-quite feet friendly surface, it felt fantastic. I started at a typical ‘lumbering along’ type pace, and that felt wrong – this track pulls you to your fastest. I swear I was getting quicker and quicker the whole time I was running - from the start to the finish and back. I ran on my own, so I had no way of judging my speed (not being particularly athletic) but I felt like the wind.

Yesterday after we said goodbye to Marian and Alexandra we caught the train to Pyrgos, where during our hour-long crossover, we met Angela, Judith and Baika from Holland, and stuck with them on the train to Olympia. We got a room, the five of us here in the hostel (1700 drachmae). When we were coming into Olympia, we could see a wall of dark cloud, but nothing prepared us for the absolute deluge and earth-shaking thunder that greeted us off the train. We ran into the station until it relented, the entire complement of passengers from the train, so it was a touch crowded, wincing with every explosion of sound. Helpfully, a sheltering taxi-driver told us the story of how three months ago a 25-year-old man got struck and killed by a lightning. He also thought that the government knew everything that was said on mobile phones, and-he leaned closer for this bit – that’s why this guy was killed...hmmm. He must have picked up my misgivings, so he explained; everyone else under the tree was fine, but he had a mobile phone, so the lightning went for him. On the orders of the government, apparently. Seems logical...

After the rain, Gemma slept (we were both exhausted from the ferry) but I was enjoying the Dutch girls’ company (ahem) and so we went for a walk round the souvenir shops and pottery shops, jewellers...I must admit the old ‘shopping with women’ weariness came over me, but learning a few halting words in Dutch (very halting the pronunciation is horrendously difficult-like Australian/Scots/German – I spent 5 minutes on the first syllable of ‘jeugdherberg’ – youth hostel!) and doing a bit of window shopping myself made it easier.

In the evening we ate at the Taverna Apollon which was great – I had Moussaka, Greek Salad and melon. We got given a free bottle of retsina on the house! It was a good meal, and cheap at 1550 drachmae. From there we went on to try and find a bar and ended up having a free rum and coke in a club before discovering the bar prices and promptly leaving! We enjoyed a can of Amstel in the town square ‘til 1am.

Olympia, July 17th

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17th July 99,Saturday,0910hrs,Café Stathmos,Patras,GREECE.Going2be HOT!

Urgh. The 3 ½ hour ferry was terrible. That ‘fresh breeze’, once out on the sea, made the catamaran roll and pitch like a mad thing. I was sick, the first time I can remember ever having travel sickness of any kind, but felt instantly better, and to my own surprise, fell asleep almost straight away. Gruelling would be a good word. As soon a we rounded the island of Corfu, the wind dropped and the sea was calmer, thank god.

At Corfu itself, we were met with a barrage of people pushing places to stay –The Pink Palace that we’d heard so much about, (much touted as a haze of beach, pool, sex and alcohol – tempting, but too pricey at about £10 a night...!), camping places and stuff.

There was a chap telling us, in no uncertain terms, to get the hell out of the terminal, really aggressively. Not, we learned, through generally loathing the sight of backpackers, or xenophobia, but for the more socially acceptable reason that there was a bomb warning on the building.

Supposedly Albanian in origin (everyone more or less assumed that it was), a telephone call had alerted the police, and they had evacuated the terminal. So naturally, the logical place to dump a load of backpackers off a ferry, in a giant harbour with moorings every hundred yards, is right smack bang (sorry) outside the only building in the immediate area that’s likely to go skywards any second.
It was a false alarm.

Our overnight ferry fare to get here to Patras cost a ‘NEVER TRUST A GREEK IN A TRAVEL OFFICE’ 5800drachmae = £11.
The ship was the ‘Daedalus’, which I took as a good sign. We’re with a couple of girls – Marianne, who is Portuguese, and Alexandra, who is Columbian. They’re really great fun, and good to talk to – we met them in Brindisi, and they’re coming with us to Olympia today.

Anyway, when we got on board the Daedalus, we were rushed unceremoniously upstairs to the upper decks, which were romantically open to the night sky, and rather less romantically open to the funnel smoke. I would have liked to have slept under the stars, but the smoke was bad, so we went below decks to a room with aircraft-like chairs, where I rolled out my roll mat, got out my pillow and sleeping bag liner and slept quite well for about five hours. I managed to get on deck for the sunrise – it was beautiful. The mountains of the Pelopennese through the haze, Patras coming into view, and everything bathed in pink and orange light.

We’re catching the train to Olympia at 1050hrs.

We’ve just been sat here, outside a cafe on the harbour in Patras, in Greece, none of us speak Greek, and yet we’ve just been offered a copy of Watchtower magazine by some Jehovah’s witnesses. It’s a crazy world.

Mediterranean, July 16th

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16th July 1999, Friday 0820hrs. YOUTH HOSTEL! Brindisi.

Last night when we arrived was very odd. A crowd of Anglophones in the ferry port all believing there was a ferry that night, except us. The next night’s ferry was a 20-hour jobby, but there was a 3½ hour hydrofoil that goes to Corfu. Apparently, if the wizened old guy in the ferry office is to be believed, the local ferry from Corfu to Patras on the Greek mainland will be very cheap and a lot quicker than the combined 20 hour ferry. Apparently.
There was a free minibus to bring us here last night which sounded worryingly dodgy over the phone yesterday from Caserta.
We’re going to hunt for breakfast now. We’re catching the Corfu ferry at 12.

1145hrs – Bench, outside ferry terminal, still Brindisi.

Make that at 2. No-one seems to know (or really care) when the ferries are. We’re sat right smack in front of the port, so unless it sneaks out the back way when we’re not looking, we’ll be okay. The ferry leaving late means that we’ll arrive in Corfu at 1815hrs. Gemma and I think that we’ll probably then catch an overnight ferry to Patras, which should be free for Gemma on her Interrail, and about 2000 drachmae for me. The overnight ferry kind of defeats the object of avoiding the 20-hour ferry direct from here, but hey, at least we’re doing this the interesting way.

There’s not a cloud in the sky, the water is blue and the breeze is fresh. I can’t wait to be on the ferry.

Brindisi, July 15th

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15th July 99, Thursday, 2055hrs. Somewhere in Italy. Dusk.

My Barclaycard is safely in my shoulder wallet, along with my Connect Card and Europe opens up to me once more. We’re in transit to Brindisi, and the ferry leaves tomorrow night at either 2030 or 2230, depending which we catch. Lucky that there’s no ferry tonight or we’d have missed it because of our missed connection at Carseta from Napoli Centrale. We’ve a hostel sorted (nice and cheap at £.18000) (Hostels in Greece are even cheaper! Wahey!) and a prospective day vegging at the beach planned tomorrow.
On Saturday morning, we’ll be in Greece.

Yesterday was enjoyable, but very tiring, and the ever-present atmosphere of death and mortality in Pompeii got me down once or twice. There’s so much of the city left that it still feels like a city. We had to give people directions once or twice! I could feel the ‘lack’ of the place – it isn’t alive. It was an enjoyable day, it intrigued, interested, fired my imagination, but the town was dead.

We had a good time, and took a photo of us crossing a roman pedestrian crossing a la Abbey Road. It’s a magnificent feat of archaeology – Pompeii’s been being excavated for over 200 years. I can’t really sum up how I felt yesterday. In the arena when we first arrived, I thought of the crowds, the gladiatorial ring, the life and the glory of the town. The streets of house after house, empty and ruined, with pumice littering once mosaic-ed floors spoke of mortality despite the grandeur of Rome – and spoke it over and over. The garden of the fugitives with the figures of thirteen Pompeians who tried to dig their way out of the ash only to be suffocated, and the more traumatic postures of the casts near the Forum were horrifying. Magnificent and terrible, beautiful and morbid. Pompeii.

After we left we got back to the house at around 9:30pm and cooked and ate dinner. The conversation got around to ‘The Fast Show’ , so after dinner we watched a video, and went to bed late.

This morning I was up and showered early, and we said our goodbyes outside Pozuoli at about half nine. Out in the suburbs by myself, hunting for the DHL courier’s office where my Barclaycard was waiting for me, I wandered with absolutely no idea where I was going, with hardly any pavements, huge roads and no passers-by to ask for directions, and I only eventually found the office by pure luck. We managed to catch our train at 1400. Tonight we’re staying unexpectedly in Brindisi. The ferry is tomorrow night – DOH!

Naples, July 14th

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14th July 99 Wednesday 1340hrs. A noble’s box, amphitheatre, Pompeii.

From where I am sitting, I can see Vesuvius, shrouded in cloud despite the hot sun. The view I have evokes colourful clouds, the glint of sun on a brooch or clasp, the sound of the crowd, talking, shouting, laughing, an air of anticipation of the coming sport. The red-robed gentleman next to me passes me a goblet of wine. I taste it – it’s good. The soil around here is good for the grape...the crowd below us increases its volume as a figure emerges blinking into the sunlight. Over his shoulder are heaped the folds of a net, and he carries a trident. An answering roar from the opposite gate, and the sound of sword on shield challenges the cautious air of the Fisher...

Another group of American tourists emerges into the arena, filling the expanse where before a girl walked alone and took a bow, to be startled by my applause floating down from the top of the boxes. Grass has grown over stalls and Vesuvius is a startlingly different profile against the sky, but the imagination runs riot with the scene. Dust scurries away on the wind from the feet of the last straggling tourists in the arena. It flies over the open space in a wraith-like guise. It grows, expands, fills the air, "I am Rome!", and disperses, falls. Ash and dust in the arena.

Yesterday we went into Naples, looked around a couple of exquisitely ornate and very large churches. Wandered around underneath the city in the Sotterrenea and enjoyed a cold coffee. In the evening we went into Pozuoli to a friend of the Goddard’s – Assumpta, for an espresso, then back to near the house for a pizza in a fantastic restaurant – ‘Pommarola City’ on the edge of a dormant volcano lake, where the Romans used to winter their fleets. Marvellous day.

I’ve been here for about an hour already, and I haven’t seen any of the rest of the town. I wish I could wander at my leisure, with no times to be out by, trains to catch – this all means to much to see it, absorb it and understand even part of it in an afternoon. I realise even more now that I’m not a ‘whistle-stop tour, tick in the box’ type tourist. I want to experience everything to the full, carry it with me when I leave. I want to explore...

Naples, July 12th

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12th July 99, Monday. 1135hrs. ‘Armed Forces-South’ beach, N. of Naples.

It’s sunny, and for the first time in a few days in Italy, I don’t think it’s going to rain!
The beach is red hot, the sand burns the feet. The sea looks inviting, but I honestly don’t know if I’d make it from under the umbrella to the water’s edge without inducing hospitalising-degree injuries!
The journey yesterday was no problem, and arriving at Sam’s parents’ was great. We had an amazing meal on the porch overlooking the Napoli bay, Capri and Cumae in the distance. My bed is huge, and because of the similarity to my bed at home, waking up this morning was really tough!
On Saturday we stayed in Florence, sorted insurance, Barclay’s and traveller’s cheques out and generally relaxed and enjoyed Florence.
We haven’t decided what to do next. Because of the way things have worked out we either got to Rome, and do less of Greece, or not do Rome, and do Greece as thoroughly as we originally planned, seeing Olympia, Athens and Delphi before heading to Crete for the wedding.
Greece is still as alluring as it was, but I’ve heard so much about Rome – The Vatican, the Pantheon, the Trevi fountain, the Spanish Steps...
I’m tempted not to go. Why? So I have a reason to come back! TO leave one of the major attractions untouched, sacrosanct, gives a bit of a thrill – buck the trend, do my own thing.
Rome seems a big enough reason to come to Italy, wouldn’t you say?
We’re probably going to go to Pompeii tomorrow, which I’m really looking forward to. We’ll go into Naples at some point, and I’d really like to go to the top of Mt. Vesuvius (still alive and kicking after all these years...) and see the crater.
My credit/debit cards were being sent out to our address, but for some reason (being a military address) putting ‘Naples, Italy’ on it slows it down by about three weeks, because of instead of coming out by plane direct to the base, it goes into the Italian postal system (probably) which has the equivalent effect of writing ‘don’t bother with this, it’s not important, whenever you’ve got the time to deliver it, or if you can’t be arsed, throw it away’ on it. So I’ve contrived some sort of plan where I definitely get a Barclaycard, and if my Connect Card turns up (‘Naples, Italy’ was in brackets and it was sent via super-duper airmail, first class, here have a pint yourself mate type mail, so there is some hope) so much the better.
Nevertheless, the shadows thrown by the theft will overshadow the rest of the trip, so I have to learn to live with them or I won’t enjoy myself!

Naples, July 11th

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11th July 99. Sunday. 1530hrs, Somewhere between Rome and Naples.
My first journey without my Interrail, and it’s worse than the train to Marrakech in terms of overcrowding. I’m writing whilst perched on an aisle seat with mine and Gemma’s rucksacks wedged either side of me. All the compartments are full, all the aisle seats (which we only got through a mad rush at Rome during the changeover – we were just outside the toilet...) are taken, and people are sat on the floor between carriages, outside the toilets, everywhere. We’ve got about an hour and a half until Napoli, but the last three hours have gone quite quickly. It seems a long time since I’ve been on a train!

Florence, July 9th

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9th July. Friday 1005hrs, Hostel campsite, Villa Camerata. Hot and windy.

After the robbing story, I forgot to actually say what a fantastic day we had in Venice on Wednesday. We got off the train and crossed the Ponte degli Scalzi and went into a glassworks. Gemma bought a glass cow for Leanne, and we watched the craftsman at work making elephants from different coloured glass rods.

We walked through the maze-like networks of alleys, canals, streets and campos, enjoying every moment. We had a gorgeous ice cream and we were heading for Ponte di Rialto when it started to rain heavily. We headed into a cafe to shelter and write postcards. I had a ‘cafe coretto’ – espresso with a shot of grappa. It was brilliant, but strong enough to send a hippo hyperactive.
We braved the rain after a while and crossed the Rialto, wandered to Piazza San Marco and cashed a cheque, as after four nights, the hostel bill we were totting up in Verona was getting quite large.

We tried to get into the Basilica through the exit, but there was someone guarding it from the gift shop. There was an immense queue despite ( or maybe because of?) the rain, so we enjoyed the ceilings around the exit and gift shop area and ran away.

We crossed the Ponte della Accademia and went to the glass shop that sold rings, so Gemma could get one. She spent ages choosing one – there was a large selection, and each one was uniquely hand-painted and of a different size, so she didn’t rush the choice. In the end she settled for one that had her favourite design, even if it was a little too small to put on a normal ring finger, and just a touch too big for her little finger. A compromise.

The sun was setting as we returned to Verona and were walking from the station to the hostel, and we paused to appreciate it on the bridge. Gemma took the opportunity to try the ring on her left hand, thinking that the fingers might be slightly smaller than her right, and get a better fit for the ring. It was still tight, and she had to tug it off. The ring span from her fingers, bounced once on the parapet of the bridge with a glassy *!ping!*, and dropped into the Adige.

Eeeeek.

I bought a Venice 2000 calendar which I’ve slipped down the back of my rucksack so it won’t get crumpled.

Yesterday, after checking out of the hostel, my dealings with the police were short, sweet and dealt with quickly, much to my relief. The drive from Verona to Florence was long but enjoyable. Brett has moved on to Chianti (look out Chianti!) and Mira has come in with us in our tent for tonight because there’s no room in the hostel tonight.
Today, we see Florence...

1711hrs Giardino di Boboli

We’ve seen the Botticellis – Birth of Venus and Primavera. The works of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael were in the Ufizi museum, and we ate lunch on the roof, looking towards the huge domed cathedral, the Duomo, and walked across the Ponte Vecchio, which looked like it had come straight out of a Terry Pratchett book! Talking of Terry Pratchett, when we were exploring Venice (and getting lost) Gemma and I both had the impression that we were walking the streets of Ankh-Morpork. Windy streets, alleys that we couldn’t walk down shoulder to shoulder because they were so narrow, high buildings with washing strung between windows across them, and bell and clock towers occasionally glimpsed from the streets that declared the hour by consensus, ringing at different times across the city.

The Ufizi was really interesting, although the mass of rooms of lesser painters, of the same types of paintings (– ‘The Adoration of The Magi’ cropped up over and over again) became rather too much. Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Adoration...’ fascinated me. He really laid on the background, and because the picture was not resplendent in colour, but in varying dark and light browns, greys and yellows, the recognition of the forms in the painting as I looked at it for longer, entranced me with discovery and the beauty of what I had discovered.
After crossing the Ponte Vecchio we walked to the Piazza dei Pitti, with the enormous variations on the face and body of Michelangelo’s David, and went into the Giardino di Boboli, where the statuary theme continued. We climbed up through the gardens to the Forte di Belvedere where we got some great views of the city (although the Duomo had scaffolding on the side and a few of our constant companions, cranes, littered the landscape).

After that we walked down through the gardens again to a large pond with an island in it, with four bridges (with huge, spiky railings all around) with lemon and lime trees on. Mira wanted some fruit, so she climbed out round the railings (VERY DANGEROUS – DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME, FLORENCE OR ANYWHERE, okay?) over the water, and got Gemma to take a picture of her stealing a lime. Just as she did, around the corner came a woman in black with an ID badge (but thankfully no gun) who launched a stream of high velocity Italian at Mira.
Mira put the lime down and sheepishly climbed out, as the woman’s voice wobbled in the high ranges, and her hands shot out at all angles, fiercely demanding, via the universal language of shouting, how the hell she managed to get out there without realising it wasn’t allowed. The woman shooed us, yelling at us in Universalese to go away. We left the park, but not without taking a few pictures of us climbing inside the head of a giant iron ‘David’. After all, art is all about interaction!

After coming back to the hostel, we ate and Gemma and Mira watched Sister Act 2 in the TV room, whilst I rang ‘Go Banana’ – my insurance company – home, and finally caught the last ten minutes of the film.
Getting to sleep in Gemma’s two-man tent, with only one man and two other definite non-men was...interesting. We all got the giggles to some extent and after taking some pictures of the three of us squeezed into the tent, we dozed. Mira left this morning at about 0620, and we managed to drop off in slightly less constricted positions!

Florence, July 8th

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8th July 99, Thursday, 1950hrs. Internet cafe, Florence. Robbed.

Yesterday I was robbed. My wallet, my traveller’s cheques, my Interrail ticket and the necklace I bought for Jemma in Marrakech. My wallet had about 170 000 lire in, my credit cards...AAAAGH! They took my wallet OUT OF MY POCKET while I was asleep in our hostel room. I can’t believe it.
Thankfully we are in good company – last night we met an Australian chap, Brett, who is driving around Europe, who gave us a lift from Verona to Florence via stunning scenery. I had also cashed a travellers cheque in Venice yesterday and unusually put the money in my shoulder wallet with my passport and travellers cheque receipts which wasn’t touched (actually under my clothes next to my skin), so that has cushioned the blow, but I’m still reeling. I feel stupid, vulnerable, naive, too trusting.
BUT.
Italy hasn’t turned sour for me because of it. Driving through the hills of Tuscany listening to the Romeo and Juliet soundtrack on the car stereo (Brett has good music taste!) was fantastic, talking and sleeping.

Verona / Venice, July 7th

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7th July 99,Wednesday 0915hrs.Train from Verona to Venice. Hot (but breezy)

We’re on our way back to Venice for what should be our cheapest Italian day so far. We’ve sussed out the ferrybuses, and our Rover ticket of yesterday gave us the water borne tour of the city, so today we’re going to walk, and possibly attempt to get into San Marco basilica the cheap way.
We’ve heard that at the end of the Basilica di San Marco tour, there is a gift shop. This gift shop is open to both the public and the basilica, and there is only a guard to stop people wandering casually in for free intermittently. The queues are monstrous – long enough to munch a half-day in Venice without thinking about it, so while I feel a little guilty thinking about doing this, not that guilty.

Verona / Venice, July 6th

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6th July 99, 0840, Tuesday. Villa Francescati (hostel). HOT

She arrived earlier than I was expecting!
On Sunday afternoon we visited Ponte di Scalageri (the drawing will probably be in the Florence or Rome section), had a paddle in the Adige (very fast flowing!) and headed back to the hostel for a gorgeous dinner (pasta, pasta, pork chop + potatoes). Before dinner, Gemma went for a shower and a rest. I was going to, but after she left I noticed that many of the museums and attractions were free on the first Sunday of each month. With an hour’s opening time remaining, I set out...

1540hrs: Somewhere off Lido, Venice.
It’s a bit crazy, the way I’m having to write this journal. Here I am, on a ferry cruise around Venice, with seagulls coasting over the guardrail and a day so bright and clear you can see all of the islands of Venice and boats for miles, and I haven’t written about Sunday’s visit to a museum. Anyway.
I had a good look round the Roman Theatre and it’s museum before heading back to the hostel. There was a lot of glassware, pottery and bronze figures, and as the theatre is still used, and I was rushing round in the last hour of opening, I sat in on the sound check. It was a funny feeling, sitting on stone chiselled thousands of years ago for people to come and see the plays and theatre of the Roman age, listening to a t-shirted sound engineer standing self-consciously alone at the front of the stage, going ‘Uno, uno, uno, uno, uno, due, due, due...(pause)...uno, uno, uno...’ into a microphone. I considered applauding when he’d finished, but he looked so embarrassed to be there at all, the poor man would probably have dissolved in the limelight.
That evening we went into the town, and, via streets of designer shops packed with elegantly dressed Italians, to the Piazza dei Signori, where a free concert was in progress. Gemma and I took full advantage, nabbing some seats, and enjoyed the Yemeni orchestra hugely, and the dancing men with skirts and knives.
Yesterday, after nearly two months more or less constantly in each other’s company, Gemma and I agreed to spend a day apart. We weren’t too tetchy with each other, but well, I needed some space, anyway. After about, oooh, twenty minutes, I bumped into two Canadian girls from the hostel in the street outside la Casa di Guilietta, and spent the day with them – Kristin and Patti. I had a great day, and really enjoyed myself – it was a good laugh. We exchanged addresses and Patti promised to send me some photos!
That evening we all ate again (expensively for us, but apparently not for Italy, at £.14 000 – it was a great meal!) at the hostel, and went into town to witness another free concert – this time a full-blown operatic ensemble of piano, brass and 30-40 singers! I have no idea why there are free concerts on at the moment, but I’m not arguing. The music that everyone in the world associates so closely with Italy, in a piazza under bell towers with the chattering of swallows overhead against a night sky, and candles dotted around the cobbled square. Magical. Gemma and I were there with Orla and Cormick – the brother and sister form Belfast. We went to bed tired (again) but ecstatically happy.
Today ( I get to write about today! Woooo!) we decided against going to Padua for Venice (Venice is either continually full (that’s the hostels), or extortionately expensive (that’d be everywhere else)) and decided to stay in Verona and commute, having two long day trips in Venice rather than moving to Padua and only having one. We caught the 0935 train (had to pay a whopping £.18 500 supplement because we forgot to in the station – ARGH) but we met two English girls on an Interrail, Anna and Jessica, who are doing the same thing with the day trips as we are, so tomorrow we might go on a gondola ride (if we can afford it now...GRRRR at that ticket inspector!)
Venice is absolutely gorgeous. If I’ve fallen in love with Verona while we’ve been staying there, then Venice is a worthwhile mistress for a couple of days. As we were walking out of the train station, the station opened out onto the Grand Canal, with canal taxis and ferrybuses waiting. It took a while to sink in because everything was so different and the beautiful architecture and sheer stature of the buildings would have been enough to make Venice for me, but on canals and river alleys...
So far, we’ve eaten our cheapo lunch (bread and sausages from Verona) in Piazza di San Marco, the only piazza in Venice and what Napoleon described as ‘the finest drawing room in all of Europe’. We ate sitting on stone steps in the shade, listening to swing hits like ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ played by a small orchestra that was playing for the clientele of ‘Cafe Florian’. They were brilliant.
We went up the Bell Tower on the piazza to take in the views of Venice, and two o’clock struck while we were up there. The bells went from impressively huge and worthy of a posed photo, to being something people were cowering from, deafening us all for two or three minutes. All the time, the terracotta rooves of Venice were spread below us, with water visible in little snatches between the hash of buildings. I enjoyed it.
We are on the ferrybus from Lido and are just about to pull in to San Marco again. Ciao for now...

1838hrs Outside Ferrovia, Venice. Sunny still.

After our round trip to Lido, we took another ferrybus across the Grand Canal and got off at ‘Salute’ for the Basilica della Salute – a huge domed church built in the 15th century. As churches go, I liked it, because of it’s unusual circular shape.
We had a stroll around the alleyways over the bridges and a peek into the shops of Dorsoduro before catching the ferrybus back to here to the train station, where we’ve eaten dinner by the water and enjoyed a bottle of ‘Birra Moretti’. Gemma is umming and ahhing over rings in a glass shop over the Grand Canal.
It’s almost seven o’clock, but the tourist industry is still in full swing – gondolas, ferrybuses packed with camera-toting sightseers, and the more refined water-taxis are all plying the Gran Canal. With a little imagination, it’s easy to see how Venice got the title of ‘La Serenissima’ – Most Serene Republic. Before the introduction of the internal combustion engine, that is. What it must have been like in the days of the 19th century ‘Grand Tour’ for the youth of the upper classes...gondolas peacefully weaving their way along the canals, sailing naval vessels moored in the lagoon, and the city itself full of life.

1942hrs: train in between Venice and Verona. Stormy.

Today, Venice seems to be a tourist town and little else. Away from the main tourist areas, the city seems to be dying. All Venice has to sell apart from gaudy t-shirts, postcards and jewellery, is Venetian glass and itself. Both of which are beginning to become prohibitively expensive for travellers like us on a tight budget. Nevertheless, the city is alive with intrigue, charm and its soft hues. Verona may seem capable to house the spirit, nourish it, but Venice lifts it, gives it flight – a living work of art, food for the soul.
The question of spirituality has unwittingly arisen on a number of occasions on this trip so far. I find it easy to talk about the spirit or the soul being affected by beauty, elegance intrigue and a sense of achievement. I don’t really see any conflict (or rather, feel any conflict) with this and my religious beliefs or lack thereof, and I was relieved to find this out today when we were in the Basilica della Salute, which was definitely a religious building. It was one that I could appreciate without guilt and more importantly, I think, without overbearing cynicism. This also bodes well for the rest of Italy, as many of the principle works of art are of a religious nature or in churches or cathedrals.
One thing that doesn’t seem right to me however (overbearing cynicism here we come...) is that many cathedrals, churches or even chapels with any kind of artistic content or historical connection charge an entry fee, usually around the £.3000 mark. It just seems fundamentally wrong, like the merchants in the temple.
Not only do the two cities I’ve seen so far appeal to me, but the countryside is fantastic too. Literally – it is how I imagined it and then more so. Cypress trees adorn the hills in the evening as we pull into Vicenza.
Italy appears to have hotwired itself into my sense of romanticism. The sunsets here are gorgeous. So unbelievably colourful and vivid that whenever a postcard captures one adequately, it looks like a tacky superimposed landscape on a set, separate sky.
The sun goes down so quickly here, as if it is exhausted by the amount of heat it has given to the land; so much so that it drops from the sky. It’s a quick photographer that can match the picture with the sunset. Yesterday, as the sun set over Verona, I had to make do with the ubiquitous crane on an otherwise perfect silhouette of the hills.
The Italian language has me in its thrall. It’s lilting accentuation and singsong sound have made me want to learn it! I haven’t had the opportunity to use our phrase book yet – if people don’t speak English (a small percentage only), they usually speak either Spanish or French. I feel that when I’m speaking to Italians that speaking English is too easy, and that I should try Spanish or French first rather than speak my native tongue. I suppose I want to be distinguishable who expect everyone abroad to speak English, or even try and make amends for them all by myself. Stupid really. The poor Italian guy in the kitchen in the hostel in Verona has no idea where I’m from or what language to speak to me in the mornings!

Verona, July 5th

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5th July 99, 0800. Monday. Villa Francescati (hostel). HOT

Waiting for Gemma to come down for breakfast.

Verona, July 4th

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4th July 1999, 1240hrs Sunday. Verona, Palazzo della Regione. V.v.v.v.v.hot.

Last night’s train journey was no problem. There were plenty of couchettes free, so we took advantage of the fact. We slept from about 2330 ‘til 0445 in our compartment with a Brazilian law student/traveller, and a Taiwanese technician/traveller.
Verona at five o’clock in the morning was a panorama of beautiful Italian buildings and empty cobbled streets, and despite it being 26C even then, a freshness in the air. We walked down deserted streets, through the old city gates, which had a small bronze plaque, with a quotation from ‘Romeo and Juliet’ ...

There is no world without Verona’s walls,
but purgatory, torture and hell itself
Hence banished is banish’d from the world,
and the world’s exile is death

The youth hostel is very nice, with a view of the old town. I’ve started buying postcards already – the city is so beautiful.
The river runs fast and clear, the sky is blue, cypress trees adorn the hills in the town and the architecture is Romanesque and seems fit to house the soul and mind as well as the body. If I had to choose from where we’ve been so far one place I would like to live, for purely aesthetic reasons, Verona wins hands down...
The Roman staircase on the square where I am writing is made of the region’s pink marble, and is very ornate. There’s a large bell tower behind it, dominating the area, including the Piazza de Erbe, outside of these walls. A picture paints a thousand words...okay, so that’s three thousand words – the tower is way too big for only one photo!
I was anxious about not speaking Italian – this is the first country we’ve been to that I haven’t spoken one of the national languages. We’ve been okay so far, but we have only been in Italy for about 14 hours, and only off the train for 7 of those.
We’ve visited ‘Casa di Guillietta’ – Juliet’s house. The entrance, front of the house and all the walls inside the courtyard are covered in lover’s graffiti. There was a balcony, climbing ivy, a bronze statue of Juliet, and a gift shop along one side of the courtyard. It was packed with tourists ( us included, even though we travellers look down on the luxury-seeking, single culture instigating, package tour-taking, “Oh yeah, this reminds me of Vegas,”, gullible, litter-dropping, monolinguistic, “How quaint!”, ‘Speak-loudly-and-clearly-and-everyone-will-understand’, two weeks in Torremelinos type wallahs...) but still quite romantic.

Nice, July 3rd

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3rd July 1999, 1500hrs, Saturday. Between Avignon and Marseille. HOT.

On Thursday we got a lift down to Monestier with the local event organiser, that day wearing his poster-distributing hat. After stopping off in St. Guillame, and St. Paul les Monestiers, we got to Monestier de Clermont in good time for a Croque-Monsieur in the park and the train into Grenoble. Second time around, Grenoble seemed a lot busier. We caught the bus down Cours Jean Jaurès to the Youth Hostel.

1825hrs Nice - train station

We’ve just arrived to discover that all the couchettes for our night train to Verona are booked up. To make matters worse, we can’t reserve seats, so all we can do is get on the train early and try and bag some unreserved spots. As if in an ironic turn on my ‘not enough early mornings’ tirade, it arrives at 0501hrs tomorrow morning. Mmm, nice.
Anyway, the youth hostel was done out with French cartoon characters painted on the walls, and looked a really nice place. There was a bar, (with 25cl. Kronenbourg the cheapest we’ve found at 10F – generous 25’s, as well...) TV room, and breakfast was included in the price.

We had dinner in the supermarket cafeteria – lots of food, very cheaply! After that we headed back to the hostel, (tired) met two Australian girls, Rowena and Kate, and a Canadian bloke, Aaron. We all got on really well, and stayed in the bar until about 11.

Next day (yesterday) Gemma, Aaron and I took the train out to St.Georges-de-Commiers (on the way back to Monestier) to catch, of all things, on this rail-dominated trip, a sightseeing train- ‘Le Chemin de Fer de la Mure’. It was expensive at 87F each, but I really enjoyed myself –there were views of the mountains, and of a series of lakes and dams...we stopped off in ‘La Mure’ and had an ice-cream (strawberry and vanilla) before coming back, this time in an open carriage. The whole trip took about four hours. We took the bus back into Grenoble, ate again in the ‘Casino’ cafeteria with Aaron, before heading back to the Hostel bar before bed at 11ish. This morning over breakfast outside the hostel with the view of the mountains over the hostel grounds, we discovered that Rowena and Kate were heading to Nice. Aaron hadn’t decided where he was going next, so we talked him into coming also.

Aaron cracked Gemma and I up without prompt or either of us using the word before in his presence, by coming out with the phrase 'Maybe you could pull with those Australian girls'. After we'd calmed down I told him that would be very nice.

We have just had a really fun and enjoyable six hour train journey (oxymoron, possibly...), talking over different slang, exchanging travel recommendations and stories. We also played ‘psychiatrist’ which was hilarious. We said goodbye when we got here, and Gemma’s just gone for some food.

Saint Andéol, 1st July

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1st July 1999, 0023hrs. Thursday. St. Andeol, kitchen. Dark.
Waiting for Julia or Sharon to ring- this is the last time I’ll be able to receive calls for a while, so I’m sat here diligently filling in time while my rucksack lies on the floor, unpacked. We’re leaving for Monestier in about ten hours, to catch the train to Grenoble. Julia should be ringing at about 0030, according to her parents, but it’s 0029, and I’m not sure I can stay awake much longer!

0830 – Still no call from Sharon, although I did go to bed after Julia rang. I’m seated writing in the garden for what will be the last time, drinking coffee and sunlight. It’s going to be a glorious day in the Alps, and I’m really going to miss it. I shall have to get used to nowhere being familiar again, after the valley, the dolomites, the houses and farms and the distant head of the Eagle have barely had time to sink in. I suppose my ever-present wanderlust is somewhat sated by the fact that we are in the south of France, and what’s the point of going to somewhere different if you don’t stay there? You’d never put your bags down otherwise!
I got a letter from home yesterday, which really cheered me up and saddened me at the same time. Keith being sentimental gets me that way! Oh well- I’d better go pack – after another coffee of course. Let’s not get silly here...

Saint Andéol, 30th June

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30th June 1999, Morningish, Weds. St. Andeol, kitchen. Hyperactively cloudy.

Yesterday was fun. We left at about 12, walked about 1km, got a lift all the way to Monestier. We sat in the park for an hour, playing on the swings, waiting for the bank to open, then went and had some Heineken until the shops opened.

We bought cereal, milk, biscuits, Gran Marnier, red wine and Kronenbourg, and pasta. We had lunch in the park (couscous again, but this time with raisins!) and after shopping started (what we thought would be) the arduous trek home. After passing our 'lucky corner', we succeeded in getting a lift off a serious candidate for 'Miss France' (1999, 2000 and the foreseeable future) who was about our age, a psychology student in Grenoble and told us, as we swung around the tenuous mountain bends, that she had just passed her driving test. Call me a transparent opportunist, but I was considerably more enthusiastic in my attempts at French conversation on the way up with her than I had been with the kind gentleman who gave us a lift into Monestier that morning.

She said she was on her way to meet a friend, so I didn't ask her in for a cup of tea or anything, despite the fact that I wanted to. Gemma burst out laughing at me as soon as the car disappeared around the next corner. Humph.
Anyway, Gemma came up with a chesnut:

"Where charm and good looks fail, a cup of tea and some cookies won't," or something to that effect. I’ll bear that in mind when I get to Warwick in October!

Hmmm.

Saint Andéol, 29th June

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29th June 1999. 0654hrs, Tuesday. St. Andeol, kitchen. Just past dawn.

‘The rising of the sun, and the running of the deer...’
It might be a Christmas hymn, but it sums up my day so far.
The rising of the sun was somewhat muted by the untimely arrival of some cloud, but I still feel good to have seen it. I spotted a reddish animal sprinting down one of the fields on the other side of the village – I took it for a fox, until my sense of perspective (and of location) kicked in and I realised it was a deer. It was too far away to have got anything but a photo of some trees, a field and a reddish-brown smudge or dot, but it didn’t matter- it was still a sight poetic enough to evoke a sharp intake of breath and a glow inside. How many people wake up and see that in the morning?


0710-The sun has outpaced the clouds for now, so I’ve taken up residence on the balcony with my (‘if I’m going to get up at this time where’s the coffee?’ screams my metabolism) coffee and journal.
One of the things about this trip so far is that it hasn’t involved enough early mornings. To me, early mornings and travel go together, an effect of those gut-wrenchingly exciting mornings before I was ten years old, when the family would pack our suitcases in the car and head for Gatwick, bound for somewhere in the Mediterranean – Mallorca, Ibiza or Crete. It seems a shame to have lost that gut-wrench, the extreme excitement that comes with an unfettered imagination and untainted enthusiasm. Being here now, I’m starting to get to feel it again, if only slightly; the effect of building up anticipation for Italy over this two weeks’ break.
‘Italy’ is laden with meaning.
Rome, The Romans, Pisa, Leonardo da Vinci, the renaissance, Sicily and Mount Etna, Pompeii, a football mad population, snazzy dressers, spaghetti bolognese (had to come in somewhere, I suppose), the Punic Wars (Romans again), lire, Latin, too much detail on the Mezzogiorno region from oh-so-many GCSE geography lessons, and crazy drivers in tiny cars. And that’s not all.
Greece is packed with so many associations that it’s hard to describe. I’ve always been interested in Greek mythology, I covered Crete’s ruined palace at Knossos on the theme ‘Labyrinth’ for my GCSE art exam, and the idea of doing a bit of island hopping in the Aegean grabs my sense of adventure by the lapels with both hands and screams, “COME ON THEN, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?!” in it’s face. To put it one way...
We’re bound to have three or four early mornings yet- the overnight ferries from Brindisi in the south of Italy to Patras on the north western face of the Greek coast, and from Athens to Crete, will see to that, but there’s still something anticipatory about a really early morning that defies definition.
0850 – We’re going to Monestier de Clermont again today, to shop for our last few days here, to buy a present for the McCarthy’s but mostly to have a drink at the pub. A rather ominously grey looking cloud has just edged its way over the face of the sun above where I’m sitting in the garden, but I think I can see blue sky behind it, so hopefully it’ll just pass over.
One of my chief worries about coming away was that Gemma and I wouldn’t get on. Thankfully, we’re over six weeks into the trip and apart from one or two occasions when we’ve both been under stress ( possibility of a missed connection, sort of thing), and we’ve both got a bit snappy, it’s been great fun. One thing that does rankle is her indifference and/or lack of urgency. When we discuss what we want to do, (in a country, for the day...) Gemma’s contribution is always ‘I’m not bothered’ or ‘Whatever’. Fine by me – we do what I want to do, but that does make me feel a bit dictatorial and responsible for whatever happens. I came away to do stuff, see sights and meet people. When we only get around to doing one thing in a day because we slept in until 11, or because we didn’t plan what we wanted to do (usually me not wanting to enforce anything) so we end up mythering, it frustrates me. Although if I’m honest, I do like being able to sleep until 11! I wish she’d be a bit more passionate about the fact we’re travelling, we should be seizing each day and wringing the experiences out of every one them. Doing this would probably mean sleeping for about five hours a day though. When we set off from here on Thursday or Friday, we’ll be well rested and ready to paint Grenoble red, or whatever colour they have available and is relatively cheap...
So come dance the silence down through the morning...
The ling.

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