Category Archives: Eastern Mediterranean
Now I know many of you have visited the immensely popular Greek island of Corfu, probably for a summer beach holiday, and you have whiled away many hours doing nothing, believing you were doing nothing in a supremely Greek environment. Well, in a sense you were right, but did you know…………….
…that Corfu has a 200 year old tradition of playing cricket? I kid you not….. Not only do they play cricket, but their main cricket pitch is right bang in the middle of the main town square in the capital, which also happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage site. I was astonished. How on earth did this uniquely eccentric English sport enter the culture and heritage of a Greek island?
Well, the answer is straightforwardly connected with imperialism. Corfu had been occupied by the British for some 50 years at the beginning of the 19th century, and on St George’s Day, April 23rd 1823, the first game was played by the naval forces on the town’s main square……. and there began the tradition.
The island now has five teams, promotes the sport actively through its school curricula, and welcomes teams from around the world.
Now tell me, what is the Greek for silly mid-off, square leg, googly, backward point, bowl a maiden over?
And how do they handle the following explanation of the hallowed game: ‘Each man that’s in the side that’s in goes out, and when
he’s out he comes in and the next man goes in until he’s out?
With the sinking of the Costa Concordia still fresh in our memories, we boarded a sister ship, the Costa Magica, to roam around the Eastern Mediterranean. Filled with the illogical faith that convinces all of us that, in the light of a tragedy, important lessons will have been learned, and remedial action will have been taken to correct wayward captains, we set off optimistically until, one day, we arrived at the stunning volcanic island of Santorini, where (in the absence of a harbour) we had to be tendered off the ship.
Unlike the “crowd”, we eschewed the use of cable car or donkey to get to the top of the island, and we slowly tramped our way up the steep inclines, through several layers of donkey ‘poop’ of varying degrees of freshness. When we reached the top, we were feasted by panoramic views in every direction, including of our own ship anchored above a deep caldera.
But stunning as the view might have been, it was unnerving to discover that almost directly beneath our own ship, was another, the MS Sea Diamond, which had come to grief on rocks and sunk on April 5th 2007. All but two passengers were saved, and only a handful of those suffered any kind of injury (unlike the Concordia). The sinking of the Sea Diamond was such a protracted affair, that it was caught on film by someone with a video camera. Had it been a few years later, it would have been captured a thousand times on smartphones.
But it is a salutary thought before you board your next cruise ship: they do sink, and sometimes with surprising frequency and ease. View the sinking of the MS Sea Diamond:
Before our recent visit to Athens and the Acropolis, I went to see the best bits of the Parthenon just 70 miles from my home. The controversy surrounding Lord Elgin’s ‘rape’ of the best sculptures from the Parthenon from 1801-1812 still rages. After two centuries of residence in the British Museum, is it time to repatriate the marbles?
Some would say Elgin did a huge service for humanity and history by saving the marbles from destruction under the Ottomans. Others, including Lord Byron, maintained that Elgin had been guilty of vandalism:
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatch’d thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!
I have to say that being able to view the marbles at eye level in the Museum was a far better option than straining to view them on the high pediments of the Parthenon itself. But what of the return of the marbles to modern day Greece? Do we have a right to hold onto them?
Now this gets us deeply into the wider debate of the return of all similar artistic and archeological pieces that have been removed by invading nations anywhere in the world. But let’s not talk about generalities. Should the Elgin Marbles be returned to Greece? Isn’t the Parthenon an infinitly poorer spectacle without the full display of its pediment sculptures? Or, if they were never to be restored to the Parthenon, should they not now reside in the new Acropolis Museum at the foot of the hill?
What reasonable arguments do we have for keeping them on British soil? Many arguments, yes, but (I suspect) not a single reasonable argument.
Tip: if you arrive at Katakolon in a cruise ship, and you want to visit Olympia, don’t pay silly money to go on a guided tour. Jump on a local bus, pay just 10 euros, and be in control of your own time.
But is the site just a pile of old stones? Well, yes it is…….. Visually, it’s not very attractive, and it is certainly not awe-inspiring. You may go just to say you have been there, and tick it off your list. Fine. But if you delve into its history, you will discover some fascinating things.
First of all, it was only one of four sites in ancient Greece that celebrated games. The other three were Corinth, Nemea and Delphi. Olympia came out as number 1 because of its 12 metre statue of Zeus, the “Father of all Gods and men”.
In the 19th century, a certain Baron Pierre de Cubertin had been inspired by an English revival of the games in Much Wenlock, Shropshire, but decided to ignore all the English eccentricities and boldly dropped such nation-affirming events as the blindfold wheelbarrow race. Instead, in his first version of what was to become the first Olympic Games, he included the discus and marathon……… how daring!
If you go to the site, have a bit of fun, and get on your marks on the starting line and imagine you are an ancient version of Usain Bolt. In ‘marginally’ over 10 seconds, you could create your own personal best time on the spot where it all started, back in the 8th century BC.
Our recent trip around the eastern Mediterranean took us to a little heralded place above the heel of Italy, called Bari. This old picturesque southern port, with a long interesting history, had a very sad story to tell……… though this has not been fully confirmed by the powers-that-be.
During WW2, Bari had fallen into the hands of the Allies by 1943, but was still subject to the attentions of the German air force. Amidst a veil of secrecy, the Allies shipped in a cargo of mustard gas, some of which had been unloaded onto the port side, but most was kept on board a ship in port. The port was then unexpectedly bombed by German bombers (this attack was likened to a mini Pearl Harbour), destroying several ships but, more devastatingly, blowing up the entire stock of mustard gas.
Hundreds were killed as a result of the mustard gas. Local doctors did not know what they were treating and, unwittingly, gave treatment that hastened the death of many victims. Many of the doctors themselves were contaminated, and died as a result. Eventually an American specialist flew in to help. He eventually worked out for himself that mustard gas had been the contaminant, but when he sought confirmation from the Allied authorities, he drew a complete blank.
And to this day, there has been no public declaration by any of the Allied governments about the nature of this incident. Even the plaque near the harbour commemorating the incident gives no clue. Does a ‘truth commission’ need to be set up for the truth to be finally revealed?
When I heard that Venice has been known throughout its most recent history as La Serenissima, I immediately trivialised its interpretation. I imagined, of course, it had to do with the relative silence of the city (no traffic) and the apparent lack of stress (nobody hurries anywhere). The speed of life is reduced to walking pace and the meanderings of the tourist gondolas, which never seem to be going anywhere with any purpose.
Once you step over the bridge from Piazzale Roma, you enter not a living community but a museum. Some would disparagingly say that Venice has been ‘Disneyfied’ into a theme park: vital and throbbing during the day, maybe, but
once the sun sets, the life is drained away, the lights go out, the huge army of service workers depart to their distant suburbs. Nobody actually lives in Venice. Why? Well, properties are horrendously expensive, mostly owned by absent millionaires, and at night very few buildings show evidence of any life.
Even during the daytime, if you wander off the main tourist routes, you can get hopelessly lost in a warren of uninhabited backstreets, many of them forbidding and menacing by virtue of their very emptiness. When you go to Venice, you will get lost. You will find yourself going around in circles, following the signs to Piazza San Marco or Ponte di Rialto, and you never seem to get there. I understand there is no absolutely accurate map of the historic centre of Venice. A blessing in itself, some would say, because getting lost is part of the magic of Venice.
But why was it called La Serenissima, I hear you say? Today, we think of Venice as a city, but it was once the centre of a huge trading empire, a sovereign state in its own right. To call a state Most Serene was in acknowledgement of its right to be seen as sovereign.
If a visit to Venice is on your ‘bucket list’, go before it sinks and disappears beneath the waves. Our cruise ship was one of the last to be allowed to dock at Venice because of the damage being done to the lagoons and port area. This is very bad news for Venetians. Cruise ships bring tens of thousands of visitors to the heart of the city every year.
What most people refer to as a cruise, I stubbornly call a ‘boat ride’. Why? Well, a couple of years ago I would have scoffed at the thought of taking a cruise. I mean, what would a self-respecting independent traveller like me be doing on one of those floating cities, having his every need taken care of, leaving no room for imagination, decision-making or risk-taking? The only experience I’d previously had of cruises, and the kind of people who go on cruises, was in Central America (Belize, to be precise) when, one day, I suddenly found my private space invaded by ludicrously fat and pampered Americans, who had been tendered ashore and were being expensively transported from one sight-seeing venue to another, during the few hours they had available. I looked on them with pity. Their lives were inexorably bounded by the luxurious buffers that life on an expensive cruise liner imposed on them.
So, the question remains, what was I doing on a ship that carried three times the population of my own village, served food continuously throughout the day, provided rivers of drink of every description, and attempted to fill every fun-seeking gap in the lives of over 3,500 passengers? The simple answer was: the destinations. I simply can’t get to all these places in one lifetime on a bike! Nor can we do enough city-breaks or short trips to satisfy the curiosity.
In the space of a week, sailing out of Venice, we discovered the beauty and tragic WW2 circumstances of Bari (SE Italy), the fascinating history of Olympia, the monumental splendour of Athens, the volcanic beauty of Santorini, the imposing Old Fort of Corfu Town, the stunning visuals of Dubrovnik as we circumnavigated the whole historic centre along the fortified walls. Then, to begin and end the journey with stopovers in Venice……..well, the decision to take the ‘boat ride’ became a no-brainer, and the cost was no more than the average hotel holiday on a resort.
However, the people who take cruises (and some take several each year) can be very ‘special’. From the ladies who dedicate every onboard, and onshore, moment to jewelry shopping, to the hardened sun-loungers who bemoan the disappearance of the sun; from addicted gamblers to addicted drinkers; from nicotine junkies who occupy the same chair in smoker’s corner throughout, to the ‘cruising bores’ who will not be seen in the same outfit two days running.
But amongst the crowds, you do come across a few like-minded souls, who don’t bore you with the details of all their past cruises, comparing the pros and cons of each of the cruise companies; you will chance by people who share some common values, and who make great company at table. I even met a fellow cyclist at lunch (well, he was a triathlete). We spoke French together and I sat back in amazement as he consumed three plates of pasta, preceded by soup and followed by desert.
And when you step off the ship to spend the day onshore, you will fall into the company of other DIYers, who are prepared to walk into town or catch a local bus, and are happy to eschew the fully escorted tours that hardly give you time to set foot on land.