It all started so well…
By 5am in the morning, I had already stepped foot in both Liechtenstein and Switzerland. My logistical powers were at an all time high and so far in Europe, I hadn’t made one serious cock-up when it came to getting the right train to the right place at the right time.
That was before I realised that there were two San Marino’s in Italy, and they are jolly close to each other. One is a city state, a principality with it’s own Grand Prix and everything, the other is a small village in the foothills of the Alps.
Guess where I ended up today?
After an impossible number of train changes, I was on a train that was going to a place called S. Marino (which I naturally assumed LIKE AN IDIOT stood for ‘San’). After half an hour in I thought, hang on a minute – this train is going so slow it may as well be going backwards and it’s stopping at every two-bit barn and dog turd along the way.
Intercity trains don’t behave in this manner. Something isn’t right. My spidey sense started tingling… TO THE INTERNET!!
Now getting online on a train is difficult at the best of times, but doubly so when you factor in them thar bloody large hills looming above me like fat stone gods of yore blocking the signal in much the same way as YER MA blocks out the sun when she’s at the beach. But eventually, after much persistence, I got up a map of the area.
These are not the San Marino’s you’re looking for.
You may go about your business.
Now move along.
Oh turds on toast with treacle toffee topping. Trains don’t go to San Marino. You have to get the bus from Rimini.
Panic stations. I tried to reschedule my route, but it was impossible. If I dilly-dallied about, I would miss my train to Rome. There was nothing for it but to scratch this one down to experience and press on to the ‘big smoke’ – I’d have to hit San Marino on the way back up through Italy, on the way to Monaco, Andorra and Barcelona.
This being the case, I got in to Padua train station with a couple of hours to spare. I bought a book, did some work on the website and generally pottered about. With about 15 minutes to departure, I lumbered over to the ticket counters to buy a reservation (you need to get them on intercity or international trains even if you have a rail pass – they generally cost a couple of Euro), but the queue was MASSIVE. And there were only two ticket desks open (of the ten). But that’s okay… IT’S NOT LIKE IT WAS RUSH HOUR OR ANYTHING.
Oh, hang on, it was.
Looks like the Italians have been taking lessons in utter ineptitude off the Britain’s Rail ‘Service’ (I prefer to use the term ‘Vast Brocade of Incompetence’ myself). So I waited, got a bit panicky, went over to the automatic ticket machine to try and get a reservation there, realised that you couldn’t do that, lost my place in the queue, looked at my watch – three minutes until departure – realised that there was no way out of this mess and bought myself a ticket from the damn machine. A whole god-damn full-price adult ticket. Sixty Euro worth.
Sixty Euro! That’s more money than I’ve spent this week! Idiot! As I took the ticket from the machine, the full stupidity of what I had done dawned on me. I could have just paid the conductor a few Euro on board, even if they had made me pay a fine, it wouldn’t have been sixty Euro. Bad decision-making based upon the fact that the train station was FULL of people, and so I assumed the train would be FULL of people, and I’d be left standing up without a reservation and they would kick me off for not having a seat. Maybe. Or something like that.
The train was almost empty. I had four seats to myself.
And then it started to rain.
And so on to Rome…
I arrived at some ungodly hour, which I thought was actually quite appropriate. I slung my bag into the Pop Inn Hostel (with crazy guy Cesar running the joint, I warmly recommend it – it’s right by the train station too), and hit the streets – I had to step foot in Vatican City tonight.
And so, I found myself walking through Rome with my heart on a string, dear god, please help me. I’m so very tired of doing the right thing…
It was past midnight when I got to Popesville and there I found that the entire Piazza di San Pietro was cordoned off. No public access tonight, young Hughes, you atheist dog. Oh well, might as well see if there’s a back entrance (I would expect that of the papacy, wouldn’t you?). So I set off for my first (and possibly last) lap of an entire nation – a nation with its own flag (yellow), bank (corrupt), leader, and even its own army (kinda), although when I did manage to find a Swiss Guard to have a natter with, his costume made me wonder if he was a proper bodyguard for Zeus’s god’s shiny-coated representative on Earth, or had just come back from a spectacularly unsuccessful fancy dress party.
Anyway, he wouldn’t let me in – not even one foot! Private property, apparently. Ah well, the Piazza opens at 7am and my train leaves at 7.20am – bags of time. Mr. Willy-hat hasn’t seen the last of this little ginger wanderer.
But as I had already started, I thought that I might as well complete a lap around the place and OH MY GOD it’s a bloody fortress! Seriously, round the back are like, fifty-foot walls (from which boiling tar was no doubt thrown in times past) – although, forgive me for saying this (if you’re a forgiver!) but it all smacked of insecurity to me…
If my best mate was the chap what had the power to conjure up an entire universe (all 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000+ galaxies of the bugger!) out of THIN AIR, I wouldn’t be hiding in a fortress like some kind of balloonless Bowser, I’d be sunning it up on a beach in Thailand, laying in a hammock drinking coconut milk, safe in the knowledge that no lightning, tsunami or assassin’s bullet would ever come anywhere near me BECAUSE IT WAS MY MATE WOT MADE THE UNIVERSE!
But that’s just me – you can probably guess that I’m not one for pan-dimensional super-beings from beyond the stars. All seems a bit… well, you know… silly. I’m especially unimpressed by the ones who sit there picking their nose while the disease-ridden, flying hypodermic needles they invented (fancy that!) kill millions from malaria, dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis and elephantitis and other horrific diseases I couldn’t hope to spell unaided.
Incidentally, did anyone see the pope stuffing a message to his god in the wailing wall this week? I couldn’t help but imagine a kid stuffing his letter to Santa in the letterbox…
I walked and I walked – around the Vatican City (I’ve never strolled around an entire city before, never mind a nation!) and down through the streets around the Pantheon and to the Coliseum. I didn’t want to sleep. The night was fresh, the streets were empty – save for the rumble of the occasional car on the cobblestones. A city unspoilt – a city where I saw no multi-storey carparks, no 1960’s concrete shopping malls, no heartbreaking highrises, no disgusting office towers set to depress, no beautiful buildings left to rot, no revolting hotels made of grey solidified slop…
The curse of the latter twentieth C may be hiding out on the outskirts, but here, tonight, in the centre of Rome, all I saw was stone and wood and clay – and the beautiful epic decay of centuries, as the pillars of stone and sun-baked bricks slowly eroded their way back to the nature from whence they came.
Something that concrete can never do – age gracefully.
Not Britain then. Not Liverpool, London, Leeds, Manchester or Brum. The one place on Earth seemingly unbewitched by the twentieth century nightmare of concrete, glass and asbestos. Of that rat Le Corbusier’s fascist conceit – machines for dying in.
A place immune. A clone town this is not. So how did this make me feel? Elated I guess, that such a place exists and that the cretinous children of Le Courbastarder haven’t got around to ruining it yet, but also saddened – that such a place exists is proof (if any more proof where needed) that such a place can exist.
But no, it’s all 30-year lifespans, Vegas-style, for the rest of humanity, like I’ve already pointed out – we didn’t rebuild the twin towers – disposable buildings for a disposable land-filled age.
So what are we leaving our grandchildren, eh? What wonders? What sights? What art? What BEAUTY? NADA. A handful of good tunes, some good books, some decent films, some cool television shows – but nothing permanent. Nothing to say LOOK KIDS – WE WERE HERE; only what is downloadable. The entire output of a generation, squeezable onto a 2.5″ hard drive.
The Queen, on the turn of the millennium, lighting a torch with BRITISH GAS emblazed on the side in a costly DOME designed to last less than a decade.
Forget that, I say! When 99 became 00, I was at the pyramids trying to connect our glorious part (OUR past! We killed all the Neanderthals! We’re the only race of humans left on this planet!) to some kind of glorious future. But now, ten years on, all I can see is a future that will be all but forgotten in just a few centuries time. The great age of nothin’ doin’, the second coming of bread and circuses.
Sorry, we were all too busy watching soap operas…………
And what are we building in England now to show the grandkids? A big white horse!
To paraphrase top designer Scott Jones, that’s something a child would think of…
We really need to get a grip. Buildings are the most public of artforms, the reason people fly thousands of miles across the globe to Rome to Giza to Agra to Machu Picchu. But even in our daily lives, we HAVE to look at the damn things, whether we wish to or not, they barge their way into our daily life without asking. It should be against the law for them to depress the hell out of us.
The least we should expect is that (if we listen carefully) they don’t sound like two women comparing bargains. Well, I got my glass curtain from TX Maxx – guess how much, go on guess…
Rome, you are beautiful, you will always occupy a special place in my heart, but I’ve been walking for over three hours and it’s getting light. The Coliseum towers over me, mocking my disposition towards modernity. Look what we cobbled together, Graham, WITH OUR BARE HANDS – before pneumatics, before electricity, before JCBs, before AutoCAD, before 3D printers… Two THOUSAND years ago, Graham, LOOK!!
Hahahahaha! Go on – beat THAT!
Bet you can’t.
We can, but we choose not to. Like Dash purposefully running slow in the school race.
We could be Incredible, but we choose to be pedestrian. How sad.
I turned my back on the stadium, half broken but still breathtaking. This is a battle I fear I’ll fight all my life, but don’t worry – it’s not all hot air. The masterplan is kicking in – and my little black book Development Hell is safe in the hands of my girl in Australia. I’ve still got a long way to go this year, but that’s nothing to the roads I plan to travel this decade.
I got back and checked the GPS to see if the border hop to the Vatican had been successful – no, I couldn’t claim it, I really couldn’t – the barrier was DEAD ON the border. Showed my walking route around the walls quite well though. I’d have to go back in the morning (well, three hours time) and do it properly.
6:40am: Back to the Vat in record time – I ran around St Peter’s Square (it’s not square, but I don’t know what else to call it) and then back into the taxi and onto
Our ferry got us into Pozzallo, which is not the same place we left from (Catania), so we raced to the train station and hopped on the OLDEST TRAIN IN THE WORLD up to Catania. One of those trains where you can OPEN THE BLOODY WINDOW and STICK YOUR HEAD OUT!! Health and Safety be DAMNED I say, be DAMNED. The conductor was bo-diddly crazy, and everyone on board didn’t seem to be heading anywhere – they were just there for ‘the craic’.
I can’t express to you, the joy of windows that OPEN – in buildings, in trains, on buses – give me AIR! Not phoney, dry through-the-(might-not-be-working)-AC air, real immediate O2 – air that you do not have to ask someone else for, air that can’t break down on the hottest day of the year – fresh, flowing, cool democratic air. Happiness is an open window.
We got back to Catania and before long we were on a bus to Palermo. Now, my new masters at National Geographic need to know that I haven’t got the plague so they can get medical insurance on the production should I flake out in Africa and they’re left with half a production called EPIC FAIL! So I needed to see a quack and have a check up (cold spoon test, etc.). Laura and I traipsed around Palermo in the blazing heat for three hours – two medical clinics, three hospitals – they all sad no, bugger off you ginger git. If I wasn’t ill at the start of this little detour, I was by the end of it (that’s a joke, by the way; I’m never ill – even when I’m ill).
Darn it. Naught else to do but to grab a bite to eat and hop the bus to Tranpani where our ferry to TUNISIA leaves in the morning. Our first taste (a nibble no less!) of Africa!!
I know I’ve still got San Marino, Monaco, Andorra, Spain and Portugal to go in Europe, but I’ll be back next week to do them – there is no way overland from Tunisia to Morocco.
Oh, and I’ll be going to Cyprus once I’ve finished Africa – it’s all in hand, DON’T WORRY!
It was supposed to be a 23-hour ferry trip to Civitavaggio near Rome, but of course it took longer than that. Not being able to afford a cabin, I made do with sleeping on the cushioned bench seat. The GRIMaldi ferry had just three toilets between every male on board, which were of course trashed within minutes of leaving Tunis, so I spent the entire journey trying to keep the turtle’s head at bay.
I’ll tell you what is cool, though, the book I’m currently reading, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, is set in the Dominican Republic – and DR1.com gets a mention – extra cool when you consider that the book won the Pulitzer Prize for literature last year. Go Robert and Lu! Yeah!!
I had my train connection times scrawled at the back of my Lonely Planet Europe, as long as I could get to Rimini station before 1am, I’d be fine. I cut through Rome (my hour there was spent drinking coffee, eating ice-cream and talking to Mandy on Skype – time for love, Dr. Jones) and I arrived in Rimini around 9pm. There I got a taxi, THE MOST EXPENSIVE TAXI OF MY LIFE! over the border into San Marino.
San Marino is (apparently) the world’s oldest democracy. But I wasn’t there to admire their contribution to Political Science, I just wanted to drip my toe in and then high-tail it back to Rimini. Which is what I did.
I don’t want to tell you how much the taxi cost – it’s too depressing. One of those Sonic moments. But at least I had San Marino ticked off the list. I had a couple of coffees in Rimini waiting for my train to arrive at 3am. When it did, I was so tired I forgot to sleep.
I had about a zillion train connections to make today. In fact, if I just wanted to get to Toulouse, I could have (get this!) got the super-duper fast TGV to Lyon and then back down again in less time, but I had to pass through Monaco, so I had to stick to the coast.
Although in terms of seeing a place, Monte Carlo ranks along with Jamaica – at least in Jamaica I could stand on the bow of the ship and gaze out over Kingston’s city lights – no such fun here – the station is underground!
As Monaco is one of the (if not the) smallest states in Europe, it was going to be blink-and-you’ll-miss-it affair as it was. Oh well. I got to see the Monte Carlo underground station – WHO SAYS I’M NOT SEEING THE WORLD?! Then the bloody train people in Nice (not nice at all!) made me pay for a first-class reservation on the train to Toulouse (30 quid instead of 3 quid). The big poo’s – they said that second class was full. Humph!
I would have stood.
Anyways, to cut a short story even shorter, I arrived in Toulouse, changed THERE AND THEN! for Foix (I had to run) which is in the Pyrenees, a couple of hours from Andorra.
Foix is as picture-postcard Pyrenees as you could hope for. I missed the last bus to Andorra (don’t worry, it was expected) and the hostel was unfortunately full, so I had to make do with a hotel (I can never shake the feeling that hotels are somehow TOO MUCH for me – all I want is a couch and a shower, I don’t need a telly and a complementary soap). That night I ate pizza, felt lonely (nobody had spoken to me on any of the trains today) and went to bed.
At some disastrously early hour, I was roused from my slumber by our rather impertinent arrival in Milan, which necessitated a change of buses. Didn’t get to see too much of the place, but there’s something about just the name of these places – Verona, Genoa, Venice, Napoli that gets my pulse racing… old school, you know? It’s the same thing that affects me exhausted, bladdered and half-awake watching the sun rise after the last night of Glastonbury – a sense of history, that damned feeling of belonging to a world that’s gone that’s nagged me for years now.
All these countries I visit, most of them are shiny and new (comparatively), they don’t have the weight of millennia baring down on them, there are no layers to dig down through. Yes, I find the Kingdom of Benin interesting, Manchu Picchu is sweet-as, and you could keep me happy for weeks teaching me the ways of a tribe of Aussie Aboriginals or Native Americans, but compared with the achievements of Athens and Rome, the mysteries of ancient India and the technological prowess of Confucius-era China, I can’t help but see them as a bunch of Johnny-Come-Latelies.
Yes yes, I’m sure you have some interesting bits of broken pottery and maybe a beady necklace or two, but you’re really not going to drag me away from playing Bioshock 2 to look at them. Yes, you new-worlders will see this as old-Europe snobbery, but I can’t help it, I like the old stuff. It will outlive us all.
After a few hours I had arrived in Florence. There wasn’t much of a chance to grab something to eat (and for some reason, once in Italy the bus driver decided not to stop at any service stations) before the bus pressed on towards Rome. However, by now there were just three people on the bus, which kind of negated the point of, you know, us being in a bus. We would have fitted in a mini. The driver must have noticed this as he proceeded to drive us to a depot somewhere in the middle of nowhere and make us wait for an hour while they decided what to do with us. In the end, we were put on another bus and taken to Rome. It was all a little odd, but don’t ask me, I only work here.
Arriving at Rome at sunset, I headed over to the hostel where I stayed last May when all of this Odyssey stuff was relatively still shiny and new, the Pop Inn by the station. I checked in for a whopping €21 (bit pricey for a dorm bed, but when in Rome, bring a tent) and set off to find internet and cheap food. I was directed to a restaurant that had ‘good, cheap pizza’ only to find (once I had sat down and ordered a beer) that it had no pizza, good nor cheap. So I (reluctantly) ordered a lasagne (big Garfield fan as a kid) only to be given the measliest portion since Oliver asked Scrooge for more pudding.
Damnit. I headed back to the station and got a decent slice of pizza for a couple of Euro and headed back to the hostel. The last time I was in Rome, I was awestruck and spent most of the night wandering around. This time a black cloak of tiredness overcame me like a tidal wave and I found myself crashing out early.
I thought I would have a few hours to mooch around Rome in the morning, but I found myself unable to prise my worthless body from my bed until after 10am. By the time I had breakfast and tried (and failed) to find a free wi-fi zone, it was time for me to take the train to Civitavecchia, Rome’s port and the place where the boat to Tunisia left from.
The boat to and from Tunisia was horrifically horrific last time, and this time it was no better. Same boat, same company, same unholy rip-off. For a start, the boat was two hours late boarding, which meant that I was left standing in the car-park like an unsuccessful prostitute for longer than would otherwise be sensible. Once (finally) on board, the horribly familiar interior of the Sorrento loomed into view.
I had a ‘deck’ ticket, which basically means you sleep in the restaurant. If you know of a comfortable way to sleep in a restaurant chair, I’d love to hear it. Luckily for me, I was one of the first on board (I ran) so I snagged one of the exclusive couch seats that run along the parameter of the room.
There are only three toilets between all the men on board (usually 100+) and none of them are urinals. Oh, and for some reason, the crew don’t clean them for the full length of the ‘cruise’. Which means within an hour, they are disgusting, within a day they are capable of making a grown man vomit at 50 paces. Nice.
The food is an utter rip-off (just a can of coke will set you back €2.50) and the company on board was less than illuminating. I couldn’t find anyone who spoke a word of English and so spent my time watching the entire first season of Lie To Me rather than do anything, you know, sociable. Ya boo.
And so I found myself lashed to the mast on the grim grimness that is the Grimaldi ferry. And you thought going to the Aldi Supermarket on a wet Wednesday afternoon was pretty grim… my word, you ain’t seen nothing. On board the ‘Sorrento’ for the forth AND UTTERLY FINAL time, I found myself without a bench seat to lay on and therefore had to make do with two cafeteria chairs pushed together.
I woke up with the worst backpain I’ve ever had. They still hadn’t cleaned the toilets (I don’t think they every do) and the three flushing toilets (no urinals, that would be extravagant) were covered, utterly covered in poorly-aimed Arab piss. I had to hitch up my jeans and kick the seat up with my foot. Nice.
At £2.50 for a can of Coke, you can probably guess that I elected to eat and drink as little as possible on this infernal ferry. There was no shop on board, only a terrible joke of a duty-free thing that only sold massive bottles of whiskey and cigarettes at extortionate process (negating the whole point of duty-free, but doesn’t it always?). What’s more, they wouldn’t except (or change) Tunisian Dinars. Quite why is anyone’s guess – surely they could turn a buck or two trading Euros for Dinars and visa-versa? Obstinately not. Idiots. We stopped off in Sicily along the way and I was actually rather tempted to make a break for it, but considering I had spent over eighty quid on the damn ticket (that’s ONE WAY folks!) I thought it best to stick with it through to the end. Incidentally, the price for a ticket on the overnight ferry from Italy to Greece? FIFTEEN EURO. Sorry GRIMaldi Lines, but I hate being ripped off. You’ve made it onto my list of things that SUCK!
Transport that SUCKS:
Small Dirty Cargo Boats
Transport that ROCKS:
Latin American Buses
I wrote up my blog and read The Odessa File by Fredrick Forsyth (donated by Dja, thanks!) and prayed that we arrived early in Salerno, the port for Naples. Ha! No chance – we were four hours late! Arriving at midnight to find there were no taxis whatsoever waiting, I hung around in the FREEZING COLD for about an hour after one of the guys who worked in the port rang a taxi, or something, I don’t know what it was, but it didn’t seem to be ringing a taxi. Then another guy from the port who spoke a bit of English actually rang a taxi and within five minutes it had arrived.
My gratitude for the warmth of the taxi soon evaporated into fury at the cost of the damn thing. At €17 for a ten-minute ride I felt more than a little ripped off. What a rotten day. What a rotten world. May a plague of locusts bite off their rotten faces.
I stayed the night in the Koine Hostel, a decent enough place, but with that cold puritan edge that sucks all warmth, happiness and laughter out of most European Hostels. The shared showers didn’t make me too happy, especially as one of the guys I was sharing my dorm with was as weird as they come – I pushed the bench up against the door lest I was forced to share my nudie space with some half-deranged Johnny Foreigner. A bit excessive having five showers to myself, but sod it, I’m not in jail any more.
The train for Bari, the port from whence would depart my ferry for Greece, left at 2pm, so I had myself a lovely little mooch around the rather spanking town of Salerno. With hills cascading down to the sea, tons of old buildings and a tree-lined promenade along the bay, I found myself irresistibly drawn to the place, damn it – why can’t Liverpool be this beautiful?
So soon enough I was on the train to Bari. Well, actually it was two trains. The first cost me a respectable €4, but the second (it was a Eurostar) is presumably owned by a British company, since they seem to have no concept of what the ‘public’ in the term ‘public transportation’ is referring to and therefore cost me €40. Not quite the gobsmacking no-wonder-these-trains-are-empty fleeceathon that typifies Virgin Trains (upon which the British public are expected to subsidise Richard Branson’s Spaceships for the über-rich), but bad enough.
And then (stay on your toes Odyssey-boy!) on arrival in Bari I jumped in a taxi only to be shown a piece of paper and be told that it was a fixed charge to the port of €20. I considered getting the bus, but given the boat was due to depart in an hour, and the port must be a long long way away in order to qualify for this extortionate rate. But no – it was around the FRICKIN’ corner, wasn’t it??
I HATE taxi-drivers. From East to West, North to South they are only one rung up on the pond-life index above politicians and wife-beaters.
The boat was good, though. I had an airline-style seat all to myself, a plug socket by my feet to charge up my stuff and the beer was only a couple of Euro for a bottle. There was a party atmosphere on board (in contrast to the Sorrento which was like a floating morgue) and, best of all, the trip to Greece cost me just €15. Superfast Ferries, you ROCK MY WORLD!