|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
27 Dec. 2001 - 2 Jan. 2002
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
2001 -- a place odysseyIn the 19th century, the fashionable Grand Tour through Europe and around the Mediterranean took months. Jenny Jobbins did it in seven days, but still found time to relax
It was when I reached for the bank note in my pocket to pay the cab driver at London's Luton Airport that I realised I had no pocket. Indeed, I had no coat. I had left it over a chair inside the Bed and Breakfast as I quietly closed the front door. "Collect it on the way back," the cab driver advised. But I was not coming back. I was embarking on a Grand Tour, and I would be away for weeks (it sounded rather grand to put it this way: actually I was on my way back to normal life in Cairo).
The coast of Corfu
The ruins of Corinth
I was noteless and coatless, not a good start. Did Grand Tour passengers in the good old days find themselves leaving England in so lowly a fashion, and from Luton? Things could only get better, and they soon did. It was a lovely autumn morning in Zurich, and my friend was waiting, chocolates in hand. We had made no definite plans, and I still had only a hazy idea of where we were going: all would apparently fall into place once we had verified a few schedules and timetables.
I was not terribly impressed with the car -- a lurid shiny green, the same shade as pistachio skin, but at least one would not mislay it in a car park. Leaving the airport and the city behind we set off south for the St Gotthard pass, stopping for coffee at a Mövenpick restaurant which bridged the main road, and where the sun poured in through the windows.
We paused again on top of the St Gotthard, where in the cosy inn I asked for a warme Ovo. "People don't drink that any more," my friend commented. "It's old-fashioned." "So am I," I said, "and I'm frozen." I cradled the hot milky malty drink, which came in an ancient chipped mug with "Ovomaltine" scrawled on it in orange and blue. The English, who could never get their tongues round all the syllables, knocked out a few central letters and shortened the name.
Usually snow would have closed the St Gotthard by October, but the weather had been remarkably warm and the pass remained open. Even so, the winter chill was unfamiliar to one whose bones are used to something warmer -- and who has no coat -- and I declined a walk. Back in the pistachio car we sailed down the pass into Ticino, drinking in the postcard views: snow-capped mountains, cropped alps, white churches with bells in the steeples nestling in rocky valleys. On the Italian-speaking side of the pass we found ourselves in another ecosystem: palms, lilies and oleander, and under a sun which exuded a gentle heat rather than warmth.
We sat for a while on a sunny terrace surrounded by exotic plants, but then it was back in the car. The idea of the Grand Tour evokes romance, but ours was a speeded-up vision glimpsed through a windscreen, much as one watches the Hollywood version of a romantic novel. Now we were whizzing through Lugano and Como, where genuine Grand Tourists would have idled beside the lakes for days.
Now it was not far to the border, and we soon joined the queue of traffic waiting to enter Italy. We studied the flow passing on our left: mostly Swiss families returning home after the half-term school break, all the drivers grumpy- faced -- but perhaps the hue of our car made them feel ill. I tried to find a colour worse than ours, and spotted a vivid metallic blue which came close. "Funny how the Swiss spoiled the landscape with this dreadful sixties architecture," I remarked. "Wait till we get to Italy," my friend said.
My friend was right. Low-rise, prefabricated suburban service architecture is not confined to the American midwest. However, we were soon on the autostrada and speeding east. I looked in vain for the watermelon booths which used to supply shade and sustenance to motorists. "You're too old-fashioned," my friend said. "They're long gone. This is a real motorway nowadays, and you can't just pull off and eat watermelon." But the fields were still there, only the road had changed. We sped on, bypassing Bergamo and Brescia and the shores of Lake Garda.
I wanted to see Verona again, but there was no time. It was beginning to get dark and we had to find the road into the mountains so we could reach Bosco Chiesanuova, a small town in the mountains north of Verona where we planned to stay overnight. As it happened we ended up seeing a lot of Verona, including bits I do not mind if I never see again. This was caused by a traffic diversion which kept us driving in circles, but at last we found the road, and Bosco, and a hotel, and a dinner of home- made pasta with a carafe of local red wine.
Bosco is a lovely little town set in the foothills of the Alps. Its beautiful church, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, looks over a cobbled square, the kind of square where you want to sit and write postcards on a Sunday morning. But we had to push east to Venice, not to see it, but to leave it almost as soon as we arrived. On a 19th-century Grand Tour travellers might have spent weeks there, soaking in the atmosphere. For us, it was straight to the port.
It was one o'clock. The ship for Patras -- on the north coast of the mainland Greek Peloponnese -- left at four, and we could embark at two. Even at this late stage in the year, though, all the cabins were booked, and we would have to make do with a Pullman seat. The ship was all glitz and chintz, with gleaming brass rails, all-over carpeting, fancy shops, a nursery and a bar with soft chairs and a television. We aimed for the top deck, where we sat beside the pool until it was time to leave, and then studied the shore as we sailed past Venice: the Doge's Palace, St Mark's, the canals crowned by make-believe bridges as they meet the sea. Then it was time for the self-service cafeteria and a Greek salad.
As we left the cafeteria we noticed a small group of people glued to the TV in the bar. Missiles were flying across the screen and we recognised the words "Bin Landen" (Greeks can't pronounce "Laden"). We guessed that America had attacked Afghanistan. Since the Greek commentary was beyond us we moved to the nursery, where someone had found a German channel on the children's TV. The few foreigners on the ship clustered anxiously in front of it until the early hours.
The Pullman seats were much roomier and more comfortable than airplane seats, and the accommodation had the advantage of washrooms with showers. Breakfast in a dining room -- a typical Greek breakfast of fresh rolls and honey, yogurt, eggs and fruit -- was a luxury affair, and would have been a little more leisurely had we remembered to put our clocks forward to Greek time and not arrived near the end of the session. After breakfast, we came across the only American on board who, while nervously hoping he wouldn't blow his cover, had managed to tune into BBC World. We spent the rest of the day alternating between Pakistan on the TV and the view from the deck, where we watched Albania sliding by, and then the Ionian islands: Corfu, Paxi and Ithaca.
It was dark when we slid into the berth at Patras. The disembarkation was chaotic: cars and trucks rolled off the ship headlong into the normal traffic pouring both ways along a busy road. We swung east along the coast to the tiny village of Kaminia where, by a miracle, we found waiting for us a little hotel called the Poseidon, with its own tiny beach and a room with a view over the floodlit swimming pool and the sea. Heaven. There was even a little restaurant nearby which did a mean Greek salad -- clearly to be my dish of the week.
Next morning in Patras I decided to drop a film to be developed while we toured the shipping agents and Internet cafés for boat timetables. Mainland Greece is crammed with delights and they could bottle the atmosphere, but for some reason the moment you set foot on it you are exhorted to leave. Every other shop window belongs to a travel company acting as agents for this or that line visiting this or that island. By the time we had made a dozen repetitions of our requests and checked out another dozen Web sites and I had remembered my film, the photographer's was closed for the siesta. It would reopen after four hours, at six o'clock.
We either had to abandon the film and move on, or go to a beach for a few hours. We chose the beach. We did not swim, we just sat on the pebbles under a cluster of pine trees eating red grapes, and watched a couple of fishing boats setting out. It was the end of the tourist season. The beach was empty, the cafeteria was shuttered for the winter, its terrace carpeted with fallen leaves. No one disturbed us but a couple walking their dog.
That night we stayed at Aigion, where we sat at an empty table on the pavement outside an empty restaurant, wondering why everyone in town seemed to be eating in fast-food pizzerias while we were the only ones sitting down to order Greek salad. Our place filled up later, and just as quickly emptied again. The streets emptied at the same time. This was a town where everyone took bedtime seriously, leaving no one around to help us find our way back to our hotel. When at last, sore-footed, we found it, we sat on the balcony overlooking the dark sea and the lights of the harbour below. Day four. Time seemed to be standing still.
Next day we drove to Corinth, and I padded over the ruins of the fallen city for the first time in my life. There were no rules, and no boundaries. Teenagers scrambled over the stones as they must have done for centuries, throwing pebbles at each other and making the customary din. A rat scuttled up an almond tree, just like a squirrel, and ran down carrying a nut which it smuggled into its cave under an ancient stone at our feet. In the courtyard of the museum a convention of ancient Greeks stood in line, all with elegantly-draped marble robes and all void from the shoulders up, as though holding a meeting to complain that tourists (especially the English on the Grand Tour) had run off with their heads. The museum itself was full of British and German tourists in over-50s groups, with their guides competing loudly for air-space.
Then it was onto the new motorway installed by the European Union -- so Greece could pretend to have entered the modern era -- which runs down the backbone of the Peloponnese, through names which are larger than the places, like Tripolis and Sparta, through olive and pine groves and mountainsides dusted with cypress trees. And a few short hours (and a bag of grapes) later and we were in Gyphion, the harbour in the crook of the two longest fingers of the Peloponnese. Our ship was waiting, but it would not leave until eleven o'clock the next morning.
To complete my Grand Tour I wanted to find a ship to Alexandria, but this was proving impossible. Scheduled boats no longer run there from Crete (which was the next stop for tomorrow's boat after it had dropped us on our island), although if I waited in Crete for long enough I might find a passage on a merchant vessel. I was tempted, but I had to get back to Cairo. It was all very well in the century before last, but nowadays we have schedules to keep.
We had the whole evening to walk round the town, write another batch of postcards, and sit for hours near the harbour to eat stuffed peppers, tzaziki (yogurt and cucumber) and Greek salad. It occurred to us that we hadn't had a hot meal since Italy.
Next morning's voyage to Kythira, the island where the goddess Aphrodite is said to have emerged from the sea, took only an hour and a half, just time for coffee and Greek salad (with soggy tomatoes -- not a good one this time) in the musty cafeteria. After it dropped us the boat sailed off to Crete: it would return late that night on its way to Athens and pause just long enough for new passengers to board. I would be one of them.
But the rest of the day lay ahead. We found a beautiful empty beach, where the sea was warmer than it looked and the sun still heated the pebbles so they scorch your feet. Dinner was in the idyllic little town of Kapsali, the island's capital, where the houses, crowned by a mediaeval fortress, are draped round the harbour like the tiers of an amphitheatre. We dined on Greek salad and white beans as large as the smooth round pebbles on the beach. The other diners were Swiss and German, residents or holiday- makers catching the last of the summer. The waitress was very slim and otherwise pretty, but she was obliged to hiss the menu through a set of buck teeth. I imagine that a shortage of orthodontists is just one drawback of living on an under-populated island (so many families have drifted away from Kythira that the population has fallen from 30,000 a few decades ago to less than 3,000 today).
One last glass of Retsina, one last stroll along the quayside, and it was back to the port and the ship. This time I secured a bunk in a cabin shared with two blonde women: none of us spoke a word. It was odd that we strangers undressed in the tiny space without knowing what language the others spoke. Just before seven in the morning a loudspeaker announced we had docked at Piraeus.
Day seven: Athens. Marks and Spencer's, the Acropolis, the Plaka -- its streets knitted together with stone steps, some of them clearly ancient marble building blocks -- and still more postcards. Oh, and don't forget the balalaika player, who was on the step each time I turned a corner to try to find the street I wanted in the Plaka -- much as when we had tried to find our way out of Verona weeks -- or was it months? -- before. Was it really less than a week? Was it really only six Greek salads?
Late that night I flew to Cairo. I would have liked to make the journey over land and sea like they used to do, but in this day and age things have changed. Leisure comes second to time and schedules; and adventure second to terrorist threats and insurance cover. Perhaps one day, given a little more time, I shall wait in Crete for a boat, sipping thick black coffee and watching the world go by.
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