Category Archives: Travel

Rambling around in Crete

3rd-5th October

Weds 3rd October: I took a midday bus from Heraklion down to Pistildlia, near Matala on the south coast. The journey time was unpredictable and us such, it did not pull in to my small village until around 3pm. After asking a couple of locals I found my homestay, Jodi’s Pension. Jodi is a New York American who married a Greek man, Niko, came to Pistidlia 32 years ago, and did not leave. I can see the strong attraction for many expats to this part of the world: the slow pace of life, the warmth, the beauty of the landscape and people, the Raki…

Jodi gave me a warm welcome and I liked my little room, and certainly had two peaceful sleeps there after the dog-driven racket of Heraklion.

I worked out that I may have time to walk up a neighbouring mountain to a Monastery called Odhighitria; at least I could get as far as the village of Sivas and maybe a car would stop and give me a ride at least part of the way. I walked for 4km or so, unfortunately and of necessity on the roadside, and on the narrow shoulder too (as Greeks don’t really walk, at all) and after a few minutes with my thumb out a couple of tourists stopped and gave me a lift to the turn off to Listaros, where they were staying. So it was another 4km walk to the monastery, but I got there by 5.30pm, and the light was good enough to appreciate the location and the beautiful surroundings – it is in a very isolated spot with stupendous views over a wide part of central southern Crete. The tower is Byzantine, dating from 960, and the church contains frescoes and icons from the 15th century. There is also a charming museum with an olive press and other agricultural items from previous eras in Cretan life.

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Entrance to the Monastery of Odhightridia

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Frescoes at the church at the Monastery

 

I lingered for about an hour, bought some olive soap from one of the monks (they specialise in olive oil production there) and started my descent. Luckily for me a car stopped almost immediately, a young Italian tourist with his Russian girlfriend and the young man’s father, all on holiday together.

They dropped me in Sivas, a lovely little village with a square and a few tavernas facing it, and from there it was 3km back through olive groves, where I met and spoke with a young guy out with his grandmother, picking olives (the very early crop, still pink – they usually do not harvest until late October) and they showed me the way to Pistidlia. Back at the pension I met and spoke with Jodi, who told me that her husband’s father used to tend the flock and look after crops at the Monastery, and every day Niko, as a boy, had to make the walk up the hill to take food to his father – that’s at least 10km each way. The family had only one donkey, and it was in use elsewhere. Jodi was astonished I’d made the walk and back in 4 hours, but I did let on I’d had transport part of the way!

I found a taverna for red salad, hummus with parsley and lemon, and a glass of Cretan red wine, and tried to content myself with the exceedingly slow service – they don’t want to rush you here, but there is only so much internal conversation I can have for 2 hours or more – a long time to consume a small meal!

I slept very soundly that night, lulled to sleep by the tinkle of sheep’s bells from neighbouring farms and chickens and assorted farmyard creatures and a fair number of the inevitable dogs.

Next day, Thursday, it was time for another walk – one I had been planning carefully from New Zealand, where it looked like I could make the journey on minor roads and avoid the traffic. A long wait for the bus to Festos (the plan was to bus up the mountain, and walk down) but it was a short 5km trip. I arrived before the worst of the crowds descended. Festos is one of the main archaeological sites on Crete; it is situated on a magnificent outcrop overlooking the Messara plain and towards the mountains of Psiloritis and the sacred cave of Kamares, high in the mountains.

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The theatral area at Festos

This is where the famous Festos (or Phaestos) disc was discovered. See my earlier blog post relating to the exhibition of this disc in the Heraklion museum. It was very hot up there, so much so I had to keep seeking shelter from the sun. This is a fascinating site, without the partial restoration that Knossos has undergone, and was excavated by Italians at about the same time as Evans was working at Knossos. It was fascinating for me to see how the Minoans lived – the impressive drainage systems, storage facilities, archival or adminstrative systems, and the main court, around which was a two-storey building with doors and windows – it was possible to see the niches where the doors were hung. The royal or noble living quarters were clearly visible in their splendour – with gently graded steps as befitting nobility, and views to the Psiloritis Mountains: how wonderful! They liked to live well and comfortably, as we do. I enjoyed a lovely snack and coffee on the terrace overlooking the Psiloritis mountains – it was extremely pleasant there, under the bougainvillea looking at the view and sipping coffee.

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Festos as it was under the Minoans

I had thought I could walk on the minor road to my next stop, Ayia Triadha, but the man at the Festos ticket desk told me it was “difficult” and advised me to follow the main highway; in fact this added another hour of hard, hot slog to my walk and meant I had to again walk on the narrow hard shoulder, with cars and trucks whizzing by ( I later saw that it would have been easy to take the shorter, minor road). The only consolation to following this longer route was finding the tiny and ancient church of St George near the turn off to Agia Triadha. I then had a hill to climb to this second site, again another Minoan town or palace in a beautiful and atmospheric location with few visitors. It looks out over the Gulf of Messara, a few kilometres away, although in Minoan times the sea would have been right up to the foot of the settlement. The steps leading down to the sea from the town are clearly visible. The row of shops is also very clear – how amazing to actually walk from shop to shop as the ancients did thousands of years ago. The jumble of houses opposite the shops completes a scene of Minoan industry and bustling town life. Again, hardly any restoration here at all. And this time only half a dozen visitors.

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Row of Minoan shops, Ayria Triada

In the corner of the site is a tiny church undergoing restoration, with some some frescoes – the 14th century church of Ayios Yeoryios.

I was beginning to feel hot and tired, and very thirsty, but the plan was to walk to the sea and swim. That was a very hot 4km away, first on a dusty road and then on a long paved road, with no shelter.

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Detail from a fresco at the church at Adyia Triadha

Finally I reached the sea at an unnamed location (just south of the nondescript town of Tymbaki, for those following this on Google maps), and kept walking south to reach the busier resort of Kalamaki before I allowed myself refreshment and a break and swim. This was a good idea as at Kalamaki there were trees on the beach, and shade, and cool drinks to be had. I had my swim gear with me so changed for the most delicious swim in the Libyan sea and reflected on the fact that there was no land between me and the continent of Africa. And of all the galleys, ships and voyages that had been made for millennia in these very waters.

I pressed on as time was getting on, which meant plodding down the sand a kilometre or so to Kommos, past a very long line of European nudists – some lying in the surf line like naked mermaids, giving themselves skin cancer on their fair and blond Nordic bodies: I don’t care what they thought about me in my sunhat, walking shoes and shorts; I wanted to see another Minoan settlement here, which is almost right on the beach, but behind a fence. This is a very large settlement, a Minoan harbour town; in Minoan times the sea was a couple of metres lower than it is today. Due to Greece’s continued economic woes the site is closed to visitors, along with many others around Greece.

There is not the money at the moment to properly excavate, record and manage their many classical and pre-classical sites. Cars were parked right up against the fence and it was really hard for me to peer in and make much sense of what I was seeing. There are I read remarkable ruins here, including a road that has still has cart marks indented in it and runs for over 50 metres – I could not be sure I was looking at it. There is also the longest stretch of Minoan wall on the island but again I could not see it.

It was over 30C and I really needed a beer, feeling quite parched, so I headed for the little taverna on the beach, but I could tell from the evident impatience of those around me and the indifference of the waitress to the desperation of people trying to order, or pay, that I would be faced with a 2-hour delay in the simple act of downing a 330ml beer. So I picked up my sweat and sand and trooped out of there.

That meant a further 3 or 4kms to Matala (also another 3 back to Pisitdilia) and a climb over the headland and down a fast and scary road – on the narrow roadside – down into Matala village. This is famous as the place where legends such as Bob Dylan used to hang out, and Joni Mitchell used to sing of a “Matala moon”, and it was THE “hippy” hangout of Crete in the 1970s, when it was very simple and undiscovered by the world. Now it’s a tangle of tourist tat, but actually still has quite a bit of charm about it – but not at all the sort of place I’d want to holiday. There is a very small beach, and above it the Matala caves, which the Romans used as graves. They carved them out of the rock, they are not a natural formation. They may also have been used as early Christian graves, and had other uses over the years. They are in rows stacked above one another above the beach, and are actually quite striking.

I am learning and understanding such a lot about the human story here.

My guidebook said the caves are open to 7pm at this time of year but the ticket seller said to me it is now 6pm, and as it was 5.30pm he would not let me part with my 2 euros and go in.

Never mind – I had another swim here, and did some supermarket shopping for cooking dinner (there is a kitchen at my pension, and I am so bored with the extremely long service at tavernas I will really limit my eating out: it just is not a thing to do on your own) and reconciled myself to the climb up the mad road, over the headland, and collapsing dirty, sandy sweaty and tired into Pistidlia again, actually on schedule at 7pm. I guess I covered around 23km, and my back hurt from all the walking on hard surfaces.

A final note re Matala – I talked to an Argentian couple here who had a big chart of the world spread out on the sand. They have visited 112 countries, in the last 16 years of nonstop travel on their extremely aged motorbike, cleverly crammed with all their necessities. They ask for donations and sell jewellery to pay their way. An extraordinary life, and one I’d be heartily sick of after 16 years of a nomadic life – no place to call home but the uncomfortable seat of a rusty motorbike.

Friday 5th October: I was sorry to leave Jodi’s pension, as I liked it there – there were I think only two other guests, so it was very manageable.

I boarded the 9.45 bus to Iraklio, and it stopped at Mires and we waited 30 minutes for another bus to come and collect us to take us onwards. That was tedious as I am tiring of long bus waits. I did chat to a Flemish couple also waiting, who were friendly. She had gone to Matala as a young woman in 1976 and met three Danish girls there who have become life-long friends. I wondered about the accumulation of other meetings and life changes that have happened because of Matala – the people you find there who may change your life.

Finally at 12.30 we made Iraklio, and I had a quick refreshment stop at the station before dragging my suitcase up the hill to town (and breaking one of the wheels) to the car rental place. I should have asked them to meet me at the bus station.

I was I admit quite nervous about driving in local traffic, sitting on the left of the car, driving a manual, and of course on the right of the road, and finding the way along what are clearly not well-signposted roads. I am however quite a confident driver and having already been on the island 5 days I’d picked up something of the style – it is ok to be slow, you just hang over to the right and let the fast guys roar past. And once out of town, there is not much traffic.

I am still utterly bewildered as to how I went wrong driving out of town however – I was on the right road and even turned off into a town in error (thinking the sign was pointing the direction, not to the actual town off the highway) that was definitely on my route – but after a while it dawned on me I was retracing the road the bus had taken from Matala this morning! And over the mountain range again, heading south west and not east!

Cretan roads are poor – you can drive north/south ok but making your way east-west means navigating a very confusing complex of minor roads. There is the national road that hugs the northern coastline and that is what I thought I was on (the rental car man even pointed me in what I knew was the right direction when I set off) but somehow, and I may never know how, I was headed in another direction entirely. Fortunately I had purchased two very good maps of central and western Crete in Iraklio and by following those, a general sense of direction and a few vague and confusing signs, some of them taking me on impossibly narrow routes that could not possibly be major routes! – right past houses, almost hitting them! – I saw a sign pointing to Lasithki plateau, my destination, only 17kms. I had gone about 100 km out of my way – but re-routing back to Iraklio and getting caught up in snarls and starting again had no appeal.

It was frustrating to begin to see signs to Iraklio, only 50 or 40km away. But it was a very spectacular and interesting journey.

Never mind, I made it, and coming down from the extraordinarily wild, switchback and remote road over the mountains, with turns done in 1st gear that doubled right back on themselves, precipitate drops to my left, rocks on the road, stray sheep and goats – it was all a little familiar, like driving in parts of New Zealand or the Lake District in England. It was very picturesque, enchanting landscape, quite unchanged for centuries but for the plastic tunnels that farmers use everywhere here for crop growing – and these are very large, increasingly cover the landscape and can be seen from a long way off. Descending down from the tops and with the view of the whole plateau in front of me, and then entering the circle of little towns at – I think, given the complete absence of signs – Magoules – was really something. This area is famous for windmills, used by farmers as part of the irrigation system to bring water from the streams up to their farms (houses and farms are elevated to avoid flooding from the streams once the snow melt starts in spring).

This is the real, remote Crete – old ladies sitting on the doorstep, dressed in black, some with headscarf under the chin and over the head. Old men shuffling along or sitting around in groups chatting. Dogs sitting in the middle of the road, and they won’t get up for a passing car thank you very much.

The lady at the petrol station just past Ayios Konstantinos confirmed that my destination for tonight, Tzermiadho, was only a further 6km away, which given the impossible maze of roads, barely legible directional signs, and following a hunch that I was headed the right way, felt rather good.

Many people speak a little, some, or a lot of English – and they are very kind and helpful people.

I motored slowly into town, still vaguely irritated at having to stay on the right side of the road, but finding it easier than I thought I would (the downside of travelling this way is the absolute focus required, and admiring the view really means stopping completely), stopped and looked for a sign advertising rooms. Walking around I saw some guys walking along who did not look Greek, and they were dark and handsome (which is not to say that Greek men are not of course!) – and on getting closer I observed that they were Indians, probably here as farm labourers. I was astounded to hear an Indian tongue at this very remote location. Why not Cretan workers, when there is an economic crisis here? I must ask more tomorrow.

I found a sign offering rooms/chambre/zimmer. The woman with the rooms is French, but speaks good English, Christine – married to Vassili, a Greek man, who is very friendly and has lived in Tzermiadho all his life, he tells me.

I followed Christine for a kilometre out of town in our cars (the way I had come actually) and she took me to her house, Mansion Kronio, where I am in a little adjacent cottage with bed, bathroom, kitchen and living room, with a lovely view west to the sun setting over the plateau, and the sound of sheep bells tinkling, and little else. A very serene place, and it is this sort of serenity I’ve come looking for.

It is much cooler too than the coast – we really are up in the clouds, tonight I have a sweatshirt on, it snows here over winter, or certainly on the surrounding mountains.

My little Fiat on the Lasithki road

Motoring over the mountains towards the Lasithki plateau – looking south; the plateau is further on, northwards

This village is on the E4, one of the pan-European walkways. Tomorrow I will do some walking and exploring – the entire plateau can be crossed on foot in 90 minutes.

Near here is the Dhiktean cave; where Zeus was born, legend has it. The trek up to the cave can be made by mule but I will try to do it on foot.

As usual you can see more photos including those of Matala on my Facebook

 

 

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Two days in Heraklion

Two days in Heraklion – 1st and 2nd October

 

Heraklion is the capital city of the island of Crete.  I had expected a fast-paced and hectic city but in fact it is quite modest, certainly by the standards of many places I have been to, and the people are friendly.  It is not overpowered by tourists.  The central shopping streets, which are touristy but not overly so – the market still retains elements of an actual market, namely butchers shops and fruit and vegetable stalls, as well as the stalls and shops selling trinkets and olive oil and so on.  But there is no pressure here – it is all very laid back.

I’d arrived here by plane from Paris on Sunday night, the night of the 30th September, on a flight which was delayed from leaving Paris by one hour (of sitting on the tarmac) and it was the most hectic flight in terms of onboard behaviour I’ve ever seen – no sitting quietly for fear of being screamed at by an Air New Zealand-type fire-breathing dragon here – this was time to move about, socialise, drink, eat, chat and queue for the toilet through the entire three-hour flight. Someone got very sick onboard and I was worried we’d be delayed further on arrival by that, but in fact we were not, and boarded one of those tarmac buses that took us through the warm night to the terminal building, where luggage carrousels did not convey any bags from Paris! I just walked around all four carrousels again and again until I recognised people from my flight, and I looked down – and there was my bag! It all seemed rather ad hoc. It was now after 11pm and a taxi took me right to the door of my airbnb.

I am staying at a very agreeable place, on the 3rd floor of an apartment building (the very helpful owner lives below) and have the whole place to myself, with kitchen and even a balcony and washing machine: ah the joy of clean clothes!  The only drawback is the menagerie of dogs a neighbour keeps on his/her balcony which sleep all day in the sun and become very alert at night, with persistent barking once the sun goes down, until the church bells start up at 7am – which they greet with a wolverine howl.  So my already existing huge sleep deficit has not been remediated yet.  In fact there are little dogs all over Heraklion, and they do all seem to bark incessantly and defecate everywhere; however they are not the menacing and rabid creatures one finds in many parts of South East Asia, where wild packs of dogs may decide to descend ferociously on you for no apparent reason (as has happened to me) at any time.

Yesterday saw me replacing items that were stolen in Paris (those few that can be replaced) and improving my personal security arrangements to make sure that it won’t happen again, if that is possible, and getting some warmth and goodness into my body after the pollution and stresses of Paris.  Fortunately this is a safe place and pleasantly warm; the sight of the sea has lifted my depressed spirits somewhat.

The afternoon was spent in the excellent Archaelogical Museum. It started off quite busy but once a couple of tour groups had shuffled through, it was pleasantly quiet and enjoyable.

This is by far the most important museum dedicated to the era from 6000BC, then Minoan civilisation and its immediate successors, in the world – appropriately, as this is the centre of the Minoan world.  The exhibits are extremely well displayed, better, I must say, than what I saw in many museums in Paris.  The Phaestos disc of course is a stand out, with its mysterious inscriptions that no one has yet been able to decipher or give meaning to. I also loved seeing the draughtsboard (and saw the next day at Knossos where it had been excavated from) and the series of glazed items depicting Minoan houses, which showed just what remarkable levels of fine art and technology had been achieved in the Minoan era. The fine pendant of two bees hovering around a golden disc is also utterly remarkable. The huge urns, and funerary stone coffins, some of them in the shape of urns and with their skeletons still stuffed into them ( in the foetal position, which is how the Minoans believed we should be buried – returning to our birth as it were) also impressed me, and the frescoes – oh! The frescoes! – those retrieved from Knossos and which are replaced with copies today, the happy dolphins, the depictions of bull dancing – it is all quite astonishing

There are 27 rooms to get around and by the time one enters the statue room – full with Hellenic and Roman statues, you are getting quite exhausted, and it is quite impossible to absorb it all in one visit.

I discovered a supermarket on the 20-minute walk back and bought some ingredients for a simple meal, with some cheap dry white Cretan wine, which was quite drinkable. Sleep was disturbed by the yapping hounds and occasional hoon on a nearby busy road. I envy the Minoans living in an era without noisy motor cars and planes (which also come in very low indeed over Heraklion as the airport is only 4km from the city centre, and there seem to be planes going in or out every few minutes). Coffee is a favourite drink of the Cretans, and there are coffee places everywhere – strong, good coffee too, and a couple of times already it has fortified me for a day into which I have awoken insufficiently rested, and lacking in the will to go out and get on with what I have come here for. Then I remembered that this is the lot of many people in the world: a tiny and not-private space to sleep, in Indonesia I have walked through seas of giant rats around people’s homes to get to them, and incessant noise all night, insufferable heat: and then often the call of the mosque before day break, or for women, getting up before dawn to prepare their market stall.

 

Back to Crete. Today, 2nd October, I fulfilled a long-held ambition to see the Palace of Knossos. I have spent many winter evenings in Wellington reading about the Minoans, and visited the Knossos-themed exhibition, “Restoration”, at Victoria University in Wellington, and associated lecture, three times over the time it was on. So I felt well prepared, especially after visiting the museum the day before.

It was nice to take the city bus out there and be greeted by the sight of olive and cypress trees all around and on the surrounding hills. Crickets chirped quietly in the trees. So this is Crete! – perhaps I will find some solitute, peace and sleep somewhere on this island.

On entering the palace site there is a statue of its primary excavator, Sir Arthur Evans. What we see today are the remains of the civilisatin which occupied this site after 1700 BC through to about 1450BC. They lived well, especially the royalty, with comfortable living quarters, massive storage facilities suggesting well organised administration, and a large central court where the famous bull dancing – grabbing the horns of the enraged beast and hurling yourself over it – was practiced by young men and women: perhaps – there are suggestions the court was not large enough.

 

I have photos on my Facebook site and will endeavour to load some up here, but the internet does not work well here – look again tomorrow night when I will try again. I had an extremely interesting three hours, during which I sat under a cypress tree and ate my sandwich and lovely Cretan pear – they are really delicious here! – for my lunch break. I visited the Throne Room three times – once when the queue was long, again when it was shorter, and around 2pm when the crowds had really thinned out and there was no queue at all, so I could take my time. Here it is really possible to understand how the ancients lived: to hold court the King would have crossed from his living quarters (still there) to sit on his throne ( still there), after which he would go back to join his Queen and they would bathe and the waters would run out through pipes and a clever drainage system to drain slowly away down the hill….all still visible and clearly understandable.

 

We understand a great deal – not everything of course – because of the vast number of items recovered from the site and now in the Museum in Heraklion. The effort of scholarship that has been exerted to interpret and understand all the items is immense. At Knossos there copies of the removed frescoes that are now in the Museum, but in same places in the museum you can see the orginal colour, floors, buildings and so forth. Sadly for me it is not possible any longer to walk down the royal steps or get really close – one has to follow board walks for the most part.

I lingered as long as I could and noticed among the throngs one English man and his wife who appeared to be taking a very close interest in every aspect, consulting their Blue Guide perhaps at every turn. Most other visitors seemed distracted by their phones and of course the endless desire to pose for photos, leaning up against a 3,000 year old pillar. How odd all this tourism is. Just what happens to all the millions of digital images taken every day in the world?

 

Finally it was time for baklava and coffee in the cafe on the site, and to take the bus back, but not before looking for some of the other buildings which surround Knossos: the Roman villas (closed to the public) and the Minoan royal summer palace, believed to be the place they could escape to and feel cooler, tucked away under a hillside. I had that site all to myself.

 

The bus took us back to the square, where I walked back to my apartment to pick up my swimming trunks for a trip to a nearby beach, but the service in question turned out to be a highly irregular service that once it arrived, it was almost getting too late for swimming. I headed out anyway and found the beach, strewn with plastic but the water is clear and clean. Planes roar overhead as it’s close to the runway. The water was really nice and refreshing, I thought I’d timed the bus back ok, but had to wait close to an hour – and then what turned up was not the No7 as I was told but, inexplicably, a No12, which however did take me to the city centre and not to some far flung place from which I would have had to fumble my way back in complete darknessand getting hopelessly lost. That was all probably pointless, but sometimes travel does not always work out. I thought of the pristine waters of the Abel Tasman or the mostly clean beaches in most places in NZ, but then the water is nowhere near as warm and agreeable as it is here in Crete.

The Cretan landscape is bare and rocky but bursting with history and suffering and ancientness. Tomorrow I leave Heraklion on a bus to the south coast, where I have booked a place which promises to be one of solitude, no sounds but crickets, and peaceful – please let that be so. I need a Restoration of my own.

 

 

 

 

 

More adventures in Paris

25 September

I have been full of cold and cough and that has slowed me down a little and left my head in a bit of a muddle at times.

Tuesday 25th saw me at Bastille, a square in the middle of a great ring of boulevards and (due to my head muddle) it was some time before I worked out the right one to take me down to the river.  All of Paris seems to be engaged in permanent roadworks.  In addition security everywhere is tight with armed police but also the army patrolling with sub-machine guns, and x rays and bag inspections on entering every public building, museum etc.

I was headed for the Institut du Monde Arabe and its museum;  the sheath of the building is modelled on an Islamic mashrabiya, with its many tiny and moving (opening and closing) apertures. I understand that they actually do not always work very well.  The building itself, one of Mitterand’s grand projects, is quite unsympathetic inside, a great mass of steel and glass and mirrors with the collections hidden, and instead there are signs to toilets and the basement and poky spaces.

The visit starts on the 7th floor and works down; the collections, mostly drawn from other museums around Paris, are superb, and well illustrate the development of religion, science, society, agriculture etc in the vast Islamic world. I enjoyed seeing pieces from Tunisia and Mauritania and other countries of which I rarely get a glimpse anywhere else.

It was time for coffee but both the cafes and the outdoor terrace with magnificent views were closed, annoyingly, so I had to contend with a visit to a ghastly basement and a 1 Euro coffee dispensed from a machine.

I walked along the left bank of the Seine to reach The Shakespeare and Company English language bookshop.  I spent an hour in there browing its ok selection of only English language books amid scores of other visitors, most of whom I think were tourists and not book buyers, before emerging with a weighty but very readable looking tome on the wars between Britain and France 1789 to 1815.  After having just visited Thuringia, and learning how the Congress of Vienna in 1815 reorganised and rationalised the map of Germany and indeed Europe, I really need to know more.

Time to grab an outrageously overpriced and just so-so coffee from the adjacent cafe, and outside sitting in the swarms of wasps that seem to be plaguing Paris at the moment (and, I noticed, Germany) I shared a table with a young American called Ryan who was here visiting his sister; Ryan is from LA and works there as a creative executive bringing all the people together to make TV shows.  He was a nice guy and we talked about Trump, Paris, New Zealand and a bunch of other things.

Onward up the Rue St Jacques (which I learnt later is the beginning, of course, of the Way of St James, the camino pilgrimage route that starts at the Notre Dame just over the Seine and ends at Santiago de Compostela in Spain; my friend with whom I was dining that night has written a book on the unknown French section of this route) to the Pantheon, an amazingly striking and colossal building containing the tombs of many famous French men and women.  I am sure it is impressive inside.  Just there, a group of students were engaged in a noisy protest over something or other, dressed in headbands and carrying placards and banners, they were making a lot of sound directed at the university opposite the Pantheon.  Shades of 1968.

Continuing south I found my way to Rue Mouffetard, which has a market at the end, Place de la Contrescarpe, and is lined with exquisite little shops.  There I had a gelato from a store that specialises in shaping them into flowers.IMG_20180925_153856

On from there to see the house where Ernest Hemingway lived and, just opposite, James Joyce.

A short distance away is a remarkable park which is actually a Roman ampitheatre, discovered just by chance in 1869. It is very well preserved, and walking down the slopes into the ampitheatre, one has a real sense of how it must have been to be a gladiator in Gaul, walking down to fight various beasts or other people.  Even the cages where wild animals were kept are visible and clear.

I sat in the sun there for a bit before heading off to the Jardin du Luxembourg.  I reached these gardens past the Senat, the building housing the upper chamber of the legislature of the Republic.  The armed security at the entrance was very heavy.

The gardens are very beautiful indeed, quite remarkable in fact and I have resolved to return before I leave Paris.  People sit about on metal green chairs enjoying the sun, reading, chatting, resting.  Quite what it is about Paris that vast numbers of people have the time to engage in this activity seemingly at all times of day I do not know.  Even here, we were all being watched by guards.

The scenes in some parts of the gardens, with people painting and children feeding the ducks in small ponds and young men and women lying closely and talking intently or just wrapped up in each other, were timeless and have been painted again and again by the many artists of 19th cent Paris such as Seurat, whom we have all come to love.

It was nearing 6pm and time to meet my friend Angelynn for our agreed appointment at Shakespeare and Co to hear a writer at 7pm.  It was great to see her again after a year or more absence.  We headed for a nice wine bar/restaurant and enjoyed a glass of red.  We decided to forgo the American writer and head round the corner in St Germain instead for dinner.  This is where Angelynn lives and she knows many places; the first we tried was full so we crossed the road to its brother institution The Fish.  That was also full but we went upstairs to The Kitchen where chef Valentin presides.  Eight different dishes with three different wines followed by Valentin’s own rum and tonka bean blend served from an enormous bottle shaped like the Eiffel Tour. P1060329

The food, the Sancerre, the chenin blanc, the vin rouge, and of course Angelynn’s hugely stimulating company made for a sensationally enjoyable and extremely memorable evening.

Afterwards Angelynn walked me over the Seine to the Metro, where a huge full moon lit up the Eiffel Tower, thousands of people milled about the bridges and the delightful streets of St Germain, and it was a quite extraordinarily civilised and urbane scene that has no parallel on Earth.

Weds: I had a late start – a glass of rum at nearly midnight with a cold and cough does rather take a little coping with – before heading out to Les Marais area, as I wanted to take a really good look around.  I sat in the Places des Vosges and contemplated the very great beauty of it, and how Paris is so very beautiful in the face of immense overcrowding, density and congestion.

On from there to the hotel where Oscar Wilde died, and I followed a melange of streets before arriving the Les Marches des infants rouges, a small market behind a metal green door selling a tempting array of delicious foods.  I settled on a small felafel dish and, as fate would have it, again shared a table with another young person, this time from Austria.  She spoke immaculate English so we had a long conversation chiefly about environmental issues, before I started down south again away from the haut Marais to the Pompidou centre ( did not brave the queue) and then the Hotel de Ville (exhibition is closed weds – so much of Paris is closed, under construction, closed due to “exceptionelle”).

 

 

 

 

 

Thursday 27 September

An early start saw me at Gare St Lazare for the 10.17am train to Vernon.  The large SNCF service sped us in 45 minutes to this beautiful Normandy town of half-timbered buildings and the church of Notre Dame which dates from 1160.  Some of the stone floor slabs were so worn from centuries of footsteps that they were almost bowed.

Vernon with church of Notre Dame dating from 1160 on the right

Vernon, church of Notre Dame to the right of frame

I had resolved to make the 4km walk to the gardens of Claude Monet at nearby Giverney.

After crossing the bridge over the Seine, busy with traffic, the walk soon gave way to a long paved walkway along the river for about 3kms, which crossed the D5 and became a delightful walk past hedgerows and lovely gardens and houses.

At 12 I entered the village of Giverney, just as the bells of the 10th century church of St Radagonde, a female saint, welcomed me with a prolonged and complex noonday peal which lasted fully ten minutes.  I walked down a lovely lane which grew still lovelier, and more crowded with visitors, as I approached the famous Monet gardens.

church of Saint Radegonde, Giverney

10th century church of St Radegonde at Giverney; in the yard Claude Monet is buried.

After queuing for about 20 minutes it was my turn to enter – and it was an utter delight to be greeted by gardens of very great beauty.  It is autumn so of course the water lilies were not flowering, but many late summer flowers are still blooming including the sun flowers and variants thereof. In fact there is a profusion of colour.

Monet garden

The colour on the entering the Monet garden

A road now bi-sects the garden – I have no idea how that was allowed to happen – and there is some intrusion of road noise which perhaps detracts from the illusion of tranquility and the bucolic rural setting, as well of course as the incessant chatter of the many other visitors. But the gardens were not, I suspect, as busy as they would get in May and June when the lilies are in flower and the gardens are at their greatest.  Somehow the visitors are well screened behind flowers and plants, and course it is impossible to visit and not find many excellent photographic vantage points.

The gardens are in fact superb, beautifully maintained and laid out.   They are – apart from the road – just as they were in Monet’s time, 100 years ago. The water lily pond is just exquisite.

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Water lily pond

Lilies at Giverney

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One is free to wander the path ways and take as long as one wishes in the explorations.

I lingered on seats in the sun and watched huge dragon flies dancing over the lilies. As many visitors no doubt do, I dreamt of buying an acre somewhere warm, preferably with a gorgeous French farmhouse with shuttered windows and flower boxes, and growing my own Monet garden.

Finally I meandered up to Monet’s house, which is very much as he left it, but from March to November it pays host to thousands of pairs of feet from all over the world, every day of the week.  Each room is painted a different colour.  Monet’s bedroom is very beautiful with views over the garden. Also enchanting is the yellow dining room in the basement.

 

The bedroom

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Yellow dining room

Regretfully I said au revoir to Monet and walked a short distance up the path to a small reserve where I ate my chicken sandwich and French apples under a tree in the sunshine and afterwards relaxed on the grass and watched dragonflies and birds overhead.  This is something I rarely do, but it is a complete treasure and must be done on occasion to refresh and restore our spirits.

I began to wonder why anyone would want to live anywhere but  the French countryside; it is completely beautiful, tranquil and extraordinarily interesting, full of historic abbeys, churches and castles, little cafes and boulangerie.

I want to move here immediately.

Slowly I made my way on foot to the church of St Radagonde again to see Monet’s tomb and to take a quick look inside; then I walked back along the river, all the while keeping the 12th century church at Vernon in view, to the town, to find a boulangerie and to buy a Normandie tarte, filled with apple, to which I now felt entitled.  I found an espresso coffee and enjoyed tarte and coffee in the sun until the large SNCF train pulled in to Vernon at 4.47 to take us all back, suntanned, weary, our eyes swimming with colours, to the madness of Gare St Lazare and to be plunged into the murky depths of the Paris underground once more.

I have had a quiet evening catching up with domestics, and I’m getting better at buying what I need; the lovely Turkish guys at the kebab place round the corner prepared a nice healthy meal for me tonight, served with smiles and courtesies.  I love the way the French language is so peppered with politeness: bonjour madam, bonsoir monsieur, au revoir monsieur, and so on.  Delightful, and English, particularly the New Zuld variety with its crudely over-familiar grunts of greeting, makes me cringe by comparison.

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Arrive en Paris

Today some travel weariness has set in,

after the fun and company of being with friends in Thuringia, not to mention my persistent cold and cough.  I had to catch my 9.09 train to Erfurt on Monday morning and change there to a faster train to Frankfurt…but although the train left Weimar on time it stood outside the station at Erfurt for interminable minutes, and did not pull in until 7 mins after the due time so I missed my connection. There were others similarly fuming.

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waiting for the train to Erfurt in Weimar, as part of a day’s travel to Paris

This being Europe there was another train in 45 mins that still allowed me 20 mins or so to change trains in Frankfurt to my appointed TGV at 12.58pm, that mostly raced very fast (although only really fast once it reached the French border, where we had a little stop to allow various armed personnel to get on and off) across the German-French landscape until we pulled into Paris at 5pm.  Then into the melee that is Paris.  I caught myself reflected and saw a weary, Frodo-like creature looking back at me, not in search of the Ring, but quite what I don’t know.

Then through the milling throngs to buy a weekly travel pass – that’s $50 or so gone – and on the Metro out to Porte de Charenton, which is very much a normal part of Paris where large numbers of people seem to work, doing quite what I don’t know.  I met Madam Catherine, who lives in the teeny weeniest space imaginable.  My room is ok, very small and with a little divan bed upon which I am currently perched, with many nice homely touches in the room.  She clearly takes great pride in being an Airbnb host. She is a retired person who has lived here for 10 years and in Paris all her life.

Ingress to the building in Boulevard Pontiwiaski , extremely conveniently located right next to the Metro, is gained by pressing a 4 digit number on a large door, and then pressing a bell to hail a lift the size of a shoebox (that apparently can take 3 people, but only VERY good friends) which lumbers and shakes to the 4th floor.  Then one enters a combination in a key safe to obtain the key to the apartment.

Catherine’s kitchen/shower/laundry is half the size or less of my bathroom at home.  Foodstuffs are on a tray that has to be moved to access the tiny washing machine. Things hang from the ceiling and are in every conceivable place.  The shower cubicle is off that, and I have a bath robe to cover myself to make the 1.5m journey from bedroom to shower cubicle.  I think there is room to turn around in it, with sufficient advance planning, and there is a cleverly designed and well supplied selection of body washes.

I went around the corner to buy myself some milk and muesli for my breakfasts and was shocked at the deprivation  all around me which seemed to be certainly as bad, if not more so, than what I have seen in London.  Women with crying enfants pulled things from rubbish bins as they screamed at their kids.  Below the apartment building line, at the back, is a disused railway line which is  inhabited by people in rows of makeshift shacks.  A shanty town, really.  Yet the area is quite mixed and does not feel threatening.  Smart office workers were heading for the metro, and a very attractive and well dressed young Asian woman entered the apartment building at the same time as me on my return.  In the next building I observed an estate agent (they look the same the world over) greet and take inside a well dressed business man to view an apartment – I saw him later and wanted to ask what he thought!

So I am in culture shock.  This is not the banliue – it is still within the Peripherique – but the banliue, the great hulk of outer Paris which is another world of endless apartment buildings, immigrant communities, and some pretty desperate and crime-ridden suburbs, ring the city like a great brooding force kept forever at bay by the impossibly unaffordable cost of everything in the central arrondissements. Even getting in here on the metro.  There are efforts to break down this barrier between inner Paris and the banliue, by building new metro lines and endeavouring to treat all of Paris as if it were the same city, but good luck with that I say.  It will be years away before a professional couple dreams of buying in the banliue and consider that they are as much a part of Parisian life as someone in Les Marais, even if the Metro can whisk them straight there.

The building has a mix of tenants – I heard some kids playing and see toys – and of course the vivacious young lady with a background perhaps in France’s former south east Asian empire – gosh what an elegant young person she was – so perhaps there are grander apartments on the lower floors that do not involve secretiing one’s person into the mini-lift.

In Paris one sees a large number of people not only from Indochine, or rather people with that background, but also from the black African former colonies, well integrated into French life, in fact many of course born here and 2nd, 3rd or more generation.  And no doubt large numbers of refugees from Syria and other places in the Middle East.  Perhaps those on the railway lines were refugees.

And so to eating.  I took the Metro back to the centre, and to Les Marais area, where the evening sun was still on the eastern side of the gorgeous Places des Vosges, with its exquisite mansions, and I walked through some of the tiny streets til I found a fallafel place that somehow became almost $40 for a small glass of vin rouge and a plate of vegetarian fallafel and hummus. Here these places all claim to be from Israel.  There were touts on the street who were polite and not too aggressive and seemed to have mastery of their patois in several languages.  Frodo sat on a table on the street and ate his fallafel. I don’t like dining alone so always look for informal places such as this.  But I will have to work out a way to eat more cheaply than at these preposterous prices; it mostly goes up from there if one wants to occupy a table as distinct from taking it away – but to where?  I saw some Asian dudes squatting to eat their takeaway fallafel and others sitting on a door step but I am getting a bit too creaky for that.

Just around the corner and into the gay heart of Paris.  Gorgeous guys holding hands and the bars so full of men they were out on the street. And only Monday! Even the pedestrian crossings are rainbows!  It is utterly gorgeous, the little shops selling all manner of delights: cakes, pastries, sweetmeats and wines and so on and on.  I will have to come back and see more tomorrow.  Thousands of people out enjoying it all – how they afford this life every night of the week I do not know, but one would need a very good income indeed.

Tomorrow I explore Institut du monde Arabique, as part of my intention to avoid the mass tourist destinations, and also to unearth some of the very great treasures that Paris has that lie beyond the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay, magnifique as they are. I meet Angelynn at Shakespeare and Co, for dinner, and a talk by the author Richard Powers. At that English language bookstore of great reknown I hope to get myself a good book to read on the beach at Crete to which I depart in a week’s time.

Two days in Weimar, 22 to 24 September

At last I am in Weimar! It has long been a goal of mine to visit this small, culturally-intense town set deep in the centre of Germany. The home of Bach for some ten years, and of course of Goethe, Schiller and Weiland, it is the cultural heart of Germany. Beginning in the Theatreplatz, there is an impressive and famous statue of the friends Goethe and Schiller together.

Statue of Goethe and Schiller in the Theatreplatz

Goethe and Schiller.  Behind is the building where the Weimar republic was proclaimed

First stop for me was the Schiller house, the house belonging to the much-loved German poet.

The gorgeous house is set on a leafy strasse named after the poet and dramatist. He wrote William Tell and other well known writings in the study on the second floor, which is just as he left it – the same desk, the same inkpot, the same chair, and in the same position. Also there is the bed in which he died, far too young.

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Schiller’s house

Schiller's study in his house, at his desk with the same chair, and inkpot and so forth, just as he left it.JPG

Schiller’s study, just as he left it

 

I left there and explored the Statde Kircke with its extraordinary and superb, and justly famous, Cranach altarpiece. This is a triptych completed by Cranach the younger in 1555.

The Cranach mural at the Stadskircke, Herderplatz

Cranach altar triptych, Weimar

The Statde Kirke is set in the Herderplatz, which is named after Johann Gottfried Herder, a poet and theologian. As with other literary heroes of Weimar, here he is greatly revered.

Nearby is the Markt, or Market place, which sells famous Thuringian bratwurst, and next to the famous Elephant hotel was where Bach lived, now marked by a plaque recording this fact along with the births of two of his musical sons there.

It was time to meet Hans, who was not in the mood for museums, and for my next stop, the Goethe house and museum. I found the Goethe House to be quite fascinating, and it is also just as Goethe left it – his pillow where he rested his arm while reading, his same desk and study just as he left it, and the chair in which he died in the adjacent room the very same chair.

It was a very interesting and moving depiction of his extremely busy and productive life: he busied himself not just with writing, but the study of medicine and art, the theory of colour, and geology, the sciences, architecture and so much else. In fact he designed the Weimar we see today.

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Goethe’s house in the Frauenplan, Weimar

Adjacent to the Haus is an extensive modern museum dedicated to exploring the themes in Goethe’s writings, and his medical, colour and other experiments. He collected widely, including of course many thousands of books (which are not now in the house but have been removed temporarily for a thorough cataloguing) but not for the sake of collecting – he used his classical pieces for example to carefully examine them and make conclusions about the nature of art history. His house was full of his collections, absolutely overflowing with them.

Goethe's study in his house, just as he left it, complete with pillow to rest his arm when reading.JPG

Goethe’s beautiful study in his house

I also visited the Goethe-Schiller Archiv, which sits on a hill above Weimar, where many of the collections and writings about Goethe, Schiller but also Neitschze, are housed, and can be visited by any researcher.

The next day, Saturday, it was time for Hans to take his train back home to Bad Bramstedt early in the morning, and for me to visit the extremely beautiful and world-famous Anna-Amalia Bibliothek. This is a glorious library collected by Anna-Amalia, the wife of Carl August (the Duke, and patron of Goethe), and contains some of the most important manuscripts related to the German enlightenment. It is set in a gorgeous Rococo building that has been restored after a disastrous fire in 2004 that destroyed many of the books. There are painstaking efforts to preserve and reconstruct the books. One can get quite close to the volumes on display and it really intrigued me to think of the content of these volumes and what they reveal about the thinking of the times.

Anna Amalia library 5

Maria Amalia library

 

 

After leaving the library I visited the Jacob Kirke where Goethe was married, not in the church but a small ceremony in the adjacent vestry.

I walked about some of the beautiful streets again and after paying NZD6 for two small oranges decided it was time to buy my lunch at a supermarket and to spend less on food. I also had two plastic bottles to return for the refundable deposit, but only one was accepted (they only take the type of bottle sold in that store), there was a wait while the receipt was issued, and then another wait at the checkout to get the deposit back, of NZ0.50c. They need a way of making it easier. I can see that perhaps many do not bother, although the refund is as much as a quarter of the bottle’s price.

So a New Zealander’s lunch in a square, followed by a walk down to the huge park, the Park an der Ilm, absolutely vast like an English park, laid out with trees and meadows (by Goethe of course) and Goethe’s garden house in the centre, which he was given by Carl August in gratitude for his work in creating the Weimar we see today. Later Goethe moved into his house which can be visited in the Frauenplan, where I was yesterday.

 

Eisenach to Erfurt, to Weimar and Naumberg and back to Weimar, 20 September

Hans and I left Eisenach on a 9.15 train to Erfurt, just east of Eisenach and a short trip of only 30 minutes. On exiting the station there we immediately entered a plaza which contains a hotel the former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt stayed at when he visited the GDR in the 1970s to much acclaim by east Germans. We saw the balcony where he appeared before the crowds to chants of “Willy, Willy!”.

It was a short walk down to the large Dom Platz, above which looms the vast Catholic Cathedral (or Dom) and the adjacent church of St Severus, also Catholic. The Dom was the meeting place of French and Prussian forces in 1813, destroying many of the buildings, but some impressive buildings do remain.

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Dom, Erfurt

The Dom is approached up a vast and hugely impressive set of steps from the Platz. It has much medieval stained glass, a 12th century candelabra known as the “Wolframm candelabra”, and an incredible Cranach altarpiece.

I loved the Severus kirke next door even more – inside, and to the left, is the fourteenth century tomb of St Severus, beautiful in pink sandstone.

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Tomb of St Severus and his wife

We continued walking to the Fischmarkt, where there is a bronze representation of the town, as is common in cities or towns in this region, and they are much pored over by visitors. Then on to the Kammer Brucke, or Merchant’s Bridge, which is lined with houses and shops and is in fact the longest inhabited bridge in Europe. It spans the River Gera, and contains many beautiful artisinal shops.

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Kammer Brucke in Erfurt

Thence to the Augustinerkloste, the Augustinian friary, where Luther was a monk from 1505 to 1511. There is medieval stained glass in the choir but it is otherwise as spare and spartan as Luther demanded of his churches.

We visited two synagogues – the second, the small synagogue, has an interesting exhibition on the history of the Jewish inhabitation of Erfurt.

The streets, the buildings and the plazas (or platz) of these Thuringian towns are absolutely beautiful.

We climbed aboard another train for Weimar, only 15 minutes away, found our pension for the next four nights just a short distance from the station, and then raced back for the next train to Naumburg. Hans had told me what a very beautiful town this is, and he is quite right. The Dom there is quite extraordinary with its many survivals from the medieval era; in fact I have never before seen such a well preserved medieval church or cathedral. It is a vast and hugely impressive building with beautiful cloisters and a Treasury of paintings, altar pieces and books which can be visited.

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Medieval rood screen at the Dom, Naumburg – the first place in Germany where this relief carving was practiced.

Hans did not come in but I spent quite a bit of time in there, before finally emerging into the warm evening sun and we walked down more lovely streets to look at Neitsche’s house. The platz here are very beautiful also. On returning we found a wine establishment (this is wine country, in the Saale region of Saxony) and drank the new wine, or young, fresh white wine, with a kind of egg quiche, which is a local speciality and often eaten to accompany this wine.

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Medieval book holders, the Dom, Naumburg

It was a 1.5km walk back to the railway station and a 20 minute hop back to Weimar, and time to find somewhere to eat. Again, Weimar has the most beautiful squares and streets, and we found somewhere very delightful to eat and enjoy some more Saale wine.