The Big Easy

The train station was not placed in a salubrious part of town.

On the way back to Louise’s home, we drove beneath the gaunt concrete arteries of the overpasses that directed the hurtling metal-cased passage of humanity over our heads. Beneath them, we passed straggles of mainly black homeless men whose numbers Louise said had been growing in the years since Hurricane Katrina. Tents were pitched incongruously beneath the great granite arches and between the roads used by people with homes to go to. The tent dwellers and their location were unlikely to feature in the promotional literature. Louise said the tents were an upgrade recently supplied by the authorities. Elsewhere in the city, large projects had been steam-rolled after Katrina. Many were now part of mixed housing areas that lay more easily on the eye – concrete blocks giving way to smaller wooden buildings that gave a greater sense of an individual home. The results of this policy were also mixed. Now the crime once concentrated within these no-go areas was dissipated more randomly about the city. New Orleans has always had a murder rate that is high in even this most murderous of nations. But without these favelas of the inner city, it now felt that a random walk about town at sundown was a less clear The invitation to disaster.

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Louise lived on the far side of the Mississippi in Algiers. I had once crossed it for half an hour on the ferry that whisks you across the river for a couple of dollars. I remember nothing of what I saw. My base for my stay, it gave me a view of the Nawlings skyline and some safe distance between us and those merely passing through. Although the Amtrak schedule has ruined the evening with Louise and Andrea, we had time for several late-night drinks at a local place. It was big, roomy and easy to order. The liquor measures were as generous and loosely poured as I recalled and a band of ten or so was building up to a messy finale as we caught up in the cool of a late night Southern spring. Unsurprisingly, the amiable middle-aged man that took a seat next to us was a musician who had contributed the trombone a few minutes earlier. 

The next evening, some old friends, Michael and Elizabeth, were hosting a dinner party for the latter’s birthday. Although I only knew Louise and my hosts, the company and fine fare broke down the barriers. One former social worker asked me whether we were laughing about Donald Trump in England. I suggested we should have alternated him with Brexit to stretch out the international joke. In an evening of fantastic gastronomic excess, Michael served us around half a dozen luxurious courses that involved home-made pates, near liquefied cheeses; oyster tartlettes; lamb chops, caramelised vegetables; and lobster bisque along with a salad that went far beyond the decorational. I left a half a glass of fine bourbon and a brandy along with a half-smoked cigar. I wasn’t being rude; I could just take no more. They looked genuinely disappointed when we were the last to leave some time after 3am. 

Louise is in a similar line of work to me though she also had a burgeoning practice as an equine therapist. I had once laughed at the idea, but its alleged effectiveness only highlights my past ignorance. She was also a specialist in EMDR – an equally successful, if hard to explain, treatment for victims of trauma. The veterans of the nation provide a steady flow of damaged humans to her waiting room. I took over her treatment room on a basement floor into which I could fit my over-priced London flat. Occupying another corner was Dan, her affable recent ex-boyfriend with whom she still got on very well. Likewise, her slightly less recent ex-husband, a world-class clarinetist with whom she now shares ebullient 10-year-old twins. Not all therapists hide their own personal dysfunction behind an impenetrable gaze.    

After 28 years, my week in New Orleans was experienced with unusual clarity and energy. The 10 months I had once spent there was usually complicated by the heavy invisible blanket of humidity endemic to this once swampy outpost. March is apparently the ambivalent month for sunshine and temperature. For my stay, it sided conservatively with winter rather than the sweltering summer to come. The fug of a hangover was also generally lacking as I strode the old streets and many more beyond my old boundaries within the French Quarter.

 

Death Throes of the Confederacy

I was the tourist I had not previously been. In the city’s new and spectacular national war museum, I stumbled upon a corner that rivalled the central hall of the British Imperial War Museum with its collection of hanging warplanes. I wandered it for half a day without feeling the rest of the Allies had been written out of history. Nearby was the considerably more compact Confederate civil war museum. The use of the ‘C’ word is perhaps unusual. All around the US, Confederate statues had been removed over the last couple of years – General Lee had only recently been toppled from his pedestal in New Orleans.

This flurry of revisionism seemed to represent the final nail in the coffin of the South – washing away the remnants of the world romanticised in Gone with the Wind. It was odd to witness the last of a whole culture officially expunged from the records. Before coming, I had worked my way through the novel’s 900 pages over several months – the final assignment involved watching the equally epic film on the night before my departure. The book was well written and researched, but felt heavy by at least 300 pages with the author seemingly keen to make sure we got her points by making them repeatedly from every angle. I was initially attracted by the apparent amorality of its romantic leads who contrasted with the stuffy hypocrisy and naïve fervour demonstrated by the rest of the regular southern cast – if only because they saw the big picture seemingly invisible to those around them.

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But the more I read, the more I realised how the indifference of Scarlett and Rhett to the cause may have been a convenient literary device to better illustrate the doings of the much-maligned Scalawags and Carpetbaggers who profited from the fall of the Confederacy. While sensitive to the naivety of applying contemporary hindsight harshly to the beliefs of times past, I was surprised how Google yielded little criticism of the views expressed in its pages. The book didn’t stint on the racist abuse and attitudes that no doubt exists when your economy relies on slave labour. For this, perhaps, it should be applauded for its historical honesty. But it was conspicuous for its wilful ignoring of the daily plight of the slaves beyond the patronising portraits of the eye-rolling mammas and simple giants who lived amongst the white folk. Of the field hands, there was nothing, bar the suggestion that freedom made such people ‘uppity’ and dangerous. Most of the ‘honourable gentleman’ who graced its pages joined the Ku Klux Klan.

On my flight home, I watched Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman in which one of the main antagonists was the Grand Wizard, holocaust denier, and white supremacist, David Duke. Duke was a prominent voice of hate when I lived in Louisiana and Google suggests he continues to spread his hateful message on his radio show like a latter-day Oswald Mosley. It was perhaps admirable that Dukes was portrayed as an urbane and smooth individual rather than a cartoon villain. As such, the true banality of evil is more honestly recorded and understood.

A visit to several plantations clarified the picture of the realities of the Old South somewhat. The first showcased the harsh lives of the slaves before the war, and after when its old wealthy economy collapsed during the painful process of reconstruction. Our admission ticket to Oak Avenue bought us a tour around the fine plantation house that concentrated mainly on the lives of its owners. Only in the mocked-up slave houses behind it was a fuller perspective given – particularly from the manacles used to hold the unruliest of the human stock. On one wall was a list valuing the slaves as company assets. As a potential breeder of up to 20 slave children, the price of a young woman was generally very high.



Sound of the City

As before, live music was performed from all corners of the bars and cafes of the quarter. And as before, much of it owed as much to roots in soul and blues as the traditional jazz for which New Orleans is really famous. Most of it, I heard in passing as I wandered past some half-empty establishments that stood alongside similar others with queues half way round the block. Thus, lies the power of a good review on Trip Advisor. On our one big night out, Andrea, Louise, and Sian and I went to see Joe and the Iguanas in the Circle Bar. After 28 years, their on-stage stage banter suggested they still liked each other. Apparently, the band had found success and earned Joe a fancy house and swimming pool before Katrina engulfed it. He said he remembered me, but with no evidence of surprise in his eyes. I think he may have confused me with someone else. Sian, whose family hail from Korea, said she now visited Asia several months a year for work. While keeping the company of Westerners, she was surprised how much she liked the region. We planned a nightcap at an unlikely British pub with an entrance disguised by an old blue policeman’s kiosk. It was already closed despite it being only one in the morning. Instead we barged in on Louise’s neighbours whom she invited home to dance. They were perhaps too polite, or stoned, to say no firmly. I suggested we left their evening to a more sedate denouement. In the morning, Louise agreed.

On my last night, I was treated to dinner at the Palm Court. It was on her mother’s tab, who was herself absent and in hospital after suffering a relatively severe dancing accident. It was another favour I couldn’t return from the eccentric matriarch who had once topped up my pay packet from below the minimum wage. I had worked for her husband George in the warehouse behind the restaurant where he ran his jazz label. George was convinced I was robbing him blind. I know this because I walked into his office several times, while he was whispering his latest suspicions about the grand theft I was probably committing on a daily basis. George was himself blind, which helped neither of our causes. It was ironic because as one friend told me ‘you’re the first person in the warehouse who hasn’t stolen from him.’ If I was going to add thievery to my armoury of acquisition tools, I would want it to be more of a challenge. ‘Like taking CDs from a blind man’ could be a more specialist version of ‘like taking candy from a child’. Still that’s all in the past, as is George, who passed away several years ago.

We ate a platter of spicy Cajun specialties involving shrimps and crawfish to supplement the crocodile po-boy I had bought from the market earlier. I used to largely exist on seafood gumbos and White Russians, but none passed my lips this week, let alone a jambalaya, margarita or jagabomb. How we change. This was perhaps the only time I sat down to music in the week. I was even dedicated a song but was ignorant of the fact so merely looked confused while the lead musician mumbled something while looking directly at me. Unbeknown to me, Andrea had put in a word. She also filmed it and put it on Facebook, before taking me down Frenchman Street while Louise returned home to being a mother.

Andrea was now resettled back in New Orleans where we had dated long ago. Homes in London and Florianopolis had followed before she had returned to her most established home in a life of international wandering. She seems to have shrugged off the serious sentence of Multiple Sclerosis with the alternative medicine of worm injections. The halting of the disease’s progress could not be better illustrated than in half hour she spent energetically dancing with a man in the street. Unlike, Tina Turner or her impromptu partner, she was not dancing for money. I ended up paying him off when she assured him it was what she did for fun. Andrea’s new beau, Troy, ran a nearby Vape shop, and nodded slowly and knowingly when we passed by and she explained her extensive plans for my last evening. ‘Looks like you’ve got a few more stop-offs’ he drawled knowing that my protestations in favour of a quiet drink would likely be ignored.

We visited around 15 bars for an average of two minutes each which perhaps reflects Andrea’s method of decision making. When I explained I was tired and hungover, she took me to a bigger bar with more musicians and bottles. Nonetheless, I experienced a new side to the city amongst the thronging crowds of tourists overflowing the pavements jostling alongside street bands, hustlers, ambulances, and optimistic commuters. It was one of those streets that locals either work in or avoid like the plague. To the holidaying newcomer, it was a hedonistic paradise.

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The other band I memorably stumbled upon was in one of the uptown cemeteries that are built above ground to counter the threat of flooding. I arrived in time for a jazz funeral. I kept a reasonably discreet distance but was quite aware that I was just as conspicuous at 20m as I would be kneeling in front of the small cortege that followed the half dozen musicians. Towards the end, one of the mourners strode rather decisively towards me while I prepared to offer an apology for my rude intrusion on their grief. Instead, he beamed at me warmly and slapped me on the back. ‘Great timing, buddy!’ he whooped before leaping back amongst the other bereaved to dance a little more.  

     

     

Heading South

I took the Greyhound to Washington where I met my dear old Colombian friend, Keyty. After various picaresque adventures, she had carved out a new life with her now 21-year-old daughter Lluvia, and new husband Brad. Under the watchful eye of the Capitol, she greeted me with typical exuberance, honking her horn as I wandered blindly past her waiting car.

As I got in, my ex Angelica was transported back into my life by car-phone. She was calling Keyty for the first time in years. My discombobulation was nothing to hers when I joined the babble of voices.

I spent three relaxing days in Keyty’s new home in Sterling, Virginia. The visit was topped and tailed with excursions around the buildings of state in the capital, while the main event was Keyty’s birthday celebrations with a dozen of her new American and Latino friends. Amongst them was a Filipino man who was now managing one of the estates of his old ‘boss’ after 24 years of military service. His boss had been vice-president. I wondered what kind of vice-president, and if the political kind, whether I had heard of him. ‘Dick Cheney’, he told me. I had heard of him. We discussed their relationship with careful diplomacy. My new friend was aware and sensitive to his employer’s international reputation. He hadn’t enjoyed the recent film that demonised him.

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Otherwise, despite the anxiety dreams provoked by Keyty saying she wanted her birthday to be defined by dancing, the night passed joyfully. I successfully adapted my own personal dancing with the salsa beloved of around half the party. Before I knew it, they were copying my fusion of the two and incorporated the ‘face drop’ I had thrown in when the crowd had parted for my turn to perform a special move. No-one was hurt.

From Washington, I took the Amtrak to Gainesville, Georgia. It was a 12-hour overnighter that skipped my planned visit Salisbury, North Carolina, due to inconvenient timetabling. My plan had been to make my way south to New Orleans by road or rail over 3-4 days – staying at small town layovers that would illustrate the life of the lands between my main destinations.

Gainesville proved a disappointment. The long empty road up the former main street was deserted in the cold early morning walk from the tracks. The few disembarking passengers were vague about where I might find the town centre in the town where they lived. Businesses were sparse beyond a scattering of misplaced seeming Hispanic churches and a few dusty thrift shops. It was too cold to spend long setting up any shots, but the scene looked an ideal candidate for a profile of ghost towns of the old West. Eventually, I found more life, but it was unpleasant modernity that reared up on the major freeway that dominated the landscape. I discovered that its heart was represented by these soul-less polluting roads festooned with fast-food joints and jammed with dangerous hurtling trucks.

Alongside lay plenty of lodgings, none offering much in the way of comfort or cheer. Finally, $75 bought me a dirty room in a budget inn. Within it, I found roaches, and a microwave that sprung into life when I tried the main light switch. A closet door led unexpectedly into a neighbouring room. From within it, a paranoid redneck quickly materialised. ‘Was that you?!’ he demanded. I wondered who he was hiding from. I assured him that for both our sakes, it wouldn’t happen again.

Eventually, I found the town square. The town tourist board had taken enough clever pictures of it to Photoshop some respectability to the outside world, but the reality wouldn’t fool anyone long. Several cute waitresses comprised the totality of the local charm. Most of my time was spent finding Gainesville’s Greyhound office. It was five miles out of town. Reaching it on foot necessitated crossing a high bridge with an ankle-high parapet, descending and ascending a steep bank, and sprinting across several busy freeways. A local policeman almost pulled a gun on me when I approached him for directions with my hands behind my back. Lesson learnt. When I had given up on locating it, I asked at a local garage, where a cheerful Indian man told me that I had found it. He reminded me of Apu from The Simpsons. My reservation was not on the system, but he cheerfully told me to ‘take a chill-pill’ when I stressed my keenness to be on the first bus out of town.

The next morning, I made my way back – by cab – to catch my bus. The young black guy taking me had no idea how much to charge me. He was delighted with a dollar tip. The bus turned up five minutes after we were told it was delayed by at least two hours. Within the hour, we arrived in an insalubrious quarter of Atlanta where homeless folk staggered aimlessly beneath its flyovers within sight of its gleaming modern spires. I changed buses to Tuscaloosa with a few minutes to spare.

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The journey to Alabama showcased the scenery of the South. Thick tropical forests wildly strewn about the largely deserted hills and swamps. Birmingham, Alabama had an old grey charm that had yet to be burnished to a modern sheen. A black guy of a similar age to me saw me taking pictures of the old buildings and asked if I was working on some social documentary. He chatted without preamble about the divisions of the nation before wishing me well. Regardless of skin-colour, people seemed to gauge accurately whether you were with or against them. If anything, it was the white folk who treated me with some measure of suspicion. As with those running the beleaguered train service, the mainly black inspectors and drivers that ran the buses did so with a firm paternal hand that brooked no dissent. Against my traditional instincts, I welcomed these touches of authority. It perhaps reflects my doubts that individuals of the West can be trusted to behave nicely in groups.

Tuscaloosa was a happy surprise. The food served at the Greyhound terminal looked as good as any I hoped to find in the South. Town was some miles distant, but I was happy to stroll along the wide straight avenue into a town that I was confident existed at its end. After an hour or so, the street markers counted down into single digits and a pleasant slick city spread about me. I found a hotel that spilled somewhat over my budget, but I luxuriated in the contrast of facilities from where I had just come. The next day, I walked about the historic quarter till my legs ached – marveling at the size and comfort of the properties extending unboundaried in all directions. Starts and Stripes abounded from comfortable porches. Later, I visited an enormous university whose size and population was a town in itself. I found the state natural history museum ensconced within it. It didn’t seem to receive a lot of visitors. The cadet force which drilled in a nearby square was not short of recruits.

 

Very Slow Train Coming

I should have caught the bus.

The train sounded a more romantic chariot in which to return to the Big Easy. It was scheduled to bring me into town around sundown where I was to be whisked off for dinner at my old haunt The Palm Court Jazz Cafe. Instead, I spent four hours waiting at Tuscaloosa’s windswept station for the 1pm train. When it arrived, it managed to lose another hour despite seemingly travelling at full speed without noticeable delay. Apparently, freight takes priority over human traffic and if you lose the slot your train falls down the pecking order. We received a small apology over the airwaves, but those resigned to using public transport accepted it with the stoicism of Latin Americans. These vehicles seem reserved mainly for those who have lost their license or can’t afford a car. While the minutes of my dream entrance to New Orleans were disappearing, I grumpily elected to get dinner from the moveable feast provided by Amtrak rather than the jazz café on Decatur Street. The chicken breast came with a rather flattering description and complementary high price, along with the company of strangers. This enforced meeting of minds perhaps suits the more extrovert character of the American for all the divisions in its society. I shared the space with an ex-navy engineer, a black teenager from Mississippi, and a cheerful woman of a certain age (about my age) from Florida, whose husband worked for NASA.

The latter said she knew I was a journalist as soon as I sat down. During our dinner slot, she held the conversation together. The teenager was happy to have her educational plans indulged awhile before drifting back to the music on her headphones. Trump seemed a dangerous communal conversation in a packed carriage – my sense of this heightened by the presence of several hefty bearded men across the aisle. Politics was touched upon through the safer ground of far-off Brexit. The NASA bride wanted to know if I thought the Russians were involved. The engineer sounded like a natural Brexiteer when gravely stating the principle of not being dictated to by others. I said I understood that independence from distant rulers was a cornerstone of US democracy. He greeted my diplomacy with an approving nod. It felt well judged. I tentatively suggested that both our countries were facing a backlash from those feeling disenfranchised, but the response of the masses was perhaps not one to improve the lot of many. It was perhaps best that dinner was not sufficiently drawn out for us to thrash these points out more fully. We all left on friendly terms. 

My plan to see the countryside of Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana was thwarted by our late departure. Night fell within a few hours. During our meal, small dying towns flashed tantalisingly past our window, but I was too engaged with my fellow diners to become absorbed by daydreams of their past histories. The largely deserted main streets I glimpsed would probably be of little interest to the modern Americans around me, but for me, preserved by indifference, the ghosts of these fleeting ruins were beguiling.

New York, New York

My previous visit to the Big Apple was largely spent in insalubrious bars in the East Village.

This time, I covered more ground in my first afternoon than I had spent in a week 28 years ago. I paced through Manhattan until my aged knees showed the strain of a half century’s wear and tear. In the same bitter cold, I circled Lady Liberty on Freedom Island under whose shadow a hungry seagull snatched my beef-burger from my hand in a gesture of unwelcoming contempt. I was briefly outraged, but knew immediately that this vignette would outlast my hunger.

I passed the downtown financial district through China Town and Little Italy, back through the East Village where my hostess Liane lived, midtown to the Empire State Building, the moneyed splendour of Madison and Fifth Avenues, the museums around the park, and up to down-at-heel Harlem. My limited time didn’t allow for the contrasts of the boroughs beyond. The scale of this crowded island was only truly revealed from the 80-something stories of the Empire State Building – no longer the biggest kid in the class, but still standing with proud dignity like an esteemed patriarch amongst youthful successors.

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Liane’s bachelorette pad was an ideal springboard for daily jaunts. While she worked long and hard as an immigration lawyer, she felt guilty about living in the heart of things rather than commuting from more distant boroughs like the masses. One night, she took me to a friend’s gig. The 99-cent pizza we grabbed on the way was a slice of New York life that paid her back for a few minutes of the board and lodging I was saving elsewhere. I briefly met her man-of-the-moment who was perhaps hoping for a more full-time contract of intimacy. He shook my hand before retreating as quickly back down the corridor of apartment from whence he came. He answered my questions through Liane – much as if she was interpreting our Anglo-Saxon dialects. He was off to a gig for which he dressed up in shiny patent leather shoes, shorts, and a dress shirt over which he wore a hoodie. He refused to wear a coat before braving the sub-zero temperatures. He was an accountant by day.    

Overall, the behaviour of the natives was perhaps no different than before, but I was. I now found them more amenable – appreciating what set them apart, and was no longer intimidated. Confrontational conversations were now reinterpreted as communication with a refreshing directness. I warmed to the multiple cultures melding under the banner of New York – much like I feel at home within the melting pot of my London home. Now, I realised it is the homogeneity of a monoculture that oppresses me

The advantages of digital technology helped tame the confusion of unfamiliarity. Google Maps may restrict the extremes of my error-prone sense of direction, but now I studied paper maps with a sense of purpose rather than bewilderment. The logic of the city’s say-it-how-it-is nomenclature guided me with reasonable precision. The avenues and street numbers stated clearly your direction and placement with only the odd exception of a hallowed Madison Avenue or Broadway to make the rule. Only the Metros unwillingness to offer up maps for the uninitiated led to guesswork regarding destinations and routes, but I can’t begrudge the locals some advantage for the arcane knowledge earned by their longevity.   

The Walls of Dubrovnik

The arch-organiser, Sarah, surpassed herself in booking us a cosy studio apartment within the walls of Dubrovnik. I was particularly impressed by this coup as we joined the crush at the spot-lit splendour of the main gate.

Perhaps the overnight visitors were outnumbered by the surfeit of cruise passengers who paced the old city-state like troops of geriatric legionaries. During our first breakfast, tour parties of limping ancients observed me with glassy-eyes in the narrow confines of the city alleyways as I vainly dabbed the egg yolk from my mouth between bites, their shirt-tails close enough to mop up the leftovers.

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The mighty walls gave Dubrovnik protection from both real and fictional invaders – neither broached by the Turks or Yugoslavian army, nor the enemies of King’s Landing – depending on what happens in the next series of Game of Thrones. The night before we had sampled fine wines served by one of the nation’s three smiling people, before watching Anthony Joshua defend his heavyweight title on the steep steps of bar while sipping Rakia. It was meant to be an Irish bar, but wasn’t really.

After circumventing the walls of the tightly packed city the next day, we delved into its medieval main streets and warrens of alleyways. For us, a photography museum was the pick of the tourist spots, while the Franciscan monastery and Rector’s Palace were worth the stroll. The photography museum soberly chronicled the War of Independence leading to the blood-letting that broke Yugoslavia up into half a dozen nations. Croatia got the beautiful coastline, but otherwise there was little to smile about. Another small museum had photos showing Dubrovnik under siege. The damage, which to some extent can still be seen around the city walls was not as powerful as the image of its splendid atmospheric streets being eerily deserted. Afterwards, we swam in the turquoise waters beneath the city walls where the ships had burned less than three decades earlier. Summer was making a brave last stand against the growing rains and storms of autumn.  

Our room was positioned high on the slope of the city facing down to the sea. Our landlord was a gentle affable 30-something who ran the business for his unseen ageing parents upstairs. It was a convenient location for eating at Madame Pi-Pi – a humorously named restaurant that needs no translation. It was his one recommendation, and not it transpired just because they were neighbours. Elsewhere, cartels of tourist restaurants charged the same prices for much the same food. The market for repeat custom was limited as most eaters will have set sail before their meals are digested.

Madam Pi-Pi’s mascot was a stone statue squatting outside who gushed water from her lady fountain with lewd abandon. After queuing an hour for a table, we were seated underneath the vines and feasted on a large platter of barbecued meats. Towards the end, we earwigged the progress of a date between a young American woman and a male companion of vaguer international status. While the tone was friendly rather than intimate, it spiralled when he suggested that Donald Trump was a breath of fresh air to the world stage. Two hours of tightly bounded conversation were wasted in a moment of careless honesty. We tried to catch her eye to empathise, but she was already heading for the exit.   

  

The Road to Split

The bus followed the coastal road for 150km. The villages of the mainland looked neglected but still largely inhabited. The nearby islands perhaps represented a more idyllic setting for tourists and those seeking greater separation from the state. This left hundreds of deserted coves for locals to appreciate the low-rent paradise on their doorstep. Here the incoming dollars missed the mark along with the national business of renting out apartments to foreigners. Briefly, we passed through a slither of seaside Bosnia and Herzegovina. The brutalist Soviet-era hotels that remained perhaps channelled a large proportion of natives seeking summer sun now that Croatia owned what they had once shared.  

Split resembled a Cote d’Azur town fallen out of fashion. The tourists flocked to the sturdy open museum of Diocletian’s Palace in a pleasant fusion of old and new. The Roman ruins represented another previous owner of a nation that took a long time to establish its independence on the Dalmatian coast. Sarah posed with two Roman legionaries – one of whom expected to go further as an IT consultant. We climbed a precipitous tower in which she gamely impersonated a gargoyle, while other good snapshots were neglected due to my acrophobia being brought on by the yawning open spaces between us and the hard cobblestones below.

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We hiked past the gin palaces of the harbour towards the cape for sunset from where we could look down on the mountain-framed city. The boats shrunk in size and luxury the further we went, but their vast numbers and a glance at a map clarified how living just off the coast was more natural than living inland out of its sight.

At some stage, we agreed that it was unnatural for us to spend every minute together, and Sarah visited the market while I clambered onto some rocks several miles from the centre to sketch the boats. Secluded behind a wall, I was surprised by a middle-aged man with a snorkel and a bucket who set off past me to check his fishing nets or lobster pots. I looked at him for a full minute to catch his eye, but he was more interested in crustaceans, and waded off to do his thing.

In the evening, we found an after-dinner bar that we recognised as our local in a parallel universe. Strangers were laughing and chatting each other up. It was packed and lively and our second smiling Croatian served us up a selection of Rakia for what she guessed suited our respective tastes. Such suggestions were usually made on gender lines. Several times, Sarah’s greater knowledge of wine led to her being elected as chief taster. The break from the traditional stereotype was greeted inscrutably.

On our second night, I made a connection with a waiter after pointing out that Unchained Melody had just played for the seventh consecutive time. After changing the CD, he returned and stated bluntly: ‘I like you!’ without breaking his stony, matter-of-fact persona. He returned with two glasses and poured us a complimentary drink. Tipping is not expected in Croatia unless something extraordinary happens. We tipped both the smiling waitress and our waiter for the evening, but didn’t get to see their response.     

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Island Life

‘No Mosquitos! No Criminals!’

Such were the selling points of Viz according to our landlady Mala along with the home-made wine she was fermenting downstairs. She was keen to share a glass whenever our paths crossed – a habit first introduced with the bottle of schnapps she presented to us along with the key to our compact and bijou studio. Sarah was more attuned to random drinking from her time in the French countryside and generally stepped up when it might appear rude not to. Mala had first propositioned us on the quayside of the little harbour of Viz Town. She tidied our apartment when we were out by climbing through a portal from the house next door that exited next to our toilet. The unusual lyrics of the song ‘She came in through the bathroom window’ would sound quite sensible to her.

While our incongruously large ferry was docking, we knew we had found our Adriatic island paradise beyond the coastal nation’s major towns. Eating well, and bathing and reading on a quiet stone beach would satisfy our sparse demands for our precious few days before the return home.

Our possession of this space was enhanced by the lack of tourists in the dwindling days of the on-season, but also due to its long seclusion from the rump of Yugoslavia when largely used as a military base. The most outlying of the islands, Viz was still relatively deserted compared to most closer to the mainland, though a rather harmless looking yacht moored up on the periphery of the harbour threatened to change all this. I thought Mama Mia 2 was an odd choice of name for a boat until we were told the latest film in the Abba sing-along franchise was recently shot here. Much as the original film caused its Greek island setting to be swamped with tourists, the serenity of Viz may soon end in the wake of those seeking to make a reality of the make-believe.

Of less interest to modern-day tourists is the island’s historical role in various major wars. During the Napoleonic wars, the British navy waged a successful battle against the French within sight of the island. We visited the old British fort on a summit close to the harbour, which now caters for weddings and parties. From here too, a famous naval battle lasting several days between the Austrian and Italian navies could be observed at a safe distance . The latter eventually triumphed in a foggy confusion. Its iron-clad vessels – symbols of a new era of warship – outmatched the ship-of-the-lines of its adversaries. The local citizens were not entirely neutral – these two countries were fighting over the territory of a nation yet to emerge in the pecking order of European powers.

In World War II, Viz was the only Yugoslavian island not to be taken by the Nazis, and was the base for the later leader of the nation – Marshall Tito. We later elected not to take a hike to his empty cave on a cycle ride to the other side of the island – deciding its 500 steps were an unnecessary addition to our undulating 60km journey. In this we were supported by the young woman at the hire shop who clearly saw it as a pointless footslog. Her colleague begged to differ. ‘It is a historical monument!’ Although the puppet government of Croatia supported the Nazis, Tito’s guerrillas did a better job at fighting them than Serbia, which had officially sided with the allies. Churchill and Tito, the aristocrat politician and the communist dictator, forged an unlikely friendship that lasted beyond the war. Tito’s distance from the communism of Stalin perhaps made Yugoslavia an acceptable chink in what Churchill first described as the countries of the Iron Curtain.

On a long afternoon walk, I stumbled across a British naval cemetery on the outermost flank of the harbour. The dates on the lonely tombstones were grouped in two eras – the early 1800s and the mid 1900s. While there, I sketched a deserted bay from the rocks – the only signs of habitation being the deserted stone buildings that lined the quiet coastal pathway. Its pleasant isolation was protected by a steep boulder-strewn slope, down which I later fell backwards onto my head. My middle-aged body held up fine bar a few bruises.

We also took the ‘top secret’ military tour – the closest thing to a tourist activity on the island. We visited the fort, some Roman ruins, an old network of bunkers, and a concealed submarine base – the unpolluted blue waters of the latter was now a swimming pool for squadrons of sprats. Its image now serves as a screen saver on Sarah’s computer.

Our unusually affable guide, Nicolau, detailed the island’s history and its many conquerors over the last two millennia. He was most sombre when discussing the recent civil war during which he was a student in Split. He joked darkly about the importance of choosing digs not facing the mortars of the besieging Serbs. His friends still ribbed him for not actively participating in the bloody conflict. Nicolau said that while history is usually written by the victors, in this war ‘there were no winners.’ It didn’t seem like an event in which many made a positive contribution.    

A Time for Feasts

We continued to wine and dine well – it seems almost impossible to do otherwise in Croatia.

Sarah was inevitably drawn to the produce of the local vineyards but was unable to persuade me to officially tour about the fruit on the vine. Nonetheless, the cheap and cheerful tactic of simply ordering the house wine needed no revising. One night, we booked dinner in a restaurant far enough up in the hills for the owners to employ a driver to deliver its customers. Our large, bearded and genial host resembled a caveman dilettante and was meticulous in explaining a 6-hour cooking process that used clay pots over hot coals.

The dozen or so diners were spread about the terrace outside, but the tranquil mood was upset somewhat when a young American turned up without a confirmed reservation. Only a few days earlier, our own late cancellation by phone was almost refused minutes before our clay pots were lowered onto the embers. We empathised with this reverse horror and were tempted to offer him some of the greasy hunks of succulent lamb and potatoes we were unable to finish. Others did the same, but he politely refused and made do with an ad hoc plate of vegetables. I considered asking the management to place a sheet over his head to assuage our guilt over our own public gluttony. 

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On another night, we ordered a seafood platter that included 300 grams of langoustines and half a kilo of calamari. It later infiltrated my dreams. Employed at some freelance editing job I didn’t understand – a common theme based loosely on past experiences – I was also trying to create a fish stew despite my fear that the ingredients had been festering malevolently in the fridge for three weeks. Thankfully, this dark twist on my daily life did not spill back to pollute my real-life stomach. While I tossed and turned over this testing hybrid of editorial and culinary issues, a massive thunderstorm raged outside. Sarah, like the madwoman in the attic, presided over it from the window of our temporary home.

Our last day involved an untypical and sustained blast of exercise. We wanted to visit Koniza – the other town on the far side of the island – a rival that our guidebook claimed had a more bohemian slant. I’m not sure if they had to ship them in or whether this rather underpopulated corner produced a surfeit of such folk. To arrive, we propelled our hire bikes some 14km over first steep coastal hills to a less undulating plateau that climbed slowly up for too long before cruising sharply down into the idyllic harbour town at its foot.

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The seafront was packed with restaurants and ice-cream parlours and a more semi-permanent breed of tourist. I perceived an understated smugness in our fellow travellers. Perhaps they were sworn to silence to better preserve this quiet Adriatic jewel. Its close atmospheric lanes felt like ideal places to disappear to for criminals, novelists and romantics seeking to shut out the external world. One bar was slowly working its way through the entire works of Pink Floyd. On several levels, on can only hope that Mama Mia 3 does not make it past the pitch stage. The waiter who brought us octopus salad and fish stew was radiant with joy and good humour. He was the third, and last, smiling Croat. Relatively speaking, his demeanour might one day land him in a lunatic asylum.

But for us, lunch was the prelude to the mammoth effort of climbing the mountain that enclosed it. For our return, we took the direct route. It took us 90 minutes to ascend 4km from sea-level to an altitude of 500m. At times, I dismounted in despair at our too slow progress towards its summit, while Sarah gamely inched ahead on two slow wheels. After reaching it, we took 20 minutes to cover the remaining six kilometres’ home.   

 

Last Boat Home

Our pleasant idleness on Viz was doomed by the unwelcome call of flights and jobs. It was exacerbated by our growing concern for how to facilitate our return. It didn’t help that the seasonal ferry timetable changed when we were due to leave.

The off-season schedule had not yet been announced. Its last-minute appearance could be summarised by saying that almost all last week’s ferries no longer existed. This induced something of last-minute panic beyond even Sarah’s administrative superpowers.

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Eventually, we booked an early morning speedboat for £120. It took us from Viz to Hvar. From here, we bought two of the last few tickets on a crammed catamaran that brought us to Dubrovnik via Korcula.

The ports of both towns were busier and clearly more suited to the island party scene that Croatian often now hosts, but lacked the quiet intimacy of Viz. A palpable tremor of panic could be felt on this last boat out of places usually existing at a slower more relaxed pace. A somewhat gentler version of the Retreat from Kabul or last chopper out of Saigon. Awkward phone calls to work would be the consequence rather than death and humiliation.

We chatted with a lean thoughtful American who was traversing the country energetically with his relatives. We discussed politics in a vague code that alluded to Brexit and Donald Trump without saying the cursed words out loud. Back home, he had taken his sons to a cabin in the woods for weeks at a time to save them from the growing poison swirling around his society. We gave him some tips for Dubrovnik and he accepted them with grave gratitude. The conversation had a sense of kindred spirits meeting in a world where suspicion permeates its old safe spaces.   

Back in Dubrovnik, room shortages in the old city gave us a chance to explore the town outside. From the new harbour, we walked to a nearby peninsula where we found a rocky cove around some pleasure boats to spend our last day. The resort-like atmosphere diluted the local culture to the more anodyne tastes of a younger set than those patrolling the old city. Later, we dined like royalty in a restaurant on the harbour. I countered Sarah’s seabream with a tender beefsteak served with a creamy truffle sauce. Before the brandy and schnapps, I asked for what I wanted rather than what I saw on the menu. They duly brought me crepes with chocolate and whipped cream.

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Another storm raged that night, a broader hint of winter’s impending arrival. Sarah once again took her place at the window, while I again slept incongruously through it.  I dreamed of her ex-boyfriend driving me very fast through the ancient concrete palaces of Scotland. He seemed to have a point to make.

The last of the landladies was intense and sincere in a very Croatian manner. She took great care in choosing the right words to wish us a good journey home as if thoughtless wrong ones might invite disaster. I imagine hyperbole and bullshit are not terms much employed in this country. We last saw her sitting in the street alongside a statue of Pope John Paul II. She was smoking a cigarette with furious intensity. We stood within her field of vision for 30 seconds, while waving, before we broke her reverie. The thoughts we interrupted were clearly not idle ones.

Afterwards, we passed an old wiry gent by the side of the road with the full flowing beard of an old seadog. He was crossing and re-crossing a slip road while muttering to himself, occasionally attracting friendly hoots from passing cars. Six hours later, he was still passing back and forth across his little domain with the same worried expression. We offered him indulgent smiles, but his eyes passed right through us. He looked fully immersed in the dark Croatian collective unconscious. It was a place to which we casual visitors to its emerald shores had no access.    

Ten Days In Greece

 

Mixed omens on arriving in the land of the Olympian Gods. My bag was first off the carousel, but the moment I passed through the airport doors, I dropped my e-cigarette on the pavement and smashed it beyond repair.

I took the airport metro for 10 Euros rather than a 38 Euro taxi. Getting off at Monastiraki, I exited the station and the Acropolis materialised illuminated above me. It reminded me of arriving in Berlin one winter night where my random exit brought me to the foot of the looming Brandenburg Gate redolent with grim history. But this time, the streets were swarming with revellers in the warmth of a pleasant spring evening.

I found my hotel without problems thanks to some unusually successful interaction with a map. I thus looked very much like I was the new tourist in town and the streets I walked towards Omonia felt like they might be slightly dangerous – if this was a dangerous place. But it wasn’t. In ten days, nowhere suggested any sense of threat. Some streets looked very poor; the city threw up a light litter of homeless, but little sign of the desperate impoverishment I half-expected from their financial crash. Perhaps the warm spring night helped – even the one-legged man on my street corner seemed reasonably cheerful and secure soliciting coppers from his roadside post.

The value of understanding the Greek alphabet occurred to me while looking at near indecipherable street signs. Also, how some maps give the streets completely different names.
I had the first of my half-dozen gyros dinners. It became my default stomach-filler when nothing more creative sprung to mind. Afterwards I wandered up and down the old Agora – the ancient market place where Socrates once asked too many questions. Around the fringes of the nearby city squares hung small knots of young African men and the fug of marijuana. They appeared friendly, but set apart from mainstream Athenian life.


Temples on Top

I was pleasantly surprised not to be charged to visit the Acropolis. None of the usual hidden charges – the literature suggested I needed some form of ticket. Only two temples of note remain. The Parthenon is in something like its fifth version. I was reminded how the Ottomans accidently blew one of them up four centuries ago as they thought it was a good place to store explosives. Bloody philistines. 

I chose to dine in Kolonaki. The small backstreets soon proved beyond the ken of Google Maps, my map, and me. I walked through a lively student area and eventually settled down outside a pleasant little restaurant in a cobbled street on a gentle hill. The waiter looked crestfallen when I turned down his huge platter of mezze with barely a glance, and plumped for a rather predictable Moussaka. Happily, it was magnificent and the Greek house wines were quite palatable.

After a long search, I found out where I was on the map. I was in a place called Exarcheia. It was North-East of my hotel rather than the South-West I had planned. Ironically, it was nicer than Kolonaki despite what people say. Kolonaki, on my one brief visit, simply looked plush and full of luxury shops. In Kolonaki the following night, I chose the wrong restaurant by making the mistake – not for the first time – of confusing a welcoming smile from a waiter as a sign the restaurant was serving something I wanted to eat. I chose a souvlaki place having forgotten this largely involves more skewered meat. I ate vegetarian. Stupid on all fronts.

The Lost Marbles

The pretty receptionist was young enough to be a younger friend’s daughter, but her apparent enthusiasm for my cause still made me feel around 30. I commented on her brilliant English. In a Bristolian accent, she told me her father was English. Her colleague was equally helpful, which firmed up my false sense of youthfulness.

I went for a walk in the national park where for reasons unknown I felt close to fainting. I drank lots of water and one of the popular slushy drinks that are no doubt required to deal with the full glare of an Athenian summer. I walked past orange trees and stumbled across a small pond containing several hundred turtles. I visited the giant columns of the Temple of Zeus, Hadrian’s rather modest arch, and the impressive ancient Olympic stadium where the marathon of the first modern games ended.

I later visited the Acropolis museum where there’s clearly plenty of room to slot in the Elgin marbles. My favourite exhibit was a Lego model of the site which combined past, present and imaginary in the characters swarming about it. They included Elgin pilfering the marbles, Elton John singing in one of the old theatres, and Gandalf arriving on a donkey.

Beneath the southern shadow of the Acropolis, I discovered a maze of atmospheric narrow lanes mainly catering for tourists where the charm superseded the commercial. I remembered I was on holiday, and stopped for a beer.

Lots of riot police on the streets as I walked home from dinner in Kolonaki but unclear what they were waiting for. The newspaper said bomb-making kit was found in an anarchist squat. I passed a small bookshop and was surprised to see about 100 faces – seemingly disembodied – staring out at me, or perhaps towards a charismatic author within.

I booked a ferry to Mykonos on my smartphone – a rare foray into fully using the potential of technology. Nobody was going to do it for me. I was dissuaded from going to Santorini by a rather dismissive – and less alluring receptionist – as it was apparently too far, but didn’t like his suggestion that I should settle for one of the islands merely an hour or so away. Mykonos also has the added attraction of the mythical isle of Delos nearby.

 

   

The Island Odyssey

 

I took the 1730 ferry from Rafina.

Only one terminal at the end of little quay – not the confusing port I expected. It was a full-size ferry – not the smaller nippier craft I had envisaged. Finding the bus-stop to get there was trickier and involved asking lots of questions. Luckily, I did this before visiting the archaeological museum as most of these out of town buses are spread about vague areas of the city without useful signage to make the process predictable.

On the boat, I got chatting with a Greek islander. He spoke like a very well-educated upper class Englishman which he attributed to spending some years in London. He waxed lyrical about Greek philosophers when he saw I was reading Plato’s Symposium before bemoaning how little today’s schoolchildren are taught about their wise ancestors. He was more evasive about less abstract matters and I learned nothing personal about him other than a mumbled reference he made to working in finance. He expressed an interest in my careers as a journalist and therapist while expressing doubts about both. He described himself as self-actualised, but only after we parted did I reflect how negative he was about everything

I neglected to do any real research on the practicalities of staying in Mykonos.
This proved to be a mistake.

As I disembarked at the new port at around 2230, I rather expected to be in the centre of the action. First impressions suggested I was just out of the action and this was why everyone from the ferry was now stepping into a car. Obviously, I decided to walk. Given the choice between following a sign towards the old port and a place I had never heard of – I chose the latter, which involved walking up a very long hill on the hard shoulder while HGVs trundled past threateningly. Two jolly-sounding English girls walked behind me which gave me the impression I was following an acceptable path to somewhere. They soon disappeared.

At the top of the hill, I found a kebab shop where I ate well and drank a large beer. It was one of those times that a large beer is exactly what you need. I asked the staff about hotels and they spoke amongst each other in what sounded like pessimistic voices. I spoke more Greek than they spoke English. I understood that they thought I was Italian, but didn’t have enough Greek to explain I wasn’t. In a mixture of Italian and Greek, they pointed me in the direction of where some hotels lay.

This proved to be a mistake.

Evidence of hotels did exist, but they were very much closed for the season that – it transpired – began in about a week’s time. Google Maps placed me somewhere in the middle of the Aegean Sea. I continued to walk into what proved to be the largely deserted heartland of the island.

This proved to be a mistake.

I walked around four miles. My two bags helpfully balanced the load. Twinkling lights in the far distance beckoned me onwards like Sirens shining torches to lead me further astray. Each illuminated a sleeping village or the kind of homestead that didn’t welcome visitors at 1.30 in the morning. Several gardens housed large aggressive dogs seeking company.

I began to think about sleeping in a ditch. I even inspected one, but changed my mind. I turned back as it was clear that this was not hotel country. Eventually I settled on a derelict house that I had passed earlier constructed solely of concrete floors and roofs. The walls were not yet an afterthought. I mounted to the second floor of the building on the shaky premise that wild dogs don’t attack people upstairs. This gave me an opportunity to watch the stars and feel like I wasn’t too old to experience adventures. Also, how my adventures usually involve some degree of suffering.

At around 0330, I decided to retrace my steps. It was too romantic to sleep.
When I had returned to the Crossroads of Doom, close to the kebab shop, I elected to take the opposite direction to what I had been advised four hours earlier. After about 10 minutes, the bay enclosing the old port appeared beneath me.

Now that I was in the right place, the fact about it still being the close season became more demonstrably obvious. I spent the next four hours walking up every single street in a very hilly bay of many streets. The lights were on but there was nobody home.  

At one stage, two fishermen discovered me at the seafront writing my diary by torchlight. The elder seemed scared when I asked him in correct Greek whether he spoke English. His strapping young companion was less intimidated and gave me complicated directions to navigate the labyrinth of streets of the old port towards the one open hotel on the island.
 

Appetites Unbound

Around 7am, I found an open boutique hotel. I didn’t think I would fit in and the nice well-groomed young man apologised for the rooms costing a minimum of 120 Euros. More usefully, he told me the hotel across the road charged half that ‘if I didn’t mind waiting an hour till they opened.’ This didn’t even register as an inconvenience.

While waiting outside, I asked several departing guests if it really was a hotel to discount the possibility if it being a mirage. Eventually, I was let in and I complied fully with their invitation to eat a large breakfast. Sometime later, I was shown into my luxurious quarters within which I lounged expansively for most of the day while planning a fitting dinner.

Later, down in the small, chic and photogenic port, I ate a slow-roast lamb shank. The waiting staff were genuinely charming, which is always nice when you’re travelling alone. But their brandy still cost 30 Euros a shot. I settled for an ouzo. They didn’t love me enough to give me a free one. I thought that was tradition.

Nonetheless, it felt like a triumphant day after its disastrous start. I successfully changed my return ferry to Athens and found another hotel – still way beyond my comfort needs, but costing only 35 Euros. This would allow me to take a day-trip to nearby Delos. The manager, Maria, was charming and offered me a cream cake as it was her birthday. I said I would collect it later as I was off for my supper. She never offered it again despite my persistently hanging around reception without an obvious objective. I later found out my bathtub was a Jacuzzi. I used it every night regardless of my cleaning needs.

I asked Maria’s assistant if breakfast was included. She said ‘No!’ As if I was mad. This balanced out the Jacuzzi bonus.

Eating otherwise followed a good-bad pattern. One afternoon, I lunched at a gyros house. This was to avoid paying the 20 Euros it had cost the previous day for some fried cod and a fruit juice. I paid 17 Euros instead for some vile sausages and two portions of chips. I only asked for one. The waitress was too tired of life to offer me the coffee we had earlier discussed. Eventually she accepted my money when I went to find her.

One evening, I sought out a local restaurant where I had a (still) frozen moussaka. When I pointed this out, the waitress looked mortified, which helped a bit, and was moved to ask someone to finish cooking it. The menu’s most impressive feature was the selection of baguettes – one for each of the 12 Olympians.

On my final morning, I found the baker’s open and feasted on fine pastries and coffee for a sprinkling of change. I had belatedly hit the jackpot. After enjoying these in the pleasant morning sun, I popped back in to tell the friendly staff their wares were kostimo! Kostimo has no meaning. It is a mix of nostimo, which means ‘delicious’, and kalos, which means ‘good’ so would make quite a good word in the right circumstances. They smiled and said goodbye.

Otherwise, my best eating memory was a creation involving honey, cream, pistachios and filo pastry called Galaktoboureko. It's a mouthful in every sense and the kind of dessert that makes you laugh with pleasure - though it's best to swallow first.

The surprisingly readable Symposium follows a discussion about love between a group of prominent Athenians. Socrates gets the best lines and like most ancient Greek thinking the discourse seems strangely modern aside from the odd absence of any mention of women. While the goddess of love is Aphrodite, she is considered a better class of woman for not having a mother.

My favourite line was ‘one could hear a girl playing a flute’. My girlfriend plays the flute. Perhaps if I had a flute-playing boyfriend I could tell the difference. Another quote to remember: ‘it isn’t easy for a man in my condition to sum up your extraordinary character in a smooth and orderly sequence.’ Quite hard to say without slurring when in one’s cups.

I am also reading an abridged version of The Greek Myths by Robert Graves. I was pleased to know that during his Tenth Labour, Heracles wandered down the whole coast of Italy before realising he had taken a wrong turning. I could do that.

On my last day, I took the boat to Delos, once home to the navy of the Greek city states and supposed birthplace of the God Apollo. It was an appropriate setting to celebrate Ancient Greece with its rugged hills, scattered ruins, and seductive blue waters. I climbed up to the shrine of Apollo where I was caught short. For my blasphemy, I lost complete sight of the path I had struggled up and was forced to climb down the rocky sides where I was briefly engaged in a stand-off with a family of goats.

I was the only tourist to trail around the island museum. The one employee followed me around like a very bad spy as if worried I was going to run off with one of the larger than life marble statues that towered over me. I asked her to show me where the museum was on its model of the very small deserted island. She said she had no idea where we were, before adding: ‘eets my first day’. After I snapped several photographs without my flash, she asked me not to use my flash. Only on a deserted island can you get this kind of personal attention.

The return journey to Athens passed efficiently without incident. A bus from Rafina whisked me back to the city centre without a moment’s delay and a room in my allegedly full hotel materialised for my convenience.

Consulting the Oracle

 

With time running out, I headed off to Delphi the next morning.

Thankfully, I left early for the hidden bus-station, which I walked past before realising that the overgrown pavement I was following alongside a major road suggested I was straying from the path.

Delphi, situated several hours drive away at the foot of Mount Parnassus, proved to be the best place of all. Thankfully, I elected to stay overnight as I was too late to visit the site of the oracle that afternoon and it would have been a great disappointment not to spend the night somewhere so tranquil and fitting for a consultation with the gods.

The oracle has little to say now but the excited babble of waves of international school children were more garrulous – possibly heightened by the remnants of the hallucinogenic gas that had leaked out and lent the ravings of the original priestesses their ambivalence. I wonder how many cities were won and lost in their translation.

The temples only now exist in the form of isolated clusters of columns mostly nested sleeping in the grass though the theatre and stadium are sufficiently intact to stir the imagination somewhat. The stunning view down the mountainside to the narrow ribbon of river in the valley floor many hundreds of metres below must have made it an inspiring sight for those arriving after many weeks arduous pilgrimage through the deserted and harsh landscape.  

Hotel and food were faultless – the latter involved a baked feta pie with sesame seeds, marmalade and honey followed by a wild boar and shallot stew that was so much more than ‘a stew’. The owner looked like a young Tony Soprano and was friendly in rather intense way. His girlfriend had just moved to London so he figured he should visit. He had never left Delphi and gave the impression he would be much happier hunting for my wild boar.

Before I left, I bought a small Grecian urn from a lonely shopkeeper. I felt guilty as she wrapped it up slowly and carefully for my journey home. With each new layer of protection, she seemed to be rueing my decision not to buy any of the more expensive statuettes and vases that I had spent time admiring. I was possibly her only customer that day.

Aside from sporadic swarms of school children, it was a very quiet and peaceful haven of two small streets. As on the islands, it was relatively bereft of youthful inhabitants who had been presumably drawn to the bright lights of Athens.

But I was only passing through so it remains perfect in my memory.