Archive for March, 2012

Our one-in-the-morning bus from Split arrived right on schedule at seven o’clock at Zagreb bus station. I investigated the local area to figure out where to go, bought a couple of tram tickets (making a tram motion with my hand and a tram noise to confirm what I was on about to the newsagent kiosk woman who didn’t speak English) and led the way to the tram stop. We had been told by our Couchsurfing hosts for Zagreb to meet them at the main square with the statue of a man on a horse. Happily, they also provided the name of said square, because the tram passed through another square with a man on a horse – in front of the railway station – before heading on to the main one, Trg Jelačića.

We whiled away a couple of hours at a café drinking capuccinos, eating food we’d bought elsewhere and reading before our hosts, Sanela and Damir arrived (at the time at which we’d arranged to meet). They were a friendly, likeable couple from a small town in northern Croatia. We took our bags to their car and then they took us on a walk around the old city centre.

It was Saturday and they were free to spend the whole day with us – which they did. After looking around the main area, they took us to a supermarket in a big, new shopping mall to buy food. At home, they made a meal of grilled fish for us. And in the evening, they took us to a rather grungy, but trendy bar full of studenty bohemian types. We drank rakije and beer and played cards.

The next day, they had to work at home for a few hours, so Habiba and I walked to the centre and did more sightseeing. Zagreb’s city centre is full of imposing, eighteenth and nineteenth century buildings, just like London, but – as in many of the other places we’ve visited and will visit – they’re all whitewashed or painted in bright pastel colours. As a result, Zagreb is a very attractive city – although if you stray away from the main area you’ll quickly find lots of communist era conrete tenements.

The main attractions in Zagreb are St Mark’s, a large church on the pedestrianised square between the parliament and presidential offices. It has a brightly roof depicting Croatian emblems like the coat of arms. Each tile is a single colour – red, white, blue – effectively a pixel. The whole thing looks like a 1980s video game. Zagreb Cathedral (also known as Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin) is a beautiful building that is evidently routinely cleaned and restored on the outside, as it was in pristine condition with very little weathering of the stone work. One of the two spires was covered in scaffolding.

Near St Marks is a shrine in a little road tunnel, simply referred to as the Stone Gate. It’s part of the old fortifications of the city, apparently and the street that goes through it turns a corner right inside. In the angle of the corner there are some pews; the shrine part is in front and the walls are covered with little plaques with messages of thanks. We also walked through part of the Botanical Gardens; it was nice enough, but at this time of year, things are only just starting to grow. Close to Trg Jelačića there’s a wonderfully ornate church tower, the upper portion of which is black covered with gold designs; it’s not easy to find reference’s to it, but it appears to be part of St Mary’s Church.

When they met us later, Sanela and Damir drove us to a restaurant on a mountain close to the city. It was a long, winding drive through bare deciduous forest. I had ćevapi – a kind of kebab, sausage-shaped meatballs – with fries; Habiba had a veal sauce and pasta. Afterwards we shared strudel.

We said our goodbyes that night, in our hosts’ living room – our bedroom. We left early the next morning, took a tram to the railway station and caught a 7:25 train to Vienna, where we would transfer to one for Bratislava, our next port of call and home of two of our friends from Korea.

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We took an afternoon bus from Kotor up to Dubrovnik in southern Croatia. The bus was a nice modern one, but the driver drove too fast for our delicate Western sensibilities. In Dubrovnik we were met at the bus station by someone from the hotel we were to stay at, Villa Micika. The owner was on Couchsurfing and offered his place for free during January and February because business was so slack; as we were arriving in March, he offered us a room for half price.

Dubrovnik was a bigger town than Kotor and the hotel was some distance away from the old town. The day after we arrived, we walked there, stopping to take some photos of the coast. The walled medieval city turned out to be just as beautiful as Kotor – perhaps more so, as it had lots of interesting churches and other buildings. The place was laid out in a more orderly fashion, though, with a wide main street running straight from one side to the other.

We found a little doorway in the walls on the Adriatic side and had a picnic on some rocks that had been partially concreted over to make convenient platforms. In the same area, in an alcove in the inner side of the wall, we found a cat with no eyes. The alcove was covered up with cardboard and inside there were numerous bowls of food. Apart from its rather runny eye sockets, the cat looked quite healthy. As we stood there peering in, it turned its head in our direction, but didn’t move otherwise.

Later, we found a way up on to the city walls and walked around taking in the view and taking lots of pictures. At the first steps we tried to go up, we were told to buy a ticket. We couldn’t find a ticket office, but someone else told us to walk around a lower part of the wall. We eventually found a young guy who seemed to be a guard or ticket inspector; he was texting or playing on his phone and he told us we could go on without a ticket. So we did.

Early the next day, we made our way to the bus station again to catch a coach up to Split. Dubrovnik is in an enclave of Croatia between Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina’s narrow sea coast, so we had to pass through two borders to get to Split in the main part of the country. A group of men got on the bus in Bosnia, but for whatever reason they had to get off again at the checkpoint for Croatia.

We got off at the bus station – which is adjacent to both the railway station and the ferry port – a very convenient set-up. We had to get another bus to our next Couchsurfing location. When we got off the bus, we walked in the wrong direction; realising this we asked various people for directions and had to contend with people not speaking English, not wanting to help or pointing us in the wrong direction. Eventually we got to the right apartment building, but couldn’t figure out how to get inside it. The lower floors were occupied by shops and cafés and the entrance to the flats was very unobtrusive. Finally, one woman we asked took us right to the entrance.

Our host, Tim, was less than talkative at first. We asked him did he work there and he just said, No; we asked if he was studying: No. He warmed up a bit later and told us that he’d also worked in Korea and had travelled across Mongolia and Russia. The place – a very nice, fairly spacious flat – wasn’t actually his, but he was house-sitting for a couple of his friends. He spent pretty much all his time playing an old computer game – Arcanum – which was the reason he couldn’t come and meet us and take us home. Needless to say, he didn’t take us anywhere in Split, but he did give us some advice about what to see.

The next day, we walked to a nearby marina and along the coast to stations, on the far side of which is the main tourist area around Diocletian’s Palace, a Roman ruin. The place was nice enough, but not as well preserved as Kotor or Dubrovnik old towns.

After sightseeing, we headed back home to pack and leave. We said goodbye to Tim late in the evening and walked back to the bus station to wait for our overnight coach to Zagreb.

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In Albania, most people travel around the country by furgon, which is just the Albanian for mini-bus. They’re generally white, fairly new and seat about 15 people – although they often carry more passengers than that. There are no bus stations, but various major pick-up points at squares and roundabouts, where these white vans gather.

We had read and been told that there was a furgon going from Shkoder to Ulcinj (‘ool-cheen’) just inside the Montenegrin border at nine and four every day. When we checked out of our hotel and walked to the nearby square for the furgon at 8:30, a man approached us and asked, ‘Ulcinj?’ and showed us to a café and there was another tall, middle-aged man there drinking and talking to some others. They didn’t speak much English, but we thought the second man was the driver. As a nearby church bell started ringing the hour, he finally came out and walked us to his car. Not a minibus, just a people carrier. And for €5 each he drove us, a young guy sitting next to us in the back and another older man in the passenger seat over the border into Montenegro

Ulcinj is actually south-west of Shkoder and we were heading north, up the Adriatic coast, to Kotor. From Ulcinj, we took an actual minibus to Bar, and from Bar we rode a rickety, exhaust fume-filled bus to Kotor. The route took us along a winding road, with mountains on one side and sea on the other. Just before the town of Budva, we passed Sveti Stefan (Saint Stephen), a tiny island densely packed with red-roofed old buildings, connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus of sand and a causeway. It’s an interesting and very picturesque location, which explains why it’s now an exclusive resort.

Habiba was just saying that she might have preferred to stay at Budva or nearby when we passed inland and reached Kotor, which is on at the end of a long, twisting bay and is pretty much surrounded by mountains on all sides. The place was as spectacular as anything I’ve ever seen. The new town near the bus station is nothing special, but the highlight, and the location of the hostel we stayed at, was the old medieval town.

This mini-town is remarkably well preserved. The walls are completely whole, inside it’s all paved with rectangular marble stones worn smooth over the years, and the buildings are all handsome stone structures arranged pretty randomly, thus making a maze of irregular alleys and squares. It’s such a picturesque place there’s something unreal about it; walking around is like navigating a level in a first person shooter. It was spotlessly clean – a welcome change after the refuse-strewn Albania.

Above the town, the fortifications continue all the way up the mountainside. They’re less well preserved and in the upper reaches, the dark grey ruins have been completed with paler masonry to make them safer. The hike up – which we did on our second day there – is steep, but not too strenuous as it’s not a long distance and we kept stopping to take photographs. There’s a church halfway up and a little fort at the top, some of it modern, maybe from the Second World War. It’s an interesting place to explore as there are lots of ruined but mostly whole rooms and staircases and the walkways branch every now and then, giving a choice of routes up and down.

Outside the old town, we also took a couple of walks along the shore of the bay. While it’s an inlet of the Adriatic, it looks a lot like a lake, with mountains on all four sides, but the water turns a corner further along, maybe a couple of miles from Kotor. There is a marina at the very end of the bay in front of the Stari Grad (old town) and all along the waterfront there are lots of little stone jetties, presumably where people in the nearby houses moor their boats, just by the narrow lane where they park their cars. There isn’t much of a shoreline, just bits of shale here and there. Because it’s so protected, the water is very placid.

We stayed at Montenegro Hostel, right in the middle of the old town. They had a deal with a nearby restaurant to provide cheap meals – something we took advantage of every breakfast and dinner. Actually, we didn’t stay at the hostel, but in a room in someone’s house just round the corner, but the rooms were let by the hostel. It was a nice attic room, but it was a little cramped vertically. In the bathroom I couldn’t even stand up to pee.

Presumably they don’t have many Montenegrins staying there. We’d read long before arriving in the country that Montenegrins are some of the tallest people in the world and we saw quite a few beanpoles – maybe because we were on the lookout for them.

We ate a lot of pizza while we were there – and in the region generally. There are lots of pizzerias in Albania, Montenegro and Croatia, obviously because of the close proximity of Italy. People also say Ciao to say goodbye.

Two days after we arrived, we caught an afternoon bus to Dubrovnik, two or three hours up the coast.

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Our first stop in Albania was Berat, also known as the town of a thousand windows on account of its long, many-windowed Ottoman houses. Driving there on our bus from Athens was not the most pleasant experience. The closer we got, the worse the roads got, slowing the bus right down (which, at least, was a change from the maniacal midnight mountainside driving). Also, as day broke and we could see our surroundings, we got a fairly negative impression of the country.

It is, of course, one of the poorest places in Europe – and it shows. While some of the houses we passed in the countryside were very nice, all freshly painted in pastel shades, with well tended gardens, a lot were unfinished shells, all grey concrete and clumps of rebar sprouting up like dark bamboo, and with no sign of any construction under way. Some were semi-unfinished, by which I mean that only the ground floor was finished, and apparently inhabited, while the upper storeys were grey shells. I didn’t see many of the famous bunkers, but there were a few on the way to Berat.

The other thing that really stood out was the amount of rubbish everywhere. Albania has a beautiful natural environment – lots of mountains, just like Korea – and some wonderful heritage, but there seems to be no culture of clean and sustainable refuse disposal.

Back on the subject of Berat, we stayed at Lorenc Guesthouse in the Gorica area of the town. The place is a seventeenth century house with thick stone walls, a couple of staircases up to the front door and a mini vinyard in the back garden, from which the owner produces a fiery, absinthe-like drink called raki. Said owner, Lorenc (ie, Lawrence), is a short, middle-aged man who could talk for his country. He lives with his mother and they looked after us very well, plying us with simple but good food and lots of tea and coffee – and a few shots of raki.

The Ottoman houses of the Mangalem and Gorica areas of Berat are white-washed, black-timbered structures, the upper floors of which tend to overhang the street below; in this much, they resemble Tudor houses, although they’re different in shape. They’re all built higgledy-piggledy on the hillside, and the result is extremely picturesque. Also in the town are various churches and mosques, but the other main attraction is the castle.

Berat castle is pretty unique in still being inhabited. It’s not so much of a castle as a hilltop fortress with a whole village inside. When we walked up there, there was a lot of construction going on inside – one of the dangers of off-season sightseeing. The place was a maze of medieval stone houses; the view of the surrounding river valley was not bad, except that if you looked down at the slope, it was covered in a scree of garbage.

We spent a couple of nights in Berat and then took an early bus up to Tirana, where we were due to stay another couple of nights with our very first Couchsurfing host, Sara, an American teaching there. The motorway up to the capital was the best road we travelled on in Albania, but another sign of the country’s poverty was the fact that it had neither slip roads and bridges nor traffic lights at the junctions; instead, each junction was a roundabout.

Once we got to Tirana, we took a local bus to Sara’s area and walked. We met her, left our bags at her nice, spacious apartment then went to meet one of her friends, Allan, another teacher and former Peace Corps volunteer, and the four of us took a furgon (minibus) to a town called Elbasan.

Elbasan is a castle town part way between Berat and Tirana and is the home of an Albanian holiday called Summer Day. The drive there was spectacular and terrifying. Most of the way, the road clung to a mountainside near the top of the ridge. Out of the windows on one side was a vast gulf extending to the mountains on the other side of the valley. I considered at various points that any accident that sent us over the side would be certain death for us all. At one or two places on the journey there was nothing but air on either side as we passed over saddleback or bridge.

We arrived safely, of course. The town was bustling with Albanians enjoying the weather and festivities. I’m not really sure what the festivities were. There was a concert, which we mostly missed. There were lots of people selling a kind of biscuit that looked like large rusks and turned out to be very crumbly and sweet. We saw a placid-seeming bear sitting in the middle of the street; it was on a chain held by a man and had a gypsy-style necklace and no teeth. The castle in Elbasan was an integral part of the town, with various shops and houses and fancy cafés inside.

My overwhelming impression of Albanians comes from this day. They seem uniformly working class, a nation of chavs, in fact. The men and boys were all dressed in their best fake leather jackets or white tracksuit tops and jeans, their hair military short and gelled up in spikes. The women and girls were dolled up in tight pants or short skirts and high heels; underneath their best downmarket style, they were generally quite attractive.

We walked around, got some kofta – prepared by a guy with cigarette in one hand – there’s also not really any such thing as no smoking in Albania – had lunch, then drank coffee and played cards – we learned a new game, Jacks and Fives – and finally headed back to Tirana. We had left it a bit late to get a furgon back, so we had to contend with a crowd of Albanians running towards any minibus that past the pick-up point (there aren’t any bus stations in Albania). Then we had the joy of the death-defying ride to the capital.

We spent the next day sightseeing around Tirana – once we’d climbed from our slumber. Sara had very kindly and trustingly given us a key to her place and allowed us to stay there during the day while she was at work. We ate lunch at a, by Albanian standards, very fancy place called Era in a trendy area near Sara’s known as Blloku. Our meal cost us about £7 or £8 each.

We walked to a park with a big lake with an inevitably litter-strewn shore. We passed by the Pyramid, a communist era building shaped like, well, not precisely a pyramid, but more of an angular cone. We walked from Mother Teresa Square to Skanderbeg Square (named after a medieval king), which turned out to be the Albanian Trafalgar Square as it was surrounded by various government buildings, all painted in a very distincive mustard and red colour scheme.

We planned to leave Tirana the following morning, so we said goodbye to Sara that evening, as she would leave for work before we would probably even get up. Then, talking it over in our sleeping bags on pallets made of settee cushions, we decided that we weren’t ready to head off yet. So Habiba asked Sara if we could stay another night and the answer was Yes.

We didn’t do any sightseeing stuff that day and only went out to get lunch and coffee. Later, we went to a nearby restaurant with Sara and had deep fried frogs legs for dinner. Quite tasty, like a slightly chewier version of chicken; one pair of frog thighs is not very filling, but that’s OK – you get a plate full of them.

Staying on in Tirana an extra day was a good idea. It gave us a chance to rest and do internet stuff and Habiba and Sara got to hang out more. Sara’s a very nice woman; she’s extremely similar to Habiba – they have very similar interests and tastes, even ways of speaking. They got on like best friends.

So that night, we said our goodbyes again and, early the next day, we headed out and caught a furgon to the north-western Albanian town of Shkoder. The place was a stop on our itinerary mainly, if I recall correctly, because it made travelling up the Adriatic coast easier. However, it also had a castle – Rozafa Castle – which, it turned out, was quite impressive and much cleaner than the one in Berat.

In Shkoder, we didn’t have any accommodation booked. We were supposed to have stayed with a Couchsurfer, but he cancelled a couple of days before we were due to arrive, and we couldn’t find a replacement host. So we booked into a cheap hotel that the CSer recommended, Hotel Rozafa.

This is communist-era hotel and has a distinct split personality. The reception and café were as nice as any mid-range hotel you could find anywhere. Then the tiny room we stayed in – for about €10 a night – was pretty grotty. The walls were graffitied – a little, anyway – the bathroom and wardrobe doors didn’t open and close too well, the bathroom ceiling was missing large chunks of plaster and the light fitting there was dangling by a couple of wires. However, it was as clean as you could realistically expect and the beds were warm and not uncomfortable. Wifi was available in the café, so we were happy enough.

In the evening, after exploring the castle during the day – and walking the two or three kilometres there and back to the town centre, along ordinary town streets, one of which was underconstruction and nothing but an expanse of coarse gravel – we had a look at some of the other notable buildings, including a mosque and a cathedral. Habiba wanted to know why, when I hate religion as much as I do, I always want to look at temples. The answer is that they’re often the most beautiful and interesting buildings around – very much intentionally so; the sense of wonder that is generated by a big building was one of religion’s main selling-points.

We also discovered a pedestrianised high street that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a touristy town in Italy or France – a surprise after the relative environmental and infrastructure poverty of the rest of Shkoder.

In the morning we said goodbye to Albania and headed to Montenegro.

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Of the two genre magazines that I’ve read the most, I’ve always considered Realms of Fantasy to be the weaker, but it has its good points – interesting articles and usually a couple of good stories. This one was no different.

The first article was a brief history of fairy tales in films, which was quite informative, mentioning some early, less well known movies and concluding with a run-down of films due out in the next year, including three Snow White-inspired pictures.

The next piece was an interview with an artist, Ruth Sanderson, who created the cover art. I’d never heard of her and the examples of her art didn’t do much for me. Many of them seem to involve fairies sprinkling magic in a forest. Sanderson talked about being inspired by exploring a deserted amusement park as a child, which was fairly interesting.

Next was one of the highlights of the magazine, an exploration of mythic themes in The Chronicles of Narnia. The article was divided into sections, each looking at a particular mythos: Classical mythology, Norse mythology, Eastern mythology and C S Lewis’s own creations. The thrust of the article was that the Narnia stories are less inspired by Christian themes than many think, that such influence is only one of several woven into the books.

The last article was about the history of urban fantasy, which mentioned all the more famous works, like those by Jim Butcher and Laurel K Hamilton, but posited that the genre is a fair bit older and began in the 80s with works by people like Charles de Lint. It also divided the genre up into three strands, saying that all three were referred to by the same name, but were very different; I didn’t really see that there was all that much difference. The overlap and cross-pollination with romance literature is pretty undeniable, though.

Next up were the stories, five in all. ‘Return to Paraiso’ by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz was the first and worst, a simplistic tale in which a young woman with magical abilities is returned to her village, kills all the evil soldiers and leads the people to pastoral paradise on the mountain. The viewpoint, in particular, was weak, alternating between a village girl and the captain of the soldiers, neither of whom were very interesting.

The second story was the other highlight of this edition: ‘The Man Who Made No Mistakes’ by Scott William Carter. The narrative takes the form of a man recounting his story to a priest in a confessional. The man has the ability to go back to an earlier point of his own life and relive the subsequent events, something he calls ‘switchbacking’. He can only switchback as far as his previous switchback. He’s also black, and when he falls for a senator’s daughter who rejects him because her father couldn’t accept his ethnicity, he kills her, knowing that he can go back right to the moment he first met her and not kill her, nor even talk to her. While this would seem like moral quandary enough, it leads to a far greater decision that sees him spend years, decades going back to that first moment he saw the woman trying to find a way to avoid a terrible outcome. It’s a fascinating story, very well written and easily the best of the stories in the magazine.

‘Second Childhood’ by Jerry Oltion begins in a cheesy manner, with a woman suddenly finding the ghost of her mother standing behind her. The older woman is now the younger woman, having been spontaneously and inexplicably reincarnated as her thirty-year-old self. Although the characters, the daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter of the ghost, receive the news of this resurrection with a bare minimum of incredulity, the scenario is played out quite realistically, becoming a subtle family drama. By the end of the story, I found it quite touching.

The fourth story was ‘Sweeping the Hearthstone’ by Betsy James, another fairly simple tale. The main character is a girl who was given up for adoption by her unmarried mother; she was taken in by travelling folk and now that she’s becoming a woman, has been left at a tavern to make a living. It’s a sexual coming-of-age story in which none of the local boys or men is anywhere near good enough for her. Luckily, the hearthstone she tends hides her perfect lover. There’s really not much more to the story than that.

The last story was ‘Barbie Marries the Jolly Fat Baker’ by Nick DiChario, which came across as a fantasy-aspected cheap knock-off of Toy Story. The story involves a knight doll getting angry at Princess Barbie’s decision to marry the obnoxious Fat Baker doll and, when he can’t change her mind, deciding to escape the castle (ie, their owner’s house), which he does with some help from the family dog, who agrees to carry him outside hanging from his penis. All in all, another unfulfilling tale.

Lastly, there were several pages of reviews in various sections: ‘Books’, ‘Paranormal Romance & Urban Fantasy’, ‘Young Adult Fiction’ (which latter two apparently don’t count as ‘Books’), ‘Graphic Novels’ and ‘Gaming Reviews’. Of interest here was a long review of A Dance with Dragons by George R R Martin; a good review, but too positive in its appreciation of the book. None of the other reviews interested me much.

This edition of the magazine has turned out to be the last, probably ever. The publication has, apparently, been going for seventeen years and has, in the past couple of years had to find a new owner, but this time it looks like it’s curtains. This is a big shame, as it’s been one of the most prominent fantasy magazines on the market. The stories haven’t always been to my taste, but it’s always been a good read, with a nice balance of fiction and articles. Maybe when the world economy picks up, it’ll be brought back to life.

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The day after we returned to Athens – Saturday – we did some more sightseeing – the Temple of Olmpian Zeus, which was very close to our hostel – and planned our journey to Albania the next day. We should have done that planning earlier, really. We thought we would be able to take a bus to Ioannina in north-west Greece, then another to the border town Kakavia, then another to Gjirokaster in southern Albania, and a final one to our destination of Berat. Probably doable.

However, Habiba spoke to the travel agency that had organised our trip to Santorini, and found that there were Albanian travel agencies that run buses to the country. So we went to the area where they all reside and bought tickets for a direct night bus to Berat for €35 each.

Habiba’s mum left very early for Istanbul and a flight home the next day. We were going to have breakfast together, but she decided she needed to get to the airport as early as possible. We said goodbye to her at the hostel and then went back to bed.

As we were now not travelling during Sunday daytime, we had another day to look around Athens. We had breakfast at a café with lots of baked stuff near the Acropolis. A small flock of little birds sntached up our crumbs – which we provided readily enough from our crumbly pies.

Then we went around the Roman Agora and the Ancient Agora. We didn’t have to pay any entry fee for either because it was Sunday. The Ancient Agora is in a large park that contains a completely reconstructed ancient building, the Stoa of Attalos (a stoa is an arcade), and the Temple of Hephaestus, which is perhaps the best-preserved ruin we saw.

Afer that, we walked up a nearby hill called the Areopagus, which provides a great view of the nearby Acropolis. It started raining while we were up there, so it wasn’t all that pleasant. We headed back to Snytagma and watched the soldiers dressed in traditional tunics in front of the Helllenic Parliament building. They were evidently in service of the Ministry of Silly Walks, as they slowly marched back and forth with exaggerated leg movements. Behind the parliament is the National Garden, which was not exactly bursting with colour, as it was a rainy early spring afternoon.

In the evening, we picked up our bags from the hostel and made our way by subway to the Albanian travel agency and – with some communication difficulties – got on our coach bound for Berat. The seats were pretty small. The bus was less than half full; we considered moving to different seats to get away from people behind us kicking our seats, but we reasoned there would probably be more pick-ups later. We never did move and there was only one person picked up along the way.

The ride was pretty hair-raising. The driver powered the bus along narrow, winding mountain roads. As it was night-time, we couldn’t really see much outside – probably a good thing. The drive was so hectic that getting any sleep overnight was out of the question.

When we got to the border, we got out of the bus and presented our passports one by one at the Greek Immigration desk. Then we drove on to the Albania checkpoint, where a man got on the bus with a passport-width wooden box and collected everyone’s passports. A while later, the driver’s assistant gave them back to us. Habiba and I check our Albanian stamp – plain black and not very interesting.

Then we had more windy roads to navigate up through Albania. Past Gjirokaster, closer to Berat, which is in the southern central of the country, the roads degenerated to patchy country lanes. The bus had to slow right down in many places in order to pass. Then there were various stops at small towns near Berat that drew the ride out to thirteen hours. I showed the driver the address of the place we were staying at and he eventually let us off at a footbridge we had to cross. From there it turned out to be a short walk to the guesthouse.

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Santorini is supposedly one of the highlights of any Greek island-hopping holiday. It’s the place with all the blue-domed homes and churches that’s in all the pictures. It’s in a part of the Aegean called the Cyclades. Santorini is not an island so much as an archipelago. There’s a ring of several mountainous islands and one volcanic island in the centre. Three thousand six hundred years ago, it was all one, until an eruption blew the place apart; the resulting tidal wave may have spelt the end of the Minoan civilisation on Crete.

We had originally planned to get out of Athens for the latter part of Grecian trip – and head up to Thessaloniki and the nearby Chalkidiki peninsula. It turned out that we didn’t have much appetite for that. Habiba’s mum went to a travel agent and took us there later to book the trip. The men who worked there – a couple of guys in their sixties or so – were a pair of characters. The one we dealt with mainly suggested that if Habiba was bad, I could throw her off the top of the volcano to the fishermen below.

We made slightly complicated arrangements with our hostel in Athens to check out for a day, then spend two more nights (Habiba and I in a dorm one night and private room the next) before leaving for good. A taxi came to pick us up and it sped us along the expressway to the port of Piraeus. Once there, we boarded the ferry at one of several gates and some time later we were off.

The ferry journey lasted about eight hours and stopped at Naxos, Paros and Ios before docking at Santorini, where we were picked up once again and driven to our hotel. The place we stayed at in Fira was very pleasant, almost luxurious in a modest kind of way. Right at the top of the ridge, it looked over the caldera and the central volcano.

The following day, we walked down the Caldera Steps to the port just below Fira. When we’d been to the top of the steps the night before we’d seen several bony, dirty and generally miserable-looking donkeys fastened up on the cobble-stone path. They weren’t there in the morning. Walking down was a little bit of hard work, but we stopped often to take lots of photos of the stunning views. At the bottom, Noor and I convinced Habiba to take the cablecar that we’d seen running back up to the top instead of walking. When we went to the cablecar station, we found that it was closed and wouldn’t open for hours. We walked back up.

Unlike our stay in Athens, the weather on Santorini was pretty immaculate. The air was pretty chilly, but it got quite hot in the sunshine. The walk up the Caldera Steps was less pleasant than the walk down.

Afterwards, we took a local bus to the town at the northern tip of our island – Oia (pronounced EE-a). While Fira was pretty, Oia was the face of a thousand postcards and tourism advertising campaigns. We spent an hour or two wandering along the little stone paths that weave between the whitewashed and pastel-painted buildings. Every few steps opened up new photogenic vistas.

After that, we had lunch and then got a ride back down to the port to catch the ferry back at four-thirty. We had been told that it was at three-thirty, and that, combined with the rough seas towards Piraeus, meant that we arrived a lot later than we had expected – far too late to take the subway back to Athens. Taxi it was, then. Habiba and I quietly got into our temporary bunks at about three and the next morning, we transferred to our own room for a night before embarking on some final sightseeing in Athens.

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The flight to Athens was quite short – descent started almost as soon as cruising altitude was reached. Once at the airport, we had to hang around for Habiba’s mum to do random things at airline desks. Then we took the €5 bus into the city.

The bus took a while and eventually dropped us at Syntagma Square, Athens’s equivalent of Trafalgar Square and the location of the country’s parliament building. Despite all the signs and suchlike being, literally, all Greek to us, driving through the city felt like a kind of homecoming. It’s a much more Western place than Istanbul.

Despite being the capital of the country, it feels like a provincial English city or large town. While it has some nice areas, Athens has seen better days. A lot of it seems old and tired. Add to that all the empty shops and the ubiquitous graffiti – even on churches and historic buildings – and it seemed a bit like travelling back in time to the industrial troubles of the 1970s. I saw several branches of Lidl around the city. The weather was uniformly grey the whole time we were there, which didn’t improve matters.

However, we were staying at the Students and Travellers’ Inn in an area not far from Syntagma called Plaka. This is a very villagey, touristy area right next to the Acropolis. It has marble-paved pedestrianised streets and lots of tavernas and souvenir shops. We ate at various places around here and, while they’re more expensive than some restaurants, they really weren’t that pricey – we often got free deserts or drinks or other dishes, too. The hostel was pretty decent. Habiba’s mum had paid a little extra for us to have a private room, so it was especially pretty decent.

Our first sightseeing port of call was the Acropolis. We walked up the street from our hostel, down the side of the park and we were in. Entry was free on the day we went. The Acropolis is a large rock thrusting up from the surrounding parkland and city. On top is the Parthenon, which is less impressive on a damp, early spring day with construction crews at work on it than it looks in the pictures. Still, it’s a great sight. Actually, some of the other buildings on the Acropolis, like the Erechtheum, are more interesting.

There were various well fed apparently stray dogs lounging about at the top of the Acropolis; and, as in Istanbul, there were lots of healthy stray cats around. At one dinner we had, a big tom with widely spaced eyes that gave him a leonine look sat by us and we fed him titbits. We we finished our meal, the waiter brought us complementary drinks – a fiery brandy for me and some sweet cherry liqueur thing for the ladies.

After the Acropolis, we walked around and towards the shopping area of Monastiraki and found a beautiful Byzantine church on the way – one of various such temples in Athens. There is even a tiny little one, the size of a smallish room, that is now inside the arcade front of a modern commercial building.

Later in the day, we went to the National Archaeological Museum (one of the best in the world, as Noor pointed out more than once), but we got there just at closing time – a very early three o’clock. I went to the bathroom in the museum just before closing time while Habiba and her mum took a breather outside. When I came out, the doors were closed and there was no one around in the lobby. I let myself out. We went back the next day and gawped at all the gold, pottery and statues. Quite an amazing collection of artefacts.

The museum was strangely deceptive. It’s a big building set back from the road some distance, but it almost looks deserted. The grounds in front are nothing special, just some grass and trees and concrete paths, and most of the few people around don’t look like museum-goers, more like unemployed people just hanging around. Inside, the lobby is also quite bare, with a confusing three entrances leading to the exhibitions. Entry was a pretty steep €7.

Another interesting episode in our exploration of the Greek capital was the flea market. There’s an alley of shops leading from one end of Monastiraki Square with a sign over the entrance saying flea market. However, you only reach the real thing further down the street. There, there are secondhand furniture shops, which we looked around for a while; a little further on, by the entrance to the ancient agora, there are tables laden with random bric-a-brac, including lots of coins and banknotes, and even some Nazi medals and badges.

Part of our plan in Greece was to visit somewhere outside Athens, so at Noor’s urging and with some procrastination on our part, we decided to take a trip to Santorini – which turned out to be well worth it.

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After exploring Ephesus and the Basilica of St John the previous day, on Sunday the 4th of March we went to the Isa Bey Mosque, the Temple of Artemis, one of the ancient Wonders of the World, the Ephesus Museum and had a walk around the town.

The mosque was a nice enough building, still apparently functioning as a place of worship. The Temple of Artemis, while at one time impressive enough to be counted a Wonder of the World by Herodotus, is now a fairly unimpressive ruin, with one and a half rebuilt columns, a few ruined walls and a large pool. The most interesting part of visiting the Temple was all the terrapins sunbathing on the side of the pools. We saw a few by the side of some pools in the ruined chambers. Then, as we got to the large pool at one end, there were dozens of large ones that all tumbled into the water when they saw us.

The Ephesus Museum had various interesting relics – statues of Artemis with either many breasts or testicles covering her torso, for instance. Later in the day, we walked to the other side of the town with the aim of maybe walking up a hill. We went over the railway, passed a mosque and through a residential area. When we got to the foot of the hill, a bunch of children came to us and started demanding we take their picture – we went back pretty quickly.

We were back at the railway station the following morning, to get a train to Izmir Airport. From there, we flew to Athens.

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This is the story of a man and a boy in the aftermath of what you assume is a nuclear holocaust. The weather is getting colder and the two are travelling south down what you assume is the eastern seaboard of the US. They have to contend with starvation, the cold and the bare handful of other survivors.

It’s a darkly engaging story. The two characters spend most of the time balancing on a knife edge of survival. They survive by assiduously searching every building they find – and by sheer good luck. Their encounters with others are brief and stressful. There are a couple of moments of horror involving cannibalism.

The Road is written in a very stylistic manner – it’s spare and bleak; the main character and his son have no names – they are just ‘the man’ and ‘the boy’ or ‘the child’. There are no chapters; instead, the narrative is split into short sections of no more than a couple of pages – some are just a paragraph. There are few adjectives – most things are described as being ‘gray’ or ‘dead’. Sentences are short. Some are just nouns. Descriptions. But then there are occasional passages that feel horribly over-written, full of abstruse vocabulary, and they’re difficult to even make sense of.

Just as the writing style is very bare, the interactions between the characters are minimal. The man is a tired and doubting father. His son questions the veracity of what he tells him, and the man often has to agree that, for instance, maybe things aren’t OK. Their exchanges are a series of short, un-quotation-marked sentences, often repeating what each other say, inflecting statements as questions and vice versa.

The man regards everyone they encounter as a risk – rightly so, mostly. By the end, however, he is starting to seem obsessive, psychotic, even, in the extent to which he tries to avoid others.

The ending is what I was taught to call a dramatic ending. The negative part of the ending was signposted throughout and seemed inevitable and apt. The positive aspect of the conclusion comes from sheer good luck and has no foreshadowing. It seems like a happy ending simply added to prevent the novel being utterly bleak and depressing. That said, you could read it as a terribly ominous ending, but that wasn’t the impression I got.

With the exception of its awkwardly optmistic ending, the bursts of pretentious verbiage and some questions as to why, if they’ve lived for several years since the apocalypse, they need to make this urgent journey and haven’t encountered any orderly community yet, The Road was an excellent book – realistic, harrowing but hopeful and beautifully written.

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