Archive for June, 2012

Iceland is a bit out of the way for a Europe trip that had previously covered the Balkans from Istanbul to Zagreb, the heart of central and western Europe and the UK, but it’s been Habiba’s dream to go there for a long time, so it was duly scheduled for the penultimate country in our Grand Tour. We flew into Keflavik, the country’s main international airport, then took a bus to Reykjavik, the capital, where we spent the night at Reykjavik Backpackers.

Iceland has a population of just 300,000, most of whom live in and around the capital. It’s a pretty modest place. There’s little historic architecture of the sort that we’d seen in every other stop along the way. The most important old building, perhaps, was the parliament – which looked like a large, old, stone cottage. There was also a grand modern building – a concert hall called the Harpa, a post-modern honeycomb confection. Most of the the ordinary shops and houses were faced with corrugated metal – some of them were quite attractive, but it’s not the classiest of building materials.

We explored a bit and went to bed. Sleep did not come easily: it was a holiday the following day, so lots of people were out drinking – something Icelanders do a lot – our hostel was on one of the main shopping streets, so it was pretty noisy; also, being so far north, the sun doesn’t set far below the horizon in the summer, so it didn’t get darker than early twilight at any point of the night.

In the morning, we left the hostel and walked to Reykjavik Airport (we’d enquired at the bus station the previous day about getting a bus, but the holiday schedule was quite sparse). It was closed when we got there, but someone opened the small airport up within a few minutes. We got on a small passenger plane for our flight to Egilsstaðir (the ‘ð’ is a an eth, a voiced ‘th’; however, the ‘g’ is silent and the last two syllables are run together so it sounds like ‘Aylstathr’), a town in the east of the country.

Once there we waited for the farmer at whose farm we were to volunteer at for the next two weeks to pick us up. We waited. And we waited. On a second attempt to call him, over two hours after we arrived, Habiba spoke to him and discovered he’d forgotten that we were coming. Not long after, he came and got us and took us to his farm a few kilometres to the south, Vallanes (double L in Icelandic is a bit like that in Welsh, but it sounds more like ‘tl’; thus, Vallanes sounds like ‘Vat-lan-ess’.

On the ride, we passed areas that had large stands of young evergreens growing on them. I asked Eymundr, the farmer, about them and he explained that they had been planted as part of a government initiative since the 1980s and that he’d planted a million trees. I later learnt that the saplings had been imported from across the Arctic Circle – from Norway, Canada and Siberia.

The farm specialises in barley, but grows various other crops, too; it produces its own line of organic foods – Móðir Jörð (Mother Earth) – which, we discovered, are quite expensive. It’s not a big farm and there are only four members of staff – the farmer and his wife, Jói (‘Yo-i’) – an Icelander – and Dagma – a German. The latter two live in a couple of welded-together prefab huts known as the Monster House because of the sea serpent painted all around its exterior walls. Volunteer workers live in the same place. Habiba and I shared a small room with a bunk bed, a table, two chairs and a wardrobe; there were maybe half a dozen more such rooms, along with two or three bathrooms, a kitchen-dining-common area and Joi’s room.

Volunteers like us generally go there because of an organisation called WWOOF – Wordwide Opportunities on Organic Farms. They have a set of global and national websites that people sign up to for a moderate fee and get access to details of various participating farms. WWOOF has no active participation in the arrangements people make.

We worked six days a week at Vallanes, officially from nine to five, but the working hours were fairly relaxed, and included a lengthy coffee break in the afternoon. We got room and board – cooking and cleaning were done on a rota basis. There was one desktop computer with internet access. The farm was not terribly big – there was the farmer’s house, a small factory unit called the White House, a few greenhouses, a few small fields, a barn with more food producing equipment and a hen house, and the Monster House.

Apart from the regular staff, there were several volunteers at any one time: Natasha from the UK, Isabel from Switzerland, Dylan from the US, Laurent (‘Lo’) from France, Yoko from Japan, Maria from Spain, Guillaume from Quebec, Mihaela from Italy and so on. The personnel was rounded out by the farm’s cat, Susan (or Aphrodite, depending on who you asked). She was a smallish animal with very soft fur; sometimes she would come and check out what we were doing, approaching us for strokes; she let me pick her up without much complaint. Other times, we wouldn’t see her for days. The farm was also a hotspot for birds, especially a particular species that often flew about emitting a soft, low kind of beeping call: buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh.

Our work mainly involved looking after seedlings: for several days, we pricked them out of seed trays and planted them up in trays consisting of individual pots – beetroot and kale were the main crops involved. They also took a lot of watering, and this was nearly a full-time job for one person (I did it a couple of times). The greenhouses were long, arched metal structures covered with plastic sheeting; the weather was often very pleasant and, inside the greenhouses, it got very hot.

A big task at the end of our two weeks at the farm was making veggie burgers. This involved mashing up beetroots and potatoes, feeding the mixture into a patty-making machine, dipping the burgers in to an oat mix then boxing them up. Manning the burger machine was a fun challenge, as it popped out one patty every couple of seconds and you had to catch it and put it on a tray, building up as many as three layers of burgers until the oat mix dippers swapped the tray out for the one they’d just finished.

Other random jobs involved weeding, cutting down some some small fallen trees, mowing, removing the sheeting from a greenhouse and preparing it for a new covering, moving things around, cleaning a minibus (I did this all by myself – it was full of soil) and general cleaning and helping.

On our first Sunday day off, Habiba and I went with Dagma to the public baths in Egilsstaðir. I wasn’t too excited about this – swimming is not something I long to do; I had to borrow a pair of Bermuda shorts from the Monster House wardrobe o’ random clothes. It was actually a pleasant experience, though. Entry cost 500 kronur – about £2.50. The weather was sunny, but cool – which is relevant, because it was an open air swimming pool.

There was a main pool, a paddling pool that had warmer water and was a very popular place to hang out, two hot tubs and a water slide. There weren’t many people there and most of them stayed in the warmer sub-pools, so you had plenty of peace and space to swim a few lengths. As I’m not a great swimmer, this was appreciated. As Habiba doesn’t like people getting in her way, I’m sure she appreciated it, as well.

On our second day off, the following weekend, we hitchhiked to a waterfall about twenty kilometres south of Vallanes. We walked to the main road and set off in the direction of Hengifoss. I’d never hitchhiked before and was wary of what the experience might bring. Before too long, however, a woman pulled over in her four-wheel-drive and invited us to get in. She turned out to be a friend of Eymundr, the Vallanes farmer.

The walk up to the waterfall was a moderately strenuous, but short hike. We lengthened it by taking lots of photos. Before the main fall, there were a couple of other points of interest to take in. The river was fed by Iceland’s biggest glacier, Vatnajökull and tipped over the edge of a long, flat, ridge, carving a gorge on its way to a long, narrow lake that was very close to Vallanes further north. The first point of interest was a twist in the gorge where the water thundered through and the resultant spray made a rainbow in the sunlight. The second point of interest was a part where the walls of the gorge had the geometric form of lava columns – like the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. And then Hengifoss itself was a tall pillar of water spewing over the edge of a cliff into a great cul-de-sac lined with various strata of rock.

We were pretty optimistic about hitchhiking back to the farm and we set out, crossing the causeway-bridge combination across the lake and along the road we’d come down. It was about an hour and a half and a couple of dozen vehicles later that we were finally picked up – by the same woman who’d taken us to the waterfall earlier. She dropped us right back at the farm, stopping for a minute to say hello to Eymundr (who was dressed in nothing but shorts and boots).

The two weeks on the farm went by pretty quickly – and it was a very pleasant experience. We had fun hanging out with the other volunteers – especially Habiba, being rather more sociable than me. The sun bothered me a bit; I took to using a kerchief-bandanna thing I found in the communal wardrobe to protect my neck and ears – combined with my green cap, it made me look like a WWII Japanese soldier (I decided to keep this when we left).

The second week got a bit boring for me, and I became somewhat withdrawn – I missed having my own space and privacy. I took to listening to Fear Factory to counteract the organic, touchy-feely, hippy goodness of it all – especially the kind of music people listened to and played (Digimortal is a fantastic album, it turns out). I’m glad that I had Habiba there as my connection to humanity. There were some other very quiet characters at the farm and I could imagine how lonely they probably were.

At the end of our fortnight of farming for a few days of travel and sightseeing in Iceland – which will be the subject of my next post.

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Lud-in-the-Mist is another 1920s fantasy republished for modern readers as part of Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterworks series (contemporaneous works include The Worm Ouroboros, The King of Elfland’s Daughter and The Well of the Unicorn, which last volume I recently read and enjoyed). Mirrlees only wrote two other novels, neither of them fantasy. This volume enjoyed a revival in the 1970s, much the same as did The Lord of the Rings – hippies apparently liked the drug-taking theme. Neil Gaiman provides an introduction wherein he practically orgasms over the book – as well as giving away much of the plot.

The book has the feel of a Victorian fairy tale and concerns a made-up nation with Dutch and English characteristics called Dorimare. Dorimare borders the Elfin Hills, beyond which live fairies. These fairies largely have no contact with the Dorimarites, except for occasional bursts of fairy fruit smuggling. Fairy fruit afflicts the eater with an otherwordly ennui that often results with them running away to live with the fairies. Dorimarites hate and fear fairies so much that even talking about them is taboo; people prosecuted for smuggling fairy fruit are officially charged with trafficking silk.

The story revolves around Nathaniel Chanticleer, the lord mayor of Lud-in-the-Mist, capital of Dorimare, and the various fey goings on that affect him, his family and the whole nation. Eating the fairy fruit has biblical connotations, but it also has a narcotic resonance for modern readers. While the inhabitants of Dorimare generally regard its consumption as an evil, it is ultimately portrayed in a quite effective ambiguous way. The fairies never really come into the foreground of the story, instead occupying the shadows, disguised and appearing in hallucinatory glimpses.

Instead, the story is firmly about the people of Dorimare, their desires and fears, their class tensions, their secrets. The novel is part fairy tale, part psychological fantasy; it even becomes a detective story for a few chapters later in the book. It has a gentle, didactic style to it; it makes you imagine the story being narrated by a Victorian nanny to her wards.

It’s a little slow to get going – the first couple of chapters are strictly for scene-setting, describing the country and its ways. It gets bogged down a bit in places and some subplots don’t add much to the overall story – I’m thinking specifically of the disappearance of Chanticleer’s daughter and her classmates. However, Lud-in-the-Mist is a very likeable story that stays in the mind because of the amibiguousness of its antagonists and of the Dorimarites’ relationship to them, and because of its engaging central character.

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My dad, as he often did when I was at university there, drove down to Bath with my mum – and arrived on time, surprisingly enough. Then we drove further south to Highcliffe near Bournemouth, where my dad’s mother – ‘Nana’ – and her husband – ‘Uncle Reg’ – live. My dad had reserved a room for us at a nearby hotel.

My parents, on the other hand, stayed with Nana and Reg. As they’re quite elderly, they no longer live in the two-storey bungalow (ie, the master bedroom was on the same level as the attic) that I remember from my childhood, with its big garden with a stream running along it, and, on the far side of the stream, a path leading to a nice big park where I climbed trees. Instead, they have a nicely appointed, but rather plain flat not far from the beach.

They’ve aged a lot since I last saw them – which was a long time ago. Nana was as nice and enthusiastically grandmotherly as she ever was and was a great hit with Habiba; Reg was quieter – his speaking voice was the same, but he didn’t say so much. He’s blind now, so maybe his blindness leaves him in a bit of a world of his own.

In the evening, we drove through the New Forest to an isolated pub for dinner with my dad’s half sister, Lalani, and her mother. Lalani, despite being my aunt, is younger than me or any of my siblings. I’d never met her before – and my dad hadn’t met her until recently. Which facts are explained by my dad’s late father’s estrangement from his first family. Lalani turned out to be a very sweet, friendly person and the meal was a pleasant experience.

The following morning, we went to have a look at the beach at Highcliffe, then set off up north – visiting Stonehenge on the way.

Our specific destination in T’ Nawrth was my sister’s place in the Derbyshire countryside – except not my sister’s place, but her ex-partner’s place because my sister’s place had been devastated by a child- and bathroom-related flood. The family spent a lot of time there and, on the first night, they threw a birthday party for me; later in the evening, we played Star Wars Monopoly.

It was the first time I’d seen Caroline’s kids in a couple of years and they’d grown, as children do. Nelly seemed to be turning into quite a mature teenager, Tom had grown from the clownish cherub I remember into an even-tempered and irreverent boy and the baby, Maisy, had now taken on the mantle of angelic toddler.

Visiting my family is usually a little awkward, as I’m not that close to them – about which I have mixed feelings. But my sister is a friendly, down-to-earth woman and her children are great – which makes them the effective heart of our family. Everyone seemed to take to Habiba very well. I’m sure Habiba felt more than a little apprehensive at meeting them, but she charmed them with her charming charm.

In a slightly bizarre yet completely planned-for turn of events, Lauren, Habiba’s colleague and friend from Korea – whom we’d already met and stayed with in Bratislava – came over to visit one day and we all went to Chatsworth House, a beautiful and very expensive place; the gardens were especially nice. Afterwards, the three of us went shopping at the Farm Shop associated with the house and ate cold pasties in the shop’s car park. Later, we got Bakewell tarts in Bakewell.

On our final full day in the UK, my dad drove us to Runcorn, where we had a nice lunch with my friends from my Liberal Democrat days, Liz and Roger. After chatting to them for a couple of hours about life, we walked over to and around Runcorn Hill. I’d described Runcorn to Habiba as being rather grim with more than its fair share of scumbags, but the parts we saw (with the exception of our brief visit to Halton Lea (which I still think of as Shopping City)) were quite respectable, and the town does have a couple of very nice parks.

After exploring the sandstone crags and views of the Mersey of Runcorn Hill, we walked down to my parents house, where we met my youngest brother, Alex, and their dogs. It was only a flying visit before heading back to Whaley Bridge, where I only just had time to fulfil my promise to give my niece (the elder) and nephew a crash course in Magic: The Gathering.

The following day and before we knew it, it seemed, we had to leave to catch our flight to Iceland and further adventures.

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If I remember rightly, I first heard about this book not long ago by reading a Cracked.com article about supposedly cursed films. John Candy was to have played the main character, Ignatius J Reilly, but he died; Will Ferrell was down for the role, but it didn’t come to fruition. When visiting my friend Lawrence recently, I saw that he had a box of books outside his door and he invited Habiba and me to help ourselves. One of the books I took was A Confederacy of Dunces (Great Apes and Grimus were the other two).

The story concerns the aforementioned Ignatius Reilly, an obese thirty-year-old man who lives with his mother in New Orleans. He is a larger than life character. He lives in something of a fantasy world in which he is an unappreciated genius bent on bringing order and enlightenment to the dunces that surround him. He is obsessed with Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiae and even more obsessed with the state of his pyloric valve (a part of the body that controls the flow of food from the stomach to the small intestine). When he is nearly arrested one day and his mother crashes the car into a neighbour’s wall, a chain of events is set in motion that culminates with men in white coats coming to take him away to a mental hospital.

A Confederacy of Dunces is considered a comedy masterpiece. It’s certainly funny in many places – occasionally, laugh out loud funny – but the main attraction is the gloriously grotesque protagonist and his struggles against the world. That said, the supporting cast of characters add much to the novel, as well. Patrolman Mancuso, the hapless police officer who fails to arrest Ignatius at the start because he gets heckled by an old man, is punished by his sergeant by having to put on a different fancy dress every day and go and bring in a ‘suspicious character’. The conflict between a trouser factory owner, his mercilessly bitchy wife and the doddering old secretary whose only desire is to retire but who can’t because the owner’s wife has adopted her as a project and believes only work keeps her going is also a fun one to watch unfold.

Two things are impressive about the writing: one is the variety and credibility of the voices employed; the other is how the various plot threads are kept on the boil for much of the novel and come together at the end. Ignatius employs the bombast of a firebrand preacher or an eccentric professor; his mother is cut from different cloth and has a Southern, working class accent; Jones, the sassy but put-upon janitor of a club drawls with a distinctly black lilt. All these characters and more muddle through the story, unknowingly the puppets of the chaos Ignatius leaves in his wake.

While Ignatius J Reilly – his appearance and personality – is described in uncompromising terms – he has a bloated head and body, his moustache is full of crumbs, his voluminous trousers swaddle him in stale air, he loves to go to the movies and loudly decry the moral outrages he identifies on the screen, he harangues anyone he takes issue with (which is most people) – and while he is clearly severely deluded, he somehow comes out of the story with a sort of tragic nobility. He is very likeably very unlikeable. When the hospital ambulance comes for him, you want him to get escape and continue wreaking madness on the world.

In the end, A Confederacy of Dunces is not that funny – in large part because of the grotesqueness and pathos of the characters – but it is mesmerising and Ignatius’s antics are always entertaining.

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I think Habiba was feeling a little down on the coach to Bath: she wanted to spend more time in London and was understandably feeling awkward about being on my turf, hanging out with my friends. I called Alex to let him know that we were arriving. I saw him out of the window of the coach crossing the road away from the new bus station; I had to call him again to find out where he was. He looked quite different to how I remember him – his hair is nearly as long as mine used to be. I remember once suggesting he grow his hair long; he said No emphatically, explaining that all the shampoo would cost too much.

Alex paid for a taxi to take us up to his place – his mum’s place, I suppose. We had tea and chatted with them both, then it was back down to the city centre for a spot of sightseeing. Alex, with typical exuberance and generosity, insisted on taking us to a traditional sweet shop to buy various sweets of the traditional kind for Habiba to try, and to a Fudge Kitchen shop to get a pretty expensive box of fudge – all paid for by Alex.

We had a look inside the abbey – the first time I’d been in there, despite having lived in the city for three years. Then we wandered across Pulteney Bridge, peering into the shops that line its length, and to the labyrinth on the other side of the river. I decided to cheat by just walking to the middle.

To accompany the sweets and fudge, we bought Cornish Bakehouse pasties – the best pasties ever – and cookies from Ben’s Cookies and ate them in Victoria Square. After that we took a look at the Royal Crescent and the Circus then headed back to Alex’s. Alex’s grandparents were on a visit from Spain, so we took the opportunity to show Habiba what a good old-fashioned fish and chip dinner looked like.

The following day, leaving most of our stuff at Alex’s, we took the train to Bristol to spend a night with Lawrence. When we arrived, the weather was pretty crappy; we walked around Castle Park in the rain, up to the cathedral in the rain and off to meet Lawrence and his girlfriend Yivei in the rain. We went to a Chinese restaurant for dinner and had a pretty good selection of dishes to share. Yivei is Malaysian Chinese, but she’s lived in the UK for a long time. She seemed like a lovely person and I’m really happy for Lawrence.

The next day, we went for a long walk with Lawrence around Bristol. We went along Gloucester Road to the city centre looking for Banksy and others’ graffiti, explored the docks area a little and had lunch at St Nicholas’s Market; I dropped into the secondhand bookshop there, where, a few years ago, I’d bought the first of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, The Shadow of the Torturer – they had one of the other three books, but not the direct sequel. Habiba went to the South African stall and bought various comestibles. Our city tour culminated in a fruitless search for a good place to see the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

We headed back to Bath for a final night with Alex. Alex and I indulged in a night of Magic: The Gathering, while Habiba was on her computer. Around midday the following day, my dad and mum arrived to pick us up to visit my grandmother in Highcliffe down on the south coast.

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This edition of what is probably my favourite genre magazine was a little below par. The best stories were the longest ones, but none of them was without its flaws. The highlight of the volume, among the various reviews – which are always interesting to read – was a review of Super 8 that mercilessly painted it as a simplistic rehash of E.T.

‘Quartet and Triptych’ by Matthew Hughes was a novella-length story about an obese professional thief in a far future world that resembled that of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun. The setting was well presented and the main character suited it well and was entertaining to follow. However, some of the details didn’t make sense at all; for instance, a patch of alien vegetation had remained in the area it had been planted in the grounds of a mansion for thousands of years. The story was further spoiled when the protagonist was lucky enough to be rescued from certain death by a minor character who had good reason to arrest him, but didn’t.

‘Object Three’, a space opera-ish story (or ‘novelet’, to use the official terminology) by James L Cambias also focused on the theft of an alien artefact, although the characters and writing weren’t as good – but not at all bad. The world hung together better, and the climax of the story was more satisfying, more reliant on the main character. It was also a rather open ending, with the protagonist’s main goal only about to be achieved and the vast Maguffin that inspired the story not explained at all. I had mixed feelings about that. The betrayal and counter-betrayal that formed the emotional heart of the story didn’t quite work for me as the love affair between the two women involved didn’t really come to life.

‘The Ice Owl’ by Carolyn Ives Gilman, the other novella of the magazine, was a well characterised story set in a detailed and believable universe – one where interstellar travel is a reality, but, because of relativity effects, while it seems instant for the traveller, years or decades pass in the wider world. Human settlements are therefore quite independent. The background to the story involved a Holocaust-like episode that has left a legacy of ethnic distrust. The main character explored this through her relationship with a mentor – who entrusted to her a cryonically preserved ice owl, possibly the last of its species. The protagonist, a teenage girl, came across especially believably – her angst was surprisingly not at all annoying. The ending was a little contrived and more or less happy.

The only actual ‘short story’ (according to Hugo Award rules) was ‘The Klepsydra A Chapter from A Faunery of Recondite Beings‘ by Michaela Roessner. Stylistically, this was the most interesting piece in the magazine, being a faux academic paper about a woman’s researches into a water thief – as ‘klepsydra’ literally translates. The story explains that a klepsydra is actually a water clock, but the now-deceased researcher discovered that this name was based on a spider with very strange properties. An interesting read, but not much of an actual story.

There were three other stories in the November/December edition, but, although I have the names in front of me (‘Under Glass’ by Tim Sullivan, ‘They That Have Wings’ by Evangeline Walton and ‘How Peter Met Pan’ by Albert E Cowdrey), I don’t remember anything about them – which is probably review enough.

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Having successfully, though narrowly, avoided being sick on the aeroplane to Gatwick, I felt somewhat better by the time we disembarked. Going through Immigration was a breeze for me – there were no queues to speak of and the officer just glanced at my passport before allowing me through. Habiba had no such luck.

We screwed up when it came to preparing for this border crossing. Travelling between European countries was incredibly easy, even the non-Schengen ones, and we partly forgot to makes sure to be ready for the UK and partly didn’t realise it would be more difficult. As a result, Habiba didn’t have any of the print-outs for her onward travel with her.

As I waited in the area behind the desks, I could see and partly hear Habiba getting more and more upset. I moved closer to try to overhear what was going on, but the officer evidently noticed Habiba’s glance and turned around and told me to move away. After another few minutes, the officer left his post to talk to me and ask about our plans; he explained that we had no evidence that Habiba wasn’t going to disappear in the UK and live and work here illegally – with a British boyfriend, this was, apparently, a greater risk.

After this, the officer allowed Habiba to enter the country, although with some sort of flag connected to her passport that would tell future British Immigration officers what had happened.

We collected our bags, Habiba bemoaning the unfairness of her treatment, and headed to the railway station to catch a train to London Bridge. From there we went to the Tube Station, bought Oyster Cards, went a couple of stops along the Jubilee Line to Canada Water and walked to Colin’s place. I made friends with Colin, and also Drew and Pete, when I lived in London in 2007 and joined Pete’s roleplaying game. Colin kindly agreed to put us up for a couple of days and it was great to see him and spend some time with his partner Sally and cherubic young son, Alex.

The following morning, I was feeling worse. Habiba went to a nearby Tesco and got some supplies, including headache pills. After taking a couple each of a couple of different types and resting for a while, I started to feel a bit better. We ventured out and I took Habiba to have a look around Camden Lock and Stables markets – which she loved.

Then we headed a little bit further north to Hampstead and walked through the Heath for a bit (I hardly ever walked from Hampstead High Street to Hampstead Heath, so I wasn’t sure of the way; I have a good sense of direction, though, and I knew which way to head, so we got there by a reasonably direct route). We went from the pond by South Hill Mansions into the middle somewhere and head south again to Parliament Hill. From there we walked to Belsize Park Underground Station, with a diversion via Mansfield Road – where I used to live.

I was pretty tired by this point. Nevertheless, we headed to Leicester Square to meet Colin and Drew to have dinner – Japanese noodle soup at Wagamama – and watch a movie – The Avengers. The former, in my poorly state, didn’t strike me as the height of deliciousness; the latter, despite being expensive and shown on a rather diminutive screen, was a lot of fun. And, of course, it was great to see Drew again and hang out with him and Colin.

The next day, I was feeling better, but we didn’t get out and about until the early afternoon. At which point, I took Habiba on a tour of London. We took the Tube to London Bridge (Habiba wanted to know if it was falling down, falling down, falling down) and walked by the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, along the Thames to St Paul’s and across the Millennium Bridge to Tate Modern, where we got a coffee and ate our packed lunch. Then we continued along the South Bank to the Millennium Eye, Westminster Bridge, Parliament, Westminster Abbey, up to Trafalgar Square and finally through St James’s Park to Buckingham Palace.

The following morning, we said goodbye to Colin as he left for work, hung out with Sally and Alex briefly before heading to Victoria Coach Station to get the 11:00 National Express coach to Bath and our next host – another Alex.

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Having failed, or rather given up, on our previous attempt to go to the Vatican Museums, we tried again on Friday the 4th of May, also known as Star Wars Day, also known as my birthday. We had a better experience this time. The queue was a lot shorter and moved more quickly.

As we passed into the lobby/ticket area, we had to go through a security check. Habiba, in typically pushy American fashion, got ahead in the line and through the check before I did. Despite the fact that there were dozens of people wandering around inside with backpacks of a similar size to mine, the guard told me I needed to go straight to the cloak room to check it in. He wouldn’t let me go and tell Habiba without leaving my bag by the X-ray machine.

We bought tickets and hired audioguides – each which required further queueing – and then we queued up to get inside and join the crowds of people slowly making their way through the museums. The layout of the place is a little strange: while there are lots of different ‘museums’ within the whole complex, each with its own distinct collection of artefacts and artworks, you don’t have much choice about what you visit. As a whole, the Vatican Museums are designed to be visited linearly; instead of going to Museum C, Museum F, Museum M or whatever, you mostly have to go from A to B to C and so on. The path branches in a few places, and there were several museums we didn’t get to – the coin and stamp collection being a notable omission.

We did, however, see various Egyptian relics, numerous Classical statues, a sprinkling of modern art, lots of frescoed chambers and – of course – the Sistine Chapel.

One of the other highlights was the Hall of Maps. This was a long room like a vast corridor; on one side were maps showing regions in the west of Italy, the maps on the other side showing the east of the peninsula. What I found really spectacular about this room was the ceiling. It was arched and decorated all along its great length with painted panels of various sizes divided by baroque frames and sculpted figures and designs.

The Sistine Chapel was packed with people, many in tour groups, standing around ogling the walls and ceiling, talking and taking pictures despite the attendants (who, I think, were mostly clerics) telling everyone to be quiet and the signs that prohibited photography. It’s certainly a sight to behold, but Michelangelo’s figures are a bit strange – they’re often overly muscular and tiny-headed, and the women have a pair of ugly lumps in the middle of their chest that are supposed to be breasts.

We were glad that we saw the place, but we were also glad to get out. It’s a huge place and no single visit can really do justice to it – and the crowds make it nearly impossible to enjoy. It’s also, understandably, quite dark in most areas, so it’s difficult to get good pictures. Once we escaped the mêlée, we had lunch at a touristy, but not too expensive restaurant across the road from the entrance. The queue for the Museums had diminished to practically nothing – which was a little annoying, especially given our experience a couple of days before. We cheered ourselves up with more ice cream from the Old Bridge Gelateria.

After that, we headed round the corner to St Peter’s Square and lined up for the Basilica. Unsurprisingly, this was probably the grandest and most ornate of the many beautiful churches we’ve been to on the trip.

And after that, we went for a walk along the Tiber, which is contained in a kind of manmade gorge, with wide paths on either side at river level. Looking down from road level we spotted an animal swimming about by the near bank. We went down for a closer look and found it to be a large rodent with a head and front teeth like a beaver, but a tail like an otter – I later decided it was a coypu. Habiba tried feeding it some of our food, but it wasn’t interested, although it was happy to climb up on to the foot of the wall right below us.

We walked along for a bit then headed back up to road level, through Piazza del Popolo and up Pincian Hill near Villa Borghese before heading back to Anne’s. For the previous couple of nights, Anne’s son had been away at a camp and she had taken in an extra couple of Couchsurfers, a pleasant pair of Dutch women. Dinners in the small kitchen were a cosy affair. They were gone by the time we got back.

And, the next day, we left Anne, got the tram back to Termini, took a very cheap (€4) bus to Fiumicino Airport (officially, Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport) and checked in for our flight to Gatwick. Up until getting to the airport, everything was mostly OK. I’d started feeling sick earlier in the day; I felt well enough to eat some lunch before going through the security check, but after, while we were waiting to board I threw it all back up again. I felt very nauseous on the flight and an attendant gave me sickbags – but I just rested and ended up not needing them.

In addition to all this, Habiba hadn’t realised that she would be able to have more than one check-in bag and one carry-on bag, so she had to pay extra for her third bag. It wasn’t the most auspicious start to a flight, but we got to the UK safely enough in the end.

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Arriving in Rome at around lunchtime, we had a bit of trek to our next Couchsurfing host, but, with some good directions, we had little trouble getting the tram out to the suburbs and finding Anne’s place. Anne lived with her young son and was another great host.

She had experience working as a tour guide and she mapped out a route for us that would take us to some of the sights in central Rome. So, later in the day, we went back and wandered by the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, St Ignatius’s Church, the parliament building, the Pantheon (unfortunately, this was closed for Labour Day – and we forgot to go back another time) and the Piazza Navona. The Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain were especially crowded – possibly more than usual because of the holiday, possibly not.

We went to a gelato place that was recommended by our guidebook – it was expensive, but I had a coupon for a free fancy ice cream from Habiba. We went to a restaurant for dinner on the same basis, but we didn’t manage to get in. When we reached the front of the queue, we were pointed to a small table next to the door that we would have to share with another couple. Perhaps naively, we said we wanted our own table. The man on the door proceeded to pretty much ignore us the rest of the time we were there. We went elsewhere.

We walked back to the main railway station, Termini thinking that we could get the tram back to Anne’s. A couple of trams came to the stop, but evidently they were terminating, as they didn’t pick any passengers up and the stop was blocked off by barriers. We walked to the next stop and found an area with people waiting for taxis and police and paramedics hanging around presumably waiting for situations involving drunken Romans. We weren’t confident enough to claim a taxi for ourselves and we realised that, it being a holiday, we wouldn’t be able to get a bus or tram after eleven o’clock. We decided to walk – which took about an hour, although it wasn’t hard to know where to go because we just followed the tram tracks.

The next day, we decided we would go to the Vatican. By the time we got to St Peter’s Square it was already afternoon and there was a massive queue for the Basilica that arced all the way around the square. We went round the corner towards the Vatican Museums – and found a similarly massive line. We waited for a bit then decided to give it up. We got ice creams from a place nearby, Old Bridge Gelateria. The cheapest cone was half the price of the tiny cup we had the day before (ie, €1.50) and they served a generous dollop of ice cream on top of it – even giving you two flavours.

After the sweet had stuff revived our spirits, we went to the Coliseum. The queue here was also substantial, although most of it was inside, so it looked deceptively short from the outside. Once we finally got into the amphitheatre, it proved pretty spectacular – it wasn’t bad from the outside, actually.

We did a couple of circumnavigations of it – one at a lower, one at an upper level. Then we set out for the nearby ruins of the Forum. The queue here was much shorter and we should have gone here first because you get one ticket for both the Forum and the Coliseum. We did see everything there was to see within the grounds of what is effectively a huge park, but most of what we did see was very pleasant – though not as breathtaking as the Coliseum.

The day after that, we took the train down to Naples – using our last day of travel with our Eurail pass. The train we wanted to take was cancelled (‘soppresso’), so we got there later than we intended. From the main station in Naples we took a local train – the Circumvesuviana – to the ruins of Pompeii. Here, we spent a couple of hours wandering round the ruined town. We didn’t get audioguides or even a map, so our visit was pretty aimless and, as there are almost no information boards anywhere within the grounds, we didn’t really learn that much. The most interesting part of the ruins was the villa near the exit, the Villa of the Mysteries, with its preserved frescos

We went back to Naples and headed for a pizzeria called Il Piazzaiolo del Presidente. Naples is, apparently, the home of pizza, and this particular restaurant is one of the most famous; Heston Blumenthal went there for tips on the perfect Margherita. The pizzas were good – and cheap, according to the menu. Two pizzas and two beers nonetheless managed to cost us €20.

The restaurant was in a part of town full of tall old buildings separated by narrow streets. Cars and mopeds sped down the streets, weaving through the pedestrians clustered by the shops. The shops were pretty touristy, selling fancy pasta and the usual range of souvenirs. The area reminded me a little of Paharganj in Delhi; although it was paved and much, much cleaner it had a similar grungy, bustling feel to it.

We spent some time walking around, down to the ferry port and the Castel Nuovo, to a big square, the Piazza del Plebiscito where the army was holding some sort of recruitment event, then round the corner to a Victorian shopping mall called the Galleria Umberto I. In the centre of this cathedral-like space there was a ring of zodiac mosaics on the floor. Even though I have nothing but contempt for horoscopes, I wanted to get a shot of the Taurus mosaic, but two women were standing on it for about five minutes taking pictures of each other. Habiba finally barged them out of the way and pretended to have her picture taken by me.

We then headed to the Duomo, or Naples Cathedral, another in a long line of beautiful churches. Habiba sat at the back while I explored and took pictures. After that, we went back to the station and got the train back to Rome.

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