Tag Archives: tourism

Real Travelling? ( Thoughts on a Mexican bus.)

8 Jan

I’m sitting on a long distance coach in southern Mexico. It’s an 8 hour journey from Palanque to San Cristobel de Las Casas. There are 2 drivers working in shifts. The coach may stop at some point for a leg-stretch and a toilet opportunity( we all have our 5 peso coins at the ready.) On the other hand we may not stop, so we’ll have to cross our legs and stick it out. It seems to depend on the whim of the driver. I am in a small group of travellers and at least half of us have dodgy tummies. In this part of the world they call it “Montezuma’s revenge”! There is a toilet at the back of the coach but we are not encouraged to use it because of the smells.

Every now and then we slow to a near standstill because of major road-works. Sometimes it seems as if the diggers have only scraped the road into being just before we arrived! Periodically, we stop at toll-booths or get stuck in jams as we slowly grind our way through an unknown town or city. Some passengers try to doze or read but are constantly disturbed by the on-board “entertainment” — a second-rate Hollywood blockbuster badly dubbed into Spanish. Why am I telling you all this? Well, my question is: ” Is this real travelling?” Elsewhere in southern Mexico, holiday-makers are sunning themselves on the beaches of Cancun, flopping by their hotel pools or wallowing in jacuzzis. Many have flown huge distances to be there. Are they “real” travellers too?

This debate first started in my head when I heard someone describing a planned overland journey from Italy to Serbia by road and rail. It sounded like a really interesting and exciting thing to do and I was quietly envious. But then I was informed that this wasn’t “real travelling.” When I enquired what was, the answer was: roughing it in the back of a lorry crossing Ethiopia or some other remote area of east Africa. It seems that the journey from Milan to Belgrade was :too comfortable,  too predictable and too safe to be considered as “real travelling.” Maybe to be thought of as “real” by the seasoned traveller, a journey has to have elements of: risk, unpredictability or even danger. These are the ingredients designed to give one a real “buzz”. It’s when the adrenaline really starts to flow. Maybe this is why for some, travel is so addictive. It is a form of tourism but with a real edge to it. Unlike the everyday vacationer, the intrepid traveller does not seek out comfort, safety and relaxation. It is just the opposite that is the name of the game. In his book” The Great Patagonian Express”, Paul Theroux writes: ” Travel is not a vacation, and it is often the opposite of a rest.” He goes on: ” I craved a little risk, some danger, an untoward event, a vivid discomfort.” He even courted loneliness in order to achieve these aims.

I sense that there is a sort of travelling hierarchy in play here. The term “real” suggests that some forms of travel are not genuine and therefore are less valuable experiences.. These “lesser” travellers are given labels such as “tourists” or “holiday-makers.” Maybe we should not be judging travel experiences as “real” or “not real”, but should just acknowledge that they are “different.”

Travel for some is a kind of religion. They talk of having gap-years or career- breaks in order to go travelling. They congregate in hostels, bars and cafes, and swap travel stories. They ask questions such as “How long have you been on the road?”, “Where have you been?” and “Where are you going next?” For them, it seems as if it’s the journey that is more important than the actual destination. The implication is that this is not just a physical journey across time and space, but a journey of personal development. It is often said that travel broadens the mind. It helps one to escape the confines of everyday life. I agree with that. It’s why I look forward to my trips so much. However is there such a thing as a hierarchy of travel, or putting it less judgementally – can travel and travellers be categorised into distinct types?

Serious travellers live out of back-packs, endlessly journeying for months on end, visiting town after town, country after country. Some of the people we met in Central America were amazed that we were only visiting Mexico, Guatemala and Costa Rica. Why weren’t we going on into Panama and then the countries of South America? These long-term travellers are always restlessly moving on, travelling but never arriving. The journey’s the thing, not the destination.

The next category I suggest is the “ordinary” traveller, for want of a better description. For this person, travel is more of a hobby rather than a full-time occupation ( or obsession!) This person makes a journey, even quite a long one, but once he/she gets to the destination, tends to stay in that vicinity, exploring places of interest within striking distance of their base. The ordinary traveller is more likely to use a suitcase rather than a back-pack and only usually has to unpack it once. This person is often interested in the culture and history of the place being visited and is open to new experiences. He or she may well go to quite an exotic destination and suffer a mild bout of “culture shock.”  However, this type of traveller’s trip has definite parameters in terms of both time and distance. The journey has to be tightly organised and packaged to a certain extent because the traveller has only a limited amount of time and has to return, sooner rather than later to: work, family, the post, bills and all those other things that stabilise and ground many of our lives. I think for this type of “traveller”, it’s the destination that lures them to leave home rather than the journey.

To answer my own question, I think I am more of a “traveller” than a so-called “real traveller” I have only gone on 3 really long journeys in my entire life and all have been embarked upon in the luxury of my retirement years. This central American odyssey is one of them. Before, I was too busy working and raising a family to contemplate anything too ambitious or expensive. I had “staycations” in Britain or ventured on short trips into western Europe. On this trip I told a few stories about my youth-hostelling days in the English Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales. ” Did you go back-packing when you were younger?” asked a young Aussie in our group. The answer had to be “no” because I always had to get back to work on Monday morning. Thus, although I travelled around on these trips, I couldn’t be regarded as a “real” traveller. They wouldn’t have been able to make much of a road movie out of my rambling weekends or music festival trips. I had to make my precious time count and didn’t have the luxury of being perpetually “on the road.” After-all, my name is Stuart Bates, not Jack Kerouac!

Our coach has slowed to negotiate a series of bumps that announce the arrival of a village. Street sellers laden with oranges and bananas move amongst the slow moving traffic trying to sell their wares. An old man sits under the shade of his little, improvised stall, his table stacked with pineapples. People walk around under umbrellas because the sun is so hot and high above. Others have a snack in a tacos restaurant. Another old man trundles slowly by on a sort of cycle-rickshaw. I’m surprised because this is rural Mexico not China or south-east Asia. We are on the coast and just out at sea I watch brown pelicans dive-bombing into the water to catch fish. Yesterday, we saw toucans and howler monkeys in the jungle and visited an ancient Mayan temple complex. Now, we are passing fields of swaying sugar cane. My leg itches and I look down at 3 red insect bites on my right foot and leg. Repellant is as essential as sun-cream on this trip. Is this “real travelling”? Maybe it is — I don’t know.

My final category of traveller is the humble and much derided tourist. In a sense, all people visiting places away from their own homes are tourists. They are on tour. They are so obviously different from the local inhabitants. However, for some tourists, the main attractions of visiting a different place are the hotter, sunnier climate and the chance to have a rest. They simply fly and flop. Their interactions with the locals involve mainly hotel and restaurant staff and the owners of souvenir shops in the resort. They primarily only meet local people who provide them with services and goods that make their holidays smooth and comfortable. In one sense, this can be seen as a sort of “Downton Abbey” scenario with the rich tourists playing the part of the aristocrats and the poorer locals being cast as the servants. It can be an unequal relationship based on the disparities of wealth, especially when people from the so-called “Developed world” visit a “Developing Country”. On the other hand, one could argue it’s a “win- win” situation. The tourists get an enjoyable, relaxing holiday, while the local people earn much appreciated cash and are provided with employment.

The question remains though –Is this type of tourism “real” travel? It depends on what one means by “real.” If one’s definition involves getting to know the country that one has travelled to, then this type of more sedentary traveller might not qualify. Is lying on a beach in Cancun learning about the real Mexico? Is visiting the expensive shopping malls of Dubai, enhancing one’s knowledge of Arab culture or of Bedouin lifestyle? The answer is probably “no”. Mass tourism with universal entertainment and international cuisine does not encourage an appreciation or understanding of local culture. However, hardworking people deserve rest and recreation, and are obviously free to spend their money as they wish. I may not categorise them as real travellers but I don’t suppose they give a fig for what I think. After-all, I myself am not a real traveller. I spend much more  time at home than on the road or up in the air.

We are now driving up into the spectacular mountains near the Mexican-Guatemalan border. My ears have just popped. We have been journeying for 7 hours with just one twenty minute break. The drivers decided to have a quick snack at a roadside café. Most of the passengers are asleep after eating too much pop corn to keep their stomachs happy. A young Liam Neeson is incongruously speaking Spanish on the coach video. It is nearly Christmas but nearly 30 degrees outside in the late afternoon. Is this “real travel”? Who knows and who cares anyway?




7 May

I was sitting on a hotel terrace soaking in the sun and a stunning mountain panorama. It could have been Austria or Switzerland, but I was actually in Albania, close to the Greek border. In front of me was a bowl of pistachios and a generous glass of raki, a clear spirit distilled from grape-juice. It’s Albania’s favourite drink, and even edges out coffee as the nation’s main, morning pick-me-up. My travel companion Eric and I were feeling very pleased with ourselves, having survived an epic, near 5 hour white-knuckle ride through the spectacular Gramoz mountains, with Artu, our valiant taxi driver.

I took big, celebratory gulps of the spirit, and felt it burn its way down my throat and into my chest, like strong whiskey. It felt good. Having been brought up as a Methodist tee-totaller, I’ve never been a particularly sophisticated drinker. Suddenly however, Artu lost his smile and tapped my arm in concern. He couldn’t explain in words what he wanted to communicate, so he held up his thumb and forefinger instead. He held them very close together, with only a minute gap inbetween. The message was instantly clear.— “Small sips please!” I took a tiny, dainty mouthful and the smile returned. I had learnt Albanian Rule Number 1 — ” Don’t gulp your raki!”

EXPECTATION and REALITY ( plus a little HISTORY.)  —  Eric and I decided to go to Albania in April, 2012, because for most of our lives it was a country as remote as a far-away planet. As I have previously written ( cf “Why I Am Going to Albania”), it was Europe’s North Korea, cut off by it’s communist rulers from the rest of the continent, even though it was a close neighbour of such familier holiday destinations as Greece and Italy. It’s problematic politics have conspired to keep it isolated from the outside world. As a taxi driver succinctly explained in his limited English: ” Albanian people — alright. Albanian politics — not alright.” A young owner of a photographic shop was almost apologetic as he explained to me that:” after only 20 years of freedom, the Albanian people have a lot of catching up to do.” The fact that he was speaking to us in decent English and produced our prints in about 5 minutes, showed that they have made a good start. It was just one of many surprises that defied our expectations.

In the early years of last century ( 1912 to be precise) Albania had finally cast of the yoke of 500 years of Ottoman Turkish rule and 500 years of not being able to use its own language. Following attacks from all it’s neighbours Albania somehow emerged from the First World War as an independent nation although much shrunk by loss of territory and having to accept a German Prince imposed by the “Great Powers” as its ruler. Soon, the freedoms and rights of the population disappeared again with the undemocratic takeover of a clan chief, the strangely titled King Zog, who had no “Royal blood” but ruled as a dictator in the later 1920’s and 30’s.  Zog was then driven out by the invasion of Mussolini’s Italian fascist forces in 1939, so once more “freedom” was not on the agenda for the long suffering Albanians. During the Second World War, Partizan fighters defeated the Italians and eventually the Nazi Germans with the help of British secret forces and American bombing raids. (Are you still following this? Quiet at the back! Face the front!)  However as soon as freedom was at last glimpsed, it was swiftly snatched away when the country fell into the lethal clutches of the Stalinist/ Communist dictator: Enver Hoxha, after a brief but appalling reign of terror, now well documented in Tirana’s National Historical Museum. The poor Albanians merely swapped one form of totalitarianism for another!

Much publicity has been devoted to the Berlin Wall, the most famous and concrete embodiment of Churchill’s metaphorical ” Iron Curtain.” However, there has hardly been any awareness of the 2.6m high, electrified barbed-wire fence which caged in the citizens of Communist Albania. As recently as 1990, people were being shot dead as they tried to escape to freedom.

My friend Eric and I were on the other side of that impenetrable fence for the best part of 5 decades, so Albania had developed a great air of mystery in our minds. It was like a huge question-mark tucked into the south-west corner of our continent. What would we find when we finally got to a country that had had a mere 22 years of democratic freedom and still hardly figured in the consciousness of most people in the west? The Americans had landed on the moon in 1969 but they had never made it to Albania. Would we find poverty and squalor? Would we be walking into chaos? Would the people be depressed and downhearted by their horrific history? ( as many seemed to be in Russia when I visited) Would ordinary Albanians be shy, suspicious or even hostile to foreigners after their years of isolation? ( as I had found in remote villages of Yorkshire.) We were fully prepared to have a strange, alien, even uncomfortable experience.

But actually we got just the opposite. OK, we saw poor people and got shaken and jostled about on some pretty bumpy, pot-holed roads, but we also met lots of cheerful, friendly and welcoming people. There was not a hint of awkwardness in our encounters with people of all ages. Albanians seemed to be glad that the outside world was at long last coming to see them and seemed determined to ensure that foreign visiters felt comfortable and at home. Despite the language barrier, we were always able to communicate with the locals, using a handful of words we had learnt from a London-based Albanian lady on the plane, a simple phrase-book, their bits of broken English, smatterings of Italian and some simple sign language. Albanian waiters’ shocked reactions to Eric’s imitations of chickens, pigs and cows when ordering his food provided some of the highlights of the holiday. I know it sounds like a holiday brochure cliche, but one of the best features of Albania in my opinion is the friendliness of its people. I expected a certains degree of coolness and suspicion but in fact we experienced warmth and acceptance. Thus is the difference between anticipation and reality.

Being relatively new to tourism and having so few visitors compared to neighbouring countries, the Albanians seemed to retain  some degree of child-like innocence and openess. We came across no hustlers in the street, little or no commercialisation, no cynicism, no ” give us your money.” Prices were just as cheap for us as for the locals, unlike say in China or Cuba which fully exploit foreign visiters through much higher “tourist prices.” In fact Albanian prices were very cheap indeed. We had difficulty getting rid of our cash ( ie Leks.)

THE WELCOMING MOSQUE  —  One early example of the friendliness of the locals came on our first day in Tirana. We had heard the haunting Muslim call to prayer drifting across the city and had been magnetically drawn to the beautiful, 18th century Mosque of Et’ham Bay standing on the edge of busy Skanderbeg Square. In other Islamic countries I had visited, such as Morocco and Jordan, I had been used to just glimpsing into a mosque’s courtyard because, as a non-Muslim, I was not allowed to go in. However, this time, as we hovered at the entrance, we were given warm, welcoming smiles, encouraged to take our shoes off and put them on the rack, and then enter the exquisitely painted inner sanctum. When I asked someone who understood a little English if it was really alright to go in, he replied: ” Yes of course. It is an honour.” We quietly sat down on the carpet with a dozen worshippers and listened to a hypnotic and surprisingly soothing rendition of part of the Qu’ran. When the Iman had finished his mesmeric song, we were actively encouraged to take photographs and were given a guided tour of some of the treasured pictures and calligraphy displayed on the wall.

Later we were accepted without fuss into Albaninan Orthodox Churches and Cathedrals. Part of the reason for such a welcoming attitude may have derived from the days when religion was banned. The hard-line Communist authorities led by Hoxha, had declared Albania as the World’s first Athiest State in 1968, taking their cue from Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” in China. Churches and mosques of all shapes and sizes were torn down, blown up or turned into humble warehouses. Priests and Imans were imprisoned or even shot. Maybe the warm welcome we received in all places of worship was because we had come to admire them rather than destroy them. The welcome was part of the celebration of their survival against all the odds through the dark times of the recent past. The orthodox cathedral in Korca, a provincial city in the south-east, is a striking modern confection of pink and cream domes and towers. Its old and venerable predecessor was dynamited in 1968!

Another example of the lovely welcome we invariably received was in the football bars of Tirana. All along the main boulevards were bars and cafes with big screens showing live football matches from around Europe’s top leagues. These establishments were invariably crowded with men drinking, smoking and watching the game. There was not a woman in sight, a phenomenum we found across Albania, although to be fair the same situation probably occurs in Greece, Turkey and many other countries who have yet to fully experience ” women’s lib.” Many Albanian men are quite fierce looking with thick eye-brows and seemingly scowling expressions. However as soon as we plucked up courage and walked through the door it was all smiles and instant acceptance. People would move along so we could sit down and get a good view of the screen, the waiter would serve us our lager type beers where we sat and we just blended into the crowd as if we had lived there all our lives. It was funny watching Barcelona v Real Madrid or Manchester City v Manchester Utd with Albanian commentary. Much of it was indecipherable but every now came a smattering of English such a “free-kick” or “half time”. When someone scored the commentator went berserk, screaming the word “GOOOOOOOOOOOOOAL” for at least 10 seconds. I had previously thought they only did that in Brazil.

INDEPENDENT TRAVELLERS — We travelled around central and south Albania as independent travellers using the local buses, minibuses ( Furgons) and taxis. We had a tiny bit of help from a small travel firm I discovered on the Internet — Derek Crane Travel Ltd, who helped with accommodation and general advice to enhance and refine my “tailor-made” itinerary, devised after hours of poring over guide books. Derek arranged for his Albanian representative, Jimmy Lama, to meet us at Tirana’s Mother Theresa airport and give us emergency back-up, which we thankfully never had to call upon but was a comforting insurance.

Being independent travellers often raised eye-brows both from local Albanians who were mainly used to seeing people travelling in groups, and from other tourists being chaperoned round by guides and having their own  private transport laid on. So Eric and I strutted around with a certain air of pride, pleased with our achievement of fending for ourselves in a strange, foreign environment. I’ve been on these group tours myself whether it be with “Explore”, “Exodus” or “Voyages Jules Verne” and they are usually very good.  It’s a great opportunity to meet people to share the experience with. It’s also more relaxing letting someone else do all the organising and the worrying. However, there is a real buzz in organising things for oneself and a real sense of achievement when everything works out ( if it does!) At the end of our ” Albanian Adventure” ( alternatively dubbed:” Balls-up in the Balkans” by the incorrigible Eric!) we could both sing along with Frank Sinatra ( or Sid Vicious) and rightly say ” We did it our way.” So we found out: where and when to get the bus, how to pay, where to eat, where our hotels were where the sights were, how to communicate with local people, what to see etc —  mostly on our own. When we did make a mistake it added tension and uncertainty into our trip, but this strangely enhanced the whole experience. The leaving of Korca was an excellent example.

We had been in the provincial town of Korca for 2 days living in palatial but faded splendour at the Hotal Grand. We had travelled very cheaply to Korca from Tirana in a minibus — 700 Leks ( slightly over £6), for a journey of over 3 hours. We now planned to travel south-west along a spectacular mountain road to Gjirokastra, a beautiful “Museum Town” which was Enver Hoxha’s birthplace. This was to be one of the highlights of the whole trip. The Lonely Planet describes the road from Korca to Gjirokastra as “awe- inspiring”, taking in alpine plains, pine forests, soaring, snow-capped mountains, wild rivers and plunging ravines. The road is steep and twisty with many hair-pins. The first thing the bus conductor does at the start of the epic, 6 to 7 hour trip, is to hand out sick bags! Jimmy Lama had commented that not many people had included this route on their itineraries, but Eric and I were determined to enjoy the experience, albeit a little nervously. However, the experience began before we even got out of Korca.

The only bus was at 6am and being a bit lazy we let it go, assuming there would be minibuses following the same route at a more civilised hour. The whole area around the bus station and the old market was crowded with minibus and taxi drivers all keenly looking for a fare. As Eric and I tramped down the hot, dusty road, carrying our rucksacks and dragging our cases, we obviously stuck out like a sore thumb. (We hardly saw any other tourists in Korca.) Soon we were besieged by a small army of swarthy men all offering us rides. When they realised we were English they magically produced their friend who had lived in Canada or Australia to explain the deal and conduct the negotiations. The trouble was they all wanted to take us back to Tirana or to other places we didn’t want to go to. As soon as we mentioned Gjirokastra, and indicated on a map that we wished to take the mountain road, there was a shocked silence. The drive was obviously long and difficult and not on their usual list of routes. They eventually explained that we would have to wait for the early morning bus next day and at that news we became very downhearted. We would have to lose a day of our holiday and spend an extra day hanging around Korca, which wasn’t exactly the most exciting town in the world. We would also have to spend money on an extra night at the Grand and forfeit the money we had already paid for our hotel in Gjirokastra. It was a bit of a blow and we were paying for our complacency.

Then a taxi driver offered to take us for 100 Euros. This seemed an astronomical fare compared to the one we had paid for the minibus ride from Tirana. We thought he was just trying it on and we refused and walked away to gather ourselves and take stock. We decided to return to the Grand and get help there. However as we turned the corner of the street leading back to the hotel, we were waylaid by another posse of taxi-drivers but as soon as we uttered the dreaded word: “Gjirokastra”, they too shrank back in horror and amazement. Nevertheless, one persisted in his overtures and produced a young English speaker from the taxi office nearby. He was willing to drive us despite the long distance and the difficulty of the mountain road, and again the fare was 100 Euros. So the first guy wasn’t trying it on afterall! He even threw in a small discount to tempt us in and in the end the deal was 14000 leks for the two of us. It still sounded high by Albanian standards but when we converted it into sterling and found it was about £43 each, we saw it was a very reasonable offer. So we took it and shook hands on the deal. By 9-50am we were setting off on what was to prove an epic and stunning journey of nearly 5 hours, one of the highlights of our holiday.

Yes, we could have done the mountain drive with a tour group, stepping out of the hotel after a relaxed breakfast and settling into our private coach. But that would have missed out all the drama, tension, highs and lows , crazy translations and interactions with  local people that our prolonged negotiations with Korca’s taxi and minibus drivers had led to. It was the essence of the appeal of going independent, especially as in this case there was a happy ending. Here we were, munching nuts and sipping raki on the mountain- view terrace of Hotel Capuji in Gjirokastra, along with Artu our excellent taxi driver, who had negotiated us safely through the hair-raising Gramoz Mountains on the Albanian/Greek border. I enjoyed that raki, especially when I started to sip it!

To be continued—– Watch this space!


14 Mar

I’m going to Albania this April. When I tell people this, their reactions range from surprise to incredulity. Maybe that’s the first reason  I’m going — I like to be unpredictable. Most people want to know “why?” The fact is that I’ve wanted to go there for ages but for most of my lifetime Albania was cut off from the rest of the world. I wasn’t allowed to visit it. Up until 1990 it was difficult to freely visit any of the communist countries on the other side of Churchill’s “Iron Curtain.” However Albania was probably the most sealed- off country of all, because it’s rulers not only opposed the capitalist countries of the west, but also eventually fell out with their Communist allies — firstly Yugoslavia which was next door, then the USSR (Russia) and finally, it’s last major friend: China, after the death of Mao. Albania became one of the main “Billy No Mates” of the world. It had many similarities with the mysterious, cut-off country of North Korea, except that Albania is not some remote country at the far end of Asia but a European nation, sharing a border with Greece and just across the Adriatic Sea from Italy. So now that Albania has at last opened itself up to visitors from outside, I am desperately curious to go. What will it be like to visit a country that has been completely separated from the rest of the continent ( and the world) for most of my lifetime? Will it be like some modern-day Pompeii — trapped in time, its past preserved? In some ways, I imagine it’s going to be like travelling back in time. I’m surprised that there’s not been a stampede to  visit this “strange” country on our doorstep. Yet the truth is,  most people seem to have only barely heard of it and have probably never dreamt of visiting it. Most seem to have little idea where it is located. Even my travel buddy, Eric, who has travelled extensively round the world, only had a vague idea about Albania, at first tentatively suggesting that it might be close to Russia. OK, I’ll come clean — I’m an ex Geography teacher and what’s more: an ex-stamp-collector, so I’m pedantically hot about where places are in the world. For most of my life, I have never been far from my atlas. As a child looking at all those exotic sounding places on map after map was the stuff of dreams. Now, in my adult life, I am resolved to visit as many of them as possible, and that includes Albania.

People go on holiday for many different reasons. Some want a change of scene, some seek the sun, some want a rest from the hurly-burly of everyday life. I have empathy for all these tourists and over the years, have joined their ranks for the very same reasons.  I have done my share of lying on a beach or sitting by a pool, reading a book and having the occasional refreshing dip. Others like to stay in expensive spas and hotels in order to be petted and pampered and be waited on hand and foot. I must admit that that sounds pretty tempting too but I’ve never done it because I haven’t had enough money. My main aim when I travel is to experience a different culture. I’m a cultural tourist. They say a change is as good as a rest and one cannot get more of a change than visiting a foreign country. I find it very stimulating to be in a country where everyday life is very different from what I’m used to. Bill Bryson compared arriving in a far-away, foreign country as being like a 5 year old again because everything is new, surprising and exciting. It gives me a buzz to be in a strange environment where everything is potentially interesting and a fascinating novelty. Whether its the language, the food and drink, the architecture, the dress, the religion, the traditions — all is different from life at home and constitutes a big adventure. For instance, have you eaten any “ajvar” with a glass of “salep” lately?  Of course it can all be a bit frightening and nerve-wracking as well, but that’s what gives this type of travel its edge. I think it’s boring to play safe all the time. To me Albania will be a wonderful adventure precisely because I don’t know what will happen and what to expect. Australia is much further away on the other side of the world, is a spectacular place to visit and a fantastic holiday destination. However, to me Australia is nowhere near as exciting as Albania because I already know Australians speak familiar, comforting English, watch TV channels that I can understand, drive on the left and have an easily recognisable western life-style. Going there is largely playing safe inmy opinion. Unless I decide to go swimming with sharks or try to survive in the heat of the bush, Australia doesn’t really represent as much of a challenge as going to an obscure country in a forgotten corner of my own continent. I’m taking a risk going to Albania but it’s that very risk that makes the destination so appealing.

So Eric and I are going to a country where a shake of the head means “yes” and a nod represents “no.”  We are travelling to a country that is part Muslim and part orthodox Christian but which also officially embraced atheism in its recent past. We are visiting a place which has 17,000 round concrete bunkers which it doesn’t know how to get rid of. In Albania every town and village has 2 names for some unknown reason and the buses don’t have their destinations displayed. We will have to take a torch in order to avoid falling into large potholes during one of the regular power-cuts. We will have to steer well clear of packs of mangy dogs while trying to locate undecipherable addresses. But we are also going to drive through spectacular mountains and perhaps glimpse shepherds in traditional dress. We will walk on empty but beautiful Adriatic beaches and visit Ancient Greek/Roman/ Venetian/Ottoman archaeological sites that nobody’s ever heard of. We will be visiting medieval mosques and churches and hope to see some strikingly beautiful icons. We will also be surprisingly following in the footsteps of the Romantic poet Lord Byron, who described it as like being in paradise. ( Mind you — that’s probably something to do with the fact that he was a guest of the famously debauched ottoman prince, Ali pasha, whose court was notorious for its sexual license.)  Strangest of all, we may encounter a ” sworn virgin.” I know Eric is particularly excited about this! Apparently in the north there is a big shortage of males, so some women or their families make this decision to avoid an unwanted arranged marriage or keep a “male” heir in the family. Once the decision has been made the “sworn virgin” becomes a man and is treated as such in all aspects of life — from clothes, job, hairstyle, eating, drinking to smoking. It sounds fascinating doesn’t it? Don’t think you’d get much of that in: London New York or Sydney. Maybe that’s why Byron was so keen to include it in his itinerary?

This is not meant to be a tourist advert for Albania so I won’t list all the attractions I’ve researched. Anyway, I’m sure there are many sights and experiences that I don’t know about. There’s not even a Rough Guide for Albania as far as I know. But to be honest, this very lack of information is the main attraction of the place. It creates an aura of mystery about Albania and makes it a fertile place for exploration. When Eric and I fly off from Gatwick to Tirana it will be a case of: into the unknown. Inspired by Captain James T Kirk, if you’ll excuse me comparing the Balkans with Outer Space, we will be pushing back our personal frontiers of knowledge and experience. We are absolutely determined to boldly go where neither of us has gone before! That’s why we’re flying to Albania this April.

ROME — No coins in the fountain, but we’ll still be back!

2 Nov

THANKS A LOT JULIUS!  —  I came, I saw and I photographed. It was October,2011 and I was at last taking up Julius’s open offer of a reciprocal visit. On my 62nd birthday I stood in the middle of St Peter’s Square, gazing at the great domed basilica. The fountains were gushing, the tourists were queueing and I was watching the statues on top of Bernini’s curving collonades slowly turning into silouettes as the late afternoon sun dipped. I had made it to Rome at long last! It’s the “Eternal City” that uniquely and generously offers two countries for the price of one — Italy and the Vatican. Eat your heart out Tescos! What follows are a few of my impressions.

THE COLOSSEUM FROM OUR WINDOW  —  Our 2nd floor apartment lay just a stone’s throw from the Colosseum. I leant out of the window, pushed the shutters back and looked left. There it was, shining in the floodlights — ancient Rome’s greatest amphitheatre just at the bottom of our street!

Half an hour earlier, it had been a surreal experience suddenly driving around the Colosseum in our taxi, as if we had stumbled upon an abandoned film set. Next to it stood an ancient triumphal arch. ” O look, it’s the Arch of Constantine!” I exclaimed, like the good History teacher that I am. It was like a giant textbook suddenly springing to life! Now I was gaping at it through our window. Separating us from the 9th Wonder of the ancient World was: a cobbled street, a line of pavement cafes, tightly parked cars with moter-bikes squashed inbetween them, a half-excavated gladiators’ academy and a cream-coloured early Christian basilica. The next morning, I watched the first school groups and parties of tourists arrive to visit the Basilica of San Clemente with its 3 layers of Roman history. On our second day we visited this fascinating place ourselves.

MIXED-UP HISTORY and STRANGE JUXTAPOSITIONS.   —   San Clemente is a 12th century Greek style church which sits on top of a 4th Century Basilica, which in turn is built over the remains of a 3rd Century pagan, Mithran temple. The historical multi-layering of San Clemente is typical of Rome as a whole. The city groans beneath the weight of its own history. Different eras and architectural styles crowd in on one another, creating a constant whirl of confusing juxtapositions. A medieval bell-tower rises up beside an ancient arch; a flamboyant Baroque church- facade looms up behind the columned porch of an early temple, and so on. In certain places, like The Forum, buildings of different ages mix together in an intoxicating jumble, all the time being encircled by open-topped bus tours and camera touting tourists.

TOURISTS OR TRAVELLERS?  —  There is supposed to be a subtle difference between a traveller and a tourist. Travellers, it is claimed, are a bit more thoughtful in their choice of sights , not just flocking to the more obvious, famous destinations which appear on most people’s tick lists. I smugly think I belong to the former category but probably am also a fully paid-up member of the latter. Whatever — Rome pays host to thousands of tourists AND travellers. This must be especially so in the height of summer but parts of it were still very busy when we visited in mid-October. It appears that Rome has developed into a whole year destination. The trouble is , many of the visiters want to go the same places, the so-called tourist ” honey-pots”. Thus the hordes of people we encountered at the foot of the Spanish Steps one morning were probably mostly the same as those we had met throwing their coins into the Trevi Fountain the previous evening.

You can always tell when you are approaching a tourist “honey-pot”. The crowds thicken and the streets start filling up with souvenir stalls, buskers, pavement cafes and ice-cream parlours. You will probably get to meet a golden Tutankhamen or a silver Statue of Liberty who only move when a coin is put into their pot. I got to kiss the daintily gloved hand of a Jane Austin -style lady in the Piazza Navona, for the bargain price of 1 Euro. Sometimes it seems as if tourists are a bit like sheep, all flocking to the same few places just because they are famous. On the other hand, a more discerning traveller might seek out more obscure but equally rewarding sights, or wander down quiet streets and through deserted squares just to see what exciting surprise might pop up. Chris and I tried to do a bit of both. We visited a mixture of the famous and the obscure and did our fair share of aimless but fascinating wandering.

We walked around Rome most of the time. apart from a couple of Metro journeys. I have never been attracted to the easy but expensive convenience of the open-topped bus tour. This seems to me to be a way of seeing everything without actually seeing anything. Whizzing round the Colosseum and taking a couple of hurried, blurred photos is no substitute for actually visiting the building and soaking in its history. We visited it shortly after opening time and it was still quite busy. It was awe-inspiring standing inside the 2000 year old stadium and imagining 70,000 people blood-thirstingly screaming at brutal gladiator fights or hapless criminals and Christains being torn apart by wild beasts. However, by the time we left at around 10-30am, any historical atmosphere had been ruined by the hordes of tourists pouring in. It’s ironic that they seemed to be destroying the very thing they had come to experience. Sometimes, modern tourism is like that — killing the goose that laid the golden egg. Maybe budget airlines are partly to blame for opening up foreign travel to so many people, but then again, if it wasn’t for Ryanair and their like, we would probably have not been there either!

WHAT I LOVED.  —  I loved the evocative ruins of the Forum and the Palatine and Celian Hills. I loved the Renaissances palaces, the over-the-top Baroque churches and the piazzas with their flamboyant statues and fountains. I loved the faded yellow, orange and red buildings of the old town, glowing in the sun. I loved the sculptured, pollarded trees with their deep green tops. The multi-flavoured ice creams were absolutely delicious like everywhere in Italy. I loved looking at the hieroglyphics on the ancient obelisks that seemed to punctuate every grand piazza even though we were in Italy not Egypt. They were a reminder that the Romans were plunderers as well as civilisers. However, the most memorable moments for me were entering 5 special places of worship. ( 5 of the many in Rome.)

The first two were Greek style early Christian basilicas : San Clemente and San Saba. Both have shining medieval mosaics, fading but still colourful frescoes, stately columns and geometrically patterned marble floors. The 3rd and 4th were 16th Century Renaissance churches — San Luigi dei Francesi and Santa Maria del Popolo. Both had strikingly luminous works by Caravaggio, in side chapels, looking as though they were painted just yesterday. The intense light and shade, the dramatic foreshortening and the startling realism make this a thrilling experience. They even eclipsed the spectacularly frescoed ceilings.

The final unforgettable place of worship was the incomparable Pantheon — the Roman temple of all gods. It was later converted into a church. Entered between giant Corinthian columns, one enters a majestic circular splace, surrounded by ornate shrines and tombs of the “great” and the “good”, including that of Raphael, which we somehow managed to miss! However most of one’s attention is taken by the huge, hemispherical dome that just seems to hang magically in thin air, with no visible support. It was designed by the Emperor Hadrian himself in the 2nd Century AD. Sunlight pours through a circle in the centre of the dome, its shafts illuminating different sections of the coffered ceiling as the sun moves across the sky. There is little else to do but sit down and stare until one is in danger of contracting permanent neck-ache. Awe-inspiring seems to be a phrase specially invented for this ancient building.

FINAL THOUGHTS — NO COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN.  —   So that’s our first visit to the “Eternal City”. Yes, it’s got lots of noisy traffic, crowds of tourists, enough pizza and pasta to feed a small army every day, pestering street sellers and devious pick-pockets. But Rome is also a beautiful, enchanting place full of memorable sights, sounds and smells. I know we will be back, though we never actually threw any coins into the tourists’ favourite fountain.