From Ashford to Athens
|Alpine adventure (Days 1-4)
Viennese whirl (Days 5-9)
Slovenian theatre (Days 10-12)
Bombing it through Belgrade (Day 13)
Litohoro lazing (Days 14-16)
Olympic ideas (Days 17-19)
We are sailing (Days 20-21)
Assisi amblings (Days 22-23)
Breton brouhaha (Days 24-26)
Encore en Foix (Days 27-28)
Barcelona and back (Days 29-31)
|As the 09:27 Eurostar from Ashford International
plunged into the Channel tunnel, I pondered the adventure
that lay ahead. (Actually that's not true. I missed the
moment we actually entered the tunnel since I was too
busy playing Chinese Poker and eating boiled sweets.
Pondering wasn't on the cards.)
On arrival at Brussels after an impressively short trip we spent a good quarter hour struggling with the luggage lockers.
Having finally satisfied the demands of the lockers we set off down the pleasingly named Rue Stalingrad towards the Grande Place, stopping off en route to stun the waitress in a sandwicherie with my command of French (Deux TEXANS, s'il vous pla�t).
Brussels seemed a lively, if a little unexciting, city. We wandered the streets for a while to kill some time, checking out the Euro shops, having a drink in a local bar and then a pleasant and cheap meal in a restaurant.
It was all worryingly civilised. Was this the same threesome who had last year spent the night on a bench in the Arctic Circle?
Our hours in Brussels up, we headed back to the station for the night train to Bern.
Our €13 supplement had bought us berths in a couchette and hence the chance to sleep flat out. Our compartment was shared with two Americans, names unknown (called Billy-Bob and Buzz in my imagination).
The five of us, having exhausted the mutual conversational topics of British/American accents, turned in for the night. I was on the excessively high top bunk and was provided with safety straps to stop me going 'bump' in the night.
It had taken several hours to deduce that there was in fact no truly comfortable position on my bunk. I managed about four hours sleep after that. Luckily neither Billy-Bob nor Buzz seemed to be snorers.
The 'highlight' of the night's entertainment occurred some time in the small hours, when a grey-haired elderly man came into our compartment. He looked bemused for a while before finally deciding this was not his bedroom and beating a hasty retreat.
By the time the steward returned with our passports at 6.30am there was only half an hour left and my bed suddenly seemed a lot more comfortable.
Enough of the night, on to the day. A shop trip from Bern brought us to Interlaken which despite its impressive mountain surroundings had precious little else to recommend it. An attempt to find the 'laken' ended in failure and soaked clothes (conscientious Swiss drivers).
Another train took us to geographer's paradise Lauterbrunnen, everyone's favourite U-shaped valley.
The weather hadn't been great all day and the valley was initially shrouded in cloud. As the clouds cleared the dramatic cliffs on either side seemed to loom ever larger.
I had, I feared, been rather 'over-sold' Lauterbrunnen by Richard and andrew... it didn't take your breath away [Andy: Boo] but it is certainly a world-class sight.
After a much needed shower (that's a person shower, not a rain shower) we went to visit the Tr�mmelbach falls, a series of scarily powerful cascades with spray being tossed up in your face (and at your camera).
Dinner was the first attempt at camp cooking and consisted of bolognese and crisps ... one up on semolina anyway.
Finally we smeared and sought ropes and marriages till nightfall.
After two nights short of sleep I snoozed late into the morning. Soon though I headed off with Andy towards the distant snowy peaks of the Jungfrau, Eiger and the M�nch.
No doubt a guidebook would describe our route as
Gentle stroll, suitable for casual walkers, children and people with one leg. Difficulty: *
It was a hot day however, and the route was long and uphill. The scenery was ample compensation with numerous waterfalls, towering rockfaces and clich�ed Alpine cows tinkling away.
We finally reached Trachsellauenen, 1210 metres above sea level.
The journey back was much like the journey there, only backwards.
As usual when I'm hot and tired, I became intrigued by the most trivial things we passed, for example a sign for Daniel's scooter meeting place. Who was Daniel? Why did he have so many scooters? Why did they all have such a desire to meet?
Back to the tent to listen to a crackly North African version of the BBC World Service before a slap-up meal of r�sti at the camp restaurant.
|One of the problems of writing your diary at the end
of the day is that the most tortuous events never seem
quite as bad in hindsight.
The day started well enough. We played table-tennis (the campsite has a strange circular table), joined by French table-tennis maestro Patrick.
andrew and I then set off to M�rren up one wall of the valley. "The steep bit is at the start" Andy had claimed. No, the steep bit was all the way up. The path climbed and climbed and just when you thought it might flatten out, climbed some more. Utilising muscles I hadn't used in weeks, I dragged myself to the top, Andy gambolling up ahead like a mountain goat.
To my utter amazement we made it to M�rren 10 minutes quicker than the recommended two and a half hours. Even my hypothetical guidebook might have admitted that 'people with one leg may need assistance'.
M�rren was a happy enough village. We had a late lunch and I went to look at a real mountain goat before the rather quicker descent.
There was time for another game of table-tennis with commentary provided by Patrick. "YOU LOSE!!! THE BIG BOSS LOSE! WOAH! THE BREAK ZE BALL!" Well he certainly had a good vocabulary for a seven-year-old. After dinner we watched CNN (very frustrating) and played yet more pinochle. Tomorrow the bright lights of Milan beckon...
All the way to Milan just to buy a pizza? That's how it turned out anyway...
15:10 I'M ON THE TRAIN!!! Today is what Richard and Andy euphemistically call a 'travelling day'. As usual this meant a horribly early start, no time for a shower, the tent wet and muddy and heavier than ever.
We arrived at the station five minutes before our train was due to leave, and I spent several nerve-wracking minutes waiting in the queue while some painfully slow customers negotiated with the only cashier (A ticket to Interlaken ... via Aberdeen ... next year ... paid for in South African rand ...) Finally the tickets were bought and we got on the train [OK, OK, we could have caught the train half an hour later, but that would have made it seem less exciting.]
My diary got soaked by my water bottle as you can probably see [Well, probably not since you're reading this on the Internet. Imagine the computer screen being very soggy.]
From there the journey proceeded smoothly, the scenery turning more and more Italian as we headed further southwards.
21:15 I'M ON THE TRAIN!!! Ah, Italy, home of the stereotype! In our few brief hours in Milan we encountered the expected manic drivers, hopeless inefficiency at the station and of course delicious pizza.
The best night trains out of Milan were to Barcelona and Vienna, but just as in Bern, the train to Barcelona was full (what's this European sudden obsession with Barcelona?)
So Fate pointed us in the direction of Austria and there was barely time to stock up at Milan Central's "Free Shop" (which sadly didn't live up to its name) before setting off once more.
22:20 I'M ON THE TRAIN!!! (in fair Verona where we lay our scene.) As the train rumbles on through Italy and with my 'light' reading stock already exhausted, it's a choice between a huge tome by Dostoevsky or the excitement of "Optima Salute" magazine (discovered under my seat). The contents page is not encouraging: both people featured have their heads in their hands.
My Italian is a little rusty but articles about "il tasso di colestro" and "la dermatite" suggest I've found a health magazine. Except there's an article about ducks on page 16.
I'm bored senseless if you hadn't guessed. Postscript The last train of the day, from Mestre to Vienna was surprisingly comfortable (if you're 5'8" like me) Richard and Andy were less impressed...
CITIES!!! I love them. I love the way you can ring up a youth hostel to book and turn up an hour later with a bed waiting for you. I love being able to jump on an S-bahn, a U-bahn or a tram rather than having to slog it on foot. I love the hustle, the bustle, the noise, the buskers, the Internet access, the newspapers, my Bratw�rst mit Brot for lunch, my stodgy plum pudding and beer for dinner. However I am not a great fan of human statues. Tossers. Who do they think they are, standing around annoying the hell out of everyone and demanding money for it. At least Richard does that for free.
Vienna was full of beautiful architecture, impressive statues and men in dodgy Mozart wigs.
After depositing our bags at the Youth Hostel, I went for a wander in town to get my bearings and check my email.
Later I went with Andy to take a look at the Vienna Film Festival and ate my plum pudding, a heaped plateful of pure stodge (more on that tomorrow).
Later we went to Prater and had a look around the fairground before returning to Stephensplatz hotly pursued by a swarm of mosquitoes seeking out Andy.
Tip of the day: melon and cappuccino ice-cream don't mix.
After a great night's sleep (due to those amazing inventions, sheets and quilts!) I awoke fresh and early at 7am. I'll repeat that, 7am. For someone who thinks 9 is an early start, this was quite an achievement.
After my free Youth Hostel breakfast, I headed out into the deserted streets. First stop Hundertwasserhaus, which was an ordinary block of flats until the obviously mad Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser was let loose on it.
After a quick trip to a Konditorei, I headed for the MAK museum of modern and creative arts, the highlight of which was a brilliant parody 'museum within a museum'.
(Time for another trip to a Konditorei)
I had seen a lot of people rising around on 'viennabikes', a system which allowed you to borrow a bike for a €2 deposit. To my delight I finally discovered one in a rack and was soon off on my wobbly way (oops, RIGHT-hand side) towards the (AAAAARGH!!! a tram!!!) MuseumQuartier, just next to our hostel.
I chose the MUMOK museum (more for the name than anything else). The special exhibition was on a particularly bizarre art school called Fluxus, typified by artists such as John Cage (4 minutes 33 seconds of silence) and Yoko Ono. All very entertainingly strange and strangely entertaining.
Finding another attractive luminous pink bike, I set off down a cycle path.
Cycling seemed good fun, so I carried on.. and on... and on... About 40 minutes later I had to admit that
Naturally I ended up accosting an unlucky Austrian woman on the street and practicing my poor German and sign language. A 15-minute trek later I made it to a U-bahn station somewhere in the Styx and eventually back to the Youth Hostel for a much needed rest.
Rest??? Ha! Soon we were off again, back to the Vienna Film Festival. There were about 20 stands selling food from all around the world: Spanish, American, Mexican, Hungarian, yesterday's plum pudding and today's Dalmatian chicken dish.
The entertainment proper was a live telecast of Don Carlos from the Vienna State Opera.
The opera was too long (3� hours) and in Italian and it was too cold; but overall it was an entertaining and definitely Viennese experience.
A day trip to Bratislava sounds like a huge undertaking, but the Slovakian capital was only 90 minutes away by train. Much of that was spent at the border station as a succession of Austrian and Slovak (the ones with the big guns) officials came to inspect us. "When crossing a border it pays to look reasonably turned out" claimed the Rough Guide. Hmmm. Anyway, they finally let us in, and I got my first ever passport stamp.
The walk from the station to the town centre was promisingly Eastern European... for a start everything was CHEAP (a major theme of the day). Hotdogs for 15p, ice-creams for 10p, semtex for 50p. We hoped this was just an unfortunately-named drink.
We walked down to the Danube to see the 'Most SNP', a huge bridge built in the Communist era with a giant supporting column supporting a Starship Enterprise-style viewing platform.
Next to the famous Cafe Mayer for a cappucino and Mayertorte (highly recommended not only for the name).
After a stroll round the pretty Old Town we ascended (beamed up?) to the top of the Most SNP for lunch in the panoramic restaurant. One view gave you the castle, cathedral and Danube, while the other was a sweeping vista of tower blocks - the Petrzalka housing estate, home to a third of the city's population.
We had lunch of goulash and pork medallions in the restaurant on top of the tower (an amazingly cheap �4) and there was all afternoon to explore the likeable city including the grand Presidentpalace.
Our sojourn finished on a high note with a visit to ... Tesco! We stocked up for a big dinner with our remaining k200 (�3.50) and still had food left over.
I set off to Prater to join a guided bike tour of the city which was supposed to be commencing at 10am. I arrived at 9.50 and waited in the deserted funfair. Well almost deserted - the mini-rides for children (you know, like the Postman Pat vans you get outside Sainsbury's) were all switched on and provided a surreal soundtrack. "Da-da-la-da-da-da-DAH" piped the Popeye ride. "Hello!!! You vant a riiide???" asked another. "BOING!!! ... BOING!!! Da-da-la-da-da-da-DAH ... BOING!!! Hello!!! You vant a riiide??? BOING!!!" I put up with this for about half an hour before deducing that the bike ride was not going to happen (not before I lost my sanity anyway).
Undeterred I set off on another viennabike to the Parliament, a hugely impressive building on the other side of town.
I had half an hour to kill before the guided tour so I stuck my credit card in a payphone and rang Ljubljana (I love it when you can do that). Aside from marvelling about the ease of international phone calls, I booked our accommodation for tomorrow night.
The Parliament tour was quite fun, as usual you got to hear about the politicians as well as seeing the buildings themselves. The MPs don't seem to get on very well: the parties have separate entrances and "avoid each other as much as possible"!
Recommended by Andy, the Schonbrunn palace was a good place to relax with its huge gardens and fountains. and a particularly exciting toilet... upon flushing, the toilet seat performed a 180� rotation. Well worth €0,30.
On my way back to Stephensplatz a mystery was solved. On the wall of a bank, there were thousands of little photocopied notes in German stuck on with parcel-tape, which people occasionally removed.
I had seen this a couple of days ago and been mystified, but luckily today I spotted a man who was adding new pieces of paper. He explained that the writing was poetry and people were encouraged to take bits that they liked. Here's my poem then (translation appreciated)
Je mehr �ber bestehende Gewalt berichtet wird
Umso mehr gibt es bevorstehende Gewalt
I met up with Richard for dinner and watched some particularly poor buskers, then wandered round Stephansplatz looking for something, anything, to buy that might give me a 1 euro cent coin in change (the only remaining coin to complete my Austrian collection). Finally I spotted a €0,89 cake!
Tomorrow, Ljubljana looms.
A lot of my diary entries seem to begin with 'an early start' and today's will be no exception.
Our train left at 8am so it was an early start and out of the hostel by 7. I spent my few remaining euros on a Schnecke for breakfast. Even in the few days I've been here my German accent has improved dramatically. Now if I ask for a Schnecke I am given a pastry, rather than a look indicating "Why did you just say you wanted to murder my children?"
Six dull hours on the train enlivened by my second-ever stamp in my passport brought us to Ljubljana. We headed to Jezica, where I had reserved us a bungalow. Or so I thought. "Bungalow??? No reserve". "But I reserved it yesterday, on the phone. My name is MAYER. M-A-Y-E-R." "Mayer??? Bungalow??? No bungalow, no. You can camp here. Sprechen Sie Deutsch?"
Oh joy. So it was back to slumming it in the tent. After a tiring day there wasn't much enthusiasm for a trip into Ljubljana so a hastily rigged up table tennis table provided the evening's entertainment.
Another day, another new capital city to explore.
One of the benefits of this kind of holiday is that we are all able to do our own thing; thus while Andy had headed off on the train in search of karst scenery, Richard and I took the bus into town for some joint sightseeing.
The joint portion of our trip ended acrimoniously half an hour later, somewhere deep in the Ljubljanan suburbs. We had overshot the centre (all my fault of course) and Richard was too mean to pay the bus fare back.
Needing some change I bought breakfast (dates and Sprite, when will I ever eat a proper breakfast again?) from a mini-market. I was a little embarrassed at using my 10,000SIT note (about �30) to buy 600SIT provisions - but I needn't have worried. Person 1 in the queue paid with a huge jar of 1SIT coins, person 2 paid with empty bottles.
Ljubljana is a small but charming city. I did most of the 'sights': the market, the cathedral, the castle (with an impressive 3D virtual reality guided town tour) and the various squares or trgs.
I wandered across the 'triple bridge' (certainly beats Three Bridges Station) and round the market for a while, my ambling sightseeing tour also taking in the Parliament building and some of Ljubljana's less attractive tower blocks.
We all met up for dinner, Richard being the most adventurous with cutlet of foal (verdict: meaty)
I rounded the evening off with some Slovenian high culture: a performance of 'Hazarski Slovar', or 'Dictionary of the Khazars', at the castle
I had some misgivings, not least the language barrier, but I needn't have worried. The staging, music, choreography and obvious power of the performances more than made up for the fact that I couldn't understand a single word. It was a superb piece of theatre.
After a much-appreciated lie in we caught the bus into the city (this time with pre-paid zetoni).
Before Richard and Andy set off on their excursion to Bled, we booked our onwards train to Thessaloniki. Unfortunately this required a change at that little-known city of Beograd ... or infamous city Belgrade. After much negotiation and a phone call to Serbia ("This is Ljubljana calling...") the tickets were reserved.
Next I went to the British Embassy, situated in a tower block in central Ljubljana. Although the FCO website had assured us that visas wouldn't be necessary to visit Yugoslavia during the tourist season, we wanted to be sure.
The Slovenian receptionist informed me that seeing someone at the embassy would not be possible. "The British Embassy is open only from 9 until 12." Naturally it was already 1 o'clock. Lazy bloody diplomats. I'd better remember in future not to get my passport stolen or get captured by enemy guerrillas in the afternoon.
Buoyed by my recent cycling experiences in Vienna, I hired a bike for the afternoon for the bargain price of 500SIT.
My (t)rusty two-wheeled friend took me to the Tivoli Gardens and the Museum of Contemporary History, the main highlight of which was a chess set made out of bread and saliva by a concentration camp prisoner. There was also a gallery of famous Slovenians. Hmmm. I eventually spotted one name I recognised: Joze Plecnik, the designer of much of modern Ljubljana.
Lunch/dinner (what should it be called? Dunch?) was obtained at the coincidentally named Cafe Plecnik before I set off for another whizz around the city on my bike.
I had been set the task of compiling provisions for tomorrow's train trip with 2000SIT (�6), thankfully with Slovene prices this was feasible.
Tomorrow will be a long day.
A long day.
I'm aware that reading about long boring train journeys is not much fun ... but then, being on long boring train journeys is not much fun.
The day began with the usual shenanigans taking down the tent and making our way to the train station, where we spent our last tolars before boarding the 8:48 to Belgrade.
It was just another long boring train journey, though with the addition of the constant thought in the back of our minds that we might get sent back/thrown off the train/arrested because we didn't have a visa.
All was fine as we passed into Croatia and then, eventually, Yugoslavia - a 6 euro visa fee and we were inside.
We rolled into Belgrade 9 hours after leaving Ljubljana, past some appallingly ugly tower blocks and slums - the poverty was obvious. Bradford, all is forgiven.
We strode out into the streets of Belgrade - and promptly strode back into the station. Since we had nowhere to leave our bags we decided it safest to stay in the station and make brief forays into the city.
My search for a cash machine at least showed me the fractionally more attractive side of Belgrade.
However it still seemed quite scary, their habit of using the Cyrillic alphabet on street signs made getting lost a distinct possibility and since none of the ATMs would accept my credit card, we were penniless.
We were not exactly sad therefore, to see the lights of Belgrade disappear into the distance.
Only the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia now stood between us and civilisation. Well, between us and Greece anyway.
That phone call in Ljubljana proved its worth: we had a private cabin with decent beds and uninterrupted sleep, with the exception of the Macedonian border crossings. To my amusement, the border police forgot to take my Macedonian exit visa, so I am still officially in Macedonia.
After we had reclaimed our passports from the over-zealous Greek police at the border station, we were back in the EU.
Richard was in a foul mood all morning (who knows why?) and practically exploded when Andy refused to close the compartment door.
Personal problems aside, we made it to Thessaloniki in one piece and went on the search of some food. Thankfully my Greek alphabet is better than my Cyrillic so there were far fewer problems here.
Soon we were back on the train again - this time a very hot and crowded local stopper. "I'd be embarrassed to live in Greece" yelled one American. It wasn't the most comfortable of rides, especially as the windows refused to stay open. The best place to travel was in the corridor with the window jammed open and the wind streaming into your face.
We got off at Litochoro, one of the places the man in the Tourist Information Centre in Thessaloniki had promised would have a beach. The station was in the middle of nowhere, but a 10 minute walk brought us to Camping Sylvia, run by a friendly but rather confusing man. He reminded me rather of one of the characters in The Vicar of Dibley. "Is it safe to drink the water from the taps?" "No no no no no no no no no no no no no yes."
The campsite proved a bit basic in facilities (the squat-down toilets and cold showers weren't much fun) but more than made up for it in location ... overlooking a deserted beach with crystal clear water, perfect for swimming. Which I did.
Later we had a delicious dinner in the restaurant overlooking the sea. Life is good.
Beach, sun etc
After yesterday's extremely lazy day, I had an early start and set out at 9am to the train station to catch a train to Katerini, the nearest 'big town' Yes, it's so dead here you have to catch a train to go shopping. I needn't have bothered - I waited for two solid hours before a train finally arrived.
OK, big town is something of an overstatement for Katerini, but it had a small supermarket where I could buy us some food including my first breakfast for several days. Attempts to phone the Youth Hostel in Athens were less successful - I resorted to phoning my sister back home and getting her to look up the new number for me on the Internet.
The delights of Katerini exhausted, I headed back to Litochoro on the train. The train staff aren't too keen on stopping there since it's a request stop ... on this occasion the driver overshot by about 100 metres and we all had to walk back up the track.
The waitress in the restaurant where we had dinner yesterday (mmm... kebab) had apologised that "Summer had ended" and she seemed to be right. Yesterday's unbroken sun was replaced by a rather dull day of weather.
The drizzle forced us under cover and rather more games of Hearts and Ludo than usual in the evening (joined by a giant grasshopper), but it dried up later for a spot of sausage-frying and rock-juggling.
Another long travelling day - at least this time we had some food. The train was slow and hot, so I made another assault on my reading material (Devils by Dostoevsky if you recall). It's the sort of book I would never normally read, weighing in at over 700 pages. I've now ploughed through part 1 of 3.
The Greek countryside was also a welcome distraction: rolling hills, whitewashed cottages, plains reaching as far as the eye could see.
7 hours later we reached Athens and a short walk brought us to Hostel Aphrodite, an Australian ghetto in the Athenian suburbs. It was certainly better equipped than Camping Sylvia (though a hole was well equipped compared to Camping Sylvia). Hot showers, proper toilets, a private room, Internet access, a laundry service and even a bar.
While Richard enjoyed the last of those facilities, I ventured out into Athens with Andy. There was certainly no missing the craggy Acropolis, straight in front of you as you came out of the metro.
We wandered round the Plaka area for a while (basically one big taverna and souvenir shop). I'd previously had a debate with Richard about whether the limits to achievement were real or self-imposed (we were probably drunk), so when I spotted an Olympic T-shirt with the slogan 'Everything can be achieved with practice' the chance was too good to miss.
We could have done with a bit more practice at finding the way: we got lost on the way back and went for an impromptu half-hour ramble around the back streets of Athens.
We thought by getting up early we could be able to beat the tourists to the Acropolis. We were right: just not early enough.
The tour parties were already piling in as we arrived and headed up through the Temple of Athena Nike. Despite the crush and the inevitable 'restoration' work (scaffolding everywhere) the huge scale and beauty of the Parthenon and the smaller Erechteon was striking.
The Museum had some fragments of the Elgin Marbles that Elgin hadn't nicked, plus lots of statues and columns.
After a quick detour to the Theatre of Dionysus to strike some classic poses, I parted company with Andy, who went off to climb a hill in the midday sun.
I stayed in the shade of the National Gardens, home to a rather worrying sign:
Off next to the National Archeological Museum, home to myriads of ancient remains, then the historical theme to my day continued at the Greek Agora and the Roman Agora with the 8-sided 'Tower of the Winds'.
Athens was fun to wander in - lots of streets to walk around, always unsure if round the corner you'd find a flea-market, a designer fashion outlet or another Ancient Greek ruin.
Soon it was evening and I met up with Richard and andrew for a meal: I had the intriguingly named "Chef's Madness". One more day in Athens tomorrow before we move on.
Over the span of human history, Man has faced many challenges - protecting himself and his family, creating fire, building shelter, building communities and great civilisations, coping with natural and man-made disasters.
Nowadays we have a pretty comfortable existence and are forced to dream up our own silly challenges. Inspired by being in Athens, home of the 1896 and 2004 Olympics, I resolved to run a lap of every Olympic Stadium in the world.
The 1896 stadium was an impressive piece of architecture - a massive horseshoe set into a hill, still in perfect condition 106 years after the last race had been run there.
I approached a man who had been busy taking photographs of the stadium and asked him if he could time me for a lap. He agreed - on the condition he could take some photos of me running round the track.
Somewhere a photo album will now be graced with a picture of me sprinting away into the distance, then returning absolutely knackered 90 seconds later. It was 11 in the morning and the sun was beating down oppressively, so after thanking my official photographer, I collapsed in the shade to recover.
With a spring in my step and a banana milkshake in my stomach, I set off on a long metro ride to the 2004 stadium. Inevitably, with 2 years still to go, this was still a work in progress. The whole site was deserted and railings stopped you getting too close to the stadium.
A rather frustrating trip, but I would return in two years.
While I certainly am in the category of "mad dogs and Englishmen", I'm not a fan of the midday sun so I cooled off for a while in an Internet cafe, and fiddled about in my favourite real world cafe, Cafe Nero.
Later I climbed the hill of Filopappou for some amazing panoramic views of the city, Acropolis and port of Piraeus.
I finished my 'Olympic day' with a wander round Plaka to buy another Olympic T-shirt (I can't help it!) As dusk fell, I made my way to Lycabetus Hill. A funicular whizzed me to the top, where I could see the lights across the whole city.
It was the end of the line. 1500 miles from Ashford to Athens in 19 days. Time to head home.
It started to pour with rain.
"That was the worst train ride I have ever been on" declared Richard as we finally reached Patras. While the five hours in the oppressive heat and smoky atmosphere hadn't been a bundle of fun, the hyperbole didn't really seem justified. Fourth worst maybe.
A slight misreading of the timetable on my part had happy consequences, as, instead of having to stay overnight in uninspiring Patras, we could leave on the 8pm boat, direct to Ancona.
The ship, Superfast V, was plush and comfortable, and before long anchors were weighed and we steamed off into the Adriatic as the sun set.
It would have been a perfect scene, had not Richard and andrew got it into their heads that they really wanted to visit ... Guernsey, an idea of such stupidity that it rivals "Shall we try for a baby, Mrs Hitler?" Still I suppose we'll end up following their whims.
Sleeping on deck proved more comfortable than it sounded and a breakfast of apple tart and Red Bull (memories of exams...) soon had me raring to go.
Soon we were in Ancona which (despite the Rough Guide's bad write-up) had a definite charm beyond the clutter of the port.
There wasn't much time to savour it though as we were soon on the train to Foligno.
It was festival time in Foligno, which normally would have been quite exciting, but we only had 30 minutes to find a pizza and catch our train. The crowds packed the streets, making the former impossible, so we settled for the latter.
We arrived in Assisi at nightfall, the lights of the town guiding us in the right direction. It was still a long hard trudge to the youth hostel, run by a woman who was definitely from the 'old school' of hostelling - early curfew, early breakfast (PUT YOUR CUTLERY IN THE RIGHT BIN!!!), blankets on the beds. The hostel was spotlessly clean though, and we had a room of six to ourselves.
A quick dash into Assisi finally yielded our long-overdue pizza, albeit dry; and some likeable if a bit dim Americans (Does that say London on your T-shirt? No, Ljubljana.)
Another problem with writing a diary whilst on holiday is how easy it is to drop into the language of guidebooks. Towns are always "perched" on slopes, hills are "rolling", streets have a "quaint charm" and the views are "stunning".
In the morning then, I explored the town of Assisi, attractively perched above the Umbrian plains in an area of rolling hills. The narrow, steep streets had a quaint charm and the view from the castle at the top was... stunning.
There, I've done it.
All roads in Assisi lead to the Basilica San Francesco. From the outside, the cathedral is nothing special, a complete contrast to the interior. Every inch of wall space was covered by colourful frescos.
One of the advantages of religious services (cue boos from Richard and Andy) is how easy they are to follow in a foreign language - in this case, Latin. Going to Mass in the world's most famous cathedrals is definitely more entertaining!
After exploring the cathedral I climbed up to the castle then back down to the main square for the first of many ice-creams.
I met up with Richard and Andy, Richard bought a €10 ice-cream (just imagine).
In the evening we went to a pizzeria for our last chance at Italian dining - in my case proscioutto e melone, pizza alla schiava and vino bianco - it sounds so much nicer in Italian.
Another long walk with our seemingly heavier and heavier bags brought us to Assisi station again. I played an elaborate game of Pictionary with the woman in the ticket office to book our tickets for tonight's sleeper, then we were off on our way to Florence.
|The way the train time panned out gave
us five hours in Florence - five pretty hectic hours.
Almost 30 hours passed between leaving Assisi and reaching our next stop: St Malo. Top put that in perspective, we could have started singing '5000 Green Bottles' on leaving Assisi and have finished with time to spare.
After the hectic hours in Florence, there was a late change in Milan on to the sleeper to Paris. Couchettes are great fun, especially when SNCF provide free breakfast in bed.
After a quick metro trip across Paris, the TGV whisked us towards Britanny and by lunchtime we were in St Malo.
Richard had promised to be happy in St Malo, but he wasn't too impressed when we discovered that ferries to Guernsey weren't quite as frequent as we had hoped. The Channel islands remain on hold for the time being.
Even if St-Malo is a bit dead, it is French, so there is the compensation of good food - baguette, pate de campagne and patisseries creating the perfect picnic lunch. The campsite is situated on a picturesque peninsula with water on all sides, so the view are worth staying for anyway. I haven't yet made my mind up about St-Malo ... tomorrow may help me decide.
I am still undecided about St Malo. On the plus side are the pretty harbour views, the lack of tourists and the fact I can speak French. On the minus side is the undeniable fact that we are stuck on a peninsula miles from anywhere with non-existent public transport and mediocre weather.
To my amusement two people today thought I was French: a man in a van asking for directions and an English couple in the laundry, who were debating (in English) whether or not to ask me for change. Luckily they didn't and I didn't have to admit to eavesdropping on them for the previous half-hour. Maybe it's because I smelt French, not having had a full clothes wash since Vienna. [Andy: Boo. Why the racism?]
The laundrette, walking to the station, shopping, eating and various wanderings around the peninsula filled the day.
In the evening we had a wide-ranging argument about where to go next. Bad timing of the ferries ruled out Guernsey (the temptation to say 'I told you so' was very strong) - so a half-hour shouting match ensued. Richard and Andy seemed to have totally incompatible demands so I tried to keep mainly out of the flak. Eventually we settled on somewhere that satisfied us all.
Today I found the tourists and to a lesser extent, the good weather.
First though a dreary hour-long slog to the hypermarket, followed by a dreary half-hour slog to the station.
Things improved when I ate my picnic lunch and set off into the Old Town - Intra Muros - surrounded by ramparts. This was definitely the tourist trap, although the traditional French pastimes of boules and ignoring foreigners continued. [Andy: Boo. Why the racism?]
Time passed. Not much happened. The sun set.
The sun hadn't yet risen again at 6:15am when we got up and pitched camp.
Dawn broke as we plodded through the deserted port, the first step on a journey which would take us the length of France in the next 12 hours.
Paris proved the most hectic of our changes: we had just 10 minutes to walk (run) down the length of platform 5 and up the length of platform 6. Soon though, the TGV was sending us at breakneck speed towards Bordeaux, Toulouse and the South.
An hour on a rather less comfortable local train brought us to Foix, the place we'd all agreed upon two days earlier. As the train rolled off towards the Pyrenees, I was left with a familiar feeling. It's the feeling TV programmes try to show when a car/bus/train drives off, leaving the hero on the pavement, surrounded by their luggage. You're on your own, mate.
The feeling can usually be assuaged by shelter and food, and a half hour routemarch along the N20 brought us to the Camping Du Lac and Danelli Pizza.
We pitched the tent during a break in the insistent rain; and hurriedly got inside as a major storm broke. Rain was hurled against the tent with astonishing force but (thank God for man-made fibres) we stayed warm and dry.
Why does it always rain on me? Apparently this is the worst weather Foix has seen for some years: that's little consolation when we're only here for three days.
The long walk into Foix town is enlivened by the 'Encore en Foix' game. Each time you pass the 'Foix' sign you say 'Encore en Foix'. Oh, the punnery.
Foix is presided over by its fairy-tale style castle on a steep mound which rises out of the valley.
Since today was a Jour de Patrimonie I got in for free (this only happens twice a year apparently!) There were great views of the town and the Pyrenees in the distance, as well as a touchy-feely-smelly interactive museum.
On a bench halfway up the castle mound I had an entertaining chat with a woman from South Wales on the mutual topics of the weather, Andorra, passport stamps, the Gower peninsula and the weather.
In the afternoon I wandered around the largely deserted town (it was Sunday), buying the odd Orangina and pain au chocolat to sustain me through the day.
Back at the campsite I demolished Richard 7-0 at table-tennis and almost demolished Andy 7-0 (well OK, he won 4-2).
Tomorrow may bring a new country or two.
The plan was simple enough: catch the train to L'Hopitalet then a bus to Andorra. A lateish start, a replacement bus service and our missing the stop at L'Hopitalet meant it had gone 1pm by the time we reached La Tour Du Carol.
There was indeed a bus to Andorra, but 5 hours travelling for 2 hours in Andorra wasn't very appealing. Time to put Plan B into operation..Throughout the trip I've wanted to go to Barcelona, an ambition not shared by Richard and Andy. Does Andorra have an Olympic Stadium? Does it hell.
Time then for one of my silliest solo excursions to date: an evening in Barcelona, a night in a hostel followed by a mad dash back to Foix in time for the Paris night train.
As the train travelled south and down from the Pyrenees, the thermometer displayed inside my carriage gradually rose. 15�C... 16�C... 17�C... By the time the suburbs of Barcelona streamed past the window it was a dizzying 28�C and I was hit by a blast of warm air as I left the air-conditioned train.
I checked into my hastily-booked Youth Hostel then set out for an evening stroll, first to the nearby Nou Camp (sadly Barca were playing away today) and then to the famous Ramblas.
This long street is supposed to be the very essence of Barcelona and it was certainly packed on a Monday evening. The crowds were 'entertained' buy the usual entourage of Peruvian pan-pipe bands, piss-poor Diabolo jugglers and myriads of bloody human statues.
For dinner I headed to an 'all-you-can-eat' restaurant, just off the Ramblas. These places should be banned - they can't be good for your health. For €8,80 you first filled a large plate from the salad bar (it put Pizza Hut to shame). In the next room there were mountains of pizza and pasta as well as huge vats of soup. Luckily I left room for dessert - unlimited chocolate ice-cream. and fruit (very healthy). and unlimited tea coffee and hot chocolate.
Suitably bloated I waddled round the Ramblas for a while, swelling the coffers of Mr Stelios at the 'EasyEverything' Internet Cafe and not swelling the coffers of the human statues. Ha.
Despite being in a dorm full of snorers, tappers, groaners and creakers, I got a good night's sleep and was up and out of the hostel by 9. I headed to the Pla�a Espanya and walked up the imposing Avenue Reina Ma Cristina past rows of fountains and the buildings of the Catalan parliament.
The views over Barcelona were magnificent, but my target lay further up the Montjuic hill - the Estadi Olimpic.
When the gates were finally opened I rushed inside but there was a problem. No-one was allowed on to the track. I had two options: 1) Leap over the crowd barriers and run around the track before anyone could stop me. 2) Ask nicely.
1101 (T-30) I tried option 2. It didn't work. "Is not possible". "But..." "No. Is not possible." Clearly this was going to take rather more time than I had anticipated, and time was something that I did not have. It was now 11:01. In precisely 30 hours I should be leaving Brussels on the 17:01 service to Ashford. Barcelona would have to wait - I had to head home.
I boarded the 12:06 train, destination La Tour de Carol. Although my Olympic efforts had come to nothing it had been great fun to visit such an exciting city - I will return.
1631 (T-24.5) The train system round here is royally screwed at the moment. Pour aller en Foix, c'est necessaire de changer en Tarascon utilising an undocumented (though free) bus. Still bus seems the way to travel, with views of the Pyrenees all around.
2101 (T-20) Encore en Foix! It's very cold - Richard and Andy were complaining about the freezing night they had endured. After a few games of table-tennis we took down the tent for THE FINAL TIME!!! We ate at Danelli Pizza for THE FINAL TIME!!! Now we are ensconced in the station awaiting our train. Richard and Andy have resorted to the incredibly unamusing 'translate song lyrics into French' game.
0601 (T-11) As expected, an uncomfortable, sleep-challenged night. Unlikely to get back to sleep now. Today is likely to be a mixture of tetchiness (sleep deprivation) and excitement (going home!)
1031 (T-6.5) On the high-speed Thalys train with the French -or possibly Belgian- countryside rushing past. Weather looks depressing. Welcome back to reality.
1501 (T-2) Our trip to Brussels was a re-run of last time - a struggle with the lockers, a nice meal and the much-anticipated trip to the Euro shop to stock up on tacky Euro souvenirs.
1701 (T-0) Eurostar 9149 departs bound for Ashford International, with three very tired InterRailers amongst its passengers.
Barring catastrophic collapse of the Channel Tunnel, it marks a happy end to our month's travel. It may sound cliched but it's been a holiday of real contrasts - camping in beautiful scenery, youth hostelling in bustling cities; some of the world's most civilised places, Belgrade; travelling on the TGV at 300km/h, going nowhere in Litohoro; swimming in the Aegean, sailing across the Adriatic.
Richard yelled at me at one point "YOU FIND EVERYTHING INTERESTING!" Which is, sad to say, very true. I'm even starting to appreciate human statues.