Monday, 6 October 2008

Down to Earth & Google maps

So I now have been back 2 weeks exactly from my trip. It is 6 months to the day of my birthday (and is indeed my Grandfathers birthday today). And 4 months, 6 days from when I made the decision, whilst watching Radiohead on a sunny night in June, to go away for the summer.

Someone asked me the other day if I missed travelling since my return, but going back to University the week afterwards has taken away any opportunity to dwell. But I've made use of the time, seen my nearest and dearest, celebrated my Grandmas 90th birthday, and got stuck into the next thing I'm turning my hand to do and enjoying.

But I thought I'd take the time to tie off the last bits of whats been an amazing time by throwing a few stats to those interested and thanking one or two folk.

A few people have asked - where did you actually go? Well, click here:
and you can see my route!

Using Googles Pedometer, it shows that I covered 3332.19 miles overland and sea (not including journeying to and from my start and end point). The equivalent flight between Palermo and Berlin would emit 0.228 tonnes of CO2. From what I can tell I probably have emitted more than that with the different journey route I took as I've gone so far out of the way than a plane would have. But one thing I have discovered is that there isn't a carbon footprint calculator readily available to track a journey on multiple modes of transport. If you know of one, I'd love to be able to try and see what I racked up in terms of footprint.

It is a bit galling to think I may well of caused more pollution, as that negates what I originally set out to do. But next year I'll travel to Spain on a more equivalent route by train and it'll be interesting to see what the difference is then.

The map and the distance covered doesn't tell the story though. One of the things I've taken from doing this is what the senses saw and the incremental differences along the way. The change in landscape, terrain, soil, people, language, currencies, history, crops growing, climate, architecture, among many things.

12 different countries were visited in 44 days. And in that time I slept in hotels, hostels, peoples couches, trains, boats, tents, and twice, on the ground, outside in a sleeping bag. Not bad going but never dull. I felt big highs, occasional lows and the odd upset stomach! A month by the sea, in the sunshine and away from a pretty awful British summer, I hope will get me through cold winter nights this winter.

Just to add that thanks to all who mailed, called, those that I met and stayed with en route. In particular Carlo in Palermo, Ben and Tamsin from Electric Elephant, Fi in Korcula, Kasia in Poland, Szylvia in Berlin, Mark in Belgrade, Raluca and John in Bucharest, Dirk in Tunisia, Simon and Matthieu in Krakow and most of all to Dan Radford and GG for geeing me up enough in the first place to get me to go. Right. Now to get that Masters!


Monday, 15 September 2008

Bucharest, Transylvania, Budapest & Krakow

Ok - so not written that much the last few weeks. I've been writing loads in my diary along the way but difficult to distill each one into something punchy. I'm also trying to keep up with my background reading for Uni which should be starting in just over a week.

Lost a bit of motivation over the last couple of days. Lots of train travel and in 2 days which takes it out of you + I went to the Torture Museum in Budapest, where first the Nazis and then the Russians/Communists committed horrific acts of barbary in the Party Headquarters for both over a period of over 30 years. I then took a night train from Budapest last night to Krakow, arriving just in time to make the coach to Auschwitz & Berkenau this morning. As any of you will know if you've visited these 2 concentration camps, it leaves you cold at the senseless killing on a mass scale that occurred here. Very glad that I went and I think we owe it to the dead to remember them and the atrocities committed. By far the best presentation and explanation of any museum I've visited on this trip.

On a more cheery note, I also went to the outdoor baths for a 4 hour luxurious soak when I arrived in Budapest yesterday and had a very comfy bed on the night train to Krakow.

So intended to write about Bucharest and Rumania. I stayed with new friends John and Raluca at their apartment in the middle of the city. Rumania is on the up but is a definite old European city compared to places like Prague for instance. Got some hilarious pictures of exposed electricity wires dangling from streetlamps and just on the pavement and its not a picture perfect place. But its all the more charming for it. Rumanian service in museums and some restaurants is brusque to say the least, but on the plus side, the beer is great, the parks are beautiful, the restaurants serve great food cheaply, and theres loads to see and do.

I went hiking in Transylvania one day at Siniaia at 2000 metres, having held my nerve on one of the more steep cable car rides you can take in Europe. The views at the top being more than worth it.

I made it to Mikosvar in rural Transylvania to stay at the guest houses ran by a returning real life Count in the village where he and his family were from before Communism forced them into exile and democracy returned their hunting lodge into their posession. Gentle rolling countryside, dotted with apple orchards, corn, pepper and pumpkin fields of subsistence farmers who still ride horse and cart to work the land featured on the lanes that I cycled along from village to village.

The guest houses are all old out buildings converted by the Counts family since their return into beautiful rural cottage style rooms. Wooden floors, fixtures, big beds with comfy duvets, bathrobes, the works all feature. It was a step up for an oik like me!

Best bit - Just before heading out on the bike, I ask the Manager where I can get some food in one of the villages. He says not to bother and leads me to a kitchen where local women are employed to cook the nights dinner and breakfasts for guests. Hearty traditional country food bubbles away on the stove, and he speaks to them in Hungarian (the local language there even though we're in central Rumania) and they knock up a brilliant sandwich for me to take on my travels, which I eat overlooking a river and a field of horses grazing in glorious sunshine.

I ride back and stop in the next village for a pint at the local pub. I park up my bike next to all the local farmworkers horse and carts (no kidding!) as its about 6 o'clock and therefore knocking off time. They all resemble the 2 country bumpkins from the 2 Ronnies replete with handlebar moustaches and lamb chop sideburns. My 2 week goatee is nothing on these boys! One group leave. The most pi**ed members of the group lolling about in the cart with big grins on their faces!

At 50p a pint, the local brew is also the cheapest beer I find on the trip so far and I cycle back for a lush dinner at the guest house. Got to go. Will write more if i get time before my return.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Croatia, Bosnia & Serbia

The picture to the left was from Nin, just North of Petrcane, where after the festival we went to use the local mud baths and mess around taking stupid photos. This was the Anthony Gormley moment. Headed down the coast and took in Brac, Hvar and Korcula which are all stunning islands in the Adriatic. Lovely weather, relaxing by the beach, snorkelling, it was a World away from where I went next. I took a long coach ride to Sarajevo via Mostar. Where what I'd seen in Croatia showed no marks of the war, in Bosnia, the opposite was true.

Bullet ridden and shelled out buildings still remain in both cities and I was told by a Serbian guy whose a friend of a friend here in Belgrade, that before the war, the Bosnians were regarded as the most fun loving, happy people in the Balkans. In Sarajevo I got driven round by a guide who pointed out all the damage and landmarks from the war, in particular from when the city was under siege by Serbian forces from 92 to 95. Its fair to say he and some of the other people I met didn't seem that jolly, even now, 13 years later and with the city on the up, very much rebuilt from how it appeared in the mid 90s.

The feelings from that time still linger, and key places where damage took place such as the National library, which is still closed in need of repair, the marketplace where 68 people died in a shelling and some of the buildings down sniper alley (the main road cutting through the city) bear the most obvious scars. The Serbian I was with last night said that in his view, the Serbs and the Croats are very alike. That really its the Bosnians who have suffered the most.
Sarajevo has real beauty, particularly in the old Turkish part of the city and the countryside on the ride up to Belgrade was stunning. As beautiful as anything I've seen in New Zealand in parts.
But in a city of 600,000 over 50,000 residents were injured over the 4 years of the siege. 11,000 died. No wonder some of the people aren't that jolly.

Belgrade is a big city. Some beautiful old buildings, a lot of 70s socialist buildings too. The party scene here is reknowned. Not surprising when you can buy a beer from practically anywhere and its not uncommon to see people in cafes supping a pint at 10 in the morning!

Off to do some site seeing shortly, then off to Bucharest on the overnight train this afternoon. By all accounts the train is old school. Luckily I'm being met at the station in the Rumanian capital at 6 tomorrow. Catch you later.

Thursday, 28 August 2008


Croatia is stunning. Had an excellent time at Electric Elephant. Spent the majority of the time lounging during the days on the beds and couches shown in the photo, listening to great music, catching up with folk, having a giggle on a great site by the Adriatic. The Electric Chair saved my life boat party will be remembered fondly for a while. Came down to Split today and enjoying a quiet day by myself. The landscape here is stunning and I've still got to get over to Hvar, Korluca and Dubrovnik which are supposed to be even more amazing. Really looking forward to the next 5 days of Island hopping.

News in during the festival for those back home. Simon D had a daughter, Anna. All well there. And Mitch and Catherine had a son (as yet unnamed). Unconfirmed rumours the kid has a shock of frizzy hair like dad still to be resolved! Mum and child well though.

Off to see Hajduk Split play Deportivo in the UEFA cup tonight. The town is buzzing with locals and has been all day. Its a riot of red and white. till later.


Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Rome, Tunisia and sustainability

Having had a bit more of a night out than intended yesterday, I'm slowly seeing my final day in Rome. Woke up thinking not of my next destination, Croatia, but distilling all the nerdy Roman history I've been filling up on in the last fortnight. How does it fit together?
What does it tell us about how we live now and why do I take such an interest in something that happened 2000 odd years ago?
Having gone to the Colosseum on Monday, I went to the Forum yesterday - see pic. For 500 years this small area was the centre of the Western World. Caesar moved here when emperor; it was the Westminster of its day, where all the political discussions occurred and decisions were made; where Caesar himself was cremated and Mark Anthony read out his will. An empire whose legacy has left us with a huge influence on language, architecture, political and legal systems, culture and more. What did the Romans ever do for us? ;-)

I'm supposed to be trying to write a piece or two on Sustainability and slow travel for whilst I'm on this trip and I was thinking about how I could tie together lessons from then with now. As we know, the Romans were known for plundering what they could as well as providing the countries they invaded with straight roads, central heating and baths etc. After all, having an empire doesn't pay for itself...

Then I logged on to see the news, and the headline in the Guardian today reveals that the WWF (environment folk not the Wrestling fraternity) are warning that the UK has become the 6th largest importer of water in the World, a total derived not only of what we consume and use daily at home but also includes 'virtual water' used in the production of imported food, textiles and the like. Apparently this figure totals something like 4500 litres a day per person.

And this is where it got me thinking about the legacy of the Romans. According to the report, Spain, Egypt, Morocco, South Africa, Israel, Pakistan and Uzbekistan face acute water stress and yet supply the UK with substantial exports of their water through producting stuff for us. We've been aware of food miles for a number of years, but maybe this report demonstrates the scale with which it is impacting the countries we rely on most and their natural water levels.

We think about environmental damage such as this as perhaps recent phenomenon, but I saw in Tunisia the effects of excess want from Europe 2000 years ago causing just the same pressure that the WWF report identifies now. After defeating Hannibal and the Carthiginians in 146 BC, the Romans built up huge wheat growing plains in the North of the country. By the 1st Century Tunisia was supplying 60% of the Empires grain requirements. Huge tracts of forest were felled to provide land. From the cleared jungle and surround, the countrys elephants, lions, tigers, cheetahs etc were whisked away, to the Roman centres such as El-Jem in the South and the Colosseum in Rome to sate the populations appetite for the sport of the day.
After the Colosseum was completed in 80 AD, the Emperor Titus ordered 100 days of continual games. An estimated 9000 beasts were massacred and of course over the next 500 years various breeds of animal were rendered extinct.

Thing was though, that after the beasts and jungle had gone, the Empire only managed to get a couple of hundred years worth of grain production from the soil before it became desert. When I was travelling in these areas the Earth was scorched. The only thing I saw growing were Olive trees pretty much. What was really noticeable when I got into Rome, ironically enough, the deep dark soil looks so much more fertile. What was growing everywhere I looked? Wheat of course!

So where does that leave us? Leaving aside Gladiator fun and games, it shows how short sighted dependence without a sustainable plan in place leaves a once rich resource redundant. With some scientists warning of freshwater dependency as 'the new oil', seemingly we'll have to act swiftly, as individuals and consumers to ensure we don't make the same mistakes the Romans did.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Coming into land

So I'm beginning to understand what slow travel means. Its taken a long time to get here. And you begin to appreciate distance a lot more than flying. Since my last post I've clocked up the miles going further South down the Tunisian coast to Sousse (the countrys second city), Mahdia (imagine a small Greek fishing village) and then back up to Hammamet. And then made the 2 day voyage over the Med from Tunisia to Rome, where I am right now. I left my travelling companions Stella and Vangelis in Mahdia. They'd been my saviours up to that point. Driving me and my library of books with them - as chance would have it - to the same places I'd wanted to visit. We had a great time and they were great company.

So in Hammamet, I visited the uber swish centre culturel international within whose grounds there's an open air amphitheatre overlooking the Med. Checking the travel guides I had, it turned out the annual Hammamet music festival was on. Though by no means 'Having it' as you might at Glastonbury or similar in the UK, the prospect of checking out some Tunisian live music in such a setting had to be done. Check out the picture to see what I mean. The wind blew strongly in off the sea, the piano player lost his sheet music, but an orchestra kept playing really rhythmic Arabic tunes. A tight percussion section and drummer really kept things moving along at a good pace with a traditional string section and various singers and soloists joining in through the show. I believe they were musicians for Tunisian National radio. I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.

The audience was a strange mix. Mainly female, either really old and dressed traditionally or really dolled up in their Sunday best and much younger (in their 20s) designer clad Tunisian girls. Despite being hailed as a progressive Islamic country, as a Western bloke you don't get to mix with females still in everyday life. But I was surrounded! Just my luck I was plonked next to the older ones on my row. I happily listened, sipped my complimentary Apple Fanta, and tried to concentrate whilst the attractive girl in front clapped along and clicked her fingers in what she thought was perfect timing with the music.... Bless her, she'd missed out on that gene.

So afterwards, I made it back to Tunis and then took the ferry from there to Palermo. Dirk, a German guy who we'd camped in Nabuel
with, was on the same ferry, and with some time to kill after the ferry docked in Palermo we headed to the Catacombs of the order of Capucin monks in the city. As you'll see from the pictures I've cribbed from someone, its a pretty gruesome sight. Hundreds of preserved bodies on display. We looked round, talked about life and death a bit as you would in such place, then did a quick tour of the city by Motorbike which was cool.

Had the 4 person cabin all to myself which was nice all the way from Tunis to Rome. Well, would have been perfect apart from being woken by a family with a small child at 1.30 in the morning on the first night who thought their cabin was mine. That'll be 8604 love, no 8406. Bless 'em.

Rome has been a revelation. Took ages to get from the port to the city but its an amazing place. Definitely got to return here. Where I'm staying with a guy from Couchsurfing
is on the edge of the city in the direction of Tuscany. Went for an amazing run near the flat after touring the city, running through woods, next to fields and the old aqueduct which served the ancient city in Roman times. Within 20 minutes by tube, you're in the centre of Rome. I'm enjoying where I've stayed with Couchsurfers. They're so far really sound individuals, open and generous and a much better way to see a place than staying on your own in a hostel or hotel. To an outsider it might seem a dappy idea, but can thoroughly recommend it.

Till after Croatia.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Palermo & Tunisia

Palermo was great, the guy I stayed with, Carlo, was a terrific host and in 24 hours I managed to go out with his friends to a champagne bar to celebrate the first birthday of one of their kids right in the heart of the old city; go on to a spectacular outdoor club till the early hours; take in the Royal Palaces and cathedral and still have time just to bimble around the old city, have a great lunch in a square and enjoy the roof terrace at Carlos place before he helped me with my luggage to the port where I got the ferry to Tunis.

I lucked out sitting next to a nice couple from Greece who had driven down from Athens and with whom Ive been going to all the places I wanted to visit. The night on deck was a bit uncomfortable, choppy seas and people chucking their guts up overboard, yards from where we slept. Luckily ive got a cabin on the return journey.

Ive nerded out on loads of Roman and Carthiginian history, visiting the spectacular Bardo museum which houses possibly the finest collection of Mosaics in the World from different eras and been to the ancient ruins at Carthage. Rather touchingly the main museum there is housed next to the Cathedral and is in the Seminary where my Great Uncle received his order of commendation from the Pope (which I have framed at home in London).

In the last few days we have been camping under olive trees in the grounds of a really nice hotel in the seaside town of Nabuel. Just spent time reading, going to the beach and relaxing. I finally managed to complete not just 1 but 6 lengths in the hotel pool. My heavily pregnant swimming coach said by text how proud she was of her protege - though I have to thank Vangelis (the guy of the couple) for helping me with my technique.

Went for an early morning run today. I managed 4.5 miles in 40 minutes which was a minor miracle in the heat. Needless to say it is hot as anything out here. In the mid 30s. Im back down the beach to sit in the shade, paddle and take onboard loads of water. Off to Sousse and Kairouan before I head back to take the ferry to Rome on Saturday night.

In a bit. S x

Friday, 23 May 2008

From Russia with Glove - Keeper wins match for United

The above is a fantastic headline from the Mirror yesterday highlighting Man United’s victory in Moscow. Having cheered me no end by collecting the league the boys did the business in the driving rain and collected their 3rd European Cup on Wednesday.

It was a tense match, Chelsea giving United a good game. Though it didn't flow end to end, there were some terrific moves and stuff for the purists. As the game wore on, I sensed extra time and the possibility of penalties. Something I hate to see a match won by. United I felt, certainly had enough to win the game without this, but as the pundits would say, its about taking your chances, and in the first half United spurned a couple of good ones which would have stitched the game up. It probably would have led to a less dramatic finish, but United to have a tendency to leave their fans biting their nails till the end.

Ultimately, United held their nerve, rode their luck and got a break in the penalty shoot out which a combination of Giggs finishing and Van der Sar's save led to the magic moment of victory. I've tried to think about what was fair - despite gloating about Terry's miss, it was tough on him to slip at the crucial time on a terrible surface. But maybe with Chelsea having hit the bar and post it was destined to be United’s victory.

Read a collation of the foreign press to see an alternate view of whether United were deserved victors and I like what I read by Par Angel Marcos in l'equipe on his view of the rightful winners:

"For Chelsea this defeat is a terrible, hard-to-accept moment, but it is still at the hands of the season's best team. If for nothing other than the spirit of their coach, the win is deserved. To put on Giggs, an attacker, in place of Scholes, a defensive midfielder, and then add Nani - that deserves victory"

Maybe a tad biased on my part. And ignores the fact Fergie bought on Anderson specifically to take a pen. But certainly true of the United desire to win. For that, well done Ferguson and United.