In South Georgia, on Interstate 75 for Florida and Miami, billboards dominate the terrain, touting pecans, peaches, and peanuts. Closer to Tifton, just beyond the sign boosting the “historic” downtown, spa advertisements take over – there is Lucky Spa, No. 1 Spa, Tokyo Spa (Truckers Welcome). South Georgia is, it appears, about more than fruit and nuts.
Across the state line, roadside scenery quickly changes. North Florida apparently has stricter rules when it comes to billboards. They are there, but not in such numbers. Real estate, a classic Florida sell, is available, at least until horse country starts. Then the interstate cuts through expensive terrain, home to thoroughbred horses and their moneyed owners. Billboards aren’t as welcome.
Ocala comes and goes as a fierce thunderstorm hits, then it’s the tollway heading east, horse culture giving way to Mouse culture as Orlando looms. I skirt Disney country to the south, leaving its tourist attractions to those more enamored of rodents and their fascist creators than I am. Back into desolate agriculture country, finally leaving the turnpike for a room in Okeechobee.
The next morning, I head east for Interstate 95, making contact in Palm Beach County at rush hour. Just before 8 a.m. two guys in a convertible speed around me, top down, golf clubs filling up the back seat. This is the Florida I remember.
On the outskirts of Miami, I get off I-95 in favor of Biscayne Boulevard. Little River, where I briefly lived before leaving Miami, is now a Caribbean enclave, a Little Haiti with its bright colors, street-front food vendors and storefronts blaring reggae – or on one occasion, Aretha Franklin. But the seeming prosperity is only evident for a couple of blocks; empty buildings and caved-in roofs speak to a desperate poverty only a few steps off the main drag.
Right onto 36th Street (not easy as Biscayne is torn up with a construction project), to see what remains of the North Dade Athletic Club. There’s the building, sadly boarded up and graffiti-splattered. Not surprising, as the joint’s heyday was 30 years ago.
On to downtown, where new high rises crowd Biscayne Bay. The Herald is still where it was when I worked there – but part of the building is rented to a school. Across the McArthur Causeway to South Beach. No dogtrack, no Turf Bar, just sleek, airy
hipster hangouts instead. But the pedestrian traffic seems to be the same mix, enough weathered retirees that have called it home for decades to offset the young, not-yet-weathered sun worshippers.
And just south of the causeway, tied up at the Port of Miami, is my ship, the Jewel of the Seas. Time to ditch the car and board the boat.
As the ship slips through Governor’s Cut, South Beach to the left, Miami is spectacular in the rear-view mirror, like most cities: beautiful from a distance, not so much from street level. Miami is a tropical metropolis, sunny funkiness edging toward heat-induced rot.
The last time I was on board a boat out of Miami, it was a 12-foot Sunfish, property of a fellow Miami Herald employee named Dave Finley. It was my first adventure on a sailboat, and it ended with the Sunfish on its side in the Atlantic off Key Biscayne, Finley and I thrashing around trying to right it as a Coast Guard Albatross circled overhead. We finally got it upright, clambored aboard, and returned to the safety of Biscayne Bay.
The Jewel of the Seas is a bit more of a boat – a cruise ship of the Royal Caribbean line, a gleaming, massive party vessel with a full casino, a theater, several restaurants and bars, two swimming pools, a library, resident acts ranging from magic to musical, and, not to be discounted, two ping-pong tables.
The passengers, headed for Harwich, England, with stops in Bermuda, Lisbon, and Brugge, number about 3,000. Judging from their destination-tagged t-shirts and tote bags, they are a well-traveled bunch: All the expected Caribbean locations, plus the Falklands, Cape Horn, K2 Pakistan, the Black Sea. When a destination is featured on a t-shirt, it’s no longer remote no matter how far away it may seem.
The British seem to be in the majority, many headed home after South Florida vacations. Out of Miami, weather hot and humid, the outdoor pool is popular, tanners catching the rays. The poolside tableau – when its members were several decades younger – could have starred in an R. Crumb fantasy.
The first few days, before we head north into cooler weather, the pool is the center of organized activity, with line-dance lessons, bean-bag toss, a putting contest, and the World Male Belly-Flop Championship. The last garners much attention when a female, helped by libations from the Pool Bar, insists on entering, fully clothed. She competes, but loses out to a big-bellied Scotsman.
My dining tablemates – Peggy, Sandy, and Rosa – are all cruise veterans and, natives of the New Orleans area, not easily fooled when it comes to eats. Even as we critique what Royal Caribbean is serving up, we are talking about the best of the Crescent City. I learn to always insist on unwashed oysters (saltier and tastier); that in real Italian households, tomato sauce is called “red gravy;” and that the best bread pudding is found at the Red Maple in Gretna.
On Mother’s Day, we land in Bermuda, though many are disappointed because downtown Hamilton and its shopping is closed, it being Sunday.
After eight hours ashore, it is back at sea – five days until Lisbon. As we are farther north, it is generally too chilly for poolside activity, though the solarium pool is still available for the serious water sportsmen. So the two ping-pong tables, wind-protected in the verandah, start drawing crowds. As I takie my morning tea at 7:30, I can watch ping-pong. There are even formal-wear games. (Several evenings are designated for formal wear – I do not participate, but am startled one night by a huge Scotsman in tux and kilt, a sight not soon forgotten.)
One of the appeals of a cruise is that it can be an escape. You are among folks that you never have to see again; you can participate in belly-flop competitions in anonymity; you can spend hours in the casino without anyone (except your banker) knowing about it; you can take the stage on amateur night and pretend you’re on American Idol. And, like the man in the kilt, dress however you want.
One Brit, bald and in his 50s, favors an all-red outfit. His sleeveless shirt, mid-calf pants (they used to be called pedal-pushers), and matching Keds wouldn’t be acceptable in any London office, even on casual Friday.
Finally, Lisbon looms. I sign up for a shore excursion to a national park and fishing village south of the city. There is a stop at the Fonseca winery, where I discover that one of their products is an old undergraduate favorite, Lancers. On the tour, Most-Obnoxious title goes to a couple who insist on loudly arguing with each other in the middle of our guide’s commentary.
The coastal scenery is spectacular, wildflowers in bloom, blue sea below. The tortuous cliffside roads make me think of those short States-side news stories: 56 die when bus plunges down Portuguese mountainside. Fortunately, our driver is experienced, his bus in top shape.
Back on board, next stop Brugge. I haven’t been there, but I have spent a lot of time in Brussels and am way too familiar with Belgian chocolate, so I am looking forward to laying in a supply to get me across Europe.
And I want to see the Michaelangelo sculpture housed in the Church of Our Lady. The sculpture, Madonna at Bruge, is reason enough to visit Belgium. Because it’s in a church and not a museum, there is no crowd; I can spend as much time as I want admiring the work of a master.
There is also success on the chocolate front – I pick up a kilo (I would get more but I know it will melt before I get to Greece), and head back to the ship. Our next stop is Harwich, then a short train ride to London, a taxi trip across the city to St. Pancras Station for the EuroStar, the luxurious “Chunnel” train that connects London and Paris in less than two hours.
Another taxi-ride, this time across Paris, Gare de Nord to Gare de Bercy, and an overnight train to Milano. As I’ve done in the past, I wake up in the middle of the night and peer out the window at the quiet Brig train station at the Simplon Pass, a last bit of Swiss calm before Italian anarchy. A few hours later, I am awakened by the conductor announcing Milano.
Italy and the Adriatic
As rush hour approaches, the station starts to get busy and I move to where I can see the schedule to find out the platform where I’ll board. I notice a black man, carrying a large plastic bag, as he keeps traipsing around a circle of his own making. Then he puts down his bag, next to a light pole, and goes back to his circling. By now there are a lot of commuters coming and going.
Suddenly the black man starts hollering as he walks, his comments in a dialect that only he understands. The other schedule watchers start watching him as well. A passing policeman, typical of Italian officialdom, studiously ignores him.
Finally, my train shows up on the schedule and I make my way to Platform 12. I’m in seat 54, car 2. I find car 2, but its seat numbers stop at 32. So I plop down in the nearest empty seat and stow my bags overhead.
As we pull out, four train officials claim the spots across the aisle and another passenger, also unable to find his reserved seat, questions them. They wave him off – “Don’t bother us with your problem.” I stay put since the car is not crowded and plenty of seats are available.
But as we get closer to Bologna, the train gains more commuters at each stop. I have to move twice as passengers claim my seat. At least I’m able to stay in the vicinity of my bags so I don’t have to pull them down and then put them somewhere else.
East of Bologna the crowd thins as we speed through vineyards toward the Adriatic. At Ancona, we turn south and head down the coast. The towns are beach escapes, some with sleek new resort hotels, others with older, funkier facilities. Blue sky, blue sea, palms swaying in the breeze – interesting ride, until all the towns start to blur together.
I’m scheduled to catch a 10 p.m. ferry at Bari, an overnighter for Patras, Greece, with stops in Corfu and Igoumenitsa. The train is scheduled to arrive at Bari at 3:35 p.m. We make it at about 6, during a downpour. I’m beginning to understand the contention that Mussolini was popular in Italy solely because he made the trains run on time. And I’m glad I’ve got until 10 p.m.
At the port, I don’t have to worry with Italian officialdom – there isn’t any. Nor signs. But there are a large number of wet motorcyclists, apparently together and heading for Patras, too. With the help of the ferry folks, I find my way to customs and the ship. Pulling my bag, dodging puddles and tractor-trailer trucks pulling up into the boat, I make it aboard and am shown my room.
The facilities are nice, much better than I expected for a ferry. But, I soon discover, the smokers have the run of the ship, and most of the bikers are smokers. The bikers, male and female, are Harley-Davidson riders, sporting gear with home club information on the back. They are from Poland, Sweden, Slovakia, Germany, Denmark.
In the dining room cafeteria line, I opt for pastitsia, the Greek pasta casserole, and a salad. The servings are huge. Not paying attention to signage, I sit down in a section marked “Welcome Truckers” and soon find myself in conversation with a German driver from Hanover on his way to Kalamata, Greece, with a load of furniture. Our neighbors are two Dutch drivers and five guys from Romania. All have massive plates of fries that they cover with massive amounts of mayonnaise. The bikers display similar culinary tastes.
The German speaks fair English, and translates for the other guys, all of whom speak
some German. I ask why they drive through Italy and take the ferry across instead of traveling through the Balkans. The answer is quick – it’s less expensive because they don’t have to stop every 100 kilometers and pay a bribe, which they tell me is the norm through the Balkans.
When the others return to their fries and mayo, the German confides that he only makes this run about once a month, that he’s old enough to retire. Then, with a wink, he adds, “I have reasons not to stay at home.”
After the German takes his bottle of wine and retires, and the bikers get heavily into their cigarettes and Carlsbergs, I return to my stateroom and hit the sack, sleeping through Corfu and Igoumenitsa and only waking as we maneuver into port at Patras the next morning. Three days and three countries, by train and by boat.
Run to Olympia
I don’t plan to spend much time in Patras – basically I want to get to the station and catch the train for Olympia, about 100 miles south. Olympia is the site of the ancient Olympics, described in the travel literature as an idyllic glade surrounding the ruins of the games’ facilities.
It’s also well off the beaten track. From Patras, the rail route is to Pyrgos, a center of the farming community that comprises this part of the Pelopennese. There’s a train change at Pyrgos for the short trip inland to the site where athletes competed every four years for more than 11 centuries.
As I make my way to the Patras station, a few hundred yards from the ferry dock, I notice that my Harley friends have been joined by scores of their buddies. There are motorcycles everywhere. Then I find that the last train to Olympia – there are three daily – departed at 11:30 a.m. It’s now about 3 p.m. Next train is tomorrow at 6 a.m., with the second at 9.
I walk out of the station, pulling and carrying my luggage as I dodge Harleys and cross the street. Luckily, there is a vacancy at the first hotel I walk into, the Astir, a large, well-kept edifice that looks to have been built in the 1930s.
Tomorrow, Saturday, will be the day for my Olympic run. Later, exploring, I discover that Patras is hosting a Europe-wide Harley-Davidson rally. The riders number in the thousands and they dominate the city. Greek kids are mesmerized by the big bikes, some of the more adventuresome clamboring aboard for photos. I don’t see any get caught by bike owners, most of whom I’m sure would not be amused.
The next day, I catch the 9 a.m. for Olympia. There are three cars. We ramble out of Patras, through a trackside slum that seems to be occupied mostly by black Africans. Next is an intensely cultivated agriculture area. There are expanses of olive trees, with citrus trees interspersed, fields of tomatoes and melons and cucumbers, and, of course, vineyards. The towns are small and clustered around tiny train stations. The only roads are dirt.
Finally, we reach Pyrgos and I get off for the short hop to Olympia. This time, there are only two cars. Besides a couple of Greeks who apparently have gone into Pyrgos for supplies, the only other passengers are a Dutch couple.
The train stops wherever the Pelopennese want to get on or off, whether there is a station or not. The driver seems to know his passengers and where they want to disembark. He stops at one dirt track to pick up a woman and her child, then lets them off at the next road, maybe a quarter mile away. No one ever asks her for a ticket.
At another crossing, he stops to trade jokes with two acquaintances, who amble over from their back yard, and then continues. This train is truly a local.
Finally, Olympia. By this point the Dutch couple are my only fellow passengers. The town is tourist-oriented, but still quiet and quaint, only four or five blocks long, with residences arrayed around a hill overlooking the commercial district.
The ruins and accompanying museum are a short walk away, occupying space between two streams. The museum contains several true masterpieces, in a country where such relics are commonly unearthed. And yet it is uncrowded, though several busloads of tourists are present. I will appreciate my time here later when I’ve been hurried and harried through Athens museums.
Outside are the remains of the gymnasium, the stadium, the baths, and the temple of Zeus (original home of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the sculptor Phidias’ statue of the god), as well as a dozen or so other buildings. One was Phidias’s workshop. There, archeologists unearthed a cup that is inscribed, “I belong to Phidias.”
An Olympian thunderstorm cuts short my visit and I return to the museum, taking shelter in its garden.
Time is short, and I return to the train station, where I’m soon joined by my Dutch friends. The two-car train returns to Pyrgos in the post-storm sunshine and I’m faced with two hours before the train back to Patras.
During the wait, I realize that no matter how exotic the locale might seem, Saturday afternoon in small towns is the same everywhere. The quiet is broken only by songbirds and church bells as everyone rests up for Saturday night.
On the trip to Patras, we pass groups of families and neighbors gathered in back yards alongside the dirt roads and the train tracks, tables and chairs pulled out in yards, games of backgammon and cards contested by adults, soccer balls being kicked by children.
Later, back in the middle of the bikers at Patras, I enjoy dinner at a taverna on the pedestrian walkway that dominates the downtown area, watching the motorcyclists as they posture and puff on cigars. A Harley club from Athens has taken over a nearby group of tables. It is dominated by two older men with much-younger female companions, females who have the appearance of being expensive to maintain, much like their chrome chargers.
The next day, as the bikes stream out and as the city cleans up from its busy and noisy weekend, I head to the train station, Athens-bound.
On to Athens
The journey to Athens begins by rail, four or five cars headed northeast out of Patras toward Corinth. To the right are hillsides covered by vineyards or grayish-leaved olive trees with citrus interspersed, deep green leaves speckled with bright orange or yellow fruit. To the left are steep drops to the Ionian Sea, the occasional sienna-tiled house perched on a cliff side. Soon, the spectacular Rion-Antirion Bridge looms ahead, spanning the Gulf of Corinth to the mountains of Sterea Erada.
But the great Grecian transformation for the 2004 Olympic Games is still under way six years later, and the tracks end in a jumble of construction material midway to Corinth. We transfer to a bus, with seats that are more comfortable and air conditioning that is more effective.
Our bus ride ends after about an hour when we are discharged at a new rail station. There is no train, and the rail personnel disappear into their own quarters, leaving the rest of us to mill around on the platform. Two fellow passengers quickly distinguish themselves.
The first is a middle-aged man who takes exception to something a male teen has said or done and begins yelling at him. There is pushing and shoving. A passenger informs the railroad officials, who come out of their office and watch, apparently interested. But they do nothing. Finally, the man disappears, still yelling.
A few minutes later another teen, at the other end of the platform, becomes belligerent toward the woman with whom he is sharing a bench. He finally stalks off. Later, on the train, he will again create a scene, this time with his girlfriend. He is a brawl looking for a place to happen, and everyone tries to ignore him.
On the outskirts of Athens, a middle-aged man and a student-aged girl sit down across from me. The man, speaking passable English, proceeds in academic terms to regale the student with his views on mobile-phone use. The Greek woman sitting next to me, who is carrying on a conversation via her mobile phone, has apparently reminded him of a pet communications peeve.
He doesn’t approve of cell-phone use. The talker can’t understand his English and is too engaged in her conversation to pay any attention: Communication about a communication theory in the face of communication reality.
Finally, Athens station, surprisingly small. A short taxi ride and I am at the Cecil Hotel, one of those old European stops with a small entry way almost hidden between street-level shops. The elevator is an ancient cage model, suitable for a role in a 1930s Hitchcock movie.
But the room is clean and comfortable, and the Cecil perfectly located for my purposes, only a couple of blocks from the bustling Monastiraki square and, in the other direction, Omonia. The Agora is within walking distance, as are a major flea market, the city’s main fresh-food market, and Psiri, site of restaurants, nightclubs, and, I will discover, some of the more unsavory aspects of big-metropolis life.
After I tour the neighborhood (and lay in a supply of the excellent chocolates sold at Anassa), I make arrangements to join a bus tour that will culminate with the National Archeological Museum and the Acropolis. Neither disappoints.
The hill, despite the onslaught of tourists, the babble of guides explaining in a myriad of languages, the restoration work off to one side, dwarfs everything I’ve seen so far on this trip – even the hundreds of Harley-Davidsons at Patras. Simple, classic lines trump chromed excess.
The entry walkway to the museum features glass flooring revealing the active archeological digs below. Inside, it’s masterpiece after masterpiece. But one area stands out because it is empty – the space reserved for the return of the Elgin Marbles from London’s British Museum, source of friction between the two countries for decades.
The next evening I find a concert at Monastiraki Square, a six-piece brass band, its middle-aged members in black pants and white shirts, a horn case set out for donations. A crowd gathers, and an unexpected vocalist joins in – a large white mixed-breed dog sings along with the saxophone player. He’s a hit.
A Romani woman circulates through the crowd with her hand out, implying that she is collecting for the band members. The tuba player confronts her and a loud argument ensues. The show obviously over, audience members disperse after dropping a few euros into the horn case. And the vocalist wanders over to the edge of the square and stretches out in his usual spot, saving his voice for the next show.
The next day I discover an excellent taverna on tiny Iroon Square. After a memorable lunch (fresh fish with a sauce full of sweet peppers and tomatoes), I wander into Psiri, past homeless men sleeping on the porches of abandoned buildings. Just beyond a small church, I glance down at movement between two parked cars and see a junkie crouched on the curb, shooting up.
Early the next morning I go through Monastiraki, take a quick tour of Hadrian’s Library, meet Hadrian’s three cats and his tortoise, and climb the hill toward an entrance to the Agora, onetime hangout of Socrates, Aristotle, Demosthenes, Paul and other ancient thinkers.
Along the way, on a quiet side street, is the office of the Melina Mercouri Foundation, the late actor’s organization to promote European arts and culture.
The Agora is peaceful, a true park of several acres stretching down the northeastern side of the Acropolis and home to another museum of splendid antiquities. Among the ancient Greek ruins is a quiet 11th-century Orthodox church tucked among old trees. But the gem of the park is the Hephaesteion, a temple from 400 BC, and one of the best-preserved edifices in Greece.
Atop a hill, it rises from surrounding greenery, a refuge in the chaotic world that is modern Athens. In fact, only a mile or so away, demonstrations have been taking place against Greece’s government and the austerity measures being implemented to help solve the country’s economic woes. Perhaps an ancient philosopher or two could help.
The few euros I’m spending aren’t going to make much difference, and it’s time to head for another country whose roots are in Mycenaean culture, Cyprus. But before my entries about the island of Aphrodite, I’ll report on a one-day detour to Cairo.