Thursday, January 21, 2010

Libya, Malta, Italy and now Switzerland

Carrouge, Switzerland, January 21

The first three weeks of this new year, along with the last three weeks of 2009, were very busy in terms of travel, and I didn't have much chance to update, so I have a backlog of travel updates, starting from when I stopped cycling in early December.

The first stop was Joanne's aunt's place in San Vito al Tagliamento. We visited the old Roman town of Aquileia (wonderful Byzantine floor mosaics in the church) and tried, unsuccessfully, to visit the tomb of Fra Odorico in Udine; Odorico was another European traveller to China, a few decades after Marco Polo, and I wanted to pay my respects to a fellow Silk Roader. We tried twice, but found the little church of Beata Virgine di Carmine locked both times.

Then we headed into Venice for four wonderful days. My friend and tennis partner in Yangon, Franco, is a Venetian and he set up for Joanne and I to stay at the apartment of his cousin Manuel. Manuel actually lives at his girlfriend's place, so we had the whole apartment to ourselves. It was a stroke of amazing luck, and we took full advantage of it, cooking up great dinners and spending the days wandering the back streets of this unique city. Venice in the winter is much quieter than in the madness of summer tourist season, and the morning chill and fog make for a feeling of mystery. I am starting to really like Venice, after finding it too touristy, expensive and crowded on previous (summer) visits.

From there, it was off to Rome, where we lucked out again and stayed with Joanne's cousin. Four more days of exploring the colossal amounts of multi-layered history that makes up this amazing city. I saw a lot more Roman ruins than I did on my first visit to the Eternal City; I particularly liked the Palatine ruins (the remnants of the gigantic imperial palace) and the Capitoline Museum. The mix of Baroque and ancient sculpture in the Galeria Borghese was impressive as well. Inbetween museum visits, I got my elusive translation of my passport information page into Arabic so I could get my Libyan visas.

Dec. 18th saw us heading off to our long-awaited Libyan trip. We spent eleven days in the country, mostly seeing the amazing Roman and Greek ruins that dot the coastline, but also driving inland to the fascinating caravan-trading town of Ghadmes. In a sense we should have gone years ago, before the requirement to have a guide made a trip an expensive proposition. Still, though, despite the expense, it was an unforgettable trip. The Roman ruins at Sabratha are impressive, with their elaborate, well-preserved theatre by the sea the undoubted highlight. In the east, the Greek ruins of Cyrenaica are fantastic, located as they are in the fertile limestone plateaux of the Green Mountains. Cyrene, in particular, was a wonderful ruin that took an entire day to explore.

The best, however, was saved for last: Leptis Magna. I had been hearing about this amazing Roman city for years, and was slightly worried that it wasn't going to live up to the hype. I needn't have worried. The city, hometown to the emperor Septimius Severus, benefited from imperial patronage and an orgy of building that resulted in a city of great scale and grandeur. It was buried very deep in sand over the centuries, meaning that walls were preserved to a much greater height than is usual in most ruins. The main forum and the Baths of Hadrian, along with the judicial basilica, brought to life the massive scale of Roman imperial building, with two stories of colonnades and some of the biggest granite and marble columns ever erected (the French consul in the early 1700s stole a lot of the best columns, and they were re-used in building Versailles Palace). The smaller details of the city, though, the wheel ruts in the streets, the graffiti, the rope marks on the marble counters of the market, were what really brought the city to life. I absolutely loved Leptis; it must be one of the top 3 classical ruins anywhere in the former Roman Empire, and it was almost deserted (unlike, say, Ephesus in the summer).

Happy with what we had seen, we dropped in on Malta for four nights, an easy way to bag a new country as we had flown down on Air Malta. I was underimpressed with the island as a holiday destination; too much concrete, too little countryside or beach. However, the ancient megalithic temples (dating from as long ago as 3500 BC, eight centuries before the Pyramids were built) and the remains of the culture that built them (visible in the archaeological museums) were fascinating. I also liked tracking the Knights of St. John back to their final lair, having already seen traces of them in Jerusalem, Acre, Krak des Chevaliers, Tartus, Bodrum and Rhodes (from which they had been progressively driven by generations of Turkish armies).

On New Year's Day we flew into Sicily and spent a week on a flying tour of the island's impressive ancient sites. Greek colonists settled much of the coastline of Sicily, and left behind some of the most complete and impressive Greek (as opposed to Roman) temples to be seen anywhere. Soluntum, Segesta and Agrigento all boast temples that put the Parthenon in Athens to shame. The Roman mosaics in Piazza Armerina are the most extensive to be found anywhere, and Syracuse, although less visually striking than the big temple sites, was once the most important Greek city anywhere, and the home to one of my favourite mathematicians and scientists, Archimedes; its archaeological museum is vast and overwhelming, but well worth seeing. Palermo, with its air of seediness in the historic centre, was the only blot on the landscape, but the impressive mosaics lining the massive cathedral of Monreale made up for modern decay.

We drove up to Naples, spending the night near Rosarno, in Calabria; the day after we left Rosarno, the town exploded into violence, with racist mobs running hundreds of African migrant workers out of town. That seemed appropriate, for the section of Italy running from Calabria up to Naples is the most economically depressed and Mafia-infested part of the country. Naples itself was a shocking dump of a city, a failed civilization that made Albania's capital Tirana look like a miracle of town planning. At least it had great pizza and a fantastic museum, maybe the single best collection of Roman antiquities anywhere on the planet. That's because Naples is surrounded by a series of A-list attractions: Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplontis, Paestum and the Amalfi Coast. Despite 4 days of heavy rain, the history and well-preserved nature of the towns buried by Mt. Vesuvius really brought everyday life in a Roman town to life. In some ways Herculaneum overshadowed its bigger and better-known neighbour Pompeii: smaller, better preserved, more open to visitors (most of Pompeii was off-limits when we were there) and somehow more evocative. The single villa at Oplontis was enjoyable for its wall paintings and overall state of preservation, although getting there involved driving through the hellish failed city of Torre Annunziata with its decaying buildings, mountains of trash and air of general menace. Paestum, the Greek town south of Naples, contained three more almost intact Greek temples that were like a visual history of the Doric architectural style, from its Egyptian-influenced roots in the Archaic to the elegant perfection of the late 5th century BC. The natural attractions of the Amalfi Coast merited a drive-by, but with the steady rain, we didn't see very much. What little we did see, however, suggests that the hype about "the most beautiful coast in Europe" is warranted: sheer cliffs tumbling into an azure sea, with vineyards, citrus plantations and picturesque villages clinging to the rock.

And then, sadly, it was time to flee the rain and drive back to San Vito, where we were fed like royalty by Joanne's Zia Severina for five days. I got my bike wheel fixed, finally got to see Fra Odorico's tomb in Udine (third time lucky) and then drew a line under the Silk Road Ride by riding the repaired bike into Venice and right to the site of Marco Polo's house. Manuel organized the local press to come out and see my arrival, and it resulted in three news articles (in Italian) that you can see here and here and here. As well, there is a short writeup in English here.

I came up to Switzerland by train yesterday as far as Vevey, and then rode my bike up to my sister's place in Carrouge through a heavy snowfall. The plan is to stay here for a little while before heading off for one more bike adventure; Ethiopia is the likely next destination. Then a return to Canada to start trying to write a book about the Silk Road Ride. Can't wait to get started!

Peace and Tailwinds