Rome to Athens, 1987
Updated: Jan 4
“What a long strange trip it’s been" Jerry Garcia.
We responded to the cattle call, which was appropriate as our 747 was stuffed to the rafters. Air India maximizes the number of people on their Bombay-Rome-London flights; ours was no exception. Most of the Indians travelling were wealthy; this was a given to afford a trip to Europe. And yet, they moved with huge bags filled with food, clothing and what not; the only items missing were the livestock and cooking stoves.
They exhibited a singular disinterest in their children, who ran up and down the aisles, screaming like wild banchees for much of the flight. Babies cried in mother’s arms, a sound we’d never once heard on a Third Class travel in Asia. In fact, we noticed that as soon as most Asians become westernized, their kids behaved like brats, whereas in villages, the children were quiet and well-mannered.
These jet brats only added to our frazzled nerves, and we repeated our mantra: “This too shall pass, this too shall pass.”
Arrival at Italian Customs, our gear was inspected, albeit marginally, for only the first time on our journey. We thought the search was over, but instead, we were instructed to enter an office for the “drop your drawers” program.
The officials really didn’t have cause for a strip search, (well except for our hippy garb) but I learned a long time ago if you don’t have anything to hide, it’s never worth making waves with customs officials; they’ll simply refuse to let you in the country!
Outside the airport, we crossed paths with four Asian overlanders, who’d been treated with similar scorn by Italian officials. We all jumped on a bus to the city centre, and passed fields of red poppies and winter wheat; the spring fields seemed rich with life, unlike dreary parched terrain in much of India.
I was immediately struck buy the quality of the light, much softer than we’d seen in a long time. In the tropics, the light is often hard, making it difficult to snap daytime photos, as everything seems flat excepting around sunrise and sunset.
Rome teased us as we approached the city; we were stuck in a traffic jam for over an hour. Then, into the city, passing many of the sites making Rome one of the most exciting destinations in Europe: the Colosseum and other monuments of the Roman Empire, and in the distance, the Vatican, a silhouette in the setting sun.
We were deposited at the bus terminal, then set out to locate a cheap hotel; once again, no reservations. Around the station, things looked bleak- the average hotel was over $30 Cdn, the equivalent of three weeks lodging, food and trekking in Nepal (we couldn’t help but make these comparisons!).
In fact, the sticker shock we received when we saw the price of accommodation and food would cause us to reminisce about the Asian continent, as our cash was running low.
After a couple of hours walking around a district north of the station, climbing up and down steep stairwells hidden in courtyards, we found a room for $22 CDN, an outrageous sum for seasoned Asian travellers. The room was huge by our standards, ceilings over 20 feet high (“We could play basketball in here!,” remarked Elaine), and very clean; as we were too tired to worry think much of it, we deposited our trusty packs in our new home.
We were exhausted from the Delhi-Rome flight and 6 weeks overland through India and Nepal. But being troupers, we decided to hit a Roman restaurant to quaff some Italian wine and munch on antipasto. Another gear kicks when arriving in an exciting foreign capital after a long journey. There’s magic in the air that allows one to push beyond what would normally seem reasonable. We were so thrilled to be in Rome that we tapped into our energy reservoir with mucho gusto.
One of our fellow travellers, New Zealand, Ken was in the midst of an extended birthday which had begun in Delhi that morning and carried on to Rome that evening. We found a delightful cafe recommended by the hotel proprietor. “Eets a reel Rrroman place, not for touristes, very good food and vino,” he’d promised.
Gazing through the window of the bustling cafe, our eyes nearly popped out of our heads. Plates of prepared meals on display, cheeses and meats, peppers and eggplant; and no dahl bat!
We made our way to our table, and consumed litre upon litre of house wines, served in glass pitchers, $1.50 each. Supplemented with plates of gorgonzola cheese, prosciutto hams, raviolis, tortollinis and crusty buns with real butter!
Ken’s girlfriend came out of the kitchen with a beautiful chocolate cake and candles. We all sang happy birthday, and dug into the delicious confectionery.
We closed the place after the owners begged us to leave round midnight.
By the time we crawled back to our room, it was 6 am in Delhi, and we’d been awake over 24 hours. This didn’t prevent us from heading to Ken and Tina’s room to polish off a bottle of brandy he’d purchased from the duty free. We were flambéed by the time we finally crashed in our beds.
The morning broke bright and sunny, an absolutely gorgeous spring day in the eternal city. Of course, we didn’t sleep in, owing to jet lag and the excitement of Rome, so we decided to wear ourselves down by touring the city. Our new friends departed for destinations in Europe, but we decided to spend a couple of days in Rome, before our journey to Athens via Brindisi.
We walked along tree-lined boulevards to the Canadian Embassy to check on mail. We were hoping to link up with my mother, who was reported to be touring Italy at this time. When we found the embassy, down a narrow lane, a note waiting for us. It turned out mother was leaving Rome that very morning to return to Canada. The embassy was able to page her at the airport as she boarded her flight, and we had a brief conversation with her. Great service!
We hadn’t been able to call Canada from Delhi, so we didn’t know her itinerary, else we might have been able to connect in Rome, which would’ve been a lot of fun. Her last piece of motherly advice was: “Get the hell out of Italy; it’s too expensive!”
As for mail, another strike had impacted the Canadian postal system, slowing our flow to a trickle. Only two letters awaited us, unlike our last mail stop in Bangkok, where we’d received over 15 notes. One was a letter from Laura, our friend in London, who invited us to stay with her in that fair city.
A package did arrive for us while we sat around reading Canadian newspapers, and waited for the morning post. It was a fat envelope from my sister with newspapers from Opening Day at Tigers Stadium in Detroit. A diehard baseball fan, I had not missed an opening day game in the ages; it would have been a bit difficult to arrive in Detroit from Darjeeling in 1987, however!
We were feeling burnt out from our night before; the jet lag was kicking in with a vengeance. Instead of taking in the sights, we headed back to our hotel for a siesta. We did notice lots of Italian police walking the streets, or sitting in parked vehicles with Uzi machine guns, rather unsettling, which reminded of my time in Italy in 1978 when President Aldo Moro was kidnapped and assassinated just before I arrived.
Stylish Italians, decked out in the latest mod fashions, in contrast to India and Nepal, where the peasants were so poor and forlorn.
A tasty lunch in our room from a tiny salumeria: fresh crusty bread, Genoa salami, mozarella cheese and a bottle of red wine. We sat at a table in front of a huge window open onto the busy street below, snacked on our food while watching people and cars rush to and fro. Bone tired, we then fell into as deep slumber for the remainder of the day.
In Malaysia, the locals believed it is bad luck to sleep in the afternoon and wake up after sunset. Although we awoke well before sunset, everything was surreal; we were dream walking. In a fog, we purchased two tickets to Brindisi at the nearby train station for travel in two days’ time, then hiked to the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain.
Rome is a great city for walking. On a cool and refreshing night, despite being exhausted, we were impressed with the figures carved into the Trevi Fountain. We were fortunate to be in Rome in May, before the onslaught of college students from America (the “Eurail” set, as they were called then), tourists from all over the world descending only to press up against each other to witness this and other famous attractions.
Perception is Reality
Two days later, we hiked to the train station in bright sunlight to catch our train south. We couldn’t help but notice the clean streets and tidy train station: no open sewers or piles of garbage being inspected by vultures, holy cows and beggars.
Our perception of the Eternal City somewhat differed from students sitting next to us on the train:
“My god, is Rome ever a dirty city,” said one young brash American.
“Yeah, it’s a disgusting place, filthy,” agreed his travel mate.
“Where you from?,” I asked, the opening gambit when encountering a fellow traveller.
“Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,” the emphasis on Pennsylvania in case we weren’t aware which state housed the City of Brotherly Love.
“Well, I’ve been to Philadelphia, and I’ll gotta tell ya, there are some pretty disgusting neighbourhoods there, much worse than anything I witnessed in Rome. But if you really want to see poverty, filth and dirt, you must visit parts of Delhi, Calcutta or Djakarta, not to mention Kathmandu.”
Most college age Americans have issues with basic geography (the one way Americans get their geography is through their wars!), so no surprise when we received blank looks when mentioning those names.
Despite our intrusion into the gentle world of the Eurail set, who were participating in the American tradition known as the “European experience," we enjoyed our train ride south. Our car was air-conditioned, wide seats and clean aisles. The countryside had a fresh, prosperous quality to it that spring, farmers carefully tending their small plots. Italians didn’t bother with fences between fields, and we passed through open valleys, fallow with the promise of a hearty crop.
The day passed this way, small villages and several larger towns with distinctive tiled roofing, Catholic churches and abbeys set high on hilltops, picaresque scenes of Italian village life. At Bari, we transferred trains, the ride to Brindisi snaking along the famed Dalmation Coast. We traversed a semi-arid region filled with olive groves and bright spring flowers, the blue coast twinkling below.
Brindisi had spawned a healthy tourist trade by catering to rowdy Eurail travellers headed across the channel to Corfu and Greek islands beyond. Bars and cafes blared rock and roll, beginnings of high season, already in full swing with students enjoying la dolce vide, Italian style, sipping beer and wine, and munching on pizza.
We purchased two rather expensive boat tickets to the port of Patras, near Athens (sticker shock continues). We hoarded foodstuffs from an Italian supermarket, trying to control ourselves not to purchase everything in sight. In a square near the port, we met a pair of travellers, Carol and Darren, who’d hooked up on the train from Rome; we’d travel together for the next 10 days.
At twilight, on a gorgeous but chilly full moon May evening, we sailed out of Brindisi on a massive Hellenic Lines ship toward the enchanted Greek Isles. I’d toured Greece twice before, one of my favoured destinations, but for Elaine, it was a first, and she was really looking forward to it.
We slept “deck class,"bundled in our Nepali sweaters up on deck. The crossing was scheduled for 18 hours, the wind howled as we cuddled in our sleeping bags on lounge chairs in the shelter of a hallway. Fortunately, our passage was near the end the quiet season; in a month or so, these decks would be wall-to-wall Eurail travellers.
Darren and Carol had purchased “seat” class tickets, but fared little better, as their loungers didn’t recline and featured hard plastic armrest which didn’t budge.
In the morning, we pulled into enchanted Corfu. Despite uncomfortable quarters deck class, we’d slept fairly well, as we had become seasoned travellers. Corfu gleamed in the early morning light, the Greek Orthodox church dominating the skyline. Many people disembarked, but we stayed on, and spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon lounging with Darren and Carol by the empty pool soaking up some rays.
The journey soothed our weary bones, as we passed small islands, although a rowdy Dutch soccer (football in Europe) team, headed to Athens for a match, yelling Ole, Ole, Ole, and blew whistles the rest of the journey, putting a damper on the day. We would have gladly pushed the whole lot over the side for some peace and quiet, and shoved that whistle where the sun don’t shine! Thank God for our ear plugs, the best investment we’d made back in Singapore.
It's always something!
Greeks Bearing Gifts
Arriving in Greece, after the requisite money-exchange, we sought a train to Athens. However, there were plenty of people scrambling to fill the first train that pulled into the station, a two-car unit and a small engine.
Instead, we found a small café along the quay where we enjoyed Greek salads and cold beers. Many Euro beers are brewed under license in Greece, including Heineken, Amstel, Lowenbrau, Henninger, among others- all very cheap.
Later, we boarded the train for Athens, in a delightfully calm half full car. Darren sported an extra Eurail pass (his friend abruptly returned to Canada), so I rode into the capital libre.
The trip progressed along cool hills, as we made short work of Darren’s continued purchases of ice cold beers. We hugged the Greek coast, made more spectacular by white stucco villages, flowers springing to life, and orchards of olive and lemon trees.
We crossed the Corinthian Canal, bored out of a deep canyon between the Aegean and western Greece, a spectacular sunset turned the sky and sea burnt orange. We were also well on the road to getting pickled. We staggered out the train station in Athens, and headed off to find a hotel with Darren’s trusty Let’s Go: Europe guidebook in tow.
A nearby pensione suited our needs. In mid-May, there weren’t issues securing accommodation; the Hotel Rio had space. The rates were better than Rome, the four of us shared an enormous suite for $20 Cdn. The ladies were tired, but Darren and I had put our drinking shoes on, so off to a nearby restaurant, also owned by the hotel, the food a mix of Turk and Greek, very inexpensive.
Darren was amazed at the price of the steak dinner, so ordered a second one, along with a few more beers. By late evening, we were pretty wacked, still recovering from the Delhi-Rome flight and staggered back to the hotel.
We awoke to a postcard perfect spring day in Athens, bright and unusually clear. The region had been experiencing a very wet spring, but that day, there little no doubt summer was on the way. We ate breakfast outdoors at the same restaurant Darren and I had frequented the night before, and agrred I would lead us group on a one-day tour of Athens, as I had been in Athens two years previous.
We hiked down narrow streets congested with traffic into the old city, the Plaka, one of my favourite haunts, for there is little traffic, the streets are cobbled, and there are many twists and turns leading to interesting and unusual discoveries. Cafés, tourist boutiques selling a wide range of local crafts, and art galleries line the laneways.
Two years before, on my last visit, the Plaka was wall-to-wall tourists; on this day, it was peacefully quiet, making for a pleasant tour. Darren was in hog heaven, and purchased four handmade sweaters for gifts back home.
He also wanted to buy a plane ticket back to Amsterdam, and I knew of a discount travel agent. After securing tickets, we went for a stroll through the National Gardens across from the Plaka, an oasis in chocked traffic, featuring regional horticulture and a small zoo. A caged lion spent his time sharpening his teeth on a small log, oblivious to the crowd gathered to watch.
Later, we dined on a typical Greek dinner at an outdoor cafe: moussaka, eggplant and mashed potato mix, tzaziki sauce, souvlakis, Greek salads and lots of beer and wine. Our Greek waiter, Stavros, brought our drinks to the table, and only then would he open them.
“It’s a guarantee of freshness!” I told the group.
After this feedbag, we hiked up to the Acropolis for sunset, passing cafes with musicians having a bouzooki breakdown. This famous ruin was under reconstruction, as air pollution, mainly from automobiles, was corroding this national treasure. Below, the agora lay in ruins, and we concurred that: “It’s just a pile of rocks!”