October 31, 2016 - Are there any reading groups out there? Fiction? Science-Fiction? Travel? I will provide up to 10 copies of The Appalachian, Life in Continuum, or Notes from the Field to the first reading group of each genre to get in touch, in exchange for reviews on Amazon.
October 6, 2016 - A second edition of Notes from the Field, with improved maps and updated cover art, is now available.
June 24, 2016 - Field Notes have begun. See Travels page.
June 2016 - Robinson departs for France at the end of this month for a re-hike of the Alps and a reconnection with Hannibal.
May 19, 2016 - Notes from the Field is live on Amazon.com!
April 2016 - Work on Notes from the Field is complete. Look for it in bookstores or on Amazon soon.
Jan 2016 - Robinson is at work on his next book, Notes From the Field: A diary of Journeys Near and Far.
Dec 2015 - The Appalachian has been named to Kirkus Reviews' Best of 2015!
Copyright 2016 by Kirk Ward Robinson
Sunday, July 30, 2016 – El Paso, Texas
Still traveling—albeit at home and in places I have lived, but places that have changed. I might have the right accent but I've lost the lay of the land. I need directions to get around. I get lost easily. This makes me a tourist, which is why I am still traveling rather than visiting.
Fresh from Europe and still in a travel mindset has given me the opportunity to compare here and there. Are we really different? If so, how? Transportation is the first obvious difference. There are no trains here, of course, no Metro, no ticket kiosks, no efficient intercity bus system. A disembarking European tourist had better be able to speak English and drive a car, or else have socked away a lot of money for taxis. While I used more taxis during this journey than ever before, this was due to communication issues, not a lack of options. Here there are no options.
On the other hand, here you can get just about anything you want at just about any time you want, especially food, so no going hungry in the wee hours, no subsisting only on sacks of croissant or brioche. And coffee...it's not controversial here. I had to laugh at a European couple I overheard at a hotel in San Antonio the other morning. I couldn't place where they were from. They spoke English passably although heavily. Perhaps they were German or Austrian, perhaps they were from a little farther east, nevertheless it was early and they wanted coffee. The coffee maker was percolating away right there in the lobby, but this concept was so lost on them that they had walked past it indifferently on their way to the front desk.
“Kafe?” the European woman asked timidly. The man seemed to have deferred these cultural inquiries to the woman. He looked as if he were about to bolt if the answer didn't suit. I knew that feeling. The desk clerk pointed toward the coffee maker steaming just a few feet away. Both Europeans looked over skeptically. Their eyebrows rose. “Just help yourself,” the desk clerk said with a friendly smile.
The two looked lost, as if they had slipped beyond the bounds of the known world. It was all I could do not to snort, not to step in with some consoling advice. Instead I watched them peruse the set-up, question it with their eyes, eventually take cups and nervously pour. They walked away then, sipping, still looking confounded. I contrasted this with my experiences in Europe, especially that first morning in Torino when I got snapped back by the guy in the cafe because I ordered a cafe grande rather than an americano. So that's something better here than there, our ability and desire to look after ourselves. For all that Italian barista's smug attitude and self-importance, I could as easily have made my own coffee.
Other differences stand out. Their toilets are better than ours, although our showerheads are far superior. This list could go on and on, but the main difference between here and there is arguably the English language. My travels have reinforced my appreciation of my native tongue. I know of no other language capable of conveying such diversity and subtlety with mere words, no language with as extensive a vocabulary. Pronounce any word wrong in French, German, &c., and communication will cease. Brows will wrinkle, expressions will become perplexed. In many instances an obvious loathing will set in. Mangle English, though, and one can most often still be understood. Questioned in a foreign accent so heavy that English words sound like boiling oatmeal, a native English speaker will lean in, articulate clearly, work hard to communicate, to be helpful. I have seen it, I have done it.
In the end, perhaps this is the greatest difference between here and there.
Sunday, July 17, 2016 – Kamena Vourla, Greece
A few final words from Greece, and to note that my spellings have been all over the place. I have seen Kamena also spelled Kammena, and I have seen Thermopylae spelled also as Thermopiles and Thermopylis. This would be on actual Greek signs, so I don't know which is correct. I have, therefore, tried to account for all varieties.
Tomorrow morning at 05:00 I begin an arduous journey to Athens Eleftherios Venizelos
Airport, which will begin with a three-hour bus ride to Terminal B followed by by an hour's ride on bus X93 to the airport itself. I should have plenty of time to make my flight to Oslo, but then, well...let me tell you about the buses.
I watched the sunrise this morning, the breeze was cool enough to be inspiring, and I felt an urge to brave a return to Thermopylae for a more in-depth investigation. I finished off my double espresso—about the largest coffee you can get here—hoofed around the cove to the bus station and bought a ticket for the 09:30 bus. Easy enough, the ticket was only a couple of euro, and when the 09:30 bus arrived I climbed aboard.
I knew I was in trouble when the bus turned left at the highway instead of right. Sweat popped out on my forehead. Holy ku, I was going the wrong way! I signaled the conductor, who examined my ticket with raised brows.
“Wrong bus,” he said, although I had not signaled in any way that English was my providential language. I expected a firestorm, but he smiled: “No problem, no problem. We stop you in Agios Konstantinos (another town a little way down the road). You change bus. No have to pay more.”
He said all of this with a reassuring smile, even patted me on the shoulder. “All okay,” he said. “All okay.”
My new bus station was blessedly shaded, so I settled in for the 45-minute wait for the next bus, which arrived right on time. A man came sprinting out of the bus station, pointing at me and then the bus. “This is for you,” he said. “Bus to Thermopyles.” He went on to explain my plight to the conductor, who ushered me aboard as if their very honor depended on it. I felt sublimely confident, too confident as it turned out.
Maybe a half hour later, traveling the European Road, in essence an interstate highway, I noted that we had passed the exit to Thermopylae. I stood then, a worried look. The conductor seemed to jerk to attention, hurried forward and spoke in rapid-fire Greek to the driver. The next was a squealing of brakes as the bus pulled onto the shoulder. The conductor ran to me, speaking in hurried if not panicked Greek, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” and as if this weren't enough he added a few more, “Blah, blah, blah.”
I got the gist of it: Thermopylae was across the freeway and a plain of scrub. I was to disembark right here and make my way there as best I could. Well, hiking is what I do (although if I'd had a bicycle with me I would have just cycled to Thermopylae), so I scuttled off the bus as ordered, and stood there in the swirling dust as the bus jerked into gear and sped off.
Cars whipped past, meandering from one side of their lane to the other, a driving trait I have noticed in this country. I couldn't cross the freeway, too much traffic, but ahead about a quarter mile I could make out some kind of overpass. So still a little dumbfounded and dazed from my sudden ejection, I hopped over the scalding guardrail and headed that way.
It was a drainage not a road, heavily churned by road construction equipment. The soil was powdery like lime, clung and itched to confirm that it was. The overpass was low, so I had to duck and waddle to pass beneath it. I was reminded at once of the “holes” below Interstate 40 in Winslow, Arizona that gave local residents afoot access to the Walmart on the other side. (See Notes from the Field: 2006)
I had to scramble up a churned hill of the lime on the other side, came out and saw that a stream, the very run-off from the hot sulphur spring of Thermopylae, separated me from the museum and monument. The water was clear, staining the rocks yellow where it ran, and was too wide to jump across. There was no ford. In truth I wanted nothing more than to sit and soak my feet in that water, but with no shade, and feeling as hot and bleak as Death Valley, I continued on for another quarter mile or so to a road that allowed me to cross over.
From there I gained the museum, took more photos of Leonidas, met a Slovakian girl who spoke good English and was so enthused to be here that it sparkled in her eyes. She asked me, “Where is the stone?”
I was pretty sure she meant the ancient stone described by Herodotus; I was also pretty sure that stone was long gone and told her so. She seemed to deflate, then I suggested we go into the museum and ask. Yes, the ancient stone is long gone, but there is a marble marker on Kolonos Hill to honor the last stand of the 300. When the Slovakian girl learned this she ran off at once, giddy to see it. I followed later, after touring the museum in more depth and buying a few trinkets. “Go tell the Spartans...” I have seen so many translations of this ancient text that I have no idea which is right. Some translations say, “Stranger, inform the Lacedemonians that...obedient to the their law they fought and died,” along with other translations, none of which have the same resonance as the simplified, “Go tell the Spartans...” Maybe Tennyson actually wrote this one.
I could call it Last Stand Hill, or David Crockett's barricade, or Culloden Moor, it had that effect on me. Regardless changes in the topography of this place in 2496 years, it is generally accepted that the surviving Spartans, after Leonidas had been killed, made their final stand here. It is sobering to occupy that same space.
But time was short, I had a 13:00 bus to catch in Thermopyles for the ride back to Kamena Vourla. I waited in the hot sun, not a blade of shade anywhere, 12:55, 12:58—I began to survey the highway ahead for my bus. 13:00, 13:03—something must be wrong. 13:07...no bus.
Somehow I knew this would happen. I marched the half mile back to the museum, said there had been no bus, and what should I do?
“But the bus is at 13:30,” the woman said.
I doubted this because the woman at the station had told me 13:00, nevertheless I had only minutes before a 13:30 bus would arrive so thanked the woman—efharisto—and took off at a full run, glad I hadn't brought my backpack.
I made it with minutes to spare, dripping, 13:29, 13:30. I craned my neck to see up the highway, casting a lengthening shadow. 13:33, 13:35—no bus. I waited in the sun until 13:45, and when no bus came into view I marched back to the museum, produced Argi the taxi driver's card (whom I had previously met and who had gotten me out of an earlier scrape), and asked the woman to give him a call. Argi arrived within twenty minutes. I was just finishing off a Spartan beer from the museum cafe, smiled goodbye to the ladies, who smiled sweetly in return, grinned at Argi and bid him get me the hell out of here.
It was actually good to see Argi again, and he refused to accept the full fare. I paid him what he would accept, and we shook hands. I gave him my contact information in case he ever made it to the States, then walked directly across the street to a cafe to write this.
A lot hinges on tomorrow's bus rides. My intuition tells me that everything will be fine, we'll see. But this I know: after tomorrow I am about done with buses.
Saturday, July 16, 2016 – Kammena Vourla, Greece
A spoon will almost stand up in a cup of Greek coffee, and what the Greeks can do with a waffle is amazing. They take what is a standard round waffle, smother it with two kinds of cheese, tomatoes, peppers and corn, bake it and serve it up. Even after burning several thousand calories the past couple of days, I couldn't finish mine. Between Didier's cooking and the rich food in Greece, I might actually gain weight on this trip.
Mornings laze up gently here. I have been awake since sunrise, but only now, at about 09:00, has traffic begun to pick up on the road that parallels the strand. The boats aren't moving yet, and I only see one swimmer in the surf. The language all around me seems to be exclusively Greek, no other tongues that I can detect, so this must be a Greek place to take holiday, far from the more crowed international destinations. I had a feeling it would be this way. Greece has so much coastline, between the mainland and the islands, that you could probably send all of Europe on vacation here and still find long stretches of isolated beach, or else places like this. For some Greeks, perhaps this place is an escape from the clamor of foreign tongues.
What I have yet to master is how to pay for my meals and drinks. What I mean is, table service is always prompt. Afterward, though, the waiter never returns. I watch the others—what do they do? People sit for hours it seems; I have yet to observe anyone else paying their bill. So I will eventually get up, track down a waiter, and mime for the bill. This is always met with a nonplussed look, the ignorance of foreigners or some such, but I don't know what else to do.
I have a couple more days here. I had originally thought to get out to some of the islands, especially Santorini (Thera), where it is thought a volcanic eruption in 1628 BCE or thereabouts, perhaps the largest in recorded history, brought about the downfall of the Minoan civilization, and influenced mythologies from Greece to Egypt. Earthquakes, fires in the sky, tsunamis that could have parted seas, with the death and pestilence that would have followed certainly lend to the basis of western mythology. Unfortunately the costs of mistranslation prevent this, and I depart for Norway on Monday anyway.
I'm not disappointed. Santorini probably looks pretty much like this. But what to do for the next two days? I could go swimming in the surf, I guess, but I didn't bring swimwear. The Greeks don't seem to go naked the way the rest of Europe does, so I can't get away with that. The water looks so cool, though. I need to think of something, maybe cut off the legs of my base layer. Yeah, I'll work it out.
Friday, July 15, 2016 – Thermopylae, Greece
Just because I travel alone and there are no witnesses doesn't make me any less foolish. Yesterday, if I had walked north along that hot, dusty highway for 300 more meters, around a slight bend and beyond those scrappy bushes, I would have found it. In the heat and after that long bus ride, I simply gave up too soon.
I realized that as I wheeled in on the place this morning, slapped my head and massaged my aching foot. It was the mountain I had seen, I knew it, and upon closer inspection I could visualize it all. Everything made sense, even after 2496 years. The waves would have washed past where I now stood, lapping at the feet of the hills to my left. There's what looks like a gorge in those mountains, actually a defile between the mountain and a hill, the only way to pass back then, the Hot Gates, so named because of a nearby hot sulphur spring. You've probably seen the movie so I don't need to describe the battle. The movie is fiction, yes, but as accurate as anything else we know for sure, which from such antiquity is little more than myth itself.
Regardless the finer details, something big did happen here in 480 BCE. I can sense the very weight of it—jeez, I get wishy-washy about this stuff. The Spartans did stand and fight—this is fairly certain—and their story has survived. It should be noted that from Darius to Xerxes, the Persian empire was defeated each time, with memorable names: Plataea, Marathon, Artemesium, and of course, Thermopylae. Greek history would not go calmly on. The Golden Age of Pericles fell within a generation, the Peloponnesian War so weakened Athens and Sparta that, while Sparta won the first round, all of them eventually fell. Alexander of Macedon became preeminent, but his was a bright, short flame. By the time of Hannibal two centuries later, Rome had dominion over Greece. What would Leonidas have thought about that?
There is nothing ancient at the site except the mountain and the spring. There are olive groves where the sea once ran, hot, chalky soil, very little shade. Has the climate changed since then? Probably. Maybe the trees were taller, a forest instead of scrub. Or maybe it looked just like this.
The museum is an oasis, staffed by a pair of friendly and enthusiastic women who speak English. They spun up a short film for me, in Greek but with English subtitles. I was so moved I wanted to buy the soundtrack. They looked at one another oddly, as if thinking, “Why didn't we think of that?” I'll keep an eye on their website, maybe a soundtrack will show up.
At last the monument itself, which is rather recent as well. My old history books spoke of a stone with the inscription, “Go tell the Spartans, passerby, that here by Spartan law they lie.” I asked about this. They shook their heads together. The stone wasn't ancient, did not date to that period, and whatever its provenance is no more. But the monument has an impact, a memorial wall, Leonidas on a pedestal with his javelin raised, the 300 represented by a single Spartan below and to each side. There is another monument, also modern. It resembles a memorial cairn, although the bones it would hold are atoms now.
The hot spring deserves another look, and I might return tomorrow. The water is shower-head hot, and the sulphur is said to have healing properties. I might just dip in my feet.
Thursday, July 14, 2016 – Kammena Vourla, Greece
That's the Chalkidian coast over there, the long barrier island that rises from the surf in layered mountains, guarding Attica's sea approaches. It's why Xerxes landed where he did, hence the famous battle. The view is magnificent.
Before that view, though, there was a bus that would take me to Terminal B, but, uh, well buses... So I hoofed it, 45 minutes getting lost, and then another 45 minutes to actually get there. Again the sun was more help than my map, just kept my bearing north, and once I cleared some locally confusing streets packed with traffic I found my road and arrived at the station with fifteen minutes to spare.
A three-hour bus journey deposited me at Thermopiles, as dry, dusty and hot as any chaparral town along the upper Rio Grande. Man, it was hot, no one spoke English—there wasn't even a cafe—and wherever the heck Leonidas might reside was incomprehensible. Were there buses, taxis, a hotel? These questions were lost on the locals, and I do have a phrasebook. Could I possibly be the only English-speaking person who ever journeyed here to see the site of the famous battle? It seemed not possible, but to these folks I must have been from the moon.
Getting late and hotter yet, I shouldered my backpack and began the trek south to the next town, Molos, where I hoped to find a hotel and perhaps someone who spoke English. Five road-walking miles and a rising blister later, I reached Molos, which at least had a cafe although the proprietor spoke no English. There was no hotel in the town. I know because I walked every street in search, lifting that blister even higher. No more walking, I located the bus terminal, mimed my needs, and received a bus ticket to this town.
The bus took only minutes to get here, while walking would have taken me two hours. I put in at the Hotel AKTH along a pretty strand, showered as if I were just off the Appalachian Trail then, of course, went for a beer. For food I ordered fried cheese. This came in a piping hot dish, goat cheese fried along with tomatoes and bell peppers in aromatic olive oil. It smelled and tasted wonderful, and although this was actually an appetizer, it was enough to fill me up even after all the hiking I had done.
Tomorrow I will take the bus back to Thermopylae (Thermopiles) to find the site. My European researcher sent me a web photo of the place, thought it was a little understated for such a long trek, but it has been a goal of mine for a long time to actually visit the site. Sure it's changed since then, but I suspect the Alamo might not look like much after 2496 years, nevertheless people might still want to come and stand on the ground where history was made. I can say this, to the north I spied a hulking mountain that came down close to the water. That must be the place. Centuries, nay millennia, of sedimentation have moved the shore out by a couple of klicks. Nothing will resemble antiquity, of course, except the mountains...except the mountains.
Wednesday, July 13, 2016 – Athens, Greece
Okay, I have seen it, the original, as well as the fake one in Nashville and the stellae in the British Museum; and on top of that I have completed the Grand Tour. Now to absent myself from this place with all dispatch.
Athens is not for me. I am loathe to criticize another city or country while I am in it, but I don't feel a harmonic in this place. One could carve out an interesting experience in a small grid of streets, under cafe umbrellas and olive trees, with familiar landmarks within view, but the breadth of this city is like trying to navigate Houston, Texas on foot. It can't be done, or would require a lifetime to ferret out its better places.
And it's hot, man—it's hot.
I disembarked after seven hours by bus from Parga at a sprawling bus station yesterday afternoon at 1500 local, thought I could just walk out of there but was disabused of that notion the moment I stepped outside, where encircling highways held me as if in a corral. As it turns out, I either was or was not anywhere near the city center. I prevaricate because I received conflicting information. Either I was close to the city center or else I was in suburbs many kilometers away. It depended upon whom I asked. My map of Athens was no help. One person sited us off the map, another closer in. I was instructed to take a bus, #51, which would carry me to Omonia Square (pronounced like ammonia), near the city center, hotels, &c. I bought a ticket for 1.50 euro, hopped aboard and, an hour later, wound up at the Athens airport!
Jeez! Buses. Damn.
I took advantage of this to try to communicate with Lufthansa Airlines about my return flights, got blown off with indignity and indignation, hailed a taxi drive named Stefanos and bid him get me the hell out of here.
To his credit, Stefanos was very helpful. He charged me only the city-mandated 38 euro for the ride, found a hotel for me (Hotel Minoa), waited to be sure I could get a room, then gave me a quick tour of the area. He warned me away from Omonia Square due to the refugee influx. Nice guy. But beyond that I was exhausted, so went to my room and collapsed.
This morning I sought out one of the most famous sites of antiquity, the Acropolis. At various places one can see it at the end of long avenues, but not from the warren I inhabited. My map wasn't much help since, while most street signs are in Greek but also with a phonetic rendering, many of these streets do not have street signs. I gave away my compass in France as a gift, so I took a bearing from the morning sun and set out—and within half a sweaty hour found the place.
Entry was 20 euro although I paid 30, 10 extra for some bonus feature I have yet to identify. Perhaps I passed it without realizing, nevertheless I paid my 30 euro and went for a stroll through the Golden Age of Pericles. But for the crowds, the place had a weight of history unequaled anywhere else in the world, notwithstanding Rome. The views alone are stunning, the ruins of the Parthenon, Temple of Aphrodite, &c. like an added attraction. A massive reconstruction is underway to correct slights both ancient and modern. This place hasn't seen much peace since about 400 BCE or so.
What surprised me the most was the sheer scale of the site. I had no idea it was so large, and with so much layered history, of Greeks and Romans and Byzantines and Ottomans, not to mention the British. Circumnavigating the base of the Acropolis, I saw etching and carvings in the rock that might have gone back to the stone age. It's commanding heights and natural springs would have made this an important site into pre-antiquity, so it's no wonder that Athens was founded here.
Back to the present, keeping the sun to my left led me to my hotel in good order. It is almost wounding to see the birthplace of western civilization in this condition. Of course the local people wouldn't see it like this, and judging from the street bizarre going on across the way—I saw a booth that displayed a dozen or more olive varieties in bulk, just pick and choose, and they smelled wonderful; then fish, and every fruit imaginable—for the moment the place looks as vibrant as any authentic city, but there is trash everywhere, graffiti on everything, even on the trash, and buildings vacant and crumbling. Wet clothing, hung in trees to dry, drips yellowish, acrid liquid onto the sidewalks. Crossing a street takes some daring and planning.
But a pita gyro, enough calories to last a day, costs only 2.50 euro, and a beer large enough to swallow an English pint costs only 3.00 euro. Efharisto, thank you, I think I'll order another.
Monday, July 11, 2016 – Parga, Greece
If only you could see what I see. Photos do not do it justice; a lavender sunset, neon and stucco and red clay tile, lights ringing the ancient fortress, a lone paddle-boarder in the inky Ionian. Lights flicker on, girls giggle below, somewhere drums are beating. What I love about these coastal European towns is that just when you think you have the lay of the land you turn left and discover something new.
There were once Indians in Texas, long gone now, called the Fukahwee. They turned left instead of right at the Big Thicket, stopped with that dense forest in front of them, scratched there chins and muttered, “Where the Fukahwee?”
That is the way it is here. I discovered a restaurant, the Taka Taka Mam, with a proprietor couple so enterprising as to stand in the narrow cobbled road and rope people in. That's how they got me, and the food was great. Last night I had lamb; tonight I had swordfish. I stayed there long after I had finished my swordfish, my wine and my espresso—it was a joy just to watch them work. An accidental journey, the best kind. And now I have new friends. Would it were so—as always—I would stay here, or as I wrote in my journal, what a great way of life for people who can sit still.
I leave early tomorrow for Athens. It will be before midnight for most of you. I depart with sadness and also the excitement of new discovery. Were it not that Lufthansa has proved to be as inept as American air carriers, this journey would so far have been perfect. I will work out my transportation issues, come what may, and if I get another chance to travel to Parga, to stay at Hotel San Nectarios and eat at Taka Taka Mam, I will feel privileged for the opportunity.
www. nect.gr https://www.facebook.com/pages/Taka-Taka-Mam/314350538698935
Sunday, July 10, 2016 – Parga, Greece
Yes, they are staring at you; the cafe sitters furtively from behind their sunglasses, shy kids spying from second floor windows, and the taxi drivers directly. You're outside of the route, the well-acquainted tourist path. You are an enigma, an outlier. The cowboy hat doesn't help.
The crowding onboard H/S/F Hellenic Spirit (HSF for High Speed Ferry, takk to my European researcher) just about did me in. I escaped to my communal cabin shortly before sunset hoping to find some quiet, and blessedly the cabin was empty, my mates out yonder somewhere. I climbed into my upper bunk for a short nap, and awoke eight hours later to a knocking at the door. It was dark in the cabin, just a sliver of light coming from under the bathroom door. My cabin mates lay under twisted blankets. One of them rose, rubbed his forehead and muttered something in Greek. I remembered that knock from my voyage aboard MV Galaxy a decade ago. It was time to disembark.
The line at the coffee bar was long. Something had happened to the hot water, so only iced coffees were available. I ordered a frappuccino and downed it with a grimace, grabbed my backpack and huddled in the disembarkation line with the others. Hellenic Spirit clanked and groaned up to the pier, and then we all moved in a shuffling file, weary, a bit smelly, babies squalling.
8:00 a.m. and it was already hot. It seemed too early to disembark, but the people were coming off, cars sprinting down the ferry ramp and across a bare concrete apron larger than a football field.
Man, it was hot!
There were no buses, no shuttles. People congregated in groups as if something were going to happen. I watched it for a while, searching for clues, then slung my backpack and took off in the direction the cars were going. I must have walked a good half mile, looking over my shoulder from time to time. No one else was walking, not even the grubby backpackers. Something was wrong. I rounded some buildings at last, saw that the cars were sprinting onto a busy highway with no sidewalks, nowhere to walk. I could make out rooftops above the aggregation of administrative buildings in front of me, perhaps hotels, maybe tourist information if I were lucky. But to get there...
I passed under awnings, around corners; I cut through a line of shrubs. I was circling a port terminal and disembarkation lounge, although it was closed, dark. Nevertheless, out front sat two taxis. One of the drivers approached me.
“Where you go?” he asked. He looked at me as if I were not quite sane.
“A hotel; tourist information?” I muttered in return.
“You do not have this here,” he said. “This is a port. It is not a place for tourism. I take you to Parga, nice beaches, good hotels. That is a place for tourism.”
The truth is, now that I had worked my way around the terminal I could see that I was trapped behind a busy highway. I wasn't going to be able to make it on my own so I took him up on his offer. Anything, just get me the hell out of here.
His name was Villiers (sp.). His talkative manner and practiced English reminded me of Martin, the taxi driver on Madeira back in 2005. We shot quickly away from the port, climbed past groves of olives, some citrus. The road became narrow, bordered by brush, and it crossed my mind that Villiers might not be a taxi driver at all but a robber. We topped a rise, though, and there was a town ahead, so I let those thoughts drift away.
“How do you pronounce Patras correctly?” I asked him, emphasis either on first or second syllable.
“What?” he asked, flummoxed. “You are not coming from Patras, you are coming from Igoumenitsa.”
“What?” my turn, and then I realized—I had disembarked about five hours early, and nothing, nothing, onboard would have clued me otherwise, not the crew, not a sign, not an announcement—nothing.
I thought to be angry, but then what was Patras to me? Just a place in Greece, no more recognizable than this. So after our revealing drive, Villiers brought me into Parga (I have since learned that this is the correct spelling, takk igjen to my European researcher), showed me around, pointed out the bus stop and a few reasonably priced hotels. He taught me some words in Greek, how to say please and thank you and so on, but my journal was in my backpack in the trunk, and being unable to write them down, I forgot them.
Parga is a steep town, like a spread of colorful jam on an uphill piece of toast. The Ionian Sea is down there, a sparkling sapphire with a pretty beach. The hotels are cheaper at the top of town. I am in Hotel San Nectarios, having shown up at just the right time to score room 7, the penthouse with its extraordinary view.
You know, I might just stay a couple of days.
Saturday, July 9, 2016 – Aboard H/S/F Hellenic Spirit
After two tall beers and a bottle of wine I am feeling pretty resilient. This boat crawls. I am in a cabin with four bunks—okay, it's like an overnight train in France, but if I had gone for standard seating during this 21-hour crossing I would be like the people I see on deck 8. This would be the ferry equivalent of economy class. People are literally camped out on the deck. They are lying there, holding sheets or cardboard over their heads to block the sun. Some have pitched tents, arrayed as if this were a floating campground. Others are on air mattresses. Little children run about bare-assed. Chiseled guys have stripped to their shorts. Foreign backpackers huddle in shaded corners, their gear spread around them like litter. It seems so...damn, it seems so third world.
There is usually a plaque at reception, often bronze, mounted with some flourish and displayed with pride, and this plaque gives the ship's official designation and launch date. Not so here. I asked a purser what the ship's designation was, and he didn't know. He did not seem put out, he wasn't indignant—in truth he became quite curious.
“I do not know this,” he said. “It is strange but I have never thought of this.”
After some research he tracked it down for me, informed his fellow crew in Greek in a tone that seemed to impart a kind of mystified dumbfoundedness.
“Here, it is H/S/F,” he said. “Now I have learned something, too.”
And what does H/S/F stand for? He shrugged his shoulders; damn, a new mystery. “Hellenic Spirit Ferry,” he hypothesized with a shrug, and I let it go at that.
Otherwise the Adriatic Sea looks like the Gulf of Mexico on a languid summer day, placid, boundless,and with no land in sight. The best value at the bar is beer or ouzo. The whisky costs too damned much.
Saturday, July 9, 2016 – Ancona, Italy
My visit with Marco was pleasant. He didn't remember me at first, although to me he looked exactly the same. Once I reminded him of Hannibal, though, as well as fredda americano, Solo, and a few other key words, he came around with sudden recognition, smiled wide and shook my hand. I marveled at his campground. Like Didier, Marco has been busy. It turns out that when I met him in 2005 he had only been into his second season with the place. Now, after a decade, he has improved it considerably, with a bonafide restaurant, swimming pool, umbrella chairs along the shore, and a well stocked bar. And the beers were even cold! The place was packed with caravans and tent campers, still plenty of room for me to pitch my tent but it didn't feel right. Plus Marco was busy riding herd on all of this, so I shook his hand once more, bid him arrivederci, and headed for the train station.
Along the way I went into a travel agent for help with a ferry to Greece. This proved to be prescient because I would never have figured it out on my own. What I found online was a chaotic swarm of mixed information, almost entirely useless. There are so many ferry companies, so many ports, and so many scams. I had decided to take a train to either Bari or Brindisi, near the heel of Italy, the two closest ports to Greece. This made sense to me, and I have been to Bari before. From there I expected to be able to find a ferry company easily enough, pass them some Euro, then climb aboard.
What I have learned in Ancona is that it is a damned good thing I went into that travel agent in Passsignano.
Would we had travel agents like this in the U.S., where you can just walk in and receive good service. The fella even spoke English! He set me up quickly and efficiently with Anak lines, departing from Ancona, which is on the north Adriatic coast almost directly across the country from Passignano, much closer than Bari. I have been here before as well, so had no worries navigating the trains to get here.
I arrived in Ancona at about 5:00 p.m., still Friday the 8th. The sun was as yet high, although late enough that a full day's haze lay over the city and port. It was hot and loud. I didn't remember Ancona as being so large. I took off at a fast clip along the waterfront hoping to find an inexpensive hotel. Any campgrounds would be out of town, and I didn't want to risk getting too far away from the docks where my ferry would depart.
Reaching a hotel required climbing seemingly endless steps through tight alleys. Occasionally a Vespa scooter would flit past, but the alley was too small for cars. Even now I don't know how people in cars reach the hotel. Nevertheless I got there, got a room for a decent price, then went in search of food. The last time I had eaten was at Marco's campground, and that was only a brioche, and that was eleven hours ago. I was starving, of course—and no, I couldn't find any food. A McDonald's was advertised as only 10 minutes away, but I wasn't that hungry. I found an outdoor eatery in the Piazza J.F. Kennedy, but regardless who I flagged, how pitiful and starving I looked, received no information on how to sit and order food. Same old problem. The bakeries were all closed, or else a sack of brioche would have sufficed as before, so I found a shop and made due with some peanuts and chips.
Morning coffee...I shake my head. The hotel put on an impressive breakfast buffet, gratis, with every kind of juice imaginable; with eggs, sausage, bacon, brioche, cheese, cold cuts, cucumbers, bell peppers, tea—all the usual European stuff, but a cup of coffee had to be hand-made with pride, cost a couple of euro, and could be drunk in one gulp. This is like quenching a hot day's thirst with half an ounce of a beer that costs three dollars! The next time I come I'm bringing instant. Hot water from the tap will do in a pinch.
Off in search of ferry check-in, my morning shower is quickly wasted. It's hot, man, and nothing makes sense. Roads and train tracks garrison the waterfront, and yet somewhere in there is an office I must find. It is a chaos of traffic, visually confusing. A lady at the hotel had given me directions. Twenty minutes, she said. Her directions collapsed at the first traffic-circle intersection. I found boats aplenty, fishing boats, shirtless crews with bronzed skins bending over nets and ropes, preparing to disembark for the day. Cigarettes dangled from lips that spoke Italian and Greek, perhaps simultaneously. The hand-rolled cigarette vibe still works in Italy.
I must have prised out every dank, hidden corner of Ancona's waterfront, and with tenacity and sweat did eventually find my boat. Hellenic Spirit sits at anchor as the day goes long. Departure is overdue. That's okay,my Mythos beer is cold, and I'm cool in this scrap of shade.
Thursday, July 7, 2016 – Passignano, Italy
A guy from Pian del Re drives me to the town on Paesano
I miss the bus so must take a taxi to the town of Saluzzo
I take a bus from Saluzzo to Torino Piazza Carducci
I take the subway from Piazza Carducci to Porta Susa
I take a train from Porta Susa to Firenza
I take a train from Firenza to Terontola
I take a train from Terontola to Passignano
Jeez! This trek was as tough as yesterday's climb!
An ATM in Crissolo took care of my bill at the refuge. I had intended to walk from there, but the kind old man driving me took me on down to Paesano where I could catch the bus. The old fella couldn't speak English but understood my thanks just the same. I missed that bus because I was one step too slow. The doors closed just as I reached the bus, and despite eye contact with the driver, the doors did not re-open. Okay, this happens sometimes.
It was past noon by the time I reached Torino. I debated what to do. My plan was to work my way toward the Adriatic coast, perhaps at Ravenna, find a ferry to Greece and then carry on. But then I remembered Passignano on Lake Trasimene, how easy it had been eleven years ago to take a train from there to the coast; and I remembered that this trip is a kind of Hannibal redux, so of course I should go see lake Trasimene once more.
I arrived too late to walk across town to see if Marco still runs Camping la Spiaggia, so I took a room in town, had a meal of gnocchi with eel and lake perch with truffle sauce, and too much wine.
The morning has dawned clear and cool. Now to find Marco.
Wednesday, July 6, 2016 – Pian del Re, Italy
Bouncing up a narrow track in a Range Rover that looks the part, terminal drops just over my right shoulder, Sarah explained to me some of the challenges of managing the Mt. Viso refuge.
“Sometimes we get helicopter drops of supplies,” she said, “but these are expensive. We mostly pack everything in. I had one thought that the hikers coming up could each bring something, but we've never found a way to make that work.”
Sarah is an engaging woman, fit, and may be French or English. As she switches between languages her accent switches as well. Sarah is what we would call on the Appalachian Trail a hut master. Her challenges are no different than those faced at Lake of the Clouds hut on Mt. Washington, except that here we are a couple thousand feet higher.
The track ends at last and we get out to hike the final kilometers. This will take about an hour of steady ascent, but before we reach the refuge we will part, she to the right, I to the left toward Col de la Traversette. Sarah isn't sure if the col is passable. She was just there on Saturday and the snow was still pretty deep. It's been a warm few days, though. I might be able to make it. We say our goodbyes under an expansive blue sky, craggy peaks above. If I can't make it, I say, I'll backtrack to the refuge. Perhaps I'll see her later. If not, au'revoir and merci beaucoup.
I climb quickly into a lunar landscape, rocky, gray, but with water dripping everywhere. These are the headwaters of the river Guil, which rushes past Didier's campground in a torrent. I stop to drink the water. It is cold and pure. Alpine flowers sprout from cracks, colorful evidence of the tenacity of life, but soon even these are behind me. Lichen paints the rocks in orange and yellow brush strokes, as if drawn by hand.
I stop every so often to catch my breath in the thinning air, to spy a field of slushy snow ahead. I tramp through the snow, taking the footsteps of others. The snow is mostly firm, but then I plunge to my hips. My trekking poles cannot find a bottom. Freeing myself without leverage requires that I embrace the snow and scoop it to my chest, swimming in a way. I mange to free myself and continue on, soaked and cold although I dry out quickly in the sun.
The final push to the col takes all I have. This is not a technical climb, just a steep, steep hike. When I lift myself over the last rocks, Italy comes into view, broad and clear and mountainous, a postcard of infinite space. I have to pause to catch my breath, and not because of the exertion or thin air. The view is simply stunning.
Now I am at the headwaters of the mighty river Po. I drink some of this water on my way down, on a trace of trail scratched from bare rock, twisting and turning in tight hairpins. I'm glad I'm going down and not up. It takes a couple of hours to get down to Pian del Re, a family-run refuge, more like a rustic hotel. It is about 5:00 p.m. There is no wi/fi at the refuge. They do not take credit cards, only cash, of which I have none. I practically wilt where I stand, coated in sweat salt, sunburned, my legs trembling. I must look pitiful because the woman gives me a room anyway, says we can figure out how to pay for it later.
I mutter grateful thanks, head for a hot shower and a warm bed while the sun dips behind Mt. Viso, drawing a shade on Pian del Re.
Monday, Independence Day, 2016 - la Monta, France
Every morning I sit on the steps of Accueil, the registration office, sip coffee and watch the sun crest the limb of a mountain across the way. The air is chill, my breath drifts lightly and is gone. Except for a few questing birds, all is quiet and still. There is a high glow, like a distant fire, and then the sun erupts from one moment to the next, blinding, warm. My breath no longer steams, I take off my jacket. Another day gets under way.
I have been here a week now, long enough to establish a routine. In any of infinite alternate lives, I could live here and that would be fine. The reality is that I could extend my visa, stay the summer. Right now the farm seems distant, a memory, something of another time. Of course this sentiment will evaporate the moment I get home and see how much work I have ahead of me. But for now I count my blessings every morning that Didier was in his kitchen on that day eleven years ago, a rustic hamburger in the pan, the aroma of beef and garlic and onions wafting onto the road. If not for that I would have missed this place, would never have returned. Chance encounters, the best kind.
Today I rolled up my sleeves and pitched in, beginning with potatoes, three varieties grown in this valley. They had to be washed, peeled and sliced; and then came the carrots, also three varieties, including a red carrot that I had never seen before. It has a tart taste, somewhat like a beet. Then Didier brought out three acorn squashes that he had cleaned and steamed, and these we filled with layer after layer of the three potato varieties, with sauteed cucumbers, squash, and onions sliced thin, a layer of tomatoes and then repeat until the squash was packed full. These went into a wood-fired oven where they were to cook all day. The dish is called Tian Courgette Farcie. We'll be sampling it later.
Now the sun is behind me and I can make out the etchings of a trail on the flank of my morning mountain. A steep hike offers a perfect view. Maybe in the morning.
Saturday, July 2, 2016 – la Monta, France
Je m'appelle Kirk Ward Robinson. Je suis un ecrivain des etats-unis, mais mon francais est terrible, donc Chloe va traduire pour moi...
I memorized this and spoke it to a crowd of 30 or more people as an introduction to my lecture about Hannibal. I'm told I pronounced everything perfectly, although I think they were just being nice. The purpose of my visit to Didier's campground in la Monta was to deliver this lecture, which went on for almost two hours. It was early evening, a bit windy and cool out, so we had moved the lecture into one of Didier's dining yurts—yes, dining yurts. They look as if they have been transported from the steppes of Mongolia, complete with the felt, although outfitted inside for fine dining.
Didier has become passionate about Hannibal, humorous in a way considering that he scarcely believed me when I told him eleven years ago that Hannibal had once come this way. I wanted to come through for Didier now, though. He had put a lot into this event, in material and personal capital. I was afraid the audience would be bored, having to wait for the translation, but Chloe played her part well and we even made them laugh a few times. I started out nervously, but once I was on a roll I let it all out with enthusiasm, often slipping into eager slang and dialect that stressed poor Chloe. The lecture was fun, the audience clapped and asked questions afterward. Didier was pleased, I could tell by the satisfied sparkle in his dark eyes. I'm glad I came.
I think the best friendships are made this way, spontaneously, not requiring regular reinforcement. Sitting here now under the trees, drinking a beer brewed here in la Monta, I feel as if I am back there again in 2005, that there have been no interceding years. But there have been. I am older now and feeling it, Didier has a son and another child on the way, time moves on, although the view from where I sit hasn't changed at all.
I am faced with a dilemma now. I could stay here all summer if I wanted, but Didier has a business to run, a business that runs mostly in French, which is incomprehensible to me. With the time that I have, all of Europe is open to me. I'll need to give this some thought.
Tuesday, June 28, 2016 – la Monta, France
Same day, much later—
I rocked that trail at 47; at 58 I had to work a little bit. I didn't remember the trail to Colle della Croce as being so steep, so long, and with those expansive views to remind me of every rocky step. I trudged along, two hours slower than last time, but then I made the col as the mist blew in, took a long break in the lee of the old stone shelter, and knew with certainty that I would now be able to hike into Didier's campground in the full sunlight of late afternoon. It would be a triumph for me, a reunion with special people and a special time.
And that's exactly how it went, although I felt a bit dislocated. The trail brought me out at la Monta rather than l'Eschalp, that was the first strange thing, and then I couldn't spot Didier's rustic cooking shack. I sniffed the air for the aroma of his cooking, and that was absent as well. I continued on, some caravans beginning to appear through the trees to my left, the Guil rustling beyond. Farther on there was a clearing where my memory told me the cooking shack should be, but I saw only some dome tents. Other buildings materialized, rustic in appearance but not the ediface I was searching for. There were more tents, a cluster of colorful caravans and a sign, Accueil, Reception, and this confirmed that things had changed a lot in eleven years.
I found Didier in his cooking shack, which was much larger than before, so much so that I scarcely recognized the place. A tree was coming up through the middle of it, making me think that the trees must really grow fast here since I remembered no tree from before. Didier had his back to me (perfect!), a pan in his hand, mushrooms swirling in butter and garlic. It smelled so good I didn't want to interrupt him, but I couldn't help but say:
“So, the place looks very different but you look the same.”
He turned to me then and his face brightened. “Solo!” he exclaimed, and in a moment he was out shaking my hand, and I felt as welcome as if this were 2005.
What followed was a joyful reunion punctuated with sad tidings: Diclic was buried nearby, an avalanche had wiped out the campground in 2008, including the original Rustic Cooking, and Carole had died in 2009. Didier had taken off some time to travel and heal, returning the following season to rebuild, improve and expand his operation. Today he has a new kitchen, a pair of yurts where he hosts fine dining, a rustic hot tub and sauna, kayaks, canoes, bicycles, and seasonal employees. People who are not guests still come for his meals or a glass of pastis in the evenings.
There is a new camp dog now, Jinka. She is as gentle and attentive as Diclic had been. It all feels different but the same. I feel right at home.
Tuesday, June 28, 2016 – Torino, Italy
0530...Why is it that the United States is the only place in the world where you can get an essential cup of morning coffee without any nationalistic hassel to go long with it? I struggle with this everywhere in my travels, be it France, New Zealand, Germany, Norway, Italy...EVERYWHERE. Apparently, only in the United States has the crucial relationship between caffeine and waking up been made. Coffee is coffee, available anywhere at anytime, sometimes with half & half, with milk, or with “whitener,” whatever the heck that stuff is. But the basic ingredient is coffee, offered in sizes designed to get the job done. It even works this way in the trendy, overpriced cafes, but go anywhere else in the world and you are forced to wade through myriad interpretations of coffee that seem to be set in nationalistic stone.
I had forgotten what a decent-sized coffee is called in Italy. That would be Cafe Americano, by the way, but for some reason I blurted, “Cafe Grande,” which seemed to enrage the dour fellow at the coffee machine. He threw up his hands, sputtered indignantly in Piedmont Italian, quizzed his line of effete espresso sippers, then eventually slammed an espresso in an over-sized cup in front of me like a whiskey in a western saloon. A pitcher of hot water followed, and then he was done with me. Torino is a cosmopolitan city so it was hard for me to consider that this guy had never encountered a tourist who needed more than a dollop of espresso to get the day going. Even were he an aficionado, why be rude? This wasn't the first time I had encountered this attitude, though, nor the only country. I downed my coffee in a couple of gulps, flipped a two-euro coin onto the bar, and went in search of friendlier surrounds.
I landed in Torino yesterday afternoon, took a bus from the airport to statzione Porta Susa, where I intended to catch a train for the short ride to Pinerolo. From Pinerolo I could then take a bus a little farther on to the town of Bobbio Pellice and the trailhead for my hike over the Alps. I felt great coming off the plane, having scored a last minute upgrade for my flight to Europe, but jet lag set in by the time my bus arrived at Porta Susa, so that was that. I took a room in a near-by hotel, slept well until 3:00 a.m., felt as well and awake then as 8:00 p.m. back home (which it was), so that was that, too. I gnashed my teeth for two hours waiting for a cafe to open, and when one finally did I had to deal with the above.
Now to find another coffee joint, some place with bigger cups. Hurry...
Friday, June 24, 2016 – Houston, Texas
Maybe I forgot how hot it gets here. Maybe I forgot how bad the traffic is. Regardless, my scotch over ice is cool.
I am on a roundabout road to France, via the Natchez Trace and Texas. It's been a pleasant trip so far, just the heat and the traffic &c. Driving the Natchez Trace was like a reunion. It's been nine years since I last traveled its length. Beyond a long detour in Alabama due to repaving, some heavier traffic around Tupelo, and a complete bypass of Jackson, the Trace looks and feels exactly as it did last time. Indian mounds that had already aged multiple thousands of years have changed no further in these interceding few. I revisited the places I had camped back then, felt that I could have just forgone France and turned back for my bicycle right then.
Texas is the same only more so, hotter for sure, much more crowded, and now you have to pay tolls in order to cross town in a timely fashion.
But give it two more days...just two more days and I'll be out of this and winging my way to Torino, Italy. For those who haven't followed, I'm heading to my friend Didier's campground in the French Alps, where I intend to spend some time lecturing about Hannibal. I'm flying into Torino, Italy because, as counter-intuitive as it might seem, flying there and then hiking over the Alps is actually the most efficient way to reach Didier's campground. Were I to fly into Paris, for instance, I would then be faced with a journey by overnight train, linking with a regional train for a few more hours, a local bus for about another hour, and then a road walk of some miles. This way I get to hike over the Alps again—jeez, people go to Europe just to do that, so I surely won't complain.
Check back in a few days...