Monthly Archives: November 2016

To Acre, or Akko, I go.

If there was an element of controversy on the pros and cons of Jamaica then any comment I make about Israel is bound to stir things up. I apologize in advance. Lets see. I was in Athens after a great trip to historical sites and a quick bounce around a few islands and was casting about for a new destination before returning home. After checking the usual web sites for cheap deals I found an Athens to Tel Aviv flight for about $100 and it seemed too good to pass up. I checked with immediate family and they all approved and away I went. It was a remarkably quick flight with a transfer at Heraklion, Crete, and there I was at Ben Gurian airport outside Tel Aviv. As usual I had made a plan only a couple of days before and had decided to take the train from the airport up the coast to Acre, or Akko as it is known locally. Pick up bags from the carousel and change money, find a local SIM for my phone (both easy) and follow the signs for trains.

‘Shalom’ was the greeting at the ticket office ‘shalom’ I replied which seemed to go down well and after a minor discussion about whether I was going to Akko or Acre I headed down to the platform, ticket in hand, to wait the ten minutes before the train departed. The train came, I found a seat, I relaxed a bit as the first challenge had worked out ok and then looked around. It seemed I was surrounded with great big burly guys and pretty girls, all in uniform and all armed to the teeth. Enormous automatic weapons, Uzis I suppose, were everywhere. There was a young woman sitting across the aisle, regularly clad in jeans and a top, rocking out on her headphones, but with this enormous automatic weapon on her lap. Sometimes I am naively British but really, can you imagine this scenario on the 8.10 from Surbiton to Waterloo? There was enough firepower in my carriage to repel a small army and I suppose that is the point. Someone texted me that I was in a war zone with no war. Well that’s ok then, long may it continue that way.

Acre, or Akko, or even ancient (Antiochia) Ptolemais, goes back into history like Athens perhaps, Rome? Even before it became the major port for the Crusaders it was famed for its beauty, its Mosques, churches, walls and as a major trading post between East and West. There have been many famous sieges down the centuries, Richard the Lionhearted and Saladin (1191) for instance, or Sir Sydney Smith with the Ottomans and Napoleon (1799). The old town is quite small, I walked around the walls twice in one day, but is a veritable warren of tiny streets and narrow alleys. Apart from the walls a Crusader castle on top of a hill dominates the town. You may have heard of the Knights Templar who provided protection to pilgrims making their way from Acre to Jerusalem. The Acre castle was built and occupied by the Knights Hospitaller, who of course provided medical treatment in their hospital to arriving and departing pilgrims.

‘Enough history’ you might cry but honestly history was my main reason for visiting Israel. Perhaps one or two will follow up on these stories, there is a wealth of information available online. I did not go as a pilgrim even though the thrill of Jerusalem as a  Holy City for three major religions cannot be discounted but I wanted to see as many of the historical sites I have been hearing about since aged five at Sunday school. That is what I did and in retrospect I could have stayed there much, much longer, there is so much to see.

I’ll stop here as tales from Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Jericho, not to mention Masada, The Dead Sea and Eilat might be too much for one post. Be warned though, they are coming soon.

Saint John Church, Akko, with Crusader flag flying. I thought that was odd.

Saint John Church, Akko, with Crusader flag flying. I thought that was odd.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poster outside a house to inform people that residents have performed Haj. Pilgrimage to Mecca.

Poster outside a house to inform people that residents have performed Haj.
Pilgrimage to Mecca.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

City walls from the sea, with fisherfolk.

City walls from the sea, with fisherfolk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Crusader tunnel that runs from the port into the city. A bit spooky.

The Crusader tunnel that runs from the port into the city. A bit spooky.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The market.

The market.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The castle.

The castle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Below ground level the old rooms have been excavated. This is the dining hall for the knights.

Below ground level the old rooms have been excavated. This is the dining hall for the knights.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A view through the walls giving you some idea how thick they were. Blue sea beyond.

A view through the walls giving you some idea how thick they are.
Blue sea beyond.

Advertisements

Road Trip in Greece.

Write it all down I was told; let’s give it a try. Here I am on a bus thundering north out of Athens to Delphi, scene of the Oracle, then to Meteora where the famous monasteries perch on top of their pinnacles, then to the memorial at Thermopylae. Already we have passed the site of the Battle of Marathon where the Athenians defeated the Persians, after which a soldier (Pheidippides) ran the 27 miles into the center of Athens to spread the word of the victory. Poor guy dropped dead from exhaustion but his name lives on, and every year the Athens Marathon follows his route from the site to the City center. It takes place in a couple of weeks.

I’m live blogging this and wondering when the last time I did that was. Could it have been the marshrutka ride between Khujand and Dushanbe in Tajikistan? That was certainly memorable. I digress! This is a good road, three lanes in each direction, up and down through low hills, passing a couple of reservoirs which look to be in good shape, unlike those in California where the reservoirs have all but dried up after the long drought. There are cotton fields; Greece is the major producer in Europe. Solar and wind farms. We pass Thebes and lurid tales of Oedipus (the King). We all know the story but not perhaps that it is the first part of a trilogy by Sophocles and that the premier was in 429BCE. That is BCE! Old!

Delphi, high, high up in the mountains with fabulous views over the surrounding hills, valleys and down to the sea beyond. Of course the ruins are perched precipitously with endless steps up and down, still not easy, but quite a delight to explore. In the height of summer it must be hellish but here in late October the temperature is cool and the crowds, reasonable. Two hours to look at the ruins and then another hour in the museum. I’m not a big museum person but this one was fascinating. Lots of gods, gold and statues, I absolutely loved it.

Off into the foggy mountains we go, in the dark, heading for Meteora. Hope we get to see something of it.

Monasteries we saw, and a convent. The day broke foggy but in the elevator in the early light I saw, for the first time the rocky crags above the town of Kalabaka. Quite majestic, impossibly high, but no sign of a monastery. A hasty breakfast with my tour mates, two Grandmothers from Melbourne (I really have an aversion to cold fried eggs) and off out to pile into the van, pick up the younger folk, one from Argentina (Diego) and the other from Kazakhstan. There was a bit of a kerfuffle finding the local guide that resolved itself and away we went, up. Up and up. Have I mentioned I suffer from vertigo? I was nervous. We stopped for a quick look and craned, craned until we nearly fell over backwards. Meteora translates to ‘Suspended in the air’ and so it appeared. We were looking up at the Great Meteora Monastery where building started in possibly the 13th Century, nobody really knows, and on that day it was closed to tourists. There are six occupied monasteries surviving out of the original twenty-four and they take it in turns to open their doors to us tourists. The monks built their monasteries in such a remote and challenging environment to both be as far away from the humdrum of life and also to be nearer to God.

The word piety sprang to mind as we made our way through cathedrals, churches and chapels. I know nothing about Orthodoxy, perhaps I should read up on it, these religious sites are all dedicated to Greek Orthodoxy and, it is claimed, maintained the Hellenistic way of life during the Ottoman occupation (mid 15th – early 19th). This of course was a very good thing and I don’t think you will go far wrong if you imagine the monks, crouched over desks, copying ancient books and manuscripts to preserve the culture for future generations. They are there, the copies made and more are being discovered, because in times of trouble the monks would hide their treasures within the walls or bury them in the grounds. Perhaps one day the lost plays and philosophical tracts from Ancient Greece will reappear. We can always dream. I could wax on about the ever present incense, the extremely graphic paintings and drawings, the tranquility of the monks themselves, the quiet, the views out over the precipitous drops. You get the picture.

And of course there was James Bond. Yep, For Your Eyes Only was partly filmed at the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, Meteora. The result was that the small town below, Kalabaka, doubled in size within five years, and, more than half the monks left. I’ll leave an opinion to you…

On the way back to Athens we stopped at the site of the battle of Thermopylae, with the accent on the second syllable in English but in Greek, Thermopiles with the accent on the third syllable. I got some very strange looks when I said I wanted to go there. Actually there is not a lot there, as I was constantly informed. There is a rather large memorial to King Leonides and a bit of a plaque where the battle took place. Behind the memorial there is a four lane highway and above it, electrical pylons. I was pleased to visit and see that the memory lives on (480BCE) but disheartened today to read that the site is now a beacon for far right wing lunatics from all over Europe and America. The article was in today’s (November 7) Washington Post if you care to Google it.

Massive wall at Delphi.

Massive wall at Delphi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the excavations proceeded they realized the wall was covered with inscriptions.

As the excavations proceeded they realized the wall was covered with inscriptions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Charioteer. He may be missing an arm but he has eyeballs and seems to follow you as you walk about the room. Spooky.

The Charioteer. He may be missing an arm but he has eyeballs and seems to follow you as you walk about the room. Spooky.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Apollo and Artemis. The adornments were found buried in a box. After 2,000 years!

Apollo and Artemis. The adornments were found buried in a box. After 2,000 years!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monastery of the Holy Trinity.

Monastery of the Holy Trinity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A monastery at Meteora.

A monastery at Meteora.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The only way in and out in earlier times. A traveller waiting to be hoisted up asked when they changed the rope. "When it breaks"

The only way in and out in earlier times.
A traveller waiting to be hoisted up asked when they changed the rope. “When it breaks”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Memorial for the Battle of Thermopylae.

The Memorial for the Battle of Thermopylae.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Burial site of the 300.

Burial site of the 300.

Jamaica.

And so to Jamaica. I feel I must qualify my comments in the knowledge that out there are Jamaicaphiles and Jamaicaphobes so I will try to just keep to the facts and maybe not offer too many opinions. The usual excitement on arriving somewhere new was tempered by the two customs officials and the undercover policeman who took it upon themselves to completely unpack my bags and question me belligerently as to why I was visiting. I thought that odd given the Island’s reputation. Unnerved I proceeded and was met by the driver from my Airbnb, nice guy who guided me through the usual rigmarole of changing money and finding a SIM for my phone then we were off into Kingston. After working for a Jamaican company a long time ago I naively thought the streets would be bouncing with the reggae music, but no, just another big city with horrendous traffic. I did spot some large 4by4 type vehicles decked out with lights and booming speakers. I gesticulated to the driver as if to enquire: hearse, he said. Ok then. Weaving through the traffic we came upon a huge 4-lane highway running north across the island with no other cars on it. In between songs played on the massive sound system in the car I asked what led to the creation of this motorway/freeway. The Chinese made a deal with the authorities to set up an entrepôt just off the harbor in Kingston and in return they built this giant toll road. Note the word “toll”, you must pay to drive on it and of course the local people can’t afford it and continue to use the old road which takes three hours for the North to South coast run, we did it in forty minutes.

Then we were there, Bromley House, outside Ocho Rios. Built on the site of an old Spanish fort dating back to the Sixteenth Century the house was a cattle ranch from the Eighteenth Century onwards, in fact it still is. In the late Nineteenth Century it was bought by a Scottish doctor who built it out in the shape it is today with sundry porticoes and balconies. I was billeted in one of the cottages on the grounds with three rooms, a kitchen, bathroom and wrap around verandah. Breakfast was cooked every morning by the lovely Valerie, who also takes care of the paperwork and finances, and consisted of eggs, bacon and an array of local fruits, star apples, mangoes, pineapple and was consistently delicious. Most days my host, Johnathan (Jonna), would drive us down Fern Gulley to Ocho for basic supplies, and rum. He was a rally driver, amongst other things, so the drive down and back up was quite the experience. Of course being born there he knew every twist and turn, he could probably drive it in his sleep, but for me, the newcomer, it was often a white-knuckle ride. There were two guard dogs, Elsa and Meatball, who sort of adopted me and would curl up outside my door and bark furiously if anyone dared come up the driveway. We went to a local beach for lunch and a swim on occasion and despite the mass tourism and cruise ships there was rarely anyone else on it (Sugar Pot). Other times we would go down to the village, Walkerswood, where there is a restaurant called Lyming where we would buy small flasks of the local rum and enjoy fabulous Jamaican food, jerk chicken, jerk pork with Festival, a type of local bread. I failed to sample Mannish Water, a local delicacy, which is a glorified Goat’s Head soup; I’m not going into details, too many vegetarians in my family! Another day we went to a Polo match, Jamaica vs Barbados, tea and triangular sandwiches with lots of gin afterwards.

The weeks flew by and I thought I should see some other parts of the Island. Up and up into the legendary Blue Mountains where I stayed at the Mount Edge (hotel, sort of). It seemed to take an age to climb up into the mountains but on arriving the views were stupendous. I visited the Bob Marley museum and felt a bit aged! Not much point in telling anyone of my nights touring with Marley as the label PR guy. A couple of nights in Kingston at the Liguanea club (pronounced Ligeny) which was just about the only accommodation available due to some International conference in town.

Interestingly the Liguanea was ‘featured in a James Bond film’, you might like to remember that as I will say it again, soon.

Bromley.

Bromley.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Breakfast table and the incredible view.

Breakfast table and the incredible view.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Favorite dog. Meatball.

Favorite dog. Meatball.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elsa and Meatball on my verandah.

Elsa and Meatball on my verandah.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had a neighbor. A bird who lived in a tree.

I had a neighbor. A bird, who lived in an adjacent tree.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It laid an egg.

It laid an egg.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Which hatched.

Which hatched.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The view from Mount Edge.  The Blue Mountains of Jamaica.

The view from Mount Edge.
The Blue Mountains of Jamaica.