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Category: Travel

A FLORENTINE HOLIDAY

Milan, 22 February 2017

We have just come back from a little holiday in Florence (ah, the joys of retirement! go where you like, when you like). Since neither my wife nor I had been back to Florence in the last 40-50 years (me, the former; my wife, the latter), we decided to celebrate her birthday by going on a little jaunt down there. We agreed that we wanted to visit at least the Uffizi galleries, to see what its new German director was up to, as well as Pitti Palace and its gardens, the Boboli gardens (neither of us having ever visited this complex, we discovered, after comparing notes). The rest would be up to chance and whatever took our fancy.

So decided, my wife took the management of the trip into her very capable hands. Having heard decades of horror stories about the queues to get into the Uffizi, she booked the tickets on-line, along with a time slot for the visit. To be on the safe side, she did the same for Pitti Palace and the Boboli gardens. She found a place to stay on the left bank of the Arno, a five-minute walk from Pitti Palace. And she booked tickets on the bus to get us there and back (much cheaper than the train; we are retirees, after all).

Thus prepared, we set off and spent five days in the city. We visited, in the following order, Pitti Palace; the Boboli gardens, the ticket for which included a visit to the gardens of the nearby Bardini Villa; the church of San Miniato; the Uffizi galleries; the church of Santo Spirito; the church of Santa Croce; the Cathedral, along with its Baptistery and museum; and, finally, on the way to catch the bus home, the church of San Lorenzo and its Medicean library. In between, we strolled through the streets of the city center, crossed the Arno several times a day using the Ponte Vecchio as well several of the other bridges which straddle the river, and last but not least enjoyed delectable dinners in a number of the trattorie located around where we were staying.

I will not bore readers with the details. Let me just point out what were some highlights for me, the things that come back to mind as I sit here writing this:

Bronzino’s Descent of Christ into Limbo, hanging in the church of Santa Croce.
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A magnificent painting, with this luminously serene Christ pulling the dead from their graves. All that more wonderful knowing that this painting was terribly badly damaged in the big floods which struck Florence in November of 1966.

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The mosaics in the dome of the Baptistery.
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I was not expecting to see such magnificent late Medieval mosaics in that beating heart of the Renaissance which is Florence (the church of San Miniato also has a great mosaic in its apse).
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A wooden crucifix carved by Michelangelo and tucked away in a corner chapel of the sacristy of the church of Santo Spirito.
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Absent are the finely sculpted muscles, the blood and the gore, that you find in most crucifixes. Just a slim body hanging on the cross.

Donatello’s take on the prophet Jeremiah: a tough, uncompromising figure.
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A copy can be seen on the Cathedral’s campanile, while the original is in the Museo del Duomo, the Cathedral Museum – a great museum, by the way, recently redesigned and now a really very pleasurable museum experience.
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In the same museum, the unfinished Pietà by Michelangelo.
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A statue which, as I have related in a previous post, transfixed me during me first visit to Florence forty years ago.

Botticelli’s Annunciation, in the Uffizi.
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With such grace does Mary suggest that she is not worthy!

Of course, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and his Spring, are also magnificent, but I have seen and re-seen them so many times now in a thousand pictures that my senses have been dulled towards them.

Also in the Uffizi, Piero della Francesca’s portrait of the Duke of Urbino and his wife
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That Duke, what a wonderful, wonderful face!

Talking of faces, look at those of the shepherds in Hugo van der Goes’s Adoration of the Shepherds, also in the Uffizi.
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Such rough and honest and simple faces!

The view of the Brunelleschi’s dome from the gardens of Villa Bardini.
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We were taken completely by surprise as we rounded the corner of the villa and found Florence at our feet, with Brunelleschi’s dome soaring above the houses. As Leon Battista Alberti wrote in 1435, one year before the dome was finished, in his book De Pictura, “who is so hard or so jealous as to not praise Pippo [Brunelleschi] the architect upon seeing that structure so large, erected above the sky, broad enough to cover all of the Tuscan populace with its shade?”

And who is so hard or so jealous as not to praise Giorgio Vasari the painter, for his fresco of the last judgement which covers the inside of that dome?
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Bronzino, Descent of Christ into Limbo: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/santacroceinflorence.wordpress.com/2014/03/18/bronzinos-1552-social-network-page/amp/
Floods, Florence: https://committeeforculturalpolicy.org/projects-for-50th-anniversary-of-florence-and-venice-floods/
Mosaics, Baptistery: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:File-_The_mosaic_ceiling_of_the_Baptistery_in_Florence.jpg
Mosaic, San Miniato: https://www.flickr.com/photos/edk7/16383376970
Michelangelo, crucifix: https://www.visitflorence.com/itineraries-in-florence/fifteenth-century-wooden-sculpture.html
Donatello, the prophet Jeremiah: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Donatello,_geremia,_1427-36,_dal_lato_ovest_del_campanile_02.JPG
Museo del Duomo: http://viaggi.corriere.it/viaggi/eventi-news/firenze-inaugura-il-nuovo-museo-dellopera-del-duomo/
Michelangelo, Pietà: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/297589487853635778/
Botticelli, Annunciation: http://historylink101.com/art/Sandro_Botticelli/pages/26_Annunciation_jpg.htm
Piero della Francesca, Duke of Urbino and wife: http://www.abcfirenze.com/musei/MuseiFoto_i.asp?N=238&Foto=Uffizi-D22.jpg
Hugo van der Goes, Adoration of the Shepherds: http://www.artbible.info/art/large/111.html
View of the cathedral’s dome: https://www.pinterest.com/enamoradoitalia/villa-bardini-firenze-florence/
Vasari, Internal fresco of cathedral dome: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cupola_del_Brunelleschi

A WALK FROM ONE SAINT TO ANOTHER

Sori, 10 December 2016

We started in San Rocco, which is perched on a rocky spur high above Camogli.

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The last time we visited it, we huffed and we puffed our way up the old mule track that snakes its way up from Camogli. This time, we took it easy; we took the Recco-Rapallo bus and hopped off at Ruta, which lies on the saddle between Camogli on one side of Monte di Portofino and Santa Margherita on the other, and took another little bus from Ruta to San Rocco.

A little aside on the lives of obscure saints: San Rocco, known in English – if at all – as Saint Roch (I found traces of a couple of British churches named after him), lived in the late 1200s, early 1300s, dividing his time between what is now southern France and northern Italy. He is the patron saints of dogs and bachelors (a strange combination) and was especially invoked in times of the plague – hence this painting of the saint pensively pointing to a plague bubo on his leg.
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In any event, fresh from our relaxing bus drive, and fortified by a cappuccino and a slice of focaccia, we set off down the path which led to Punta Chiappa, a low rocky ledge jutting out into the sea at the furthest reaches of Monte di Portofino. The idea was to have lunch in a restaurant down at the water’s edge just before Punta Chiappa and, suitably fuelled up, toil our way back up to San Rocco. We started losing height through a series of long flights of steps
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we wended our way through woods
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through which struggled a few remaining olive groves.
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We finally arrived at San Nicolò, a small collection of houses clustered around a pretty little 12th Century church.
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The original monks who had ministered to the small community of fisherfolk clinging on to this steep hillside finally moved away in the face of continuing depredations by Barabary pirates (I suppose church plate was considered good loot) and the church fell into disuse. Recently, suitable renovations have been undertaken, although there was little left of the original decorations to restore.

Another quick aside on the lives of obscure saints: San Nicolò, Saint Nicholas in English, lived at the juncture of the 3rd and 4th centuries. He was a bishop in Asia Minor and was famous for working miracles (he seems to have been particularly good at this). Of relevance to this story, he is the patron saint of sailors and fishermen.
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But he also is responsible for a whole host of other professions including coopers, archers, pharmacists and – somewhat bizarrely – broadcasters. Somewhere along the line, no doubt because he is the patron saint of children, this very worthy saint morphed into that very heathen Santa Claus.

One of the few fragments of the original decorations left is this piece of fresco.
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It shows St. Nicholas saving two sailors from drowning as their ship founders: that nightmare of all sailors and the subject of famous paintings
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as well as a myriad of humbler ex-votos, normally dedicated as in this case to Mary in her role as Stella Maris, Star of the Seas.
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I am moved to insert here those lovely lines from T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” in the short section of the poem entitled Death by Water:

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
A current underseas
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

From San Nicolò, we got the first good view of the Golfo di Paradiso, the woods having obscured the view in the upper reaches of the walk.
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Hunger drove us on. We dropped still further towards the sea,
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finally reaching the restaurant. Alas! Contrary to what we had been assured in the café where we took our morning cappuccino and focaccia, it was closed. We were mournfully counting the tangerines we had brought with us and reckoning on the number of stairs we would need to climb to get back to San Rocco on a nearly empty stomach when we saw a boat coming in to dock. We hurried forward and discovered that by sheer serendipity we had arrived just in time to catch the boat to San Fruttuoso, from whence we could get a boat back to Camogli! Light of stomach, but also light of heart, we hopped on, took a seat, and admired the passing views as we rounded Punta Chiappa
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motored past forbidding headlands
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until the small fort protecting San Fruttuoso hove into sight,
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where we turned into San Fruttuoso’s bay and chugged in towards the village itself.
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Calling this a village is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, composed as it is of the ancient abbey (currently under renovation)
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a somewhat less ancient watchtower
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and a few fishermen’s houses clustered in between.

It’s a charming site, much frequented in the summer by people who come to lie on the beach (as it was when we visited it, during a long weekend). We took the easy way in, but hardier folk can take one of a number of paths crisscrossing Monte di Portofino which pass through San Fruttuoso. Well rested and after eating our meager cache of tangerines I went off to visit the Abbey while my wife read her book on the beach.

A final note on the lives of obscure saints: San Fruttuoso, Saint Fructuosus in English (a saint so obscure in the English world that I find no church named after him), was a bishop of Tarragona in Spain in the second half of the third century.
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His main, in fact only, claim to fame was that he was martyred during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. He is so obscure that no group has claimed him as their patron saint, which is a bit sad. Given his name, makers of fruit juices could perhaps apply …

How an abbey in Italy got to be dedicated to him is a bit of a mystery. The story goes that when the Vandals invaded Spain some monks from Tarragona, anxious that his remains should not be despoliated, carried them off by sea. After a certain amount of wandering around the Mediterranean, they ended up on the Monte di Portofino. I find the story to have a lot of holes in it, but hey, who am I to question its veracity? Suffice to say that the Abbey grew quite wealthy from donations of land. Wealth put it in the sights of the Barabary pirates. Like San Nicolò, it went into decline after repeated depredations and was eventually abandoned.

In the early afternoon, our return boat docked. We piled in and returned to Camogli
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for a well-deserved late lunch of focaccia al formaggio.

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All photos: mine, except as follows

San Rocco: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Camogli-chiesa_di_San_Rocco_(Ruta)-DSCF0645.JPG
Saint Roch: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Roch
Le radeau de la méduse: https://fr.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Radeau_de_La_Méduse
Ex-voto shipwreck: http://www.ottante.it
Saint Nicholas: http://aristidhmilaqi.blogspot.it/2011/06/saint-nicholas-patron-saint-of-sailors.html?m=1
Saint Fructuosus: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fructuosus
Camogli: http://www.cepolina.com/Camogli-sea-beach.html

focaccia al formaggio: http://www.italianbotanicalheritage.com/it/scheda.php?struttura=499

A WALK IN THE SETTING SUN

Sori, 8 December 2016

We decided not to struggle up the path which leads from the railway station up along the spur of the hill to the small church of Sant’Apollinare at the top. We did it a few weeks ago and it’s brutally steep. Instead, we took the bus that starts from in front of the village fishmonger, timed to leave just after school breaks up. Together with one shy schoolgirl we zipped up the road which zigs and zags its way up the hillside. 10 minutes later, just shy of 4:30, we were deposited on the small parking area by the church. The sun was beginning to set over the Riviera on the other side of Genova, bathing the little church and the distant Monte di Portofino in its ruddy rays.

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We were taking the path that led down to the little town of Recco, nestled at the foot of the Monte di Portofino. We needed to get down before it got too dark. We started walking, passing through olive groves where the hillside’s exposure to the sun was good
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and through Mediterranean maquis where it was less good
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and where earlier farmers had not bothered to terrace the hillside and plant olive trees.
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We passed the Torre dei Saraceni, the Saracens’ Tower, which according to local legend was built as a lookout to warn local villages when raiding parties of Barbary pirates based in Northern Africa (or maybe closer in Corsica and Sardinia) were approaching, looking to carry away loot and people to be sold as slaves in the market places of Tunis and Algiers (a plague which Italy’s coastal communities suffered until the 1800s).
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When we were young and foolish, my wife and I had fantasized about living here, brushing aside such practical questions as where the nearest shop was to buy food.

On we hurried, with the Monte di Portofino looming larger.
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Out to sea, ships were hurrying also, to reach the safety of the port of Genova.
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We watched as the sun finally set across the Bay of Genova, silhouetting the Torre dei Saraceni.
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We went on in the sunset’s afterglow, down dimly-lit steps

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arriving finally in the small village of Polanesi on the outskirts of Recco. Our path skirted the parish church

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into whose dim interior we quickly dipped. Its floor hinted at some tragedy 200 years ago
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while its outer walls proclaimed a more recent tragedy, the retreat from Russia in 1942-3, in which many Italians died.
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The moon alone was now shining in the sky.

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By its dim light, and in places by the light of my phone, we stumbled down the last steps to finally reach the Via Aurelia.
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When I was young and foolish, I thought this really was the trace of the old Roman road, but I discovered later that the Romans never bothered to build a road through this wild and mountainous region; they just went by boat along the coast.

A short walk brought us to Recco, now enveloped in darkness.
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We lowered ourselves into the chairs of the nearest bar and had ourselves a well-merited Aperol Spritz.

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all photos: mine, except for

Aperol Spritz: http://www.aperolspritzsocials.com

TAKING THE D TRAM TO NUSSDORF

Vienna, 24 July 2016

We’re in Vienna briefly, on our way back to Bangkok from the annual training course I give in Budapest and using the occasion to visit the warehouse where our stuff has been stored away these last seven years to agree on when to start moving it and to where when I retire in a month’s time. We’ve used the occasion to spend the weekend here.

On Saturday morning, we visited an exhibition of Ai Wei Wei’s work, my wife’s favourite modern artist, which is spread between the 21er Haus and the Upper Belvedere. While we were at it, we also had a quick zip around the Upper Belvedere’s permanent collection – there is a lovely set of Schieles and Klimts. Then, footsore and thirsty, we took a D tram back into the city centre and headed for a café to have a drink and a rest.

Once revivified, we pondered where to go next. I suggested the Leopold Museum, which is holding an exhibition of a rather minor Austrian painter of the 19th Century, and so we dragged ourselves rather slowly in that direction. But on the way, we saw another D tram clank past, and since it was a glorious day we decided on the spur of the moment to hop on and ride to the end of the line, to Nussdorf, which lies at the foot of the hills that overlook the city. As the name suggests, Nussdorf, Nut Village, was indeed once an independent village but is now a suburb of Vienna. Presumably it once was known for its walnuts or hazelnuts, but several hundred years ago it planted vineyards on the slopes above it and thereby made its fortune selling thirsty Viennese Grüner Veltliner wines.

Now, as we got off the tram at the final stop, we trailed after our fellow passengers, all ramblers, who were making their way determinedly towards those vineyards and the woods beyond them, the Wienerwald. We found a path which followed a stream
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and started ambling slowly upwards – the walk was in no way strenuous.

The path first coasted houses buried at this time of year in luxuriant vegetation
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but then it became more solitary.
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At one point, we passed a little park dedicated to Beethoven.
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It is said that he used to come over from nearby Heiligenstadt, where he spent many summers in his later years, to walk along this same path, which of course the marketing-savvy locals have named Beethovengasse, Beethoven Lane.

Further on, we passed the dead of Nussdorf, sleeping their eternal sleep at the foot of the vineyards
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and now finally we were among the vineyards.
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A few yards further on, we arrived at our destination, a heuriger
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(a buschenschank in Styria; the owner of this heuriger must be a Styrian immigrant)

Heurigers, or wine taverns, dot the countryside around Vienna, selling the local wine, as well as simple food so that their patrons do not drink on an empty stomach. We had chosen this one from a map thoughtfully provided along the path by the local authorities, anxious to ensure that a good time was had by all
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We settled down in the tavern’s garden
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and pleasantly whiled a way an hour or so, sipping on our wine mixes (it was a bit early for straight wine), nibbling at our dried sausages, cheese plate, and Greek salad, gazing out over the neighbouring vineyards
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and generally enjoying that sense of gemütlichkeit – warmth, friendliness, and good cheer – which is the trademark of heurigers.

Suitably refreshed, and full of good cheer, we ambled slowly down the hill again, where I for one took advantage of the old-fashioned toilets, or pissoirs as the Austrians so picturesquely call them, helpfully provided at the tram stop by the local authorities
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before climbing back into the D tram

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and clanking slowly back into the city centre.

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The stream Schreiberbach: https://www.tripadvisor.co.za/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g190454-d260626-i134059629-Vienna_Woods-Vienna.html
All other photos: ours

CORAL REEFS AROUND SURIN ISLAND

Kuraburi, 18 April 2016

It was a few minutes before we turned back to the boat that my wife and I spotted them, a school of pale lemon yellow fish, browsing on the bottom of the reef. Much internet surfing suggests that we saw yellow runner fish.

Yellow runner school fish in Similan, Thailand

As we watched, another school of fish, light blue this time, floated by, pulled by some unseen current. They were fusilier fish, I think
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During our two-day snorkeling trip to the Surin Islands National Park, just north of Phuket, we saw much more besides on the four or five reefs we visited.

The last time I’d snorkeled was half a century ago, in the shallow waters of a bay near Buea, Cameroon. My father had some work to do there, and he had brought me along. An English family living in Buea had taken me with them on an afternoon outing, and so it was that after a merry hour spent sinking up to my thighs in the micro-quicksands which dotted the bay, I spent another hour floating on my stomach, watching with fascination the tiny, brilliantly coloured fish darting back and forth across the black sand, fruit of the nearby volcano, Mt. Cameroon. A badly burned back was the result of this excessive curiosity. Still remembering the pain of that red and peeling back, I snorkeled this time with a shirt on. Alas! In the intervening five decades, my hair has thinned so I found afterwards that my scalp was burned from floating face down in the water (my wife instead got burned just below her swimsuit, on what our personal trainer calls the glutes).

All of which has not taken away one jot from the pleasure we derived from the wonderful sights we took in as we paddled slowly hand-in-hand along the reefs, with no sound but our breathing, witnessing a riot of colour as fish swam into our line of sight and then disappeared, intent on their business. Below is an incomplete catalogue of our sightings:

Powder blue surgeonfish
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The wonderfully named Moorish idol

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Lined surgeonfish
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Black surgeonfish
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Emperor angelfish
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Triggerfish
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Melon butterfly fish

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Blue lined grouper

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We saw other denizens of the reefs too:

A powder-blue starfish

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The aptly named crown-of-thorns starfish

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Squamose giant clams, which would snap shut as we floated over them
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Magnificent sea anemone, whose green tentacles would wave this way and that, revealing a wonderful blue-mauve body beneath

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And of course there were the corals, around which all these other species revolved:
Staghorn coral, whose tips seemed to glow phosphorescently
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Table coral

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Mushroom coral
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But really, although it was fun to point out to each other new species that we spotted, it was the reef communities as a whole that were most fascinating

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those tens of species all working in and around a coral mount which surged up from the bottom towards the light.

I suppose we’re lucky to have seen this. As we were floating over the reefs around Surin Island, an article appeared in the Guardian about massive coral bleaching going on at the Australian Great Barrier Reef. The immediate cause is El Niño, which is leading to much warmer waters than usual; coral dies if the water is too warm, and all you are left with are the bleached bones of coral, devoid of that blizzard of life with which it would normally be surrounded.

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But behind this latest episode is climate change, which is making El Niño events ever longer and more intense. Two days before this article appeared, the Guardian had another announcing that the month of March had been the hottest on record.
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But so had February. And so had January. And so had 2015 as a whole.

One of the many, many – many – impacts of climate change will be the die-off of coral reefs the world over. Coral reefs everywhere are showing signs of increasing strain. And with that die-off will come a steep decline in fish species: coral reefs are home to an astonishing 25 percent of the world’s fish species. That favourite cartoon character, Nemo, will lose his real-life counterpart.
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Can we really let this happen? Surely we humans can collectively take on our responsibilities for controlling climate change. Let’s not destroy this beautiful planet we inhabit.

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Yellow runner fish: http://www.123rf.com/photo_24661711_yellow-runner-school-fish-in-similan-thailand.html
Fusilier fish: http://www.123rf.com/photo_16881582_blue-and-gold-fusilier-fish-at-surin-national-park.html
Powder blue surgeonfish: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/acanthurus.html
Rainbow parrotfish: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/303922674822811295/
Moorish idol: http://diveadvisor.com/sub2o/the-moorish-idol
Lined surgeonfish: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acanthurus_lineatus
Black surgeonfish: http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/wallpaper/surgeonfish-laman_pod_image.html
Emperor angelfish: https://cococares.wordpress.com/2012/11/14/maldives-emperor-angelfish-at-3-different-stages-of-life/
Triggerfish: http://www.seafocus.com/species_triggerfish.html
Melon butterfly fish: https://www.flickr.com/photos/thailandbeach/3568555120
Blue lined grouper: http://www.aquariumdomain.com/viewSpeciesMarine.php?id=49

Blue starfish: http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-3387803/stock-photo-blue-starfish-close-up-similan-islands.html

Crown of thorns starfish: http://www.bubblevision.com/underwater-pictures/racha-noi/pages/crown-of-thorns.htm
Squamose giant clam: http://forum.scubatoys.com/showthread.php?t=9755
Magnificent sea anemone: http://www.shutterstock.com/video/search/heteractis
Magnificent sea anemone: http://forum.scubatoys.com/showthread.php?t=9755
Staghorn coral: https://www.fau.edu/facilities/ehs/info/elkhorn_staghorn_corals.php
Table coral: http://adamjadhav.com/2010/
Mushroom coral: http://www.messersmith.name/wordpress/tag/mushroom-coral/
Reef life: https://www.govoyagin.com/activities/thailand-phuket-snorkel-and-see-sea-turtles-and-sharks-in-phi-phi/2039
Bleached coral reef: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/apr/17/great-barrier-reef-worst-destruction
March global temperatures: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/apr/15/march-temperature-smashes-100-year-global-record
Clownfish: https://prezi.com/m/m7zrpx-gkdqs/life-cycle-of-a-clown-fish/

RETIREMENT HERE WE COME!

New York, 1 January 2016

2016 is upon us! My wife and I did not stay up to ring in the new year, we let the younger folk do that.
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No need to make any new year resolutions, this year will be one of momentous change! (for me, anyway) I retire in August and finally become a free man again! Yippee!
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What I need to do over the next eight months (apart from ensuring as smooth a handover as possible to my eventual successor) is to figure out what my wife and I will do with all this wonderful spare time given to me. Travel is high on the list. For instance, we are planning to drive across the US, something I’ve dreamed of doing since my student days in the US 35 years ago, visiting the natural wonders of the West
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as well as the man-made wonders along the way.
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Or there’s a little trip I’ve had in mind for a while, visiting stained glass windows across Europe, from the Medieval glories of la Sainte Chapelle in Paris
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or Chartres cathedral
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to the modern take on this art form in Cologne Cathedral.
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Further afield, I have emitted the desire in a previous post to visit Easter Island.

AH2B07 Chili

Or how about Belize? My wife is currently searching the web for places there where our daughter and her beau could go and spend a short vacation. I’m thinking we should go there too and do some snorkeling

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as well as go and visit some of the country’s Mayan ruins
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My wife and I have also talked of spending several months in a number of our favourite cities, cities which we’ve only been able to visit briefly because of our work schedules but which we would like to get to know better. And on and on … There’s so much of the world we’ve not seen! But we cannot spend our whole time just traveling. For one thing, it gets rather expensive and I’m not sure how far my pension will stretch. For another, it greatly increases our carbon footprint, which is currently a big problem.

Which brings me to more serious things that my wife and I need to do in this latest phase of our lives. I’ve already mentioned in a previous post that we are going to have to do something to drastically reduce our environmental footprint.
imageI’m thinking in a confused way of turning these efforts into a blog and/or a website and/or an app to help others do the same. That will definitely keep me busy, especially since the workings of websites, apps, and the like are black holes to me. Time to learn and keep the old brain working!

And then there’s the exercise! We have to continue the good work we’ve started. Joining a gym near our apartment in Milan is a definite possibility (we’ve already looked into the options). But we’ll surely supplement that with trekking in the Ligurian hills behind our apartment near Genova.
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And here we can give back for all the years we’ve been using the trails, volunteering to help maintain them in our spare time (of which we will now have plenty).

And then, hopefully not in contradiction with the last two thoughts, I would like to turn my hand to some cooking. Not common-or-garden cooking but rather out-of-the-way things. For instance, I’ve always wanted to make tomato ketchup from scratch
imageand I want to try (again) to make my own vinegar.
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Vinegar makes me think that I would like to try pickling my own vegetables.
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I know this culinary impulse of mine is strange. I suppose it’s my way of rebelling against all the processed food that has swamped our lives. Maybe I can make this a subset of my website on reducing our environmental footprints, since our current food habits are such a big part of them.

I’m thinking that I could also do a bit of teaching, linked to my professional specialties. One university has reached out to me, let’s see if we can come to a mutually satisfactory arrangement.
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I’m sure there’s a thousand other things we could set our hand to. But of course it could be that amongst all this busyness we’ll be called to do our duty as grandparents. The children are not yet at the point of having their own children, but the moment could come. Have no fear, children, we’ll drop everything and be there in a jiffy!
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What better way is there to spend one’s waning years than in imparting some of one’s experience (I won’t say wisdom) to the little ones in our society?

Happy New Year!
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JUNGLE IN BORNEO

30 September, 2015

I’ve often used the expression “drenched with sweat” in my life, but I’ve never actually been thus drenched. This time, though, on staggering out of the jungle after a six hour trek, my wife and I were were literally soaked through. We couldn’t have been wetter if we’d stood under a shower with all our clothes on.

A bit of background is in order. We were in the Malaysia’s easternmost province of Sabah, on the island of Borneo. We were visiting the Danum Valley Conservation Area, which is in one of the few remaining tracts of primary jungle in the province. We arrived there after driving down from the town of Sandakan, passing mile after mile of oil palm plantations. So dreary! And so depressing to think that beautiful jungle stood there not that long ago. But it’s hard to sell jungle, easy sell palm oil.

Leaving all those oil palms behind us for a few days, we wanted to see some jungle – and maybe, if we were lucky, some orang utans. Danum Valley is one of the few places in Sabah where orang utans still live in the wild, along with pygmy elephants, Sumatran rhinoceroses, clouded leopards, various other species of feline, several species of monkeys, and of course hordes of more humble forms of life, botanical and zoological.

So it was that we attached ourselves to a group of young people, part of that army of gap-yearists*, between-jobbers**, and others, who are all on the move these days across every continent, living cheap, telling tall stories about their travels, and swapping information on the good places to eat, sleep, and have fun along the road. They had hired a ranger from the Danum Valley Field Centre, where we were all staying, to take them on one of the shorter trails. Early the next morning, we took our place in the line which filed across a rickety suspension bridge and set off briskly into the jungle. At first, we commented appreciatively on the surroundings, looked eagerly into the undergrowth for signs of pygmy elephants (they had left dung piles and shattered tree limbs along the track), and inspected fearfully every overhanging leaf for leeches (there had been much excited chatter on the net about the presence of these horrible animals along the trails and we sported a set of bright green leech socks for the occasion). But gradually, in the sauna-like heat of the jungle, as we climbed up and down over successive ridges, our breathing grew raspy, the sweat stains on our clothes grew and coalesced until clothes and stains were one, our speed slowed to a crawl. We neither saw nor cared anymore about what was around us (which in truth was not much; at the very last minute, a macaque monkey was sighted high above us, otherwise a few millipedes and some leeches were the total of our bag). The only thing that mattered was to make sure that we lifted our legs high enough to step over the roots, branches, and other jungle paraphernalia that littered the trail. Some of the group kindly held back so that we didn’t get completely separated from the rest, otherwise we would still be in that jungle stumbling around in a total daze. When we got back to our room, we unsteadily peeled off our sodden clothes, stood for a minute under the shower, and then collapsed onto the bed, lying there in a stupor for a few hours.

So when we heard at dinner that our young friends had booked a ranger for an even longer walk the next day, we smiled and promised to be on hand to wave them off at breakfast. We kept our promise, wishing them a safe journey over our fried eggs. And then, after some more tea, toast and marmalade to fortify us, we ambled slowly back into the jungle to an observation tower, from which we had decided to watch jungle life in peace and tranquillity. Observation tower is a misnomer. It was actually simply an aluminium ladder encased in an iron safety cage, attached to one of the tall, tall trees that dot the jungle.
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The ladder led to a wooden observation deck at the top and another half way up. It must have been all of 60 meters to the top deck (110 rungs; I counted). One of our young friends, between jobs, had shinned up the ladder as we lay, inert, on our beds the previous afternoon. His last job was as tester of the mechanical soundness of pipelines, and he informed us at dinner that it was his professional opinion that the whole contraption was exceedingly corroded and ready to peel off the tree at any moment.

With these words still ringing in my ears, I commended my soul to Jesus, Mary, and all the Saints, and started climbing, fixedly looking at the bark in front of me and pulling myself up rung by counted rung. My wife followed. We stopped at the mid-level observation deck for a breather before continuing on. Again, fix the bark and pull up rung by counted rung. We made it in one piece. We took a photo down the ladder we had just climbed.
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Terrifying.

But the view compensated for all the fear and the sweat to get there.
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I like being in jungle canopy. At ground level, I find jungle quite monotonous. There are no sweeping vistas through the thick vegetation, and unless you are into insects there is precious little animal life on the jungle floor. Even the plant life is not that interesting, unless you like fungi (are they even plants?). If you happen to spot something in the trees, it’s hard to watch through all the intervening foliage. But in the canopy, or above it as was our case, it’s completely different. You appreciate the grand sweep of the jungle: the tall trees, the Lords of the place, the smaller trees greedily growing towards the light and waiting for their moment of glory when the Lords will be toppled by wind, rain, or sheer old age, the parasitical plants of all descriptions – lianas, vines, ferns – using these trees as their path towards the light, strangling, suffocating, and sucking their life juices from them; flowers, coloured leaves, and fruit peppering the whole. And above and through all this botanical profusion you see the silent flitting of animals. As we stood there, looking out over the canopy, we saw a butterfly which did a long glide past rather than flying drunkenly along as do most butterflies, the bright aquamarine streak of a bird shooting over the canopy (a kingfisher?)
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several black squirrels, which scurried fearlessly up tree trunks and out along branches
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and at the end, a troop of red leaf monkeys, who suddenly appeared out of the vines loading down a tree, gracefully jumped over onto the next tree, disappeared into the foliage, and then reappeared further along the canopy.
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It was time to go. A new prayer, and down we went, rung by rung, all 110 of them.

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* young persons, normally school leavers waiting to go on to University, who have decided to take a year off and travel the world. It can also apply to somewhat older persons who have decided to take the year off between undergraduate and graduate schools.
** even older, but still young, persons who have decided that they are fed up with the boring job they have and want to see the world, or have decided to change jobs and want to see the world before they start working again, or simply decide that it’s now or never if they want to see the world.

Dipterocarp: http://images.travelpod.com/tw_slides/ta00/da3/d08/towering-dipterocarp-bilit.jpg (in http://tripwow.tripadvisor.com/slideshow-photo/towering-dipterocarp-by-travelpod-member-dan-melanie-bilit-malaysia.html?sid=14302472&fid=tp-8)
Kingfisher: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a6/Ein_Eisvogel_im_Schwebflug.jpg (in https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingfisher)
Black squirrel: https://worldbirdwatching.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/mamilanutria.jpg?w=500&h=374 (in https://worldbirdwatching.wordpress.com)
Red leaf monkeys: http://il2.picdn.net/shutterstock/videos/5039030/thumb/1.jpg?i10c=img.resize(height:160) (in http://www.shutterstock.com/video/clip-5038946-stock-footage-rare-red-or-maroon-leaf-monkey-presbytis-rubicunda-in-the-jungles-of-borneo-this-is-a-beautiful.html)
Other pictures: ours

PÉTANQUE

Bangkok, 29 August 2015

I wrote a post a year or so ago where I listed all things French. One of the things I didn’t list, though, was the game of pétanque. Anyone who has spent any time in France will eventually have come across a scene like this

petanques in France

especially if you’re there for the summer holidays; it seems that it’s all the French do during their summer holidays at the beach.

Petanque_on_a_beach_of_Nice

In truth, my memory of pétanque leans more in the direction of the following photo, the game on the village square ringed with those poor plane trees that the French love to massacre, with ten times more spectators than players – and all looking so serious!

petanque old photo

So French is pétanque that it played a major role in that magisterial compendium of all that is French, Le Tour de Gaule d’Astérix.

Asterix et le tour de Gaule

The scene takes place in Masilia (today’s Marseilles) – a nod to the Provençal roots of the game – where a Roman patrol is threatened with riot, revolution, massacre, war, in brief general catastrophe, if they disrupt a game of pétanque started especially to let our heroes get away.

petanque in asterix

To further slow down the game and impede the Roman patrol from advancing, the classic question is being heatedly debated: “je tire ou je pointe?” Should the bowler try to knock away the adversaries’ bowls close to the cochonnet (jack in English), or should he try to get his bowl even closer than theirs to the cochonnet? Extremely delicate question, which explains the serious expressions of everyone in the black and white photo above. It was also the object of serious fights between my French cousins when we played the game at my grandmother’s house. The games normally finished abruptly with them running after each other through the garden, screaming.

Yes, so French: a Gauloise cigarette in corner of the mouth, a glass of pastis in one hand, a petanque bowl in the other, and the pondering of that existential question: “je tire ou je pointe?”

Imagine, then, my astonishment when, during a visit a few Chinese New Years ago to Luang Prabang in northern Laos, I noticed a group of locals playing a game of pétanque. So astonished was I that I took a photo to memorialize the scene. Alas! I cannot find the photo anymore, but no matter, others have memorialized the playing of pétanque in Laos on the internet.

petanque in Laos

After some thinking, I concluded that perhaps it was not all that surprising that Laotians should play pétanque. After all, they had been a French colony. No doubt they would have watched their colonial masters while away their afternoons playing the game and perhaps played it themselves in the mother country while there on scholarships and plotting revolution. And it’s a great game for a hot climate, no frantic running around under the broiling sun.

But imagine my even greater astonishment when several months ago I noticed a group of Thai playing pétanque, or petaung in Thai (my transliteration of what my office colleagues called it). I was so gobsmacked that I didn’t have the presence of mind to take a photo, so I throw in here one that I found on the net. As we can see, the players are obviously debating the question, “je tire ou je pointe?”

petanque in Thailand

How did they pick up the game? Could it have come through Laos? Or Cambodia, or even Vietnam, also ex-French colonies and where the game is played? Or was it brought by Frenchmen in the service of the King or Government? Whatever the origin, the fact is they play it well. In preparing this post, I discovered that there is an International Championship of pétanque which has been held every two years since 1959. The French, of course, have dominated the event, with French teams winning 27 golds, 12 silvers, and 14 bronzes. But, surprise, surprise, the Thai have won 3 silvers and 3 bronzes, all this since 1991. They seem to be creeping slowly up the medal tables; gold no doubt awaits them soon.

Thoroughly intrigued, I did a rapid internet zip around the world, and discovered many more places where pétanque is played. Just in Asia, I found traces of it in India

BAKEA9 India, Pondicherry Territory, Pondicherry, French consulate, Petanque game

although I suspect it may be limited to the old French enclave of Pondicherry

Japan

petanque in Kumamoto Japan

the hats are an interesting stylistic addition

China

petanque en chine

although I never saw it being played in my five years there, and if this picture is anything to go by the Government has infiltrated the game and officialized it: where are the villagers playing in the shade of the trees?

I didn’t find a picture of anyone playing pétanque in South Korea although there seems to be national federation of pétanque and bowls. What the Koreans do seem to have done is to invent a video-game of pétanque – it figures, I suppose, given South Koreans’ passion for video-games.

petanque video game screen

A number of my posts have touched on the issue of globalization. I suppose this is another example of that. I wonder if the French have ever tried making pétanque an Olympic sport? They could win a few more gold medals for a while, until the rest of the world beat them at their own game (like the Japanese with judo).

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Pétanque in France: http://i.ytimg.com/vi/zjJAcu2o03U/maxresdefault.jpg (in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zjJAcu2o03U)

Petanque on the beach: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/c2/Petanque_on_a_beach_of_Nice.jpg/500px-Petanque_on_a_beach_of_Nice.jpg (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pétanque)

Pétanque old photo: http://cache3.asset-cache.net/gc/160702255-albert-debarge-marries-josianne-rousset-in-gettyimages.jpg?v=1&c=IWSAsset&k=2&d=GkZZ8bf5zL1ZiijUmxa7QRb3elaikB0wsuIje6LZ5qIlZFwr4Iyt%2bAtEtk63h7vGHw9WDtPuEHn0XScy7CdEvPc6MFA3lWBXE1Yr5pP3Qlg%3d (in http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/albert-debarge-marries-josianne-rousset-in-saint-tropez-news-photo/160702255)

Le Tour de Gaule d’Astérix: http://www.asterix.com/bd/albs/05frx.jpg (in http://www.asterix.com/la-collection/les-albums/le-tour-de-gaule-d-asterix.html)

Pétanque in Laos: http://blog.uniterre.com/uploads/f/frchazelle/576704.jpg (in http://www.uniterre.com/album-photos-voyage-21819.html)

Pétanque in Thailand: http://il2.picdn.net/shutterstock/videos/9605459/thumb/1.jpg?i10c=img.resize(height:160) (in http://www.shutterstock.com/de/video/clip-5718971-stock-footage-petanque-sports.html)

Pétanque in Kumamoto Japan: http://blog-imgs-50.fc2.com/a/k/a/akazawamitsuishi/img_1715696_52818299_2.jpg (in http://akazawamitsuishi.blog59.fc2.com/blog-entry-1676.html)

Pétanque in Pondicherry India: http://c8.alamy.com/comp/BAKEA9/india-pondicherry-territory-pondicherry-french-consulate-petanque-BAKEA9.jpg (in http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-india-pondicherry-territory-pondicherry-french-consulate-petanque-23785281.html)

Pétanque in China: http://www.boulistenaute.com/uploads/thumbs/4757.jpg (in http://www.boulistenaute.com/modules/newbb/viewattachment.php?topic_id=24172&post_id=692310&forum=37)

Petanque video-game screen: http://a4.mzstatic.com/eu/r30/Purple6/v4/2d/9a/0d/2d9a0d66-5b26-79d9-7d31-21b3b2e2340c/screen340x340.jpeg (in https://www.apptweak.com/petanque-2012-pro/iphone-ipad/kr/en/app-marketing-app-store-optimization-aso/report/497991055)

 

BEACH BLUES

Genova, 16 July 2015

I’m not a beach person. I don’t much like spending time in places like these.

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My fair skin, which I inherited from my Anglo-Saxon progenitors, burns immediately. So I spend all my time wearing clothes, which readers will agree is not optimal behaviour on a beach, or sloshing on 30+ sun cream and darting fearful looks at the blazing sun. In any case, I don’t see the pleasure of spending time in a micro-environment whose closest cousin is the middle of the Sahara desert, where sun beats down pitilessly on sand and pebbles, with no sight of tree or bush to give a pool of shade (beach umbrellas don’t count), or stream of merrily burbling fresh water to give the parched mouth relief (vendors of bottled water don’t count either).

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I should clarify that I’m talking here about the ecology of a Mediterranean beach in high summer; the UK or French Atlantic beaches of my youth are quite different micro-environments, closer to Arctic tundra – at least, my memories of these beaches are dominated by glacial seawater, howling winds, and driving rain.

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Back to the Mediterranean beaches, there is also the issue of the pebbles. We frequent a pebble beach.

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Nice to look at but agony for me to walk on as the pebbles drive into the arches of my feet – I have quite delicate feet, which is why, when in China, I had a foot massage only once, because after the masseuse’s vigorous manipulations I spent the rest of the week hobbling around in pain. The pebbles are also almost glowing they are so hot. Walking to the sea is like being one of those religious devotees who walk on burning coals to prove their devotion to whatever it is that they believe in.

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It doesn’t finish when I get to the sea. As I stand there, hesitating before the thermal shock that I know awaits me when I will plunge into the sea, the ebb and flow of the waves makes me stagger back and forth, stepping heavily on those damned pebbles.

As if all this were not enough, I get so BORED on beaches. I’m past the age of building sandcastles (although I did have fun helping the children make theirs when they were young)

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or looking for particularly smooth or beautifully coloured pebbles
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or throwing buckets of water on people
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or showing off beautifully sculpted pecs (and nowadays tattoos) to admiring girls and jealous boys (even assuming I had either).
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The best I can do is to read a book, but even this is difficult to do in the oppressive heat

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or find every excuse to escape the beach – cappuccino time, shopping for lunch and dinner, urgent need to pay parking fines in the municipal office … anything to get away from the beach.

I should clarify that I’m basing myself here mainly on my memories of spending summer holidays with the family at the seaside in Italy. Those holidays stopped some ten years ago, when the children, now grown up, were spending their summer holidays with their friends and later with their girl or boyfriend. My wife and I still came to the seaside, but not for the beach. We went for walks in the hills behind the sea

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we wandered around the village
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we went into Genova to admire the sites
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we dined out in the local restaurants

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Or we just looked at the view from our balcony.

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But we did not visit the beach. At maximum, one evening we would go down and dip a toe in the water.

Yet, as I write this, we are actually on that beach. This year, my wife and I have had the immense luck of having both kids with us at the same time for a week and a half during our and their summer breaks. In an advanced state of gratitude, I was therefore quite happy to tag along when it was suggested that we all go down to the beach and spend the afternoon there. After a dip in the sea, which was surprisingly warm (I am very picky about the temperature of the water), we are now lying in the shade of beach umbrellas, sipping water from a bottle we have just bought at the bar. And I’m feeling surprisingly mellow about it all; the beach seems quite a nice place really, don’t know what I had against it.
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All of which proves … what? I suppose that human beings can put up with anything as long as they are happy.

POST SCRIPTUM, 18 July 2015

The mellowness only lasted for another half day. After that, we let the children go to the beach without us.

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Ligurian beach: http://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/02/1a/a5/46/spiaggia-beach.jpg (in http://www.tripadvisor.it/Hotel_Review-g194849-d1933333-Reviews-Camping_dei_Fiori-Pietra_Ligure_Italian_Riviera_Liguria.html)
Desert: http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Travel/Pix/pictures/2007/10/20/escape.oman460.jpg (in http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2007/oct/21/oman.yemen)
English beach: http://img.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2008/05_02/bmouthrainL0505_468x337.jpg (in http://murderiseverywhere.blogspot.it/2012/06/oh-i-do-like-to-be-beside-seaside-in.html)
Pebble beach: my picture
Walking on coals: http://www.slate.com/content/dam/slate/articles/life/explainer/2012/07/120723_EXP_hotcoalsEX.png.CROP.rectangle3-large.png (in http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/explainer/2012/07/tony_robbins_firewalking_injuries_why_doesn_t_everyone_who_walks_on_hot_coals_get_burned_.html)
Sandcastle: http://www.vitadamamma.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/castello-di-sabbia.jpg (in http://www.lecivettesulsouffle.it/forum/index.php?topic=11341.15)
Looking for pebbles: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-IH2N5FaEr9k/T2mr8Pzd_II/AAAAAAAAAhw/joKptZ4mRK8/s1600/Siria+676_ipiccy.jpg (in http://moto-perpetuo.blogspot.it/2012_03_01_archive.html)
Throwing water: http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2011/07/20/article-0-0D144F4000000578-229_634x421.jpg (in http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2016716/Kendra-Wilkinson-Hank-Baskett-playful-beach-outing-son.html)
Muscled and tattooed man on the beach: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/fa/d0/8c/fad08ce895f6a109914fe85059149dc5.jpg (in https://www.pinterest.com/pin/463448617878375391/
Asleep with book: http://38.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_m6ptoftxGM1r2dx74.jpg (in http://lindyandcaitcoffeedates.tumblr.com)
Walking in the hills: http://www.caisezionedirho.it/public/upload/latest/DSCN3681_2.jpg (in http://www.caisezionedirho.it/sito/images.asp?cat=25&id=146)
Village: http://www.iliguria.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/iliguria_francesco_robbiano_sori_51.jpg (in http://www.iliguria.net/sori-genova-im-sori-concerto-per-archi/)
Duomo Genova: http://www.chiesadigenova.it/genova/allegati/362159/arte_genova_001_cattedrale_san_lorenzo.jpg (in http://www.chiesadigenova.it/home_page/itinerari/00362159_Cattedrale.html)
Restaurant: http://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/07/50/92/62/edo-bar-trattoria-pizzeria.jpg (in http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g1807548-d1173493-Reviews-Edobar-Sori_Italian_Riviera_Liguria.html)
The beach: http://www.lamargheritaditeriasca.it/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/sori.jpg (in http://www.lamargheritaditeriasca.it/sori/)

DREAM JOURNEY: PART III

Bangkok, 6 May 2015

May has arrived, the most beautiful month in the Mediterranean. It’s time for my wife and I to come out of our long, long hibernation in Istanbul and continue on our dream journey, the next leg of which will be Greece.

It’s warm enough now for us to travel by open-topped car again, so with a click of my mouse I materialize the little MG which carried us so long ago from Venice to Aquileia.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I have it pop up in front of the Hagia Sophia (probably not possible in real life but hey, this is a dream). We hop in and drive off. We will be following the trace of the Via Egnatia, the Roman road which once linked Constantinople to Dyrrachium (now Durrës in Albania) on the Adriatic coast, from whence a short ship ride could bring Roman legions and you to Bari in Italy. As always where map reading is required, my wife is driving. I have her take Divanyolu Avenue, which overlies the trace of the Mese, the main Roman street of Constantinople. Like the Mese, the Divanyolu Avenue starts just in front of Hagia Sophia. When we reach Murat Pasha Mosque, at what was once Constantinople’s Forum of the Ox, and where the Mese angled south-west, I have my wife turn left down Cerrapasha Avenue (never mind that the web informs me that the street is one way against us: this is a dream). The traffic is heavy I would imagine, we are inching along. At Koca Mustafa Pasha Mosque, things get complicated. The modern street plan no longer follows the old streets. Looking at the city map on the web, I muse on what to do next. The cars are beeping behind us, my wife is asking urgently, “which way?” I decide: go left, keep going until you somehow manage to reach Imrahor Ilyas Bey Avenue, turn right and keep going until you come to the old Theodosian city walls, which protected the city until its fall to the Ottomans. There, pass through a break in the walls, leaving to our left the remains of the Golden Gate, through which the Via Egnatia once entered the city.

golden gate theodosian walls istanbul

We are now at the official starting point of the Via Egnatia. But I must say everything is very confused. The recent huge, jumbled expansion of the city has completely effaced any traces of the ancient road. What the hell, I know where I want to go, so I tell my wife to hang a left and head down to John Kennedy Avenue, which runs along the Sea of Marmara. After a while we pick up the trace of the Via Egnatia, and so we bowl along to Tegirdağ, where we regretfully leave the sea’s edge and cut across to Ipsala at the border with Greece (a border which has only existed a hundred years or so and whose creation left much bitterness behind). Now in Greece, we go on through Komotini and Kavala (close to which, at the Battle of Philippi, in 42 BC, Mark Antony and Octavian beat the assassins of Julius Caesar, Brutus and Longinus, thus starting the process which destroyed the Roman Republic and put in its place the Roman Empire). Finally, we arrive at our destination, Thessaloniki.

Thessaloniki … Thessalonica to the Roman and Byzantine elites, just plain old Salonika to the locals, Selânik to the Ottomans. Its nascent Christian community the recipient in the first decades of the Christian era of two of St. Paul’s most famous Epistles, the First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians. Birthplace in the 9th Century of Saints Cyril and Methodius, who converted Eastern Europe to Orthodox Christianity, but also in the 19th Century of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founding father of modern Turkey.

Like Ravenna and Aquileia where I started this dream journey, Thessaloniki has suffered from the ravages of man and nature ever since it was founded by King Cassander of Macedon in 315 BC. Its history under the Romans and early Byzantines was relatively peaceful, apart from some raiding by Thracian tribes in the 50s BC, and a terrible incident in 390 AD, when some 10,000 of its citizens were massacred in the hippodrome as a punishment for starting a revolt. Its troubles really started when the Roman Empire weakened and the Barbarian tribes from the north began their incursions. Like Aquileia, it suffered from repeated attacks in the 7th Century by Barbarian tribes, Slavs in this case, but unlike Aquileia it managed to hold them off. As if the Slavs were not enough, the city suffered a catastrophic earthquake in 620, which did much damage. There followed a few centuries of respite, but after the Byzantines lost control of the Aegean Sea, Saracens seized the city in 904. After a ten day sack they left, but not before freeing thousands of Muslim prisoners while enslaving thousands of Christians and carrying off huge amounts of booty. In 1185, at another moment of Byzantine weakness, it was the turn of the Normans of Sicily to attack and take the city. Their rule, though short, led to considerable destruction. After Constantinople was captured by the Fourth Crusade in 1204, the city became the centre of one of the feudal fiefs which the Crusaders created. It was short-lived. The city and its territory were seized in 1224 by the Greek Despot of Epirus (who in turn was subjugated by the Tsar of Bulgaria). In 1246, a reinvigorated Byzantine Empire recovered the city. After a century and a half, the Byzantines lost it again, this time to the new regional power, the Ottomans. The Ottomans’ tenure was initially short-lived. They were forced to hand the city back to the Byzantines after their disastrous defeat by Tamerlane the Lame in 1402 at the gates of Ankara. But too weak by now to hold it, the Byzantines sold the city to Venice in 1423. Seven years later, in 1430, the Ottomans definitively recaptured the city.

There followed nearly five centuries of relative tranquility, during which the city became one of the great emporia of the Mediterranean and a melting pot of different ethnicities: Greeks of course, but also Turks, as well as Jews – the Ottomans welcomed the Sephardic Jews fleeing from Spain and Portugal – and later Bulgarians. Then, as Ottoman power went into terminal decline, irredentist feelings in Greece and Bulgaria grew. Both felt the city and its surrounding territory was theirs. After various acts of provocation and terrorism, matters came to a head in the two Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. For a while, things hung in the balance but the city finally went to Greece. In 1917, during the First World War, a huge fire, accidentally started in a kitchen, destroyed almost the entire city. This led to an exodus of the city’s Jewish population, many of whom lost everything in the conflagration. They were soon followed by the Moslem, Turkish population as a result of the massive exchange of populations which followed the end of the Greco-Turkish War in 1922. In their place came Greeks expelled from Asia Minor, making the city once again a predominantly Greek city. During the Second World War, the Germans occupied it. As a result, its port facilities were heavily if haphazardly bombed by the Allies. For their part, the SS rounded up what was left of the city’s ancient Jewish population and shipped them all off to the gas chambers. After two millennia of presence (Jews had chased St. Paul out of the city after he had preached there), the Jews effectively vanished from Thessaloniki. The city had not finished to suffer. In 1978, it was hit by a powerful earthquake, which did considerable damage to its structures, both old and new.

With this history, it’s little short of a miracle if any of the city’s early Christian mosaics are left at all. I direct my wife to enter the city along the trace of the Via Egnatia, which leads us straight to the Arch of Galerius and the Rotunda of St. George. Google Maps doesn’t show any parking lots around there, but this is a dream, so we easily find a little parking spot in one of the side streets for our MG. We enter the Rotunda, and walk through to the main cupola. This is what greets us: a badly damaged band of mosaics in its upper registry.

St. George-0St. George-1a

St. George-2

Sad. But what can you expect, these mosaics were installed 1700 years old, in the late 300s AD. Funnily enough, the little that there is left of them may have been saved by the church becoming a mosque. The Turks just whitewashed over mosaics and frescoes, after pilfering whatever gold tesserae there still were.

But let’s get up close – which we can, since this is a dream, we can just float up there. Look at the faces!

St. George-5

St. George-3

St. George-4

Here, we still have Roman art, but with Christian characteristics.

The internet warns me that traffic is terrible in Thessaloniki, so I decide that we will walk to the other churches. On strictly chronological grounds, I further decide that the next church we will visit is St. David’s, built in the late 4th Century. I open Google Maps’ Street View and find that we are walking through a modern, really quite pleasant city, the product of the Great Fire of 1917 and modern planning for the city’s reconstruction. Anyway, we plunge into St. David’s. It has one remarkable mosaic left, tucked away in a lunette in a corner, depicting the vision of Ezekiel

St David-1

After admiring it for a while, we head on to St. Demetrius, which celebrates the city’s patron saint. The church has just a few, rather wonderful mosaic panels left, probably installed in the late 600s, early 700s, just after the Slavs had given up trying to sack the city.

St. Demetrios-2

St. Demetrios-4

St. Demetrios-3

The first is still Roman art, while the other two are beginning to look Byzantine.

Next stop: Hagia Sophia, Thessaloniki’s not Istanbul’s (although it seems that the design of the Thessalonian version was based on its Constantinopolitan namesake). On the way, we pop into the early 5th Century Church of Acheiropoietos, but there are really only shreds of mosaics left. Discouraged, we go on. And so we come to Hagia Sophia, built in the 8th Century, and whose glory is the late 8th Century mosaic in the cupola.

Hagia Sofia-1

As we can in dreams, my wife and I drift up to see the Christ up close.

Hagia Sofia-2

And we see a Christ who is becoming ever more Byzantine in his look and posture. The glories of Rome seem to be becoming a distant memory. This is even more apparent in this Virgin Mary, which reminds me of that other Virgin Mary we visited on the island of Torcello in the lagoons of Venice on the first leg of this dream trip.

Hagia Sofia-3

At this point, I have to make a decision. My original idea for this dream trip was for my wife and I to go south and visit the walled monastery of St. Luke in Boeotia and further south still to the convent of Daphni, close to Athens. They have lovely, if late-style, mosaics, this one an example from St. Luke’s, a rendering of the Pentecost

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

and this one from Daphni, of Christos Pantocrator, Christ the All-Powerful

Daphni-Christ Pantrocrator

I also wanted to take this road to follow a little in the footsteps, or rather the tyre marks, of my father. In 1937, when still a university student, he spent the Easter holidays driving his Ford, in company of a cousin, all the way from Cambridge to Athens and on to Sparta, and then back. To get there, he drove through the old lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, across Bulgaria, and down to Thessaloniki. I feel his young shadow passing by us and want to follow it a little while. But it’s too much of a detour, and I want to get to Italy before it gets too hot. So I choose. We will continue along the trace of the Via Egnatia, to the Adriatic, and pick up the ferry to Bari.

No sooner said than done. We are whisked to the car and are now heading out of the Thessaloniki. Studying Google maps in conjunction with Omnes Viae (“The Roman Route Planner”, which I had occasion to use in the first leg of this dream journey), I get my wife to make for Edessa, which in ancient times guarded the entrance of the Via Egnatia to the Pindus mountains but is now known more picturesquely as the “city of waters”. On the web, I watch people cavort in the city’s waters (highly mineralized by the look of it)

Edessa

before continuing on. We skirt the pretty lakes of Vegoritida and Petron

lake Vegoritida

and veer northwards. We cross the border into Macedonia (sorry, “the Former Yugolsav Republic of Macedonia”; political tempers run high in this region), a border which only came into existence in 1918, and we arrive at the city once called Heraclea Lyncestis but now known more prosaically as Bitola. It was an important way station on the Via Egnatia, so I take a pause and look at a panoramic view

Bitola Panorama

before moving on. We’re heading west now, towards the Adriatic Sea. We skirt the beautiful Lake Ohrid

Lake Ohrid

passing through the city of Ohrid, once Lychnidos, another important stop on the Via Egnatia. I’m tempted to visit the 5th Century Polyconch Basilica to see the remains of its mosaic floor, but everything I read suggests that the remains are too fragmentary. We take to the road again and soon find ourselves crossing yet another border that only came into existence in 1918, this one into Albania.

We pass over gloriously wild mountains

Librazhad

before dropping into the narrow valley of the Shkumbin River, known to the Romans as the Flumen Genusus.

Shkumbin river

We follow the river as it hurries down to the sea, but shortly before getting there we turn sharp right and head for the port of Durrës. In the summer, the place is submerged in beach-goers

Durres

but luckily there aren’t so many people yet. We drive to the ferry port. The web helpfully informs me that there is a ferry leaving tonight at 10 pm, which gets into Bari at 8 am tomorrow morning. Ferrying my wife, me, and our little MG over to Italy will cost us the princely sum of £131.72 (for some reason, the site I visited quotes the prices in pounds sterling). We have time for a bite to eat before we leave. But what do you eat in Albania?

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MG: http://www.mgownersclub.co.uk/sites/default/files/member-images/1105377623_27223.jpg (in http://www.mgownersclub.co.uk/member-images/mg-t-series/1954-tf-0)

Golden gate Istanbul: http://www.livius.org/a/turkey/istanbul/walls/istanbul_wall_theodosius_s_of_golden_gate.JPG (in http://www.livius.org/cn-cs/constantinople/constantinople_land_walls.html)

St. George Rotunda-1: http://cdn1.vtourist.com/4/5034576-St_Georges_Rotunda_Thessaloniki.jpg

St. George Rotunda-2: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/greece/thessaloniki-rotunda/photos/mosaic-sts-onesiphoros-and-porphyrios-c5-wc-pd)

St. George Rotunda-3: http://dic.academic.ru/pictures/wiki/files/84/ThessHagGeorgMosCosDamien.jpg

St. George Rotunda-4-Saint Cosmas: http://www.ics.forth.gr/isl/fayum/images/image_59.jpg

St. George Rotunda-5-Saint Therinos: http://www.ics.forth.gr/isl/fayum/images/image_60.jpg

St. George Rotunda-6-Saint Philip Bishop: http://www.ics.forth.gr/isl/fayum/images/image_57.jpg

St David: https://yameee.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/hd1.jpg (in https://yameee.wordpress.com/2014/09/20/сравнительный-анализ-мозаик-церквей/

St Demetrios-1-dedicating children to Demetrios: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-EYa9zdAwg9w/Ty_EdArv9MI/AAAAAAAAAJM/Bgpaw1ttHAU/s1600/03.jpg

St. Demetrios-2-Demetrios and children: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-i536vAoKGRc/Ty_FkFneuOI/AAAAAAAAAJs/I68I0jWcfxU/s1600/07.jpg

St. Demetrios-3-Demetrios and donor: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-0C51ycpEZKQ/Ty_FNdSgPEI/AAAAAAAAAJk/rl66Pq0HZlA/s1600/06.jpg

Hagia Sophia-1: http://www.inthessaloniki.com/images/Churches/AgiasSofias/Inthessaloniki_Hagia_Sofia_C.jpg (in http://www.inthessaloniki.com/en/agia-sofia)

Hagia Sophia-2-cupola-christ detail: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-TgUH5cPxxv0/T3i6LzYE-TI/AAAAAAAABj8/5B_CxlT_GcM/s1600/%CE%91%CE%93%CE%99%CE%91+%CE%A3%CE%9F%CE%A6%CE%99%CE%91+%CE%A8%CE%99%CE%A6%CE%97%CE%94.8.JPG

Hagia Sophia-3-catino-Virgin: http://farm6.staticflickr.com/5104/5737609091_a1ff106e1b_z.jpg

Convent of Daphni: Cupola-2-detail: http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3131/2618506302_de85e9decf.jpg

St. Luke-cupola-pentecost: http://users.sch.gr/geioanni/sel-ekpaideusi/sxolikes_ergasies/TRITH-GYMNASIOY-THRHSKEYTIKA/EIKONES_ENOTHTA_1/PENTHKOSTH_8.jpg

Edessa: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-R7o-WczsSEk/UT85DRLhV2I/AAAAAAAAUPs/X5W2oHAFcLs/s1600/lydialith.jpg (in http://paspartounews.blogspot.com/2013/03/blog-post_8742.html)

Lake Vegoritida: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Vegoritida#/media/File:Ostrovskoto_ezero.JPG (in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Vegoritida)

Bitola: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/4e/BitolaPanorama.jpg/950px-BitolaPanorama.jpg (in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bitola)

Lake Ohrid: http://www.rego-bis.pl/bin/images/c77bd7ecc_d95f83717734355.jpeg (in http://www.rego-bis.pl/hotel,hotelcaliforniaresortpobytobjazd2w1,ALBCALR.html?ofrid=0e04c3c867866ee4b5a8f79f6b760f260257028d331141b288f4e709ba8a3720)

Librazhd: http://mw2.google.com/mw-panoramio/photos/medium/40520594.jpg (in http://www.panoramio.com/user/4935966/tags/Shebenik%20National%20Park)

Shkumbin river: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shkumbin#/media/File:Shkumbin.jpg (in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shkumbin)

Durrës beach: http://www.shkendijatravel.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/durres_albania_plaze.jpeg (in http://www.shkendijatravel.com/durres-port/)