Friday 13 March 2020

Friday The 13th. A Good Day To Travel.

We started the day with a final phone interview from ABC Albany. I was now able to confirm that Italy is in a full and proper lockdown and we're hoping to get on a plane out today. We'd booked our shuttle early in case of delays at the airport and after eating a final cooked breakfast we met out driver at the door, right on time.

The driver was clearly channeling his charioteer ancestors as he hurled his Mercedes van around corners and charged through what little traffic there was. He confirmed that he'd never seen the roads so empty and a trip that normally took 45 minutes took about half  that so we arrived at the airport even earlier than planned.
The Hotel Minerva where Edward stayed in Rome. Somewhat pricey these days but we'll spend a night there to celebrate if we ever get to resume Edward's journey.

However, that was probably a good thing because there were already long lines at the check in and security desks. The crowds were quiet and orderly and the occasional person who tried to push into a line was quickly made aware by others that that wasn't going to be acceptable.

Most people, including us, were wearing face masks, mostly just to be polite I suspect because according to the health authorities face masks only reduce the possibility of passing Covid19 on, if you already have it. However, there were some Japanese tour groups who were all kitted out in full Hazmat bio suits, like forensic workers at a crime scene, complete with visored bucket hats,  presumably supplied by their tour companies.

Our travel agent had got us fantastic front row seats with as much leg room as business class so the trip home was pleasant and uneventful. The most alarming part was when we landed for transit in Doha and some bright spark had arranged for all disembarking passengers to be screened for body temperature. However, they put the screening device right at the end of the airbridge off the plane, resulting in all the passengers being huddled together on said air bridge with no chance of keeping any distance apart, let alone the prescribed 1.5metres. If anyone on the plane had had Covid19, it would have just skipped through the crowd.

Then when they got everyone into the terminal they had organised for us all to pass through another security check and be herded into a corner of the terminal. Apart from the fact that security checking disembarking passengers seems a bit pointless, they then discovered that the area selected had no toilets so after some pleas from the more desperate, they started letting passengers walk through the queue for the security check, in order to get to the toilets, thus negating the whole purpose of the check. To make matters worse they gave no announcement whatsoever of what their plan was. It gradually became clear that what they were doing was sending airline staff down to take groups of passengers to their ongoing flights as they were due. All of this led to an understandable degree of irritation by some passengers, which could have been averted by better communication and planning. Had Edward been there I imagine he would have written some pithy comments about "sons of the desert" and their inability to organise effectively but given that it's 2020 and such comments are less acceptable these days, I shall say no more.

We landed safely in Perth in the early evening, local time. As passengers embarking in Italy, we were again temperature checked and briefly interviewed by health staff to ensure we had no virus symptoms. As an indication of how fast things change, these staff gave us a sheet of  Australian Government self isolation guidelines. We had been given a similar sheet on embarkation but already some of the conditions had become stricter.

We had decided that the safest course would be to book into an airport hotel and then book a flight back to Albany for the following morning. When we got into a taxi to go to the hotel, the driver fiddled with his meter and then claimed that for some reason it wasn't working. He suggested he could take us for a fixed cash fee which he nominated as $35. I suggested that from previous experience it should be no more than $20-25 but he then pled that he had been waiting for 3 hours and this was his first job in that time. Having driven a taxi myself I'm aware how little taxi drivers make so we agreed to meet in the middle at $30. I'm pretty sure he was having a laugh and it pains me to say that in many years of travel, often in third world nations where you are warned to look out for taxi scams,  I can't ever remember a driver trying it on. So for this to happen in Perth was a shame.
(My position was confirmed when our taxi back to the airport the next morning, came in at $25.)

We spent the night at the Airport Ibis hotel before returning to the airport next morning and an uneventful flight home and the prospect of 14 days self isolation at home to ensure we hadn't brought Covid19 with us.

At this point I will once again close this blog. The world is now an extremely strange place with pretty well everywhere locked down and economies in ruin. It remains to be seen what the long term health, social and economic effects of Covid19 will be but sadly I imagine they will  not be pretty. Hopefully some time, not too far on, we will be able to return to Italy and resume Edward's journey. Then I may be able to visit Pompeii before resuming Edward's northward route. But who knows?

Thursday 12 March 2020

This Is Serious!

Clearly things were getting serious now and it was time to leave Italy sooner rather than later. People had told us that Doha was already closed to planes from Italy but luckily we had booked our tickets via a local travel agent rather than doing it online ourselves. I made a phone call to our agent and then after a short series of emails she told us that she had booked us on a return flight for tomorrow. Much simpler than the ladies on the train who had done all their own bookings. Because of Covid19 major airlines including Qatar were waiving the rebooking fee so the change wasn't going to cost us anything. The agent said there were flights on several days and we decided to take the earliest one despite it being on Friday 13th. I'm not generally superstitious and I figured so much has gone wrong in the world already that hopefully Friday 13th is now working in reverse.

We had booked our Rome apartment through to Saturday but at this stage everything was changing so fast and often I figured we'd keep the booking open because I wasn't going to believe things were assured until my feet were firmly on Australian soil again.
Trajan's Column which was there in Edward's time and Vittoriano which wasn't. The latter was built as a memorial to Italys unification in the late 19th century.  

We cooked breakfast before going for a short walk. Today, however, the police were taking the lockdown seriously and a passing police patrol made it clear that we should return home. Luckily we had bought sufficient supplies for a couple of days because by now Rome really was a ghost town with all restaurants and shops closed except for mini marts which only seem to sell potato crisps and limoncello. They really love their limoncello here.

So we returned to our apartment where we spent the rest of the day watching The Simpsons on TV. We cooked tea and drank champagne for tea. The train to the airport was still running but we decided in the circumstances it would be safer to book a shuttle service the apartment uses to get to the airport tomorrow.

Wednesday 11 March 2020

Rome. Closed For Business.

This mornings news was that Australians returning from Italy must self isolate at home for 14 days. Andrew rang me for another interview on the ABC and I expressed that much of the information coming through is contradictory and changing minute by minute. I guess this is a function of the whole Covid19 situation coming so quickly and taking everyone by surprise so officials are essentially flying by the seat of their pants and making decisions as they go. For example it is not clear what happens for us once we get back to Australia. We were booked to travel home to Albany by bus but would we be allowed to do that? It wasn't clear.

We made our way to the station where we caught the first available train to Rome. At the station we weren't directly asked our reasons for travel but one of several policemen on the platform came over, ostensibly to tell me to keep my large, gold covered watch hidden at the Rome station because the wicked pickpockets there would have it off in a flash. I reassured him that the watch is probably only worth a few euro brand new so any pickpocket managing to take it was wasting their time. I suspect this chat was as much his polite, non-intrusive way of establishing that we were tourists heading for home, as a genuine concern for my watch's welfare. The police seem to be as perplexed as anyone by the developing situation.

At a cafe having breakfast before the train, we chatted with a Brisbane couple who had had a couple of accommodation disasters as an apparent result of the Covid19 crisis. Having places closed for booking due to concerns re the situation and turning up at other places to find them overbooked. Fortunately we haven't had any such issues. On the train we also chatted, at a good metre distance with a couple of Australian ladies who were heading to Rome and home, the same as us. They had spent over an hour the previous night on the phone to Qantas trying to rebook their online booked flights. We planned to wait until we successfully reached Rome before trying to get our travel agent to rebook our flight. The good news was that according to the internet, airlines were doing rebookings at no charge due to the crisis.

The train trip to Rome only took a couple of hours, through broad plains of acres of shiny plastic grow houses. The oranges had declined in favour of stone fruit. Edward saw interminable lines of poplars and elms along the roads his carriage traveled. While some of the poplars are still there, there are also many lines of eucalypts as windbreaks and shade.

The towns still seem to favour the hills which must lead to a lot of steep hills to walk up, less of a problem I suppose in this era of cars and motor bikes. I guess Italians have had several thousand years of worrying about who is going to invade next, so their desire to see who is coming is understandable. And even in these more peaceful times old habits die hard.

Once again a trip that took us a few hours took Edward took Edward 4 days. For breakfast one day, he ordered a beef-steak for five o'clock tomorrow morning. A French fellow traveler found this highly unusual. So astounding did this carnivorous inclination of mine seem to appear to our friend's Gallic prejudices, that during the rest of the evening he could not subdue his astonishment, but continued occasionally to mutter "Ah mon Dieu! Un bifteck a cinq heures du matin."

As usual there were no ticket checks on the train. The PA was now telling us all travelers must carry forms outlining their reason for travel but there was no sign of such forms, let alone anyone asking to see them. As we got close to Rome the farms appeared to be larger and more prosperous with some having large fields of large round hay bales and decent sized flocks of sheep. Rome itself is surprisingly small geographically because it didn't seem far from the suburban edge until we got to the central station.
You won't see the Trevi Fountain this quiet for a long time. 

We walked up to our apartment at Via Boschetto 114 which we had deliberately chosen for it's central location. As everything is rapidly closing down we decided to take a walk to some of the nearby tourist attractions. We went first to the Trevi Fountain which was without it's usual crowds although there were still several dozen tourists in the forecourt. There were also about half a dozen police of assorted kinds and while we were there, one who had Polizia on his hi-vis vest, but looked more like a Council Ranger, started to shout "go back to your hotels-no one is supposed to be out". The tourists all looked at their shoes and shuffled their feet and the other police did likewise but no-one seemed to be in a hurry to go.

We decided to go but made sure our route back to our hotel took us past the Pantheon, the Forum and the Coliseum. All imposing structures but hard to comment on from a quick stroll past. For Edward the Coliseum is grand, far surpassing all ideas of it gained from descriptions or engravings. The beautiful Column of Trajan, and Constantine's Triumphal  Arch also fill one with admiration and I couldn't put it any better.
Locking down in style. 

On our way we passed an Italian film crew, filming two ladies waving Italian Italian flags and shouting angrily. With no Italian we couldn't tell whether they were protesting the curtailing of their liberty by the shutdown, or cursing foreign visitors by bringing this plague upon them. We hurried on by in case it were the latter. We stopped off at a local supermarket where we joined an orderly queue at metre intervals down the street to buy supplies for the next few days including some bubbles and limoncello. Live fast-die pretty. That's our motto

Tuesday 10 March 2020

A Direct Hit On The Fan

We awoke this morning to an avalanche of emails and messages from friends and family in Australia who had heard overnight that all of Italy was being shutdown due to Covid19. I also got another phone call and on air interview from Andrew at the ABC. Clearly our plans were going to require a major rethink at this stage. We  walked down to the station where we ascertained that trains were still running for those with valid travel reasons. Our decision therefore was to head to Rome as soon as possible so that we could look into rebooking an early flight home.

We walked back to our room at Salerno Downtown where we booked an apartment in Rome with kitchen and living space, in case we ended up in any prolonged lockdown there. Then with nothing better to do, we wandered the lanes and streets of Salerno. Salerno is far cleaner and wealthier looking than Sicily. They have homeless and beggars but even these are reasonably well dressed and middle class looking, in contrast to some of the sad cases we saw in Sicily.  There are lots of upmarket shops which today were still open but quiet. Restaurants and cafes were still open 6am to 6pm but waiters were out with tape measures ensuring all seats were at least a metre apart.

It's a shame we couldn't do more than walk the streets of Salerno because it's an attractive place. With a scenic waterfront, some spectacular hills leading off to Amalfi behind and like all of Italy,  history everywhere. On the train trips from Palermo to here, there are historic ruins on hill tops every few kilometres. Norman forts, medieval churches and the occasional Roman looking ruin. The view from our window in Salerno was a medieval aqueduct that once provided the city water supply.
The view from our window in Salerno.

At lunch, Trish had expressed a wish for fish and chips given that we were in a seaside town. We found a little hole in the wall kind of place that sold paper cones of chips with calamari and while we were sitting at the counter eating our lunch I noticed that the right hand door jamb was a stone pillar that was clearly of significant antiquity. I am not an archaeologist so I couldn't be sure if it was medieval or even Roman but it was clearly old. The Italians have for centuries built onto and over, existing buildings so this pillar has sat there for hundreds, if not thousands, of years with passers-by consuming all manner of products in it's shadow.
Salerno waterfront. Just the place for calamari and chips. 

We returned to our room for an afternoon siesta which was spoilt somewhat by another guest arguing loudly in Italian with his wife and adult son in the communal lounge area of the place. Later the owner and another chap came and he argued loudly with them as well.

By the time we thought to go out for tea, it was 5.45 and the cafes were all closing down so we bought some stuff at a nearby supermarket and had that for tea. Unlike stories from Australia the supermarket patrons were orderly and there were no apparent shortages of anything. 

Monday 9 March 2020

Pompeii Buried Again

I started the day with a phone call to my daughter Cushla for her birthday before catching a taxi to the station to board the train to Salerno. I've already mentioned that Edward took the ferry from Palermo to Naples and he was irritated on departing Sicily when we for two mortal hours were, without distinction-first class, second class, and deck passengers,some seventy or eighty in all-kept standing, indiscriminately mingled together, upon the deck, broiling under the hot sun, while a most vexatiously slow and deliberate examination of our passports, and muster of our persons, was gone through. 

This of course was prior to the unification of Italy whereas Sicily is now part of the Italian nation so no such bothersome formalities have to be endured. We were travelling by train and that involved an interesting process whereby you board the train in Messina and then the whole train is shunted in several pieces onto the ferry and off again in Villa San Giovanni, on the mainland. Train passengers can either remain in the train in the hold or go up into the ferry saloon for the hour long journey across the Straits of Messina.
Colossal golden statue of Madonna erected by Mussolini at the entrance to Messina harbour. Must've been a helpful sighting point for Allied bombers in the war. 

On his arrival in Messina, Edward had notice that they had passed the once dreaded Charybdis, which, whatever were its former terrors, appears nothing very formidable now. Charybdis was a spirit that lurked under the rocks on the Messina side of the Straits (while Scylla lived on the mainland side) and sucked Odysseus's ship into a whirlpool. It now means something disastrous that sucks you in slowly-ultimately a good description of the worlds, and our, experience with Covid19. The waters of the Straits definitely show turbulence and you wouldn't want to try and swim in it, but it must have been a much rougher day when Odysseus visited if it could suck a vessel of any size in.
Messina through a dirty ferry window, showing the noticeable, but not excessive surface turbulence of the water. 

Once on the mainland the train traveled along a coast similar to Sicily's although with perhaps even steeper hills running down to the water. Almost every square metre of land has been terraced into growing space and like Sicily there are spectacular road bridges carrying the highway above the train. After a while the train cuts inland across a wide plain, followed by a series of rolling hills. Oranges and olives remain major crops and it's hard to believe there are enough people in the world to consume all that they grow. As you head further north there is an increasing number of plastic crop houses growing who knows what vegetables. I'm guessing tomatoes in summer.

Later the train comes back to the coast, where there are what appear to be numerous mothballed beach resorts, before heading inland again through a wide forested river valley. As you approach Salerno the horticulture becomes increasingly intensive and there are also some reasonably large industrial operations of various kinds.

We arrived in Salerno in the mid afternoon. Unlike most of the places we've been to, Salerno had a prominent Tourist Info office on the station forecourt so I called in to pick up a map of town, only to be informed by the desk guy that as of today, the shutdown that previously applied only to some of the northern provinces, was now extended to the whole country. That meant that all museums and tourist attractions, were now shut. This was  particularly upsetting news in that the one thing I had most been looking forward to on this trip was Pompeii. Apart from it being on Edward's itinerary, I had visited Pompeii as a 6 year old on our way to live in Australia. It had had a particular impact on me and was one of my most vivid childhood memories so I was really keen to go back. This was now not going to be possible.

Edward had planned to make a trip to Salerno and Paestum, Greek ruins to the south, but he cancelled those plans because the slumbering fires of Vesuvius had once more broken forth, and keen adventure tourist that he was, he decided to stay and make another trip up the mountain instead. For our part, we had intended to visit Paestum and then travel along the Amalfi coast to Sorrento, vist Capri from there and then go to Pompeii and Naples. However, like Edward our plans were now thwarted by an eruption of a different kind.

Sunday 8 March 2020

Italian Rules

Today the rain seems to have set in but it is only "Albany Rain", a light misty drizzle that our umbrella and rain jackets should be able to contend with. We spent the morning walking along the waterfront, much of which was built during Italy's search for it's classical past after unification in the late 19th Century and under Mussolini in the 1930s so Edward wouldn't recognise a lot of it. They did quite a good job with some fine looking buildings but Messina doesn't appear to be faring well today. It was quiet and run down with little to recommend it as far as I could see.
Another shot of the Duomo demonstrating the paucity of Messina's tourist attractions. 

Reflecting on Covid19, as bad as it might be, when Edward arrived in Messina, locals told him of a cholera outbreak several months earlier when in less than three weeks, we were told, more than a fourth of the entire population of Messina ...fell victims to the dreadful pest, four thousand persons perishing in one day. So far Covid19 doesn't appear to have reached fatality rates anything like that, although I guess only time will tell.

Italians have a pretty casual approach to authority and regulation so it may take them awhile to adjust to Covid19 restrictions. For instance crosswalks which are numerous here, seem to be approached by driver's with the attitude "try not to hit anyone if they're on these white lines, especially if old or infirm, but otherwise proceed as normal". Pedestrians are advised to approach crosswalks tentatively because even L platers with instructors and police cars are not guaranteed to stop. However, just to spice things up and demonstrate the intrinsic Italian good nature, cars will occasionally stop suddenly for you if you appear to be wanting to cross a road, whether on a crosswalk or not. This inevitably sets off a chorus of horn beeps from the cars behind such a driver, whether on a crosswalk or not. Strangely, today I saw a jogger shout angrily at a driver who failed to stop for him on a crosswalk and given that he clearly appeared to be a local, I'm not sure what made this occasion exceptional.

Similarly when I first came to Italy over 40 years ago I was struck by their casual attitude to parking.  Cars would park anywhere they could find space, or even where they couldn't. The Fiat Bambino was clearly made for such an environment.  Cars would be left double parked for hours on end which appeared to be completely acceptable. Nothing has changed today and in Palermo I even saw one expensive Audi SUV that had utilised it's climbing ability to be parked half way up one of the numerous sets of pedestrian stairways, as if preparing for a remake of the Italian Job.

On Edward's visit to Messina heavy rain descending in torrents all day, rendered it impossible to go out so he spent the afternoon and evening in company  with some English officers on their way to the Crimea in a lengthened investigation of the merits of various Sicilian wines. Coincidentally heavy rain kept us in after lunch but we spent the afternoon watching English language satellite TV in our room.

For dinner, inspired by our Sri Lankan adventure last night, we decided to visit a nearby Turkish kebab shop tonight. I'm not sure what Italian liquor licensing laws entail, or even if they have any because almost everywhere sells alcohol. This kebab shop clearly sold the cheapest beer in town because the doorway and few outside tables were packed with locals but none of them were eating kebabs. They were all solely there for the beer and the side wall was stacked high with cartons of stubbies awaiting their turn in the fridge.

Saturday 7 March 2020

Dogs And Oranges

Edward travelled by boat from Palermo to Naples which took nearly 24 hours. There is still a ferry which now takes 11 hours but as we had yet to visit Messina, and an 11 hour ferry ride was not an appealing thought, we had decided to take the train to Messina and then another train up the southern Italian coast to Salerno. 

Edward found that a fearful amount of kissing was exchanged among the male portion of the assembly as the ferry was leaving including a young gentleman he had met in Palermo who insisted on coming to see us off, so took me by surprise as to bring his lips in contact with my cheek before I was aware of his design. As I've mentioned the kissing still goes on although by now Covid19 awareness was filtering through and we noticed some chaps substituting the full blown smacker with embarrassed little air kisses at a metre distance. Edward reasserted his masculinity by noting on the ferry that an older Russian Countess aboard is tall and graceful, and though a little passe, she is still a very handsome woman. A "cougar" eh?

The train along the coast took about 4 hours from Palermo to Messina and traveled along the spectacular coastline with steep hills running down to the sea. Thus there were frequent tunnels, cuttings and embankments to keep the line level and higher up you could see huge bridges for the highway to cover the same route. 

A young woman travelling across the aisle from us had her dog with her. She was impressed when I correctly identified it as a Japanese Akita and surprised when I told her that in Australia only blind people could take their dogs on public transport. She spoke little 'English, and I even less Italian so most of our conversation took place via our phone and Google Translate. However, I did impress her enough that she suggested that if we ever came back to Sicily we should come and stay with her at her family home. Trish cynically suggested that this just meant her family have an AirBnB listing she was touting for whereas I took it as an offer of genuine hospitality. 

Covid19 awareness has now increased to the stage that apart from the frequent PA announcements regarding following the instructions on the signs (which still don't appear to be on the trains yet) extra cleaning is taking place. At a short stopover on the halfway point of the trip, a cleaner in overalls and rubber gloves got on. I had just remarked to Trish on his resemblance to my friend Greg Elton, not only physical but also in the manner with which he was engaging jovially with passengers as he came down the aisle, when he reached us.  He stopped, and with Edward's eye for a pretty lady he pulled 2 oranges out of his overall pocket and insisted that Trish take and eat one. He proudly declared in broken English- Italian that he had grown them organically,  on the hillside above, pointing out the window to show us the exact spot. When Trish gave me half of the orange he had given her, he then insisted that she take the remaining half of the one he had kept and peeled for himself. He then sprayed a little antiseptic from the bottle he carried onto the side of just one of the many vacant seats, and carried on down the aisle. Now the PA announcements assure us that "all staff are scrupulously adhering to the new requirements" but clearly this chap fell asleep during the training seminar. 
Messina Duomo and bell tower. Despite the tower's classical appearance it was built in the 1930s to replace an earlier one that fell down in an earthquake. 

Drizzly rain started to fall during the latter stages of the trip but it eased off long enough for us to walk up to our room at the B&B Duomo on the Cathedral Square in Messina. At 6pm we heard the loudest and longest bells we've heard all trip but I guess being right next to the Cathedral accounts for that. 

For dinner, being bored with Italian food, which as I've mentioned previously tends not to vary much from one establishment to the next, we visited a Sri Lankan cafe on the other side of the Square. Our meal was tasty and cheap. It was clearly genuine Sri Lankan,  because just as they do in Sri Lanka, it was served unnervingly tepid from a bain marie.