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Palermo – Out on its Own

September 21, 2016 Leave a comment
Rooftops that would work well in an Assassins' Creed game.

Looking north from the Teatro Massimo, with Monte Pellegrino in the distance.

My first experience of Palermo and Sicily was the sparkling blue of the Tyrrenhian Sea contrasting with the terracotta dust of late-summer/early-autumn. Sicily, which I’d heard so much about but never seen, was rocky in its northwestern corner, with steep peaks rising straight out of the sea, and Palermo itself sprawled across a shallow valley caught between several of those peaks.

It’s not an easy city to get to grips with, because it doesn’t have a strongly defined centre. Instead, there are a few streets running north-south and one key one that runs east-west. Stray too far from any of these and you might find yourself among run-down quarters with narrow alleys full of street vendors’ stalls, rows of apartment blocks that can be either new or crumbling relics of ages past, or parched gardens that offer some shade in the heat that lingers on after the departed summer.

Let's face it, when you move into a new place, it's the pleasure gardens you go for.

Would that its pleasure gardens were still in as good a shape.

There’s no metro in Palermo, and the only tram I saw actually runs from the non-central train station to an outlying shopping centre, so if you’re going to explore, it’ll have to be on foot. (Forget about wheeled transport unless you’re willing to wait on buses or take your life in your hand on a moped. In fact, the very existence of mopeds requires pedestrians to be either vigilant or accepting of potential disaster.) I like exploration by foot though, so that suits me pretty well.

As far as another habit of mine goes—that of climbing on top of tall buildings to get a better idea of the city I’m in—there are some good options, albeit none too tall. The first and preferable is the Teatro Massimo, Europe’s third-largest opera house. Take the excellent tour around the opera house itself and pay the extra to get up to the terrace. Courtesy of a slow elevator and some steep steps you’ll get to enjoy the best view of the city. Mostly unobstructed, it’s the best way to get a feel for how Palermo has spread out to occupy the space available.

The Greeks liked settling anywhere they had access to marble and chisels.

An ancient carving from the Greek colony of Selinunte on Sicily’s south coast.

Palermo Cathedral offers the next best thing when it comes to viewing the city, but the cathedral’s towers get in the way of the view, and the narrower space up there can get a bit more crowded. It is a good bit cheaper though, and as a bonus you also get access to the royal tombs that the cathedral holds (Sicily had its own kings up until Italy’s unification) and the crypt beneath, which contains relics dating back to the Norman occupation of the 12th century. Or possibly even earlier, given the Cardinals’ habit of re-using convenient sarcophagi.

The crypt is a good place to get a feel for how old Sicilian habitation has been and how many different groups have claimed it over the centuries. From the original inhabitants to the Phoenician and Greek settlers, to the following Carthaginians and Romans, who waged their first Punic War over the island, through the Arabs and the Normans to the European dynasties who fought over the island until Italy put its boot down, there are layers of warfare, trade, and settlement everywhere you look.

More than a little Arab in the design, mind you.

The Norman Chapel of Chiesa de Santa Cataldo.

Getting an explanation of all of this history is a little more difficult. The Archaeological Museum is mostly closed for renovations at the moment, with only one out of three floors open. That one floor is free to visit though, and it’s a really well presented exploration of some of Sicily’s earliest history, with a particular focus on the Greek city of Selinunte. It’s really well laid out and explained, and as the rest of the museum opens up, it’ll be even more worth your time.

Palermo, then, is hard to get to grips with but worth the effort. If I had more time, it would be a great place to start an exploration of the island from. As it was, I didn’t get a chance to break out of the city, though the two days I had there were filled as far as I was able with the aid of two feet and a handy map. There’s great food to be had (especially seafood) and sights to see, but when my time was done, it was the Palermo Centrale train station that drew me, with the promise of a bed that would carry me east to Messina and across the straits to the mainland, to visit Naples, Pompeii and Vesuvius next.

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From South to North

September 12, 2016 Leave a comment
At the very least, it looks like a straight line. (Damn you San Marino!)

This is probably one of the more sensible-looking travel routes I’ve ever devised.

As mentioned in my previous post, I’m once again taking time off from local affairs this September and heading for less familiar climes. Moreover, so as not to break with tradition, I’m not just travelling to, I’m travelling through. Hitting all sorts of nations and cities that I’ve never been to before.

This excursion feels a little different from previous years though. This time there’s no strong theme, as there was in my Eastern European journey last year, or my exploration of Greece the year before. Instead, there’s just a direction: south to north, from the Mediterranean to the North Sea. Or as close to the North Sea as I can manage. If there’s a binding theme at all, it’s one of filling gaps in my collection of nations; visiting places that I haven’t been to, or even near to.

As I said, it feels a little off-kilter, as though the series of mostly train-based journeys that I’ve been on since Norway, back in 2009, is coming to an end. The two or three further European trips that are percolating in my head don’t suit train-based shenanigans nearly as well, and the continents further afield that await my bootprints are even less amenable to sticking to the iron rails.

It may just be time for me to stretch my conception of what a travelling holiday might be. No bad thing that—I’ve gotten a lot out of rail (and sea) travel, but this holiday will stretch the balance between exploring and watching the landscape speed by about as far as it’s likely to go.

As for this trip, there’ll be plenty to keep myself occupied (and not just making sure that I catch the next connection). I’ll be kicking off in Italy, which is familiar enough in itself, albeit in a part of it that I’ve never been to before: Palermo, Sicily. An island that’s been the site of contention ever since the Greeks and the Phoenicians first started looking crosswise at each other, it’s a long way south of any part of Italy (Rome) that I’ve been in before, and it’ll feed my lust for history nicely.

An overnight train (the only one of this trip) will take me across Sicily and the Straits of Messina (loading the train onto a boat in the process, which I’ll likely sleep through) and on through the night to Naples. Which is worthy of a visit in itself, even if it weren’t for the presence of Vesuvius and the ruins of Pompeii in close attendance. I won’t miss out on those, I can assure you. It’s no accident that the overnight train will drop me off beside the Circumvesuviana line to the ruins at a time when the tour groups have yet to have their breakfast. Should I be able to drag myself away from this long-awaited visit to the preserved ruins of ancient Rome, I’ll see as much of Naples as I can in the time remaining.

Onwards then from Naples and one of the more awkward routes of the trip. North through and past Rome to Bologna, then an almost-180-degree reversal to head south east to the Adriatic coast and Rimini. Why stop here? Well, Rimini itself and the nearby beaches are said to be well worth the visit, but that’s less my style than the small nation-state only a short bus ride away. San Marino has been happily independent for a very long time, and for all that it’s tiny in comparison to the Italian nation that enfolds it, it should be well worth a visit in its own right.

After Rimini and San Marino have had their fill of me, it’s north again, this time to Milan. I came close here last year with a layover in nearby Bergamo, but Milan is the big dog of northern Italian cities, nestled in under the Alps, and it should be interesting to compare it to the more southerly Italian locations that I’ll have passed through to get there. However, for the most part it’s a breathing space before tackling the mountains.

If any day is going to mark my complete over-commitment to the rail theme, this one will. Three nations, three trains (and a bus), and as many mountains as you may care to shake a stick at. From Milan to Tirano, there to catch the Bernina Express that’ll see me safely over the Alps, through some of the most fabulous scenery to be had in Europe. That will deposit me in Chur in Switzerland, from whence a train to Sargans and a bus to Vaduz will drop me in a nation almost as small as San Marino: Liechtenstein.

This is where the nature of the trip and the problems with it ought to become apparent: I’m on a one-way trip to Checklist-ville. Last year I visited ten countries, but I had just over three weeks in which to do so, which meant I averaged out at around two days in each. This time, I’ve got a little less than 12 days to cross Europe from south to north, and in way too many places I’ll be there no longer than it takes to have a look around. At least in Liechtenstein, where an afternoon stroll is enough to take you across the country from west to east, I’ll see a good percentage of it before I go.

Switzerland’s efficient public transport system will shuttle me back from Vaduz, across the border and on to Zurich. Given that my major Swiss influences extend to Heidi, William Tell and one of the Asterix books, it’s fair to say that I have little or no idea of what to expect here. However it turns out, given that Switzerland is one of the world’s most heavily armed countries, I will at least be on my very best behaviour.

From Zurich, it’s all downhill on the home stretch of this trip. Specifically downhill towards Mulhouse in France on a TGV, then onwards to my next destination, Europe’s biggest mini-nation. Luxembourg is a giant compared to San Marino or Liechtenstein, even if it’s trapped between France, Belgium and Germany, and it’s been at the heart of the European Union ever since its founding. I have been told by someone who ought to know that there’s nothing there to see there, but I feel that in these dark times of Brexit and Grexit, it’s probably sensible to visit the beating heart of the Euro Illuminati and make sure that I’m not on their “naughty” list.

After all, Luxembourg is just three hours on the train from my very final stop, which is the even more EU-centric capital of Belgium—Brussels. A place I’ve become all too familiar with over the past year and a bit, and there’s no more friendly or relaxed city to spend a last evening in before a late night flight back to Dublin. I’ll do my best to take a day-trip out to the North Sea before I leave, but the allure of beer and waffles may prove too strong.

For now though, I’m just engaged in pre-packing routines, printing out my train tickets (e-tickets are great, but it pays to have a backup), and double-checking everything else. Inevitably I’m going to forget something, as is always the way of holidays, but with all the travelling to be done, it’s not likely to be anything that I’ll miss much.

A Long Time Gone

August 21, 2016 Leave a comment


A picture of a dead whale. Because this blog is like a … never mind.

It’s been a long time, hasn’t it? Not that this was deliberate on my part. I had plenty of intentions of posting new and fascinating content, but circumstance and laziness always got in the way. I do intend to be better though. Thoughts about films, books and games will be forthcoming, and there will – in a not overextended period of time – be more travel journals. (Yes, that time of the year has come around again. I have become terribly predictable in my elder years.) In the meantime, a few thoughts on some of the media I’ve been consuming lately.

Mysterium: It’s a board game. Which is not something that I play enough of these days. (There’s a Tuesday evening boardgaming evening in the Black Sheep pub in Dublin that I’ve been making excuses for not going to for weeks now.) What sold me on Mysterium was the review from Shut Up and Sit Down, a site you should really be following. Boiled down to a brief description, it’s cooperative psychic Cluedo (Clue for Americans) and is as easy to play and strange as that description suggests. One player is a silent ghost who hands out vision cards to the gathered psychics; the others are those selfsame psychics, who must use those visions to solve a long-ago murder. Cue a lot of confused babbling about the exact meaning of the symbolism on the vision cards and exasperated gurning on the part of the Ghost, who doesn’t understand why they can’t figure it out. It’s a lot of fun, and most importantly you don’t need to be a boardgame veteran to play. Highly recommended.

(I also played Cards Against Humanity for the first time at a recent wedding (no, really) and proved beyond all reasonable doubt that I am a horrible person. Which is all that you need to know about that.)

The Just City: I burned my way through Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy recently, having enjoyed the TV series to start with, so normally I’d be writing about that. But I’d been looking forward to reading Jo Walton’s The Just City for so long that it sneaks in ahead of it. The high concept – the goddess Athena decides to build the theoretical state from Plato’s The Republic as an experiment – is delightful, and the execution more than lives up to it. The viewpoint characters are chosen to pick apart the assumptions of privilege and precedent at the heart of Plato’s supposed clean-slate state, and while it’s no surprise when holes are poked in it, the manner in which it happens is consistently engaging. The second book in this series is already out, and the third is coming soon, and if they live up to the opener they’ll have a happy place for themselves on my bookshelves.

Stellaris: It’s been an odd year for games. This was the first of three games I was really looking forward to, and poor reviews for the latter two – No Man’s Sky and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided – have put me off splashing money on them until the next Steam sale. So in the moments between the vaguely social activities that are my forays into Lord of the Rings Online, I’ve been playing Paradox’s Stellaris, a mostly successful attempt to lift its grand strategy template into space and take the place of much-loved classics like Master of Orion. The opening stages of the game, as with all Civilization-style games, are the key draw, as you map out a galaxy for your new interstellar power (designed with plenty of freedom courtesy of the game’s engine), and the mid-game has improved with Paradox’s legendary post-launch support. As yet, none of my games have made it into the late-game phase, so I can’t really report on that (blame LotRO) but with larger patches and content expansions looming, I’m looking forward to seeing the game it becomes.

Film: Honestly, nothing I’ve seen in the past few months has really floated my boat. Which is a little depressing. Overhyped offerings are the order of the day in blockbuster season, and even those films that promise something more haven’t gone anywhere. There’s been no Mad Max: Fury Road this year, and while that’s a high bar to clear, it would be nice if someone at least got close. Or made the attempt.

So, that’s where I am right now. There are political thoughts (shudder) and other matters in my brain that may or may not get exposed in the three-and-a-bit weeks before I escape on another travelogue. In the meantime, my apologies for having been absent and my promise to be a little more present in the weeks and months to come.

Captain America: Civil War – Bucking the Trend

I'd prefer aquamarine vs. chartreuse, myself.

Red vs. Blue. Isn’t that always the way?

For all of the successes of the Marvel superhero universe, most of the sub-franchises haven’t enjoyed uninterrupted upward curves. Iron Man 2 was a mess, Thor: The Dark World was a bit dull, and Avengers: Age of Ultron seemed tired by comparison with its mega-successful predecessor. Only the Captain America movies have shown consistent progress: starting well with The First Avenger, getting better with The Winter Soldier, and now topping the lot with Civil War.

(All the spoilers below…)

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Batman v Superman v The Critics

March 27, 2016 Leave a comment
The photo is at least as dynamic as two thirds of the movie.

Its subtitle is Dawn of Justice. Which is certainly … a subtitle.

The fact that this movie is called Batman v Superman tells the audience ahead of time the sort of an experience they’re in for. This is really a Batman movie (Darkness, No Parents), albeit one in which he’s dealing with Superman’s world—Lex Luthor, Kryptonite and Superman himself. It’s also being savaged by both mainstream and geek critics, but is it really that bad?

Bat Spoilers v Super Spoilers…

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Star Wars: The Next Generation

December 25, 2015 Leave a comment
Poor old Poe Dameron doesn't even get a look in.

Lots of orange and blue, because hey, it’s a movie poster.

So Star Wars is back. Beware the spoilers…

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JJ + SJW VS GG

December 23, 2015 Leave a comment
Nowhere near as creepy as the character of Kilgrave actually was.

The promotional materials for Jessica Jones helped to tease the villain and set the mood.

Marvel’s Netflix offerings stand at a remove to the 4-colour heroics of their cinema offerings (and the connected Agents of SHIELD series). Drawing on modern iterations of street-levels heroes, the idea behind them was evidently to provide a darker and more complex take on superhumans than The Avengers. So far it’s working well. Daredevil was a promising beginning, and with Jessica Jones Marvel and Netflix kick it up a notch.

Spoilers for Jessica Jones below…

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