Rome for a day 

It’s an overnight stay. The fast train from Lecce to Rome was just that. The monitor clocking it at 233km/hr once passed a few major towns on the way picking up passengers. Eventually it was apparent that the train was full. I had no sense of speed. For a first class seat I was offered at times liquid refreshments. A battered trolley reminiscent of a pensioned off airline equivalent, offered Coke, coffee or Aqua. The coffee was so predictable that I still can’t explain why I habitually ask for it! It dribbles out of one of those vacuum flask dispensers into a cardboard cup that makes a thimble, jereobom like. The coffee is black, warm and as bitter as Tony Abbott last week. Two cellophane wrapped articles are included in this free offering. The first contains two small almond biscotti that are so hard as to run the risk of a stress fracture of my upper left molar crown. The second a moist towelette. The repast has been devoid of dribbles let alone crumbs, so I rip it open and vigorously disinfect my iPhone. I have an overpowering sense that I need to utilise all of these Trentitalia freebies simply because they are just that.

This first class Italian train journey compares unfavourably to the Spanish trip three years ago when it was indeed almost airplane business class standard with a tray of food that was equal to boot.

The hotel Alexandra was constructed in the late 19th century and an historical plaque explains that it has remained in the same family since 1910. It also boasts ‘Still today the hotel is characterised by a glamour of tradition left unchanged…but the careful restoration works have left unchanged the refined style… Even if enriched with all modern amenities.’

This almost breathless fevour reminds me of the Lord’s Prayer confession ‘I have left undone those things which I should have done and I have done those things that should not have done. This is the best and most succinct summary of the Hotel Alexandra and it’s restoration and modernisation. 

As a nostalgic aside I remember when studying the catechism prior to confirmation, wrestling with the grammar of this seemingly convoluted prayer of double negatives, or were they? 

As at Lecce, I am eagerly informed that I have been upgraded to a deluxe room with King Size bed, non smoking at the back of the hotel. Why a solo traveller would benefit from a half acre bed is beyond me. It is very quiet the receptionist explains. Indeed the trip to my back room involves traversing several flights of stairs that ascend, then descend, cross landings with uneven steps and with every turn the floor covering changes from garish carpet to marble, to polished wood and back to garish carpet.

The room is reasonable, the half acre bed taking pride of place and space. Stained oak furniture so beloved of Country Life magazines attempts to give the ambience of faux antiqueness. However it is the separate bathroom that wins out by a country mile. It is a big room of white and black marble. The hand basin is marble and big enough to almost sit in, if that were your want. Sadly what I suspect may have been a sarcophagus sized marble bathtub has been replaced by plastic. ‘The enriching modern amenities’ obviously dictated a plastic bathtub which had 4 spa like nozzles ar one end. 


I an not sure where and how to begin to describe this establishment. When built I know it would have been the epitome of excellence and style. One could imagine Hercules Piroit staying here and solving a murder. The room had tea making facilities which I feel sure reflects that this is a basic hotel now at 3 stars, located in the heart of ancient Rome and whose clientele are overseas visitors including Australians who demand tea making facilities.

 But herein lies the rub because finding a power point to plug in the kettle is an exercise that ultimately defeated me. 

I have established that the Hotel Alexandra is over 100 years old so whilst our fictitious detective may have had access to Edison electric light bulbs to shed light on his mysteries, he may also have waxed his moustache by gaslight, but as to powerpoints my suspicion is none. Hence this hotel driven to ‘enrich with all modern amenities’ it’s facilities called in the local electrician around about 1957 I would guess and chased the necessary cables down the walls. And in 1956 the requirements were for at least one and perhaps two outlets. 


My task was to find them in room 212 of the hotel Alexandra. The first was hidden behind the bed head. Eventually there was a second revealed by crawling on hands and knees having heaved the lounge 4 feet across and 2 feet out from the wall. By now I had worked up a sweat and a well deserved cuppa was a just reward. But eternal frustration as the kettle 2-pin plug did not fit into the power point – either one. It was the same old story trying to put 2 large prongs into 2 small holes. European power points frighten me as there is no on-off button. Plug it in and it’s active. As well most seem to be rather loose and a fatal electrocution waiting to eventuate and for Monsieur Piroit to solve the riddle. 


I have an early breakfast in the delightful lead light garden glass house then head off to the ancient Roman ruins and Colosseum before pick-up service to Rome airport. Even by 8am the archaeological sites are being overrun by tourists. Yes I am one!… Why must Japanese tourists invariably take a Selfie with a star jump or a Churchillian V sign? 

I finished this latest blog at 39000ft in an Emirates 380 heading to Dubai. It is a full flight.



Lecce last day 

No matter where I am in any city or village around the world, I have the urge to move on after about 3 days and Lecce for all its appeal has been intimately explored every church, monastery, Basilica and museum entered and as is my want, photographed and notes for possible mention in my blog. 

The day excursion to Gallipoli was worthwhile both for the means of travel there and the medieval township and fort. It is a fishing village but there was not much in terms of natural beauty.

Today Thursday there was quite a bit of thunder and rain which cleared by early afternoon. It was only the second occasion in all the time I have been away, the first being late at night whilst I waited to board the ferry at Igoumenitsa. Indeed the gods have been kind to me weather wise this last month especially the swim trek week when it was perfect! 

Tomorrow I take the high speed train to Rome and perhaps some shopping before I head home on Saturday. 
As it was wet weather I stayed for the most part at La Fiermontina my decadent “urban resort” reading, swimming in their pool and practicing the Recorder.
I mentioned the slow disintegration of many of the limestone buildings. Pictures to illustrate the issue!


I stumbled into the vestibule of what seemed to be going government offices. An imposing limestone edifice and to my amazement saw this freize around one of the windows . It looked very very old yet no attempt to protect or preserve it!



Having taken in the fascinating baroque architectural limestone edifices that make up historical Lecce over the past few days, I embark on a journey to Gallipoli! Italian Gallipoli not the famous Turkish destination. It is a seaside town about 40km to the south west of Lecce. It takes a little more than a hour by slow, local, single carriage diesel train.


The train is filled to capacity,if not illegally over the limit. I reassure myself that local creaky trains overcrowded and slow, are much less likely to tip over in high winds and kill most on board. Half way to Gallipoli the majority of passengers disembark and every one now is able to grab a seat. Moreover it seems to me the train actually picks up speed. 

There are a disproportionate number of African refugees on board as black as an Abbott open cut coal mine. They seem to randomly alight at various stops along the way. Some travel all the way to Gallipoli and I subsequently see them on the seashore selling trinkets and umbrellas. I suspect they travel this journey every day for the sake of a few Euro – and they need at least 6 to cover the return ticket. Surely depressing and degrading yet I also assume that they have escaped an even more futile existence in Africa.

The ancient walled city of Gallipoli was built on an island reached by a 17th century bridge. At the bridge head is a huge fortress and Castle whilst the old city expands behind it. A pleasant walk around the perimeter and then exploring the maze of narrow cobblestone streets. Other than a small rather sandy beach the sea laps against the battlements and rocks. 


The waters are deep blue and crystal clear. Indeed so transparent that the rubbish carelessly and thoughtlessly discarded paints a depressing watercolour of polystyrene, plastic and rubber on the seabed. It would be criminal if indeed not a mortal sin to even contemplate stripping off and taking a swim after my last week in the Ionan Sea.

The civic museum of Gallipoli is housed in what I suspect was the original library. The huge square room with a domed ceiling has 3 levels of landings filled with stacks of sweet musty smelling leather bound volumes. The vast interior ground floor is also lined with antique wooden glass fronted cabinets. The curator of this municipal menagerie has I calculate managed to acquire and display at least one item from the beginning of creation with geological rock and mineral specimens then trending to ancient Roman artefacts, stuffed and mounted birds, specimens in perspex formalin filled jars. On the floor is amongst other things an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus, a rusty German sea-mine from WWII, whilst pride of place in the centre, is a whale skeleton. Every inch of the glass cabinet shelves is occupied by something that is either stuffed, preserved, mounted on a pedestal or pined to a board. So enthusiastic has been this curator with his hoarding it has seen him throw in the towel and somewhere around 1958 I suspect he gave up any pretence of attempting to label each item in the display cabinets. All is not chaos as thoughtfully everything in perspex, everything stuffed, everything pinned or everything made of mineral is lumped together.

The local train has so much graffiti that the windows are opaque with painted tags. So I spend the train trip back writing this blog.
A few pictures of the Gallipoli Castle and fort 



inside of the knave and altar of the Basilica on Gallipoli – panorama shot


Lecce Tuesday 

I watched the movie ‘Mine Vaganti’ on a plane to Europe several years ago. It was a delightful Italian production about a wealthy Italian family who owned a pasta business in the southern city of Lecce in the Puglia region. It has a gay sub-plot. I brought the DVD and have watched it many times since, needing little excuse should friends suggest a movie at home!The title roughly translates into ‘Loose Cannon’.

Lecce, as many such Italian towns have, has a distinct historical centre often traced back to Roman times. Lecce is famous for its sandstone which when analysed is more than 60% lime.

Consequently the medieval buildings are wonderful baroque creations out of this limestone – richly ornate and with white marble cobbled streets. Again pictures will demonstrate this more eloquently than words.

however the most frightening characteristic of this soft sandstone is that it is easily degraded by moisture and do i suspect that the acid rain of our polluted society is provoking a sort of rapid crumbling ‘rising damp’.


Medieval Lecce 

I shall blog a little more in the next few days in the knowledge that this time next week I will be back at work.

But here are some pictures which I hope will tantalise and impress you to visit this limestone baroque city.



La Fiermontina 

Have just booked into La Fiermontina Urban Resort in Lecce. Upgraded to Room 14 I was informed as we walked the marbled grass edge path. This is Dr Kiley grade prime accommodation that would make an accountant blush. 

As I sat at the reception table the articulate womn discussed by phone a potential booking for a family of 4 plus Nanny. As the children were aged 1 and 4, the Nanny was in my silent eavesdropping opinion mandatory.  Various options for accommodation were canvassed from a family suite or adjoining suites with Nanny  and infants in various combinations. The cost varied, naturally, between 400 to 800 Euro a night and this was for July 2016. 


Back to earth with a bang. ‘It’s good to be back in civilisation’ is a maxim not in my lexicon. 

Boarding the bus from Lafkada to Igoumenitsa, the driver enquired as I boarded whether I was going to the ‘terminal’ or the ‘port’. I assumed that the port was the same as the ferry terminal so I replied ‘port’ and for good measure threw in as rapidly as he threw my backpack into the bus, ‘ferry’. This pointed conversation proved rather pointless as the bus drew up at the bus terminal and it was immediately and obviously the first, last and only stop! I asked about the ferry terminal to Brindisi as I alighted and he gestured predictably towards the sea. He smoked continuously as he drove. I feel a letter coming on.

The road to Igoumenitsa hugs the coast and was quite delightful in some ways the Greek equivalent to our Great Ocean Road although not as scenically spectacular. Rolling hills and mountains drop down to the coast, the vegetation being being rather scrub like with an occasional pencil pine lots of olive trees and even a number of recognisable eucalypts. The roadsides are planted with never ending oleander shrubs which compete with wild olive trees, tall suffocating clumps of what appears to be bamboo and all fighting for survival from dense suffocating overgrowing weeds.

Forlorn groves of very old olive trees are unkempt and what were once majestic trees with huge trunks and graceful branches have all been unprofessionally severely lopped and so the overall appearance is of oxymoronic life size bonsai! It was explained to me that over the past few years the cost of heating oil has sky-rocketed so the trees have been plundered to provide firewood. Which reminds me that at medical school we we taught that a good method to assess immediate recall was to ask your patient to repeat after me the sentence : ‘One thing a nation needs to be rich and powerful is a large and plentiful supply of firewood’….. And so 40 years later here I am in Greece with an undeniable supply of firewood but devoid of wealth.

Amongst these olive groves are wild sown fig and pomegranate trees. I think I should plant a pomegranate when I return.

Most Greek towns and cities are dirty, dusty and half finished. Paved footpaths peter out into weed infested stoney gravel, rusty steel reinforced concrete columns loom like skeletons suffocated to death by the weeds and plastic. One could be forgiven for thinking that the Greeks had run out of money? Yet the bars and taverna spring to life after 8:30pm and money is tossed around as freely as the cigarettes and alcohol. 

I wander aimlessly along the docks as ferries arrive and depart, waiting for my ferry which leaves at 1 am and as I do, I reminisce that I was about to embark upon this same ferry journey from Greece to Brindisi 40 years go. On that occasion I was violently seasick.

Suddenly the night sky becomes a monstrous disco light of soundless lightning. After about half an hour ominous thunder heralds the approaching storm, then an eerie silent pregnant pause. One huge drop of rain splatters on my head then another and like a woman in labour the ‘waters break’ and in less than a minute I am delivered to the terminus saturated.

It is 1am Monday morning. The dock has an eerie blackness yet huge floodlights tower over the port and cast dancing glistening shadows on the wet oily tarmac and the pools of freshwater from the now passed deluge. It’s like a scene out of a 1950 s black and white gangster picture and I mean ‘picture’ because they were pictures then and certainly not movies!

I watch fascinated as the huge lorries of which there seems to be hundreds are skillfully reversed into the seemingly insatiable cargo bays. I try to stay awake till the ferry is ready to depart but it is a losing battle and I return to my cabin and am sound asleep within minutes waking as sunlight pours through the porthole around 7:30am. Such a diametrically different experience to the first time I travelled.

I am told that my cabin ticket entitles me to a ‘Business Breakfast’. Devoid of money I choose my usual mouse like menu of yoghurt, a soggy, saggy croissant, one fried egg on which the sun has never sided up or sided down and a rasher of greasy bacon. To my shock the cashier demands money! The bacon and egg combo is not included. I have no cash on me I explain and he waves me through as there is rapidly building up behind me a queue of morbidly obese Koreans. They are like tubs of Flora Margarine.

The European plug with integrated 4 USB charging ports, purchased in Australia has died! I am literally and figuratively powerless and in the next few hours will have a dead iPhone. This impeding catastrophe is worse than withdrawing from heroin addiction and going cold turkey to boot. 


my ferry


my cabin


And so it came to pass..

For a week I have been partially submerged having a quite unique and incredible time which explains the lack of literary outpourings. Did I have pre conceived ideas? Well yes, but being an Australian adding the adjectival description ‘open water’ ie in the sea, to the noun ‘swimming’ provoked more anxiety than exhilaration. So let me clarify out the beginning that there are NO sharks in the Ionan Sea let alone the Mediterranean Sea. At no stage did I have a sense that lurking 5 fathoms deep was a great white about to shoot up like a Polaris missile and devour me. Actually not true because on the 5 km swim between Islands, I was like Saint Thomas- of the doubting personality. If there was one minor disappointment, which I can’t blame on the Big Blue Swim it was rather a lack of wild life in the water. I commented to the crew who confirmed that the local waters are quite probably overfished. 

The organisation was superb and the it was not just the fact that one has swum 25km in 5 day, not an onerous task for me as those in the know would know. We were all sent a suggested swimming programme starting several months before we arrived. This was to say the least, potentially off putting so much so the one could have been forgiven for assuming that we were all to be smothered in Vaseline and herded into the Sea for a swim between Greece and Africa with lunch at Crete. It was not to be although the Vaseline was on hand and I willingly offered my cracks and crevices. 

So do not be dissuaded by the pre swim programme. Seriously we were joined by a delightful American as I described in an earlier blog with an unusual arthritic condition which has left him with elbow joints fused to 90 degrees of flexion and marked disuse atrophy of his upper limbs. Despite this he completed all legs of the week by breaststroke even the 5 km in the allotted time of 2.5 hours. An Olympian effort. His guide was Jax  a delightful giggling English woman who was the most provocative and we were equal at thigh wrestling.

The sea was crystal clear and a constant 28 degrees. The only wildlife were the occasional orange coloured jelly fish. Given again my Australian perception that all sea creatures if they don’t eat you alive, have a poisonous sting that makes curare a mere flea bite, I did find myself constantly looking out for these monstrous marine creatures which through my goggles registered as the size of dinner plates but in reality were button sized.

So the Big Blue Swim is not just the swimming. Those of you who have enjoyed our European cycle holidays know that it is not all about the bike, although PJM would disagree as is his nature. Rather it is the whole day of breakfast, the ride, the scenery, the long lunches ( as long as one find a little local restaurant that is open and not closed for siesta) and the evening at our destination with the social intercourse. So it is with this Swim Adventure, it was the leisurely swims and they were leisurely, with the lunch each day at a delightful Island village and the local taverna. I am completely relaxed and have some would say a somewhat unhealthy tan! I feel smugly healthy. Alcohol has rarely passed my lips. 

As I sit here at breakfast on our last morning together we are trying to create a swimming equivalent of the cycle peleton… Any suggestions? I can reassure Pamela that if she joins me next year for a swim around Crete I promise not to come up, unannounced on her inside leg.

Our leaders and guides were great fun yet professional, protective and at times provocative. Michael K was the chief and responsible for the pink team, of which I was a member of course and I get to keep my cap! Noah of the Ark fame a laconic tanned smooth skinned guide was responsible for herding the largest group, the orange people, who seemed to us to meander this way and that as though they were on recreational drugs. 

The pink team was of course the A team. We were all straight as a die in our strokes. On our last day we swam part way round an island that was purchased by a wealthy Russian! If by chance one swam inside a line of red bouys that marked the no-go zone,there was the threat of attack as several vicious rottweilers wearing flippers and water-wings dog paddle towards us. 
Our last night was at a taverna on the hillside above the bay with a typical Greek barbecue a memorable finish to the week 

pics of our last evening taverna

And for those who are wondering, yes I am practising, when convenient