Journey to the East

Several decades ago, in this month, two young men, who’d escaped from school and had started to enjoy their gap year, decided to go east.

One of them had managed through his mother’s work to obtain a free airline ticket. He was to act as accompanist to a mentally-ill Sicilian person who was to be repatriated to his family in Catania.

His friend joined him a little later and, after a train journey to Messina, they crossed the straits and started to hitch across the heel of Italy. In some respects this was the most dangerous part of their journey since they were warned of a confrontation with a mafia gang at the booth of a service station where they had been invited to spend the night. Reaching Brindisi safely the two took the ferry to Patras and touched Athens where they stayed in the city’s youth hostel,

The next part of the journey took them through Northern Greece to the border with Turkey. The weather at this stage was getting colder and colder and by the time Istanbul was reached it was positively freezing.

Istanbul was the first taste the two had had of the mysterious east and they enjoyed visiting the City’s old quarters, Hagia Sophia and the Blue mosque.

The longest, and perhaps most uncomfortable, train journey either had taken took them across the Anatolian plateau through Syria, where they visited the great mosque of Damascus,

and finished up in Beirut.

At this point money problems stared to afflict them and one of them took a job as a barman at a ski resort in the Lebanese mountains. Baalbek was visited:

A meeting with a Swedish guy who drove a Volkswagen van enabled the two to reach a still-divided Jerusalem.

A dip in (or rather a float on) the Dead Sea was a must:

Amman’s Roman theatre was also explored:

Then it was a journey through Jordan past the H4 border post and into Iraq where they arrived in Bagdad. After a few days in the thousand and one nights city the next stage took the two to Basra where they were hosted by the British consul there.

A journey to Kuwait was rewarded by a chance to gain some extra money, both through giving blood and also by writing up travels so far and broadcasting the script on the English-speaking section of Kuwait radio.

Another van, this time driven by an English person, took them through the unstable Iraq-Iran border past the amazing ruins of Persepolis

and the graceful architecture of Isfahan and Shiraz

to a Teheran still ruled over by a Shah.

Thence it was towards Afghanistan via Meshed and past Herat and Kandahar to land up in Kabul.

The descent down the Khyber Pass to Pakistan was accompanied by ever warmer weather. It was now March and the torrid heat of the Indian subcontinent plains was building up. A stay at the hill station of Murree was welcomed.

From Lahore a train was taken towards New Delhi with, of course, the obligatory border transport hiatus where one had to walk a mile across no-man’s land to India.

A stay in Varanasi (Benares)

was followed by a crossing into Nepal and Kathmandu where a full month was spent at the mythical blue Tibetan guest-house and restaurant. Cycling and walking around the Kathmandu valley recharged one’s batteries before starting the return leg.

More of Northern India was visited, including Jaipur and Agra.

Then it was a return crossing into Pakistan and back to Kabul. Here a truck with a home-ward bound expedition in the Hindu Kush Mountains took one directly back through Iran and Turkey to Istanbul. Thence it was through Greece and Italy to come home to the UK from Catania airport.

This was a journey of a lifetime and one which changed the outlook of both protagonists for ever. The world’s diversity was opened out for them, the exposure to different cultures was seminal and the encounter with some of the world’s most amazing and often strangest sights was stunning.

It was also the journey of a lifetime because it would be difficult to repeat such a hitch-hiking trip today. Parents would have been dissatisfied with just an occasional post-card and no cell-phone calls. Certainly, the UK’s foreign office would have strongly discouraged such a voyage, especially by two teenagers.

Yet such an expedition was all the rage in Sergeant Pepper year. The hippy trail was a central experience for the youth of that distant decade and one which laid the foundation of social changes which radically transformed attitudes and views.

It’s so sad that practically every country journeyed across then has since been torn apart by inner conflict and exterior meddling. Some of these have been worse than others. Will one ever gaze peacefully on the ruins of Palmyra for example? And as for the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan…

There are no prizes for guessing who one of the two who came back, changed and chastened by their oriental voyage, was….




Journey towards the Centre of the Earth

Because of its large areas of limestone Italy has some of the most spectacular cave systems in the world. It’s reckoned, for example, that the cavities inside the Apuan Alps which rise to the west of our Serchio valley are some of the most extensive anywhere on Earth (or rather, in Earth!). Anyone who has been to this part of the world and missed taking at least one of the three separate itineraries inside the Grotta Del Vento is truly missing something exceptional.

The Grotta Del Vento’s web site is at

Italian speleologists, true experts in their field, have done much to discover and explore unknown cave systems; it is terrible that two of them out of an expedition of four,  Oskar Piazza and Gigliola Mancinelli, have lost their lives, as a result of the Nepal earthquake.

Those caves with some of the largest natural halls in the world are in an area which was formerly Italian but which was lost after the treaties concluding World War II. They are the caves of Postumia, now in Slovenia and locally known as “Postojnska jama”.

The area round the caves is exceptionally pretty.

Postumia caves extend for twenty kilometres and have been known since they were inhabited by humans in prehistoric times, although they were only described for the first time in the eighteenth century. In 1884 Postumia were the first caves in the world to be lit by electricity and have ever since proved to be a very popular tourist attraction. I was lucky to have visited them in April 2007 (when this post’s photographs were taken) and my wife had visited them when they were still in Yugoslavia.

The photographs of long departed royalty show some of the visitors who preceded us in the last century.

A railway inside the caves was installed in 1872 and Postumia are the only caves to have one. Here is an example of former rolling stock.


The system has, clearly, since been updated and we seated ourselves comfortably in open carriages ready for our ride into the bowels of the earth which was taken at, what seemed to me, break-neck speed. I would have liked it to be rather slower so that I could appreciate the limestone formations more clearly.


Here are three videos of that journey:

We did, however, have ample time to admire the amazing stalactite and stalagmite formations, some of which were of massive dimensions, during the second, walking, part of our itinerary.

The caves house two unique species of fauna: a blind amphibian called Proteus Anquinus with a pretty pink coloration, and a beetle, Leptodirus Hohenwart, presumably blind too.


I wasn’t impressed by the food at the restaurant at the entrance to the caves, although the ambience was rather baronial. Was it mediocre catering or was Slovenian food just not as tasty as Italian cuisine?

The caves’ temperature is a constant eight degrees with high humidity so bring some warmer clothes if you are visiting them in summer!

More information is available at the caves’ web site at

End of Shangri-La?

My own experiences with earthquakes, only realised since living here – see my post at , increases my awareness of how much the people of Nepal must be suffering right now as a result of two devastating seismic shocks reaching almost point 8 on the Richter scale.

I once compared the Indian sub-continent to a geographically giant version of Italy (or was it the other way round, did I compare Italy to a miniature version of India?): the folded Triassic mountains of the Himalayas, taking the place of the Alps, the alluvial Ganges plain the Po valley and the Ghats the Apennines. What I should have realised is that both parts of the world are similarly subject to tectonic plate clashing within their boundaries. Italy’s nearest equivalent, both in scale and geographical location, of the horrors  Nepal is now experiencing would have been the catastrophic Friuli earthquake of 1976 (Richter scale 6.4) when almost a thousand people died.

Where would I find a miniature equivalent of Nepal in Italy? Livigno or the Valtellina are a poor choice, yet they do have several features in common. Surrounded by the highest mountains in each respective continent, they contain a broad central valley and very picturesque towns and villages.

I should know about this since in Sergeant Pepper year I’d hitch-hiked with a friend all the way from Catford, London to Kathmandu, Nepal. I stayed for around a month in the mountain kingdom’s capital and hired a push-bike to visit towns in the broad valley, including Bhaktapur and Lalitpur. I was surprised by the often close similarity of Nepalese temples with their ornate wood carvings to the rural baroque of alpine Italy and Austria.

What was fascinating about Nepal was its religious syncretism and variety. Local gods were fused with classical Hindu deities, refuges from Tibet had also added their own brand of Buddhism and, no doubt, American missionaries were at work too.

Staying in a hostel whose walls were papered with old newspapers I met up with other travellers including seven-finger Eddy, and two others who I was to meet later when I returned to the UK, somewhat changed in attitudes and ideas, to pursue my first uni year.

Strangely, I find I have been living in another mountain valley in India’s miniature version, Italy, for close on ten years now. Is it because I have been infected by Hiltonism? (James Hilton, the author of that classic book about the search for an inaccessible earthly paradise called Shangri-La – Tibetan for “mountain pass to the valley of Shang”).


Whatever this may be, as hippy dreams have faded away to be replaced by brutal realities, as the Nepalese are counting their dead and as Unesco is measuring the destruction of the country’s unique world heritage sites I have only some very faded photographs, all technically unwittingly underexposed, to describe one of the great experiences in my life.

Let us hope that the technique of anastylosis, whereby every fallen piece of a fallen historical palace or temple is collected, numbered and, like a jigsaw, returned to its original location in the building, is used in Nepal. Then Kathmandu might return to its original glory, like Gemona (which we passed on our way to Vienna with the Lucca Philharmonic Orchestra last December) where tourists can enjoy the Friulian town’s historic centre with only the odd number on some of its stones to remind one that just over forty years they had been reduced to a pile of rubble.

Sadly, however, no technique can bring back to life the thousands of earthquake victims, both from Nepal and from abroad, that lie scattered in that beautiful mountain state.