Friday, 22 May 2009

Back to life

Well it is almost unbelievable that we have been back from our holiday for almost a week already! Sometimes, I feel like an Amish - I still get amazed by the fact that you can be in one country or continent the one day and on another, the next! Almost as though the other place was a different world. It is kind of different when you drive because you kind of physically count the kilometres, but flying is like stepping through a looking glass - ok the 'step' takes 11 or 12 hours, but still. And yet... I follow an artist's blog,(yes I am immersing myself in culture these days!), and her one post where she described a kitchen on the West Coast sounded exactly like Jean Vianney's one from 1860 in the village of Ars in Lyon,France.It triggered a thought that occurred to me when I visited New York some years ago. I watched as people went about their daily work and even though I do accept that travelling has the potential to broaden one's horizons as you see different cultures etc. it also somehow reminds you how similar we are as people as well. We eat, sleep, live in some type of dwelling, etc. No difference in a way from animals. Who wrote that the difference is in how we order our loves? And it seems that that is why these things that surpass our base human instincts are not superfluous as I have often thought, but what actually constitutes part of what it is to be human. In this sense, our differences almost reveal our common humanity.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Day 14

Amsterdam. We dropped off the camper without major incident,our bags at the hotel and headed to the nearest train station which was at the airport. The trains are the best in Europe. Modern, clean and smooth. But they are the only sanctuary in Amsterdam that is. The canals and streets are filthy, the acrid stench of cannabis regularly accosts your nostrils as you walk through the streets and the obvious depravity evident.I have never seen so many bicycles - there were not hundreds, but thousands! This is supposed to be the ultimate city of freedom as the social liberals would have it in society and it made me glad I am regarded as a conservative. I fail to see the romance in the 'freedom' that enables a fairly well dressed young guy in his mid to late twenties, sit on the step of a doorway, obviously stoned out of his mind,and oblivious to the world, having urinated on himself, while his toddler son, no more than 4 years old tugs at his trouser leg, crying for him to wake up.

We never went to the Red light district. None of us are that sad or desperate, but even the windows in the normal parts of the city are lined with posters and objects that pander to any sort of desire. It is telling that in the euphoria of freedom, where the so-called restrictions of the 'oppressive social constructs' of religion have been so thoroughly removed and judgement eliminated, that the first reaction to this freedom is to engage in experiences so self-harmful in their nature that the only way to still the pain is to dull the senses and seek refuge in drug-taking. I had heard it before like everybody else, but never realised before so starkly how drugs are such a necessary component of prostitution and why they almost without exception go together.

In the midst of these seedy streets, there is a hidden 'Church in the Attic'. When the Catholic church was suppressed in the 1600's and worship forbidden by the Protestant rulers, a man built a Church in the attic of his and two adjoining houses and it has been preserved intact as it was to this day. It looks like a normal house and you go up narrow flights of stairs to a room that opens up to reveal a surprisingly large and ornate church. It has been preserved as a museum for over a hundred years.

We then headed to Anne Frank's house and it is quite a chilling visit: it is a bit more commercialised than I had expected and all the rooms remain bare as they were emptied after the family was rounded up and taken to the concentration camps. Our visit to Dachua a few days earlier, providing a rather real context to the implications that would face them, when they left. Not everyone felt it, but having read her diary some years back, one could not but mourn the cruel loss of a vibrant young girl who loved life so much and wanted to live so desperately,that was simply snuffed out. Perhaps it was my obvious connection to Kirtsin that trigggered those feelings, but even Carmen and the others who have not read the diary picked this up as the tour gave a sense of who Anne Frank was.

We had a final supper at a lovely little restaurant and recalled all the amazing things we had seen on this trip, before catching the train to our hotel. It was so nice to return to a hotel.... Oh what bliss after 2 weeks of the camper! The camping was an experience, but while a road trip is nice to a point, there comes a time when one longs for a real bed again. Yeah - we're city soft people. Overall, though, Amsterdam was the first city that we encountered on the trip that I have absolutley no desire to return to.

I am writing this at 30 000 feet on KLM0591 back to Jhb where we will spend the night before the last leg early tomorrow morning back to Cape Town. It has been an amazing holiday. We were 6-2 this time: it was the first time our other regular travellers, Boet and Melissa were unable to join us because of work commitments, but there will be a next time... Thank you for joining us and reading. Goodbye from European Tour 2009. A final goodnite. Rodney, Carmen, Richard and Kerry. (And Russ.)

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Day 13

We left Munich and headed to Stuttgart and the home of Porsche :-) and its own museum. The roads in Germany were at least equal to those in Switzerland, if not better. And the autobahn. No speed limits - say no more! Richard took absolute full advantage and we hurtled along at just over 100km/hr hanging on for dear life in our bouncing house and hoping to heavens we never ran into another low bridge... O,yes, I forgot to mention that little incident in France near Ars...:

There we were happily bumbling along the little village roads, in the rural French countryside, when something made Richard look a little more closely at a rapidly approaching bridge. The height restriction was 2.4 metres, and he was worried that we might not clear it with the house on our back. So we came to a screeching halt, stopping the small queue of cars that had formed behind us as we had slowed earlier to carefully negotiate the narrow back roads and avoid knocking over postboxes and pub signs. So I hopped out and ran around the front of the vehicle jumping up and down in the middle of the road, craning my neck trying to see if we would make it without ripping the protruding hatch off the camper. I then ran around the back and hopped up the ladder to clamber on the roof, confirming Richard's suspicion that we would not, in fact, clear the bridge. There was no other way out: we would have to back up and take an alternative route. An elderly old biddy had wandered over in the meantime and undeterred by my blank and growing confused expression, explained to me in increasingly voluminous French that our camper would not fit under the bridge and we had to go around. I turned to the now not insubstantial line of vehicles behind our camper that, because they were unsighted, had not dared try and pass the camper and momentarily thought I should ask them to reverse, but doubted that they would take kindly to this, and while Richard remained stationery, directed them to drive around the camper van, worried that another crazy Frenchman would come racing down the road from the opposite direction and cause a head-on collision and I would be held responsible for a fatal accident. In the end, all ended well, and we managed to turn the camper around, but not before reversing all the way back to the nearest intersection as the road was too narrow to execute a 3 point turn, and all the while, under the watchful eye of the old lady who stood on the corner, waving her stick at me as I directed traffic and mumbling advice throughout the whole episode.To this day, I think she still believes I could understand her every word, but was just being an obstinate youngster.But I digress.

The Porsche museum in Stuttgart is part of a few city blocks within Stuttgart that seems to have been taken over completely by Porsche - a massive dealership, Head Office, etc. Parking was nowhere to be found as we blundered clumsily around the small streets in the camper - like the Griswalds in the Chevy Chase movie. We came to the entrance of a large open air parking area - immaculate green lawns and trimmmed hedges with remote booms and fancy lighting etc. So we drove up and discovered that there was no place to push a button and get a ticket and it appeared to be the private parking for Porsche employees. Another bloody queue had begun to form behind us as we faced the closed boom. We could see that at least 2/3 of the parking lot was filled with Porsches and there was no way I was emerging from the camper van looking like a hill billy to ask these Armani wearing gentleman to reverse their sports machines that cost more than the houses we collectively owned in SA. So Richard pressed the intercom for assistance. A lady fuher amswered in German and he responded in English. A pause. Obviously she was thrown. The only thing we can think of is that she must have assumed it was international visitors as she said something in return and the boom lifted and we drove in and looked for a parking place. There were some empty spaces, perfect for Boxters or even Cayennes. Unfortunately none appeared, for some obscure reason, to have been designed large enough to accomodate a 3.5ton camper can. No worries. We found the largest bay possible, backed the camper in, nudging the hedge back over as far as we dared without uprooting it, and switched off the engine. About a third of the camper was still sticking out into the narrow parking roadways, but we figured that people that drove 500 000 Deutchmark cars would be more scared of hitting our camper than us of them hitting ours so we left it as it stood. We did wonder for a split second if the lady on the intercom had told us in German that this was private property and we were to come in, turn around and exit, but we dismissed the thought almost as soon as it occurred. So off we walked down the road to find the museum.

The Porsche museum is an imposing building that seems to defy gravity. It is awesome - Richard has included a photo above. Really impressive and very interesting. Their commitment to quality and pride in their brand is obvious and we drooled all the way through the building - which takes up around 5 floors. I have included a picture of Richard in front of a Porsche GT1, which was unpriced, but is more expensive than its brother - given that it is a limited edition of only 1270 units. The cheaper sibling sells for 1.5million Deutchmarks - I don't know how much that is in Rands exactly, but it is a lot! After the tour, we ate at the restaurant on the ground floor, complete with Porsche serviettes! It was surprisingly very reasonable and the servings very generous. The real pricey restaurant is upstairs - dishes from 26 Euros upwards.

Then we headed back to our van parked quite a ways away and glad that it was. There were groups of well-heeled Germans and obviously preferred corporate clients outside the museum awaiting factory tours and we joked as we walked that we would rather die than be seen in our hill-billy camper! Of course as we exited the parking, the GPS indicated that we proceed down the road and turn right, which we did, only to realise that it was taking us to the motorway directly past the Porsche museum, the robots in front of which, naturally turned red just as we approached and guaranteed us some bemused glances from the Porsche elite. Kerry and Carmen hid in the back while Richard stared stonily ahead concentrating on not stalling the van. All ended well and we escaped down the motorway into welcome oblivion.

The road from Stuttgart to Amsterdam is mostly Autobahn and I need to mention that about 20 minutes out of Stuttgart, we were passed by a string of around 7 or eight Porsches with a Ferrari in their midst, travelling at probably well over 220 kilometres an hour. The sound had to be heard to be believed and it was an awesome sight! We felt quite sorry for ourselves as we urged our protesting donkey van up yet another hill and onwards to Amsterdam.

At the risk of embarassing myself, I have to confess that on the road in Germany, I was quite amazed at how many different offramps and therefore different routes there were to a place called 'Ausfhart'. I stupidly wondered at this aloud. Until Richard, in a rather uncharitable and I daresay, even mocking manner, told me that Ausfhart means highway exit. Well at least my wife doesn't talk in her sleep, which Kerry has been prone to do on this trip, even starting arguments with Carmen and Richard.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Day 12

We spent most of the day at Dachau, the very first of the WWII era concentration camps and the one on which all the others were modeled. It was a thoroughly depressing experience and even as I sit here, I feel almost despair at what the human race is capable of. If it had been 'just' that, it would be one thing, but we as humans never learned from Dachua. I understand the need to honour those that died. I get that and heartily support monuments that do this, but the slogan all around Dachua: 'Never again', seems to naiively indicate that the creators were / are hoping that it will somehow prevent it from happening again. That it has and continues to happen, makes these monuments ironic testaments to the persistent propensity for evil that besets fallen human nature. The wilful destructive inhumanity for their own selfish ends,repeats itself in the same endless cycle: dehumanise the victim, desensitise the sheeple of society at large and wipe them out: Apartheid South Africa, Rwanda, Bosnia, Serbia, Iraq, the unborn - it all happened and happens again and again and again. What struck me even more, was the absolute disregard and disrespect that the German teenagers had for the site. You know, I can be critical of the brash Americans, but those that we encountered were awed along with us into silence. The German youth carried on like they were at a fun park. One could see the older Germans who knew what Dachua means shaking their heads at the stupidity of their youth - perhaps born of ignorance and contemporary self absorbed materialistic indulgence. But it is frightening, because unless one has suffered, empathy is not easily learned. I understand the instinct to protect one's child from suffering, but the consequnces for the society that is emerging not ever having known suffering, because parents raised them in the cotton wool cocoon of pseudo psycho-rational ready-made excuses to explain away their evil actions, is almost too frightening to contemplate and is already becoming apparent with the disregard for any life that happens to find itself at their mercy.

I know that this is perhaps a bit dark for a holiday diary, but I think holidays are not just escapes from 'real' life, but can be opportunities to step back and put our 'real' lives into perspective and reassess what is of ultimate consequence.
If the lives and deaths of those that suffered that much, do not change us, then they died in vain. We are the stewards of their legacies. For us to squander that, means that not only was their suffering futile. It also means that by virtue of our incapacity to learn from the mistakes of humanity and transcend our own predisposition to evil, our very lives as moral beings are futile because we are unchanged and unchangeable and morally mummified caricatures of what man is called to be.
After a depressing day, Happy Birthday, Carmen!

Day 11

Zurich. We entered Switzerland and my first thought was that when we got back to SA, I was going to ask my parent's Swiss friends whatever possessed them to leave. It is one long postcard after another of perfect roads, mountains and lakes and clean! After Italy, which is lively and awesome but let's face it, not the most hygienic of places, Switzerland was beautiful and clean. Clinically so. In a word, civilised. And so it was another surpise that Zurich so dissapointed. Yes it was clean, which I can't stress how pleasant an aspect that was after Italy. But it seemed soulless. Herr Kerry's itinerary stated we were to stay in Zurich that night, and then move on to Munich but we barely stayed a few hours. We walked up and down the Bahnhoffstrasse, but you would have to earn a lot of money to afford handbags costing upwrds of 20000 Euros. It actually put Brugge to shame. So we hit the road shortly after and headed for Munich. Crossing the border into Germany it was immediately apparent we were in Germany. Not quite as clean and I don't know - just not as pretty.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Day 10

Apologies- this delayed posting because of coverage issues...Anyway.
The long hours and late nights are beginning to take their toll. Yesterday was another 2am and this morning we also only got to bed after 12. We all dragged ourselves out of bed at 5am to get an early start on the expected 6 hour drive to Venice. The highway on the outskirts is wide and fast and immaculate: it is so new it was not on our GPS yet. As you enter the highway to the city proper, you are surrounded by water and realise that the city is really like a big island that kind of broke into a number of pieces. When we started walking, we almost forget we were in a waterlogged place - the narrow alleys and quaint buildings rest peacefully until you suddenly come across a canal at the end of the street. I know this sounds stupid, but I kept forgetting that we were in a city. It feels like a village. Like hundreds of little villages that happen to be next to one another. I don't quite know how to explain the feeling of 'intimacy' of the place. Old buildings almost about to fall down interspersed with spectacular little piazzas. There are 27 churches in Venice and you may say, 'ok that sounds reasonable for a city', but all of them are the size and have the detail of what we in South Africa would call a Cathedral. And remember, everytime you come across them, you shake your head because you had lapsed into village mode again.I am not a travel writer and so you guys have to grant me some slack: I keep running out of adjectives on this trip, but we were floored by this pretty city. Sure we have seen similar buildings in other European cities, but imagine you are walking along a dilapidated street,wondering from time to time if the precariously leaning buildings are possibly going to fall on top of you. Then you pass down another anonymous little side alley with narrow buildings towering over you and turn into a slightly wider street and there, recessed into a centuries old building, is a stunning ultramodern Gucci store, nestling between sleek glittering Hermes, Louis Vutton and Prada shops and all other names, I can't remember and only women know anyway! And around the next building, a middleaged man is playing a classical piece delivered absolutely perfectly on a set of around 40 water filled glasses. I wondered at that middle aged man. A few days ago when we were in Paris and rushing through the tube station, we passed by a busker playing guitar in one of the tube passages. He was singing a song in French that I did not recognise, but I remmeber thinking he had a very good voice and that he had probably had dreams of becoming a musician who performed in theatres, releasing cd's or whatever, but life had somehow not turned out that way for him and he had ended up here on a tube station, udeniably talented, but with nobody really listening. I regret not having stopped. Not only to give him some money, but more importantly to listen - if only to one song. And so when we came across the man with he glasses, we stopped and listened to the inexpressibly raw beauty of the simple and soaring music he made, until he had finished and then we applauded and cheered: 'Bravo!' As people walked by and some dropped money into his hat, he had played head down, not looking up. When we clapped and cheered, however, he glanced up, smiling shy acknowledgement and it was obvious that he was as touched by our appreciation as we had been by his music. Still so weird how the most important things in life cost nothing. We had lunch at a little pizzeria and enjoyed the pasta so much, we had two bowls each, much to the delight of the owner: these people are reserved and humble and the 'delight' was an ever so small, fleeting smile as we complimented him on his food and ordered the second bowl.

After lunch, we walked the streets and found the most amazing jewelery store - there are lots of them. This one was run by a goldsmith and his sister, who changed about 15 years ago to designing silver jewelery - the most unique I have ever seen. Really stunning pieces and again, I think it means so much to artisans when you tell them how much you appreciate their work. He proudly told me he supplies 7 shops in Venice now! This was just so typical of our visit to Venice - so many unique wonderful moments side by side by side! I was not expecting this - none of us were. We had even debated skipping Venice as the trip had taken its toll with all the driving,late nights and early mornings. But it has been the surprise of our trip. We will go back one day, God willing.

After lunch we had a gondola ride. Our Gondolier, Andrea, in his late twenties, loves his job. And Venice. It was a great 40 minutes. He follows in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, in a proud family tradition of gondoliers that he told us goes back 125 years. He also said that this tradition of father to son is sadly declining and there are only a few like him left. He informed us that because the water drops and rises about a metre every 6 hours, and the ground floors are always flooded at the 'high tide' point, nobody living on the canals, lives on the ground floor anymore. They live on the second and upper levels. As we entered the Grand Canal, which is the size of a wide river, it was apparent that this really is their main road: water taxis and busses, a little boy driving a small motor boat with his mother in the front on the way home from shopping. Like a normal city except on water. We did see the main square San Marco, but were too late to see the Basilica. But the square was alive with string quartets and cafe's. Postcard stuff!

It was a sensory overload and one of the most uplifting - and as Richard put it - 'unexpected' places we have ever been. You need to stay in Venice itself for a few days. It has so much to offer that 1 day is just overwhelming - not in size, but more akin to fast forwarding your favourite piece of music or only being allowed a quick glance at a great painting.

But it was back to our house on wheels as Zurich beckons tomorrow.

Day 9

Rome. Our last day in the eternal city and we needed to pick up the pace if we wanted to try and see all the spots on the itinerary. We couldn't afford to linger the way we had the day before at St Peter's. First stop was the Porta Portesa market - a large outdoor flea market selling everything from electronics and clothing to grandfather clocks. It was a great learning experience. Look at something closely, ask the price and walk away. The price will magically drop and you can then be sure of a good deal. You could walk away twice if you feel the vendor is holding out on you, but never pay the first price touted. Some good deals to be had though, especially with clothing. Afterwards had a Grande donut - about 25 Centimetres across - delicious! We set out to find the Colloseum and the heat of Rome was beginning to make itself felt - 31 degrees. We caught a bus part of the way and would then catch a tram. Felt weird because as we exited the bus, we saw our number tram pulling up across the road but going in the opposite direction, so we ran desperately after it and managed to board it! Ahhh, the wonders of air conditioning! Too bad a few minutes later, one of the few Italian women who could speak English and was sitting nearby, overheard our conversation and gently advised that we were indeed on the right number tram and route, just going the wrong way. So we got off at the next stop and made a run for the zebra crossing to get to the opposite side of the tracks. All of us except Kerry, who ran directly across the tracks in front of our stationery tram and then the oncoming tram - which was not stationery and which she would have entered directly via the front window, had it not been stopping at our terminus. Death having been avoided for the moment, we made for the Colloseo and decided to have lunch at a restaurant a few streets away. Just a tip: the restaurants directly opposite the Colloseum are quite a bit more pricey than those just a few streets back. Lunch was nice pasta and as with tomato pasta, one tends to splatter white blouses with red sauce. The restaurant saw the marks and provided the use of a type of stain remover spray that dries into a powder and wipes off. Voila! Brilliant little thoughtful touch.

The Colloseum was not quite as large as I had thought. It seated around 70 000 people which is about average in terms of Football stadia today, but for the time must have been impressive. The building itself is quite dull. The entire building used to be clad in white and coloured marble but this was all stripped from the building after it fell into disuse after a series of earthquakes, its bare walls giving it its the earthy colour. It must have been magnificent in its full glory. In the film, Gladiator, when the Nubian character sees the Colosseum for the first time, he turns to the main character and whispers: 'I did not know that men could build such things.' After seeing St Peter's and St John Lateran, which have both been well maintained in all their glory, and imagining what the Colosseum would have looked like, that sentiment probably best expresses my wonder as well. We took a guided tour and heard an interesting tidbit: that there were apparently not that many Christians executed and thrown to the lions here as had previously been thought. Certainly it happened at a number of the circuses around Rome, but historical evidence - or the lack thereof- suggests that this only happened in very limited numbers at the Colloseum itself.

We decided to catch the 6pm mass at St Peter's Basilica and arrived a little late for the service - which had started at 530pm (!) and was the last mass of the day. Richard made a slight detour to a bathroom and when he entered the Church, Kerry and I waved at him to indicate where we were waiting, an elderly little Italian man, obviously a warden, who had seen Kerry waving her arms, rushed over and scolded her forcefully at some length in hissed Italian as to how she could show such disrespect while Mass was in progress about 100 metres away at the rear altar. Since he hadn't seen me wave, I nodded solemnly in agreement with him, allowing a reasonable mixture of disgust and regret to show on my face at how my fellow traveller had shamed us by her inappropriate behaviour. Mass was quite simply done - no incense and 'bells and smells', the only indications that we were in St Peters was the magnificence of the building, the tuxedoed and evening-gowned choir that led the singing and the plainclothes bodyguards that watched our every move and even escorted the Cardinal and the procession out at the end.

Security is tight. You go through metal detectors etc. but there are discreet cameras everywhere. The 'ushers' are extremely polite in directing you, but there is no question of compliance and you are left in no doubt as to how quickly that civility would dissappear if one failed to heed their instructions. Even the normally somewhat stroppy Americans toed the line obediently. We left St Peters after Mass, with a feeling of sadness as you feel when you leave home: excited at the travels ahead, but looking forward to the day when it is time to return as well. God willing, it is a place I would like to return to every few years.

We had another of those oversized icecreams at the Old Bridge afterwards and queued for it for about 20 minutes - this is at around 7pm on a Sunday evening! Then headed to Trevis fountain, where we all - including Russ our mascot bear, and much to the amusement of the crowd, threw coins into the fountain. Apparently, up to 1500 Euros are thrown in coins into the fountain every day. For 34 years, until 2002, a homeless man who was mentally unstable, collected the coins secretly every day - that is a minimum of 1000 Euros a day for 34 years, which is serious cash! There were court orders to and fro and now, it is not illegal to remove the coins, but it is illegal to wade into the fountain to get them, which kind of rules it out. Once a week, the fountain is cleaned by the local council and the money given to the charity, Caritas.

Our last stop was the Spanish steps where pesky flower sellers give your girlfriend or wife roses and then pester the boyfriend or husband for payment. Kerry who didn't want to hurt their feelings, was really pestered, but fortunately for me, (in this instance anyway), Carmen is a little more, shall we at anybody who tries to invade her personal space and the sellers backed away from her pretty quickly. The actual steps are marble and abuzz with tourists even at 9pm on a Sunday evening. Kerry bought chestnuts from a guy roasting them nearby, but we tried them and decided they are best left in cheesy American Christmas songs, so she traded them with one of the pesky rose sellers for 3 roses. Then we made our way back to the tubes to head back to the camp site. On the way, Carmen decided to illegally film the tube trains and station as her mom has not seen them yet. So as surreptitiously as possible, she held the video camera at waist height, opened the lens cap, switched it on and proceeded to film the inside of the train and the tube station. She is a really bad spy and was so obviously guilty and over-casual that I was certain that at any moment the Metro SWAT team would descend on us and throw us all in an Italian jail. Eventually, when we finally emerged from the train station and were safely some distance away, we checked the camera and were greatly disappointed to discover that all the cloak and dagger stuff had been in vain. Carmen had not depressed the record button firmly enough and we had no footage! Another day in Italy!


Sunday, 10 May 2009

Day 8

Day 8
The tube system in Rome is in the shape of an X and is not like the complex UK or French systems. The one track has clean train carriages. The other line is grubby, but more noticeably, is so covered in graffiti on the outside that the windows are barely see-through.
We arrived at St Peter's basilica first and saw the Swiss guards in their funny costumes. They are quite serious guys. I remember reading that all are Swiss Nationals, Permanent army and have black belts in martial arts. Legends, to be sure.
I thought that both St Peter's Square and the basilica were larger than they appeared. But a friend of mine who visited some years earlier warned me against underestimating the size of the basilica. He said that you think it is not that big, but then you walk for a while and look up and realise that your perspective hasn't changed and then you realise just how big it is. It was true. In the sacristy, engraved on a huge marble wall are the names of all the popes from Peter, Linus, Cletus etc. all through to the present one - an impressive unbroken line of succession. The Pieta on the other hand was larger than I thought,only because everybody had said it was so small. I guess it is about the size of a small car. The Pope is in Israel at the moment so we never got to see him, but the sense of this as the spiritual home of the church was palpable. I know it sounds corny, but by the time it was time to move on, I felt as though I was about to leave my home. It was with a heavy heart that we left and went to get an ice-cream at a tiny shop on the road to the right as you face St Peters, called The Old Bridge Gelatari. Do yourself a favour.Get fat. Their icecream must have at least 5 trillion calories. That chocolate icecream is worth every one of them!

We returned to St Peters to visit the crypt where quite a number of the popes are buried below the Basilica. I sacrificed the visit to the Sistine for this so I hoped it would be worth it. It was - well after half an hour of standing in the wrong queue to climb the steps to the copula (the dome). Made me wish I had concentrated more in Latin. My Latin really is appalling! Down under the basilica, you can see a short description beside each sarcophagus / crypt and a small crowd had spontaneously knelt on the cold hard marble in front of the tomb of our beloved John Paul II. I was very deeply moved and found myself almost overwhelmed by emotion. We stayed for a while in front of the tomb to pray. You are not allowed to take photos, otherwise we would have posted. The tomb is simple. A slab of white and gray marble, perhaps 15-20cm thick inscribed with his name lying at an angle on the ground of about 10-15 degrees. A red lamp at the top. Touching in its simplicity. I know many in the secular media had bemoaned the fact that JPII never abdicated, but hung on until he died. Some said it was because he could not let go. But I remember reading the diary of Pope John XXIII and their passion for people and their salvation remained undimmed, burning so passionately within them, even though their bodies would not obey them anymore. I don't know how one communicates this to someone without faith. I felt such a sense at his tomb that I also have a duty to continue the work that he did until my dying breath.

After the crypt, we headed for St John Lateran, which is a Basilica some distance from St Peter's. It is the official church of the Bishop of Rome. It has quite an impressive frontage and large doors that dwarf everything. Once inside, you see that it is big. Really big. Not quite as large as St Peters, but not far off. The size of the statues of the apostles in the main nave are huge. The paintings and lattice work on the altar canopy is intricate. But then you look up. At the ceiling. Words simply fail. I could tell you about the light dancing off of the gold leave, the art..., but it cannot convey the sheer - i don't know.I was gobsmacked. I looked down at the floor and then back at the roof. Same reaction - disbelief. I went and sat at the back of the Church and just sat. It was completed in 324. People - normal people like you and me had been worshipping here for over 1700 years! The concept as I sat and tried to comprehend it, was just mind-boggling. I had only visited St John's because Kerry and Richard said I should, but as I had been so many times this holiday, was simply blown away by unexpected moments of stupendous and unexpected beauty / awe, call it what you like. I took a video of the place and my jaw still dropped when I watched it later.

For years, I had been one of those people that believed the Vatican should sell all its wealth and give the money to the poor. What an idiot I was! These treasures are priceless heirlooms of a family that dates back over 2000 years. Sure the materials and art have some nominal value, but nothing in comparison to the beauty that is our inheritance of those who have gone before us. It would be like trying to sell off your priceless family portraits and heirlooms. It is more than sentimental value. It speaks of a history of love - a labour of love: of one believer to another, encouraging and leading each other - and us that would follow - through their art and talent as artisans, to God. And a shared treasure that has been entrusted to us - not ours to dispose of but to prove our stewardship, so that as with the faith, we can carefully hand it on to the generations that will follow us.The people that created this were given the talent by God and granted the time on earth by Him. It is both His gift to us and our gift to Him.


Day 7

Day 7
The trip to Rome was long, really long.I never had a chance to blog since we got to bed after 12 again. We passed through the beauty of the Alps,and into Italy. One of the nice things about leaving France for Italy is that the toilets have toilet seats. I don't konw why the French don't have these or tomato flavoured chips? Go figure. One thing I have to mention is the toll fees! Man, they are steep. We roughly added up most and so far we have paid about upwards of R2500 in toll fees alone on this trip and we still have to head back!

We booked into our campsite - very very nice - 5 star compared to what we have experienced so far and Carmen and Kerry came back after checking the ablutions and gushed that it really was 5 star - marble floors and tiles, etc. so Richard and I grabbed our toiletries bags and charged off to the showers after the dodgy French experience. The marble was in evidence everythwere: the campsite is immacualte with manicured gardens, a few restaurants and bars, a gym and swimming pool. One of hte few times a place has far exceeded what is promised on the brochure. So we got into our respective shower stalls and turned on the fancy showerheads. Pressure good? Check. Water warm? Check. Drainage? Not so good. Our respective stalls began to fill with water as the sluice was obviously blocked at the end.The first alert that something was amiss, was an expletive from the adjacent stall when my brother discovered his toes were drowning. Both of us normally wear slip slops when we shower away from home to avoid athlete's foot etc.but Richard forgot his in SA and has had to use Kerry's white crocs - 4 sizes too small for him as an alternative. We finished showering as rapidly as we could. I emerged from my stall to find my brother having fled his as quickly as he could, standing in the middle of the large ablution hall,applying roll-on dressed only in his jocks and on tip toes balancing precariously in Kerry's white crocs. Not pretty. Once reported, to their credit, the camping guys sorted the drain out immediately. We fell comatose into our bunks in the camper.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Day 6

Lyon and Ars. Out here in the Lyon region, the evening air is crisp and fresh. It was the first really warm day of the trip and I am sitting here at 845pm in shirtsleeves outside writing this. It is still light and only starts to get pitch dark after 1030pm. We drove quite a bit today, leaving Paris behind. The whole countryside is green here and the roads very good - reminiscent of SA's roads some years back before they were allowed to deteriorate the way they have. We stopped at a winery to taste some wines, but they only made white wines and rose's . Their Cabernet Sauvignon's were oddly also rose's so we left empty handed, not convinced that there was anything to be had here on the wine front that would surpass in both value and quality what we could get back home. Off to Ars we went, to see the place where St Jean Marie Baptiste Vianney lived and worked. He was an amazing man, and is probably my favourite saint. Ars is a small village, albeit more modernised now, but it still carries the spirit of Jean Vianney and is obviously a place that sees many pilgrims. For such a small village, the basilica is breathtaking and the artwork far surpasses anything we have in our Cathedral in Cape Town. It was quite funny that at neither Ars or our Lyon campsite where we are spending the night, had they ever met anybody from South Africa. I think when we told them we were from Africa, they took a second to register that white people actually lived there! It was worth the look on their faces, though.

It is so peaceful at this campsite. A river runs alongside the campsite, surrounded by greenery and trees everywhere, and it is so quiet and peaceful. Our experience has been that the French we have encountered are polite, perhaps aloof, but not unfriendly. I was saying to Richard that I know I will miss my friends and family once we have left SA, but there is nothing about Africa that I will miss. I love the civilised way of life over here. Not just the wild criminality of Africa, but the heat and the dust and the increasing filth and litter that is so noticeable by its absence, here. Some Europeans visit Africa and fall in love with its untamed beauty. I was born and lived there and just never did. I think it is as simple and perhaps as facile as that.

Richard has attached photos of some of the art detail from inside the dome of the Basilica as well as an external street view and a shot taken from the inside and outside of the winery .

Tomorrow it is off to Rome - and we are expecting organised chaos, so will chat then.