Walking in Rome

Via dei Fori Imperiali
Looking down on the ruins

Sunday and there’s no rushing to Ostia today. I’ve sketched out a walking tour, so we’ll see what happens. On the airport train, I met a pleasant American Couple who live and work in the Emirates; they recommended Ostia Antica as a day trip. I’ve been passing this place on my way to the swimming pool every day and I’ve worked out that it’s a site of archaeological significance. There’s enough of ancient Rome sticking out of the ground here in the city and I’ve seen the sites at Carthage (Tunisia) and more in Morocco.

The only evidence of the Eurogames in Central Rome
Romulus And Remus
Gigantic fragments

The Campidoglio is, like many buildings in Rome, sandwiched between a church and ruins, with the Vittorione towering nearby. There’s a magnificent square, designed by Michael Angelo with an equine statue of Marcus Aurelius who is much loved here. The two parts of the Musei Capitolini flank the Piazza and the third side is a civic building housing a wedding hall. It’s early and the crowds are light here. Everyone it seems is heading for the Coliseum.

Oceanus
Marble relief
Theatrical mask in marble
Audience room with frescoes & the pope

Getting into the museum is a test. On one side there is only an exit; on the other, a ticket office and two doors along, the security entrance which checks all our bag. Here, there is a magnificent collection of sculpture – not overcrowded like the British Museum. Each piece has space to breath and be appreciated. Some of the rooms are furnished with frescos painted on the walls. A modern addition incorporates ruins of an ancient temple and prides a huge space for another copy of Marcus Aurelius on horseback. – it’s impressive. Famous works – eg the Dying Gaul – are stunning and Caravaggio’s cheeky painting of St John the Baptist, is sexy. The model, obviously one of his pretty boys is smuggled into respectability with a saintly label. I go below to see the gravestones but miss the connection to the other side of the square. I exit and briefly consider giving the other side a miss, but there’s no problem and I’m allowed back in an take the tunnel under the square to the other side. Just as well as there are more treasures to be seen, including the famous view of the square from above.

Constantine
Marcus Aurelius
Caravaggio’s St John the Baptist
St Sebastian in seductive pose
Another naked hero fighting a monster
Gilded bronze man with club
Bacchus in red marble
Venus copy
Roman woman
The Piazza with Marcus Aurelius
Teatro Marcello

I’ve passed Teatro Marcello several times on a bus; now it’s time to photograph this very ancient Roman ruin, reclaimed in the middle ages and converted into the Orsini palace.

The Vittoriano towers white and sharp over the whole area. It’s a 19thc classical re-invention which seems oddly out of place. The Victorian age was one of energetic expansion and so-called improvement, not always achieving the desired result. I reference numerous English churches which were vandalised in this way by the Victorians.

Fathers of Italy
Ceramic roman

I notice from the other side of the road that people – not tourists are going through a door in the Vittoriano. I like going though open doors and especially if it’s free. This one leads to a temporary exhibition about Italian identity – how the nation was formed. It begins with the language – developing from a Latin base (like other European languages) with a situation where people spoke a variety of similar languages and dialects. Television is credited with consolidating the National dialect, though many retain their local versions alongside. Italy had become a mixture of republics, the Papal Sates and the vast kingdom of Naples to the South. This exhibition charts all this through the wars, Garibaldi, Mussolini and the post war referendum offering the choice of Monarchy or Republic.  Some how the flimsy plywood display units showing the gaps and the back of the display, make this raw and moving. At this point I have to comment that in spite of all the reports and predictions of a collapsing economy and infrastructure, everything seems to run smoothly in Rome. There are beggars here – more dramatic and dirtier than anywhere else. Some pose as semi religious-characters.  They have little impact on the trains and busses, which run on time at affordable prices. The refugees hide away in the park that was Nero’s palace trying to keep clean washing themselves and clothes in the ever-flowing water fountains.

one of many drinking fountains
Teatro Marchllo from the Vittoriano

Upstairs in the Vittoriano, the marble staircases seem empty and pointless and the other areas are closed off. I wander onto the huge balcony surrounding the building and offering great views of the city. I can hardly see for the glare of sunshine on the marble, but have difficulty finding a seat free of pigeon shit.

The Pantheon neoclassical facade

The next stop is the Pantheon – once a Roman temple – now a church constructed inside the ruins. There’s a queue but it moves fast. The place is crowded; buzzing with conversations which surge and die between announcements calling for silence. A recording is employed to cut through the buzz – the amplified voice, strangely at odds with its message. I sit down on a pew next to a woman tourist who has fallen asleep. The husband wakes her with his cap, brushing her eyeball with the rim as it sweeps past her. She’s not happy about that but goes back to sleeping. Light from the open circle at the top of the domed roof shines a shaft of light at one part of the wall. It’s dark and mysterious.

Inside the Pantheon
Bernini’s elephant

Outside, as I cross the Piazza, an African notice my green shoes and before I know it has put a friendship bracelet on my wrist – a gift. I’ve come across this before in Myanmar. He then offers me a small wooden carving, but want’s a contribution towards his family. No. I’m not playing that game and as I march off, he reclaims his free bracelet. I’m after a Coffee Granita, shavings of iced coffee layered with cream. It’s fantastic, though I think I could have done without the whipped cream.

Rear of the Parthenon

As I round the back of the Pantheon, to inspect the ancient Roman brick-work there’s a Bernini carved Marble elephant with an obelisk on his back – wonderful.

After a late afternoon nap, I return to Naumachio and try their mixed grill. Perfect. I’ve been observing a group of women who have clearly been here for the Games. One of them has a rainbow on her tee shirt and the same small blue ruck sac as I, from the Gay Games in Paris. As I’m leaving, I say hello and have a great conversation. They are badminton players from Ireland. The evening closes with my now routine gelato from my local gelateria.

It Rains in Rome

Coloseo

Sightseeing and swimming

Piazza di Spagna
Spanish Steps
Trinita del Monti
Panoramic view of Rome

Friday – the alarm has been set and the trains, once again run like clockwork. We’re joined by the water polo guys, playing in the indoor pool. My 100m Backstroke is a couple of seconds slower – possibly caused by arguments with the lane ropes – one of the hazards of swimming backstroke out-doors. In the lunch-break, I help Federico with his backstroke finishes – counting from the flags and touching with one hand on a dolphin kick, or two. He’s got the 50m backstroke with me tomorrow. Meanwhile, my 200m Individual Medley is quite acceptable, but there is a Netherlander in his seventies who is faster than me. I guess I’m used to fast guys in their seventies back in the UK. He’s a strong breast-stroker and gets away with swimming fly and back with a breaststroke kick. At the end of day two, I’ve got four gold medals and the schedule has run so efficiently that there’s time for evening sight-seeing. Back in town, I head for the famous Spanish Steps. They are moderately crowded and tourists sit around the fountain in the Piazza. Whistle-blowing wardens are employed here to make sure no one sits on anything marble – posts or balustrades. They undertake their job assiduously, forcing exhausted tourists back onto their feet. The marble looks pretty worn and pitted by acid rain, so it’s good that they are trying to preserve the place. The other problem is that sitting on the steps would block the place up, making the climb up to the Trinita del Monti impossible. The pay-off to this climb is the panoramic view of Rome – the church itself is unremarkable inside but the external façade crowns the steps to dramatic effect. It’s closing time and the gate-keeper of the church shoos new visitors away as I descend and locks the gates behind me. To my right there’s an alfresco restaurant overlooking the steps and I wonder what their prices are like for this location.

Fontera del Tritone

I’m now heading, in a leisurely fashion for the Fontana Di Trevi (Tivoli fountain), but I’m seduced towards the Fontana di Tritone nearby. There’s no one here as it’s in the middle of a traffic Island – worth the diversion. It seems as if Rome has a fountain or three in every Piazza and there are drinking fountains with running water everywhere. I pass a theatre showing Mary Poppins the Musical. In Rome, Italy? Astonishing. I pass via Boccaccio and am reminded of this great medieval Italian story teller who influenced Chaucer. Rome is full of streets named after the famous, from Marcus Aurelius to George Washington. As I pass the usual tourist shops, found world-wide, there’s something different, Pinocchio.

Mary Poppins
Pinocchio
Fontana Trevi

Predictably the Trevi Fountain is crowded, though it is possible to get photos. A gap opens up on one of the iron barriers – a chanced to sit and look. I listen to the whistles preventing people from sitting on marble edges. At 9.00pm, the lights go on and there’s cheering. Two women throw coins over their shoulders into the fountain. It’s supposed to guarantee a return visit to Rome. It’s a recent legend created by the Hollywood movie Three Coins in the Fountain. The coins are collected at the end of each day and go to a charity.

Trevi detail
Trevi detail
Vittoriano

My GPS directions home take me past the gigantic Vittoriano, a 19th Century white marble neoclassical gallery. It towers over everything else. My path is down the Via dei Fori Imperiale, and I suddenly realise that all of the ancient ruins can be seen from above. The views are magnificent and there is no need to pay to see the ruins below.

Ruins by night
Rome by night
Out to Swim 4×50 freestyle relay team

Saturday is the last day of swimming. Federico is once again trying to organise a relay. As a native of Rome, it’s best for him to do this. The judge allows us to enter four men in the 4 x 50m Mixed freestyle relay and we are able to co-opt James H from the water polo team. In the mean-time, we have the 50m Backstroke and Federico hasn’t warmed up due to organising the relay. He’s run out of time and I tell him to just do the race. He does and with a much better time than he entered. We’re waiting for James F to arrive and just when we think it’s not going to happen, he materialises. The Italian Mixed team are waiting for us – so are the officials. No one is in a panic and it all happens. We are faster than the Italians, especially with James H to finish. There’s talk of doing the 4 x 100 medley in the afternoon, but no one else can do fly and I certainly can’t manage 100 metres. The other option is the 4 x 200 freestyle and I don’t think our newbies would manage that either.

Five gold medals
Road to the Catacombs
Cacti at the San Sebastian Catacombs

I’m off back to the tourist trail and there’s a bus number 118 from beside the Coliseum which will take me to the Appian Way. I get talking to an American family from LA – she’s done the research and knows what to see, but it is I who get us off at the right stop.  The Apian Way is an ancient cobbled highway – only just wide enough for two cars to pass in opposite directions plus an occasional pedestrian. It’s only closed on Sundays, so we have to contend with traffic. A fork in the road looms and a driveway bisecting the fork, promises catacombs 1.6 km ahead. The sign says it closes in fifteen minutes but undaunted I and the family from LA set of at a brisk pace. We make it in time for the last group tour of the San Calisto Catacombs. Underground, it’s a delicious fifteen degrees, a relief from surface temperatures in the high twenties – our Monk-guide dons a jacket as we descend. There are over twenty miles of burial corridors in this complex at several levels. Spartacus, the gladiator and his rebels were all crucified along the Apian Way but it was during the early days of Christianity that the catacombs came about. Romans were cremated but the Christians looked forward to the resurrection and the restoration of the earthly body; they may have got that idea from the Egyptians. Christians were much persecuted in the Empire until Constantine converted and made Christianity the official religion. They came underground to pay their respects to their dead, to light an oil lamp. The lamp niches are still clearly visible. While they were down here, they held secret communion services. One early Bishop of Rome was caught and beheaded as were Saints Paul and Peter. At this site, many of the Popes were buried and when the barbarians invaded, looting and looking for treasure (The Christians weren’t buried with their possessions), all the important bodies were moved out to the Vatican and the others went down a level where they stayed forgotten and undiscovered for two thousand years. Many of the graves cut into the walls are short (the Romans were short people) and even smaller graves belong to children and babies. The very high proportion of children’s graves can be explained by the practice that early Christians had of saving the bodies of heathen children (innocents) in the hope of their salvation. That phrase ‘In the sure and certain hope of the resurrection’ comes to mind.

A Wet Apian Way

Back above ground in the heat, I’m determined to walk on past the St Sebastian catacombs and re-join the Apian Way and see viaducts. Alas, there’s a torrential downpour which goes on for thirty minutes. I take shelter under roadside foliage, but the water finds its way through the leaves. I’m very damp and reluctantly return to a bus stop for the journey back to town. We aren’t going the way we came, but It’s a circular route and I’m getting new view of Rome. It’s not until we’ve doubled back and are returning down the Apian Way that I realise that this bus is not returning to the Coliseum. Eventually it gets to the end of the run and I transfer and wait for the return bus, which rattles alarmingly over every cobblestone. I fear it might disintegrate at any moment as there are bits on the ceiling hanging by one or two screws. We are still not returning to the Coliseum and the driver tells me I have to walk from the Campidoglio. Sure enough, the road to the Coliseum is closed to traffic this evening.

Campodoglio
Campodioglio

I try my host’s recommended Pizza restaurant to cheer myself up. It’s around the corner and great. So far, in Rome, Pizza has been 100% OK – nice thin crispy bases. Unfortunately, my Italian is not good and I manage to say yes to a whole jug of the house red wine, which has to be finished. I’ve been on a beer ration all week, so it’s a bit of a struggle.

Roma Eurogames and Coloseo

Coloseo

I exit the Metro at Coloseo late in the evening, it’s dark and I’ve never been here before. The floodlit spectrum before me is instantly recognisable; it’s the Coliseum, so this must be Rome. Childhood stories of heroic Gladiators, a Lion who refused to eat a Christian and the movie Sparticus are all part of the history that was the Roman Empire. My Mum always said it was the most successful empire ever, lasting more or less over a thousand years. Much longer than the British Empire, she said. To be fair, she didn’t know about the Incas 3.5 thousand years or the Aztecs who went for 2,750.

Coliseum

My Mr B&B accommodation is a short walk from the Coliseum and my host’s American husband is on hand to greet me to a small but beautifully appointed ground floor apartment. Todd has plenty of good advice of what to see and where to eat locally – and there’s a welcoming bottle of Prosecco.

San Giovanni in Laterno

There’s been considerable uncertainty about the LGBT Eurogames here with lack of information and conflicting reports. The website now doesn’t have the information – schedules and heat sheets, so I’m looking for some answers at the accreditation evening tomorrow. Early morning emails from the organisers inform me that accreditation has moved from the Games Village to a café due to anticipated rain, but my first priority is buying breakfast stuff from the Carrefour supermarket a short walk away.

Scala Sancta – tourists climb the stairs on hands and knees.
Scala Sancta ceiling

I’ve got time this morning, to explore and spot a likely candidate highlighted by my host on the handy map of Rome. Scala Santa houses the marble steps which Jesus (allegedly) climbed twice on the day of his death in the Jerusalem palace of Pontius Pilate. These were brought to Rome by St Helen and laid from top to bottom by the workmen so that no one walked on them. For several centuries , they were covered with wood to prevent wearing of the marble but now they have been restored so the faithful may once again engage with the same steps as Christ. Today the stairs must be climbed on hands and knees as an act of faith and devotion. As I don’t claim to have either of these, I take the alternative staircase, which looks much the same to me. At the top, the chapels are crudely frescoed and I don’t spend much time looking. I guess this is an experience for the faithful, although a party of Japanese tourists are crawling up the stairs. I wonder?

San Giovanni the porch

The Basilica San Giovani in Laterno, just across the road looks more impressive. The edifice is huge and the building seemingly attached (this happens a lot in Rome) is something to do with Rome Opera. Not many are crowding in the door and it’s free with a relaxed security check. Inside, It’s massive and uncrowded. I later discover that this is the official cathedral of the Pope, the Bishop of Rome. He has his throne here, it’s the centre of his diocese. Back at the Coliseum, I explore the Domus Aurea, a hill where part of Nero’s palace looked down on a lake where the Coliseum now stands. It’s all under re-construction and only parts of this once extensive and lavish complex can be glimpsed. Nero was so unpopular that much of what he built was destroyed and recycled. I consider visiting the Coliseum but there’s a queue. I can see that the interior is mostly in ruins and being reconstructed. I walk up towards the Forum, but you need a ticket to go there, instead I walk up an alley-way to get a view. An African trader of wooden trinkets, I passed earlier, has gathered his wares and is running up the hill looking behind as he goes. This is a blind alley leading to a church so I’m surprised to see the young African being escorted by Police down the hill. One of them is carrying his rucksack – I didn’t notice them overtake me. It all looks quite relaxed, and for the African (chatting to his captors) a common occurrence.

San Giovanni – the nave
San Giovanni in Laterno St Philip looking stern
Basilica San Giovanni in Laterno Popes Chair
Nero’s ruins
Ruins of Nero’s palace
View of The forum in the distance

My weekly pass is a great deal and I follow other sporty-looking people to the accreditation. I spot two women ahead – on of them is Viv Woodcock – Downey from BLAGS and the Gay Games committee. I interviewed her for Out for Sport – nice to have a familiar person to chat with in the queue. The other woman is her wife, who is competing in the discus. The café might have been chosen for its long and gently sloping incline to the bar where there is a library – yes real books to go with the beer and coffee. The Queue is huge, taking up all of the incline then snaking over the stage – someone briefly plays the grand piano. Word is that none of the people handing out accreditation badges have answers to our questions. There’s to be a meeting of the swimming team leaders at 7pm. As I’m the senior of the three from Out to Swim, I volunteer myself to attend. Thank goodness for our WhatsApp group as I’m able to collect a team mate’s badge – he’s been delayed at Gatwick Airport.

No one knows exactly where this meeting will take place and we’re all sitting around waiting. Suddenly it materialises with a presentation of an alternative schedule of events – quite different from the original. Gay Swim Amsterdam object as they have swimmers arriving on Friday who would miss out on their events. Apparently, the Netherlands Swimming Body fines swimmers who don’t turn up for their races. The original schedule is reinstated in a flash with no resistance. The Warm up is now at eight-thirty, races start at nine and it is a fifty-metre pool – outside. There are, however, no heat sheets.

My host’s recommended restaurant, overflowing at lunchtime is now quieter. They do a great seafood pasta dish and salad, perfect to carb-up for racing tomorrow.

The competition Pool

Thursday morning, I wake at seven. Panic – I haven’t set my alarm and I’ve got thirty minutes to have breakfast, shave and leave the apartment. This would normally take me a leisurely hour. The trains are all on time, my weekly ticket will take me all the way to the coast and google maps assures me that I’ll be there by eight-forty – still enough time to do some warm-up. Outside the Stella Polari station and I follow a couple of other late swimmers. It’s not clear where the entrance is and we all go down the wrong side – some signs, as we had in New York two weeks ago, could have been useful.

Out to Swim team
Medals at the end of day one

My warm-up is rushed and the pool is too warm – I’m not slicing through the water as in NY – still, I have time to use the twenty-fiver metre pool inside to complete my warm-up. It’s deliciously cool by comparison. When I signed up for this there was no schedule and so, just entered seven of my usual events. It turns out that the 400m freestyle, the 200m Backstroke and 800m freestyle are all scheduled for today. I’m allowed five events over the three days – the 400 falls by the wayside. Suddenly there’s a heat sheet and I’m trying to support our two relatively inexperienced swimmers to get to their races and warm up properly. A marshalling area gathers the swimmers in their heats and I can see that It’s all completely relaxed and professional. There are no hints of hysteria or panic – these officials know exactly what they are doing. There’s even time to announce each swimmer and their country. National identity, it seems, is important in Europe. The Netherlands and Germany are here in force – also Portugal, Belgian, Spain and France. Suddenly the 200m Backstroke looms. It seems like a struggle, with the lack of preparation, but it turns out to be only a few seconds under time. 

Pool and seaside

There’s now an opportunity to do a 4 x 50m Medley relay – not officially – just for fun. We have to make up a fourth team member- Nicolas (French but swimming for Stockholm) helps out. We’re giving James and Federico some experience. As Federico mainly does backstroke and James is best at Front Crawl, I end up doing the Breaststroke, but that’s OK as I need the practice. I’m not sure where we came – possibly last but we swam and our names are recorded on the official Italian site, but there’s no time entered.

The electricity is off in the pool café, so no espresso, just a tuna and spinach sandwich on white bread. It’s enough to get me through the 800m on a reasonable time – faster than Crawley back in January – leaving me with two gold medals in one day.

Dancers

It’s the opening ceremony of the games tonight. There’s a huge contingent of Brits here – hockey, football, rugby and volleyball. OTS have four Water Polo teams here so we three swimmers are not entirely alone. We all assemble at a small stadium for a short wait. There’s a rumour that only ten people from each country should march in. My legs like that idea, but it turns out not to be true. We gather on the stadium pitch in a semicircle facing the spectators and watch a graceful aerial artist perform to the accompaniment of a live opera singer. What else would you expect in Italy? Once we are seated in the stand, there are the usual interminable speeches. Every politician in Rome has to have their say and it’s all the same words. Proud, inclusive, welcoming – which all has to be translated into English – the language the rest of Europe understands. Yes, we are leaving Europe (I think) but the British legacy is the language of commerce and we can’t undo that. There follows more dancing – sexy and together. We all agree, an improvement on the Paris Gay games performance.

Vienna discoveries and memories

Museum Hundertwasser

Tuesday – I’ve got my sights set on Museum Hundertwasser. It’s a bit out of the way – not near a Ubann station, so there’s a bit of walking ahead. I take a seat on the train next to an abandoned newspaper. The youngish woman opposite is taking photographs of articles. She says it’s easier to read them on her phone by enlarging. We get talking – it’s easier just to say I live in London. She says she loves London and that her mother took her there. ‘London people are so friendly,’ she says, not like here. I’m surprised by this and guess that this might have been around 2012, when London suddenly became uncharacteristically friendly. I learn that her mother is dead and get a sort of life story. When she finds out that I’m heading for the Hundertwasser, she insists that I go with her as her dental appointment is near there. We catch a tram and both get out at the same stop. ‘It’s not far, you just turn left then right.’ She’s a bit late for the dentist and disappears. There are signs, but I want to go to the museum first and have to resort to my sat nav. The building is magical, but no photography is allowed. The terracotta tiled flooring undulates unevenly with a claim that the earth is like this. I’m not so sure as, being older, I’m finding keeping my balance a slight challenge. One of the first things I notice is that Hundertwasser mentions being buried in Ao Tea Roa. I’ve never seen  my native land spelt in this way before and immediately want to know more. I scan his time line – he was Jewish and changed his name at some point, but there’s no explanation of how he survived the war as a child in Vienna. He went to art school, but didn’t stay. There’s a man dressed entirely in black wearing sunglasses. He has walking poles and walks around the exhibit repeatedly like an automaton. Strange – I wonder if he is part of the show.  The walking poles obviously help his balance on the uneven floor.

Silver spiral
Green town

The art is amazing and colourful. Often representational, including spirals of different colours. He seems to have travelled all over the world but after his first visit to New Zealand/Aotearoa he returned there repeatedly. He became ill and was cared for in a rural hospital and bought a property there. In the end he was buried in Aotearoa, on his property, with a tree planted over him to make use of his molecules in this new life. There’s a picture of the young tree doing well – I’m slightly disappointed that it’s not a native of Aotearoa, but a Tulip Tree or Liriodendron. Mum had one on our lawn when we were young it took twenty years to produce any flowers. Friedensreich Hundertwasser, I’m amazed to learn, designed flags. His Green Koru for New Zealand
is simple and effective. Ex-prime minister John Keys could have saved a lot of time and money by just adopting it.

For Australia he designed a red half circle supported below by the blue ocean and one star.

Hundertwasser House detail
Hundertwasser House
Hundertwasser House
Hundertwasser House

I’m interested to find that his flag for Israel included a blue star of David with a green crescent moon. He was also great at print making and graphics – an inspirational visit and I’m keen to get on down the road to see the Hundertwasser House – a block of apartments done in his inimitable style, not unlike Gaudi and to be found in various other world cities.  It’s gloriously sunny but not over crowded with tourists.

Karls Kirche

I’m slightly disorientated by now and take a while consulting my google maps to decide which way to walk. I take a risk and find a tram gong in the right direction. It passes an underground station, so I get off and take the Ubann to re-visit Karls Kirche, which we’d passed on our walking architectural tour. The church was completed in 1737 and combines a variety of styles and epochs in world history.

Karls Kirche
Karls Kirche
Ceiling Karle Kirche
Ceiling Karls Kirche

There are stairs up to see the ‘treasure’ – not really worth the climb and my legs certainly didn’t need the exercise. Inside the church are several large inflated silver and transparent globes which reflect the walls and murals. It seems vast and very high. This is due to various tricks of perspective which make it appear so. Marble columns and panels are tapered towards the ceiling. There’s a huge clump of scaffolding in one corner which houses a lift and I take this up to a viewing platform to see the ceiling art-work. Looking down is scary – vertiginous. Luckily there are Perspex panels – blacked out lower down to give a better sense of safety. It’s worth the journey to see the murals and the view down to the street below.

Secession
Klimpt Frieze
Original Secession
Front decoration
Klimpt Frieze

From here, it’s only a short walk to re-visit Secession, also seen in the near-dark on our walking tour. It has been stunningly restored and it’s now possible to go in. I’m down to my last few euros and so ask to pay by card. Many places in Austria still have minimum amounts, like 15 Euros. The nice man on the desk lets me in for the group tour price leaving me 30 cents. The main exhibition space is displaying video art/installation. Very engaging and suitably in the spirit of secession.

Dancing women

Down a level there’s similar work – a young man walking and falling over, getting up and walking – narrowly avoiding being run over by cars, falling down again and so on. There’s someone carrying a white screen which takes up most of the video screen. You just get a hint of the landscape. Down yet another level is the Kimpt frieze. Worth the wait for that. There’s a picture of the original building, the back of which was severely bombed at the end of the war. You can see the frieze of women holding up rings and now a small part of the frieze has been re-created. There’s also a photo of the ribbon of approval the building had from the nazis during their annexation of Austria.

Time to go back to my apartment for a rest and re-group. There’s another local pub style restaurant listed in the Gay guide. Sixta offers traditional Austrian fare and I have soup followed by the most delicious goulash. The clientele is not at all gay – mostly locals but I think the waiter might be.

Johann Strauss

I’ve booked an evening of Mozart and Johann Strauss music at the Kursalon, a concert venue where Strauss himself performed. I’m early and briefly look in the park to admire a golden statue of Johann. The venue is grand and looks like a wedding cake, all lit up with fairy lights. Crowds of coaches are pulling up and loads of tourists are flooding in. I notice that its €1 for the coat check. I’m all out of cash and so decide to take my coat in with me. That’s not allowed, I have to check it in.

‘But I don’t have a euro.’ I tell the man. ‘Can you do VISA?’ He suggests I go to a nearby ATM. ‘I’m not going to go to an ATM and withdraw one euro. I only do cards.

‘What, you wander around with no cash?’

‘Yes.’ I tell him. ‘Here, I have forty cents.’ He tells the coat check man not to charge me for checking in my coat. Result.

Kursalon

We are in a level concert hall with a dais at one end. Chandeliers drip liberally from the ceiling. I’ve gone for the cheaper seats at the back as I know that the sound should be ok. An usherette parades around the auditorium holding up a card representing no photography. She has a stern look on her face and makes sure that everyone in the hall has seen her. Finally, the musicians arrive; the leader of this nonet is an elderly violinist who seems to have a sense of humour. They start off with a polka – rousing stuff. Then we seem to be working our way through the well-known Johann Strauss waltzes and polkas. The trouble with waltzes is that they are for dancing. The first few staves are fine, then it becomes repetitive. It seems that there is only so much you can do to develop a Waltz. The solution is to bring in a couple of dancers. She’s very balletic with legs and arms going up and down, while he is no Nureyev, but good at leading a Viennese waltz. They can only dance in one plane – across the front of the dais and back – so the choreography is limited and can’t even compare with ‘Strictly’.  A soprano comes on and sings an aria from a Strauss Opera – it’s a waltz. Things might look up as a baritone comes on to sing some Mozart. It’s Non Piu Andrai – an aria I used to sometimes sing at auditions. His acting isn’t very good and he doesn’t quite have the right power. We are back to the Strauss waltzes and the dancers. Suddenly there’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik by Mozart – this also has memories – strange – of performing this piece as part of a clarinet quartet at a secondary school chamber music competition. At last there’s the duet from Don Giovani – La ci darem la mano. The two singers return and they are very good. The baritone has found his place as the seducer. It’s an ok experience, but not stunning, although the Blue Danube is well done. The encore is another strange memory from way-back. Brahms’ Hungarian Dance Number 5. We used to play this in the town orchestra and I could never manage the clarinet part. I remember the gusto with which our elderly rural violinists attacked this piece. Sadly, the opera was all sold out so this is second choice.

Medals

The final day is travelling home. I’m ready to do all the airport security in reverse and you can even buy a bottle of drink to take through wrapped up in a sealed transparent plastic bag. Something in my bag has alerted the machine and I’m asked to open up.

‘Have you got any crystals?’ she asks.

Medals

‘Yes,’ I reply. I wondered if my swimming medals would cause a problem. Of course, they’re in my swimming bag right at the bottom of my carry-on. I’m in plenty of time, so there is no need to panic and I refuse to be rushed by the woman.

Later, back in London at swim training I ask my team mates if the same thing happened to them. Yes, it did. It’s hard going, the first swim in four days. I did six races, five museums and two palaces. My legs are wrecked.

Vienna Museums and palaces

Sunday morning is the traditional brunch for European gay swim meets and it’s a feast – smoked salmon, cold meats, scrambled eggs and bacon washed down with coffee and prosecco. The Out to Swim youngsters don’t look too worse for wear after the party and many are off to catch flights home. I’m off to look at museums. Mumok is dedicated to contemporary work. Imposingly nestled within the Museum Quarter like a gigantic lump of coal it seems argue with the surrounding Neo-classical surroundings. The main exhibit is a retrospective of Ernst Caramelle (Austrian) from 1974. Apart from several striking perspectives achieved with two dimensional geometric shapes, his work did not engage me. I was more interested in the building – metallic inside with a lift shaft opening onto metal grill landings.

Mumok in the Museum Quarter
Gustav Klimpt
Egon Shciele
Schiele self portrait
Schiele self portrait
Schiele house
Schiele village

On the other side of the courtyard is the Leopold museum. Its modern walls blend in with the neo-classical surroundings and make less of a statement that the Mumok. Here there is an exhibition of Viennese fashion textile design with mannequins and photographs. The main attraction is work by Klimpt and an extensive exhibition of Egon Schiele (1890-1918) – a tortured soul by all accounts.

There’s time to fit in the Mozart Haus at the end of the day, even though my legs have had far too much work so far this weekend. It’s in a back street off Stephanzplats and a bit tricky to find.  This is the only remaining house that Mozart lived in here for 3 years at the height of his success. It is also the most spacious. The audio, included in the entry, is interesting and prolongs the visiting time of a quite sparse exhibition. Nothing, except for the manuscripts and letters remain, so the house displays items which come from the period and which might have been in the household. Mozart was quickly adopted as the darling of the Viennese, but royal patronage was more difficult to come by – another example of populism rubbing up against conservatism. The Marriage of Figaro, almost wasn’t allowed by the Emperor – the play version was forbidden a few years before because of the negative depiction of the aristocracy. Vienna was underwhelmed by Mozart’s opera – not so Prague, who loved it. Vienna woke up to what it was missing, but too late as Mozart was near the end of his life and only just completed his Requiem and The Magic Flute.

I’m not really up for another Japanese noddle dinner nor a naff looking fish restaurant nearby, but find a reasonable Italian place for Linguini Adriactica – seafood. Perfect except for the fact that two couples across the isle are smoking in between courses and they have a baby with them. I’m shocked.

Schonbrun Palace
Schonbrun front courtyard
Shonbrun back side
Palace gardens
Palace Gardens
Palace Garden
Palace from the monument

Monday, I’ve booked one of those bus tours of the city and hope that the Friday Art Nouveaux experience on foot is not replicated. It’s not and the bus leaves from the Opera House (rebuilt after being destroyed in WWII). We drive around the Ringstrasse in different directions having various buildings pointed out. The windows are tinted, so no possibility for photography. The Hapsburgs are mentioned, a lot. They sounded a despotic crew who lorded over central Europe for several centuries. We can’t go into the Palace complex but instead head out to their Summer residence, Schὃnbrun Palace. Our guide sets us up with earphones connected to her microphone so that she can keep us all together. No photography is allowed and we only see the ground and grand upper floors. There are no cellars so the ground floor is laid with wooden cross sections – it’s apparently damp. The horse-drawn carriages drove through to the hall-way to deposit guests or straight through to the gardens. On the upper floor, there are beautiful inlaid floors made from Brazilian forests. Empress Maria Therese was fond of oriental decoration and the walls are covered with Chinese silk and porcelain. There are no fire places so each room has a huge porcelain pot-belly heater, which was presumably filled with hot water, brought from the kitchens across the courtyard. Maria Therese was the power and her husband barely mentioned (except for his wealth). We learn that the empress kept loosing wars, but eventually she won one and promptly built a triumphant monument on the distant hill at the end of the huge garden. We have some free time to visit things like the coach house to see gilded carriages. In spite of the warning that I shall have to run up the hill to reach the monument, I give it a try. I’ve seen enough carriages over the years. The view is rewarding and you can see how close the Palace is to the city. They wanted to be near enough to move back into town in the event of an attack. It seems that someone was always trying to assassinate the emperor and eventually the Arch Duke was killed, leading to the First World War and the end of the Austrian Hungarian Empire. The last Emperor refused to abdicate and was banished and the country became a republic. The League of Nations was established and Austria forbidden from joining up with Germany. It all sounds so complicated and unnecessary – no wonder problems persisted in Central and Eastern Europe.

Belvedere Palace
Lower Belvedere
Int. Orangery
Interior Orangery
Medieval Collection
Medieval collection
Medieval Collection

We gather at the coach at 12.20 pm precisely and return to the city. Our tour guide gives us the option to leave the tour at the Belvedere Palace to see the Klimpt collection. A French nobleman who worked as a mercenary fighting the Ottoman Empire to the East, made a lot of money and built this Palace. I’m the only one on the tour getting off here. For me it’s too good an opportunity to pass up. The League of nations was set up on this site and the Great War settlements were agreed. I start off in the lower Belvedere – what was the Orangery. It’s a lovely walk down the formal gardens and the sun is shining. There’s an amazing collection of Medieval Art down here, not normally my thing, but I do like the vibrant colours – still bright after centuries – and every now and then there’s a non-religious scene. Faces are also of great interest to me – how they have or haven’t change over time. One thing is certain, medieval painters couldn’t do babies. I’m about to walk up to the main building when I discover a treasure.

women’s gallery – young man
Brencia Kaller-Pinell
Helen Funks
Mariette Lydas La Partie de Dames 1937
Self portrait – powerful
Stephanie Hollenstein

A special collection of women artists. Wow, what a find. It’s interesting to see the way female artists look at women compared with male artists, who sexualise their subjects so differently.

In the Upper Belvedere, there’s a café and I’m starving, my legs have done overtime and I need to sit down. Deep fried chicken with salad is the dish of the day. It turns out to be chicken Schnitzel on a bed of potato salad. There are a few dots of green spring onions. Still in spite of the low green content, It’s tasty.

Kilmpt
Klimpt the Kiss
Klimpt
Klimpt
Klimpt?
Klimpt

Here, I find the main Klimpt Collection – since seeing the interactive Klimpt show in Paris last year, I’ve been keen to see the originals. What a treat.

The Vienna gay guide lists a restaurant called Motto at the other end of my street. I almost miss it as the doorway is dark and the sign very discrete. I’m offered smoking or non-smoking – an improvement on last night. It’s not particularly gay and the menu is expensive but excellent. Cheese dumplings come on a red salad and the boiled beef slabs are delicious and both traditional Viennese dishes.

Slovenia – Sun,thunder & lightning, PB’s and Cake

Morning Swim in Lake Bled – magic

Thursday: I’ve decided to try swimming in the lake and figure that morning is the best time as after a day at the pool, the last thing I want to do is more swimming. Around ten am the water seems warmer than the reported 22 degree to start with, but gets a little colder as I swim out. One hundred meters is enough and works as a pre-warm up. The water is very clear and fish are abundant.

At the pool there’s just time to catch Neal’s 50m fly before warming up. Several of us are doing 100m freestyle and there are fifty-seven heats, but first we have to wait for the thirty-five heats of women.

Kranj Out-door pool

As much as possible the heats are run in their age-groups but I’m in a mixed group heat and get to swim in lane five near the centre of the pool. In spite of a dodgy tumble-turn, it’s a good swim and I’ve done a Long course PB of 1.22 – only one second slower that my short course PB, so what with the sunshine, it’s been a good day.

The Syncro women arrive

Ian has organised an Out to Swim dinner In Bled. It’s an opportunity for the whole team to meet up – the Syncro women have arrived and it’s great to meet some of them for the first time. Our open water swimmer, Rick Snow drops in for a beer so we are all together for a team photograph. We also have Matthew Lue’s birthday to celebrate and the restaurant improvises a cake. I decide, after much hesitation to try the famous Bled Cake. This is a custard base, with whipped cream on top.

The Out to Swim European Masters full team

There’s pastry top and bottom. It looks too sweet for me but I’m assured by locals that it’s not. What it is, is huge. It is somewhat sweet and walking home, it lies heavily on top of my mixed grill main course. Well, I’ve tried it and don’t need to do it again. Most cake-lovers, I think will enjoy this.

Lake Bled -ready for the race.

Friday: Another morning swim in this gorgeous lake. My race today is immediately after lunch. and by the time I get there, the morning session has finished and there are still two hours of lunch break. I time my warm up to end half an hour before the start of the afternoon session. I feel very sluggish this morning and the first 200m is hard work. ‘It’s often like this,’ I tell myself and sure enough in the second 200m I break through the barrier. Then it’s time to concentrate on backstroke, doing a few 50m backstroke kick to make sure my legs are straight. I follow this with backstroke HVOs, front-end to start and back-end to finish in the 50m pool. Again, I’m in lane five with only three other guys of various ages – mostly older than me.

Race officials on pontoon – waiting

Andy is here to film me and I can hear him as I prepare. It’s great to know that someone from the club is watching. The guy in lane four looks younger and faster than me, but he’s not and I win my heat with another long course PB (actually half a second faster than my Paris short course PB) and a 7th place in my age group. That means another certificate. Now is the time for lunch and I fill up on a large plate of spaghetti and treat myself to a beer, because it’s all over. Andy is racing in the last heat of the last event of the competition but while Neal and I are in the dinner tent, a huge thunderstorm breaks in the middle of the women’s 100m breaststroke. They carry on for a while, but there is lightening so proceedings stop for half an hour. Everyone crams into the dinner tent and we wait. The men’s 100m Breaststroke age group 25-29 is tense and hard fought. Andy is pleased with 5th and a PB. There were two other Brits in the 1:09 time. We’re all drained, emotionally and physically.

Rural Food tent

Back in Bled, I wander into town with a sort of plan. There’s a new Gazebo/tent showing off rural foods. Someone is doing snack sized cheese and garlic pizzas – that goes down well with a local pint. At the far end of the tent is a stage and there’s what looks like a police melodrama performed by local actors. Moving on to my planned dinner stop, one of the street food tents, I order chicken drumsticks with roast potatoes and vegetables and decide to try the local wine. It’s OK and I settle down in the semi dark to work my way through it all. The huge portion of roast potatoes defeats me and I move on to my last planned stop – a wine bar. I ask for a nice glass of red wine (un-chilled), I try it and it’s good. I put my credit card away when I find it’s only €2.30 for a large glass.  I also try a more expensive wine, which is even better and I’m surprised to find it’s a Merlot at €4. I may have that later. I don’t have time as the place is closing.

25-29-year-old men

Saturday: I need to go for my last lake swim early before checking out. After packing, I leave the hired car at the Air B&B place and walk in to look at the 3K open water swim which will start at ten am. The lake looks very organised and I can hear the commentator warming everyone up over in the out-door lido-in-the-lake. I stay and watch the first wave of 25-29-year-old men start, swim towards me then round two gigantic yellow markers before heading down to the other end of the lake. Next, it’s the young women and I make my way around to the enclosure for a closer look at the start.

30-34-year-old men prepare

By the time the 30-34 year-old men start, the first of the young men are returning. It’s won by a Russian, who when asked ‘at what stage did you know you were going to win?’ answers that he had prepared himself to win in his training, which garners a few wry smiles at his confidence.

30-34-year-old men jump in

He entered the race expecting to win. The Italian who came second and gave him a run for his money just comments that the 21 degree water was too cold for him. I’d spoken earlier to a Croatian couple who were not looking forward to the temperature – they’re used to 26 degree in the sea.

The Russian wins

Time to retire to a café in town coffee for an early lunch and to catch up on the blogging, keeping the autumnal wasps at bay and reluctantly feeding the cheeky sparrows crumbs of bread from my mozzarella and tomato with pesto. As I make my way back to collect the car, the Open Water Swimmers are still going and the officials in boats are doing a great job in aquatic traffic management – the lanes are all colour coded so not too much can go wrong.

30-34-year-old women prepare

White Garden, Bled

It’s been an amazing week in a fantastic setting. Two PBs and three certificates for being in the top eight in my age group. There’s one last encounter at the rental car return. A woman from the Black Country in my age group has come away with a load of medals. She turns out to be a great fan of the Out to Swim website and loves the coaching tips. She’s looking forward to our GLLAM meet at the Aquatic Centre (hopefully) next year and we’ll meet up at Sheffield in October.

 

Slovenia – Castles, Churches, a gorge and some swimming

St Martin

St Martin

More dreary weather – raining. At 10 am it eases off and I grab my umbrella and head for the Castle. On the way I stop to look at St Martin which nestles into the hillside underneath the castle. It’s part of the panoramic picture of Bled and up-close it’s quite ordinary.

Parish house St Martin

The Parish House next door offers coffee and accommodation, but nothing much is happening in there except souvenirs for sale. Onward, up the steep hill the clouds clearing as I climb. I emerge to a great view of the still mist- shrouded lake, but the sun is now shining through intermittent spots of rain and there’s coffee here.

bled Mist

Clearing

The surrounds

Bled Castle

Bled Castle

Like most castles, this one has been rebuilt and developed since the 10th Century. Slavs and other so-called Barbarians settled in this remote and fertile valley after the Romans. It’s fairly cut off – backing onto massive mountains to the North and West. The Museum is curious and not well curated but there is a strange exhibition of an artist who seems to be depicting Bled Cake. The work is strategically placed around the museum. There is little explanation but it seems that the area was also a centre of iron production. Gift shops are in just about every other room in the castle: the old forge, the printing press and so on. Only the chapel with its charming frescoes is till- free. The views are, however stunning. For lunch, I try out the traditional smoked sausage, once again holding back on the available Bled Cake – there’s no room after the sausage.

Bled Castle

Bled Castle

Castle Chapel

Castle Chapel

I could have spent an hour walking to the Vintgar Gorge. It’s been raining again but I need to get going and decide to drive via some of the local villages.

St Janez Zasip

St Janez

I pass through charming green farmland and arrive at Zasip where I can see a church. Once again, it’s picturesque from a distance. A very young couple walking, are more interested in playing and photographing the local cats who will no doubt appear on Facebook. What is different about St Janez is the recent flower bedecked graves which crowd around the base of the church. No leafy adjacent crematory here, that would be a waste of farm-land.

Graveyard

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Rain still threatens as I approach the Vintgar Gorge. There’s a free car park and it’s only €5 entry to the 1.6Km walk-way. Apparently, the gorge was only discovered in 1891 (I’m sure the Romans found it) and was quickly developed and opened to the public. The post-rain mist rises off the warm waters. The green is delicate, reflecting moss and lichen in the water and the vegetation on the banks. The light is very different from any comparable New Zealand gorge and this one certainly stands out.

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge stone pillars

The walk-way is narrow and often is nothing more than a wooden platform overhanging the often- turbulent river below.  In calmer stretchers rock towers have been built. They must get washed away regularly by rising waters but look as if they have been there for centuries. I need my umbrella at times. Even though it has stopped raining, water drips down from the cliffs above in places. There is a stream of wet dogs on leads coming the other way. At the end there is another ticket and ice-cream kiosk. The last of many foot-bridges crosses the final waterfall to the toilets, but you can’t get a view of the falls. I spot a viewing platform further downstream and push on down steps past the kiosk, follow the road across a bridge to the path leading to the viewing spot. Magic.  There’s time to review the journey on the return and see it all from a different angle.

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Radovljica

Tuesday: I’m not sure about the timing of everything today but think I’ve got time to have a look at Radovljca, a nearby historic town on the way to Kranj. It has a main street of quite impressive, if stolid 19th Century public buildings but where to park?

Radovljica Old Town square

Eventually I find the Old Town area just up the road where there is free parking for an hour. There’s quite a cute old-town centre. Desperate for Coffee and a few calories I find a café. The cappuccino comes with a huge mountain of chilled aerosol cream and the ham and cheese toastie (the only food available) is plain.

Radovljica

Radovljica

Radovljica

Radovljica

 

I get to the pool before lunch as I know some of the team are racing before me. As I make my way to warm-up in the indoor pool Andy is heading, with a determined in-his-zone look, towards the marshalling tent for his 200 Breaststroke.

Kranj Outdoor pool

He’s the first Out to Swimmer I’ve seen here, but there’s no time to chat now. I do the first part of my warm-up (OTS standard) then head for the race pool to catch Andy’s race on my phone. There’s time for lunch (Salad) before watching the rest of the team splash and dash through the 50 freestyle. Taking coaches suggestion, I have an espresso before finishing off my warm up for

Euro Certificates 6th & 8th

the 100 Backstroke. I’m in lane zero again but manage (maybe thanks to the caffeine) three seconds faster than the June long course Nationals in Plymouth to get an eighth place. This means that I’m now eligible for two certificates. I return to the popular Pub restaurant for rump steak as I need to stock up for the two hundred Individual Medley early tomorrow.

Wednesday: I have to wait for twenty-three heats of the Women’s Individual Medley but hey, I’ve moved up to lane one, leaving the wall at last. I had some weeks off doing butterfly and breaststroke earlier in the year, so I’ve very gently been working them back in to training. It seems to have paid off and the first twenty-five metres of

Church of the Assumption

fly feels really good. It’s a matter of establishing a rhythm and keeping to it. Even though the stress builds in the second twenty-five, I manage to keep the rhythm going – something that team-mate Stephen Lue comments on. The backstroke length tends to be a bit of a recovery and preparation for Breaststroke, which I find exhausting. I make a mental note to really point my toes in the glide. By the time the freestyle comes around, usually my chance to catch up, I’m feeling really tired but am rewarded with a few milli seconds faster than Plymouth. The Team are cheering me as I stagger back to them. Nice. Neal is in the last and fastest heat – he also comes out looking whacked. It’s a tough race.

Church of the Assumption

After lunch and a good rest, It’s time for more exploring in the late afternoon. I’m looking for a boatman to row me to the Island. Further down the lake, near the island are several points where the boats launch. As I approach several seem to be pulling out but eventually I spot one about to leave with one remaining seat. Propulsion is from two oars in rowlocks either side. The boatman, with one foot forward uses his body weight to push the oars forward and twists them to return in streamlined profile. Our boatman is young slim and blond and explains that it helps to have a few extra kilos around the chest to move faster. No one is complaining, there’s a party of admiring Korean women and a tour-guide with a group from Malta. The boatman moves us around to balance the boat – a husband and wife at the front have to swap sides. All around the island there are landing stages and the boats nimbly turn around and reverse. We have around fifty minutes here, it doesn’t sound long, but in fact it’s more than enough.

Lake bled from tower

Lake bled from tower

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s a charge of €6 to go up the tower and enter the church. I get some good views by putting my phone though the window grills and close to the bird netting. Inside the church there is a bell rope right in front of the alter. An illustration on the floor, forbids swinging on the rope and another one recommends three rings of the bell. The mystery of the random timings of the bell is explained. Three chaps from somewhere in Europe don’t notice the signs and have a prolonged ringing between them. This brings the ticket seller woman running in to look. There is no emergency, so she leaves. You can have an ice cream or a beer and food here, but I don’t want to queue, choosing to go upstairs and look at a curious exhibition of moulded glass figures and some flat glass rectangles.

Glass Exhibition

Glass Exhibition

Glass Exhibition

Boatman and Korean women

The figures are the most interesting, suggesting the holy family, some of them are displayed in the windows so the light can stream though them.  There’s time to walk around the island and wait for the Maltese and Koreans to return from their ice creams.  The Maltese party are dropped off at their hotel landing leaving me and the Korean women, who are avidly photographing our handsome boatman, to continue on.

Street food stall

I’ve had my eye on the food stalls one the lake walkway and later, veal shoulder with vegetables and delicious roast potatoes all washed down with a beer is perfect, even if the lighting under the dining gazebo is too dim to really see the food.

Swimming in Kranj, sight-seeing in Bled, Slovenia

European Masters Swimming Kranj Slovenia

Iconic Bled Castle & St Martin

I’m beginning to wonder how much longer I can do this independent travel thing. I’d never been to a European Masters meet and the fact that is was in Slovenia (where’s that?), a country I haven’t been to before, clinched it. You have to have entry times and the only one I couldn’t enter was the 200 Backstroke – I think they made a mistake as it was incredibly fast. I had the usual trouble finding out information, like where was the accreditation? I had no reply from my enquiry and I’m a bit past the stage of delighting in the unknown. I like to be certain of what’s

Kranj Out-door swimming pool

going to happen and when.

Booking the coach to Stanstead Airport was a bit strange. Nowadays you have to register before buying anything on-line (so they’ve got your details and can bother you later) and it can take some time to recall a long-forgotten password. In the end I get to Stratford, have my usual coffee at Pret only to find the bus stop has moved, five minutes away, due to road works. The Coach is waiting but I’ve managed to book a return fare from Stanstead, not Stratford. It doesn’t matter in the end and I’m allowed on the bus which is leaving five minutes later than I’d calculated. Just as I wonder what else might go wrong on this trip, an accident on the M11 slowed us down, but I was still on time for my flight. Phew. I can just about manage Easyjet and avoid baggage charges by packing everything, including the laptop into one carry-on bag and dashing to the gate the moment it’s called. Weather over Austria and congestion in the air delayed us an hour.

My Air B&B is underneath this home

Two things worry me now sitting in the plane, at the gate – I have to get to the Accreditation Centre to register before 18.00 to confirm my place the 800m freestyle tomorrow morning. Fortunately, I’m sitting next to other swimmers (the plane is full of swimmers and hikers) who suggest I phone them, while we are still on the ground. I somehow manage to find a phone number on my downloaded hand-book which involves getting the lap-top out of the overhead locker. Amazingly I get through, but have no idea of my registration number. In the end it’s ok and I’m able to follow up with a text to Slovenia. Stress levels reduce significantly and I breath deeply;  technology can be wonderful. It’s good to chat to the couple from Nottingham about swimming though I quickly fall asleep for most of the flight. The Airport at Ljubljana is small and two flights have just landed, so the passport control area is crowded. There’s a sign pointing left for European passports and this moves rapidly.  I reflect once again, that I’ll be in the other queue next year. Finding the car hire place is easy, there’s no queue and no extra insurance thrust at me. The shock is that there’s no 4G for my phone to hook up with google maps and take me to Kranj.

Bled Island

Fortunately, I’ve been studying maps of Slovenia and more or less have the gist of where to go. It will, I tell myself, be just like the old days when I found my way around the world without a phone. I know that Ljubljana is East and Kranj is West but all roads lead to Ljubljana so I just carry on in the opposite direction from Ljubljana until a sign to Kranj appears.  At Kranj there are suddenly signs to the Masters Games parking and all is well. I actually manage to find the Accreditation tent, next to the outdoor pool, pick up my stuff and have five minutes before 18.00 to double check that I’ve been entered in the 800m. I have. I spend some time checking out things like the marshalling tent and changing rooms before continuing on to Bled. Road signs helpfully take me there via the main motorway, but there is still no 4G for navigation. I take a wrong turning and end up in the town centre and bus stop. There’s a travel information place and it’s closed, but a hotel has a local map at reception – they always do – and a very helpful young woman points out where I should go. Bled is a small place and it’s really easy.

Lake Bled

My hosts are out walking, leaving their teenage son Greggor to check me into my cosy and well-appointed basement bedsit with en suite. Armed with instructions on where to find a supermarket for breakfast things I set off to explore. It’s getting dark, but my first impression is that the lake and surroundings are incredibly romantic – like Disneyland, only real. Bled Castle high on a rocky outcrop becomes floodlit as does St Martin’s, nestling below. At the other end of the lake is the famous island featuring the Church of the Assumption. The place seems very quiet for a Saturday night, but I find a busy pub restaurant up in the old village near the bus stop. It looks popular and does traditional Slovenian food. Three large slabs of roast pork floating in gravy with mashed potatoes seems a suitable fill-up for tomorrow’s swim. The portions are huge and with a mixed salad, I am defeated.

Grand houses around the lake have been converted to tourist accommodation

Sunday: Up before the lark, breakfasted on fruit, bread, ham and cheese, I set off for the pool. Rain threatens, it’s cold and I’ve been allocated Heat 2, side A, lane 0 in the 800m freestyle. I hate lane zero, it’s right on the edge of the pool – almost out of the race. Lost in translation, side A and side B refer to the ends of the pool and we will swim two to a lane with end B starting off ten seconds later from the other end. I’ve done a reasonable warm-up but although the promised rain hasn’t quite arrived, it’s still not warm. I pile on layers and line up in the marshalling tent where we are given different coloured swim caps. I get a yellow one (they are not compulsory, but they would like us to wear them) and Side B get white ones. It’s actually all well organised and there are large laundry baskets which take  all my bags. Organising and paying for a locker key for one race, just seems to be one hurdle too far. Even though I’m swimming up against the pool wall, the race seems OK and I attempt to implement coaches notes from the Paris Gay Games. The score board at the end has me 6th with an improbably fast time. I decide not to get excited until I see the results. It’s a long treck to the indoor pool to warm-down, it involves going right around to reception and through the changing rooms again. Time for a coffee and croissant at the small café. My Nottingham friends from the flight are there and we talk about teaching and coaching stuff. The results are live on-line (4G is working today) and I find that the time displayed on the board at the pool was actually my 700m split time, so no PB, as I suspected.

Lake Bled Waterfront

I have the rest of the day to explore so after stocking up on breakfast stuff at the supermarket, I find a posh café overlooking the lake. Their Salad Nicoise featuring fresh seared tuna, is perfect with a pint. The place quickly fills up with tour groups all booked for their mandatory portion of the famous Bled Cake. It looks hideously sweet – a custard base with a layer of whipped cream and pastry top and bottom. I shall have to work my way up to this later in the week. The Sun is out and perfect for a walk around the lake; everyone is doing it.

Bled Island and the Church of the Assumption

Tour boats rowed by fit looking men are taking tourists at quite a speed over to Bled Island where lies the Church of the Assumption, making the lake extra photogenic. At the bottom end there is a popular swimming area and every now and then a white Disney-like train pulls tourist with their phones on sticks filming the experience. For the more traditional there are pony trap rides around the lake. Two elderly ladies on one such trap, are having a great time looking at their mobile phones.  By the time I’ve finished, my legs are telling me that they’ve had enough work for the day. It’s time to lie down before finding another Slovenian-style restaurant. I can have a glass or two of wine tonight as I have the day off tomorrow.

Monday in Seville

Alcázar Palace Courtyard

Monday morning in Seville and there are a few breakfast places open for Café con Leché and Tostadas Jamon. Every eatery we’ve been to has had super friendly waiters and waitresses. We’re on our way through the narrow city streets again, looking for the Alcázar Palace. My GPS woman knows exactly where it is, but not how to get in. In the end David suggests we do that very un-male thing and ask someone. Yes we are outside the garden walls, and if we just follow the wall around we will get to it. We do that and find a medium queue. I keep our place while David looks for water and somewhere to pee.

Alcázar Palace

The Alcázar Palace, begun in 1364 is a mixture of Gothic and Mudejar. It was built on the site of a former Moorish palace and mosque and incorporates many of those features. Like most palaces, it’s been added on to and altered, but it is a beautiful and serene place. We spend time thoroughly exploring the place, doubling back to make sure we haven’t missed anything. A high walk-way gives us a fantastic view of the surrounding gardens.

 

Alcázar Palace

By the time we’ve seen everything available, it’s time for a late lunch and having identified a nearby street of restaurants yesterday, that’s where we go. Shade is essential as it’s a warm 30 degrees and in spite of asking for ‘blanco’ anchovies, none are to be had today. It’s siesta time again and I really do need to flake out, surfacing later to eat drink and hang about with David.

Alcázar Palace David by the fish pond

Alcázar Palace – raised garden walk

Alcázar Palace central garden

Alcázar Palace outer garden vista

Alcázar Palace

Alcázar Palace Glass ceiling

Alcázar Palace Garden vista

Alcázar Palace

Alcázar Palace David in the garden

Alcázar Palace

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nothing much happens in Seville on a Monday night, so it’s back to the Mr B&B for an early-ish night. Emelio and Manuel are still up and about, so there’s time to say goodbye. They will be gone to work early in the morning and I’m to just leave the keys on the dressing table.

Calle San Vicente

Tuesday morning and I’ve got my eye on The Belle Arts Museum. It’s just down the road from my digs and I can return to collect luggage and shower before my Ryanair experience later in the day. David is up and about and says he’ll join me, so I have breakfast just around the corner from the museum.

Free entry to the museum

David arrives and also needs breakfast; he says he’ll join me. For some reason, I’ve brought my passport, perhaps in the hope that there will be a discount for being officially old. Actually, my European passport gets me into the place for free. How good is that?

Museum courtyard

I must dash around Europe madly taking advantage of this while I can. I’m just starting off when David texts me in a panic. He’s got his dates wrong and has to immediately go and catch his flight to Bilbao. Just as well he realised in time.

St Michael 1480 (Juan Hispalense) Spanish angels wear black

This building was once a monastery and has gathered together many paintings from religious institutions since 1836, when they were all shut down. Built in 1594, the building has fine ceilings and architectural features. I’m not a huge fan of ecclesiastical painting, but I am interested in how mediaeval and renaissance painters depict the biblical stories and characters according to their own cultural norms. So, for example Seville Madonnas all look Spanish with dark hair and olive skin. German painters portray the Holy Family as fair-skinned and blond. Painters had never been to the Middle-east, their sitters were local people they knew. It would just not be acceptable to portray the Holy Family as Jewish now would it?

Inmaculada – Murillo 1675

Inmaculada Schut 1680

 

 

 

 

 

Inmaculada Juan de Valder Leal 1672 Which one will become Jesus?

I’m drawn to a series of Madonnas ‘Inmaculada’. They are all surrounded by scores of cherubs, some of whom seem to looking for a way up Our Lady’s skirt – as if one of them can miraculously enter her womb and be born as the infant Jesus.

San Sebastián Luis de Vargas 1505-1567

The portrait of Saint Sebastian catches my eye. Traditionally he’s depicted as beautiful and slim, but this portrait has him with tree-trunk legs and a thick waist.

Magnificent torsos approaching hell-mouth

I’m also interested in the homoeroticism of the magnificent torsos and backs of those sinners being dragged towards hell mouth. Murillo is everywhere and paints large canvases. Individually, they don’t do much for me, but en masse in the large hall they impress. Today, his portrait of a young monk looking adoringly at the infant Jesus might raise a few eyebrows. Certainly the monk is a way to close to the child for comfort.

Great Hall

Great Hall

Murillo – centre monk adoring Christ

Cornelis de Vos A woman 1630

There are also more modern paintings. As a freebie and a place to spend a relaxing couple of hours, this is great value. David made it to Bilbao and I dozed upright in Ryanair for two and a half hours.

El Greco – the effete Jorge Manuel 1600

Velasquez 1620 don Cristóbal

Ma Esquivel 1806 – 1857 Marqués de Bejons -cute bear?

José Villegas Cordesa Ercole Monti 1894

Gustave Bacarisas Sevilla Fiesta 1915

José Garcia Ramos Malvaloca 1912

Sevilla – ancient city of Andalucia

Local church – San Vicente

I can not believe I’ve not been here before – Cordoba, Almaria, Granada, the Costas and the mountains but never Seville. I associate it with oranges – the delicious marmalade they make – so as a true practitioner of delayed gratification, I’ve saved Seville till now. When my good mate and neighbour, David, from Waiheke (NZ) suggested I join him on part of his 50th Birthday grand tour of Spain, I seized the opportunity and his dates worked perfectly.

David and Me in Seville

Sitting in soulless Stanstead airport is arduous – there are no water fountains, rubbish wifi and the recharging stations are backless benches. I’ve done little research on what to do in the city and so rely on 4G to have a look whilst I wait for my Ryanair flight which, unlike many other destinations this week, has not been cancelled. I’ve found an app called Visit a City and I can download it all to use off line. I arrive at Seville to find the fastest immigration queue ever thanks to my EU passport and the promised free mobile phone roaming in Europe turns out to be true. I’ve booked a room with Mr B&B, a gay version of Air B&B and I’ve instructions to take the bus into the city terminal and walk for ten minutes. Emelio and Manuel are a sweet young couple, quite shy but very welcoming. Emelio immediately gets out his ipad and shows me the gay area and other sights nearby.  David has been in contact via messenger and soon arrives (he’s also doing Mr B&B – a studio apartment) and we do big hugs as we’ve not seen each other since April. So it’s two gay men on the loose in Seville for a weekend and he’s already identified one of the bars where gay men tend to drink. Of course, this being Spain, it’s too early for this time on a Saturday night. We have a beer and catch up whilst checking on bars, clubs and restaurants on our phones. Most places don’t open until 8.30pm, the clubs at 10.30 and even 1.00am. We find a tapas place and have to wait for a table at 9.00 as it’s incredibly busy with staff working their socks off. We go and have a look at a few gay venues, but nothing much is happening so we return to our earlier bar for more wine. It’s busy now and there’s more to look at. I’m ready for bed by midnight. David plans to go home and nap before trying a disco at 2.00am.

Casa de Pilatos.

Casa de Pilatos. Classical influence here?

Sunday morning – not too early, but early enough to leave David to sleep, I set off for Casa de Pilatos, using GPS to guide me though the narrow lanes and alley-ways of this ancient City. The Casa is a magnificent 16th Century palatial home, considered to be the first in the Andalusian style. Built after a grand tour of Europe and the Holy Land, Middle-Eastern and Italian design fuse with breath-taking effect. The stunning central courtyard on the ground floor leads off to magnificent tiled rooms looking outwards to beautiful gardens. The Casa boasts one of the first grand staircases in Seville and I‘ve opted for a guided tour of the upper rooms which display oriental carpets and portraits by notable painters of the day. No photography is allowed upstairs.

Casa de Pilatos. tlied wall

Casa de Pilatos. Garden vista

Casa de Pilatos. Garden vista again

Casa de Pilatos. Formal white garden

Casa de Pilatos. Ground floor room

Casa de Pilatos. detail of tiles

Casa de Pilatos. Detail of tiles

Casa de Pilatos. Another garden vista

Casa de Pilatos. formal garden

Casa de Pilatos. Gold ceiling at the top of the stairs

Old Seville

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I wander through the area known as Barrio de Santa Cruz – more narrow streets stumbling onto tiny plazas with cafes. I have no idea where I am, but appreciate  having my phone GPS to drive the Visit a City app. My recharging unit also comes in handy to get the phone though the day.

Old Seville

Plaza with cafe

Giralda Tower

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I arrive at the Catedral de Sevilla & Giralda Tower and sit down to watch the world go by. David has surfaced and will meet me here. I note the horse and carriages lining up to take the tourists for rides. The horses actually look quite healthy and well cared for unlike in other parts of the world. There is a steady stream into the Cathedral and when David arrives we take a look.  There’s nothing much to see and the tower is not open until the next tour at 2.30, so I suggest lunch. David orders anchovies, hoping for the white ones he’s seen around. Unfortunately he doesn’t use the word ‘blanco’ when ordering.  I’m heading for Plaza de Espania but David has other plans so I carry on to find this most amazing building completed in 1929 for a World Fair Expo. The afternoon is hot and it’s time to go back to my lodging for a siesta.

Plaza de Espania

Plaza de Espania

Plaza de Espania

Spanish blokes pay to be photographed as flamenco dancers

Metropol Parasol

In the early evening I collect David from his digs and we look at the Metropol Parasol – otherwise known as the ‘Mushroom of the Incarnation’.  It’s billed as the largest wooden building in the world, but this ultra modern ‘sculptural’

Metropol Parasol view from the top

installation looks so light an airy, as if it’s made of balsa wood and could lift off at any moment. The sun is setting, so it’s a perfect time for us to look over the city at ancient monuments and the distant bridges across the river. The pictures say it all.

Metropol Parasol + David

Metropol Parasol

Metropol Parasol + lovers

We’re off in search of a recommended Paella restaurant, which takes us to a more modern and up-market part of the city. David has his GPS on this time – it guides us with an Australian accent – hilarious pronunciations of Spanish street names. Sadly the restaurant is only open for lunch until four pm so we return to our usual gay friendly square for drinks. We then strike it lucky with a place that does grilled king prawns and a whole octopus leg on a bed of fantastic mashed potato. A return to the gay bar completes our Sunday evening.